Introduction by Richard G. Newell
This 1963 article—based on the formative book Resources in America’s Future: Patterns of Requirements and Availabilities, 1960–2000 by Leonard Fischman and longtime Resources for the Future (RFF) scholars Hans Landsberg and Joseph Fisher—posed an important question: “Can the United States, over the balance of the twentieth century, count on enough natural resource supplies to sustain a rate of economic growth sufficient to fulfill all of [its] aspirations?” The authors answer with “a qualified yes,” and 60 years later, it’s clear that the authors were largely correct—at least with respect to their focus on material resources and aspirations for increased living standards.
The past 60 years have seen a continuance of many of the trends highlighted in Resources in America’s Future. The US economy has grown threefold in real terms since 1963, and the US population hit 330 million in 2020—up from 180 million in 1960. Less than 1 percent of the workforce is now engaged in farming, mining, logging, and other direct production of raw materials—down from 10 percent in the 1960s when the article was first published. And more than 80 percent of the US population now lives in cities or suburbs. Large-scale exploration of space has accelerated and now has substantial private-sector engagement. As the article highlights, market forces that encourage increased productivity and efficiency, substitution to less scarce inputs, technology innovation, and world trade all have underpinned this continued ability to resource the US economy.
Yet, the authors’ qualification—which relates more to what they call the “quality” as opposed to the “quantity” of resources—has taken a different turn than they expected almost six decades ago. They understood that management and protection of the environment and natural resources is a more difficult challenge than privately-traded commodities, and they raised a warning flag over the deterioration of the environment, such as “burned-over forestland,” “abandoned strip mines,” and “pollution of water.” Other scholars at RFF would continue to highlight the importance of addressing the worsening problem of air pollution, offering up innovative policy approaches for doing so. And of course, the need to protect global atmospheric resources from climate change was unappreciated at the time this article was written—it has since emerged as, by far, the greatest environmental challenge of our time.
Nonetheless, the solutions remain the same: increased efficiency, substitution to clean energy and other processes that don’t emit greenhouse gases, and technological innovation that enables a net-zero-emissions global economy. Moreover, past success in delivering material resources for economic activity demonstrates that human ingenuity—guided by enlightened policy, market, and financial forces—can deliver the necessary solutions that will help stabilize the climate. This realization should leave us optimistic, despite the hard work in store for us ahead.
Article by Hans H. Landsberg, Leonard L. Fischman, and Joseph L Fisher
First published in 1963, in Resources no. 13.
At first glance, natural resources may not seem to be as important in the US economy as they used to be. The resource industries like farming, mining, logging, and other direct production of raw materials represent a steadily shrinking share of the total economy. Less than a century ago, half the working population of the United States was engaged in such pursuits. Today, one-tenth of the working force performs these tasks (and turns out five times as much). More and more Americans—already two-thirds of the population—live in cities or suburbs.
The country is well along in the change-over from a “products” economy to a “processing and service” economy. But this does not mean that natural resources become less necessary. It suggests, rather, the magnitude and diversity of activities that now rest on the base of natural resources—manufacturing, transportation, marketing, government, education, national defense, the arts, and the many other aspects of modern society. Natural resources—land and its products like timber, crops, and livestock; water; the mineral fuels; and metals and other nonfuel minerals—are still the indispensable physical stuff of which civilization is built.
For a long time, the United States has used more resource products than any other country. In 1952, the President’s Materials Policy Commission noted with some awe that, since the beginning of the First World War, consumption of most of the fuels and other minerals in this country alone had been greater than total world consumption for all the preceding centuries. That was eleven years ago. The national appetite for source materials has grown since then. And it will keep on growing. A much larger number of people—perhaps around 330 million by the year 2000 as against 180 million in 1960—will want an even higher average level of living than today’s: better diets, better housing, more cars and consumer goods of all kinds, better educational and cultural opportunities, more facilities for outdoor recreation, and so on. At the same time, they will insist on a strong defense establishment, and apparently they will want to continue large-scale exploration of outer space and programs of assistance to less-developed countries.
Can the United States, over the balance of the twentieth century, count on enough natural resource supplies to sustain a rate of economic growth sufficient to fulfill all of these aspirations? That is the central question behind Resources for the Future’s broad inquiry into the future domestic demand for natural resources and the goods and services derived from them, and into the prospects for meeting such requirements.
The answer is a qualified yes. With due regard to the requirements of other countries, the indications are that the American people can obtain the natural resources and resource products that they will need between now and the year 2000. Whether or not they will depends on how hard and how well they work at it.
Growth in the Economy
These graphs show the projected (red range) and actual (white line) growth for several economic metrics in the years 1930–2000.
“Neither a long view of the past, nor current trends, nor our most careful estimates of future possibilities suggest any general running out of resources in this country during the remainder of this century … The possibilities of using lower grades of raw material, of substituting plentiful materials for scarce ones, of getting more use out of given amounts, of importing some things from other countries, and of making multiple use of land and water resources seem to be sufficient guarantee against across-the-board shortage.
“There is, however, great likelihood of severe problems of shortage (or, as in the case of agriculture during the next decade or two, of surplus) from time to time in particular regions or segments of the economy, for particular raw materials. Deficiencies either of quantity or quality in the environmental resources of land and water undoubtedly will also occur in some instances.”
These conclusions, qualified as they are, relate almost entirely to the physical side of resource problems. Problems of quality, touched on only briefly in the study, are equally important and probably more difficult.
“Simply having enough oil, metals, land, and water would not spell a satisfactory life for most people. For example, there is surely enough land for urban expansion for many years to come and probably for outdoor recreation, also, but the quality of it could be allowed to deteriorate to the point where it would yield unsatisfactory services. Similarly, burned-over forestland and abandoned strip mines lie ugly and useless for many years unless treated and restored. Pollution of water does not usually prevent its use, but it does make use less pleasant and more costly. The relationship of people to resources, which usually has been expressed in terms of quantity, needs to be restated for modern times to emphasize what is happening to the quality of resources.”
Questions of resource quantity alone give one plenty to think about; since Malthus’s time a century and a half ago, the fear that the earth’s material riches will run out has preyed on people’s minds. In recent years, especially since the President’s Materials Policy Commission brought out its report, scarcity has been thought of more in terms of cost than of physically running out. While this refinement modifies the problem of scarcity, it is not in itself a solution. If the costs of obtaining scarce natural resource products or developing substitutes should rise significantly in relation to other costs, society would be devoting increasing shares of capital and manpower to their production; this would be a drag on the continued rise in average levels of living that is hoped for.
The estimates of possible US needs for the next four decades developed in the new Resources for the Future (RFF) study suggest resource requirements of unprecedented size. The projections indicate a tripling of requirements for both energy fuels and metals by the year 2000, almost a tripling for timber, and almost a doubling for farm products and for withdrawals of fresh water. Other important uses of water, such as recreation and dilution of wastes, cannot as yet be statistically measured.
The conclusion that such amounts can be available—plus the quantities needed in the years between—depends on three assumptions: continuing gains in technology, improvements in political and social arrangements, and a reasonably free flow of world trade. Two other assumptions on which the whole system of projections rests are that there will be no large-scale war or widespread economic depression like that of the early 1930s.
Growth in Vehicle Miles Traveled
The actual number of vehicle miles traveled (white line) fell short of the 1963 prediction (red line), but grew through the year 2000, nonetheless.
Undoubtedly, there are limits to particular natural resources in particular places, but this has not meant that, through history, resources have in any general sense become increasingly scarce in this country. The degree of economic scarcity varies not only with the intensity of demand for resource products but also with the technology of exploiting them or developing substitutes.
“The early frontier farmer, hemmed in by forests and trying to work a field full of stones with a crude plow, was probably not impressed by a superabundance of cropland … The limits of economic scarcity have been pushed back in step with the growth in demand—and sometimes even faster.”
The limiting factor usually is not the physical volume of any substance within the confines of the earth, but the cost of obtaining the desired materials and making them useful.
For each of the major groupings of resources, the generally favorable outlook is contingent on steady improvements in technology and keeping political and economic arrangements abreast of developments.
If crop and livestock yields do not keep rising, the projections of ample supplies of food and fiber will not be realized. Even when one assumes the development of faster-growing hybrid trees and better forestry practices in general, shortages of domestic timber might be a brake on economic growth without larger imports and some substitution of light metals and plastics for wood. Space needs of growing cities and highway systems and the very large expected increases in demand for outdoor recreation could cause a shortage in the total land supply, unless effective programs of more intensive use or of multiple use are developed.
In many instances, adequate supplies of fuels and of the nonfuel minerals appear to depend on better methods of discovery and extraction, or larger imports, or both. For some metals, even world supplies may become inadequate by the end of the century, so that substitution of more plentiful materials—either natural or synthetic—may have to provide the escape hatch from scarcity. For the next few decades, adequacy of usable fresh water depends more on better social machinery for devising and administering broad river basin programs than on gains in technology, though both will help.
Growth in the Transportation Sector
In their original article, Landsberg, Fischman, and Fisher estimated that the number of private vehicles would exceed the number of people aged 20 or more by the year 2000, if the observed 1930–1960 trends persisted. That prediction did not come to pass.
Even though recent trends are in the right direction, the required degree of technological and institutional advance cannot be expected to come about automatically. The general conclusions that point to the potential adequacy of supply are projections of what can happen with appropriate public and private action, rather than predictions. The detailed findings that indicate possible scarcity for certain resource products are not predictions, either; they simply point to a need for especially vigorous action.
The need for continued technological advance calls for large, varied, and effective programs of research and development in science, engineering, economics, and management, backed up by a strong system of education at all levels. All this, in turn, will require discriminating but large-scale investment. Maintenance of a reasonably free flow of world trade raises questions of tariffs and other import controls and of overseas investment: How can the advantages of low-cost materials from abroad be reconciled with national security, the position of affected regions and industries in this country, and the interests of friendly nations? Needs for flexibility and innovations of public policy will be especially great in management of land and water resources—how, for instance, to take the social, economic, and legal steps that will facilitate a shift from low-value use of water in irrigation to higher-value municipal and industrial uses; or how to make sure that planning for both urban growth and larger timber output allows for recreation space and sheer natural beauty.
“We do not envision any single, monolithic Resource Policy, through the application of which all resource problems will be solved … Policies, like actions, tend to come in bits and pieces, never thoroughly consistent in their direction. The real task is to make them more consistent, to fit them more to a well-conceived pattern. Clearly established general objectives and well-designed processes of policy debate and formulation, plus systematic review and evaluation, offer the best guarantee of policy improvements.”
Hans H. Landsberg was a senior fellow (1960–1983) and senior fellow emeritus (1984–2001) at Resources for the Future. He passed away in 2001.
Leonard L. Fischman was a consulting economist and fellow (1973–1979) at Resources for the Future. He passed away in 2015.
Joseph L. Fisher was a founding member of the research staff and president (1960–1973) at Resources for the Future; he also served in the US House of Representatives (D-VA) in 1975–1981. He passed away in 1992.