The World’s Resources Are Running Out… Or Not ?

Resources and environmental policy is (still) a very hot topic between ecologists and economists.

On the 25th April, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial by Matt Ridley, a British journalist known for his writings on science, environment and economics. In his article The World’s Resources Aren’t Running Out, Mr Ridley claims that « the assumption behind all such statements (A/N, concerning world’s resources consumption) is that there is a fixed amount of stuff—metals, oil, clean air, land—and that we risk exhausting it through our consumption. […] But here’s a peculiar feature of human history : We burst through such limits again and again. After all, as a Saudi oil minister once said, the Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone. Ecologists call this "niche construction"—that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction : We stopped relying on nature’s bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty. Economists call the same phenomenon innovation. What frustrates them about ecologists is the latter’s tendency to think in terms of static limits. Ecologists can’t seem to see that when whale oil starts to run out, petroleum is discovered, or that when farm yields flatten, fertilizer comes along, or that when glass fiber is invented, demand for copper falls. That frustration is heartily reciprocated. Ecologists think that economists espouse a sort of superstitious magic called "markets" or "prices" to avoid confronting the reality of limits to growth ».

« Part of the problem » continues Mr Ridley « is that the word "consumption" means different things to the two tribes. Ecologists use it to mean "the act of using up a resource" ; economists mean "the purchase of goods and services by the public" (both definitions taken from the Oxford dictionary). […] This disagreement goes to the heart of many current political issues and explains much about why people disagree about environmental policy. In the climate debate, for example, pessimists see a limit to the atmosphere’s capacity to cope with extra carbon dioxide without rapid warming. So a continuing increase in emissions if economic growth continues will eventually accelerate warming to dangerous rates. But optimists see economic growth leading to technological change that would result in the use of lower-carbon energy. That would allow warming to level off long before it does much harm ».

In other words, for Mr Ridley, climate changes, resources consumption, pollution and so on are the result of a dynamic relationship between humans and nature…

« Human activities actually increase the production of green vegetation in natural ecosystems. Fertilizer taken up by crops is carried into forests and rivers by wild birds and animals, where it boosts yields of wild vegetation too (sometimes too much, causing algal blooms in waters). In places like the Nile delta, wild ecosystems are more productive than they would be without human intervention, despite the fact that much of the land is used for growing human food. If I could have one wish for the Earth’s environment, it would be to bring together the two tribes—to convene a grand powwow of ecologists and economists. I would pose them this simple question and not let them leave the room until they had answered it : How can innovation improve the environment ? ».

The question is : what economy are we talking about here ? I am sure Mr Ridley is aware of the “Ecological Economics”, a discipline that attempts to answer the same question, taking into account the mutual well-being of nature and humans. Unfortunately, it is still considered as the “poor sister” of the conventional dominant economy, whose paradigm instead is that humans are insatiable and so economics should focus on endless growth and ever-increasing consumption. The result of this economy is under everyone’s eyes, with disastrous effects at different levels.
It was recently reported on the French newspaper “Libération” that China has quickly risen to the top-ranks in global energy demand, becoming the largest oil and metal consumer of the world. The process is far from its end, as Chinese population will soon become the largest consumer of milk, meat and cacao with serious consequences not only on the global economy but also on world resources that, in turn, will lead to financial speculations and social inequality.
What if we start considering every resources as social resources, as emerged during the “Economics and the Commons Conference” held in Berlin last year ? As Helene Finidori commented on her blog, highlighting few points discussed during the above mentioned conference, « What defines a common is not its nature as a resource, but our relationship to it as we manage it as a resource. […] Commons are therefore not only resources per se, but productive and generative social systems based on specific social processes that treat goods and resources as part of the process and not as commodities, with a focus on use value rather than exchange value.

Coming back to The Wall Street Journal article, I understand that both social and technical innovations are considered, as they are two faces of the same coin. For the time being, the priority should go to a politically enabling environment towards social innovation. On those lines, read our earlier news “What comes first : climate change or changing the climate of negociations ?” published on our website ».

Alessia Armezzani .

Article publié ou modifié le

24 juin 2014