Dave Sohigian

11Jun/080

Limited Resources and Infinite Ideas

In my reading about the issues facing the planet I often see a few diverging arguments about where we are headed. One, proposed by proponents of globalization is that our world is that resources and ideas are becoming infinitely more available and there is no end in sight (for more, see "The World is Flat" by Tomas Friedman). Another perspective is that there are massive changes coming to our physical world but we can deal with them through the smart application of technology (Al Gore seems to argue this one a lot). A third, proposed by many environmentalist is that our physical world is near a breaking point, which can either only stopped by massive changes in behavior (see "Deep Economy" by Bill McKibben). These ideas tend to be fairly polarizing. People either believe that material wealth is either totally infinite (Flat World) or it's finite and getting close to being used up (environmentalists). Belief in technology as our savior is proposed as a path that can keep our current way of life but just change the components (electric cars, hydrogen economy, alternative power, etc...). Environmentalists debunk the technology as savior idea by saying it is too little, too late (see this recent article on Worldchanging for an example).

There is another possibility. At the risk of being called a Pollyanna, I think there may be a path that acknowledges that material resources are limited but also recognizes a powerful role for technology in helping us adapt. The basis for my theory is simple: material resources are limited but ideas are infinite.

Today: Exponentially Growing Access to Resources and Ideas
The amount of ideas that we can access today is growing exponentially. The materials we have access to are growing at a similar rate as well. The first resource is infinite while the other decidedly limited.
I put up a post on OnTheCommons.org that outlined a practical example of this principle (using the manufacture of bikes as an example). I think there is a more general way to look at things. If we consider our world today in developed countries, I think a chart of access to ideas and materials would look something like this [click on images to see larger version]:


The red line represents global materials, driven mainly by cheap petroleum which is either used to produce materials or transport them economically. The green line is the access to ideas, which is growing exponentially due to the Internet and now Social Media. For many people living in wealthy countries like the US this means easy access to almost anything you can imagine.

Tomorrow: Diverging Access to Resources and Ideas
But these lines will not remain parallel forever. Any peak oil theorist will tell you that eventually we will run out of cheap energy and it will probably happen fairly soon. So the graph continues more like this:


While the access to materials will drop off considerably, the access to ideas may continue to skyrocket. The period where this is happening will be very hard on societies around the world. It will be a time of profound change which is always difficult to predict. I could be accused of being a Pollyanna, but I believe that eventually this switch will have positive outcomes as people have more access to ideas and less stuff to distract them. Of course, getting there will be painful, and probably much more so for those who already suffer the most, but on the other side of this transition I see great possibilities.

Another Perspective: Local and Global Today
Another way to look at this is through the lens of how resources and ideas are currently sourced. The graph of these might look more like this:


Today the use of local resources is at an all-time low, and it only looks like it will get worse. People are fighting more and more about who get access to what globally. In contrast to materials, ideas are being distributed globally and this trend looks like it will continue.

Local and Global Tomorrow
As resources become more scarce globally, and it gets more expensive to transport the resources, a possible result is turning to local resources. I realize that peak oil theorists will probably say this is ridiculous because they believe that scarce resources will lead to battles over those resources. What I am referring to is smarter use of existing resources made possible through the sharing of ideas. I don't see this as being motivated by community spirit or a new-found consciousness. I see it being motivated by the economic desires of corporations.
Global corporations today work on the theory that both ideas and resources are inexpensive. When the costs of materials rise along with the cost of transporting them, they will need to find new ways to generate money. Smart corporations will find ways to use local resources in novel ways by using the expanding access to ideas. The result is a chart that progresses like this:

I don't think that technology alone can save us. But the global sharing of ideas can. Yes, our lives will have to change as we start to rely on local resources. But we don't have to go back to a simple agrarian lifestyle to survive. And corporations can continue to profit on a global scale, but they need to get a lot smarter about how to use local resources to meet individuals needs.

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