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The Age of Substitutability

H. E. Goeller and Alvin M. Weinberg
The American Economic Review
Vol. 68, No. 6 (Dec., 1978), pp. 1-11
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2951003
Page Count: 11
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The Age of Substitutability
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Abstract

The paper by Goeller and Weinberg addresses the problem of long-run resource availability on the basis of empirical data different from, and as pertinent as, those that have been drawn upon in the economic literature. The authors have gone through the entire periodic system examining all the elements plus some important compounds, to determine the flow of their extraction in 1968, and estimate for each the total resources potentially available according to a rather generous definition of potential sources--the atmosphere, the ocean and a mile-thick crust of the earth. The ratio of total resources to demand in that year is expressed for each element in years to go until exhaustion at the constant 1968 rate of extraction--a simple signal of relative abundance or scarcity. Through the entire list and in the cases where there is a clear indication of a finite life time, the authors trace the important uses and possible substitutes in these uses. On the basis of their scrutiny of these geological and technological data, Goeller and Weinberg pronounce the principle of infinite substitutability: With the exception of phosphorus and some trace elements for agriculture, mainly cobalt, copper and zinc, and finally the CH_x (coal, oil and gas), society can exist on near-inexhaustible resources for an indefinite period. This line of thought suggests that when you look very far into the future quite a different type of information becomes important. Traditional econometrics doesn't help us much here. There is a type of thinking here that draws on basic scientific notions and knowledge, and that economists might well take note of.

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