A primary concern in my mind with an ever-growing population is the availability of non-energy resources…how can there be enough “stuff” with more and more people?! Well, apparently, I’m not the first person to think that might be a problem. Such a fear had “…an almost magical grip on intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s (The Skeptical …, p.137).” Economists, however, have long stated that such a fear is erroneous. To confront the fearful claims, in 1980, economist Julian Simon challenged the established beliefs with a bet. He bet environmentalists Ehrlich, Harte, and Holdren (all of Stanford University) that any given raw material—to be picked by his opponents- would have dropped in price at least one year later. For the raw materials, the environmentalists picked chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten—primary elements in almost all manufacturing processes. Their time frame was 10 years. In 1990, the real (inflation-adjusted) prices of the materials, collectively and individually had dropped! Tin had dropped an amazing 74 per cent! Those proclaiming doom and gloom had lost! In fact, they could not have won no matter what materials they had chosen—petroleum, food-stuffs, sugar, coffee, wool, minerals or phosphates—they had all become cheaper (The Skeptical …, p. 137)!”
How can this be so? Why do we have ever more non-energy resources? Why is resource depletion not the case it would seem to be? There are several reasons behind this fact. First of all, “known reserves” are not a fixed entity. We continue to find new deposits—“…the most important raw materials have increased their number of years of consumption, despite a 2-15 times increase in annual consumption (The Skeptical …,p.146).
Another thing behind this phenomenon of supply is the fact that we continually get better at extracting resources and using them more effectively. For example, phone calls are carried on super-thin optical fibers which once required 625 copper wires for the same number of calls—and with better quality! Your car today contains only half as much metal as a car from 1970. Paper production has been improved and so newspapers are printed on much thinner paper than in the past. Information technology has also changed things. Programs worth hundreds come on a CD-ROM worth only 2 cents in plastic (The Skeptical …, p. 146-147). So, the same amount of a raw material goes much further than it did in the past!
A third thing that contributes to our amazing resource supply is recycling. Recycling metals increases the reserves. Approximately one-third of the global steel production is recycled, 25-30 per cent of aluminum, 25 percent of nickel, 45-50 per cent of silver and lead, 15-20 per cent of tin, 35-40 percent of copper, and 20-25 per cent of zinc (The Skeptical …, p. 147). There are some limits to recycling of metals—some is lost to corrosion, and sometimes the products are constructed such that it is impossible to recycle the constituent parts. It’s interesting to consider that with increased efficiency and recycling it is theoretically possible to never run out of a limited resource! For example, let’s say there is a raw material with 100 years of consumption left with a 1% yearly increase in demand and a 2% increase in recycling and/or efficiency…we would never run out of this material! Our ingenuity compensates for both consumption and increases in consumption (The Skeptical …, p. 147)!
Yet another factor alleviating non-energy resources being depleted is the fact that we can often substitute one material for another. In 1978, Zaire limited their supply of cobalt to the world due to internal political issues. Fortunately there were some newly developed ceramic magnets that could be used in place of the traditional cobalt alloy ones. Similarly many substitutes for copper are currently being found (The Skeptical …, p. 147). Moreover, technology in general has caused a substitution away from a number of raw materials. Digital thermometers have decreased the use of mercury and digital photography has lessened the use of silver significantly. Reading the news online versus in an actual newspaper, decreases the demand for paper….and so it goes!
This discussion does not dispute that non-renewable resources are just that—finite. However, it does propose that scarcities of materials are unlikely for the reasons presented—we continuously find new resources, we use them more efficiently, and we are able to recycle them and substitute for them (The Skeptical …, p.148).
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