Since the dawn of human time, civilization and resources have been inexorably linked, powering and making possible every part of our existence. As our existence has evolved and expanded, so too have our needs, making resources ever-more critical for the advanced, global societies we seek to continue building.
Resources have been the key to nearly every social and technological advancement we have ever achieved, and resource scarcity has conversely been the cause of major problems both in the past and in our time today. Throughout history, the societies and nations of mankind have all attempted to mitigate scarcity through varied constructs: laws and social policies; ideologies and political movements; technological innovations; the rewriting of borders; and, ultimately, war. Yet these approaches have almost universally sought to avoid resource scarcity by addressing its varied symptoms – rarely, if ever, have they dealt with the core problem itself.
It is for that reason why I believe they have failed.
A true solution doesn’t cure the symptoms. It cures the disease. In the case of resource scarcity, our cure comes from technology – and more importantly, how we can use it.
Technology provides the solution to resource scarcity because it allows us to extract resources more efficiently and with less expense. It also allows us to advance the means in which we acquire resources in terms of scale, sophistication and potential. Over time, we have developed and depended on technology to solve resource scarcities – which has led to breakthroughs that have changed the world, even if we didn’t realize it at the moment.
- The years following WWII gave rise to the threat of the first global resource crisis: food scarcity. Humanity was rapidly expanding in population and feeding the planet was becoming progressively more difficult. This crisis was detailed in The Limits to Growth, a 1971 paper that predicted catastrophic consequences for humanity should it fail to curb population expansion. These predictions were well reasoned, yet they never came to fruition. Why not? Technology came to the rescue through industrialized farming techniques, high-performance fertilizers and genetically modified crops, all of which increased food production to the extent that Earth now supports 7.5 billion people and counting – twice the population of when The Limits to Growth was published.
- In the 1800s, aluminum was extremely rare, considered to be one of the most valuable metals in the world. Today we throw it in waste receptacles. What made the difference? A method called electrolysis, which allowed us to inexpensively extract aluminum from its naturally occurring form, bauxite. This method made aluminum extraction easy and inexpensive, dropping its cost to almost nothing. (Next time you throw away that soda can, though, realize that not 150 years ago it was worth its weight in silver).
- The need to obtain water by traveling to a location and carrying it back used to be a massive time expenditure for everyone within society, a problem that still exists within much of the developing world. Yet for the developed world, the invention of modern plumbing brought water to us on-demand. This collectively saved people trillions of hours in free time and removed a major impediment to cascading economic growth.
- Sugarcane was introduced to Mediterranean regions around the 7th century and thereafter remained a major luxury commodity. As a valuable cash crop, sugar was heavily taxed and was a revenue source for government, making it a driver of the slave trade. Yet when technology introduced the steam engine and methods of vaporization in the late 1800s, the cost to refine sugar plummeted to less than 5% of its former price.
In each of these examples, a once-scarce resource was made both abundant and inexpensive as a function of technology, for technology has the unique ability to expand the scale of resource production while also lowering costs. But in the past, technology only really improved our ability to extract resources that were naturally present – and, over time, extraction has proven to be unsustainable as our natural resource supplies eventually dwindle. But what if we shifted gears to develop systems that could instead synthesize resources at scale?
For the first time in history, that’s a capability we now possess today.
The past three decades have seen transformational breakthroughs in several critical industries. Information technology has been transformed by the advent of high-performance computing at low cost, which alongside similar advances in networking, has ushered in an unprecedented capability to collaborate on state-of-the-art initiatives with sophisticated virtual modeling. It’s further enabled to-the-second global logistics and a degree of operational reliability that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Polymer and material sciences have been transformed through the creation of synthetic substances that rival hardened steel in strength at a fraction of its mass, yet also present revolutionary benefits in terms of conductivity and flexibility of form. Large-scale manufacturing can now rapidly build complex machinery on assembly lines at a level of precision that would have been nigh-impossible until the latest decades of our modern era. Combined, these advances allow us to engineer and build solutions to problems on much larger scales than ever before.
To put this in perspective, most nuclear power plants in the United States were built between 1970 and 1990. That means a good deal of them were designed and built without the aid of a calculator. The same is true with other types of power plants and larger-scale social infrastructure. Yet today, we have the capability to design a power plant on a computer and build it on an assembly line, much as we build a toaster.
To be sure, we can build many things with these increased capabilities. But the starting point is to build a system that can sustainably produce resources. And not just any resources, but the five most critical:
WATER, FOOD, ELECTRICITY, FUEL AND BUILDING MATERIALS.
Above all else, these are the most important resources for our civilization to operate. Without water, nothing grows and nothing lives. Without food, we starve. Electricity is the currency of capability and information, and is the glue that holds our modern social framework intact. Fuel provides high-density energy in standalone contexts where electricity is not present, and building materials enable us to advance, repair and extend the infrastructure that enables our civilization to flourish.
These are the resources that are most essential to powering our advanced economies, and these are the resources most likely to spark conflict when they become scarce.
The purpose of Scarcity Zero is to act as this resource-producing system, and it works by leveraging three critical concepts: standardization, modularity and, with these two in place, cogeneration.