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Natural Resources

Natural Resources

3 Mins
September 28, 2010

Question: Will we run out of natural resources? Why?

Answer: No, it is not possible to run out of natural resources.

Objectivism acknowledges the importance of defining one’s terms, and this is critically necessary in debating this question. So, what do we mean when we say that X is a natural resource? First, it is important to distinguish between resources in the purely physical, as opposed to the economic, sense. There is some amount of oil in the world, much of it simply sitting in underground deposits, while some is locked away in shale or sits in tanks waiting to be refined into gasoline. Not all of these physical natural resources are actually economic resources: the oil sitting in refinery tanks or underground deposits is probably easy enough to access and extract to be useful, while most of the world’s shale oil cannot be economically exploited.

These physical resources only become natural resources when we discover some way to make them economically useful. The world possessed vast reserves of oil for millions of years, but it sat useless in the ground as people had no better way to light, heat, and power their homes and factories than to use candles, wood-burning stoves, and steam power. It has only been about 150 years since humans discovered oil’s economic usefulness. When we consider resources in this light, it becomes clear that a “natural resource” can include almost any existing material on Earth, so long as some way is found to use it to satisfy our material needs and desires. “Energy” is a resource critical to man’s survival, comfort, and well-being; “oil” serves as a resource only because it is a form of energy.
Physical resources become economic resources when they are combined into more useful arrangements by human ingenuity and work—whether that involves picking apples from a tree or mining the materials and producing the energy needed to build and run a particle accelerator. In terms of resources then, we are limited only by the total amount of elements existing on Earth, from its core to the stratosphere. Allowing for space travel, we are limited only by the sum of all the elements existing in the universe.

So, as long as people are concerned with their own well-being and free from arbitrary restraints on pursuing that well-being (for instance: environmental regulations, severance taxes, and wildlife preserves), we will never run out of natural, economic resources. The potential to discover new energy sources and new methods of production is not a matter of the capricious whim of “mother nature,” but rather a function of man’s reasoning mind, which has an unlimited potential to understand the world and make new discoveries. As the economist Julian Simon put it, human beings themselves are “the ultimate resource.”

Concerns about running out of oil surface frequently, usually during seasonal gasoline price spikes. Each time, the doomsayers promise that this is really the end of oil. According to many predictions advanced in the 1970s, we were supposed to have exhausted the world’s supply already. What these Chicken Littles fail to understand is the economic forces working to prevent any real energy shortage. As the world’s oil wells are drawn down and start to produce less, the price of oil will rise. When this happens, it will become profitable to harvest new sources of oil—for instance, shale oil and wells currently too low to merit further investment. What’s more, investment in other sources of energy will also become economically feasible. When the doomsayers say we’re going to run out of energy, they’re really saying that, when faced with new problems as to how to satisfy their critical energy needs, people will simply throw up their hands and do nothing.

Throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, humans relied on whale oil to light their homes. Eventually, as whale populations declined, whale oil became scarce and new sources of light—including electricity and Thomas Edison’s famous light bulb—were explored. Just as, today, we cannot be said to have a shortage of energy just because there is a shortage of whales, we will not suffer from a shortage of energy when (or if) we encounter a shortage of oil.
This process of innovation and discovery, however, is dependent upon political liberty. To use their minds and their reason in solving problems of production and scarcity, people must be free from physical force. One cannot force them to use their minds; by its nature, the human mind is an entity that must operate freely and independently. When left to operate in this way, the free human mind—with its inexhaustible capacity for reason and understanding of the physical world—is capable of expanding the level of natural resources ad infinitum.

Andrew Bissell
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Andrew Bissell