Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 35: BASIC MATERIAL RESOURCES: THEIR USE, CONSUMPTION, AND CONSERVATION - Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER 35: BASIC MATERIAL RESOURCES: THEIR USE, CONSUMPTION, AND CONSERVATION - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles 
Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles, (New York: The Century Co., 1915).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
BASIC MATERIAL RESOURCES: THEIR USE, CONSUMPTION, AND CONSERVATION
§ 1. Changes in the land supply. § 2. New land supplies by means of drainage and irrigation. § 3. Abuse of agricultural land. § 4. Means of restoring lost fertility. § 5. Land for products other than food. § 6. Destruction of the natural forests. § 7. Rapid consumption of coal. § 8. Disappearance of mineral stores. § 9. Civilization’s consumption of earth’s stores. § 10. Land as a site for residence, commerce, and manufacture. § 11. Production of usable land surface in cities. § 12. Durative character of hydraulic power sites. § 13. Goods varying in increasableness.
§ 1. Changes in the land supply. The greatest dynamic movements in industry of modern times have been caused by rapid changes in “the land supply,” that great complex of area, fertile soil, timber, mineral resources, etc. This seems paradoxical, for “land,” “nature,” seems to be the one thing (or great group of things) which is fixed in amount. But the economic supply is that which is available in a market. Land in Venus or Mars is of no economic importance to us, but lands on the earth as yet undiscovered or unavailable are a potential supply that, under certain conditions of price and of technic, may be realized.
The discovery of new trade-routes and of new continents in the fifteenth century had immediate economic effects upon Europe, but these began to be more largely felt as actual settlement on these sparsely settled lands progressed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pioneers from the most advanced peoples in the world moved on to take up these areas occupied only by small hunting tribes, and to use them by modern agricultural methods. They overcame the first great difficulty of distance, dread, and mystery; they faced and overcame the danger from savages and wild beasts; they cleared the forest, opened paths and highways, and enlarged the supplies of new and fertile lands. They made these lands available to help supply many of the needs of the older countries, just as if the areas of Europe had been increased.
The greatest change came in the middle of the nineteenth century with the use of steamships and the rapid building of railroads in the western states of America. This had an effect upon England and western Europe identical in nature with that which would have been produced had an area touching Europe risen out of the ocean. Every country in Europe has repeatedly felt the shock of these great economic changes which have lowered the price of nearly all kinds of their landed wealth. Because of increasing population (about 1860-1890) the need of land-uses was increasing very rapidly, but the supply of land-uses increased so much more rapidly that it caused the lowering of the value of the older lands in the eastern states of America and throughout Europe, the entire abandonment of some lands for agricultural purposes, and the neglect to repair and maintain a large part of the remainder.
The rate of this movement was more rapid in the nineteenth century than it ever had been, and perhaps more rapid than it will be again; but in some measure such developments will continue for a long period. The land in America for centuries was not, but now has become, for some purposes, a part of the supply in the same market as the land of England. The land in Greenland is not, and probably never can be, an important part of the supply of land in the world; but the tropical lands will doubtless contribute increasingly to the supplies of food and materials used in the temperate zones.
§ 2. New land supplies by means of drainage and irrigation. The habitable globe has now been fully explored and there are no more agricultural lands to discover. There are, however, great areas almost unusable in their natural states that can be made to blossom if properly improved. The greatest possibilities of this kind are in drainage and in irrigation. The improvements consist in insuring just that amount of water needed for cultivated crops.
Large areas of damp lands, or those covered with swamps, lakes, or shallow arms of the sea, may be made usable if the surplus water can be removed. In England in the eighteenth century the drainage of the fens in the eastern counties marked a new era in agricultural progress. It is estimated that 16,000,000 acres have been reclaimed in the United States, principally in the states of the Mississippi Valley, and most of the soil thus made available to the plow is of unsurpassed fertility. The areas of fens, swamps, and marshlands still remaining to be drained comprise about 75,000,000 acres, being about 4 per cent of the area of the country. This would add nearly one fifth to the improved farm area (in 1908).1 Tile underdraining of wet lands is a very enduring sort of improvement which is being made on many thousands of acres yearly. The most extensive work of drainage in the world is that of Holland, where a large part of the surface has been won from the sea. A striking feature of this case is that there is the unceasing need of lifting to the level of the ocean by means of windmills and pumps the natural run-off of rain. Among the larger drainage undertakings in Holland was the draining of the Haarlem Lake in 1840-58, by which 40,000 acres of rich land were made available, and the more recent draining of Zuyder Zee, which added 1,300,000 acres.
Irrigation seeks to supply water to the thirsty land. It is probable that no modern irrigation work (unless it be that of the recent Assouan Dam in Egypt) equals that which once was done on the now desert lands between the Euphrates and the Tigris. The opportunities for irrigation, however, in America with its great central desert west of the one hundredth degree of longitude, are enormous. Already large works have been built by the government and by private enterprise, irrigating 13,000,000 acres, but the national and state governments and private enterprise are entering upon the task on a scale never before attempted. It is estimated that the total area that may some time economically be irrigated is about 45,000,000 acres, enough for nearly a million fifty-acre farms.2
§ 3. Abuse of agricultural land. The forces acting upon the land supply do not all work in the same direction. The land supply shrinks on some sides while it grows in others. The effects of bad husbandry are everywhere in the world apparent, and in many regions fertile fields have been physically and economically destroyed. In Asia, lands that once supported millions of people, perhaps tens of millions, are now deserts. Egypt, for a time reduced to a semi-desert condition, has only in the past century been restored to a certain extent by the use of new methods and a return to the old ones. Many of the areas that were the granaries of Rome can now hardly support a sparse, half-starving population. The land surface remains, but some of the elements indispensable to its value have been destroyed.
Even in young America may be seen the effect of a failure to keep land in repair. As the new rich lands of the West were opened up, the old lands in the East were allowed to wear out, and many of them were abandoned. Increasing returns marked the spread of the frontier westward. On the new lands in turn the same methods were followed, using up the first rich store of fertility with no attempt to keep up the quality of the soil. This may have been the best policy for the time; it would not have been economical to employ Old World methods of intensive husbandry when such rich extensive areas were being opened up. The resulting harvests were in many places phenomenal; in the valley of the James River in Dakota twenty crops of wheat were taken from the same lands with no apparent decrease, and in the black bottom lands of Indiana and Illinois, sometimes overflooded, enormous crops of corn have been raised still longer without fertilizer. But the process was one destructive in most places of the natural resources. As settlement moved westward, great forests fell in ashes, and the soil was robbed of the fertile elements which it had taken centuries for nature to store up. What was happening in America and in other new lands in the nineteenth century was the primitive method of exploitation of arable lands (Raubbau, robbery-tillage, as it is expressively called in German). In 1908 there were nearly 11,000,000 acres of abandoned farm lands in the United States and about 4,000,000 acres had suffered from soil erosion as the result of neglect.3
§ 4. Means of restoring lost fertility. In the older parts of the United States, as in the older countries, methods have long been employed to maintain the fertility of the soil by returning or increasing certain of the fertile elements. When by neglect of fields the underlying rocks have become denuded of their covering of organic materials, the process of restoration is most difficult, slow, and costly. The mountain sides have been stripped of forests, and the fertile soil has been washed into the river valleys in many of the older countries as in Greece and Italy, and in many parts of eastern and southern United States. Except in such cases, the soil is a self-replenishing agent, and if allowed to lie fallow, will slowly recover its fertility in whole or in part by disintegration of the subsoil, by slow wearing away of the infertile surface, and by plant action. But self-replenishing of soil is slow. It takes Nature about 500 years to create one inch of fertile top-soil. When the use of the land is needed, Nature’s way is costly, for it costs time.
Other ways are quicker. Stable manures and garbage can be hauled from near-by towns; seaweed and mineral fertilizers, such as phosphates and lime, can be bought and applied. Subsoil plowing is practised to make available new layers of soil that are just as important as new acres added to the surface. Leguminous crops like peas and clover, which have the power of extracting nitrogen from the air, are cultivated, and either plowed under or fed to animals in the fields. If the roots of such plants are inoculated with bacteria their nitrogen-making power is greatly increased. The progress of science and of skill in agriculture is going far to maintain present food areas on the average in undiminished efficiency. In many respects the productivity of land may be even further increased. If we did not have to reckon on a great increase of population in the world, the problem of a continuing supply of land to grow food would be a relatively minor one.
§ 5. Land for products other than food. The problem of the supply of agricultural land is first, and most often, thought of in connection with the supply of staples like corn and wheat used for food. But it relates also to the supply of all other organic materials that have to be constantly produced, such as teas, coffee, spices, fruits, sugar, etc.; meats, fats, hides, bones, feathers, bristles, etc., from cattle, swine, sheep, or poultry; materials for textiles, as flax, linen, cotton, including those that must be obtained by the use of animals, as is the case with silk and wool; vegetable oils, as cottonseed, linseed, olive, and turpentine; animal oils, as lard, tallow; and thousands of other materials. Each of these kinds of goods has its own peculiar need of area and fertility, and its peculiar influences on the maintenance or exhaustion of the soil. Each must be separately studied, and thus has developed in each natural science its economic department—economic geology, industrial chemistry, economic botany, economic zoölogy and its more special branches, called economic entomology, economic ornithology, etc. In the case of many organic products the amount available promises to continue adequate for the needs of the future; in the case of others, scarcity makes itself much more quickly felt.
§ 6. Destruction of the natural forests. The forests have been used with less regard for future uses than have agricultural lands. Moreover, a conservative policy with regard to forests has been less tardily adopted, because the necessity of it was more tardily brought home to men. To the barbarians of Roman times, sparsely peopling the lands, and with few uses for timber, the primeval forests of Europe must have seemed as certainly renewable as the waters of the rivers or as inexhaustible a stock as the sand of the seashore. Left a century untouched by man, any land once naturally covered with trees would revert to a state like that of the primeval forest. Under the economic conditions of barbaric times the forests were self-replenishing sources of supply. They ceased to be so, in full measure, as population increased. The consequent curtailment of the rights of peasants to the free use of wood began to cause social and political troubles early in the Middle Ages. Until the eighteenth century scarcely any systematic beginning was made in the cultivation of the forest growth. Until a few generations ago in European countries, and until the present moment in most parts of America, timber has been cut with no attempt to maintain an undiminished stock.
Germany and France began in the eighteenth century to turn attention to systematic forest culture, but England, with exceptional transportation, could more cheaply get timber from Norway and from North America. The magnificent forests of America were a source of ready income to the settlers, affording immediately saleable exportable goods in the form of ship timber, masts, shingles, staves, pitch, and turpentine. A bountiful supply of lumber has always been a large element in the prosperity of the American people. From the first settlement to the present, the use of the forests for lumber has speedily grown. To the settlers much of the forest was, however, a real hindrance to agriculture. While great quantities of wood were used, still greater quantities were wasted, trees being girdled, the ground burned over, the timber destroyed in any way that would clear the soil—timber which to-day would be of far more value than is the cleared land on which it stood. Such methods met the immediate need, but considering present conditions, the labor was worse than thrown away.
Our forests once covered 45 per cent of the land area of the United States and even now they cover 25 per cent. The yearly growth of 12 cubic feet per acre equals less than one third of the annual consumption (40 cubic feet). “We take 260 cubic feet per capita, while Germany uses 37 cubic feet, and France 25 cubic feet.”
The supplies of lumber must be sought on the very margins of our territory: Florida, Maine, northern Michigan and Wisconsin, Washington, and Oregon, some of which supplies are so distant from the densely populated states as to be almost unavailable on account of the cost of transportation. Professor Marsh, as long ago as 1864, characterized the policy that had been thus far pursued: “We are breaking up the foundation timbers and the wainscoting of the house in which we live in order to boil our mess of pottage.”
The indirect effects of these changes are fully as great as the direct ones. Forests greatly affect climate, temperature, and soil; they influence the humidity. They equalize the flow of streams, moderate the floods, and by preventing the washing down of the rich soil, keep the mountain sides from becoming bare and sterile rocks. So, near the end of the nineteenth century, the people in America began most tardily to think of forestry. Of our forests remaining, one fifth are still in public, and four fifths are in private ownership. The purpose of scientific forestry is to make forest lands permanent use-bearers, durative agents, to make them yield not a single crop of timber, but an unending series of crops.
§ 7. Rapid consumption of coal. With care, the use of agricultural and of forest lands may be durative; but the extraction of coal is a purely consumptive use of the mine. Every ton used to-day is subtracted from the supplies for future generations. The coal deposits in the earth have only recently been drawn upon. A modern town with a few thousand inhabitants probably uses to-day a greater quantity of coal than was used in all Europe two centuries ago. The large deposits of coal in England and their early development long gave to English industry a great advantage over other countries. In England, however, has first been felt the fear of the exhaustion of the coal supply. Professor Jevons, in 1865, sounded the note of alarm; he prophesied that because the coal deposits in America were many times as great as those of England, industrial supremacy must inevitably pass to America. Already the supremacy in coal and iron production has passed to America, and that in many other industries where fuel is an important element in cost soon will come. In England the accessible supply of coal is limited, deeper shafts must be sunk, and tunnels extended far under the ocean bed, and the coal got with greater difficulty and at greater expense. Coal has risen in price in England within the last few years, and will continue to rise in the future. The coal deposits of America have been estimated to be thirty-seven times as great as those of England, but many of the best American mines show signs of diminution. The best anthracite beds will be gone in less than three quarters of a century. And yet there is in America little thought of the future in this regard.
§ 8. Disappearance of mineral stores. There are many other natural materials which, now that the exploration of the earth’s surface is pretty well completed, appear to form a limited and unincreasable stock. Their gradual consumption is making and will make great changes in the economic world. Natural gas is a wonderful substitute for coal, and when first found in a locality it brings a brief prosperity, but it is soon exhausted. Petroleum, little used before 1865, will help light the world for but a few decades, for it is drawn from natural reservoirs slowly, if at all, replenishing. The recent increase in the use of gasoline for motor-vehicles has directed thought to the limits of possible supply. Iron ore, the most essential single mineral resource, has been taken from the earth in greater quantities within the last fifty years than altogether before in the history of the globe, and the limits of rich accessible supplies in the United States are already in sight. China may be the next great center of iron and steel production. Copper, tin, lead, gold, silver, and potter’s clay are a limited stock, inadequate to increasing needs. When any deposit has been worked out, the abandoned quarry, mine, or claybank is most often useless for any other purpose.
Some of these materials are made available more than once through the useful services of the junk man. New processes are devised for extracting metals from lower grade ores which before were worthless. Sometimes a good substitute is found, such as aluminum, which gives many of the same uses as iron and copper and which can be extracted from clay by the use of electricity generated by a waterfall. This would promise an almost inexhaustible quantity, but as yet obtainable only at high cost. Many other substitutes will doubtless be discovered, but the outlook in some directions has little promise.
§ 9. Civilization’s consumption of the earth’s stores. There is a striking contrast between the modes in which the earth’s surface is utilized by modern man and by his ancestors. The savage uses the fruits that he finds, and those fruits are, almost without exception, renewed the next year. The earlier civilizations did not go deep enough into natural resources to use up permanently the world in which they lived. The only mines that were worked out under the great ancient empires were gold and silver mines, while the mines of heavier, useful metals were touched but lightly. But from the eighteenth century the earth’s crust has been exploited at an ever-accelerating rate. Scientific knowledge and mechanical improvement have combined to unlock the storehouses of the Geologic Ages. If this movement continues, many important materials must be exhausted in the not far distant future.
§ 10. Land as a site for residence, commerce, and manufactures. Probably the most durative of all economic agents is solid land-surface used solely for standing room. Yet geology reveals that every part of the earth’s crust has been under the ocean, some of it many times. Every part of the world’s surface is more or less rising or falling, changes within historic times having been enough to depress and again elevate large stretches of sea coast. Slight earthquake shocks are felt in nearly every part of the habitable globe. Before the end of man’s tenancy on the globe great changes will take place in the land surface. Not only San Francisco, but New York, may some day sink into the sea, beneath which may now lie the building sites of the future metropolis. But these catastrophic changes are rare, and the slow secular changes hardly enter into the calculations of men. “The solid earth” is the synonym of the everlasting and unchangeable. Building sites for residence and business purposes—factories, offices, stores—are the purest type of durative agents known to us, despite the occurrence of volcanic eruption, and of earthquakes in limited districts, and of intruding waters and crumbling walls almost everywhere.
The covering of the ground with dwellings does something to protect it from the natural wear of rain and winds, as do also the erection of stone and cement walks, the planting of trees, the diversion of streams, and many other safeguards. The space needed for existence is small. With a density of population equal to that of the most crowded districts in the East Side in New York, all the people of the world could be housed in the State of Delaware. The problem of residence land is to get ample space for health and a happy life conveniently near to places of work, where man can earn a livelihood. The scarcity appears in very high rents for the miserable tenements of the poor, and in fabulous prices for residence sites in the fashionable neighborhoods.
Sites for manufacturing, commerce, banking, and trade that are conveniently located in relation to workers, to consumers, and to transportation facilities for raw materials and finished products, are few in any community. Their uses are highly valued. Rapid transit by producing a larger supply of accessible sites does something to relieve the pressure for limited residence land, but it makes possible still greater pressure for the central business locations.
§ 11. Production of usable land surface in cities. The work of man is doing much by form changes to increase the area suitable for residence and business. Large districts on the river fronts of New York are filled land. The larger part of the most valuable lands within the city of Boston were once tidewater swamps, which have been filled and made usable by great outlays. Great hills have been dumped into the Bay of San Francisco to convert mud flats into solid earth, for railroad terminals and warehouses. In almost every city much has been done to level hillsides, to fill valleys, or to drain swamps. Along many picturesque lakes the steep banks for miles are dug with pick and shovel or blasted with dynamite, and dumped over into the water to make level sites for cottages. Wooden, stone, or cement retaining walls are built so that the debris from the streams and the sands washed up by waves may be retained to widen the solid land. Suitable places for docks, warehouses, and factories, and other needs of commerce and industry, are created on the shores of navigable waters. The engineer in tunneling mountains and building roadbeds over marshes or along swampy riversides, or in digging canals between rivers or between oceans, is making the kind of land surface suitable to the uses of transportation and trade. It is characteristic of nearly all these artificially altered spaces that they are as solid and enduring as natural formations of level land, and are subject only to the slow action of rain, streams, waves, winds, or to rare upheavals of nature. Man’s works are in these cases as enduring as nature’s.
§ 12. Durative character of hydraulic power sites. The sources from which man has as yet successfully obtained power are domestic animals, winds, falling waters, the tides, and heat producing materials (wood, coal, oil, etc.). The winds, while inexhaustible sources, are too irregular to be of the greatest importance. Waterfalls are of increasing use with the progress in the art of transmitting power in the form of electricity. The maintenance of water-power plants in efficient condition calls for much labor on the banks of the millstream, or for the building and repairing of dams and reservoirs, of pipes and of water wheels. With this care, waterfalls are durative in a high degree. The supply of power from water is capable of enormous increase through the construction of reservoirs, the building of canals, and the economizing of great sources now going to waste. The waterfall as a whole is permanent, perennially renewed by rains; but the energy liberated by the falling water is consumed each moment. Because of this natural renewal of the power, a continuing usufructuary value adheres in the site of land whose possession gives control over the falling water. A similar view is to be taken of the rare sites where tidal power can be economically employed.
§ 13. Goods varying in increasableness. It has long been customary for economists to talk of economic goods that could be increased indefinitely (meaning infinitely or, in any event, without any limit ever appreciable to man) without any increase in the cost or scarcity. This class of goods was considered to be very large. There is no such class of economic goods; it is impossible that there should be; if they are “scarce,” increasing demand must make them scarcer, except as discoveries and improvements increase the supply. All kinds of wealth are, so far as it is economical to do so, thus increased, even land surface. Many kinds in the course of time are very greatly increased with little or no direct effort, but the supply of all alike can be secured in larger amount at any given moment with the known methods and tools only with increasing difficulty. The different forms of wealth may be ranged on a scale according to the ease with which they can be increased by effort. They may, therefore, be classed as relatively fixed and relatively increasable. Some natural resources belong at one end, and some at the other end of this scale, and, necessarily, the tools and appliances made from these materials must likewise range between the extremes. Except as form and place changes are thus limited by elemental materials and natural sources of power, the outlook is that form and place change will grow constantly more easy, and elementary materials constantly more difficult, to obtain. No hard and fast line divides the different kinds of goods, but the difference in degree of increasableness is a fact of great social importance, affecting the direction in which industry can and must progress.
The difference in increasableness of the various forms of wealth is of importance in considering various social questions, such as the effects of an increase of population, and the kinds of taxation most equitable and most favorable to the progress of society. Account must be taken of the fact, for instance, that the number of bricks can be increased more easily than the amount of land; but there must not be overlooked the possibility of increase in any of these forms of wealth, nor the limits to the increase of any one of them.
[1 ]National Conservation Commission Report, 1908-09, Doc. Cons. No 5399, p. 373. Of the 75,000,000 acres about two thirds are in the southern states, Florida having about 18,000,000, Louisiana 10,000,000 and other states, Mississippi, Arkansas. Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, ranging from 6,000,000 down to 1,600,000 acres. Over two thirds of the rest is in the group of contiguous states, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri.
[2 ]Report of National Conservation Commission (1909). Pub. Doc. Consecutive No. 5398, p. 67. Figures for 1908.
[3 ]Report of the Conservation Commission, vol. 1, p. 78.