The current population, though slowing since the 1990s, has increased rapidly throughout most of the 20th century from just under 2 billion to over 6 billion and is expected to reach 8. 9 billion by the year 2050 (UN). This rapid increase has sparked extensive academic debate as to what the future holds for humanity in terms of access to resources and welbeing. If you are a Neo Malthusian, like Ehrlich, then you are pessimistic about our current situation and future. If you are a technocentric cornucopian, like Simon, then you are content with our present socioeconomic situation and optimistic about the future.
All academics agree that resource use is rapidly increasing and even though we live in the ‘new economy’ we are still heavily dependent on extracting raw materials to sustain growth. But there is much disagreement about what the impacts of this will be. In order to find out which side one takes, it is necessary to first define what a resource is and then investigate the current debates. A resource is anything that human society attaches value to (Bradshaw, 2005) and is spatially and temporally variable. In this sense, resources are socially constructed.
For example, during the industrial revolution in Europe, coal was a valuable resource. However, at the same time coal was not considered to be a resource to, say, African nations. So resources come and go with societies needs. Simon argues in The State of Humanity 1995 that there is no population – resource crisis. Drawing support from past records, he is very optimist in terms of resource availability and human welfare. Confident in the free market, he points out that resources are more abundant and cheaper now than at any time in the past and that life expectancy is increasing.
Taking an economic view of resources, he puts his trust in market mechanisms and human ingenuity to solve any resource crisis that may arise. In fact, according to the cornucopians, scarcity of proven resources is a good thing: resource scarcity causes price increases which leads to human ingenuity which in turn can solve scarcity problems. Firstly, the price increase will lead to innovations in technology, such as more efficient extraction and supply methods and recycling. Secondly, the price increase will drive industries to seek cheaper alternatives, such as a shift from oil to gas, or oil to bio fuels.
Thirdly, the increased price will make it economical to seek out more resources in more marginal areas. For these reasons, any price increase is short term and Simons claims that human population, however large, has an infinite supply of resources for our future. The strength of Simon’s argument lies in the fact that he provides concrete figures and statistics based on past records. Food production has increased due to the Green Revolution, supply of oil to the US has increased with demand and until the war in Iraq, it was cheaper. The price of most minerals has decreased and life expectancy has increased.
Therefore the claim that there is no crisis seems valid. But Simon overlooks some major issues. Firstly, his approach only focuses on resource availability and fails to recognise the impacts on the environment of resource ‘use’. Some natural resources are unpriced in the market, such as rivers and clean air. Therefore it is cheaper for industries to pollute rather than process their waste. For example, CO2 emissions have increased so rapidly that by 1960 emissions exceeded the Earth’s capacity to absorb them and by 1980 they had reached double capacity.
By 2020 emissions are predicted to be 3 times environmental capacity (Jones, 2005). This will have detrimental impacts on climate, ecosystems and consequently on human welfare. Also, the so called Green Revolution increased agricultural output, but had negative impacts on both the environment and the socioeconomic situation of poor farmers. Pesticides and other chemical inputs “polluted water ways, poisoned workers and killed beneficial insects” (IFPRI) Furthermore, by taking a purely economic definition of resources he fails to recognise some important issues.
Firstly, exploration in more marginal areas will be wasteful in terms of energy spent. For example, more energy is needed to extract perhaps lower quality resources and energy is lost at every stage. Taking this thermodynamic approach to supply, we see that Simon’s idea of infinite resources is not realistic. Secondly, capitalist markets exclude the poor, so Simons claim that infinite resources are available to sustain population is only valid for MEDCs. A case in point is India, which produces a food surplus yet 221 million are hungry and 47% of children are malnourished (UNICEF).
Also, the Green Revolution has been criticized for excluding poorer farmers who could not afford the new technologies which rendered them unable to compete in the market. Perhaps more importantly in light of recent world events, such as the unprecedented high oil prices and the US led war in Iraq, the cornucopians do not take into account the geopolitical forces that lie behind the spatial inequity of resource production and consumption. Resources are only available if there is political consensus to release them.
For example the oil price increase of the 70s was not due to scarcity, but the result of OPEC ‘flexing its muscles’ (Jones 2005). The war in Iraq is blamed for the current price increase which is having a rippling effect globally affecting prices of other resources. So is Ehrlich’s pessimistic view more realistic? Ehrlich’s argument in the Population Bomb is based on the writings of Thomas Malthus. Malthus saw the earth and its resources as finite and he put forward that the power of population to increase is stronger that the power of the planet to provide foods.
In his 1990 The Population Explosion, Ehrlich argues that the crises is already upon us, citing the existence of war, famine and disease as the positive checks that Malthus wrote about. A report by Meadows et al 1972 also supports this position which predicts food shortages and industrial output decreases which will lead to more dangerous environmental conditions and an increase in unnatural disasters (Jones 2005). Ehrlich’s assessment of the current socioeconomic situation and physical approach to resource depletion seems logical – more people consuming the world’s limited resources will lead to ‘ the doomsday scenario’.
But Ehrlich fails to see the full picture by not taking account of the market and geopolitical forces the lie behind resource supply. As Simon propounds, the markets can react to scarcity and promote human ingenuity which can potentially solve shortages. Indeed the prices of most minerals were cheaper in 1990 than any time before and the world produces enough food to feed itself. Ehrlich measures the current socioeconomic situation against some ideal situation, unlike Simon who compares it to the past.
Like Simon, Ehrlich fails to address the geopolitical forces that lie behind resource supply. The positive checks i. e. war, famine and disease, that the Neo Malthusians cite as their evidence are not simply a result of resource scarcity. So Ehrlich’s argument is not as logical as it first appears. To sum up, it is clear that Simons argument fails to take into account the environmental impacts and thermodynamic aspects of resource supply and the fact that current market prices do not take account of unpriced goods which means that current prices are underpriced.
These issues have the potential to threaten future supplies. Ehrlich’s ideas, though logical, are too simplistic and don’t take account of the market forces. If we are to put our trust in the ‘doomsayers’ and are later proven wrong, then we will have lost perhaps time and money, but may gain a less populated less exploitive world. If we put our trust in the technocentric cornucopians, and are later proven wrong, we will have lost a lot more. For this reason, and looking at the current causes and effects of climate change, it is safer to side with the ‘doomsayers’.