There is no such thing as limited resources, there is only unlimited resourcefulness.
People often claim that infinite economic growth is impossible in a closed system. Besides the fact that planet Earth is not a closed system, a thousand tons of cosmic material falls onto Earth each year, it is not the confines of this system that constraints our growth, yet. Growth is by all practical scales and timeframes regulated by an open system, namely our brains. Its creativity and ingenuity knows no theoretical bounds and can be considered infinite. The cumulative knowledge it has been building has been growing for ever and continues to do so at a mindboggling pace of yearly doublings. It is this growth that has been paramount to our economic development.
When rivers flowed idly, its energy preserved in the flow, it was the knowledge of the waterwheel that enabled us to use part of that energy. The windmill provided means to tap into the energy of moving air. Coal was used in Roman times as jewelry, an increase in knowledge enabled its energetic potential and kickstarted the Industrial Revolution. Oil was a nuisance for many farmers in the 19th century, until technologic progress unlocked its energy, and it powered the Oil age. Uranium knew practically no use, until science cracked nuclear fission.
The basic flaw of the impossible infinite economic growth claim above is that it fails to recognize what our fundamental resource is. Because our fundamental resource is not oil or gas, nor had it been coal, wood, water or wind, our fundamental resource is our brains. When people were struggling in the Middle Ages to obtain food to not die of hunger, it was not due to lack of resources, but due to the lack of knowledge how to make use of these resources. The difference between the economy now and the economy a thousand years ago is not that there are more resources now, but that we have more knowledge to extract and effectively use resources. And when people in Africa are in danger of starvation, it is not due lack of (physical) resources, because its lands are bountiful, but again, a lack of knowledge and knowhow how to extract, obtain and use these resources effectively.
Of course our infinite creativity operates within the finite boundaries of our planet, but on system Earth so much energy circulates, that the impending end of the Oil Age, need not to be seen as the impending end of energetic and economic growth.
Look at the following graphic depiction of energy availability. The finite resources are in total amounts of energy, the renewables in yearly numbers, with a small reference for yearly energy consumption. The potential for solar is immense.
The practice of extracting this enormous potential of the suns energy, has begun rather recently, but it has grown explosively since.
Solar power generating capacity grew by 73.3% in 2011. Total capacity grew by 29.3 GW to reach 63.4 GW. Capacity has grown almost ten-fold over the past 5 years and had been growing for an exponential rate for 35 years already, doubling every 2 years. Below I plotted the cumulative solar output up to 2009 and extrapolated it onwards and a rough estimate of the world energy use is also shown, in a logarithmic scale. Bar the fact that cumulative output over the years can not be simply added up to provide a grant total, it does give a feel of the enormous strides being made in the field of solar production.
And solar is not the only renewable that is growing, other renewables show similar trends.
The potential of solar is big, but when we would talk fusion, the energy potential of planet Earth takes on an incomprehensible size. Below I plotted the yearly contribution of the sun of the energy of system Earth again, now together with a circle representing nuclear fusion. Where the sun is about a mm in diameter, the diameter of the energy available from fusion is 6 meter, and only a fraction can be shown. In fact, given current energy use and taking it as constant, fusion from deuterium from sea water only, would be enough to provide us with 75 billion years of energy supply or roughly 5 times the age of the universe. Again, it is not the physical boundaries that are constraining us, but the lack of knowledge to perform fusion effectively is holding us back.
For fusion it is always said that it is 30 years away and always will be. I believe this not to be so, but let’s take a look at energy supply now, its growth and direction, and bring the discussion back to understandable and practical dimensions.
We talked solar, and solar is poised to become big. Already growing exponentially for 35 years straight, it will soon become a significant part of our energy supply. But not only solar has been growing, in fact, practically all sources of energy have seen increased production also those with finite reserves. If resources become ever more scarce the more we mine them, how come we produce more of it now than ever before?
One way of looking at resource extraction is as if it were a pyramid. The oil on top is of prime quality, achieved through unlikely and lengthy purification processes; it is both very pure and highly accessible, think of the oil that surfaced in Texas beginning of the 20th century. Going downwards in the pyramid, oils of lesser quality and/or lesser accessibility are found, but these are also more plentiful, e.g. deep sea oil drilling. Further down oil has had practically no purification and remains within the so-called source rock, e.g. the Canadian tarsands.
Our ability to extract oil will then be related to two variables: the physical reality of how oil is present within Earth; the pyramid, versus our improving skills to find and extract oil. If our knowledge increases faster than that the pyramid empties, we will continuously increase our output. And judging our production of oil, which reached a new high in 2011, this is exactly what is happening.
Our ability to produce oil increases so fast, that every year the amount of proven reserves is actually increasing. And the years that we have oil left has risen from an estimated 30 years of proven reserves left in 1980, to 45 years left, 30 years later in 2010.
Natural gas can also be presented as a pyramid, here one with the reserves the lower 48 states of the US.
Also here productivity is foremost related to ingenuity, and ingenuity recently opened up new possibilities; fracking and horizontal drilling enabled small pockets of gas within shales to be extracted that previously remained out of reach. So gas production has been sharply rising as well.
Coal use is growing as well, in fact all sources of energy show growth except for nuclear, which suffers from social backlash and safety concerns.
Picture our energy production as the mind’s competition with the physical, the mind over matter. In this system Earth we can get our energy from many different places. Solar might be cheapest in sunny areas, coal in areas where externalities are neglected, hydro electricity where rivers have might and gas where reserves are plenty. Many resources can substitute each other, some are mobile and all can produce electricity.
Our energy use is not and never has been a function of the actual physical availability of resources, it has always been a function of increasing knowledge. The enormous amounts of energy available, its great variety in appearances, together with the exponentially increasing cumulative knowledge, leads to an ever increasing accessibility of energy for us humans. That’s why total energy use and even the energy per capita have been increasing as far back as we can measure them.