Technology Will Keep Us From Running Out of Stuff

Thirty years from now, we’ll need to feed, clothe, shelter, and otherwise provide for 2 billion more people. Human-caused global warming is going to make these tasks challenging as it produces more deserts, droughts, heatwaves, and other stresses. Even so, I believe we’ll easily meet our challenges and take better care of the people who inhabit the world of the future, without experiencing sustained shortages of food or other important resources.

Not everyone shares this view. In February, the World Economic Forum warned that “the food system is currently in the red; it is extracting more than can be sustained and we are pushing nature to the brink.” In August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an extensive report forecasting land degradation and associated food insecurity in the decades ahead. Its headlines for policymakers were grim: As one of the report’s authors summarized, “Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines—especially in the tropics—increased prices, reduced nutrient quality, and supply chain disruptions.”

It’s not just food; some think we also might run out of important minerals. The European Chemical Society released a modified periodic table this year that looked at projected demand and supply over the next hundred years for the 90 natural elements. Fully half had “limited availability,” and of those 12 were facing a serious threat.

Why am I so optimistic in the face of these credible, dire warnings? Because I (and others in my “ecomodernist” tribe) have a lot of faith that the two forces of capitalism and technological progress will continue their extraordinarily track record of providing for our wants and needs. Abraham Lincoln wrote that the patent system “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” “The fire of genius” is a wonderful label for technological progress. “The fuel of interest” is an equally concise summary of capitalism. They interact in a self-reinforcing and ever-expanding cycle.

How well has this cycle worked in the past? Let’s look at two telling examples. In 1968 Paul Ehrlich published the bestseller The Population Bomb, in which he warned of acute future food shortages. Early editions of the book began, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

Ehrlich’s predictions about rapid population growth were spot on. Global population increased from 3 to 4 billion between 1959 and 1974, and subsequent billions were added in 15, 12, and 11 years. But mass starvations largely did not occur; instead, the opposite happened. People all around the world became better nourished. In 1968 only Northern America, Europe, and Oceania supplied their people with an average of at least 2,500 calories a day (widely assumed to be necessary for an active adult male to maintain his body weight), and as recently as 1980 the world average was still below this number. Yet by 2005 every region in the world had met this standard.

In 1972 a team of computer modelers at MIT led by Donella Meadows published The Limits to Growth, another blockbuster. Their simulations found that unchecked exponential growth in populations and economies was bound to cause a massive global crash of resource depletion, sometime during the 21st century. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, known global reserves of gold would be used up within 29 years of 1972; silver within 42; copper and petroleum 50; and aluminum 55.

These predictions weren’t accurate at all. We still have gold and silver—large reserves, in fact. Much bigger than in 1972, despite almost half a century of additional consumption. Known global reserves of gold are almost 400 percent larger today than in 1972, and silver reserves are more than 200 percent larger. And it’s probably not too early to say that we’re not going to run out of copper, aluminum, and petroleum as quickly as estimated in The Limits to Growth. Known reserves of each are much larger than they were then. Known aluminum reserves are almost 25 times what they were in the early 1970s.

The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth were so far off because they failed to fully understand both the fire of genius and the fuel of interest. By and large, they didn’t take into account that as soon as shortages of food, metals, or other resources appeared, an intense global search for more would ensue, along with an equally ardent hunt for substitutes. As one or both of these quests succeeded, the shortage would ease and prices would plummet.

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