Future History: Resource Usage

I’m prompted by Amanda’s comment to think about the trends in resource usage and their effect on the next several millenia of our history, at least as I’m projecting for use in the Shine Cycle.

One thing’s for sure: in the long run, some people will have to have their desires for energy and resources unsatisfied. (Not that this is news; a host of limited, “rival” goods is why we have such a discipline as economics, and have since the late Roman Empire at the latest.) While I’m not entirely convinced, I can certainly see access to essentials like (clean) water, food, and energy (for heat if nothing else) becoming somewhat more difficult in the “developed world” than we’re used to, eventually.

On the other hand, I think top-down draconian limits on energy and other resource consumption, as many apparently-mainstream economists and politicians have proposed, are unlikely to last for long. We’ve spent the majority of this planet’s history trying to invent and innovate our way out of a life that is “dirty, brutish, and short” by making our access to energy easier, cheaper, and more efficient; it would take propaganda and mass willful ignorance on a scale I find implausible to get even most of the planet to go along. And if some nations sign up for self-imposed energy limits and others don’t, the abstainers will certainly outcompete the others.

In some quarters, there are already worried murmurs about resource exhaustion and the “carrying capacity” of the planet. Again, this is not new; while I include Stand on Zanzibar on my list of books everyone should read, some schools of economists (Malthus is the most famous name that leaps to mind) have been predicting Doom for generation after generation, so I see no reason to pay them any particular attention now or in my projections. And while it is possible to run out of some resources, most are either renewable (and, if that’s too expensive, in most cases slightly cheaper to produce artificially) or recoverable (from landfills if nowhere else). I’ve even seen several somewhat recent reports that what we call “fossil fuels” form rapidly enough to (arguably) qualify as “renewable”.

And, on the gripping hand, given the correlation between education, income level, and birth-rate, I project that population will if anything fall (ignoring any wars entirely) in the near- to mid-term, while we’re on the cusp of bringing in more resources than sunlight from beyond this biosphere. That can only be a temporary solution in the long run, because mining colonies will become colonies and they will need some resources more than we do, but for a few decades if not centuries importing resources from other worlds in this solar system (or even beyond) can help stave off any resource-exhaustion collapse.

What have I forgotten? What do you think? (And are there any other trends you’d like me to talk about?)


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