The Myth of Natural Resources
When I studied international economics in the 1960s, one of the explanations offered for the wealth of a nation was its endowment of natural resources. Then, countries were perceived to be rich or poor based on their natural resources. Nations with abundant natural resources were deemed to be rich, or potentially rich; nations poor in resources were destined to be poor.
Today, we understand that other factors are at play. For example, in their book, “Why Nations Fail,” Daron Acemoglu, and James A. Robinson argue that a nation’s economic problems are caused by a lack of inclusive political rights. Poor nations are poor because they are ruled by narrow elites that organize society for their own benefit. Nations are rich because they have succeeded in creating inclusive political and economic institutions that allow participation by all.
Similarly, economist Gregory Clark in his book “A Farewell to Alms” offers a cultural explanation as to why some countries enjoy unprecedented wealth while others languish behind. After all, the key technological, organizational, and political innovations are well known, and all societies can employ them. So, why isn’t the whole world economically developed? Dr. Clark reasons that some societies “cannot instantly adopt the institutions and technologies of the more advance economies, because they have not yet culturally adapted to the demands of productive capitalism.”
These theses offer new economic insights, and yet, a nation’s endowment of natural resources is still viewed by many as deterministic of its wealth. The evidence shows differently. Below is a list of eight countries with practically no natural resources that are among the world largest exporters, and most successful economies. (Data sourced from the World Fact Book of the Central Intelligence Agency; GDP rankings are per capita.)
Japan, a volcanic island country with a large population, ranks # 4 in the world as an exporter, and # 42 in GDP. South Korea went from abject poverty to being a leading industrial powerhouse. It ranks # 5 in exports, and # 46 in GDP. Italy must import most raw materials needed for manufacturing. Yet, it ranks # 9 in exports, and # 50 in GDP. Hong Kong has little arable land and imports most of its food and raw materials. It ranks # 8 in exports, and # 18 in GDP. Singapore shows how a small island can become one of the world’s most prosperous economies. It ranks # 13 in exports, and # 7 in GDP. Belgium is heavily reliant on foreign raw materials. It ranks # 20 in exports, and # 35 in GDP. Switzerland proves that being landlocked is not an impediment to becoming a leading exporter. It ranks # 17 in exports, and # 16 in GDP. Taiwan was left devoid of natural resources after Japanese colonial rule. Today, it ranks # 15 in exports, and # 28 in GDP.
The myth of natural resources was first exposed by Julian Simon (1932-1998) by demonstrating that the human mind is the ultimate resource. It is the human mind that creates what we call resources. Or, as Donald Boudreaux, of the American Institute for Economic Research, puts it “There are no natural resources.” Yes, nature created materials such as oil, but it was the creativity of the human mind that transformed oil into a resource. Nature creates raw materials, not resources. It is human ingenuity and effort that transforms raw materials into resources.
Raw materials become resources only when human creativity discovers how to employ those raw materials to satisfy our needs. Oil, has existed for millennia, but it was useless, say to the American Indian. Oil did not become a resource until we figured out how to extract it, and how to use it. Land was not a resource until we learned to cultivate it for agricultural purposes.
Environmentalists ignore one implication of Professor’s Simon’s work; economic growth does not promote resource depletion. Ultimately, economic growth prevents resource depletion by allowing more creative minds to survive, to interact, and to innovate. Prosperity allows for a greater quantity of the ultimate resource: human minds.
Published by elindependent.typepad.com July 18th, 2019
“The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author”
José Azel left Cuba in 1961 as a political exile at the age of 13 in operation Pedro Pan. Retired from the business world in 2008, Dr. Azel dedicated himself, for ten years, to analyzing Cuba’s economic and sociopolitical situation as a researcher at the University of Miami Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American studies. In 2012 and 2015 Dr. Azel testified to the United States Congress on national and political security with Cuba. Dr. Azel was Assistant professor of international business at the University of Miami. He has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a PhD in international Studies from the University of Miami. He is the author of the book tomorrow in Cuba, The poems pieces and gaps, and the books Reflections on Freedom, and Liberty for Beginners, both collections of his columns published in prestigious newspapers.
Dr. Azel’s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”