Bioengineers Turn Trees into Tires
Billions of gallons of oil are used worldwide every year to manufacture tires. Bioengineers are developing a plant-based substitute that could replace some of that oil within five years.
Hmmm, aren’t rubber trees, well, trees? I think it humorous that we started out making tires from trees but then so successfully and overwhelmingly switched to synthetic rubber that we now find the idea of making rubber from plant materials exciting and revolutionary.
This article demonstrates several different important facets of the policy debates about the environment and natural resources. For one thing, it reminds us that Reagan was right and the leftists wrong when he said that pollution comes mainly from trees. (Back in the ’80s, the EPA passed sweeping restrictions on isoprene and other compounds because of their role in generating smog. Reagan pointed out the inconvenient truth that 80% of the isoprene in the air over cities came from emissions from trees.)
The major thing it reminds us of, however, is that a major flaw exists in our debates over how we obtain and use natural resources.
The major flaw? It’s simple. There is no such thing as “natural” resources. When we debate over how to manage our “natural” resources, we’re engaging in a debate as delusional as heated arguments over the management of our unicorn ranches.
Even worse, its like using our delusion about unicorns as a pretext to kill people.
Take a deep breath. Let it out. Now take another. Congratulations, you’ve just used the only resource that we can accurately describe as “natural”. The ambient oxygen in the atmosphere is the only resource we get without taking some kind of focused intentional action. It’s the only resource we can get without using technology to create the resource. Every other resource, starting with water, we create by using technology to manipulate the environment. All material resources are created as needed by human action. There is nothing “natural” about them.
Here’s the important truth: Since human action creates all resources, we never run out of resources as long as we remain free to create. If we really need something, we just make it.
The history of rubber provides a good example of our ability to create a resource when needed.
To begin with, the “natural” rubber that comes out of plants in the form of latex is useless. It’s a gummy sticky mess that smears and oozes onto everything and then turns brittle and crumbling when dry. To make it even basically useful humans must take action to heat the latex to increase the degree of polymerization in isoprene that makes up the bulk of the sap. Heated, treated rubber was all that raw rubber was used to make for thousands of years — until the discovery of vulcanization, a process in which humans added sulfur to the rubber while heating to make it solid but still elastic. In the last century, humans developed a wide range of processing techniques to turn the raw rubber into many different types of materials, each with different properties. The rubber we actually use is massively altered from that which comes out of the trees.
Okay, you may be thinking, I can see how we invent technology to turn the raw sap into many different materials, but we still need to take the sap from nature in the first place, don’t we?
Well, no. First, we don’t depend on the naturally occurring rubber plants in their natural environment to produce the sap. For centuries humans have been altering the natural environment to create a better environment just for rubber plants. We have informally and formally breed the plants so they will devote more resources to producing latex for us and less to ensuring their own reproduction.
(Also, an important but usually overlooked facet of resources is the human action needed to move a resource from its point of creation to where we use it. Without the ability to transport the sap or rubber from the tropics where the plants grow to anywhere on earth, the utility of rubber is severely restricted.)
Second, we don’t need the latex sap from plants at all. On December 7, 1941, one half of the world’s supply of rubber came from Dutch Indonesia. When the Japanese overran Indonesia in a matter of weeks, they reduced the Allies’ supplies of plant-sourced rubber by that same 50%. Given the importance of rubber for tires, waterproofing, electrical insulation, gaskets, etc., the loss of the rubber could have proven devastating to the allied war effort. 1940s-era technology just wouldn’t work without a material with the properties of rubber. Yet within 18 months the Allies had higher stocks of rubber than when the war started.
How? Well, they just made it. They made it from oil, turpentine and anything else they had lying around. The truth of the matter is that for nearly a century, organic chemists have been able to turn almost any carbon-containing compound into any other carbon-containing compound. The only reason that natural rubber was used at all was because it required the least number of tradeoffs in other resources. With the pressure of the war, the tradeoffs shifted and the Allies shifted to synthetics. After the war, synthetics just got cheaper and cheaper until today the majority of all rubber materials is created from oil and coal using the chemists’ alchemy.
We don’t even have to pump any additional oil to make rubber. Most rubber and other materials made from oil are made from the heavy fractions left over from processing fuel. Without oil-based synthetic materials, refining oil for fuel would produce large amounts of hazardous waste. With the production of oil-based synthetics, not a drop of oil is wasted.
Further, as demonstrated by the Popular Mechanics story above, we don’t even have to use oil or coal. They are just currently just the most convenient and cheap sources of complex carbon compounds.
Rubber is in no way unusual in being replaceable. All supposedly “natural” resource are really artificial resources that we can generate in functionally unlimited quantities. Anything that qualifies as a resource: water, land, iron, aluminum, oil, any organic substance, etc., is created by human action and therefore is not limited by anything in nature.
Long term we never have and never will face a situation where we have to permanently ration a fixed and ever dwindling resource. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or (more likely) massively ignorant of the history of technology.
This truth does raise a question: If humans create “natural” resources, then why do we even have the concept? Why does it seem obvious to most that resources are finite attributes of nature?
Partly this no doubt results from the fact that on time scales of months or years, sudden interruptions in an established system of producing a resource causes severe problems. It is usually not possible to create a replacement resource quickly in response to an such an unpredictable event. This causes people to believe that the resource is fixed and limited because it just seems to disappear. A good example of this illusion is the “energy crisis” of 1973-84 in which it was widely accepted that the crisis resulted from a physical depletion of the world’s stock of ‘oil’. In reality, political interference in the creation of oil caused the crisis and the crisis disappeared when the political interference did.
Long term, it is normal (but invisible to most) that we are constantly shifting how we create every resource. What is useless dirt or ooze in one generation evolves into a vital resource in the next, and then is considered worthless in the next. People used to fight over dead-fall wood for use in household hearths. Today, dead branches are a nuisance that you have to pay people to haul off for you.
Everything we now call a resource was once useless. 200 years ago, aluminum was unknown and bauxite was just a red clay. For nearly, a century after its discovery, aluminum was so rare and expensive it was considered a precious metal. Gradually we learned how to efficiently produce aluminum until today it’s so cheap we use it for disposable drinking containers. Moreover, in the past only one specific aluminum compound was considered a useful ore. Now there are dozens. We even learn how to do without aluminum altogether, such as by substituting carbon-fiber composites in aircraft and other traditional uses of aluminum. This process happens with every resource, without exception. This is simply how technology works, but most people don’t understand this.
However, more than technological ignorance is at play. There have been and are powerful social and political groups with vested interests in propagating the idea that resources are finite and ever diminishing.
Our current concept of “natural” resources appears to have originated in the late 1800s as a pretext for military expansionism. As the fading aristocratic classes of Europe looked about for a reason to maintain their social and political dominance, they hit upon colonialism as an industrial-age form of empire. Colonialism was justified on the premise that developed countries had no choice but to violently seize a slice of the finite and shrinking pie of “natural” resources. Had people understood that industrial nations could have instead created alternative resources, the aristocrats wold not have been able to justify continuing their privileged positions in European society by claiming that only they could secure those vital resources by force of arms.
This mythology of “natural” resources would find its most horrific manifestation in Stalin’s slave camps, Hitler’s lebensraum and the brutal expansionism of the Imperial Japanese. As it turned out, the colonies disappeared and the world became even richer with even more resources.
Since the 1960s, leftists have dusted off the old imperialistic concept of “natural” resources to justify an expansive state empowered to micromanage the day-to-day lives of everyone on the pretext of rationing finite and ever-dwindling “natural” resources. It’s not the overt warfare of conquest but it is based on the coercive power of the state. Just like the aristocrats, they have an intense social and political motive to convince everyone that we need leftists in power — to ensure that we have we don’t squander what little nature has left by stupidly and callously making our own decisions. However, if most people understand that we can create natural resources with the snap of our fingers, we don’t need a leftist-governed rationing state that is ever-mired in artificial emergencies.
As our technology improves, we have more and more resources, not fewer and fewer. Every single year, we have more ways of making stuff than we did the year before. Every single year we have more available options in the materials we can use to solve any particular problem. This is why even though each generation over the last 200 years has gone through some kind of resource panic, we always end up with more resources and more ability to do things than we did before the pants-wetting hysteria began.
Today is no different. Everyone who is panicking over resource depletion today is just as much an idiot or a cynical manipulator as were those who panicked over resource depletion a century ago.
It’s time we jettisoned this archaic and murderous concept of natural resource. It’s already done way too much damage.
Let’s educate people about how the world really works.