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Stop looking to Mother Nature for answers to resource questions

The silly way we think about resource scarcity.

Fracking Boom Turns Texas Into The earthquake Capital Of The U.S.
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

When I was younger, there was a lot of hubbub about the concept of “peak oil.” Technically, the phrase just refers to the point where we reach the highest level of global oil production, after which it begins a permanent decline. This will probably happen at some point, as we deplete the cheapest-to-access sources of oil and transition to an economy that’s less dependent on it.

Efforts to predict when it’ll happen have a terrible track record, though. The 1956 paper that introduced the concept suggested the US would reach peak oil production by 1970. Oil production did peak around then and start to decline — but then new prospecting and extraction technologies were developed, and oil production surged back, in 2017 reaching and then surpassing the heights it had hit back in 1970.

And when I was a teenager, around 2007 to 2008, there were a lot of assertions we’d “reached peak oil” globally, often coupled with dire predictions about the future availability of gasoline — but in fact, US oil production doubled from 2008 to 2016, and OPEC chose to raise production, with the big story of the mid-2010s being one about an “oil glut” where prices dove to historic lows.

There’s a sense where “peak oil” is less a question about how much oil is actually in the ground than about how we expect it will be priced. But, while the cost of gasoline has huge economic and geopolitical implications, I don’t think that’s the whole reason the idea had such a draw.

There’s a moralistic tinge to worries about peak oil. Like virtually all natural resources, oil is ultimately finite, and we extract and consume it without any particular regard for long-term planning. There’s a sense in which it feels just and karmically appropriate for a foolish shortsighted civilization to run out of the resource it runs on (and the resource it’s burning at enormous costs to the world). People were drawn to the idea of peak oil because it provided additional justification to switch away from petroleum fuels, and a sense of an impending moment of truth where we’d have to switch away like it or not.

A clear-eyed look at resource usage

It turns out that karmic appropriateness is a terrible way to make predictions about economic reality. We may feel like we’re a self-destructive civilization facing its just deserts, but this doesn’t turn out to be an effective way to predict future resource availability at all.

While there are real physical limits on resource extraction, predicting those limits is very hard, because advancing technology keeps increasing resource accessibility. That 1956 paper I reference above was pretty good at anticipating American oil production with contemporary methods — it just failed to anticipate momentous technological changes. And it was very foolish to fail to anticipate momentous technological changes!

Given decades of time and a strong profit motive, it’s in fact unsurprising that there were massive adjustments to how we drill for oil and how we find it. In a way, “technology won’t change very much over the course of decades in a highly profitable relatively new industry” isn’t a conservative prediction, but rather a foolish one.

I was thinking about this because of news that we just discovered a 50-year supply of phosphorus in Norway. Phosphorus is another resource that I’ve heard claims that we might run short of. (It’s one of the resources that so-called degrowth analyses tend to look closely at, with one degrowth paper calculating a “planetary boundary” of less than 1 ton of phosphorus per person per year.)

Phosphorus is important for fertilizer, solar panels, and electric batteries, and until recently, the world had confirmed reserves of around 71 billion metric tons. Then, Norge Mining, based on information from the Norwegian Geological Survey, recently found another 70 billion metric tons — just like that.

And unlike when companies locate more crude oil, this discovery is pretty much uncomplicatedly great news. It reduces Europe’s reliance on imports for strategically important resources; it should help the price of fertilizer stay low, putting less pressure on food prices; and it should mean that battery and solar panel manufacturers can more easily plan on continued access to the resources they need. (For the US, it helps that the discovery was made in a friendly country.) It’s also just a reminder that we should employ a nuanced understanding of what it means to be “projected to run short” on a resource.

The world is enough

The planet does have finite physical limits that are important to keep in mind. But those finite physical limits are often fairly enormous — we live on a very big chunk of rock! More often, the limiting factors in our resource access aren’t the resource itself, but rather our technology for surveying and our technology for extraction.

Instead of living in some morality play where we foolishly run out of a resource we were treating as infinite, we live in a more complicated world where more investment and development can secure more resources, but where we also need to be thoughtful about when it’s worth governments making those resource investments.

Petroleum burning has all the catastrophic consequences for the world that we thought. But we’re not going to “run out” — we’ll have to deliberately replace petroleum with cleaner energy sources as a policy choice.

And projected shortages of resources like phosphorus are no reason to claim that the planet can’t sustain its current population or its current wealth level and needs to resign itself to an impoverished future — they’re a reason to go look for more phosphorus. Instead of saying that limited access to fertilizer is a “planetary boundary” we must respect by making people poorer, we can keep in mind that limited access to fertilizer is a policy choice.

I’m hardly saying we should always choose the policy of more mining and prospecting — it depends what we’re mining and prospecting for — but I sometimes notice an impulse to pretend this isn’t a policy choice at all, just an inevitable law of nature, and I think it’s important to take ownership of the economic forces that govern resource access in our world.

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