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A few weeks ago I argued that raising living standards and eliminating poverty are human imperatives, and therefore growth is an imperative. Growth is a natural process for a free and creative people, and the alternative to growth is not zero growth. The coercion necessary to “achieve” a static economic environment would invariably lead to decline. It would be impossible to maintain average living standards while attempting a coerced leveling of those standards.

People have a notion, however, that it’s impossible to sustain growth due to the planet’s finite base of resources. If that is the case, we have available a mechanism to warn us as the time of hard limits approaches, which I’ll discuss below. So far, that signal hasn’t been activated. Moreover, the claim that growth is unsustainable can be challenged on several levels, which I’ll also address.

Effective Resources

First, a word about what I mean by the “accretion of resources”. The phrase refers to growth in the total effectiveness or productive potential of known resources given the rate of discovery and improvements in extraction and production technologies. Of course, if these discoveries and efficiencies are exceeded by current use, then there is no accretion, but depletion.

So let’s say we have a particular known stock of a resource we can readily draw on, so many pounds of resource X. In addition, we might know of the existence of another equally large quantity that can’t be readily drawn upon. Those are additional known (or proved) but undeveloped reserves. They might be difficult to exploit except at high cost, but we know they exist. We’d want to get on with the business of developing those reserves for extraction if they were needed any time soon, and we might want to begin prospecting for new reserves as well. As we’ve learned over the years. discoveries of previously unknown reserves of resources can be quite large. Prospectors are willing to bet that more resources exist, and they’ll undertake the risks of exploration if the potential rewards are adequate.

All of those concepts are straightforward. However, suppose we discover ways in which resource X can be used more efficiently, making things stronger or run longer or harder with less X. If we double the efficiency with which X is used, we have doubled the effective known reserves of X and, at least theoretically, unknown reserves as well. We’d have witnessed a doubling in the years that resource X can last. This is a form of resource accretion. Improvements in extraction or purification methods are also examples. Technological leaps like this, not to mention untold small increments in the efficiency of practices, have made economic growth possible in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Our effective resources seem to keep expanding. Accretion has occurred even with respect to resources like land as the world urbanized and the efficiency of farming advanced many-fold.

Growth In Real Time

Perceptions of growth are sometimes shaped by graphic depictions that some parties find alarming, so it might be helpful to take a quick look at some growth curves. First is an oldie-but-goodie chart showing GDP per capita taken from “Statistics on World Population, GDP, and Per Capital GDP, 1- 2008 AD” by Angus Maddison of the IMF:

This shows the explosion in the value of production that occurred during and after the industrial revolution, in contrast to very slow progress before that. The point I want to make here is how dramatic growth can look on a broad but visually compressed time scale. OMG! Look what we’ve done! How can we go on like this??? Often, the crux of the limits to growth argument is that such growth seems impossible assuming that we face fixed resource limits.

In fact, we experience growth in a very “local” way with respect to the passage of time. The two charts below illustrate a difference in perspectives using a hypothetically constant annual growth rate of 2.5%. The first chart shows 200 periods of growth, while the second expands only the last 20 periods of that time frame.

There is a great difference in the way the two vertical axes are scaled, which is important, but the second chart conveys that a respectable growth rate doesn’t really feel extreme when you’re in the middle of it, or, that is, in real time. It can look very extreme at the end of a long interval, depending on how severely the time axis is compressed. That’s not to discount the reality of much larger levels of activity (the vertical axes) and demands for resources as time goes on. However, those levels, and growth from those levels, is not at all alarming if our ability to achieve them has kept pace. So how can we know when we’re approaching a point at which resource limits will make it impossible to achieve those levels of activity? Market prices are the key signals, and they are the key to resource accretion.

Market Signals Light the Way

The market price is the best gauge of the scarcity of a resource. When resources become especially scarce, higher prices tell us so. That leads to conservation, which obviously extends the availability of those resources. Prices also function as an incentive for sellers to exploit new or harder-to-reach stores of a resource. That kind of resource accretion is one of the lessens the oil market has taught us again and again: oil exploration and known reserves tend to expand as the price rises, such that the prospect of oil depletion moves out to ever more distant horizons. There are certain minerals, elements, or isotopes (tritium?) that seem to be quite rare on Earth, but our ability to find them or extract them often improves with time. Space mining, which would vastly reduce the scarcity of resources like platinum, iron, nickel, cobalt, and many others, may become a reality in the near future. Interestingly, much of that activity could be in private hands. Space mining would lead to resource accretion on a whole new scale, and if we aspire to be a “grabby” civilization, it is a logical next step. So let’s go grab an asteroid!

When a price spikes due to greater scarcity, opportunities for substitution, exploration, and new efficiencies arise because the higher price justifies the cost of exploiting them. In addition to more difficult or costly extraction, a higher price encourages the use of close and even novel substitutes that may involve new technologies. In turn, that substitution reduces the relative scarcity of the original resource in question. And finally, back to conservation, users respond to price increases by finding their own innovative efficiencies in how a resource is utilized. The price response to scarcity is a channel through which much technological progress is encouraged.

While our earth-bound resources or even our star-system’s resources are finite, their effective quantity is highly flexible. Their potential at any time depends on our stage of discovery and the state of technology. Human ingenuity is a marvel at stretching the effective quantity of resources, and the greatest gains always occur when market forces are unleashed.

Thus, we see that prices, markets, and capitalism itself enable rational and sustainable responses to scarcity. Yet too often we hear claims that capitalism must be destroyed in order to save humanity. In fact, capitalism itself is the one system of social organization capable of achieving resource accretion, sustained growth, and lifting mankind from poverty. In fact, growth might well be an insurmountable problem without the dynamic energies of capitalism. Government planners are incapable of gathering and processing the vast information that markets process each and every day. Planners must substitute their own weak judgements, which prove flawed again and again.

Scarcity of the Commons

The environmental Left is quick to marshal a different kind of limits-to-growth argument. This one has to do with the scarcity of non-priced common resources and their overuse in production. For example, if a certain activity degrades the environment and those costs are not internalized by producers, they will tend to produce “too much”, leading to some degree of deterioration in human living conditions or the natural quality of the environment. In that case, we might not notice the limits to growth bearing down on us before corrective action is taken. Or so goes the theory that accumulating externalities lead to catastrophe. This is another front along which the limits to growth are asserted, particularly by climate alarmists and the environmental Left. Most prominently today, they contend that increases in atmospheric carbon concentration will lead to an unlivable warming of Earth’s climate.

Sense and Nonsense

The most glaring shortcoming of climate change advocacy is that the trends it decries are exaggerated. I’ve discussed the absurdly brief climate record cited by alarmists in several past posts (many of which appear here). We can start with the contention that carbon emissions are “poison”. In fact, carbon is life nourishing, as we’ve witnessed with the “greening” of the planet at current carbon concentrations of 4 parts per 10,000 of atmospheric gas. Furthermore, a longer historical temperature record using paleoclimate data shows that we are well within the range of past variation, even with the huge distortions to the record caused by urban heat islands and questionable downward adjustments to records of five to 15 decades ago.

The alarmist perspective is also inflamed by simplistic models of carbon forcing that ignore the impact of solar radiation, volcanic activity, and the behavior of aerosols in the atmosphere. Those models have consistently over-predicted temperature trends for decades. Equally troubling is that these models promote the fiction that mankind can control global temperatures by a little fiddling with a “carbon dial”, as if such fiddling could be accomplished without a massive centralization of political and economic power. The panicked narratives related to sea level increases and alleged increases in violent weather are equally flawed.

Growth Can Cure It

Another compelling response to climate arguments against growth is that technological advances have already enabled us to produce power without carbon emissions. Unfortunately, as a matter of public policy (regulation and bad choices by government industrial planners), we have increasingly failed to avail ourselves of these opportunities, instead choosing extremely wasteful methods of generating power. These are the windmill and solar “renewables”, which are resource-intensive, intermittent, low utilization, non-dispatchable, lacking storage for excess generation, intensive in land use (reversing prior accretions), and environmentally disastrous in fabrication, operation, and at disposal. Nuclear power is a far superior technology, especially with the advent of small, modular reactors and potential breakthroughs in fusion energy. These might help to rescue us from the spectacle of bone-headed industrial planning and greedy, renewable-energy rent seekers, but regulators have done seemingly all they can to prevent nuclear facilities from being built.

Just as human ingenuity is capable of expanding the exploitable stock of tradable, priced resources, it is also capable of inventing non-carbon power technologies that are more efficient and less environmentally destructive than ground-based solar and wind. Collection of non-intermittent solar energy in space arrays with wireless transmission to Earth is another promising alternative, as is geothermal energy. And carbon capture technologies show promise for neutralizing emissions or perhaps even reversing carbon concentrations one day, if that is deemed necessary. Much of this development work is in private hands, but barring drastic reductions in scale, the bulk of these efforts are (or will be) dependent on government funding.

It’s worth acknowledging here that resource accretion has a safety component in an expected value sense. Sometimes those risks can be internalized if risk reduction is of value to buyers. But the costs of “reasonable” risk mitigation cannot always be internalized without government action. For example, deflecting asteroid threats to the planet might be done best by private actors, but paying for that activity is a worthy application of public finance. The ability to deflect incoming asteroids is a noteworthy example of resource accretion via risk reduction.

Somehow, governments must be convinced to begin dedicating a larger share of the vast sums they spend on misguided climate interventions (including renewable technologies) to more sensible innovations. We might then benefit from accelerated breakthroughs that would settle not only our energy future, but a great deal of political strife as well. Like the market response to changes in scarcity, creative entrepreneurs will always step forward to compete for government funding. But if you pay them for crap, you’ll get a lot of crap!

Growth Once More

One day we might learn we are reaching the top of an s-curve. We aren’t there yet, if our ongoing accretion of resources is any guide, and there are new frontiers of space and technology to explore. The primary obstacles we face are not natural, but political and regulatory.

One area neglected above is the accretion of human capital. Certainly education is another way to expand our boundaries. However, population growth (and therefore labor force growth) tends to slow as living standards rise, and many argue that demographics have already become a drag on growth. A shrinking and aging population places a tremendous burden on young workers, making other sources of growth and productivity all the more critical. But new physical capital, resource development (including education), and new technologies can all continue to drive productivity and growth.

Growth depends on resource accretion, and there are many ways in which our effective stock of resources can be expanded. That includes enhancements in quantities, efficiencies, and safety. Private investment should be the primary avenue through which these are accomplished, which in turn requires flows of saving. Those flows are much more difficult to conjure without growth, so we have a chicken and egg cross-dependency. But chickens will lay eggs, just as saving and all kinds of investment will take place given the right incentives. Those would promote expansion in our effective stock of resources, improved adaptation to change, and enhanced well being. In the end, the rationale is simple: ending poverty requires growth.

Addendum: I just noticed that Don Boudreaux posted (and beautifully elaborated upon) this great Julian Simon quote:

The quantity of a natural resource that might be available to us – and even more important the quantity of the services that can eventually be rendered to us by that natural resource – can never be known even in principle, just as the number of points in a one-inch line can never be counted even in principle.”