Getting resourceful about resource scarcity

Maximizing the availability and utility of our remaining resources is key

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You have been exposed to numerous scientific reports, convincing op-eds, detailed industry briefings, alarming investors’ notes, and speeches by the world’s top experts on natural resources. Yet you’re still not sure whether the world is headed for apocalyptic shortages over the next 20 years, will suffer inevitable environmental degradation fuelled by unexpected abundance, or just chug along thanks to continued technological progress. How can this be?

The reason, of course, is that the truth is far more complicated than we often think. For one thing, while we use the same data points to conduct our analysis, we construct radically different “mental models” about which drivers are relevant, and how they interplay to define the future availability of natural resources. These different representations of reality prevent us from defining a common view on what matters where and for whom. This doesn’t just make it hard to agree on the problem – it makes it near-impossible to work effectively and collaboratively on solutions towards developing and sustaining our water, food, energy and mineral resources.

In a new World Economic Forum report, we have highlighted this disagreement between the world’s top experts and taken a new approach to exploring the future of natural resources. In doing so, we hope that we have developed tools to clarify discussions and enhance mutual understanding between the people most concerned with and able to influence the future availability of resources.

Building on interviews and workshops involving more than 300 global experts and decision-makers over the course of three years, the report reveals that the perceptions of key stakeholders can be divided into four separate and often-conflicting worldviews.

The first group is convinced that the world will run into hard, physical limits of critically-needed resources. They point to the fact that demand for these resources is growing exponentially while supply is finitely bounded. A second group argues that, while most resources are abundant physically, a range of socio-political risks, regulations, and new technical complexities are pushing costs up and leading to pressures on outputs. The third group views scarcity as a temporary market failure, arguing that technological innovation and market mechanisms will inevitably lead us towards abundance. Finally, a fourth group claims that the levels of total availability are irrelevant: what matters isn’t whether the world will have sufficient resources on average, but how these resources are distributed, and which populations are at risk of critical resource crises.

Each of these world views is absolutely correct given the assumptions held by their respective advocates around geography, timescale, affected people, and resource type, as well as their assessment of the importance and direction of drivers of change. The trouble is there is little or no common ground between them, and it is a lack of discourse around these differing positions on resource availability that is preventing the establishment of a shared view that is so essential for their effective and sustainable management.

How do we create this shared understanding? First of all, an open and honest debate to challenge all assumptions about future demand and supply of natural resources is needed to gain a better understanding of what we do or do not know about each driver. Then and only then can we create a common language for experts and thought-leaders from different specialities and backgrounds to discuss practical solutions to the most pressing resource challenges we can already observe or anticipate under specific scenarios.

In reality, whether the world as a whole will have sufficient resources to fuel our human activity in 2035 depends only marginally on current physical reserves, and much more importantly on “above-ground risks”. Save for limited, yet still extremely concerning, exceptions such as fisheries or specific freshwater basins – our world has sufficient stocks of resources to respond to social and economic needs to 2035 and beyond. Due to the systemic nature of our resource trading architecture, resource nationalism and local critical shortages do risk, however, creating global crises, as we have already begun seeing in many parts of the developing world in particular. Meanwhile, we must work to ensure that our resource (mis)management does not keep further eroding the environment, our most valuable, yet least valued, source of natural resources.

Maximizing the availability and utility of our remaining resources, and minimizing any negative impact on the environment, will require decision making on the part of local and global policymakers, as well as resources stewards, that transcends the currently polarized state of discussions and perspectives and draws on the latest knowledge and innovation. It is our hope that by highlighting and challenging the established paradigm to which they are currently bound, this will now become possible.

Kristel Van der Elst is Senior Director and Head of the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Foresight practice and Nicholas Davis is Director and Head of Europe at the World Economic Forum.

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