Tuesday, May 5, 2015
Evan Conley H1 Final Blog Post - Global Resource Depletion
This section of this report will introduce the topic of resource depletion, as well as its ties to overpopulation. The application of philosophy to this topic will come more into play in later posts that will address possible options for dealing with this problem.
When considering the problem of global resource depletion, there are two categories in which the problems can be placed. The first is a depletion of natural sources of raw materials and resources, such as fossil fuels, minerals, fertile topsoil, freshwater, and forests. The second factor is known as “sinks,” or areas/processes that absorb and detoxify industrial waste products. While a lack of sufficient sinks is inarguably an obstacle to growth, this report will focus more on the depletion of sources.
Before delving into this problem, it must be noted that the world contains a finite amount of non-renewable resources, which, once depleted, will be gone for good. With this in mind, we must question whether the human use of these resources will be sustainable long enough to develop technology that can relinquish us from our dependence on these non-renewable resources. It must also be noted that there is a minimum amount of both renewable and non-renewable resources needed for the survival of current cities and towns. This is important, particularly when addressing possible fixes for global resource depletion as we cannot expect that any practically applicable solution to this crisis would involve the dissolving of cities and towns, as the effects of this would be devastating to their populations. Instead, this dissolving of current communities would more likely be a result of a global economic collapse that results from a lack of sufficient resources.
There is a common misconception regarding the use of renewable resources. Often, when people think of renewable resources, they imagine that the name implies that an infinite amount of these resources can be used without repercussions. However, an important factor in this situation which is often neglected is the amount of time it takes for the sources of these renewable resources to replete themselves. Because of the amount of time this process of renewal takes, it serves as a limiting factor in human/economic growth. What this means is that the supplies of these renewable resources can only be sustained if the rate of consumption of the resources is less than the rate of their renewal.
For years, the most pointed to cause of the depletion of resources has been the size of the population. While the population size is indubitably a factor in the global depletion of resources, as it obviously would require more resources for many humans to survive than it would for just a few, the role of overpopulation in the overall global consumption of resources has been greatly overstated. Politicians addressing the issue of resource consumption have commonly called for provisions such as the use of birth control in poorer countries to reduce their populations and thereby reduce the amount of resources that they require to live. While the control of the populations in these countries may be helpful to the individual economies in which birth control is widely used, this would actually do very little to mitigate the global depletion of resources. An observational study performed by World Bank calculated the use global use of resources vs. income to determine whether the control of the populations of poorer areas would sufficiently manage global resource depletion and returned with shocking results.
From this data, you can see that over 75% of the resources consumed globally are consumed by the richest 20% of people and companies, while the fraction of resources consumed by the poorer populations is almost negligible in comparison. While it may make sense that the richest businesses use the most resources, produce the most goods, and are thereby the richest, this data clearly shows that a simple reduction in the populations of poorer areas will do little in terms of slowing the global consumption of resources.
In my last post, I explained the issue of overconsumption and its role in global resource depletion, as well as the links between consumption and population. Here, I’ll go into some of the factors feeding into the growth of this issue.
One great contributor to the waste of resources is planned obsolescence, a natural side effect of a system governed by the pursuit of wealth. Planned obsolescence occurs when a company purposely produces a product that will not last a lifetime. Though the materials to manufacture products that will continue to function properly for decades do exist and are available, it is far more profitable for a company to create products that will need to be replaced with new products after a set amount of time. On one hand, this is an obvious waste of resources. However, from the perspective of the producers, this is the only way for their business to thrive. If products of high quality were produced, there would eventually be no need for consumers to buy any more of the company’s product, and the company would go out of business. For this reason, the integrity and sustainability of a system of production centered on the gain of wealth is called into question. How can we create a system of production that is both secure for the producers as well as environmentally sustainable?
A possible solution to this problem is to severely limit the amount of resources that can go into the production of certain products, as well as limit the number of releases of minutely upgraded versions of these products. A pertinent example of wasted resources can be found by looking to the company Apple. Apple has many slightly upgraded versions of their products over the course of the past 10 years, and while a great deal of ingenuity and genuine improvement has occurred, there is also a great deal of waste due to the intermittent release of these upgrades. While the technology for, say, the iPhone 2 was better than that of the iPhone 1, it is incredibly likely that the technology used in the iPhone 5 was available during the time of the production of the iPhone 3. It’s not impossible that the technology was available before that, but I’ll give Apple the benefit of the doubt because the point remains clear regardless. By limiting the amount of improvements that are released with a new product, Apple is able spread the release of the technology over the course of 3 or 4 different products, increasing the amount of money they can make from selling those products. Smartphones and computers require some rare materials to properly function, but instead of saving some of those resources for future technologies, it is being wasted on slightly upgraded versions of products in order to produce more capital gain. These resources often end up thrown into dumps, which serve as embarrassing reminders of our wasteful habits and practices.
Originally, my plan was to focus this post on the links between environmental destruction and capitalism, but from the information in my last post, the connections are apparent. Instead, I will attempt to discuss possible ways to improve the situation. However, it is difficult to determine exactly how much improvement is needed, so some of the following suggestions may not sufficiently deal with the problem.
A possible solution to the overconsumption of the planet’s resources is to impose strict regulations on production. These regulations would mandate that each company recycled as much as possible, limit the amount of toxins that can be emitted, and put a stop to production once the good was no longer needed. This would also need to include regulations to combat planned obsolescence. However, these restrictions would inevitably increase the difficulty of new companies trying to break into the market, which would result in monopolies and oligopolies in many areas of the market. Moreover, eliminating planned obsolescence would severely impact each company’s ability to make the profits necessary to run a business in the future. Because of these side-effects, it appears that simply imposing stricter regulations may not be sufficient to maintain both our economy and our environment.
An alternative solution to our resource problem may require a much greater involvement of the government in the production of goods. In order to eliminate some problems associated with the removal of planned obsolescence and wasteful over-production of slightly upgraded versions of products, it may become necessary that the government takes charge of the production of many goods that do not need frequent replacements. An example of a product that the government could be put in charge of producing is washing machines. Since there is no real need to constantly produce newer and better washing machines (as the existing machines sufficiently perform the task), once everyone that wanted a washing machine had one, there would be little reason for production to continue. By limiting the production of goods like this, we may be able to conserve what resources we have.
Conserving our existing resources is particularly important because of the time it takes for science to progress. My third suggestion, or one that would be supplemental to any possible suggestion for resource conservation would be to heavily focus on increasing our ability to recycle used goods and improve our technology so that less resources are required to run them. Through these technological improvements, combined with a far more controlled, sustainable mode of production and consumption, we may be able to preserve life on this planet.