Are natural resources finite?

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Are natural resources finite? Some claim otherwise.

Natural resources are finite[edit | edit source]

Arguments for[edit | edit source]

  • Argument for Finite natural resources include lots of land, gold, silver and other metals, as well as water, piece of land as a target of sunshine, fossil fuels as a store of Sun energy past, etc. It is pretty obvious given our knowledge of the Earth, physics and chemistry.
    • Objection Chemical elements can be changed by human technology.
      • Objection They can, but not arbitrarily and with great use of energy. Thus, the above is a good approximation.
        • Objection Future technology can change that: a device can be invented that will not require so much energy.
      • Objection The amount of matter in the Earth is finite, including elementary particles. Thus, even if one reorders elementary particles (proton and neutron) via nuclear reactions, that does not change the amount of matter.
        • Objection More matter can be imported from Mars.
          • Objection That is more of a speculation than a practical expedient. But even assuming it can be done, the amount of matter in Mars is finite, and even if one wildly speculates about matter from Saturn, the amount of matter in the Solar System is finite.
            • Objection We may develop travel and transport via hyperspace in future.
              • Objection At this level of speculation and fantasy, anything is possible. One may also speculate that we are in a simulation and the operator arbitrarily changes the amount of matter in the Earth. That is logically possible in principle. That is not part of serious debate about whether the resources are finite and whether humanity is running the risk of running out of them.
  • Argument for The free energy of the matter in the universe is finite. The amount of sunshine the Earth receives is finite. The amount of energy accumulated in fossil fuels is finite. The nuclear energy contained in Earth's atoms is finite.
    • Objection The amount of nuclear energy is infinite for practical purposes.
      • Objection It is finite and the "for practical purposes" addition does not change that.
      • Objection Since we have no practical way to extract most of that energy, it is not all that practical either.
        • Objection New technology such as thermonuclear energy production can change that.
          • Objection From practical standpoint, that is a wishful thinking so far and does not approach being practical any time soon.
            • Objection But once it gets done, the amount of energy will be practically infinite, although one would need to do the calculation. The amount of energy stored in atoms is enormous.

Arguments against[edit | edit source]

  • Argument against Natural resources are not finite in any meaningful sense. The greatest resource of them all is human ingenuity.
    • Objection See the arguments for about the physical limits of what can be done with human ingenuity.
  • Argument against All predictions of doom-sayers about humanity running out of natural resources have proven to be wrong, whether of Malthus or the 20th century neo-Malthusians such as Paul Ehrlich.
    • Objection Specific predictions are hard to make. The outcomes depend on patterns of discovery of new pockets of mineable resources, and these are subject to chance. That does not change the finiteness of the Earth's reserves of these resources. The known reserves keep changing and expanding; the actual reserves don't.
  • Argument against "The world is a closed system in the way that a piano is a closed system. The instrument has only 88 notes, but those notes can be played in a nearly infinite variety of ways. The same applies to our planet. The Earth's atoms may be fixed, but the possible combinations of those atoms are infinite. What matters, then, is not the physical limits of our planet, but human freedom to experiment and reimagine the use of resources that we have."
    • Objection The analogy is incorrect: For one thing, Earth's atoms are not even fixed and are subject to change via nuclear reactions. More importantly, a human body is made from a certain mass of matter separated into atoms. The amount of matter in the Earth is finite, and reorganization of atoms using energy does not change that. Similarly, an artifact such as a car or a house also needs a minimum amount of matter to serve its purpose. Moreover, technology cannot reorganize atoms in any arbitrary combination as it sees fit, on a whim; by contrast, a musician can play any combination of notes they like, or if not a musician, then a computer.
    • Objection Reorganizing atoms or their parts requires energy, and that is finite. Similarly, a musician expends energy on playing notes.
  • Argument against 'Incredible as it may seem at first, the term "finite" is not only inappropriate but is downright misleading when applied to natural resources, both from the practical and philosophical points of view. As with many important arguments, the finiteness issue is "just semantic." Yes the semantics of resources scarcity muddle public discussion and bring about wrongheaded policy decisions. [...] The quantity of the services we obtain from copper that will ever be available to use should not be considered finite because there is no method (even in principle) of making an appropriate count of it, given the problem of the economic definition of "copper," the possibility of using copper more efficiently, the possibility of creating copper or its economic equivalent from other materials, the possibility of recycling copper, or even obtaining copper from sources beyond planet Earth, and thus the lack of boundaries to the sources from which "copper" might be drawn.'
    • Objection The above switches the subject from "finiteness of copper" or "quantity of copper", a natural resource, to "quantity of the services we obtain from copper". The latter is nearly certainly finite as well, but what is definitely finite is the quantity of the element of copper in the Earth barring change of chemical elements, which is available in very limited way and takes a lot of energy.
    • Objection The phrase 'the economic definition of "copper"', if it means anything at all, is curious. It is not clear how one is supposed to reason about this sort of matter.
    • Objection "obtaining copper from sources beyond planet Earth" is more of a fantasy and even if it can be turned into a practical expedient, there is a finite amount of copper in the Solar System, and in any case, there is a finite number of protons, neutrons and electrons in the Solar System, and these are needed to make human bodies and technical artifacts.
    • Objection 'the lack of boundaries to the sources from which "copper" might be drawn.': The Solar System is the boundary even admitting unrealistic mining of ores from distant parts of it.
    • Objection "the possibility of using copper more efficiently" for any particular application has its limits. The matter and its applications are not infinitely divisible like the mathematical real line.

Further reading[edit | edit source]