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Writes Jason Crawford on One man’s junk in his insightful Roots of Progress blog:

“Natural resources” are anything but.

I have said this before in the sense that everything we get from nature comes in an inconvenient form: metals must be extracted from their ores; grain must be milled or threshed and the wheat separated from its chaff; crude oil must be refined into its constituent weights.

But the more philosophical point is that all resources are the product of the human mind. A “natural” resource is only a resource at all in the context of a particular technology. It is only a resource to someone who can look at it and understand its use and value. And it is only a resource to someone who has the technology and the capital to extract it from its environment and put it to that use.

You can see this in the stories of the early development of industries.

Before the oil industry, there were known places where oily sludge or tar would seep out of the ground; people might skim some of it off a pond to light a torch, but no one was drilling it and no one considered it “black gold”.

The Marquette Iron Range near Lake Superior, which disrupted compass readings and attracted lightning, was known to local Chippewa tribes only as the home of a thunder god, until miners arrived to prospect and extract the ore.

The Chinchas Islands off the coast of Peru, covered in seagull droppings, were for a time the most valuable real estate in the world, owing to the value of guano as fertilizer—but before that discovery I can only imagine that sailors literally steered clear of them, owing to the overpowering stench.

But you can see the principle perhaps most starkly in the stories of valuable resources that were once considered waste products of industrial processes. 

Crawford then goes on to list and elaborate on resources that were once waste products: natural gas, portland cement and cast iron.

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