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.
Andrew McAfee, a scientist and cofounder of the MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, is the author of More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next.
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.
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.
Given what we know about the power of capitalism and tech progress, we should expect rich countries to be getting more from less.
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.
Economist Julian Simon did understand this dynamic. He explained why resource scarcity was not a real problem in his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource (which remains underappreciated), and in 1990 he won a decade-long bet with Erhlich about resource prices; Ehrlich wagered, incorrectly, that they’d remain high because of permanent scarcities.
Researchers Gale Pooley and Marian Tupy calculate the “Simon Abundance Index,” which takes into account both global population and the prices of 50 commodities important for human welfare—everything from sugar to salmon to iron ore to natural gas—expressed in terms of how long the average person in the world has to work to afford one unit of each. Every one of the 50 has become more affordable since 1980, even as global population has exploded, and most have become several times more affordable. The aggregate Abundance Index was set equal to 100 in 1980; by 2019 it had climbed to almost 620.
The authors of the World Economic Forum and IPCC reports, the periodic table of future natural element availability, and many other pessimistic forecasts of our ability to provide for ourselves appear to not be taking into account Simon’s insights, or not believing that they’re still relevant.
In fact, I’m confident that many countries will be able to increase their overall output of food and all other products in the decades ahead while using fewer metals, minerals, fertilizer, water, cropland, trees, fossil fuels, and other resources of the earth. I’m confident because America is already doing so.
The US, which accounts for about 25 percent of the global economy, consumes more material goods year after year, yet continues to decrease consumption of the resources listed above. What’s more, the country’s use of both electricity and energy in general has been essentially flat for the past decade.
Aluminum cans are more than 75 percent lighter than they were a few decades ago as engineers have used computer-aided design to make them lighter without sacrificing strength. Precision agriculture, aided by lots of sensors and computation, lets farmers selectively apply small amounts of water, fertilizer, and pesticide where needed instead of blanketing entire fields. Of the 15 devices featured in a 1991 Radio Shack ad, 13 have now vanished into the smartphone. Thanks to our smartphones, we now also buy many fewer compact discs, atlases, rolls of film, videotapes, and many other media.
Examples like these can be found all over the economy. Their cumulative impact is a sea change in our relationship with our planet. We used to increase our prosperity by taking more from the earth year after year. Now we know that we can grow and flourish while taking less.
America’s experience isn’t unique. Evidence strongly supports that the UK is also dematerializing, and that other rich countries are seeing flat or declining consumption of important resources. This shouldn’t be surprising, since all of today’s rich countries have well-functioning market economies and lots of modern technologies. Given what we know about the power of capitalism and tech progress, we should expect them to be getting more from less.
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