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Scarcity, Innovation, & Resilience

October 11, 2006


This summer, as oil prices looked like they were heading towards $80 per barrel, Stephen L. Sass, a professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell University, penned an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled “Scarcity, Mother of Invention” [10 Aug 2006]. Sass wrote his article to calm the handwringers who see ahead of us a bleak and unhappy future. He begins:

If oil hits $100 a barrel, the impact on our economy and lifestyle could be catastrophic, the handwringers warn. But while such a specter seems novel and terrifying, it is in fact familiar and useful. Throughout history, shortages of vital resources have driven innovation, and energy has often starred in these technological dramas. The desperate search for new sources of energy and new materials has frequently produced remarkable advances that no one could have imagined when the shortage first became evident.

Sass then continued with a brief history lesson about how scarcity led to innovation.

Consider the transition from the use of bronze to iron in making tools and weapons, which occurred around the 12th century B.C. Early in the second millennium B.C., iron was known as the stuff of meteorites. It was rare and highly prized: if you wanted to give a gift to a pharaoh or a king you didn’t give a gold dagger but an iron one. But when the eastern Mediterranean fell short of tin from which to make bronze, a technological revolution occurred. Artisans learned to extract metallic iron from iron-rich materials by heating with charcoal (a process called smelting), which caused the price of iron to fall by a factor of 80,000 over 1200 years. The Iron Age had begun.

Later, in Britain in the 1600’s, another shortfall would drive still more invention. As the British empire expanded, demands increased on the island nation’s natural resources, particularly its forests. The British used so much wood for heating homes, building the ships of its mighty fleet and making charcoal to smelt iron and to fuel other industrial processes that there was eventually a shortage that has been called a ”timber famine” in England.

Wood shortages drove the use of coal. But coal had never been the choice fuel for smelting iron because it contains sulfur, which renders iron brittle. Indeed, King James II of Scotland was killed in 1460 by an exploding cannon fashioned from brittle iron. Abraham Darby, the owner of an iron foundry at Coalbrookdale along the Severn River in the west of England, solved this problem when he developed a process to drive the unwanted impurities from coal, producing coke in 1709. Coke was so cheap that Darby could sell cast-iron pots and kettles at prices accessible to common folk.

The story goes on. In order to dig for coal, deep mine shafts were sunk, and these tended to flood. The steam engine was first developed to pump out the mines. The steam engine in turn became the primary new source of power for the Industrial Revolution. All of which came about because of a shortage of wood. Eventually, this cycle of shortage and invention would lead to the canal system in England, railroads and thermodynamics.

The bottom line is that the very process of developing alternative sources of energy to replace fossil fuels may yield benefits beyond our imagining.

Sass ends his upbeat piece, however, with a warning about could happen if we fail to innovate. The consequences, he asserts, could be devastating.

On a recent drive across the country, my wife and I visited a 1000-year-old Indian village that is being unearthed slowly in Mitchell, S.D. The village existed for less than 100 years, because its inhabitants ran out of the wood they used for fuel and to construct their homes. Forced to migrate to the Missouri River, these Indians became the Mandan. Many years later, Lewis and Clark wintered with the Mandan at the start of their long expedition west. If there is anything to be learned from history, it’s that we need to face the harsh reality of fossil fuel scarcity and begin something like a Manhattan project to develop clean, economical, and preferably sustainable new sources of energy. Just as importantly, we need to innovate on the side of conservation and efficiency. The Indians of Mitchell were able to move to the Missouri, but if we use up, or more realistically, greatly deplete, the resources of this earth, we have no place to go.

A former Saudi oil minister used to warn his OPEC compatriots that the stone age didn’t end because the world ran out of rocks. If the global economy is going to remain resilient, it must move beyond the fossil fuel age into a new alternative energy future — and we shouldn’t wait to move forward until we run out of fossil fuel.

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