Being Resourceful About Resources

If you want robust economic development, you need some resources—ideally natural ones. A new book by economist Edward Barbier of the University of Wyoming looks at the history of how nations have dealt with this truism.

Entitled Scarcity and Frontiers: How Economies Have Developed Through Natural Resource Exploitation, Barbier’s book argues that the quest for natural resources has been closely tied to the expansion of frontiers and the evolution of civilizations. It also examines how we might deal with such issues today and set in motion more sustainable development.

Peter Drucker took an interest in natural resources, but by 1959, when he published the Landmarks of Tomorrow, he was already wary of allowing them to dominate economic thinking too heavily. “It was axiomatic to traditional economists (including Marx), and it still taken for granted by most, that available resources determine what can be produced, and conversely that existing products require specific resources,” Drucker wrote.  “This is the characteristic economic expression of the Cartesian world-view. If you have steel there are certain things you can produce; and to produce them you have to have steel.”

[EXPAND More]This mindset, however, was changing in the face of innovation. “We can increasingly decide what end products we want and then find the raw materials for them,” Drucker noted. “We can increasingly decide what raw materials we have available and then develop the uses for them. There are, obviously, real limitations. But these are being rolled back steadily.”

By 1968, when he’d released The Age of Discontinuity, Drucker was, if anything, even more confident in the potential of innovation to render former limits obsolete. A revolution in the use of alternative materials was changing the world rapidly. “The ‘materials revolution’ will predictably make countries less and less dependent on natural resources, since the same end use can be satisfied by starting with almost any resource, organic or inorganic,” Drucker predicted. “It will make end users increasingly independent of specific substances. It will make possible an enormous number of new products, new satisfactions and new markets. But it will greatly disturb existing industry structures and challenge traditional industrial organization and existing economic alignments.”

What do you think: Are we becoming less dependent on natural resources today—or more so? [/EXPAND]