Human civilization is very well equipped to overcome resource scarcity in the future, if we can correctly identify, preserve, and expand those policies and institutions that made overcoming resource scarcity possible in the past. Please read this for a summary of the kinds of horrors that can occur when people mistakenly come to believe that the only solution to resource scarcity is to reduce the size of the population. History has shown that even as the population grows, humanity is perfectly capable of making resources more plentiful by using them more efficiently, increasing their supply and developing substitutes.
Population growth can certainly be a problem among nonhuman animals: population explosions among, for example, rabbits, can lead to an exhaustion of natural resources in their environment and eventually a population collapse. But human beings, unlike other animals, create wealth, engage in complex exchange and innovate their way out of scarcity. That was the great insight of economist Julian Simon.
Simon, in his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource, argued that the premise that “overpopulation” is a problem at all is incorrect. More people in the world means more people to solve problems, and less resource scarcity. As he wrote: “For all practical purposes there are no resources until we find them, identify their possible uses, and develop ways to obtain and process them. We perform these tasks with increasing skill as technology develops. Hence, scarcity diminishes.”
Human beings, with their inventive potential, are themselves, in Simon’s phrase, “The Ultimate Resource.” Each child born today eventually grows up to make resources less scarce, on average, by contributing to innovation and the global economy. Simon argued a growing population produces more ideas. More ideas lead to more innovations and more innovations can improve productivity. That higher productivity then translates into more resources to go around and better standards of living.
Of course, that only holds if people maintain the freedom to innovate and exchange. If that freedom is not present, then a return to scarcity is very possible. Just look to Venezuela to see how quickly prosperity can unravel and resources that were once plentiful can become scarce, when economic freedom is denied.
The future will undoubtedly bring new challenges related to resources. But there is no obvious reason why, given the right policies, growth cannot continue indefinitely—particularly as technology advances. Humanity may one day even gain access to resources beyond the Earth’s limits, such as by mining valuable minerals in asteroids.
Chelsea Follett is managing editor of HumanProgress.org.