Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Resources are not limited: political will is

One of the most challenging concepts for people to grasp is that resources are not finite. Long before their absolute limits are reached, scarcity elevates the price of the resource past the point at which the resource supply switches to a better, cheaper, alternative resource. This has happened all through history. Long before any resource was ever exhausted, it was replaced by an alternative provided by technological advancement in production, in manufacturing, or both.

The latest example of this phenomenon is oil, long projected to be running out, reaching the limits of absolute viability and frequently a topic of discussions framed around the construct of "peak oil". Except, the latest data do not substantiate the fears:
  • In contrast to a widely discussed theory that world oil production will soon reach a peak and go into sharp decline, a new analysis of the subject by Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) finds that the remaining global oil resource base is actually 3.74 trillion barrels -- three times as large as the 1.2 trillion barrels estimated by the theory's proponents -- and that the "peak oil" argument is based on faulty analysis which could, if accepted, distort critical policy and investment decisions and cloud the debate over the energy future.
  • This is the fifth time that the world is said to be running out of oil....Each time -- whether it was the 'gasoline famine' at the end of WWI or the 'permanent shortage' of the 1970s -- technology and the opening of new frontier areas has banished the spectre of decline. There's no reason to think that technology is finished this time.
Resources are not limited. Resources are not: they become.

Resources do not exist unless they meet four conditions:
  • a demand exists for them
  • they are known
  • they are spatially delineated, and
  • they are economically viable
All of these characteristics change with advancing technology, as does the nature of what constitutes a resource for future generations. Thus, long before the world ran out of coal, its utility was supplanted in large part by oil. Oil had existed throughout human history, but it is only since the late nineteenth century that the technology existed to harness it as a resource. And, as technology has advanced, areas that were thought to be dry and empty of oil, have once more become productive sources for oil supply.

This was, of course, the main contention of the late Julian Simon, whose original focus was the link between population and development. In the 1960s it was erroneously believed by many that the source of poverty was over-population. Simon showed this to be an incorrect belief. Not willing to give up their myth, advocates claimed that Simon had not accounted for the other impacts of over-population, which everyone knew was the main source of pollution and environmental degradation. Not so said Simon, who spent the rest of his career documenting that over-population was the original ecomyth and a non-problem: population has no bearing on pollution, species loss, habitat loss nor a wide myriad of other ecomyths. Much maligned during his lifetime, Simon received posthumous confirmation of his work when Lomborg's attempt to refute his findings merely acted to re-confirm their resiliency and accuracy (but not without considerable continued abuse to the messenger and angst by enviro-zealots).

So, if over-population is not the problem, what is?

Poverty. Poverty always had been and continues to be the singular state of non-sustainability for the human race.
Poverty makes people vulnerable to natural disasters, prone to famines, susceptible to disease, less able to care for their environment, incapable of investing in environmental improvements (such as sanitation) and significantly shortens life expectancy.

Today the least sustainable continent continues to be the planet's poorest: Africa. But environmentalism continues to deprive Africa of economic opportunity on the basis of false ecomyths.

First it was DDT, now its GM foods. We sell guns to arm African kids, but not the means for self-sustaining agriculture or tariff-free trade. We show angst about Dafur (not so much about Rwanda), say the right things about Aids but watch while Mugabe destroys Zimbabwe. Then the UN appoints Zimbabwe to head its commission on Sustainable Development.

No its not population that's the problem. Its not even resources. Its human will and the political decision to commit to human welfare, and not to the politics of their welfare.

It's so simple really: a person is a person, however small they are.