By Hugh Henry and Daniel J. Dyke
What is Earth’s greatest natural resource and why does it matter in the context of taking care of our planet?
When God created Earth, he filled it with “natural resources” such as water and land and vegetation and animal life. Then God created humans and provided us with a powerful brain. Was that brain the ultimate natural resource?
That’s the thesis of a 2018 article from American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) entitled “There Are No Natural Resources.” The article focuses on the philosophy of the late Julian Simon, a University of Maryland economist whose “most notable contribution is his demonstration that the human mind is, as he described it, ‘the ultimate resource.’ The human mind is the ultimate resource because it, and only it, creates all of the other economically valuable inputs that we call ‘resources.’”
Consider how human ingenuity exploited some of these “natural resources” for our benefit and advancement:
- Minerals (including petroleum): Humans developed extraction technology and found productive uses – including manufacture of tools to develop other resources.
- Soil and precipitation: Humans developed horticulture to increase productivity of wild fruits and vegetables, thus moving humanity from subsistence to bounty.
- Clay and sand: People produced bricks, glass, and even semiconductor chips.
- Trees: After burning wood to cook and combat cold, humans developed the lumber industry to build shelter and means of transportation.
- Water, including rivers and lakes: Humans use water for agriculture and use waterways for commerce and the production of electric power.
The list is endless.
In Genesis 1:28, God charges humanity to “subdue” and “rule over” creation. We concluded in a previous article that this charge means God commands and equips people—as his image-bearers—to be problem-solvers who use ingenuity to make life better. In the context of Simon’s philosophy, perhaps our creative mind––the ultimate natural resource––is the tool God provided humans to fulfill this command.
Unfortunately, Simon may represent a minority position among secular scholars. A more frequently heard viewpoint says that humanity is harming the planet and overutilizing “scarce” natural resources.
The scarcity concept goes back to Thomas Malthus’s 1798 monograph, Essay on the Principle of Population,1 which predicted widespread famine due to population growth. Although Malthus has been proven wrong continually, his idea has endured for over 200 years. Simon relates that in 1865, social scientist W. Stanley Jevos estimated that England’s industry “must soon grind to a halt” due to exhaustion of coal and that “there was no chance that oil would eventually solve England’s problem.” Simon also observes that the US government estimated a 10 years’ supply of oil in 1914, a 13 years’ supply in 1939, and a 13 years’ supply in 1951. Human ingenuity has proven all such predictions wrong; and in modern times, “fracking” has greatly increased available reserves of oil and natural gas.
This same pattern applies to other natural resources. Canadian economist David S. Jacks has tracked real commodity prices 1850–present, and his data shows a pronounced downward trend. Credit Suisse has charted average real base metal prices over the same time period, and a 25–35% reduction is apparent. According to basic economic supply-demand principles, this means commodities are more plentiful today than they were 170 years ago despite massive utilization. Human ingenuity has consistently overcome fears of scarcity.
Our earlier article also discussed a corollary to Genesis 1:28. As God’s image-bearers, humanity is God’s steward to preserve his creation. But humans are not gods; we make mistakes that have negative consequences. For example, since industrialization brought prosperity, people did not object to a few industrial smokestacks or a small amount of waste in a river; but widespread industrialization caused problems. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire near Cleveland, Ohio. The event triggered an emphasis on cleaning up air and water pollution. Today a blogger refers to the Cuyahoga as “an incredible fishery.” People who complain about air and water pollution in the US today do not realize how much it has improved over the past 50 years—a fact that illustrates not only human effort and ingenuity to correct our mistakes, but also the self-healing that God programmed into creation.
Zoologist and author Matt Ridley recalls how human ingenuity solved environmental problems over the past half century:
In the 1970s, the future of the world was bleak. The population explosion was unstoppable. Global famine was inevitable. A cancer epidemic caused by chemicals in the environment was going to shorten our lives. The acid rain was falling on the forests. The desert was advancing by a mile or two a year. The oil was running out, and a nuclear winter would finish us off. None of those things happened. . . . [Instead] the average per-capita income of the average person on the planet, in real terms, adjusted for inflation, has tripled. Lifespan is up by 30 percent in my lifetime. Child mortality is down by two-thirds. Per-capita food production is up by a third. And all this at a time when the population has doubled. . . . [humanity is] the only species that becomes more prosperous as it becomes more populous.2
Most people over 60 remember these problems. God-given human ingenuity fixed them, even if they were self-inflicted. Back in the nineteenth century, it is widely believed that development of kerosene as a cheap, plentiful replacement for whale oil saved the whale from extinction. These and similar human efforts seem to illustrate the stewardship aspect of Genesis 1:28.
Ridley’s recollections also highlight an oft-heard secular viewpoint that humans are an evolutionary accident that is destroying the planet. The apocalyptic predictions he cites represent a pattern of doomsday forecasts evident since the Ban the Bomb movement, which warned about nuclear war and fallout in the 1950s.
Apocalyptic predictions continue today. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns of disastrous consequences unless carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are drastically reduced. Unlike industrial air pollution, CO2 is neither toxic nor poisonous.3 It is naturally occurring—exhaled by humans and animals and absorbed by green plants via photosynthesis, which God created for ecological balance. Yet CO2 is also a byproduct of the industrialization that has so improved the human condition—and that is perceived as the problem.
This is not an article about the science of global warming or “climate change”; it is about human ingenuity. Let’s consider some basic principles. Christians believe God is in charge of history, and that God has a plan. We believe in God’s benevolent providence, and in the promise of the Noahic covenant that God will not destroy humanity (Genesis 9:8–17). The IPCC’s computer models should be taken seriously, but they are not hard scientific data. The models can be wrong, but even if they are right, is it possible that human ingenuity can address these problems without draconian measures? Many secular authorities believe we can. Prominent environmentalist Michael Shellenberger echoes Genesis 1:28 when he says, “Richer countries are more resilient, so let’s focus on making people richer and more resilient.”4
The real issue comes down to worldview: do people believe the Bible or not? Is human progress God-inspired, or is it not? If it is God-inspired, we need not panic and be stampeded into drastic action which will roll back those advances. We can trust God and continue to move forward as his image-bearers and as commanded by Genesis 1:28. That mandate includes using Earth’s greatest natural resource, the human mind, to make life better by responsibly managing God’s creation.