On April 22nd, 1977, fibre optic cable was first used to transmit telephone messages. It was a significant milestone because of what it portended. Previous communication had been along metal wires, usually copper. Fibre optic cable is an advance, not least because it is made of silica, available in plentiful supply. It is drawn out to a diameter slightly thicker than that of a human hair, and can be used to transmit light for use in fibre optic communications. It can do so over longer distances and at higher bandwidths (data rates) than electrical cables. Moreover, the signals travel along them with less loss, and are immune to electromagnetic interference.
This was an important step because it gave a classic lesson in substitution. When resources grow scarce in supply, people develop and use alternatives. Although some environmentalists suppose that we carry on using scarce resources until there are none left, the world doesn’t work like that. If resources become scarce, the price rises so it becomes economic to use less by turning to substitutes, ones that might previously have been more expensive. The price further signals to people that it is worth extracting further supplies that might have been too expensive at the old price, but are now economic.
In the 1970s, some people thought that we were running out of copper. It was one of the five resources chosen by Paul Erlich for his famous wager with Julian Simon. I believe the reserves of it were then estimated at about 7 years. In fact, over the 10 years of the bet, copper fell in price, and Simon won his wager on all five resources. The main reason copper prices fell was that demand shrank as people turned to fibre optic instead.
People now use substances like carbon laminates instead of steel to manufacture things such as automobiles and aircraft. Governments could tell us to develop and use substitutes, and young people could campaign in the streets to push them into doing so, but this is far less effective a motivator than price. When the price of a resource rises, people use less of it and turn to alternatives because it is more efficient to do so.
Copper reserves are far greater now than they were in the late 1970s when it was thought to be “running out.” Current estimates suggest we now have 40 years of copper reserves and over 200 years of resources left. And we are not likely to run out of silica (sand) with which to make fibre optic cables, unless and until someone nationalizes the deserts.