Bill Menke's BLOG Page: Cornucopians and Convervation

Cornucopia of Resources

Simon (1980) has argued that the the issue of human beings running out of some resource, like petroleum, wood or copper, is irrelevant, because what counts is the service that the resource renders to society, not the resource itself. Scarcity according to Simon, leads to innovation and the substitution of resources, not to deprivation. A increase in demand driven by a burgeoning of human population is offset by an increase in the number of innovative minds. For example, the information distribution service that copper, in the form of telephone wires, provides has mostly been supplanted by glass, in the form of optical fibers, and by the electromagnetic waves used by cell phones and communication satellites.

Cornucopian optimism is usually espoused by people with pro-buisness, pro-trade and anti-regulatory political leanings, people who often also oppose conservation. Why bother to conserve, when we will always find a substitute for the resources we use up?

But actually, many Conservationists are less concerned with the depletion of the resource itself than with the impact that obtaining and using it has on the world. Thus, for instance, Conservationist opposition to oil extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is more about the impact on the areas wildlife and scenic beauty, than on the actual loss of underground oil reservoirs. And the best way to minimize that impact is simply set the region aside and not exploit any resouces that it contains. This is primarily an aesthetic and moral argument, not one that involves optimum economic choices.

This type of Conservation, forgoing resource explotation in regions, perhaps even very large regions, is perfectly compatible with Cornucopianism. In fact, Cornucopian theory indicates that no economic harm will come from us choosing not to exploit a region. Sure, there may be short-term scarcity, but that scarcity will drive innovation and a substitute will soon be found. And, as in the case of optical fibers replacing coperr wires, the substitute may well be an improvement over the original. There is no economic harm in having the substitute be developed a few years early, owing to a conscious choice not to exploit the last reserves of the commodity.

I find this point of view more attractive than the standard Malthusian scenario, where the running out of a vital commodity is assumed to cause catastrophic suffering. How many people would really forego exploiting any remaining reserve, if they were convinced that in doing so they were hastening the date of their demise?

*Simon, J.L., Resources, population, environment: an oversupply of bad news, Science 208, 1431-1437, 1980.