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Can the World Get Along Without Natural Resources?

Can the World Get Along Without Natural Resources?

If it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural resources, then there is in principle no “problem”. The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources.– Robert Solow, 1974

In the distant future, aliens come to Earth. They find a planet devoid of life. Looking closer, the aliens see that life on Earth was once abundant, but was wiped out by a mass extinction. Curiously, this event was driven not by geological disaster, but by one of the extinct species itself. In an orgy of consumption, an odd little animal put the planet under enough stress to drive itself —and the rest life — extinct.

Then comes a startling discovering. Preserved in the sediment lies a document written by a member of the doomed species. What secrets does it contain? The aliens work for years to translate it, hoping that it offers a clue about what drove the species to overconsume. And indeed it does. The document heralds a remarkable delusion: “The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources.

What a naive animal, the aliens conclude. While sucking the planet dry, the animal proclaimed its independence from natural resources. No wonder it went extinct.✹ ✹ ✹

Let’s hope this future is apocryphal. If, in the distant future, aliens do visit the Earth, I hope they find a planet teeming with life. Maybe they’ll even find an industrious, upright-walking animal that has learned to live sustainably.

If this bright future does come to pass, it will be because we’ve manage to shed our delusions. Contrary to the proclamations of neoclassical economists (like Robert Solow), the world cannot get along without natural resources. That this fact needs stating is a testament to the shallowness of economic theory.

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