Coyle, David Cushman. Conservation: An American Story of Conflict and Accomplishment.
Rutgers University Press
Pages 56, 57 and 58
The conservation of natural resources normally becomes necessary as the population grows, for the danger of running out of raw materials grows at the same time. Wherever people are scarce and raw resources are plentiful -- as in pioneering days -- the people will naturally save their own labor as much as they can at the expense of a lavish use of the local raw materials. As the population increases and raw materials begin to grow scarce, the people finally will have to pay a high price for the preservation and increase of these valuable materials.
During the transition from the pioneer stage to the crowded stage, the more prudent citizens will begin to call for more economical management of resources and the less prudent will resist, not wanting to pay the price for something that does not seem to them to be necessary. This difference in viewpoint necessarily leads to controversy. The details are not so simple….
A second reason for the necessity of conservation is the development of technology that increases the demand for raw materials. In the United States the strain on natural resources has come not only from the growth of population but also from the rise of the standard of living. A century ago railroads and factories were demanding more and more coal and iron. Today radios, automobiles, plastics, and other new products call for raw materials that our ancestors never knew about. High-speed tools and jet engines require alloys of rare metals, many of them coming from far parts of the world which may not always be open to our buyers. We depend on resources of more and more kinds and in greater quantities per person. It is easy to say that science will find substitutes for anything that becomes scarce. But the trend has been for science to require more different raw materials rather than fewer.
Technology not only makes conservation more necessary, it also tends to make it seem less necessary to many of the voters. Much of our ingenuity is devoted to inventing methods for getting raw materials faster. Where our ancestors used pick and shovel and one-horse plows, we use bulldozers and gang plows drawn by tractors that eat petroleum instead of hay. We have invented techniques for smelting low-grade ores, so that we can use up deposits of metals that were safe from the crude mining efforts of our ancestors. We can squeeze the orange harder and get more juice more quickly. The effect of these new ways of getting the last drop is temporarily to make the resource plentiful, often also reducing the cost and increasing the profits of the producers. But the end will come sooner too. Every advance that lets us mine a leaner copper ore or sink the oil wells to a deeper level uses up some reserve that otherwise would have been left for Americans of the twenty-first century to discover. In the meantime both producers and consumers are tempted to take for granted that the engineers can go on finding new techniques and opening up new resources forever.
During the period when resources are only beginning to be scarce a business system like our does not lend itself readily to the prudent use of resources, mainly because of the behavior of prices.
The usual trouble with prices during the wasteful period is that they are too low to pay the private operator for conservation. Lumber prices will pay for the cost of cutting, manufacture, and distribution with a good profit as long as the companies can get virgin timber from the government at a nominal cost, but the price may not cover the cost of protecting and restoring the forest. The farmer can grow wheat or cotton on virgin soil and make a living, with no surplus, however, to invest in terracing and grass or tree planting. The zinc miner can afford to carry on even when prices are low provided he can "pick the eyes of the mine," taking only the richest ore and leaving the rest perhaps to be flooded and abandoned as hopelessly unprofitable.