Research

Technology Will Keep Us From Running Out of Stuff

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 resources of the earth. PHOTOGRAPH: CARLOS SANCHEZ PEREYRA/GETTY IMAGES

Opinion: Such dire warnings ignore the force of capitalism and technological progress, what Abraham Lincoln called “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”

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.

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.

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.

They are. Climate change is real and will cause more harm the longer it remains unaddressed, but I don’t believe it will not cause us to lose the ability to feed the world over the next few decades. Global average temperatures have risen by around six-tenths of a degree Celsius since 1980. But as we’ve seen, every region in the world has greatly increased food availability to its people during that time. It’s extremely unlikely that the predicted increase of another 0.75 to 1 degree between now and 2050 will reverse this trend, and eliminate our ability to adequately nourish the world’s people. It’s true that the global rate of undernourishment has ticked up by 0.2 percent since 2015, but I bet this increase will reverse itself in the years ahead as markets and technologies continue to spread. Any takers?

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.

How did the US start getting more from less? By using the tools of the digital age—hardware, software, and networks—to progressively dematerialize our consumption. In other words, we kept finding ways to use fewer atoms by using more bits.

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.

More importantly, we need to stop devoting time and effort to planning for future research shortages. In a world where abundance and dematerialization are both increasing, this makes no sense. It makes great sense, however, to work on the challenges that capitalism and tech progress don’t solve on their own. These include reducing pollution, especially greenhouse gas pollution; protecting threatened species and lands; and bringing back opportunity to communities that have been left behind as capitalism and tech progress race ahead. All of these urgently require our attention now and in the years ahead. But we don’t need to worry that we’re going to run out—or run short of—critical resources in the decades to come. There’ll be plenty for everyone.



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Wired

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