Just a thought

Vaclav Smil has a book coming out. In it he argues that economic growth cannot continue because dematerialisation isn’t happening. We still use resources to have growth, resources are limited, therefore growth will stop.

Well, yes. Except he goes and measures the resources we are using. The one thing he doesn’t look at at all is the resources that we’re not using. That is, by definition, he’s only looking at the resources we’ve not dematerialised the economy from.

I’m pretty sure that, for example, that the global economy is entirely dematerialised from the use of the guano that built Tyntesfield.

If anyone knows of – I’ve already asked USGS – a database of natural resources that we used to use but no longer do then get in touch.

35 comments on “Just a thought

  1. Whale oil, mostly. I should think all plant-based resources are still used, plus all the minerals used in ancient times.

  2. Cedar of Lebanon. Ancient Egyptian boats couldn’t be built today because cedar planks that long just don’t exist any more.

    Various dyes: I don’t think we make Tyrian purple or indigo from sea snails any more.

    Horses — at least in the developed world — have become a hobby rather than a mode of transport.

  3. Flints? Doubt there’s much use for that now, whereas access to flint was a pretty big deal for Stone Age man.

  4. “In it he argues that economic growth cannot continue because dematerialisation isn’t happening. We still use resources to have growth, resources are limited, therefore growth will stop.”

    I can’t answer your specific question, but when someone doesn’t drive to Blockbuster and just buys a movie from iTunes, that’s dematerialisation, isn’t it? Someone uses their phone sat nav and avoids a traffic jam, that’s dematerialisation.

    I started riding the bus more just because of contactless cards and apps. No need to remember to get cash, or have change. And apps tell me the bus times, sometimes, even live tracking, so I stand out in the rain for only a couple of minutes. I’ve used liftshare to save money and fuel.

    And if the resources start running out, we’ll do a lot more of this. Does liftsharing mean more growth? Maybe not, but even if that’s a dent, it’s a very small dent, while other growth goes on elsewhere. A lot of these things, like driving vs bus are really marginal. The bus takes 3 minutes longer, people take the car.

  5. C-Stoff and T-Stoff.

    Smil is a dick. People will quit using resources when they are no longer available, or they find something better. There is no need for society to say, “You can’t use that, because it will run out some day.” It is self regulating.

    People like Smil who demand dematerialization want dematerialization. Talk about resources is just noise, trying to get you to accept it. It really has nothing to do with resources.

  6. What we really want is a time series showing use of resources and GDP. Pretty sure the GDP one will be going up faster than the resources one, and it’s possible that the resources one might be going down (or at least heading towards that). No idea how you’d get the data or even measure that though.

  7. Tangentially, there was an article in the Sunday Times magazine a couple of weeks back featuring some families who had chosen to live off grid. They were proud not to be linked to utilities, but collected rainwater and cooked on an open fire. Meanwhile, in the developing world, the priority for improving health and saving the environment is to connect people to safe water and sewage disposal, and to stop them needing to cook on open fires.

    Go figure….

  8. Yes, that’s what prompted the thought. I’m going much further than McAfee on this. Have in fact written to him about it too. The real way to show economic dematerialisation is to show those resources we don’t use any more.

  9. Didn’t they used to collect piss in barrels to use in some sort of basic chemical production system?

    It was used for the production of saltpetre, a component of gunpowder. Supposedly, the piss from the clergy was considered the most desirable.

  10. Jim,
    That reminds me of something I read in “London Labour and the London Poor”. There used to be people whose job was collecting dog-poo for the training industry.
    Think of all the dog-poo that goes uncollected, or gets bagged and left hanging in trees.

  11. I find it incredibly dispiriting that almost forty years after the publication of Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource, supposedly intelligent people still come out with this Limits to Growth, Club of Rome crap.

    It makes one wonder if there might be some ulterior motive to their ignorant spouting? /sarc.

    It amazes me, the amount of arrogant, ignorant, stupid, misanthropic and plain evil crap that gets treated as honest scholarship these days.

  12. Bloke in Wales,

    There may actually be a good reason for that.

    THe clergy were relatively well-fed and didn’t do much physical work. Their piss will probably have contained a lot more urea than pleb piss.

  13. Tiny in the grand scheme of things but

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteoric_iron

    Ancient Egyptians, Namibians, Inuit and Tibetans had to use iron from meteorites before iron smelting techniques were developed.

    Though wouldn’t surprise if small-scale artisanal uses today mean we’re using more of the stuff than the ancients did…

  14. @Jim October 11, 2019 at 1:22 pm

    A BBC history docu with Lucy Worsley showed male (no female) urine was used in clothes washing

    @Silverite October 11, 2019 at 1:56 pm

    Saw that docu too.

    “dog-poo bagged and left hanging in trees” – not just here then. I can’t figure out why peeps do that

    @Kevin B October 11, 2019 at 2:18 pm

    +1

  15. “dog-poo bagged and left hanging in trees” – not just here then. I can’t figure out why peeps do that

    If I’m in sympathetic mood, I reckon they hang it up at the start of a circular walk to empty their dog(s) and forget to collect it (or can’t find it) at the end. In an unsympathetic mood I just reckon they’re lazy, antisocial, selfish arseholes. Still, it’s much, much worse in France.

  16. Welsh coal-not much of that in use these days
    Reeds/wicker not exactly major resources anymore
    It’s reused elsewhere but we don’t eat as much of an animal as we used to, brains/tounge/trotters etc. so a change in use at least
    Rabbit also used to be common along with a range of other animals
    Things change and trying to make a theory out a particular change only works until the next thing changes

  17. THe clergy were relatively well-fed and didn’t do much physical work. Their piss will probably have contained a lot more urea than pleb piss.

    That’s the predominant theory, yes. The thinking is that it is because bishops especially drank a lot more alcohol, particularly red wine.

  18. “ they’re lazy, antisocial, selfish arseholes. Still, it’s much, much worse in France.”

    Because the French are much, much more lazy, antisocial and arseholes? Although that’s probably what you were implying

  19. Would that be why the cartoons (umm, Gilray? ) often showed the clergy with gout?

    90% of gout is hereditary, caused by a mutation that reduces the body’s ability to eliminate urates from the blood. It can be the result of diet, but you need to have a lifestyle emulating that of Edward VII to get there.

    If (like me, my brother and maternal grandfather) you’re unlucky enough to suffer, you can control it either by diet or by popping an allopurinol once a day. Grandad was a riveter in the Hartlepool shipyards – grouse and port did not feature in his diet (though Strongarm and Newcy Broon may have played a part).

  20. @BniC October 11, 2019 at 11:11 pm

    we don’t eat as much of an animal as we used to, brains/tounge/trotters etc. so a change in use at least

    Tongue still sold, makes a nice sandwich. Plenty of heart, kidney & liver in supermarket too. Most of rest goes into sausages, pies, haggis etc or pet/animal food or exported

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