Things don’t have to run out for their scarcity to destabilise us

Economic cornucopians who believe “innovation” and “substitution” will solve every constraint on the resources needed for modern civilisation use a clever piece of misdirection to deflect the arguments of those concerned about limits. They say that the claim by the limits crowd that we will “run out” of resources we need to maintain the smooth functioning of our complex industrial society is nonsense.

But that statement is a straw man designed to avoid the real issue, an issue which we see in abundance all around us today, namely: Things do not have to run out for their scarcity to become destabilising. This is a key argument among those concerned about limits and the effects of those limits on the stable functioning of modern society.

We have not run out of fossil fuels but shortages are creating widespread problems in China and Europe. We are not running out of water in the world, but there is not enough of it in the right place to supply all the needs of those living in the American Southwest. That lack of water is leading to a reduction in geothermal power generation as well. And, drought in California is reducing the amount hydroelectric generation by a third so far this year.

High natural gas prices in Europe are not only affecting those who burn the fuel for heat and transportation, but also those who use natural gas as a chemical feedstock. Two British fertiliser plants ceased operations because the high price of natural gas is making it too costly to produce nitrogen fertilisers.

But there were knock-on effects of that closure which have imperiled the UK meat industry,, because the industry uses these plants’ vast production of carbon dioxide—a byproduct of nitrogen fertiliser production—in stun guns to kill animals before slaughter and for cooling and packaging.

The fertiliser plant closures have now spread to Belgium, GermanyAustria and Norway.

But the effects of natural gas shortages go even further. Natural gas is used extensively in Britain and Europe for electricity generation and electricity prices are sky-rocketing. The rising price of both electricity and heat has now resulted in the shutdown of a large portion of the Netherlands’ greenhouse industry, a major supplier of fresh vegetables and flowers to Europe.

Back in China, the energy crisis is shutting down factories and could lead to shortages of many manufactured goods worldwide. The problem is so acute that the Chinese government has ordered energy companies to secure fuel supplies at all costs.

Earlier this year, the lack of computer chips became a big story as it endangered the production of practically all electronic devices. The worst hit sector seems to be the automotive industry which has seen its sales dip because it cannot produce as many cars due to a shortage of specialised chips made for autos.

Meanwhile, food prices have been rising for a number of reasons: poor harvests due to extreme weather, supply-chain problems, and worker shortages.

With regard to workers, we have not run out of truck drivers. There are just not enough of them to meet demand in Europe. Since its exit from the European Union, Britain has had special problems attracting truck drivers – so much so that it cannot find enough of them to deliver fuel to service stations. Military personnel and tankers are now being pressed into service to deliver that fuel.

On the high seas, shipping containers are suddenly in short supply for various reasons: lopsided trade flows that fail to return containers to their point of origin; periodic port shutdowns due to covid outbreaks that strand ships and their containers; a shortage of workers to unload those containers once they arrive at their destination leading to long delays in returning them to shippers for others to rent – and long lead times for the delivery of newly manufactured containers (because so many shippers have ordered additional new containers).

We are seeing just how much the cornucopian view of the future depends on the smooth functioning of a tightly networked complex global system which is filled with fragilities—fragilities that the pandemic and the emerging scarcity of physical resources and labor are making all too visible.

The long-term sustainability of that system is now being called into question across the board. And, it’s not because anything is running out. The problems in the system are showing up long before that will ever happen.

This post first appeared on the Rescource Insights blog.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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