Michael Klare has written an excellent article called Consumption Has Finally Caught Up With Us, about the way that unsustainable consumption is beginning to catch up with us.

For most of the 20th century, global stockpiles of vital materials like oil, natural gas, coal, and basic minerals expanded as giant multinational corporations (MNCs) poured billions of dollars into exploring every corner of the Earth in the drive to locate and exploit valuable deposits of extractible materials. This permitted consumers around the world to increase their consumption of virtually everything, safe in the knowledge that even more of these commodities would be available next year and the year after that, and so on infinitely into the future.

But this condition no longer prevails. Many of the world’s most promising sources of supply have been located and exploited, and all of the additional billions spent by MNCs on exploration and discovery are producing increasingly meager results. Ever since the 1960s, the most fruitful decade in the worldwide discovery of new oilfields, there has been a steady decline in the identification of new deposits, according to a recent study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Even more worrisome, the rate of oil field discovery fell below the rate of global petroleum consumption in the 1980s, and since then has fallen to approximately half the rate of consumption. This means we are increasingly relying on deposits found in previous decades to slake our insatiable thirst for petroleum — a pattern that cannot continue for much longer before we will begin to experience an irreversible and traumatic decline in the global supply of oil.

The same is true of other vital resources, including natural gas, uranium, copper, and many minerals. There may be adequate stocks of these materials on global markets today, but the MNCs are not finding enough new deposits of these commodities to replace what we’re consuming. So future shortages are inevitable.

I think this idea – that resource-depleting behavior is bad even when resources seem abundant – is one that a lot of programmers tend to grasp intuitively, and a lot of non-programmers tend not to. Early in their career, almost every programmer has to deal with resource depletion, whether the resource is CPU cycles or memory or communications bandwidth. What programmer doesn’t know what a memory leak is, or why it’s bad even when you have lots of memory? No real programmer, in my opinion. One example that particularly comes to mind is the memory cache inside a modern disk array (or the Revivio appliance). This cache is like a flood-control reservoir, necessary because I/O traffic tends to be bursty, and increasing the end-to-end performance of such systems tends to be expensive. The cache allows a slower device to act like a much faster one, for the duration of one or several I/O bursts, by letting the incoming writes accumulate in the “reservoir” during the burst(s) and then letting them drain later. But what happens when the I/O coming in the front end is continually more than the device can retire out the back end? Think of the reservoir again. The reservoir fills, and overflows, and all hell ensues. Early versions of the Revivio appliance actually had the problem that if this cache ever did fill, performance would actually end up being worse than if we’d never tried to use the cache in the first place. Far worse, even to the point of total collapse. To avoid this “running off a cliff” problem, it is necessary to exert “back pressure” – start slowing down responses, or even allowing requests to time out, well before the saturation point is reached.

In the real world, this “back pressure” comes in the form of rising prices. As demand outstrips supply, prices go up until effective demand falls back to supply levels. Unfortunately, in our actual economy, resource extraction – e.g. mining, forestry, oil and gas extraction – tends to be heavily subsidized, and this has a ripple effect throughout the economy. Because materials are so cheap, manufactured items are designed around replacement rather than repair. They truly don’t make ‘em like they used to. Have you ever seen a celphone-repair shop? Of course not. You don’t repair celphones; you just go out and get a new one. But what happens to the old one? The many exotic materials that went into it – sometimes tons of ore for a few ounces of metal – end up in a landfill, where they’re a toxic liability instead of an asset. It’s just not economically worthwhile to extract and reprocess those materials, compared to the subsidized extraction of more. This is clearly not sustainable – sooner or later those resources will run out – but the equation works out the way it does because of the subsidies. When we’ve mined the last vein of tantalum or niobium, then there will be nowhere to get it except for those landfills, but by then getting it out of the landfills will be more costly than getting it out of the computers and celphones would have been before they were all jumbled together with all sorts of other trash. Today’s distorted economy makes tomorrow’s prospects even bleaker than they had to be. This is exactly the same “running off a cliff” that I just talked about, but with much more serious consequences.

The really sad thing is that this distortion of our economy is mostly done in the name of capitalism. The costs of resource extraction are diffuse, so who pays? Proximately nobody, but ultimately everybody. If somebody dumped a ton of mercury-sodden leach-mining residue on your property, you’d sue and win millions. If they leave it on “public” land, to which they’ve been granted exclusive rights for a pittance, and it seeps into the aquifers and ends up affecting millions, nothing whatsoever seems to happen. Modern (and particularly American) pseudo-capitalism is based not only on government-subsidized land (and ocean) use, but also on the false premise that approximations of costs are not acceptable. Unfortunately, for costs like pollution and resource depletion, approximations are all we have. We can approximate the cost of an activity to each person, and the share of that cost for each entity incurring it, and levy taxes or fees or fines accordingly, but the laissez-faire types resist that at every turn because there’s no perfect proof that this exact cost was incurred by this exact party. So the cost gets dropped on the floor, which we can all tell is an even worse approximation than what we could come up with otherwise, but it’s one acceptable under the prevailing dogma so it’s allowed to happen.

Until it can’t happen any more, because nature and the laws of thermodynamics won’t allow it. There is no free lunch. You can’t get something for nothing. All you can do is defer the cost until later. If anyone ever wonders why I hold the laissez-faire crowd in such utter contempt, it’s because they’re mortgaging my and my children’s future for the sake of their own greed and sloth. Worse, they try to sound noble doing it, misappropriating terms like “liberty” and “freedom” to support their agenda while denigrating a more rational one. They’re stealing not just physical resources but intellectual ones as well. Well, sooner or later someone has to clean up their messes, and it begins with sweeping them onto the trash heap. We need to kill this stupid idea that resources will always be abundant, that there will always be some new frontier to exploit or some technological miracle that will save us from ourselves. Technological miracles are in large part how we raised our consumption levels, but they haven’t affected resource levels. All three laws of thermodynamics still apply, no matter how advanced our technology becomes. We must start performing our calculations based on an assumption of finite rather than infinite resources, and under that assumption small or diffuse costs can no longer be ignored. If there is a technological miracle that will save us, it’s one that will allow us to make better use of those finite resources, and to turn our technology in that direction we must turn economics and society in that direction. Such technology will not develop in an economy distorted to make it unprofitable, and it might no longer even be possible in the economy that will come after. Just say NO to confusing waste with profit.

UPDATE: After I wrote this (but still before it got posted) I found a new report about how water pollution from mine wastes almost invariably exceeds that predicted in environmental impact statements – like that’s news. The figure given for cleanup works out to about $2 for each man, woman and child in the US. That’s only for the sites on the Superfund National Priorities List, and is probably a drastic underestimate even then. How do you like having your taxes pay the bills for companies that pollute our groundwater?