Non-renewable Resources – Leave Them in the Ground?

The principle of consuming resources at a rate no faster than their rate of renewal appears to be untenable in the case of resources whose renewal rate is almost zero, as is true of fossil fuels, gas, oil, and coal, also fissile uranium and thorium.

The mention of fissile materials necessitates examination of the of the “fast breeder reactor” whose promise encouraged a casual attitude towards energy conservation for some. This was more of an issue in the past but an examination of it will take place in a digression after this posting.

Are non-renewable resources not to be used at all simply because their renewal rate is practically zero? This would seem nonsensical.

A better answer would be to examine all the uses to which non-renewable resources are put and find ways of meeting these needs with renewable resources.

The renewable resources would need to be used no faster than their renewal rate and their use would not be able to deplete other resources by causing their renewal rates to be exceeded.

The next step would be to reduce the consumption of each non-renewable resource until its consumption rate is low enough to allow it to be replaced totally by a renewable resource without exceeding the limits imposed by the criteria in the previous paragraph.

An important point is that the consumption rate would always have to be limited by the actual state of technology at the time. Some people will say that all non-renewable resources can be used as fast as possible because market forces will always be able to produce the technology and provide the materials to replace them at any desired level of consumption.

Basing economic planning on this kind of nonsense rather than on actual existing conditions is not good enough when all people vitally depend on working, sustainable economic systems. No amount of technological breakthroughs or business brilliance can break the barrier imposed by the earth’s limits. This has been discussed in the post “Depletion and Inflation”. To sum up, consumption is determined by resource availability; current economics thinks it is the other way around.

The current belief that consumption creates wealth and makes economies bigger and stronger and that consumption must always be maximised to give any hope of full employment is the reason for the fingers-crossed attitude towards resource depletion. That belief is disposed of in other posts. If it were replaced by a realisation that (i) maximised consumption actually undermines economies and destroys jobs, and (ii) a thrifty society with consumption not growing can still be a full employment society, then a more practical approach to the use of non-renewable resources could follow.

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