It would be a major inconvenience if the Earth ran out of things I enjoy using, such as petroleum, or seltzer water. You might be the sort of bloke who settles down after a hard day of work to enjoy a nice, cool bucket of tungsten. Luckily for us, we’re never going to run out of resources.
Anecdotally this sounds preposterous. “The Earth’s population is rising. More people are using up more oil. Surely we will run out at some point? And don’t get me started on tungsten.” If this is true, we are indeed in for a world of hurt. I’m not entirely sure how oil is made, but my understanding is that you have to flatten a billion dinosaurs with a meteor, then wait a few million years until their blood ferments into unleaded gasoline.
Fortunately our innovation outpaces our gluttony. In fact the more we consume, the greater demand there is for resources, and the more lucrative they become to mine, harvest or recycle. This compels entrepreneurs to develop inexpensive ways to obtain resources, which ultimately makes everything cheaper and more plentiful.
In the case of fossil fuels, everyone has been worried about tapping the keg dry since at least the Carter administration. Had extraction technology, fuel efficiency and oil exploration remained static, we would indeed have returned to horses and buggies. But technology marched on, and we found more and more oil, and better ways to get at it. Sometimes even without invading other countries!
The most famous vindication of “not running out of stuff” is the Simon–Ehrlich Wager. Paul Ehrlich initially published a book called The Population Bomb, predicated on the idea that mankind is a ravenous demographic catastrophe and would soon use up all available resources and food. Even tofu. Julian Simon, an economist and commendable smartass, wagered Ehrlich $1000 that in ten years any raw materials Ehrlich chose would actually decrease in price.
When the bet took place between 1980 and 1990, the global population rose by 800 million—the horniest decade in all of human history. If Ehrlich had been right, the larger strain on resources would have prompted scarcity and made all of the metals more expensive. However the inverse happened: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten dropped in price. Simon won the bet.
Every so often we hear about the prospects of forthcoming water scarcity. Not in the sense of Californian’s leaving their sprinkler systems on or taking questionably long showers, but of entire nations running out of enough fresh water to hydrate their kids.
This has led to wild speculation about forthcoming Water Wars. They sound fun, like a squirt gun competition, but theorists picture scenarios like Israel and Syria plunging into battle over control of fresh water. The only documented water war in history occurred roughly 4,500 years ago between the city-states of Lagash and Umma, who still nurse bitter football rivalries as a result. But a modern water war will never happen.
Why? Economics. Desalinization, wherein salt water is converted into potable water, is a lot more expensive than piping water out of lakes and springs or your neighbor’s hot tub. But it’s far less expensive than building scud missiles and tanks.
Quite happily, as more countries become reliant upon desalination, the process will become cheaper and more efficient. Desalinating water will always be more attractive than lobbing hand grenades.
The final and most important thing to consider is that as humans we’re good at projecting current shortfalls on the future, but we’re terrible at foreseeing their consequences. As the adage goes, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.”
Chances are we’ll move on from fossil fuels long before we run out of dinosaur juice.