Scarcity Drives Technological Progress

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.

59 comments… add one

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: The original data was massaged, and this is what the mathematical models were built upon.

    Most of the data wasn’t originally collected for climate science, but local weather forecasting. The original data had to be homogenized. That’s because there were changes in procedures, instrumentation, and placement, over the years, which caused discontinuities in the dadta.

    TastyBits: When massaging data, the honest method requires a revision history.

    No, it just has to be replicable. Independent researchers can use the original data, and apply their own statistical methods. This is all part of the science, and is subject to review like any science. A complete reanalysis of surface temperatures was recently completed by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. Their method doesn’t use standard homogenization, by the way, but a Kriging process.
    http://berkeleyearth.org/summary-of-findings

    TastyBits: AWG discounted the oceans long ago.

    Not sure where you got that idea. For instance, see Levitus et al., Warming of the World Ocean, Science 2000.

    In any case, that’s one of the strengths of climate science; it encompasses data from so many sources, from oceanography to forestry to satellite imaging. When that many fields converge on the same answer, then it lends confidence in the conclusion.

    TastyBits: If the oceans are massive heatsinks, CO2 has nothing to do with global warming.

    Of course the oceans are massive heat sinks. Why does that mean CO2 has nothing to do with global warming?

    The physics of greenhouse warming are fairly straightforward. Infrared radiation is basically trapped near the surface, causing the geosphere (atmosphere, lithosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere) to warm. The greenhouse effect is not in reasonable dispute. The question is climate sensitivity, which is still subject to some uncertainty.

  • TastyBits

    @Zachriel

    You and the AGW crowd have been trying to change the debate from AGW since it has been falling apart. Climate science is not AGW theory. AGW theory includes humans, CO2 production, and unnatural temperature increases.

    Like phrenology, AGW theory fell apart. Climate science will continue to be researched, and discoveries will continue be made. As with all science, there will be honest mistakes, and theories will need to be revised.

    CO2 as a greenhouse gas is miniscule. CO2 is to plants what oxygen is to humans. CO2 levels have been substantially higher, and plant life has been substantially greater. This is how the planet was able to support the large dinosaurs.

    There will be no waterworld or any other nonsense. The earth will warm until the physics determine it is time to begin cooling, and humans can do nothing to influence that. I realize this makes humans feel insignificant, but this is reality.

    One last point. You cannot get a temperature more precise than your least precise instrument. It is a pain in the ass, but you round up/down to the least significant digit at each arithmetic step. Otherwise, you introduce error into your calculations.

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: AGW theory includes humans, CO2 production, and unnatural temperature increases.

    Yes.

    TastyBits: CO2 as a greenhouse gas is miniscule.

    CO2 represents about 20% of the Earth’s greenhouse effect. That’s hardly minuscule. Schmidt et al., The attribution of the present-day total greenhouse effect, Journal of Geophysical Research 2010.

    In addition, CO2 warming increases evaporation, increasing the overall greenhouse effect due to atmospheric water vapor.

    TastyBits: You cannot get a temperature more precise than your least precise instrument.

    That is incorrect. The standard error decreases proportional to the square root of the number of measurements.

  • TastyBits

    @Zachriel

    CO2 is about 0.04% of the atmosphere. That is miniscule.

    You cannot get a more precise answer than the precision of your instruments. If your instrument is only precise to a degree, that is your least significant digit. This used to be taught in physics 101.

    Statistical manipulation cannot alter reality. This is the problem with AGW. Jumping up and down, holding one’s breath, burying one’s head in the sand will not alter reality.

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: CO2 is about 0.04% of the atmosphere. That is miniscule.

    But not a minuscule part of the greenhouse effect.

    Monatomic and homonuclear diatomic molecules are virtually unaffected by infrared energy; consequently, nitrogen, oxygen and argon are not greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases, those that absorb and emit infrared radiation include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone, each with its own thermal footprint. Carbon dioxide constitutes about 20% of the greenhouse effect.

    TastyBits: You cannot get a more precise answer than the precision of your instruments. If your instrument is only precise to a degree, that is your least significant digit.

    That is true only for a single measurement. If we have multiple, independent measurements, we calculate the mean and standard deviation. That’s assuming a normal distribution, and no systematic bias.
    http://m.teachastronomy.com/astropedia/article/Errors-and-Statistics

  • TastyBits

    @Zachriel

    Sorry for the delay. Lots going on.

    CO2 is miniscule. 20% of miniscule is miniscule. Hence, AGW is falling apart, and waterworld is never gonna happen.

    Precision is reality based, and it cannot be altered by statistics. When you base a theory on altered reality, reality has a way of smacking you in the head.

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: CO2 is miniscule. 20% of miniscule is miniscule.

    Oh? Do you think the greenhouse effect is inconsequential?

    TastyBits: Precision is reality based, and it cannot be altered by statistics.

    We provided a citation. You ignored the argument they presented. Whether you want to admit it or not, multiple measurements can reduce the standard error. The statistics involved is just basic probability. We have overlapping normal curves, which when added, create a narrower peak than any single curve.

  • TastyBits

    @Zachriel

    If you mean reflected infrared radiation, yes, and if you mean that 100% of the infrared radiation is reflected, a laughing yes. AGW predicts temperature changes due to CO2 changes, and those are not occurring. Hence, the mad scramble to find the missing heat.

    Apparently, the 100% infrared radiation reflected from 0.04% of the atmosphere is causing the oceans to warm, but the infrared radiation from the sun has nothing to do with this.

    CO2 is a miniscule part of the atmosphere. The amount of CO2 that would need to be increased to affect the temperature would cause substantially greater problems than a small temperature increase.

    You cannot take thousands of data readings over the years from thermometers, and then, increase their precision through statistical manipulation. Well, you can do it until reality kicks you in the head. AGW meet reality.

    AGW is toast. You have fought the good fight, but even the AGW scientists have thrown in the towel. I have seen estimates of a 20 to 30 year cooling phase, and then, warming is really going to start skyrocketing.

    CO2 is a life sustaining gas, and there is no scientific basis for it as a pollutant. The basis is political, and reality cannot compete with politics.

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: If you mean reflected infrared radiation, yes, and if you mean that 100% of the infrared radiation is reflected, a laughing yes.

    The question was do you think the greenhouse effect is inconsequential? What would the Earth be like without the greenhouse effect?

    TastyBits: You cannot take thousands of data readings over the years from thermometers, and then, increase their precision through statistical manipulation.

    We can’t discuss that as long as you are still confused on multiple measurements. The standard deviation provides a probability of the measurement is within certain bounds. It turns out that the more measurements we have the smaller the uncertainty tends to be. That’s assuming error follows a normal distribution, and that there is no systematic bias. This is important, because from that, we can then use statistical methods to determine the standard error of millions of temperature measurements over generations.

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