The Myth of “Natural” Resources

Okay, I know what they are trying to say but this Popular Mechanics headline [h/t Instapundit] made me laugh:

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.

9 thoughts on “The Myth of “Natural” Resources”

  1. Excellent. I remember as a kid how synthetic rubber was considered inferior to the real stuff and we waited for the war to be over so we could get back to natural rubber. BY the end of the war, that concept had been forgotten as well as I can recall. I can remember mixing the color powder into oleomargarine because the butter producers got laws passed that margarine couldn’t be yellow at the time of sale lest the unwary housewife buy it thinking it was the rare “real” butter.

    The war with the rent seekers goes on forever.

  2. David Foster,

    Yep, that a textbook resource depletion panic, the same we’ve been hit with every decade since Malthus.

    In reality, phosphorus is most abundant elements in earth. That is why it is so vital to life. If it was actually rare and limited plants and animals couldn’t use it as a critical component. (The human body is 1.2% phosphorus by mass.) Something that common and that critical won’t ever run out. ,

    Really all an ore is, is a rock that we can efficiently extract a resource from. The ease of that extraction depends on the technology which is ever changing. That is why any predictions of future availability based on extrapolations of current technology are always, without exception wrong.

    All the phosphorus we use as fertilizer ends ups in back in the environment. All we have to do is recycle it. I suspect that is the point of that particular article. Someone has a technology to harvest phosphorous from waste water and they want to create a sense of crisis to push the adoption of the technology.

    Also, we have to consider the very long term possibility that a few decades down the road, phosphorous won’t be used for fertilizer because we won’t be growing much food in the ground. Instead, well manufacture it in factories using genetically engineered microbes or artificial membrane technology. At that point, pants wetting hysteria over the depletion of phosphorus rich rock will look as as trivial 16th century debates over wood gathering rights look to us today.

  3. Oh, my word, yes, let’s educate people. I ran across a discussion on another blog about those dreadful electric hand dryers which were being installed to “save the trees.” The trees used to make paper products are grown for no other purpose, and are not even dignified with the term “logs” when they are cut; they are referred to as “pulpwood.” These trees are grown as a crop that is harvested every 10 to 20 years, and installing electric hand dryers doesn’t accomplish a thing, except give people the delusion that they are “doing something for the environment.”

    Seems like most things that people do for their nebulous pet causes, like “the environment” and “social justice” accomplish nothing but assuagement of their unearned guilt.

  4. The one resource that may be a problem in the future is water. Fresh water and located in arable land does have some issues about rights and source. I wonder how much of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is really water rights ?

  5. Michael Kennedy,

    The one resource that may be a problem in the future is water.

    Again, fresh water and arable land just don’t exist. We create both. In the specific case of water, even if the water is sufficiently fresh in the environment, it’s usually not were we need it so we use technology to move it. Supposedly arable land is often functionally useless without irrigation or a transportation grid to get people to the land and produce out.

    Moreover, by modern standards, most fresh water is not actually potable. 98% of the naturally occurring fresh water in the America is legally unsafe to drink (it was even worse in the past) yet we have abundant water in our homes. That is because we actually create drinkable water by removing the dangerous elements from the water. We can do that with anything that makes water undrinkable, even sea water or water poisoned by any toxic substance. Osmotic filters remove anything bigger than a water molecule and old school distillation removes absolutely everything. Nuclear powered ships and subs spend months at sea but they never run out of fresh water.

    When people talk about running out of water what they’re actually talking about is the maxing out of the existing technological systems that deliver drinkable water to specific places. Water panics are very old in American history in particular but they always end when someone coughs up for an improved water system. For a good example, there are numerous works about the history of the water system of New York city. You would think that the city has spent its entire history on the brink of inevitable doom when you read the history or water policy debates there.

    90% of earths population lives within 200 miles of the oceans. We’ve got functionally infinite water. We just need to rouse ourselves to use it.

    I wonder how much of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is really water rights?

    Some of it. At one point someone suggested that US offer to build several nuclear powered sea water distillation plants to make Israel less worried about giving access to fresh water inland. Like I said, there’s never a real reason to fight over resources. You can always make more if you want to.

    Unfortunately, it’s often cheaper just to take them from someone else.

  6. Shannon and Matt,
    Fresh water is not ‘running out’, nor does it fail to exist in the natural world. If you go far enough upstream, whether that means to the top of a mountain stream or to some glacier-fed rivers, you will see plentiful, clean water. Humans need to screw with the water to make it ‘legally safe to drink’ because, well, there are a lot of other humans out there, and most of them live downstream from someone else’s toilet. This is as true in New Orleans (last stop on the Mississippi) as it is in Beijing (last on the Yellow) – it just gets cleaned better in New Orleans.
    We will also never, ever ‘run out’ of fresh water. Even those concerned about global climate change will tell you that the increased temperatures will cause more evaporation and more rain. However, thats not to say it won’t go missing for periods of time unacceptable to humans – just ask Venezuela how their summer went(southern hemisphere – they’re just coming out of it now). The world is a big place and the rain clouds don’t really care where people live – or try to farm. There are a lot of factors that make a piece of land ‘arable’, but water is probably the most important. There are plenty of places that people have successfully taken a ‘natural’ resource like water and engineered it to go places – India and Southern California immediately come to mind. However, our ability to do this is limited because water is heavy and takes tremendous amounts of power – both man and hydrocarbon – to store and move. Some of the most expensive infrastructure projects in the history of this country involve damming the Colorado River and sending it to places like Imperial County, California. And even with all that work & money spent, if it doesn’t rain for an extended period of time, they still have to ration that water and render some of the most productive farmland in the country ‘un-arable’ (if thats even a word) – because it must be shared with cities like San Diego and Los Angeles.
    While it is true that in theory we could ship water or (substitute broader argument about the ‘production’ of natural resources) wherever we wanted, this would come at great cost and sometimes would be outside the range of whats possible on a human timescale. In the long run, sure, these things might prove to be as valuable as dead trees, but I’m sure you know what they say about the long run……

  7. Glenn_Beck_is_funny Says,

    California doesn’t have a water problem, it has a socialism problem. There is more than enough fresh water flowing into to California today. It’s just that something like 30% of it is used to grow rice in the desert. If water in California was sold in a market they wouldn’t have shortages.

  8. The rice story is just amazing. I used to go pheasant hunting in northern California. I could never understand rice cultivation in the central valley. Of course, there are serious suggestions to start farms in Detroit since the deurbanization has left large tracts of land vacant. Strange things are happening.

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