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Searching for scarcity

There is an abundant supply of most of the mineral resources required by human society.

'There's nothing to worry about, just leave everything to the market system,' is the message of free-marketeer, Julian Simon in his respose to the concerns of environmentalists. Such a sweeping generalisation calls for intense questioning (see Environment section). Still, Simon provides us with some interesting facts in his book, The Ultimate Resource 2, which show that in many respects we live in a world of abundance. Ironically, this calls into question the scarcity assumption upon which his free market philosophy rests (Economists—Not On This Planet).

Nowhere is his contribution more valuable than in the facts he provides about world mineral reserves, which are required in so much of world production…

Simon is the first to point out the need for caution here, given that there are many different grades of each such resource.

Reserves are often difficult to measure—new discoveries are often made. Very significant also is scope for re-using them. Still, Simon unwittingly gives away what socialists have already known—that the market system often further distorts such measurements:

A small change in the price of a mineral generally makes a very big difference in the potential supplies that are economically available—that is, profitable to extract.

It may be uneconomical for a profit-making enterprise within capitalism to mine certain reserves at certain times but the entirely different priorities in a society where production is for use and not profit could overturn these false assumptions. See (Eco-Socialism) for more about the need for such a change in priorities.

Summing it all up, for nearly all of the important nonrenewable resources, the known or confidently expected world stores are thousands of times as great as the annual world consumption. For the few which like petroleum are available in relatively small quantities, substitutes are known or potential sources of alternative supply are at hand in quantities adequate to meet our current needs for may thousands of years. There is no prospect of the imminent exhaustion of any of the truly essential raw aterials, as far as the world as a whole is concerned.(The Ultimate Resource 2, p49)

Simon is not alone in making such a strong claim.

95 percent of the world demand is for five metals which are not considerd exhaustible." (The Next 200 Years: A Scenario for America and the World—H.Kahn, W.Brown, L.Martel , p48)

He has the support of work by H.E.Goeller & A.M.Weinberg in the highly reputed American Economic Review. They explored the implications of possible substitution in the use of raw materials that are essential to our civilisation, with this result:-

We now state the principle of 'infinite' substitutability. With three notable exceptions—phosphorus, a few trace elements for agriculture, and energy-producing fossil fuels (CH2)—society can subsist on inexhaustible or near-inexhaustible minerals withe relatively little loss of living standard. Society would then be based largely on glass, plastic, wood, cement, iron, aluminium, and magnesium.(quoted in The Ultimate Resource 2, p49)