Material Progress is Sustainable

February 21, 2001 by John McCarthy

Many people, including many scientists, mistakenly believe that human progress, in the form it has taken in the last few hundred years, is unsustainable,” says Stanford University Professor of Computer Science Dr. John McCarthy. In this article, he presents the scientific case for technological optimism.

Originally published February 4, 1995 as an academic paper, Stanford University, in a longer version. Published on February 22, 2001.

Humanity has progressed over hundreds of thousands of years, but until about the seventeenth century, progress was a rare event. There were novelties but a person would not expect a whole sequence of improvements in his lifetime. Since then scientific progress has been continual, and in the advanced parts of the world, there has also been continued technological progress. Therefore, people no longer expect the world to remain the same as it is.

[Very likely, the greatest rate of progress for the average person occurred around the end of the 19th century when telephones, automobiles, electric lighting, and home refrigeration came in short order.]

We argue that the whole world can reach and maintain American standards of living with a population of even 15 billion. We also argue that maintaining material progress is the highest priority and the best way to ensure that population eventually stabilizes at a sustainable level with a standard of living above the present American level and continues to improve thereafter.

These opinions are old-fashioned according to some people, but they have a lot of support. For example, the biologist E. O. Wilson writes in his excellent book Consilience:

“In contrast to widespread opinion, I believe that the Enlightenment thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries got it mostly right. The assumptions they made about a lawful material world, the intrinsic unity of knowledge, and the potential for indefinite human progress are the ones we still take most readily to heart, suffer without, and find maximally rewarding as we learn more and more about the circumstances of our lives.”

I offer no opinion about a “right” population, and I suspect that population will eventually be limited by a sense of crowdedness rather than by material considerations.

There is a widespread belief that the present standard of living of the advanced countries is not sustainable and not extendable to the present backward countries. I and many others don’t agree. This exposition mainly concerns scientific and technological bases for optimism rather than the historical and economic arguments ably advanced by the late Julian Simon.

Here are some frequently asked questions about sustainability of progress.

Q. What is meant by material progress?

A. Human progress in the last few centuries has included the following.

  1. Increased access to material goods.
  2. Increased life span.
  3. Reduced childhood death.
  4. Increased opportunities for education.
  5. Societies that people choose to migrate to.
  6. More individual choice of occupation, lifestyle and avocations.
  7. More opportunity to enjoy both culture and nature.
  8. Cleaner environment.
  9. Increased consideration for the values in nature, e.g. for the preservation of biological diversity.
  10. Increased concern for less advanced people and their cultures.
  11. More and more new goods and services available to more and more people. Available novelty is a good. Compulsory novelty is often a nuisance or worse.

All this progress was a consequence of the advance of technology and also of advances in government and other social organizations in capitalist society. These other social organizations include universities, societies for the promotion of the arts, trade unions, publications, political parties, and advocacy organizations. Mainly it was technology, which became increasingly based on scientific discoveries.

None of these advances ensure that everyone will be happy. The American Declaration of Independence wisely offers only the pursuit of happiness. However, I believe that progress has resulted in less acute unhappiness. Someone who thinks otherwise should explain how parents were just as happy when half of their children died in childhood.

All these things are dependent on the material wealth of society. People can dispute about how to divide the wealth, but there has to be wealth to divide. Here are some of the questions that have led some people believe this progress can’t continue and some answers to the worries.

Q. Can the world grow enough food for 15 billion people?

A. Yes, it can and with present agricultural technology. With better technology, probably a lot more. Biotechnology based on molecular genetics is just beginning to be applied to agriculture.

Q. Aren’t our forests being exhausted?

A. No. In the industrial countries, the land in forest is stable and the quantity of wood is increasing. In the tropical underdeveloped countries, there is still substantial conversion of forest to agriculture.

Q. Is humanity suffering from an enormous loss of biodiversity.

A. The loss is quite small of the important or individually interesting species like mammals and birds. However, beetle species in the Amazon may be disappearing.

Q. Isn’t the world running out of energy.

A. No. Nuclear and solar> energy are each adequate for the next several billion years. That’s right; billion not just million or thousand.

Q. Isn’t it important to conserve energy?

A. Energy needs to be regarded as just another commodity, to be used in whatever quantity is cost-effective. It is available in whatever amounts may be needed. Treating its conservation as a special goal has been wasteful of human effort. We are the poorer for it.

Q. When will we run out of oil?

A. Twenty years ago, I had been convinced that by the end of this century we would be out of oil directly pumpable from the ground. Obviously, we won’t, and I am cautious about how much oil there is left. Maybe 20 years, maybe 50 years, maybe 100 years, but I can’t see it lasting longer than 100 years.

However, oil can be extracted from oil shale, from tar sands (as it is in Alberta, Canada) and synthesized from coal. These processes(except for tar sands) are too expensive to compete with just letting it just flow out of the ground in Saudi Arabia, but the technology was developed when it was thought oil would run out soon. The costs would be affordable. Taking these sources into account we probably have several hundred years supply of oil, provided “greenhouse” warming permits its use.

Q. What will happen when all these sources run out or if global warming requires severe restrictions?

A. Oil and natural gas are readily replaced by nuclear energy for heating and electricity generation. However, oil is not so readily replaced for transportation. If we can develop good enough batteries, electric cars are a solution. If not, liquid hydrogen will work for cars and trucks.

Q. What about the non-fuel uses of oil and natural gas? Don’t our plastics depend on their availability?

A. Oil and gas are used as feedstocks for making plastics of all kinds, but the amounts are much smaller than their use for fuel. Any source of carbon will do in place of oil and gas – coal or biomass, for example. Oil and gas are used today, because they are cheap, easy to handle and carry the energy required for the chemical reactions along with the materials.

Q. Will we run out of minerals?

A. No. There is plenty of every element in major use. It is a question of the economic concepts of reserves and resources. Iron ore and aluminum ore are presently obtained from very rich ores available in a few places in the world. These ores can be shipped long distances by water at small cost. They are oxides rather than the silicates which present refining procedures don’t handle. The earth’s crust is 5 percent iron and 7 percent aluminum, but most of it as silicates. Refining silicates will require more energy. However, the extractive industries only account for four percent of the American GDP, so we can afford more expensive extraction processes when they become necessary.

Indeed once we can extract minerals from random rock, the only way of running out of an element is to eject it from the planet or to let it subduct under a continent. This is because using quantities of elements doesn’t destroy them. Therefore, the scrap piles will eventually be ores. This won’t happen for a long time, because more concentrated ores will remain available for a long time.

In fact metal ores have become more inexpensive recently as is illustrated by the famous bet between the Stanford environmentalist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon. In 1980 Simon sold Ehrlich (on credit) ten year futures on five metals of Ehrlich’s choosing. The total price was $1,000. In 1990 Ehrlich had to pay Simon $600, because the metals had gone down in price.

Q. Doesn’t the second law of thermodynamics tell us that the lower the concentration of the ore, the more energy it takes to extract it?

A. It does indeed, but the energy required goes up very slowly as the concentration goes down. To separate one mole of a substance from n moles of a substrate requires an energy RT ln n according to the second law. According to this formula, it would pay to extract one atom of uranium from the entire earth. Of course, mineral extraction is more expensive than that, but the second law of thermodynamics isn’t the reason.

Q. What if the population increases?

A. There is certainly a limit to the population the earth can support, and migration into space can only occur very slowly at the present level of technology. The limiting factor may be food, but a feeling that enough is enough may be more important. We will see what happens when 10,000 people try to post to a usenet newsgroup. That won’t require any increase in population – only an increase in the availability of computers. Nevertheless, it will give everyone a taste of a more crowded world. Some people ascribe the increased crowdedness of American national parks to the increase in population. However the number of visitors to Yosemite National increased 2.6 times as fast as the population of the U.S. or of California. The crowdedness is caused by increased equality of opportunity to visit the parks.

Q. How fast is population increasing?

A. In the U.S., Europe, and Japan, the birth rate is below the level required to sustain the population. The population is increasing because of immigration and from the baby boom that followed WWII. It is the grandchildren of the boomers that are keeping the schools going.

In much of the rest of the world the population is still increasing, but the rate of increase is slowing, especially in the big countries of China, India and Indonesia.

There is still a high rate of growth in Africa south of the Sahara, but it also shows signs of slowing.

Q. Is the population problem urgent?

A. Only in a few countries, and it is their problem, because they have sovereignty. People in the advanced countries can only provide technology, but adequate birth control technology has already been provided. For the world as a whole, the population problem may be important, but it is not urgent.

Q. Isn’t the world running out of usable fresh water supplies.

A. No, but some countries may have to spend a lot of money on water projects, just as our ancestors did.

Q. What about the ozone layer, the ozone hole and UV-B?

A. On the theory that chlorofluorocarbons put chlorine in the upper atmosphere which destroys ozone, their manufacture has been banned. A 90 percent reduction would have been just as effective and less economically disruptive, but industry seems to be adjusting to the total ban.

Q. Won’t global warming do us in unless we drastically reduce our use of energy?

A. No. Global warming can be avoided or reversed should it turn out to be a serious problem. However, there is a thorough paper “Why Global Warming Would be Good for You” by Tom Moore of the Hoover Institution.

Q. What about trash and garbage? Aren’t we likely to drown in them?

A. The U.S. produces about 375 million tons of trash and garbage per year. There is no real shortage of land where it can be put. It should be piled quite high. What changed is that before the recent enthusiasm for wetlands, filling in swamps with garbage was the approved thing to do, and the land was available without cost. Now it must be paid for, but the costs are quite bearable.

Q. Given all this uncertainty about the prospects for continuing material progress, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

A. Yes, but material progress is much more likely to be safe than is stagnation. The proposals for limiting progress are likely to cost lives from poverty and make humanity less capable of dealing with dealing with the inevitable emergencies.

The proposals claiming that safety lies in restraining progress are more likely to lead to sorrow than continuing progress in general.

Q. Have environmental and health and safety regulations been expensive to our society?

A. Yes, they have cost about $625 billion per year according to one estimate. [Other estimates are different.] My opinion is that many of the regulations have been worthwhile, but a great many (probably most) have contributed very little when compared to the costs they have imposed on individuals and businesses.

However, our society can survive even a large amount of irrational regulation. I remain an extreme optimist–one who believes the would will probably survive even if it doesn’t take his advice.

Q. Aren’t the people of the advanced countries using more than their proper share of natural resources?

A. People can really be said to use more than their share of something if their use deprives someone else of it. If there is plenty for everyone for the indefinite future, the concept of fair share is meaningless.

The only major commodity whose use in the advanced countries may deprive people of the poor countries in the near future is petroleum. How near is the exhaustion of petroleum is not clear.

When the petroleum supply shows clear signs of running out, perhaps the advanced countries should give the poor countries some extra help in making the transition to nuclear and possibly solar energy. By the time petroleum runs out some, maybe even most, of the presently poor countries will no longer be too poor to solve their own energy problems. Any country, which like the U.S. today, spends only 8 percent of its GDP on energy can afford to solve its own energy problems.

Q. What does it matter whether we believe progress is sustainable or not?

A. Important policies depend on it.

  1. If progress were not sustainable, then it would be important to reduce consumption of whatever resources were limiting progress. It would be the particular duty of the countries using the most of these resources.
  2. Since progress is sustainable, and there is no limiting resource in the short term (next few hundred years and probably much longer), the most important way to help the poor countries is to help them develop more or less along the path pioneered by the richer countries–skipping some steps when possible.
  3. The richer countries should continue their progress, both for the sake of their own citizens and because the richer the country is, the more it is likely to do to help others.