“Won’t we eventually outstrip the planet’s ability to sustain us?” No. No, we won’t, as long as we keep our ethical wits about us and continue the world’s uneven-but-upward march in the direction of economic freedom.
“But surely,” you ask, “isn’t the biosphere a closed system?” Again, no it isn’t. We’re constantly being bombarded with solar energy, and like a lot of people, I hope we someday figure out how to capture and deploy it efficiently.
The under-appreciated economist Julian Simon, who passed away prematurely in 1998 and who did Nobel-worthy research into the nature of economic progress and long-run trends in resource prices, called the mind the “ultimate resource.” There are no limits, he said, to economic growth because there are no limits to what the mind is capable of conceiving, understanding, and doing. Just as I’m hopeful for solar energy, I’m hopeful for advances in recycling that turn a lot of the things we’re currently throwing away into resources rather than garbage.
An aside: as Michael Munger explains on EconTalk, if someone will pay you for it, it’s a resource. If you have to pay someone to take it, it’s garbage.
But this is a road that’s already very well-trodden. I think the best examples come from the arts: music, movies, and literature.
As people get richer, we spend a lot more time and money enjoying the arts. Here’s where the “no limits” proposition really comes into its own. Think about the many, many, many different ways people have adapted Shakespeare to different times and places. In high school, I played Hortensio in a production of The Taming of the Shrew that was set in early 20th century Hollywood. Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, and William Shatner (among many others) have offered very different interpretations of Marc Antony. A few years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company in London has done an adaptation of Julius Caesar set in Africa. Here’s Marc Antony’s eulogy for Julius Caesar from that adaptation:
Music and movies are filled with remakes and reinterpretations of classic tropes and themes. There’s no limit to the number of ways to sing “When the Levee Breaks,” for example, a blues classic made most famous by Led Zeppelin and redone beautifully by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant a decade ago.
The list could go on for pages—and ages. Is there any limit to the ways we can arrange sounds? Is there any limit to the ways we can arrange images? Is there any limit to the way we can arrange words? Just as, in some sense, no one ever steps in the same river twice no one ever sings the same song twice. The arts provide us with both an analogy—even baser and more mundane production is like singing and writing—and a promising reality.
The world is getting richer, and as the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey (among many others) has pointed out, the world is getting better. As we continue to get richer and as more and more people are relieved of the basic burdens of inadequate food, clothing, and shelter, I think we can look forward to more movies, more dance, more music, and more literature interpreted more ways than we can imagine. The mind is the ultimate resource, and as we get richer I think merely material constraints will continue to recede in importance.