Wednesday, January 19, 2011

resources are not, they become

I have been asked by a reader to expand upon the construct that resources are not, they become. This is the base construct for all resources management and environmental policy, including sustainability, yet it remains poorly understood by many.  

The environment exists and is neutral stuff until it is transformed by human use into a resource.  This is a utilitarian definition of a resource and the corollary is that we manage resources, i.e. human use of the environment, not the environment per se.  The act of management itself is for human purposes, it is management of resources and especially, human use of those resources.  We might engineer the environment, but we manage people.

A resource is defined by four conditions:
  • it is known
  • a demand exists for it
  • it is spatially delineated, and
  • its development and production are economically viable.
All four of these conditions change with technology.  As technology advances, so does our conception and definition of the resource base.  Resources are not, they become.  And because their definiton changes with technology several important associated concepts can also be derived:
  • Limits do not exist.  Long before we run out of any resource, technology will have supplanted that resource with something better, cheaper, more effective, more efficient.  Resources become obsolete, they do not become extinct.
  • Intergenerational equity is a fallacy.  Because the rate of change of technology advances so rapidly (and the contemporary rate of change ever more rapidly than that of the past), we simply do not know what future generations will want or need as their resource base.
  • Most appeals for conservation are unwarranted.  Because there are no permanent resource scarcities, no resource limits and no intergenerational equity, all most conservation efforts do is deprive existing populations from the advantages that exist of contemporary use of the resource base.
  • Much of sustainability is predicated upon the wrong questions. The defining construct of sustainability is change, and our adaptation to the changing dynamics of the future, not the preservation of existing conditions. Because this perspective is missed,  sustainability is incorrectly framed from a stasist perspective of command and control, fear of limits and inequality, and the wrong questions are advocated as the defining characteristic for future policy.  For example, climate change has begun to morph into a wider concern for alternative energy and a call for de-carbonisation of energy production.   Yet, the central element of the most productive era of development and growth if the human condition in the past 200 years has been the provision of cheap, accessible power.  Ergo, our guiding premise ought to be: "how do we develop more cheap power in more places in a decentralized, non-polluting manner?"  The answer to that question beyond our lifetime, is not simply one of changing fuels, generating electricity with windmills or solar, replacing oil with propane or hydrogen, electric cars or hybrids.  Does anyone seriously think we will be driving a Prius or any variant on one in 2111?  No, what is needed is alternative means to produce energy: alternatives to mass produced, centralized electricity; alternatives to electricity, alternatives to the internal combustion engine, to the steam turbine.  An alternative energy, not just an alternative fuel.
Especially on my last point, too often this perspective is dismissed in a cursory manner as too idealistic, as naive, as unrealistic.  (Meanwhile those same critics are quite willing to completely destroy contemporary globalization and development in the name of prospective climate change in that same 100 year window).  

Look back to 1811.  The world traveled by horse and buggy, by sail and was powered largely by water mill and coal.  The full advent of steam power and the transformation of ocean travel and  the development of the railways had yet to occur.  Move on to 1911 and the advent of the internal combustion engine and the steam turbine, and the long-range transmission of electricity are about to underscore another full scale transformation leading to jet propulsion and nuclear power.  

Technology has not slowed, it has continued to advance, become cheaper, smaller, more effective, more efficient and finally, more equitable under contemporary globalization.  What will power the world in 100 years is unlikely to be oil, but just as with coal, we will not have run out of the stuff, just supplanted it with something more useful, more resourceful.

Not understanding the primary role of technology and, more significantly, technological change, is one of the central reason people continue to subscribe to stasist constructions of resource management and environmental policy.  Ecomyths persist as a natural consequence of this belief.  In turn, ecomyths are then used to promote the dogma of resource limits and the necessity for increased governance. Fear instills the need for stasist controls and limts.

Recognition of the full implications of the construct "resources are not, they become" enables the mind to envisage the true potential for technological transformation of resources, the absence of limits and the empowerment of all to determine their future prosperity.  It is a future that builds upon hope and a belief in the capacity for people to not only want to improve but to act on that desire through the constant innovation and creation of new technology.

Sustainability is not the suppression of change:
  • Sustainability is the capacity of a system to engage in the complexities of continuous improvement consistent with deep values of human purpose. (Fullan)
Sustainability is change.