The world’s greatest natural resource

For more than a century, prosperity has come from coal in Wyoming. But what happens when there isn’t any left, or people don’t want it anymore?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Wind turbines spin in Fort Bridger, Wyoming, on July 4, 2020. The state is using alternatives to coal, including renewable sources.

For more than a century, prosperity has come from the ground in Wyoming. Since the Industrial Revolution, human economic progress has been disproportionately dependent on the black rocks that exist so tantalizingly near the surface in Wyoming: coal. So the people of the Cowboy State have cashed in. For many, those rocks have been the path to a better life.

But there’s a problem. What happens when there aren’t any rocks left? Or if people don’t pay as much for them anymore? Or – if you’re from another state – what if you don’t have any valuable rocks to begin with?

Natural resources are fickle things. The race to get hold of them has fueled some of the worst moments in human history. Colonialism, after all, is in some respects the biography of the rabid thirst for natural resources. And within a country, the desire to control natural resources can lead to gross corruption and inequality.

So in many ways, this week’s cover story by Doug Struck should feel like progress. This year, for the first time, America will use more renewable energy than coal energy. As the Earth signals an urgent need to be more thoughtful about how we consume natural resources, it’s a positive sign. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, and wind and solar energy are cleaner still.

But “progress” isn’t the word many in Wyoming would use. Instead, it feels like this wide swath of the American West is losing its hope and its way of life.

How are these two things to be reconciled? Must the progress of making the Earth cleaner and less dependent on the vagaries of geology come at the expense of those who have used natural resources to build a better life? This is the central environmental question of our time.

A recent article in The Economist offers hints of a different way of looking at this challenge. Under the headline “The world’s wealth is looking increasingly unnatural,” The Economist states, “As natural wealth is used up, economies will rely more on human capital.”

The idea is one that Wyomingites will know well. Natural resources are valuable only so long as they exist or are deemed necessary. Whale blubber was once vitally important to the functioning of world societies. Not so much anymore. Humans found a better answer.

Just as the transition away from whaling harmed many New England towns, the transition from coal could hurt some communities. But the transition away from whale oil didn’t permanently limit the economy; it actually enabled it to shift into a higher gear. The question is: How can we better prepare communities for these transitions?

The answer, The Economist says, is “human capital.” Investing in education, opportunity, and interconnection is an economic engine that never risks running out of fuel. In the future, the most valuable commodity we can mine will be the innate potential of our fellow human beings – in Wyoming and beyond. Human capital, adds The Economist, “tends to accumulate. Natural capital seems destined to do the opposite.”

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