I was in my junior year of physics, and one of my professors laughed as he shared an old article in his thick, Eastern European accent. It was one of those articles talking about how we are all going to run out of space if the population keeps increasing.
The article read something like this.
There are 200 million square miles on the earth. There are 4 billion people on the planet. That means there is only 250 square feet per person!
This is shocking! 250 square feet isn’t enough to even build a house. If you have an average household of 4 people, then those who have houses larger than 1,000 square feet are taking more than their fair share.
Of course, their math was wrong. There are 5,280 feet per mile, or 5,280 × 5,280 square feet per square mile. That’s 27,878,400 square feet per mile. If there are 200 million square miles, then there are 6,000,000,000,000,000 square feet of land on the earth. That leaves about 1,000,000 square feet or land per person on the earth.
A similar mistake is made by Scientific American, of all places. (link) Trying to predict when we will run out of things, they make such bold prophecies. The problem is that none of this can possible be true. Thanks to the power of free markets, we are all but guaranteed an inexhaustible supply of resources. Provided, of course, that we allow the free market to work.
The way it works is this. If there is a shortage of a useful commodity, then the price will rise according to the shortage. As the price rises, people stockpile and protect the supply in hopes of future profits. This alone will ensure that we’ll always have the commodity available in one form or another to those who truly need it.
But something else happens, something that Adam Smith underestimated. That thing is innovation. As the prices rise, the incentive to find a replacement commodity or reduce our dependence on the commodity increases. Eventually, innovation will come to bear on the problem, and we’ll find ways to either more efficiently use the limited resource or find something else that solves the same problem.
Let’s suppose that we really are running out of oil. Forget, for a moment, whether or not the earth is creating oil and whether or not there is any oil yet to be discovered, and ignore all the oil that we know about but don’t want to spend the money to extract yet. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend oil is actually being used up and we’ll actually run out.
One thing that will happen immediately is the real price of oil will increase. This will cause people all over the world to use less of it. If some government wants to subsidize the oil in their country, that is fine, the country will simply have to find a place to fig up the cash to do so—likely from the same people who buy the oil.
The commodities market will react by stockpiling reserves. If we know for certain that oil is going to run out, then whoever has oil when it runs out will be a very, very rich man. This will further deplete the amount of oil available for consumption today, but will make oil available in the future. This will further drive the price up.
With the price of oil shooting through the roof, people who rely on oil will begin investing their time and resources into finding real alternatives. Whoever discovers a way to replace oil will make a handsome profit from it. And with the innovation, we won’t need oil anymore.
Unfortunately for alarmists, the earth has enough and to spare. This is because it is a creation of a loving God and not a random event. All the resources of the earth are there for us to use wisely for our benefit. And there is plenty for everyone, as long as we are willing to live according to the laws of Nature and not of man. There is enough land, water, food, and minerals for everything we need.