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On the ‘Ultimate Resource,’ Human Ingenuity

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- September 3, 2019

“Discoveries, like resources, may well be infinite: the more we discover, the more we are able to discover.” (Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2, p. 82)

“The world is not ‘a bundle of hay’ but a living growing complex of matter and energy, a process rather than a thing.” ( Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries, 1951, p. 815.

What explains the happy fact (really the miracle of man) that the more we discover, the more we find out if left to discover? Instead of mineral depletion, we have mineral expansion–turning the Malthusian predicament on its head. And instead of weather/climate doom, we have successful adaptation in wealthy (as in healthy) free economies.

Labor Day has passed, a day that could be renamed Energy Day for the saved labor that modern energy has transferred to machines and appliances. But every day should be celebrated as human ingenuity day.

Human ingenuity as the ultimate resource was coined by Julian Simon (here). Some quotations from other thinkers in the Simon tradition follow:

“Knowledge is truly the mother of all other resources.” (Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries, 1951, p. 10.)

“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, p. 43)

“One of the chief distinctions between man and beast is man’s ability consciously and consistently to change his environment.  He alone can create cultural environments expansible and changeable almost at will.” (Zimmermann, p. 31)

“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.

“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.”

– Warren Brookes, “The Energy of Mind vs. The Entropy of Matter,” In Thomas Bray, ed., Unconventional Wisdoms:  The Best of Warren Brookes (San Francisco:  Pacific Research Institute, 1997), p. 21.

“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.

“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….”

“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.”

  • Wesley Mitchell, “Conservation, Liberty, and Economics,” The Foundations of Conservation Education (New York:  National Wildlife Federation, 1941), pp. 1–2.

Note: Erich Zimmermann and Wesley Mitchell, above, were members of the Institutional School of Economics, which eschewed diagrammatics and mathematical formalism to describe real-world economies. Knowledge, culture, and other institutions were central to their analysis. More recently, the New Institutional Economics has revived the older tradition by focusing on social norms and legal rules to interpret the wealth of nations. A history of thought of the old and new (although neglecting Zimmermann) can be found here.

4 Comments


  1. kakatoa  

    I wasn’t aware of W. Brookes work- thanks for highlighting him.

    Harvard had a post up on W. Brookes a few years back. I rather like how he brought “value systems” into the discussion:

    https://harvardmagazine.com/2012/09/vita-warren-brookes

    ….”He relished confronting “doomsdayers” and “gloom-mongers” who decried unsustainable growth. The real “gross domestic product,” he wrote, is less dependent on market value than on “the value systems of our people.” The creativity that sees silicon in sand and fiber optics in glass is a function of the “spiritual laws” that “give mankind the power to triumph over material lack and limitation.”

    Reply

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