David Attenborough, a well-known BBC film presenter and climate activist, has a fantastic quote about growth and economists. It’s so captivating that I suspect it lays at the foundation for ridiculing every sensible environmental comment by economists. The quote reads: “Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.”
We only have one planet, we hear public personas like Greta Thunberg or AOC or Britain’s Extinction Rebellion publicly cry before they call for widespread cuts to human and economic activities. We don’t have unlimited resources, said their predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s when the anti-humanism of their argument was more transparently obvious: countries like India, said Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, had vastly exceeded the Malthusian-carrying capacity of their land and mass starvation was the only way out. Adding insult to injury, he and his followers reasoned that any alleviation of such disaster would merely prolong suffering.
Thankfully, today’s environmentalists are a little more refined and less resentful of human lives – but only a little. Today we instead speak of unlimited resources, sustainable circular economies, and renewable energy.
In “’Sustainability’ Misses the Point,” last week, I argued that almost nothing about human affairs is sustainable so emphasizing “sustainable” development, production, agriculture, or other current fads is a little odd. I want to do the same thing for the mental division between renewable and nonrenewable, between finite raw material extraction and renewable grown resources – and I chose copper and cucumbers for lightly illustrating my point.
Let’s skip the crucial economic lesson of what a resource is, as once we grasp that topic almost all environmentalist concerns go away. Instead I want to take the claim about raw materials and, like ‘sustainability,’ turn it on its head.
Of Cucumbers and Copper
Here’s a strange claim: renewable resources run out and finite raw materials of the Earth’s crust do not. This is the opposite of how we usually think about our materials-hungry and “unsustainable” world. Almost all the copper – all six trillion pounds or so – that humans over thousands of years have dug out of the ground is still with us. The renewable crops we grew, soils we depleted, whales we slaughtered, or rivers that ran dry, are not. This makes for thoughtful objections to the distinction between limited and unlimited resources that runs amok in public arguments over the environment.
When a cucumber plant grows, it takes water and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil, carbon dioxide from the air, and adds life-giving sunlight to photosynthesize glucose. The final result is a plant, with a root system, and for our purposes, a juicy vegetable. When animals or human beings eat these sustainably grown crops, we engage in nonrenewable behavior: we destroy the crop. More accurately, since energy or matter never disappear but merely shifts form, the cucumber is efficiently disintegrated and burned for energy by one of nature’s most apt energy-converting machines: digestive stomachs.
By sacrificing one type of growing life – cucumber plants – I maintain another type of life – my body. The few vitamins and minerals involved get dissolved through my digestive system and put to work elsewhere in my body. The scant calorific content and few carbohydrates included are sent to my bodily furnace in order to power my being: my heart beating, my lungs breathing, and my muscles moving.
The energy contained in my little cucumber is consumed in an irreversible process that will never again make a cucumber. No matter what we do, the specific molecules involved will never again assemble into the cucumber we just had: I “destroyed” it by turning its content matter into differently-organized matter plus heat. What makes a cucumber renewable is that there are more cucumbers where this came from: we, or rather Mother Nature, can repeat the recipe again and again for as long as we have the required ingredients.
For a common finite resource like copper, things are entirely different. The copper wires in my phone and computer, the copper alloys in the lamp above me, or the copper tubing crisscrossing the building in which I sit, are never so used up. They are carriers for something else, often electricity or tools or shelter. When we are done using copper for those reasons, we can turn that copper into something else. It does not get destroyed (transformed) in the way of my cucumber.
When civilizations past made grand sculptures out of copper and tin, like the fabled Colossus of Rhodes, the copper used was physically held up in this statue. When its civilization fell, humans took apart the pieces and used the copper elsewhere – perhaps to make tools or cooking wares or Roman coins. All we need to shift our stock of copper from one use to another is a splash of energy – quite a lot of it, as copper melts at 1,085°C (1,984°F).
Materials like copper are this excellent specialized capital good that can serve unique economic functions – until they’re more valuable elsewhere and can be turned into another specialized item to serve that purpose instead (which is also why rascals steal old copper lines for scraps). Cucumbers don’t do that: once consumed, no amount of directed energy brings them back; we can only make new ones from scratch.
Interestingly enough, this makes them less renewable than copper: the distinction between green and impure, between waste and the “circular economy” gets blurry when we realize that copper, while in aggregate terms finite on our planet, can similarly be made new from scratch. We don’t use the natural process that once created the copper but the economic and human process of unearthing it from the Earth’s crust. Functionally, it’s the same thing: since we haven’t found or unearthed all the copper on our planet, we can – like with the cucumber – “make more” by digging it out of mines.
With ample energy too, we can turn any kind of copper in use today into any other use tomorrow. Thankfully, our world and its ingenious humans have found so many ways to unleash energy that we have it in abundance – or at least would have, if environmental concerns had not routinely prevented and opposed the best forms.
Should we wish to (in case the market prices showed us that these combinations of metal molecules have better uses elsewhere) we could dismount them from our cars and machines and computers and shove them into whatever else we want.
For copper, infinite renewal use is possible. For other materials, that recycling process is not “worth it” – that economic phrase for saying that the energy and effort required to change the material into what we want is more costly than merely bringing up more from the ground. Enemies of prosperity, such as my beloved friends on the environmentalist left, don’t like digging minerals out of the earth, but they have no problems digging cucumbers out of the earth as they reasonably understand that there are more to be had where they came from.
All I wish to advance here is that, economically and practically, we’re in the same situation when it comes to nonrenewable or finite materials like copper. It doesn’t matter that there is a conceptual physical limit to the amount of copper that exists on our planet: until we’ve found all of it, which we probably never will, we have no good reason to aggressively ration its extraction.
Copper never runs out and we have a process to renew it. Should we wish to, we can reuse the raw metals we took out of nature’s pristine lands. There is a process through which we can regenerate the metals initially put to use in one area of human affairs and move them into another area.
Cucumbers don’t run out either, but that’s only because we can grow more of them. There is no process we know of to reengineer the molecules of a cucumber that have been separated by our digestive system, back into that initial cucumber. Through our mastery over and understanding of nature we can intentionally grow more cucumbers, anticipating our future desire to eat more of them, but we cannot recycle them. That makes cucumbers more limited and copper less.
It is a mystery to me why unearthing cucumbers doesn’t offend or worry my environmentalist friends, but the unearthing of copper or silver or other raw materials like them does. The only speculative answer I have is a deep-seated religious aversion to touching nature in a way that doesn’t immediately reproduce itself. Yes, there is now less copper in the physical place in Chile’s Atacama desert where the largest open pit copper mine in the world is located, and more copper in our artificial human cities – but so what? What’s wrong with moving the environment around such that it creates a better life for us? In the account of Adrian Bejan, the renowned Duke physics professor, that’s the very definition of life: getting the environment out of your way such that it works for you.
Most of the raw materials that we ever brought out of the Earth’s crust are still with us, capable of being used and then turned into something else when that better fits our needs and wants. Cucumbers and renewable crops don’t have that quality.
If anything, Circular Economy proponents should be horrified by cucumbers, not copper.