Malthus and Julian Simon

Part of an ongoing conversation, Necoras comments: "A growth economy, which is necessary if you are to have an increasing demographic, requires ever growing resources. This worked well as long as we were exploring into the US, and Africa, etc, etc. Eventually we’ll use up the easily available resources (likely within a century for some rarer elements) and the economy will slow. There are a few options at that point.

1) Expand. There are a number of places to do this. The oceans are one, space is another. Neither is easy, but both are very very rich.

2) Recycle. This will happen soon regardless. Landfills will become more valuable as goldmines when they’re the only place you can get gallium, iridium, and other elements vital to our 1st world technologies.

3) Collapse. Go read the Mote in God’s Eye for the obvious end result here. War, theft of resources, etc. I’d rather not see this one.

Regardless, for a growth economy you need room and resources to grow."

My comment: 

I am not sure I agree. While these three options might be the case, they are not necessarily the case. The fourth option is that the economy continued to expand, merely not in the same direction, or using the same raw materialist, as previously.

Necoras (and Malthus) assumes that what defines "a resource" remains the same over time. History shows that assumption not true in all cases.

One small example: two centuries ago, whale oil was a resource. Demand was high. Everyone used it in their kerosine lamps. Indeed, it was a renewable resource, since whales reproduce. In those days, petroleum was not a resource: indeed, places where crude oil seeped out the ground were worth LESS than other parcels of land, because oil made land bad for farming.

Thanks to Rockefeller and Standard Oil, petroleum became the resource. After being refined, it was used, and more cheaply, than whale oil, for hearing and for lanterns et cetera. (In return for this unparalleled benefit to human civilization, Rockefeller was attacked, and his company looted by Teddy Roosevelt and various populists. One of histories small cruelties.)

Another example. Silicon, such as is used to make computer chips, used to be not aresource. It was useless to human beings. There was no significant market for it.

Another example. There is family not far from where I live who sit on top of a uranium mine. They would be millionaires, except that they are not legally allowed to take the uranium out of the ground. The environmentalist movement has successfully killed off the market for atomics in the United States, and laws prevent selling it overseas. So their uranium is not a resource.

It is human ingenuity which makes something a resource.

A relatively minor technical advance would make shale oil a resource: currently it is not. A relatively minor technical advance would made geothermal heat a resource: currently it is not. A relatively minor technical advance, or perhaps merely getting the environmentalists to shut up, would make sunlight a resource (fun fact: whenever someone tries to build a solar energy farm, the environmentalists sue them).

And so on. 

And we science fiction fans know that a major change in technology, such as a Star Trek style replicator, or a Eric Drexler style nanotechnology, would make things that are otherwise waste materials into resources. How many people could you feed if you had the technology to grow an eatable crop on the surface of the Pacific Ocean? Or turn point your atomic re-organizer machine at a lump of rock, and turn stones into bread?