Are you concerned about the unsustainable use of resources? There is no reason to. Resources are finite and can run out? No, they are not.
How resource economics really works is somewhat counterintuitive and hard to explain, but once understood it makes much more sense than the conventional wisdom that you sadly hear repeated everywhere.
This is how the conventional wisdom goes:
There is a finite amount of resources on earth. They are running out of them because we use them unsustainably. We need to "do something" because the free market can not take care of it.
This is how resource economics really works:
Humanity uses some resource. Our use of that resource increases. This leads to increased short-term scarcity of the resource. However, instead of running out of it, short-term scarcity leads to progress; we find more, make more, increase efficiency, or find alternatives. And after that progress we are usually better off than if we had not run into that short-term scarcity.
Then we continue the use of resources with the now improved methods, again unsustainably, until one becomes scarce again. Which again will lead to progress. Which again will mean that we are better off than before.
This dynamic incrementally repeated over and over again since the dawn of man. Hundreds of once vitally important resources are no longer scarce at all.
In this sense resources on earth are not finite in any meaningful sense. Counterintuitive as it may seem, resources are not just carried off a stash and used up, they are created by humans. If resources were finite, we would have hit a physical limit a long time ago. Or we would live sustainable and not witness progress. Therefore the view that resources are finite is self-contradicting.
Imagine this: 10.000 BC the earth could feed 4 million people. If resources were finite, how can there be 7 billion now?
This is why the doomsday predictions always turn out wrong; progress does not come by the clock, things improve because of scarcity. The shortage of firewood in the 16th century led to the use of coal. Fear of coal reserves running dry in the 19th century led to the use of oil. The oil crisis in the 20th century led to the use of natural gas and nuclear energy.
At any point in time the use of resources is unsustainable, it would be odd if it were any different, because progress comes from scarcity. Because of this dynamic any projection of resource use into the future will always be bound to predict that we are about to run out. And it will always be wrong.
Humans were hunting and gathering wild seeds and animals for 99% of our history. There was little to no progress, because there were enough wild seeds and animals. Only after humans became numerous enough that just gathering resources was no longer sufficient progress came. This lead to the advent of agriculture around 10.000 BC. Agriculture was an important step that allowed us to slowly lift ourselves above subsistence living.
The use of horses in 1890 was unsustainable. In the year 1890 large cities had 150.000 horse carcasses to dispose of a day. The streets were often completely congested with carriages. The pollution from the manure was immense. Any extrapolation of these trends would have predicted that these cities can't grow much more. Then the car was invented, which completely changed our dependence on the former resource. But because of cars we are now using oil unsustainably. Which will cause us to invent, say, hydrogen-powered jetpacks. And completely change the dependency on the resource.
Imagine they had mandated a sustainable use of horses in 1890. The incentives to develop cars would not have been the same. We would have little worry about running out of horses, but we would live without many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted. And with an infant mortality rate 20 times that of today and an average life expectancy of 42.
Imagine they had done something similar in the year 10.000 BC. They could have carried on with no worry of running out of wild seeds and animals. But we would all day be scavenging around for the next meal. At least those of us that survive infancy, as infant mortality would be around half. Average life expectancy would be around 25.
The same is true today, if we coerce the sustainable use of resources, as some are demanding, we will just stifle future progress. It would mean denying our children a better life, and denying the third world the move out of poverty. Just so we can feel safe, and feel like we did something noble. That's very selfish.
The argument from the other side, of course, is that we can not depend on such future progress. We need some sort of plan to be sure or we would just be marching into uncertainty, maybe off a cliff. I think they lack imagination. The odd thing is that today we have greater reason to imagine future progress than they had in the past, yet today we are vastly more scared about this stuff than they were in the past. For someone in 1890 to imagine that hundreds of millions of motorized vehicles would serve humanity was quite a leap. For someone today the technological possibilities of the future are not that hard to imagine, many of them already run on an experimental level.
Two centuries ago most people would have had trouble foreseeing computers. They might have foreseen some steampunk future, but electricity was a concept they did not understand. But for us to imagine matter replicators or nuclear fission is not that difficult.
And the there's all those changes that we can't even imagine now.
Progress doesn't just happen. For 99% of human history there was little progress. If there is no scarcity, there is no reason to develop alternatives. If we were living sustainable, there would be very little progress. In the modern age scarcity is conveyed through prices. Scarce resources become expensive. Finding an alternative will be valuable. This will cause entrepreneurs to try to find alternatives. Therefore the free market is the best way of dealing with resources. Prices will always direct ingenuity to where it is needed.
The notion that any actions beyond the free market are necessary is nonsensical. Scarcity is reflected in prices. High prices means that a resource will be used less. If there was danger of running out that would be reflected in todays prices, since investors would buy up that resource to profit from future prices.
Therefore it makes little sense to view resources as fixed. If you feel better recycling, then go ahead. But demanding that government coerce others into saving resources is misguided and morally wrong.
Even with current technology the peak human population of 9 billion could live the standard of living of Americans. That they do not is entirely a political problem and economical mismanagement. We do not need to summon the political will to "do something". The way to a better future is letting the free market work.
---------- Post added 03-22-2010 at 08:25 PM ----------
If you want to learn more, you can read The Ultimate Resource:
The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment