A while ago I posed a question on Twitter:

What's an example of a significant resource that the world has actually run out of?

Not a local, temporary shortage, or a resource that we gracefully transitioned away from, but like a significant problem caused by hitting some limit we didn't prepare for?

Here, in essay form, is the discussion that followed:

Lots of things were predicted to have shortages (food, metals, Peak Oil) and they never quite arrived. (Julian Simon was famous for pointing out this kind of thing.) But a common argument from conservationists and environmentalists is that we are running out of some critical resource X and need to conserve it.

Now, it’s true that specific resources can and sometimes do get used up. Demand can outpace supply. There are various ways to respond to this:

  • Reduce consumption
  • Increase production
  • Increase efficiency
  • Switch to an alternative

Increasing production can be done by exploring and discovering new sources of a material, or—this is often overlooked—by reducing costs of production, so that marginally productive sources become economical. New technology can often reduce costs of production this way, opening up resources previously thought to be closed or impractical. One example is fracking for shale oil; another is the mechanization of agriculture in the 19th and 20th centuries, which reduced labor costs, thereby opening up new farmland.

Increased efficiency can be just as good as increased production. However, if the new, more efficient thing is not as desirable as the old method, I would classify this as a combination of increased efficiency and reduced consumption (e.g. low-flow toilets, weak shower heads).

When supplies are severely limited, we often end up switching to an alternative. There are many ways to satisfy human desires: Coal replaced wood in 18th century England. Kerosene replaced whale oil, then light bulbs replaced kerosene. Plastic replaced ivory and tortoiseshell. Again, if the alternative is less desirable along some key dimension, then this is also a form of reduced consumption, even if total volumes stay the same.

However, the conservationist approach is always some form of reduced consumption: typically a combination of reduced absolute consumption, efficiency improvements that reduce quality and convenience, and/or switching to less-desirable alternatives. The arguments that people have over resources are actually a lot less about whether resources are getting used up, and much more about whether we should, or must, reduce consumption in some form.

The alternative to the conservationists is to find a way to continue increasing consumption: typically new sources or high-quality alternatives. Again, it’s not about the resource. It’s about whether we continue to grow consumption, or whether we slow, stop or reverse that growth.


The conservationist argument is a combination of practical and moral arguments.

The practical argument is: we can’t keep doing this. Either this particular problem we’re facing now is insoluble, or the next one will be.

The moral argument takes two forms. One is an extension of the practical argument: it’s reckless to keep growing consumption when we’re going to crash into hard limits. A deeper moral argument appeals to a different set of values, such as the value of “connection” to the land, or of tradition, or stability. Related is the argument that consumption itself is bad beyond a certain point: it makes us weak, or degrades our character.

Also, there is an argument that we could keep growing consumption, but that this would have externalities, and the price for this is too high to pay, possibly even disastrous. This too becomes both a practical and a moral argument, along exactly the same lines.

But if we don’t accept those alternate values—if we hold the standard of improving quality of life and fulfilling human needs and desires—then everything reduces to the practical argument: Can we keep growing consumption? And can we do it without destroying ourselves in the process?

The question of severe externalities is interesting and difficult, but let’s set it aside for the moment. I’m interested in a commonly heard argument: that resource X is being rapidly depleted and we’re going to hit a wall. As far as I can tell, this never happens anymore. Has there ever been a time in recent history when we’ve been forced to significantly curtail consumption, or even the growth rate in consumption? Not switching to a desirable alternative, but solely cutting back? I haven’t found one yet.

(Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future! There’s a first time for everything; past performance does not guarantee future results; Thanksgiving turkey metaphor; etc. But historical examples are a good place to start learning.)


Why don’t we hit the wall? There are various things going on, but one of them is basic economics. Resource shortages increase prices. Higher prices both reduce demand and increase supply. The increased supply is both short-term and long-term: In the short-term, formerly unprofitable sources are suddenly profitable at higher prices. In the long-term, investments are made in infrastructure to expand production, and in technology to lower costs or discover high-quality alternatives. Thus, production is increased well before we literally run out of any resource, and any required short-term consumption decrease happens naturally and gently. (Assuming a market is allowed to function, that is.)

But does this simple story always play out? What are the most compelling counterexamples? On Twitter, many people offered ideas:

  • The best examples in my opinion are important animals and plants that we drove to extinction, such as many large game animals in prehistory.
  • Many people also point to a lost plant known to the Romans as silphium.
  • Wood, for various purposes, has also been a problem in the past. A few people mentioned that the people of Easter Island may have wiped themselves out overconsuming wood. In Britain, wood shortages led to government controls on wood and a shift to coal for smelting.
  • Quality soil has also been a limited resource in the past, and may have led to the collapse of some ancient civilizations. A 20th-century example mentioned was the Dust Bowl.
  • The most compelling modern-day example seems to be helium: a significant, limited, non-synthesizable, non-substitutable resource. We haven’t run out of helium yet, but we don’t seem to be managing it super-well, with periodic temporary shortages.
  • The American Chestnut, a great resource that we pretty much lost (it’s not extinct, but now endangered), is another. Technically, this wasn’t from overconsumption but from blight, but that is still a part of resource management.
  • We should probably also note significant resource shocks, even if we didn’t totally run out, such as the oil shocks of the ’70s. In the modern era these seem to always have significant political causes.
  • There are a few more examples that are fairly narrow and minor: certain specific species of fish and other seafood; one species of banana; low-radiation steel.

(And, tongue in cheek, many people suggested that we have a dangerous shortage of rationality, decency, humility, courage, patience, and common sense.)

Overall, the trend seems to be towards better resource management over time. The most devastating examples are also the most ancient. By the time you get to the 18th and 19th centuries, society is anticipating resource shortages and proactively addressing them: sperm whales, elephants, guano, etc. (Although maybe the transition off of whale oil was not perfect.) This goes against popular narratives and many people’s intuitions, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Better knowledge and technology help us monitor resources and deal with shortages. The “knowledge” here includes scientific knowledge and economic statistics, both of which were lacking until recently.

Many people suggested to me things that we haven’t actually run out of yet but that people are worried about: oil, fertilizer, forest, sand, landfill, etc. But these shortages are all in the future, and the point of this exercise is to learn from the past.

That leaves the externality / environmental damage argument. This is much tougher to analyze, and I need to do more research. But it’s not actually a resource shortage argument, and therefore I do think that literal resource shortage arguments are often made inappropriately.

Anyway, I think it’s interesting to tease apart the arguments here:

  • Increased consumption is impossible long-term
  • It’s possible but it would hurt us in other practical ways
  • It’s possible but it would hurt us in moral ways
  • Increased consumption is not even desirable

(“And,” one commenter added, “this is usually the order in which the arguments are deployed as you knock each of them down.”)

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This may seem like a tongue-in-cheek answer, but please do take it seriously: the world is running out of young people. Most countries have an inverted demographic pyramid, or are on their way. Having more old than young, as well as not growing in population terms, causes so many problems economically (and socially imo).

17th century Netherlands contains another interesting case. The depletion of peat, a primary energy source for the Dutch between the 16th and 17th centuries, directly contributed to the end of the Dutch Golden Age and economic stagnation, even decline. The Dutch economy could perhaps have continued growing had it embraced coal as peat supplies depleted, but no such switch occurred. According to The Rise and Decline of Dutch Technological Leadership by Karel Davids:

The Dutch succeeded in raising output per capita to an unheard-of extent for a prolonged period of time by making increased use of a stock of energy resources, instead of a flow, in the form of large deposits of peat. Eventually, however, the Netherlands did not escape the 'limitations experienced by all organic economies', namely relatively low maximum levels of energy input and productivity growth, given the 'extreme inefficiency of the process of photosynthesis in converting solar energy into a form accessible to living creatures'. Increased reliance on peat postponed the day of reckoning, Wrigley argues, but it also implied that Dutch industries, thriving for a long time on cheap heat energy, found it difficult to compete once the depletion of peat stocks led to rising prices of fuel. In contrast with eighteenth-century England, the Dutch Republic did not to make a transition to a 'mineral-based energy economy', which allowed a outlet from the traditional constraints on energy input and productivity growth.

Davis Kedrosky argues that the Dutch government, rather than market forces, prevented a switch to coal. Nonetheless, this does appear to be an example of major economic damage caused by resource depletion.

Soil depletion seems to have caused enough problems in the past that I don't find the lack of recent civilization collapse very reassuring.

I looked into it and posted about it here. It's not currently a crisis. I have some medium-sized concerns that it's being poorly managed.

What about in healthcare?  The Pandemic (COVID) highlight issues with a critical shortage in trained personnel, equipment, and supplies.  The timespan can be considered catastrophic if the focus is on those that died because they could not get the resources they needed.  Since COVID it seems that many health departments have developed plans for critical shortages and how to classify people's conditions and ration care.

Good idea, thanks. This is a bit different from what I was thinking of because I wouldn't call those things “resources,” by which I meant more like the type of “natural resources” that we are told we need to conserve. They are more products/services. The question of shortages in those things is also interesting but is a different economic question I think.

Rome  itself is a possible analogous example, in that the failure of distribution networks caused critical food shortages. That, in turn, was a problem because the economic model of the empire depended on continuous expansion to sustain itself, and the heart of the empire was incapable of supporting itself with locally available resources. Rome went from a city of ~1 million to tens of thousands, and didn't reach that point again until the 1800s. Extend the analogy to a world with no more frontier to expand into (except the technological frontier) and fragility is, I think, the default.

The late bronze age collapse is one where the exact causes are unclear, but in any case, once the long range trade routes stopped, people couldn't get the materials needed to make a lot of bronze tools they'd been reliant on,  the major societies all collapsed in short order, and they didn't recover for centuries (after the start of the iron age, and I doubt that's coincidence since iron and steel, unlike bronze, don't require multiple inputs from different geographic regions).

Various fisheries have become so depleted as to no longer be commercially viable. One of the obvious examples is the Canadian Maritime fisheries. Despite advanced warning that overfishing was leading to a collapse in cod populations, they were fished to the point of commercial non-viability, resulting in a regional economic collapse that caused depressed standards of living in the maritime provinces to this day.

I’d second Peter McCluskey‘s suggestion of fertile soil. So far as I know, the clearest case is the Chaco Canyon civilisation where pollen studies have proved that what is now an inhospitable desert in Nevada used to be a green and pleasant land before the civilisation destroyed itself through deforestation making them unable to keep their topsoil. (And wow, they destroyed it so thoroughly that the place is still desert centuries later.) 

I‘m also leaning towards the idea that at least some other ancient civilisations destroyed themselves in a similar way [1] including the Indus Valley civilisation. Not quite exactly the same thing, but the case of Easter Island cutting down all their trees is a similar case of self-inflicted environmental damage causing permanent harm to the civilisation. (Disclaimer, I’m not a historian or archaeologist.)

And like him, I’m not very reassured by the recent record. There are non-civilisation-collapsing examples of similar phenomena from the 1930s Dust Bowl in the US prairies to the current ongoing desertification of the Sahel ie expansion of the Sahara caused mostly by over-grazing. And the inadequate response to climate change [2] suggests that even the most developed countries haven’t become a lot wiser with modern tech.

Having said all that, I agree with the point that so far everyone has been wrong to worry that we will run out of guano / whale oil / peat / coal /oil / potash / insert resource here. But we seem to be a lot better at finding a technological replacement for [specific valuable resource] than we are at mitigating complex externalities with long-term effects.

 

[1] Basically any civ where the current explanation for their collapse is given as ‘climate change’— that’s the archaeologist equivalent of shrugging and saying ‘they weren’t destroyed by invasion so we dunno’.

[2] with a partial exception for Europe 

There are a few examples in history of civilizations running out of critical resources, usually accompanied by other conflict and calamity. In the most extreme historical cases, these civilizations go extinct in ways that left us with poor documentation, so there may be an anthropic / selection bias which obscures the exact causes of civilizational collapse:

  • Deforestation and the introduction of rats in Easter Island in the 1500s led to [ecological collapse](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Island) and reduction in population from ca. 15k to 2k~3k. However, [some dispute this](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapse:_How_Societies_Choose_to_Fail_or_Succeed#Criticisms) and claim the collapse was due to disease.
  • The 11th century collapse of North African civilization is attributed to exhaustion of resources in concert with foreign invasion. Here exhaustion of resources refers to desertification.
  • The collapse of irrigation in Mesopotamia is attributed to the 13th century invasion of Mesopotamia by Genghis Kahn is attributed and led to the transition of the region into nomadic tribes.

There are several instances of social destabilization following closely on this heels of famine and rising food prices. However, famine is almost always a result of political or economic mismanagement, rather than pure constraints on non-food resources. The Arab Spring is sort of the canonical example of food scarcity resulting in higher food prices and subsequent political instability.

However, political instability is not a de facto result of food shortages. The 20th century saw many famines with relatively limited political consequences: the [Russian Famine of 1921](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_famine_of_1921%E2%80%931922), the [Soviet famine of 1932](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_famine_of_1932%E2%80%931933), the [Great Leap Forward/Great Chinese Famine](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Chinese_Famine), and the [1996 famine in North Korea](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_famine) are prominent examples. It may be noted that none of these countries were technologically advanced or democratic: perhaps free communications are a prerequisite to shortage-induced political instability?

Caveat: history is really complicated, and I am only parroting popular views. I am not a historian, nor do I have any detailed knowledge of these events.

I'm always reminded of a trademark quip of an old chemistry professor of mine: "Thermodynamic says 'yes', kinetic says... 'maybe'."

We will run out of ressources on Earth, because blablabla Second thermodynamic principle something.** Now the question is how fast, in particular how fast compared to either leaving Earth or blowing ourselves up through nukes or AI. If the answer is "not fast at all", then we should not really worry.

**(I'm aware that the Earth is not a close system, but if I understand the physic correctly the system still needs to be stationary, meaning we need to let out as much energy as the Sun send in order not to cook ourselves up. My memories about black body radiation and so on are far away however, so I'm happy to be corrected)

I'm a bit surprised, in general, by the way people in EA/rationalist adjacent circles treat the concerns about ressource usage. Running out of a key ressource seems to me an obvious x-risk, whose probability should be estimated and taken into account, rather than quickly dismissed. 
Besides, from a strategic viewpoint, the "peak everything" crowd has a lot of similarities with us : they worry about long term issues and difficult coordination problems, are treated as lunatics by the mainstream, and generally seem like prime targets for a communication effort on AI-risk and over x-risks.

Tin (mostly due to glass-production) and Phosphorous (for fertilizers) are two more example of chemical elements that we are running out of rather quickly. Not completely and irreversibly, but enough to cause insane price-spikes.

Sand, including high-purity silica-sand for chip production are also running low, and aren't easy to replace.

I'll propose "slack" as a resource that's very hard to substitute away from or create more of, and should be conserved.

All the mechanisms you mention for continuing to increase consumption in a limited-resource world are effective, but have a complexity and fragility cost.  This carries a small-at-any-time-but-large-in-aggregate risk that some mix of temporary shortages and reconfigurations causes a systemic collapse, undoing much of the efficiencies we'd been forced to implement.

I always thought the greatest (moral) argument for conservation was about future generations. Kind of like intertemporal property rights -- who are the Romans to unilaterally deprive us of that magic plant? We moderns had no say in the matter.

A related argument is Tyler Cowen's moral imperative for "growth with rights". If you believe that, then you also believe we have a moral imperative to enable growth in the future, not just today. So with non-renewable resources you should be thinking: will I get more bang for my buck today or later? Better to grow below top speed today to enable future growth. Imagine if all the oil had been refined into kerosene for lighting. Would heavier than air flight have been possible without oil?

I wonder if there are insights from archeology. With destructive analyses it's a similar problem: you need to balance knowledge production today with knowledge production with better methods tomorrow.

I would add here a concept of “Peak everything”: that we can substitute one resource with another, but the result will be that all resources will run out simultaneously. This moment is in the future, but may be not in far one.