We often hear we’re at the “peak” availability of some resource, but what’s really meant is that we’re at a cliff’s edge, about to run dry. These claims are usually uninformed and have been wrong historically. Of course, scarcity is real; it’s why I do economics and love markets, which solve the problem of scarcity through voluntary, arms length cooperation in balancing needs and wants with the availability of resources. But scarcity at any point in time rarely implies anything about the availability of resources going forward. Current knowledge and conditions, and existing technology for extracting and utilizing resources, provide signals about opportunities; they should not dominate our outlook for the future in a dynamic economy.
The view that the availability of resources is subject to hard limits, or that they will “run out”, is discussed by David Henderson in his post “The Jevons Fallacy,” regarding the “peak” views often credited to economist William Jevons. Henderson quotes his own bio of Jevons:
“Jevons failed to appreciate the fact that as the price of an energy source rises, entrepreneurs have a strong incentive to invent, develop, and produce alternate sources. In particular, he did not anticipate oil or natural gas. Also, he did not take account of the incentive, as the price of coal rose, to use it more efficiently or to develop technology that brought down the cost of discovering and mining (see natural resources).”
Don Boudreaux has a few thoughts on Henderson’s post and the topic of scarcity, emphasizing the contribution of human ingenuity to the supply of resources:
“Atoms are created and made into matter by the impersonal forces of nature (or, if you are a theist, by God). In contrast, matter is made into resources only by human creativity, especially when this creativity is unleashed and directed by markets. So more humans – and more markets – quite realistically (and, so far, historically) mean an increasing, not a decreasing, supply of resources.”
A 2005 post at the humansunderrated blog made the same point: “Only one resource truly matters and that is the human mind.” And the human mind, guided by market signals, is what ultimately solves the problem of scarcity. It does not get solved when human initiative is shackled by regulation, insecure property rights, or protected monopoly interests, which are all varieties of government failure.
In “Peak Nonsense,” Michael Lynch concurs:
“And so here we go again on the trial of exhaustion theory, one step removed from the scientism of central planning where decline rates are projected and a social cost of depletion is calculated for an extraction tax. But it is all bad science. ”
There is no end to scarcity. It will always be with us, but we have not reached peak oil, peak fossil fuels, peak food, or peak anything. The dreary viewpoint credited to Jevons and Thomas Malthus is misguided as long as people remain free to engage in voluntary production and trade. The “peak” perspective serves the interest of statists who’d prefer to impose arbitrary limits on our productive potential.