Ecologists worry that the world's resources come in fixed amounts that will run out, but we have broken through such limits again and again
April 25, 2014 7:47 p.m. ET
How many times have you heard that we humans are "using up" the world's resources, "running out" of oil, "reaching the limits" of the atmosphere's capacity to cope with pollution or "approaching the carrying capacity" of the land's ability to support a greater population? The assumption behind all such statements is that there is a fixed amount of stuff—metals, oil, clean air, land—and that we risk exhausting it through our consumption.
"We are using 50% more resources than the Earth can sustainably produce, and unless we change course, that number will grow fast—by 2030, even two planets will not be enough," says Jim Leape, director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature International (formerly the World Wildlife Fund).
But here's a peculiar feature of human history: We burst through such limits again and again. After all, as
a Saudi oil minister once said, the Stone Age didn't end for lack of stone. Ecologists call this "niche construction"—that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction: We stopped relying on nature's bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty.
Economists call the same phenomenon innovation. What frustrates them about ecologists is the latter's tendency to think in terms of static limits. Ecologists can't seem to see that when whale oil starts to run out, petroleum is discovered, or that when farm yields flatten, fertilizer comes along, or that when glass fiber is invented, demand for copper falls.
That frustration is heartily reciprocated. Ecologists think that economists espouse a sort of superstitious magic called "markets" or "prices" to avoid confronting the reality of limits to growth. The easiest way to raise a cheer in a conference of ecologists is to make a rude joke about economists.