October 12, 2008
Scientist Sees Resource Constrained Future

Robert Criss says the big problem is exponential population growth.

Oct. 7, 2008 -- It's a 500-pound gorilla that Robert Criss, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, sees standing on the speaker's dais at political rallies, debates and campaigns. Its name is population growth.

"Population growth is driving all of our resource problems, including water and energy. The three are intertwined," Criss says. "The United States has over 305 million people of the 6.7 billion on the planet. We are dividing a finite resource pie among a growing number of people on Earth. We cannot expect to sustain exponential population growth matched by increased per capita use of water and energy. It's troubling. But politicians and religious leaders totally ignore the topic."

Some argue that since disaster was predicted in the past and did not happen that pessimistic views of resource depletion should be dismissed. I'm reminded of the boy that cried wolf. The wolf eventually came.

A substantial portion of the American population are using non-renewable sources of ground water.

The United States is experiencing rapid population growth at a rate higher than almost any other developed country along with increased food production, Criss says. In many areas, especially the West, the practice of "mining" ground water to irrigate arid or semiarid land, which won't work in the long run, is becoming commonplace. "Energy and water use are intimately related," he says. "As water tables decline, you have to use more energy to lift the water out of the ground. That's what a pump has to do in places like Arizona where water levels have dropped many hundreds of feet. More people, more water use, more food, more energy. It's not sustainable."

Criss says approximately 150 million Americans use ground water, most of which is nonrenewable.

Market pricing of water can keep demand and supply in balance. But as water tables decline in Arizona will the price of water get so high as to make people migrate out of the state?

Some people do not see a resource-constrained future. They point to the big decline in oil prices as a sign that oil shortages are a thing of the past. But they aren't looking closely at the cause of the declining oil prices: US oil imports fell almost 10% in a single month. Fast and big dips in demand will lower prices.

The monthly trade report contains data on the price of imported oil. Friday's report said the average price per barrel in August fell to $119.99 from $124.66. Even with a price drop, U.S. crude import volumes eased to 308.38 million barrels from 342.02 million, amid a faltering economy.

Recessions and financial crises aren't what I want to count on to lower oil prices.

If we are headed into a economic Depression (and I have no idea) then oil demand will drop far enough that lower prices can be sustained for a while. But if we are (hopefully) not headed into a Depression then I would expect this oil price dip to be temporary. Economic growth in Asia will eventually boost Asian demand by more than enough to displace lost US demand. If one wants to be optimistic about future oil supplies one either has to point to large discoveries (and by large I mean each year discovering more than we used that year) or signs of a rapid scaling up of oil replacements.

Nanotechnology will eventually change the resource scarcity picture. In particular, energy limitations are solvable in the longer term. With nanotech assemblers photovoltaics will some day be very cheap and wind will become cheaper as well. With a lot of energy lots of materials become substitutable for each other. But I'm not expecting that sort of drop in fabrication costs in the next 10 years.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 October 12 06:08 PM  Trends Resource Depletion

JoeKing said at October 12, 2008 7:10 PM:

Julian Simon...where are you when we need you?

Professor Criss would be better served if he stuck to hydrology. Using the value laden (Malthusian) term of "exponential" population growth & then stating 2.1 children/woman, the "replacement" level for MAINTAINING a constant population; suggests to me he is just attempting to get a headline or doesn't understand demographics.

From my readings, the world population is expected to peak mid-century & return to current levels by the end of the century...hardly "exponential" growth.

Has the 800lb Gorilla been dieting...or is Criss' just a little less ..obvious?

c23 said at October 12, 2008 7:36 PM:

JoeKing, the UN has a department that publishes demographic predictions, and they are the source of the oft-cited prediction that population will peak at 10 billion or so around 2050, and then decline. But if you look closely at their methodology (and I have), they just assume, for no particular reason, that the total fertility rate of all countries will converge to 1.85 and stay there. In fact, the TFR of many countries is already well below that and dropping, and on the other hand, there are segments of the population with much higher birthrates, certain religious groups for example, and there's no reason to believe that they will fall (more likely the low fertility segments will be selected out and the high fertility segments will be what's left, at least if you accept that human behavior is subject to natural selection, unlike liberals who believe that the brain is magic).

It's almost circular reasoning. If you assume population growth will converge just below replacement level, then you conclude that population size will eventually slowly shrink.

Here are their assumptions if you're interested: http://esa.un.org/unpp/index.asp?panel=4

Paul Ehrlich and his kind did a tremendous amount of damage with their wolf-crying. Nobody pays attention to this issue anymore because of them.

Randall Parker said at October 12, 2008 8:28 PM:


If Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich had repeated their famous bet in 2000 or so Ehrlich would have won.

2.1: The US also has immigration boosting our population growth.


Yes, there are countries which have pretty stable high fertility (e.g. Niger, Afghanistan). The analyses that assume the whole world will have declining fertility do not explain why this will be.

Also, the drop in fertility amounts to a strong selective pressure. Eventually alleles that boost fertility will increase in frequency enough to boost fertility.

rbl said at October 12, 2008 8:32 PM:

The claim that groundwater is non-renewable is just non-sense. The underground aquifers have a finite capacity; any excess water eventually seeps out into streambeds. People pump this water out, make constructive use of it, and then flush it down the drain. It then goes to a sewage treatment plant, where it's cleaned up, and dumped into the same steam it would have seeped into anyway. Other communities close to the stream find it cheaper to pull their water from the stream and use it again. The same water is used many times before it finds its way to the ocean. There are some agricultural areas, like maybe West Texas, where the water table is gradually dropping, but do we really need to grow cotton in semi-arid West Texas? In Arizona, a lot of their water problems are due to golf courses and lawns; if water prices are allowed to rise to reflect a scarcity, you'll see less grass in Arizona.

Criss himself complains, in the same article, about water shortages and floods in this country. Is this indicative of a true resource shortage, or just a distribution problem?

As far as energy goes, much of the world is turning toward nuclear power, where even inefficiently used uranium will last for thousands of years. The main problem there is long construction lead times for reactors and the delays imposed by anti-nuke hysterics. Energy is not really in short supply; only petroleum fossil fuels have gotten more expensive, due to unanticipated demand increases. Randall, you should pay less attention to the peak oil and resource scarcity mongers. They have a weak grasp of the technical issues and no confidence at all in our ability to resolve them with more sensible economics-driven conservation and technical improvements.

Randall Parker said at October 12, 2008 9:25 PM:


Sure, the underground aquifers have finite storage capacity. But I fail to see how that amounts to a rebuttal. In some parts of the US (and the same holds for other countries) we are pumping out of those aquifers far more quickly than they refill. See here for some examples of aquifer depletion in the US.

As for people having weak grasp of the technical issues: I read petroleum engineers, petroleum geologists, and petroleum reservoir physicists on oil depletion. They seem to have a very strong grasp of their issues.

Unanticipated demand increases: Not for oil. If you look at long term demand increase for oil nothing that's happened with demand in the last 10 years is surprising. What changed? The supply response. Since 2005 supply has hardly increased at all, bumping along on a production plateau.

Distribution problems: It costs a lot of energy to pump water from, say the lower Mississippi to Nebraska or the Dakotas. Aquifer depletion in the high plains could therefore eventually cut into food production.

David Govett said at October 12, 2008 9:35 PM:

I am heartily tired of linear extrapolators. Ever heard of nanotechnology and its application to desalination? I predict that, by mid century, Australia will be watering its interior deserts. The world is mostly water, so the forecast of a water shortage bepeaks the lack of imagination and unfamiliarity with technological trends.

BDP said at October 12, 2008 9:36 PM:

The oil drum (anz section) a day or two ago posted some interesting discussion on coal seam gas as a future substantial source of energy. It appears there are numerous opportunities to produce this cousin to natural gas -- As the prime product - crude oil becomes too expensive, there will be numerous substitutions including coal seam gas, solar, nuclear, hydro etc etc.
Prices for energy will no doubt become relatively more expensive, but the utter crunch and price spike that the peak oil true believers espouse will be substantially moderated. With some luck and some good government policies as well as entreprenurial investment, we may muddle our way through the transition from crude oil as our prime energy source.

failure of these alternatives to come into play could result in a very pessimistic scenario. However, this slow down does establish that there is more price/demand elasticity in the energy markets than commonly believed.

Randall Parker said at October 12, 2008 9:46 PM:

David Govett,

40 years from now is 40 years after the next 39 years. We do not have a time machine. We are stuck with the shorter term effects of population increases, industrialization, and resource depletion.

Forecast of water shortage bespeaks of a basic understanding of trends that are not going to change for the better any time soon. That they will change some day doesn't mean things won't get worse before then.

Fat Man said at October 12, 2008 10:30 PM:

Twaddle. Just as wrong now as it was in the 1970s. Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg have this one right. Populations in North America, Europe and Asia are in the process of stabilizing/declining. Data from Africa is very bad. Only the Middle East is a real problem. Resources are defined by economics and technology, not nature.

Finnsense said at October 12, 2008 11:46 PM:

"Resources are defined by economics and technology, not nature."

What a bizarre comment. Quite clearly there are finite resources available at any given time. The extent to which you can maximise the use of resources is determined by economics and technology.

The population assumptions aren't really credible. Even if we assume the population will peak at 12 billion and not 10 billion, there's enough of most things to go around. We're very wasteful as a species and the economics will drive conservation.

To respond to a specific point about the oil price: If output stayed stable it would drop to about $50 per barrel but OPEC are talking about cutting output to keep the price around $100. In any case, in five years the price will be back at $100 whatever OPEC does.

Mthson said at October 13, 2008 12:58 AM:

Australians use a fraction of the water that Americans are used to. When the crunch comes, the government and media will support whatever's needed.

James Bowery said at October 13, 2008 6:55 AM:

The question is less whether we are resource constrained than in _which_ critical resources we are constrained.

Right now, the most critical resource in which we are constrained is the supply of competence in positions of trust and authority.

Brock said at October 13, 2008 9:09 AM:

Well crap. If only we have an entire scientific discipline devoted to the efficient allocation of scarce resources.

Tj Green said at October 13, 2008 5:07 PM:

Vertical farming would save water. and the Sahara forest project would produce water.

JoeKing said at October 13, 2008 7:58 PM:


I think you are beside the point when you say that Simon would have lost the bet. Simon's premise was that the cost of the 10 comodities would not rise because of.... scarcity. The fact that market aberrations have caused a price increase doesn't prove he was wrong. Was oil in July scarse & has now..magically become abundant?

Thanks C23 for the UN tautology..talk about CYA. All they left out was a "Mass extinction" event. By their criterium the world population estimate tolerance would be..what +/- 5 billion?

The fertility rates are directly related to prosperity. Look at the last 100 years for proof. So the next 100 years it is logical to assume that if the 3rd world prospers the lower estimates will be closer to truth. This is not necessarily good. Lower fertility by definition causes an older population, but..I'm not worried... 60 is the new 40..right??..please???

Randall Parker said at October 13, 2008 9:03 PM:


Scarcity? What does that mean?

I see that the Saudis boosted output for a while and at the same time high prices drove a huge change in behavior and then the financial crisis scared people and forced people to consume less. So prices fell. This was not magic.

cancer_man said at October 14, 2008 6:58 PM:

"Was oil in July scarse & has now..magically become abundant?"

There was not even close to a demand drop that coincides with a price quikcly dropping 40%.

At some point you need to get a grasp of basic oil economics.

Randall Parker said at October 14, 2008 7:29 PM:


Small mismatches in supply and demand can cause large price swings.

As for the price dropping 40%: That's an illusion. Very little oil traded at $147 per barrel. Much sold in longer term contracts. If you look at average imported oil prices per month the drop has been pretty small. Look at my excerpted quote. The drop was only $5 per average imported barrel from July to August. Yet the daily price change from peak in one day in July to the lowest day in August was far larger.

cancer_man said at October 15, 2008 9:33 AM:


What do you mean by "small mismatches in supply and demand"?

How do you get a "mismatch" unless the government steps in and sets up price controls?

averros said at October 15, 2008 7:44 PM:

> Scientist Sees Resource Constrained Future

This scientist is quite stupid. If he would actually apply his brain for a second to the task of thinking he'd understand the fundamental insight of economics: the resources are scarce, period. They were scarce in the past, they will be in the future.

>"Resources are defined by economics and technology, not nature."
> What a bizarre comment.
> Quite clearly there are finite resources available at any given time.

But which resources are _economically_ available depends on technology.

You don't get iron ore buried mere 10 feet in the ground if you don't have a shovel.

Similarly you don't get the enormous (more than mass of all planets together) stores of raw metals and hydrocarbons floating freely in asreroid belt, Kuiper belt and Oort cloud if you don't have space colonies and fast enough rockets.

> Well crap. If only we have an entire scientific discipline devoted to the efficient
> allocation of scarce resources.

Crap, indeed, though we do have this entire scientific discipline. The crappiness comes from the fact that most people are too ignorant and/or brainwashed to understand the fundamental result of this discipline: the free market produces the most efficient allocation of scarce resources. Anything else is worse, and often disastrously worse. As in "Weimar republic worst".

Randall Parker said at October 15, 2008 10:22 PM:


We've had arguments about economic terminology in the past if memory serves. Do you really think you are making an important point when you try to do semantic quibbling? That you are explaining some economic concept that I haven't already learned a couple of decades ago?

As for mismatches between supply and demand: They happen all the time in free market economies. Capitalists very frequently misforecast demand and find themselves with either too much or not enough goods. You can argue that there's only the market price which is the price at which supply and demand always match (absent perfidious government intervention of course). But looked at from the standpoint of firms supply and demand mismatches are frequent events.

cancer_man said at October 20, 2008 6:49 PM:


It isn't semantics but concepts.
And there is no such thing as a "mismatch" between supply and demand unless price controls are put into place as we saw in the 1970s.

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