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Yesterday I posed the question, “how can environmentalists push for government subsidies of green technologies when at their core, they do not believe technology can solve environmental problems?” And they have this position in spite of centuries of evidence to the contrary. Here is but one simple example of how technology can not only slow down an environmental problem, but outright eliminate it.

As we moved into the 1970s the price of copper was increasing fairly rapidly (even controlling for the worldwide inflation of the time). One reason is that people believe the supply is fixed (not really a useful assumption anyway) and another reason is that it was increasing in demand. Why? The world was getting richer, and everyone was having telephone lines installed in their homes – which were made of copper wires.

And then by some stroke of luck, someone figure out that if we take some sand, make it really hot, shape it into wirelike form, we can transmit voice and data signals over it, just like we did for copper – but on a scale unimaginable with copper. And with this fiber-optic cable development, the copper phone wire went the way of the dinosaur.

You might be saying, well, we still have limited amounts of sand, and just think of all of the resources we “use up” in order to create the fiber-optic lines and install them in homes and in the ground. You might have a point. However, does anyone remember Marconi? Someone in the 1980s and 1990s channeled him, and figured that heck, we don’t even need sand to carry these voice and data signals, we don’t even need air! These signals can travel all by themselves throught the atmosphere – and even through a vacuum!

Of course, I believe cell phone use exceeds land line use around the world – and people regularly use their phones or laptops to connect to the web to access unimaginable stores and flows of information. No more copper. No more sand. Virtually no resources (outside of brains) needed whatsoever for billions of people to simultaneous access information and to communicate with one another. Where exactly is the resource problem here? What is unsustainable about this?

Someone will probably have the cajones to say that the little devices we use to communicate are invariably bad and resource dependent, to which two things can be said. First, these objects have been using enormously fewer resources as time has progressed, and there is simply no reason to believe they will not continue to experience these efficiencies. Second, and more important, do we think pre-industrial man did not communicate and access data? Do we think even pre-civilized man did not do so? After all, the ecologocical community is increasingly known for advocating a return to sustainable local living, just like we had before evil capitalists conspired to unleash modern society on all of us.

Did people in those societies NOT communicate? How did they do it? They rode donkeys and horses many miles to bring written or spoken word to others. They constructed, by hand, enormous sailboats made from wood and other sustainable materials. They used animal skins and dyes to mark down the written words to do much of this. I recall learning about pre-industrial men regularly facing wood shortages and I do recall that animal waste is rather unpleasant – even when the waste does not include the carcasses themselves. What about any of that was more sustainable than using air to communicate, with a few inexpensive devices to do the communicating with?

2 Responses to “Problem for the Unsustainables”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    God bless the great Julian Simon!!! 😉

  2. Brian Dunbar says:

    Of course, I believe cell phone use exceeds land line use around the world – and people regularly use their phones or laptops to connect to the web to access unimaginable stores and flows of information. No more copper. No more sand.

    It is true that consumers can connect to their provider using radio. However the provider must use copper and optic fiber from the point of connection (the cell tower or wifi hotspot), internally (wireless in a data center is a non-starter) and to talk to the rest of the internet: radio has distance and bandwidth limitations that copper and fiber do not.

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