Consumption vs. finite global resources

The following op-ed piece of September 6, 1998 regarding consumption and finite global resources, is redistributed here with the permission of the Boulder (Colorado) Daily Camera.


We must stop consuming as if resources were infinite

Sunday, September 6, 1998

Section: INSIGHT
Page: 3E
By Robert Cohen


There are many people, especially economists such as the late
Julian Simon (Sunday Camera, March 1, 1998), who regard our global
resources as a source of unending, bounteous sustenance to a growing global
population. People exuding such optimism are sometimes referred to as
"Cornucopians." Their optimism is based upon their economic doctrine --
almost a religion -- that human ingenuity, technology innovations and
market incentives will provide the constantly increasing resources required
to fuel the wants and needs of the growing numbers of people on the planet.

In contrast, this presentation suggests we adopt a more cautious,
realistic outlook in developing public-policy options about the future,
based upon examining our sad experience with the frequent unintended
consequences of previous "technology fixes." Thus a key policy conclusion
is to avoid placing undue reliance on technology to help satisfy the
rising, unprecedented global demands for resources.

The Twentieth Century population explosion resulted from dramatic
reductions in death rates brought about by technology fixes, such as
reducing disease, increasing sanitation, and improving health. From 1925
to 1950, the annual death rate in developed countries was reduced from
about 30 per thousand people to about 10 per thousand. Between 1925 and
1975, death rates were reduced in less-developed countries from about 38
per thousand people to about 12 per thousand.

Although technology fixes for reducing fertility were also being
introduced and adopted concurrently, birth rates began greatly exceeding
death rates in the less-developed countries, a precipitous and unintended
consequence of the new technologies. The net effect of these two sets of
technology fixes was that world population escalated from 2 billion in 1930
to nearly 6 billion today. In agriculture, modern technological
innovations brought about the "Green Revolution," which helped provide
additional food to nourish the growing world population at the expense of
requiring large inputs of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals (herbicides,
fungicides, and

But those new technologies brought with them various unintended
consequences. As Professor David Pimentel and his colleagues at Cornell
University point out, the new agriculture is leading to serious soil
erosion, soil degradation, and pollution of streams and rivers by chemical
runoff. Also, the employment of such an energy-intensive and
chemical-intensive approach is ill-suited to many developing nations. At
the same time, increased population and consumption are pushing the limits
of the finite global resources of arable land, fresh water, and fossil

Consequently, as global population increases by some 50 percent in
the next 50 years, the crop yields obtainable from this new agricultural
technology may well be leveling off and could lead to a decrease in the
annual per capita global production of food and nutrients. An unintended
consequence of manufacturing organochlorines for agricultural and other
industrial uses (such as paper bleaching) is their liberation into the
environment, as discussed by Colborn, Dumanoski, and Myers (Our Stolen
Future, 1996). These releases appear to be causing serious environmental
contamination, resulting in toxicity manifested in human endocrine-system
problems (such as breast cancer, malformation of embryos, and reduced sperm
counts), along with
adverse biological impacts on frogs and other amphibians.

Another technology fix -- the highly successful use of catalytic
converters to reduce smog-causing automobile emissions -- now seems to have
(literally) backfired. A recent discovery (New York Times, May 29, 1998)
shows that these converters drastically increase automotive discharges of
nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse gas which will -- along with the
increasing combustion of fossil fuels -- exacerbate the global warming

The above examples suggest that the introduction of new
technologies has both pros and cons. As the CBS news commentator Eric
Sevareid put it, "The chief cause of problems is solutions." Thus,
although technology fixes can help to make global resources available to
us, their unintended consequences often introduce serious "side effects."
Hence we cannot predictably expect technology fixes to provide a panacea
toward satisfying our growing wants and needs for limited global resources.

The Cornucopian economists seem to be ignoring the fact that
technology is
constrained by its inability to violate two laws of physics, those
pertaining to conservation of energy and matter. These laws state that
neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed. Thus the finite
supplies of materials and energy can only be extracted and then transformed
into products and by-products. These mining and manufacturing processes
both deplete these supplies and tend to make them less available for future

Another precaution is to avoid the mistake of regarding certain new
technologies as sources of energy. For example, although we may be
optimistic about the prospects of fuel cells, flywheels, and hydrogen to
deliver clean, economic energy, they are only a means for storing,
transporting, and utilizing energy. That energy must itself be derived
from a depletable or renewable source.

Furthermore, the Cornucopians invoke a doctrine of
"substitutability," which
asserts that as one material for an application runs out we can always
substitute another. However, that doctrine may well turn out to be
inoperative when it comes to finding a substitute for phosphates,
indispensable in growing crops, when global phosphate reserves eventually
become dispersed and less readily available. Julian Simon speaks in his
article "of the increasing availability of natural resources throughout
history as measured by their declining prices." But just because a
commodity such as petroleum can currently be purchased at bargain prices
does not mean
that these short-term market prices accurately reflect the true long-term
value or supply of this depletable resource.

A better way of estimating the value of petroleum would consider
factors such as its replacement cost, based on the minimum cost of
manufacturing synthetic fuels having the same energy as fuels derived from
petroleum. Thus a sensible way of sending price signals conveying the true
societal value of petroleum products would be for their price to include,
in addition to market cost, substantial taxes reflecting, among other
things, environmental impacts, resource depletion, and replacement cost.

Fortuitously, only about 20 percent of the world`s population is
consuming global resources at anywhere near the high rates exemplified in
the United States. However, affluence and consumption are rising rapidly
in some developing countries like China (New York Times, May 30, 1998),
corporations are eager to sell more of their products, and the
telecommunications revolution is fanning the flames of global consumerism
by projecting an image of U.S. profligacy rather than one of frugality.

To head off polarizations among nations over global resources --
especially the ecosystem, the environment, food and energy -- we must fully
recognize that these resources are limited and that it is dangerous to rely
on future technology fixes to increase their supply. We must stop
consuming as if there were no tomorrow. We must not wait until the global
ecosystem and environment are irreversibly destroyed.

If we can somehow acknowledge that global resources are finite and
that technology cannot magically multiply them, then maybe we can hope to
mitigate the time-bomb in global consumption by stabilizing population,
moderating consumerism, and slowing, rather than hastening, the rush to
free trade and globalization.

(Robert Cohen is an engineer concerned about societal issues.)