Scarcity Drives Technological Progress

by Dave Schuler on April 26, 2014

Somewhere around here I’ve got a fascinating little monograph on the ancient obsidian trade in Europe and Asia. As you’re presumably aware, obsidian is naturally occurring volcanic glass. One of the interesting things about obsidian is that by analyzing its chemical composition you can identify where the obsidian was originally found or mined.

When stone was the primary material used for tool-making, obsidian was in high demand because of its ability to take and hold a sharp edge. In the Neolithic of Europe and Asia it was traded over an enormous area and the monograph I mentioned discusses the extent and timing of that trade, determined by performing a chemical analysis of the remnants of obsidian tools found in various archaeological digs around the world.

As it turns out there was a critical obsidian shortage in Europe and Asia something around 8,000 year ago. That shortage drove people to experiment with substitutes for obsidian. They tried copper, then bronze. Later (and as copper became scarcer) iron and even later steel were used for the purposes once served by obsidian. Nowadays, you’re much more likely to hear somebody complaining “Where the heck is that hammer?”, invariably a steel hammer, than about the obsidian shortage.

Without that obsidian shortage in antiquity the world as we know it would not exist. I can tell very similar stories about agriculture, paper, or dozens of other materials and tools.

That’s what I thought of when I read this op-ed on world resources at the Wall Street Journal:

How many times have you heard that we humans are “using up” the world’s resources, “running out” of oil, “reaching the limits” of the atmosphere’s capacity to cope with pollution or “approaching the carrying capacity” of the land’s ability to support a greater population? The assumption behind all such statements is that there is a fixed amount of stuff—metals, oil, clean air, land—and that we risk exhausting it through our consumption.

“We are using 50% more resources than the Earth can sustainably produce, and unless we change course, that number will grow fast—by 2030, even two planets will not be enough,” says Jim Leape, director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature International (formerly the World Wildlife Fund).

But here’s a peculiar feature of human history: We burst through such limits again and again. After all, as a Saudi oil minister once said, the Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone. Ecologists call this “niche construction”—that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction: We stopped relying on nature’s bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty.

We have not run out of everything and I believe that the likelihood that we will do is vanishingly small. Is is possible that we will? Sure. It’s also possible that when the sun goes down tomorrow night it will never return or that when you step out of bed in the morning you’ll fall through the floor, the molecules of your body slipping through the floor’s molecules. For some reason the same people who are worried about running about of everything don’t seem to be as worried about those other two eventualities. They still go to bed at night and get up again in the morning after, presumably, a good night’s sleep.

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