As a development economist and student of John Dewey who argued that ideas have consequences I do not know of any idea more likely to keep people impoverished than the idea that resources are natural, fixed, and finite. Yet this was the operating assumption of many of the delegates to the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in South Africa and the overriding theme of the protests against the meetings. There may be resource constraints on development at any given time, but resources are not scarce in the sense in which that term is being used by the activists.
Over sixty years ago, Erich Zimmermann coined the phrase "resources are not; they become." Simply stated, the raw stuff of the universe becomes a resource when human ingenuity and intelligence, e.g. science and technology, are able to transform it to further human endeavors. This theory of resources led to practical policies that have allowed humans to lift themselves above the level of mere subsistence, while the fixed, finite view of resources serves only to sustain poverty.
All Life Uses Resources; Humans Are More Efficient
The evidence for a dynamic, functional theory of resources is overwhelming and compelling and applies to all life as well as human life. The earth's first life forms were heterotrophic, which means that they could not manufacture their own nutrients and therefore subsisted on a cumulated store of organic matter that had been created and was continuing to be created by lightning discharge in the earth's atmosphere. Early life was exhausting its relatively fixed, finite food resources and releasing a deadly pollutant, oxygen. Fortunately, life evolved forms that could harvest the energy of the sun and could make oxygen a life-sustaining resource.
Early life on Earth faced another "resource crisis." It was using the abiotic sources of nitrogen faster than those sources were being created. Nitrogen is abundant in the Earth's atmosphere, but it is not in a "fixed" form that can be used by life to create amino acids, which in turn form the basis for proteins, upon which life as we know it is dependent. The early nitrogen crisis was overcome by the evolution of cyanobacteria, the only living organisms capable of fixing nitrogen for plant use.
As I argue in my book, The Environment, Our Natural Resources, and Modern Technology, ours was not a planet readymade for life but one that was ready-makeable and is continually remade by life itself. Early life forms created the conditions (resources) for the emergence of later life forms. Neither was the world in which we emerged readymade for humans. Rather, despite being a rare species living in a limited habitat, we used our brains to develop the tools, skills, and technology to transform our environment, allowing us to become the only mammalian species to populate the entire globe without dividing into multiple species. We did not adapt to our environment but adapted the environment to our needs. The resources of successive environments that humans inhabited became resources only because humans developed the technology to utilize them.
Humans have experienced something analogous to that early nitrogen crisis in more recent times.
During the nineteenth century, we learned to use inorganic minerals, including nitrates, to nourish our crops. Our population close to doubled during that century to 1.6 billion people, and there was a mad race among the industrializing countries to secure inorganic nitrate sources. By 1900, there was another nitrogen crisis as expanding global agriculture was drawing down the existing stocks of inorganic nitrates and outpacing the ability of cyanobacteria to fix nitrogen for agricultural use. But the early twentieth century work of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch in the industrial synthesis of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen allowed for the mass production of synthetic nitrogenous fertilizer. This allowed the human population to grow to 6 billion by the end of the twentieth century and allowed humanity overall to be better fed than they had ever been.
"Organic" agriculture originated in opposition to synthetic nitrogenous fertilizer and many purists still oppose using it, though they do not tell us how we could feed today's population without it.
Scientific Progress Wars with Anti-Science Protests
Despite the record of human creativity, the various anti-globalization movements that gathered in southern Africa imply we emerged in a readymade world in which all the domesticated crops existed in nature as they are today, waiting to be planted (without further genetic modification) in a natural order of things, which human actions disrupt. Since the 1970s, we have been subjected to slogans about our stewardship of the environment. We are told we are not the inheritors of the environment but are merely holding it in trust for those who come after us. Other slogans, such as "living lightly on the land" or "living within limits" depict humans as passive harvesters of nature's beneficence, which we must preserve.
The preservationist mentality starts from false premises. Living within limits is impossible now and always has been.
Not subscribing to the preservationist worldview does not mean that we can do anything we wish, no matter how destructive. On the contrary, it allows us the freedom to create a more bountiful future.
Resources are fixed and finite for any given level of technology and therefore, no matter how frugal our use may be, we will eventually exhaust them in the absence of technological change. Sustainability can come only from a transformational mentality that promotes the development of resource-creating technologies. Tragically, this is precisely what the activists are protesting against in their opposition to technologies such as genetically modified food crops. The only way to protect the planet and its inhabitants is to engage in continual, constructive change. Our duty to those who come after us is to promote science and technology.
Thomas DeGregori is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and an ACSH Director.