A Free-Market Energy Blog

Giving Thanks … for Human Ingenuity

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- November 25, 2020

“… knowledge is truly the mother of all resources.” – Erich Zimmermann (1951).

Thanksgiving 2020 presents an opportunity to step back and appreciate the driver of progress in the free economy: the liberated, liberating entrepreneur. The change-makers of the market drive the creation and usage of resources, as well documented by the oil and gas extraction revolution of the last decade or more.

Increasing “depletable”  resources is a paradigmatic example of what Julian Simon called “the ultimate resource,” human ingenuityResourceship is a term that the followers of Erich Zimmermann, from Stephen McDonald to Pierre Desrochers, have popularized to understand mineral development.

Salient quotations from seven sources follow: institutional economist Zimmermann; fellow institutionalists Wesley Mitchell and Tom DeGregori; political scientist David Osterfeld; economists Terry Anderson and Donald Leal; economist M. A. “Maury” Adelman; and journalist Warren Brookes.

Erich Zimmermann

“Resources presuppose a person.  They are an expression or reflection of human appraisal.  The appraisal finds that something can serve as means to given ends, that one can rely on it for aid, support, or supply.” – Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 7.

“The word ‘resource’ does not refer to a thing or a substance but to a function which a thing or a substance may perform or to an operation in which it may take part, namely, the function or operation of attaining a given end such as satisfying a want.” – Zimmermann, op cit., p. 7.

“Resources are highly dynamic functional concepts; they are not, they become, they evolve out of the triune interaction of nature, man, and culture, in which nature sets outer limits, but man and culture are largely responsible for the portion of physical totality that is made available for human use.” – Zimmermann, op cit., pp. 814-15.

“Not all the coal in the world can contribute as much mental and spiritual guidance, as much planning, inventing, and aspiring, as one man. Man’s forte is brain, not brawn.” – Zimmermann, op cit., p. 43.

Wesley Mitchell

“Incomparably greatest among human resources is knowledge.  It is greatest because it is the mother of other resources. The aboriginal inhabitants of what is now the United States lived in a poverty-stricken environment. For them no coal existed, no petroleum, no metals beyond nuggets of pure copper. Of electrical energy they had no inkling. . . .  – Wesley Mitchell, “Conservation, Liberty, and Economics,” The Foundations of Conservation Education (New York:  National Wildlife Federation, 1941), p. 1.

“Not only is knowledge the greatest of resources, it is also the resource that we have counted upon to grow richer with every decade. The cumulative expansion of science and of its practical applications has emboldened us to expect that each generation of our descendants will discover new resources and more efficient ways of using old ones.” – Mitchell, op cit. p. 2.

Tom DeGregori

“If resources are not fixed but created, then the nature of the scarcity problem changes dramatically. For the technological means involved in the use of resources determines their creation and therefore the extent of their scarcity. The nature of the scarcity is not outside the process (that is natural), but a condition of it.” – Tom DeGregori (1987). “Resources Are Not; They Become: An Institutional Theory.” Journal of Economic Issues, p. 1258.

David Osterfeld

“Viewing resources as ‘services’ rather than stocks leads to the important conclusion that the resource pie is not fixed but changeable, and thus there is no inherent reason for the stocks of resources to diminish over time. On the contrary, since resources are a function of knowledge, and since our stock of knowledge has increased over time, it should come as no surprise that the stock of physical resources has also been expanding.” – David Osterfeld, Prosperity Versus Planning:  How Government Stifles Economic Growth (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 99.

Terry Anderson and Donald Leal

“The reason that Malthusian hypotheses are continually refuted is that they fail to take into account how human ingenuity stimulated by market forces finds ways to cope with natural resource constraints. . . .  Human ingenuity is switched on by market prices that signal increasing scarcity and provide rewards for those who mitigate resource constraints by reducing consumption, finding substitutes, and improving productivity.” – Terry Anderson and Donald Leal, Free Market Environmentalism (New York:           Palgrave, 2001), p. 3.

M. A. Adelman

“It seems impossible to reconcile data with any theory or vision that oil is a ‘limited exhaustible resource,’ becoming ever more scarce and expensive. What we observe is the net result of two contrary forces:  diminishing returns, as the industry moves from larger to smaller deposits and from better to poorer quality, versus increasing knowledge of science and technology generally, and of local geological structures. So far, increasing knowledge has won.”  – Morris Adelman, “Trends in the Price and Supply of Oil,” in Julian Simon, ed., The State of Humanity (Cambridge,  MA:  Blackwell, 1995), p. 292.

Warren Brooks

“The oil we now regard as so precious was utterly worthless to the American Indians, who did not even know it was there, and only a little more valuable to the white men who first discovered it but had few uses for it. What ultimately gave oil its value were the technological inventions of those who found ways to use it, to make it serve us, to increase our freedom, our mobility, and our standard of living.”  – Warren Brookes, “The Energy of Mind vs. The Entropy of Matter,” Thomas Bray, ed., Unconventional Wisdoms:  The Best of Warren Brookes (San Francisco:  Pacific Research Institute, 1997), p. 21.

“The most important energy is not physical but mental, and that if the physical or energy part of our wealth may seem to diminish, the metaphysical or know-how part of our wealth can only increase.  Even when we make mistakes we learn more; and the more we learn, the more we understand and the wealthier we become.  We are always being taught through clearer ideas how to do more with less.” – Brookes, op cit., p. 21.

One Comment for “Giving Thanks … for Human Ingenuity”

  1. TFX  

    I am in the pessimist camp for future advances in innovation. Living standards and real wage growth for people in countries at the technological frontier, most of the West, are going to be much less than we have experienced in the past. The logic behind this is that we are getting diminishing marginal returns from research across the board. Robert Gordon from Northwest University has documented the case for diminishing returns for many industries in the US. In my area of expertise – Australian agricultural research – we made phenomenal advances in the past but again suffering diminishing returns currently.

    A simple data point that I like to use is when the Nobel prizes were introduced, there were estimated to be 1000 physicists in the world. Nobel prizes are limited to a maximum of three people for any one year. A recent prize in physics, and I have forgotten the year, was for a paper with over 1000 physicists as coauthors. There are now estimated to be 1 million physicists in the world. In both cases changes of three orders of magnitude. Another simple data point is that the average age of Nobel science prize winners have made their discovery for the award has risen by nearly a decade since their inception.


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