A resourceful take on the human population

What is a natural resource? What is natural? What is a resource? What is the definition of “what”? These are not trivial questions. OK, maybe they are. But they are questions.

Apparently humans don’t agree about what “natural” means. In a way that’s only natural because everything is made of the same natural stuff, namely atoms. So “natural things” can’t just be made out of things made in nature because the things made in nature are made of the same things that “unnatural things” are made of. Plastic is perfectly natural. It’s made of pretty much the same atoms as everything else.

Some worry that we are running out of natural resources. I don’t know of any evidence that we are running out of atoms. Is there a shortage of helium or something? They tell me that when things are scarce the price for them goes up. So my secret to investing success is to watch the price of party balloons. If they start going up, in price that is, then atomic shortages must not be far behind. Buy helium!

Humans are so inconsistent when dealing with shortages. When we are running out of energy, we want to cut back on use. But when we are running out of tax dollars we immediately want to get more. When I run out of energy, the doctor tells me to slow down when I want more energy.

Then, what is a resource? For that matter, what is the source of our resources? I guess a resource is something from which humans benefit. I benefit from tacos, the source of which seems to be my wife. I don’t know where she gets the tacos though. Tacos provide me with the extra energy that the doctor couldn’t. But if humans benefit from a resource, and I benefit from my wife, who is human, is my wife a resource? Or is she a source of the resource?

This actually illustrates a serious concept. If humans are resources, why don’t we worry that we might run out of humans?

Since it takes humans to learn how to take resources from the source and turn them into resources for humans to use, then humans are the first resource we ought to preserve.

For most of history, it seems people thought there ought to be more people. Then in the late 1800s, Thomas Malthus calculated that human populations grew exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8, 16), while food supply grew arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).  He assumed this would mean that population would always outstrip food supply and the population would have to be reduced.

Sounds reasonable, except it hasn’t happened yet. See, Malthus did not count people as a resource. Maybe that’s because we don’t eat them, usually. If one resource, people, grows another resource, food, then shouldn’t both resources automatically increase in number? Of course, food also grows people. The problem seems to be that not enough people are growing food.

If knowledge is power and humans are the source of knowledge, than an exponential increase in the number of humans should increase the amount of knowledge on how to grow more crops. This, in turn, should increase crop production by its arithmetical amount raised to the power of the number of increasing humans. If one resource grows another resource, then increasing the source of the one resource that grows the other should increase the resource that is grown.

Skill and knowledge are resources that are not easy to factor mathematically. What seems to happen is that humans learn to increase productivity based upon an increasing knowledge of how the world works. Increasing knowledge depends, at least in part, on increasing the number of humans. What? Are humans un-natural?

I suppose it’s natural to be concerned about the loss of resources, especially tacos. I’ve noticed we haven’t had them very often recently. Does that mean we need more grandchildren?

Gary McCallister, mccallis@ coloradomesa.edu, is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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Food is one thing, jobs are another. The day where farmers and ranchers feed people for free will never come. We cannot have the population growth we currently have and expect these people to be able to support themselves and be productive members of society, especially with so many jobs having gone out of the country.

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