Are we in the age of scarcity?

May 12, 2020 Cayman Islands

Few weeks ago I’ve read this article called “Betting on the Planet”. It’s a very interesting debate between an ecologist, Paul Ehrlich, and an economist, Julian Simon, regarding environmental issues. You may access the file here.

My thoughts were divided after reading the article. On one side, I am in favor of what Paul Ehrlich has to say. However, most of what I had in mind agrees with Julian Simon. Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of environmental issues. Almost all activities we had in high school concerned the preservation of the planet. We were trained to reuse, reduce and recycle. We were shown educational videos about how we, human beings, are slowly ruining our own home. Global warming was a hot topic, and almost everyone talks about it. Environmental concerns are just about everywhere. I once saw an advertisement along EDSA with the proverb, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” At home, we even participate in the annual celebration of Earth Hour.

I agree with Ehrlich, that we should take utmost care of our planet. However, like Simon, I’ve always wondered why environmentalists are so pessimistic about the future. They always warn us that the end is near, or that there will be massive starvation and deaths if the population continues to grow. Instead of adapting to the phenomenon, the solution is to always limit ourselves to the available resources. I was astounded when the question I exactly had in mind was asked in the article. If we are in the age of scarcity, why haven’t things run out yet?

earth, planet, global warming, scarce resources, overpopulation, environmentalist, economist, technology

Environmentalists always put the blame on overpopulation. They almost always fail to see that though population growth has negative effects, it also has good ones; especially if you consider the thought that it may actually be an investment. More people may equate to more manpower, thus more productivity and technological advancement. I guess the crucial difference between economists and ecologists is that economists view the world as a flexible marketplace, not a closed ecosystem. According to Simon, to which I totally agree,

There’s nothing wrong with worrying about new problems — we need problems so we can come up with solutions that leave us better off than if they’d never come up in the first place. But why don’t the doomsayers see that, in the aggregate, things are getting better? Why do they always think we’re at a turning point — or at the end of the road? They deny our creative powers for solutions. It’s only because we used those powers so well in the past that we can afford to worry about things like losing species and wetlands. Until we got so rich and healthy and productive at agriculture, a wetland was a swamp with malarial mosquitoes that you had to drain so you could have cropland to feed your family.” 

He even said that instead of celebrating that there are more people now instead of the massive deaths the environmentalists have predicted, we are actually complaining about it. He further stated that natural resources are not finite because we have the ultimate resource; human ingenuity. We can use our own intellect to innovate. We can always adapt and find substitutes. A great example would be the disruption of trade due to Eastern Mediterranean wars years ago. The wars led to a shortage of tin that is needed to produce bronze. The Greeks responded by using iron instead of tin. The Greeks have adapted to and coped with the problem by finding better alternatives.

I believe that in the future, human beings will be intelligent enough to master our own planet and no longer exhaust resources, especially energy, from dead species. According to Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, at present, we are in the process of becoming a type 1 civilization from type 0. In the Kardashev scale (method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to utilize), a type 0 civilization utilizes energy, information, and raw-materials from crude organic-based sources like fossil fuels. It is also capable of orbital spaceflight. A type 1 civilization on the other hand extracts energy, information, and raw-materials from fusion power, hydrogen, and other “high-density” renewable-resources; and is capable of interplanetary spaceflight, interplanetary communication, megascale engineering, colonization, medical and technological singularity, planetary engineering, world government, trade and defense, and stellar system-scale influence. A type 1 civilization is capable of harnessing all the energy output of its own planet. If we can already do solar insolation at present, what more can we do in the future? It is not impossible that in the next one hundred years, Earth will be a planetary civilization. We will be able to control the weather and natural disasters. (See Michio Kaku: Will Mankind Destroy Itself?)

However, Dr. Kaku said that the danger period is now. Because of the advancements in science such as the discovery of nuclear power, we are already capable of wiping out the entire planet. We can either use these innovations for the better, or for the worse. I agree with what Jevons said, “We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity.”

I hope that we are not being a catalyst in the deterioration of our planet. I’d like to believe that the said depletion of resources comes with the process of improving the lives of the human race in future.

Photo from unsplash.

Food for Thought is a blog series where we discover and gain deeper understanding on a certain topic. Everyone is welcome to join the discussion and express their own thoughts.

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