New Bottom Line Volume 6.3 – From Sources to Sinks: The Myth of Resource Depletion

January 28, 1997

Limits to Growth, the report of the Club of Rome, stood the world on its ear in 1972. It put the prospect of “running out of resources” squarely in the public mind. This fueled both a “sky is falling” hyperactivity from many environmentalists and an equally evangelical “see it ain’t so” response from their critics, who point to continued discover of new reserves of petroleum and other resources as evidence that we will “never” run out of resources.

Both sides have been armwrestling about this question for 25 years. Both sides are missing the point.

More recent work stands the Limits to Growth on its head. The question is no longer whether we will run out of petroleum and other key strategic resources. With an infinite supply of petroleum, or “unlimited energy” from fusion, we would in fact be worse off that we are today, not better.

How can this be?

Put simply, we have been looking at the wrong end of the pipe. Much as industry has been gradually learning to shift its focus from end of pipe fixes to upstream prevention, understanding this resource question demands that we look downstream, not upstream, at sinks not sources. (“Sinks” is a systems modeling term for the destination of a flow. Underground reserves provide the source for petroleum flows, for example. Atmospheric systems, and ultimately sediments and living systems are examples of some of the sinks.)

Expanded industrial activity, unless it becomes dramatically more resource efficient, will necessarily increase flows of substances into living systems that those living systems are ill suited to process. Since everything’s got to go someplace (remember that pesky Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy?), more proven resources in an expanding economy mean more flows, which mean more accumulation in the “sinks” of living systems.

So what? Simply that such accumulations will have some effect on what Buckminster Fuller called the “regenerative capacity” of ecosystems. Again, so what? As Stanford University scientist Gretchen Daily and others meticulously chronicle in their forthcoming book _Nature’s Services_ (Island Press), our lives depend on that regenerative capacity to a degree that we are only beginning to grasp. Think about it: cleaning of waters, formation of soils, pollination of crops, generation of biodiversity–the list goes on literally for pages, with an economic value that is incalculable, but clearly very large.

While we can quibble about impact thresholds–how much “stuff” will cause what level of perturbation how quickly–there is little question in this case that more is worse. So the challenge remains for industrial enterprises to become far more efficient at resource transformation–creating ever more value from ever less stuff–and far more skilled at keeping “inappropriate” flows — materials from the earth’s crust, and persistent synthetic substances — out of the cycles of living things. If industrial society really needs to use such substances, it needs to learn to keep their cycles–technical cycles, in Dr. Michael Braungart’s terminology–distinct from the material cycles that sustain life.

How would a company operate if it considered all material flows–resources it purchases, after all–a permanent corporate asset, to be protected rather than spent? I spoke recently with an emeritus chemistry professor from a major university about the “zero emissions” challenge that a number of companies have embraced. “Preposterous,” he commented. “Not possible.” Granted this was a new idea to him. Yet it’s not so new. Consider a parable I found recently in a hotel bedside copy of The Teachings of Buddha, (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, Tokyo, 1966)

King Udyana, as the story goes, was upset to hear that his queen-consort had offered the monk Ananda five hundred garments. A suspicious man, the king demanded of Ananda his purpose with these garments. “I am going to distribute the garments among the brothers,” Ananda replied.

“What will you do with the old garments?” the king asked. “We will make bed-covers out of them.”
“What will you do with the old bed-covers?” “We will make pillow-cases.”
“What will you do with the old pillow-cases?” “Make floor-covers out of them.”
“What will you do with the old floor-covers?” “Use them for foot-towels.”
“What will you do with the old foot-towels?” “Use them for floor-mops.”

“What will you do with the old floor-mops?” “We will tear them into pieces, mix them with mud, and use the mud to plaster the housewalls.”

So the concept I dubbed “cascading” a few years ago has been around for a couple of millennia. We tend to forget, in this “new and improved” world where “internet years” pass in weeks, that much of what’s important has been known for a long time. Perhaps thinking about sinks and ecosystem services will help industry learn from the three billion and some-odd years experience of living systems.

(c) 1997 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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