There is a very common human failure, one born out of hubris, self-centeredness, and a touch of solipsism. It can be expressed as “if I, personally, can’t envision how something would work, then it won’t.” Phrased thus, it sounds silly, but it’s an attitude that’s at the core of distrust of free markets and live-and-let-live. It’s why people demand their surrogates impose the controlling policies they support, instead of simply trusting that things will work themselves out. It’s what’s behind central planning and heavy-handed regulation. It’s why people get nervous about letting market forces rather than bureaucrats and technocrats sort matters out. It’s why doomsaying about peak oil, Malthusian famines, ecological catastrophe, and the existential perils of global warming draw more eyes than “relax, free markets have worked things out throughout history, and will again.” It’s why people are increasingly buying into the notion of permanent underemployment due to automation.

It’s even ironically, perpetuated through mockery.

In doing a bit of research for a(nother) global warming blog post, I discovered a few nifty tidbits:

1 – The infamous quote “everything that can be invented has been invented,” attributed to Charles H. Duell, the head of the US Patent Office in 1899, is apocryphal and rooted in a joke.

2 – “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement,” attributed to Lord Kelvin in the 1890s as well, is also a misattribution. He never said it.

These quotes are often cited ironically in order to discredit those who think innovation and ingenuity have or will run dry, but how many who mock Duell and Kelvin truly trust free-market human innovation to overcome today’s problems? How many who share these anecdotes about intellectual hubris are “free rein” types who trust that man will continue to out-innovate the negative pressure of population growth vs finite resources?

Lord Kelvin, by the way did say “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible, which puts him in the “arrogant ass” category that Al Gore, Michael Mann, James Hansen, Bill Nye and other alarmists belong to. These alarmists have a commonality: they demand action on global warming that ignores any possibility that human ingenuity will, in the next few decades, innovate us out of the supposedly existential threat of global warming.

There is much we worry about that we really needn’t. Some posit that we will eventually run out of oil/gas/coal, that this will be an apocalypse, and that “we” (meaning: government spending other people’s money) need to plan for it. There’s a long history of “peak XXX” warnings made by supposedly smart people, and even those who trust innovation sometimes ask if there is “peak innovation.”

Here’s what happens, though. A “peak” resource won’t suddenly run dry, like a faucet being turned off with one quick twist. Every resource is extracted at a cost, and that cost varies widely with location. If memory serves, petroleum in Saudi Arabia is pumped out of the ground at a cost of $3/BBL. That figure is about $30/BBL for shale oil in North Dakota and in places where hydraulic fracturing is necessary. If the price of oil is $20/BBL, North Dakota shale oil isn’t worth drilling for. But, if the Saudi oil field dry up, the price of oil will go up as global supply decreases. This makes oil that’s more expensive to extract commercially viable. It also incentivizes pursuing other energy sources. The profit motive is a powerful motivator. The linked Reason article makes the same point about lithium (batteries), neodymium (magnets), and phosphorus (fertilizer). If each of these important elements becomes more expensive to extract using current means, alternative sources will become profitable, and alternative technology will likely emerge.

Yes, I wrote “likely.” We cannot say for certain that we will innovate out of every problem humanity faces in the future. And, it is a reality that there are finite quantities of everything. But, life isn’t about “certain.” Life is about playing the odds. Every day, we play the odds. We step out of our homes, facing the possibility that we might get hit by a truck when we cross the street, or eat something that will make us sick, or come into contact with a person who’ll infect us with something, or trip over our shoelaces, hit our heads on the pavement, and die. We could choose to stay in our homes, but a gas leak or carbon monoxide emission might kill us. There really are no certainties, just likelihoods. One of the strongest lessons of history is that human ingenuity has an extremely high likelihood of continually solving our problems and making our lives better. We should learn to trust it more.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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