The fairy tale of the “finite planet”
Warnings about the limits to growth are not new; they have been around for centuries. Here are just a few examples from the last 80 years: In 1939, the U.S. Department of the Interior declared that US oil reserves would last only 13 more years. In 1949, the US Secretary of the Interior announced America’s oil supplies would soon run out. Having learned nothing from its earlier false claims, in 1974, the US Geological Survey said that the U.S. had only 10 years of natural gas left.
In 1970, the scientist Harrison Brown published a graph in Scientific American in which he estimated that humanity would run out of copper shortly after the year 2000. Lead, zinc, tin, gold and silver were expected to disappear before 1990. Also in 1970, the ecologist Kenneth Watt predicted that the world would soon run out of oil: “You’ll drive up to the pump and say, ‘Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, ‘I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’”
How the Club of Rome got it wrong
Published that same year, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study attracted a great deal of attention. To date, more than 30 million copies of the study have been sold in 30 languages. The book warned people to change their ways and offered a stark message: the planet’s raw materials would soon be depleted, especially oil. In 20 years, the scientists predicted, the last drop of oil would be used up. And it wasn’t only in relation to oil but for almost all relevant raw materials that the Club of Rome’s report completely misjudged the date by which they would be exhausted. Natural gas, copper, lead, aluminum, tungsten: According to the predictions issued at the time, none of these natural resources would still be found in the earth today – based on forecasts for continued economic growth between the 1970s and the present day. Everything should have been used up by now; in some cases, decades ago. Silver was supposed to be depleted in 1985. In fact, in January 2020, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimated silver reserves worldwide at 560,000 tonnes.
Before anyone starts shaking their head at all these false predictions, it is worth pointing out that from the beginning of industrialisation until about the 1970s, there was indeed a close correlation between economic growth on the one hand and energy and raw material consumption on the other.
But based on numerous data series, the American scientist Andrew McAfee proves in his book More from Less, published in 2020, that economic growth has decoupled itself from the consumption of raw materials. Data for the US show that of 72 commodities, only six have not yet reached their consumption maximum. Although the US economy has grown strongly in recent years, consumption of many commodities is declining.
Back in 2015, the American environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel confirmed in his paper The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment that Americans are consuming fewer and fewer raw materials per capita. Total consumption of steel, copper, fertiliser, wood and paper, which had previously always risen in tandem with economic growth, had peaked and have been declining ever since.
Such developments are all due to the laws of much-maligned capitalism: companies are constantly looking for new ways to produce more efficiently, i.e. to get by with fewer raw materials. They do this, of course, not primarily to protect the environment, but to cut costs.
Miniaturisation and dematerialisation
What is more, innovations have promoted a trend we call miniaturisation or dematerialisation. One example of this trend is the smartphone. Just consider how many devices are contained in your smartphone and how many raw materials they used to consume. There is a calculator, telephone, video camera, alarm clock, voice recorder, navigation system, camera, CD player, compass, answering machine and many more besides.
Many people today no longer have a fax or use paper road maps because they have everything at their fingertips in their smartphone, and some even do without a wristwatch. In the past you had four separate microphones in your telephone, audio cassette recorder, Dictaphone and video camera. Today, your smartphone needs only one microphone for all these devices.
I used to be proud of my large record collection, which spanned several shelves. As technology advanced, I bought CDs that all fit on a single shelf – and consumed far fewer raw materials. Today, my girlfriend teases me because I still buy CDs – all of her music is in digital files, which don’t take up any space at all. I admit I’m a bit old-fashioned and own several thousand books. I don’t have enough shelf-space for them all, so most of my books are in storage. My father, despite being 92 years old, is more modern than I am and reads lots of books as e-books on his Kindle.
These are just a few of many examples of a trend toward dematerialisation. So, the reality is more complex than it might seem at first glance when people say, “Our planet has limited resources, so we can’t grow indefinitely.” One resource in particular is unlimited: Human ingenuity. And this – as the last 200 years have repeatedly shown – can best develop under capitalism.
Dr Rainer Zitelmann is the author of The Power of Capitalism.