Brett: Knowledge is the thing that makes the existence of resources infinite. The creation of knowledge is unbounded. We’re going to keep on creating more knowledge and, thereby, learning about more and different resources.
There’s this wonderful parable of europium in The Beginning of Infinity where David talks about when the first color television started to be manufactured about 60 years ago. There was a cathode ray tube type where you’d fire a stream of electrons at a phosphorescent screen. The phosphorescent screen would have these pixels, three different colors, one of which was red, and those red phosphors on the screen were filled with the element europium.
The interesting thing about europium is, when you put electricity through it, when you excite it, it glows with this red color. The extra-interesting thing about europium is that it is the only such element on the periodic table; it’s the only chemical that will do that. If you fire electrons at it, it will glow the red that you need to have for color television.
It was calculated that there’s only a certain amount of europium on the earth, and that amount of europium was quickly being consumed by cathode ray tube manufacturers. So the scientists had a perfectly robust mathematical theory about how the number of cathode ray tubes was finite; therefore, we’re going to run out of cathode ray tubes.
It’s true, in a very narrow sense, that for any given resource you’re going to have a finite amount on planet Earth. Of course, there’s going to be europium in outer space and you could probably mine it there, but the deeper point is that no one has cathode ray tubes anymore. The whole idea of color television has nothing to do with the extraction of europium these days.
We’ve all got LCD screens, we have plasma screens, and there will probably be something else coming in the future that will have absolutely nothing to do with the kind of technology we have today. But we’re still going to have color television or color screens.
This is true for absolutely any resource that we can think of.
You might very well make a perfectly good Malthusian calculation that we can’t keep on burning wood if you happen to be living on the African savanna, because eventually all of the forests are going to be burned down. Obviously, we’re going to run out of wood. There’s a finite amount of wood. Even if you can grow more wood, eventually the consumption of wood is going to outstrip the amount that’s there. And this is the argument that’s made for coal, oil, and everything else that we happen to be consuming.
Naval: Even so-called empty space has a lot of matter and a lot of things that could be converted into energy. There is no limit to the number of resources out there. There’s purely a limit to knowledge.
Unfortunately, there’s a pessimistic assumption here that people make that human creativity is bounded, and I think it’s the people who have not built things, who have not created new things from scratch, who seem to feel this the most.