The Myth of “Natural” Resources

Friday, April 30th, 2010

This Popular Mechanics headline made Shannon Love laugh:

Bioengineers Turn Trees into Tires
Billions of gallons of oil are used worldwide every year to manufacture tires. Bioengineers are developing a plant-based substitute that could replace some of that oil within five years.

If only we could find some plant-based substitute for synthetic rubber:

I think it humorous that we started out making tires from trees but then so successfully and overwhelmingly switched to synthetic rubber that we now find the idea of making rubber from plant materials exciting and revolutionary.

Love says that this demonstrates The Myth of “Natural” Resources — that’s there’s much natural about them:

The history of rubber provides a good example of our ability to create a resource when needed.

To begin with, the “natural” rubber that comes out of plants in the form of latex is useless. It’s a gummy sticky mess that smears and oozes onto everything and then turns brittle and crumbling when dry. To make it even basically useful humans must take action to heat the latex to increase the degree of polymerization in isoprene that makes up the bulk of the sap. Heated, treated rubber was all that raw rubber was used to make for thousands of years — until the discovery of vulcanization, a process in which humans added sulfur to the rubber while heating to make it solid but still elastic. In the last century, humans developed a wide range of processing techniques to turn the raw rubber into many different types of materials, each with different properties. The rubber we actually use is massively altered from that which comes out of the trees.

Okay, you may be thinking, I can see how we invent technology to turn the raw sap into many different materials, but we still need to take the sap from nature in the first place, don’t we?

Well, no. First, we don’t depend on the naturally occurring rubber plants in their natural environment to produce the sap. For centuries humans have been altering the natural environment to create a better environment just for rubber plants. We have informally and formally breed the plants so they will devote more resources to producing latex for us and less to ensuring their own reproduction.

(Also, an important but usually overlooked facet of resources is the human action needed to move a resource from its point of creation to where we use it. Without the ability to transport the sap or rubber from the tropics where the plants grow to anywhere on earth, the utility of rubber is severely restricted.)

Second, we don’t need the latex sap from plants at all. On December 7, 1941, one half of the world’s supply of rubber came from Dutch Indonesia. When the Japanese overran Indonesia in a matter of weeks, they reduced the Allies’ supplies of plant-sourced rubber by that same 50%. Given the importance of rubber for tires, waterproofing, electrical insulation, gaskets, etc., the loss of the rubber could have proven devastating to the allied war effort. 1940s-era technology just wouldn’t work without a material with the properties of rubber. Yet within 18 months the Allies had higher stocks of rubber than when the war started.

How? Well, they just made it. They made it from oil, turpentine and anything else they had lying around. The truth of the matter is that for nearly a century, organic chemists have been able to turn almost any carbon-containing compound into any other carbon-containing compound. The only reason that natural rubber was used at all was because it required the least number of tradeoffs in other resources. With the pressure of the war, the tradeoffs shifted and the Allies shifted to synthetics. After the war, synthetics just got cheaper and cheaper until today the majority of all rubber materials is created from oil and coal using the chemists’ alchemy.

We don’t even have to pump any additional oil to make rubber. Most rubber and other materials made from oil are made from the heavy fractions left over from processing fuel. Without oil-based synthetic materials, refining oil for fuel would produce large amounts of hazardous waste. With the production of oil-based synthetics, not a drop of oil is wasted.

Further, as demonstrated by the Popular Mechanics story above, we don’t even have to use oil or coal. They are just currently just the most convenient and cheap sources of complex carbon compounds.

Rubber is in no way unusual in being replaceable. All supposedly “natural” resource are really artificial resources that we can generate in functionally unlimited quantities. Anything that qualifies as a resource: water, land, iron, aluminum, oil, any organic substance, etc., is created by human action and therefore is not limited by anything in nature.

Long term we never have and never will face a situation where we have to permanently ration a fixed and ever dwindling resource. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or (more likely) massively ignorant of the history of technology.

This truth does raise a question: If humans create “natural” resources, then why do we even have the concept? Why does it seem obvious to most that resources are finite attributes of nature?

Partly this no doubt results from the fact that on time scales of months or years, sudden interruptions in an established system of producing a resource causes severe problems. It is usually not possible to create a replacement resource quickly in response to an such an unpredictable event. This causes people to believe that the resource is fixed and limited because it just seems to disappear. A good example of this illusion is the “energy crisis” of 1973-84 in which it was widely accepted that the crisis resulted from a physical depletion of the world’s stock of ‘oil’. In reality, political interference in the creation of oil caused the crisis and the crisis disappeared when the political interference did.

Long term, it is normal (but invisible to most) that we are constantly shifting how we create every resource. What is useless dirt or ooze in one generation evolves into a vital resource in the next, and then is considered worthless in the next. People used to fight over dead-fall wood for use in household hearths. Today, dead branches are a nuisance that you have to pay people to haul off for you.

Everything we now call a resource was once useless. 200 years ago, aluminum was unknown and bauxite was just a red clay. For nearly, a century after its discovery, aluminum was so rare and expensive it was considered a precious metal. Gradually we learned how to efficiently produce aluminum until today it’s so cheap we use it for disposable drinking containers. Moreover, in the past only one specific aluminum compound was considered a useful ore. Now there are dozens. We even learn how to do without aluminum altogether, such as by substituting carbon-fiber composites in aircraft and other traditional uses of aluminum. This process happens with every resource, without exception. This is simply how technology works, but most people don’t understand this.


  1. Aretae says:

    I wrote about this general subject in February. I used even stronger terms, though I was not as eloquent as [Mr.] Love.

    [Isegoria: I believe Shannon Love is a Mr. Love.]

  2. Aretae says:

    Thanks for the fix.

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