The Era of Insufficient Plenty
From ASME „Mechanical Engineering‟ June, 2010
FOCUS ON: MANUFACTURING
As global competition makes some commodities scarcer, engineers will be challenged to find new
By John G. Voeller
For more than 100 years, the United States has been the world‟s largest industrial power. Over that
period, we consumed a plurality and sometimes even a majority of the world‟s resources.
Thanks to outstanding science and engineering, we could extract and process natural resources to make
almost any type of product at a reasonable cost. If we needed a commodity, a device, or specialized
knowledge, we felt confident that we could find, buy, or negotiate for it. Sometimes, the price was high,
but if we were willing to pay, we could get it.
We have never really had to confront a situation where another country on this planet could consume as
much as the United States. Today, we face that situation in spades. The economies of many developing
countries have begun to take off, but China and also India are special cases. Both have enormous
populations, very large workforces of educated professionals, fast-growing economies, and voracious
appetites for resources.
In fact, we must now start asking ourselves what will happen when the things we need become
unavailable at any price. How will we run our factories, maintain economic growth, and support our
lifestyles? The answers to these questions will challenge every major engineering discipline to find
alternative materials, methods, and processes in the future.
We also need to rethink our very definition of sustainability. A classic definition, from the 1987 World
Commission on Environment and Development, stated that sustainable development “meets the needs of
the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Yet this definition is incomplete, because it presumes availability. We do not have that luxury anymore.
There are plenty of resources out there, but no guarantee that we in the United States will have access to
them. We are entering a world of insufficient plenty.
A LOOK AT THE BASICS
To understand how the world is changing, let‟s start with the working population. These people, who
range from 15 to 64 years old, are not only a society‟s most productive members, but also the ones who
drive consumption. By 2015, the working population in East and Southwest Asia and Oceania will exceed
1.5 billion people, primarily in China, and in South Asia 1 billion people, primarily in India. That
compares with about 300 million potential workers in Western Europe and fewer than 300 million in the
U.S. and Canada.
As these large populations grow wealthier, their use of energy rises. Energy growth in the world‟s most
industrialized nations has leveled off over the past decade. Most of the world‟s increase in energy
consumption has been driven by developing nations, like China and India, as well as Eastern Europe and
In terms of gross domestic product, we already crossed from one era to another in the 1990s. That was