In a Reuters news story today, Klaus Toepfer, head of the United Nations Environment Program, is quoted as saying that China's ambitious economic growth plans are environmentally unachievable because the planet does not have enough natural resources to allow China's 1.3 billion people to become western-style consumers. While that seems like a pretty intuitive perspectivethere's only so much metal and oil to go around, right?there are contrary takes on the issue. To get one, I asked Jerry Taylor, a resource specialist at the free-market Cato Institute, for his analysis of the matter. Here are some excerpts from our E-mail chat this morning.
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U.S. News: So, tell me why we're not running out of everything.
Taylor: While it is counterintuitive to many people, natural resources are not fixed and finite; they are created by mankind, not by Mother Nature. Since resources are a function of human knowledge, and our stock of knowledge has increased over time, it should come as no surprise that the stock of physical resources has also been expanding.
U.S. News: Could you give me an example?
Taylor: We could examine the size of the world's "proven reserves" of a given resource for clues about scarcity. Proven reserves, however, have been growing larger, not smaller. Oil reserves, for instance, are 15 times larger today than when record keeping began in 1948 and about 40 percent larger than in 1974. The weakness of reserve data, however, is that reserve estimates only reflect resources that "can be recovered under present and expected local economic conditions with existing available technology." Data about oil reserves, then, [are] akin to data about what is presently in your kitchen cupboard. Many exploitable fields are not proven reserves because they have yet to be developed (usually because of the lack of profit opportunities in the current market). Moreover, projections based on such data presume no further advances in extraction or energy efficiency technology.
U.S. News: So the U.N. analysis sees man only as a user rather than also as a creator of resources?
Taylor: As long as human knowledge and technology continue to advance, our ability to create resources for human use will likewise continue to advance. China's economic growth over the past couple of decades underscores the fact that the growth in resources has always outpaced the growth of population in a macro sense . . . . There is no other way to explain the increased abundance of resources over the past century.
For Taylor's lengthy report on this issue, check out this link. For a study that does contend the Earth is running out of resources, check out this 2002 report from the World Wildlife Fund.
As the saying goes, what's science fiction today is often science fact tomorrow. Over at the European Space Agency, they're not just counting on it; they're trying to nudge the process along. The ESA has a project called Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Space Applications. Its purpose is to "review past and present SF literature, artwork, and films in order to identify and assess innovative technologies and concepts described which could be possibly developed further for space applications." In other words, look at sci-fi's imaginativethough not currently possibleideas (such as warp drives, teleportation, and space elevators) for inspiration, and analyze which may someday be possible and which violate known physical laws and are thus unlikely ever to be realized.
The result is a lengthy fact sheet covering dozens of technologies in fields ranging from astrobiology to cyborgs to space propulsion. One of my favorites is the Dyson sphere, which was first proposed by physicist Freeman Dyson. It's an "artificial sphere the size of a planetary orbit. The sphere would consist of a shell of solar collectors or habitats around the star, so that all energy (or at least a significant amount) will hit a receiving surface where it can be used. This would create a huge living space and gather enormous amounts of energy." The Dyson sphere has made appearances in genre literature and on Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Scotty from the Star Trek classic makes a return appearance and crashes into one.)
The ESA project also sponsors the Clarke-Bradbury International Science Fiction Competition, where participants are asked to write a story featuring science fiction technologies used for space travel, exploration, and settlement. This year's winner will be announced at the end of this month.