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These People Are Turning Waste into a Precious Resource

In the debate over economic systems, a fundamental question exists: Is economics a zero-sum game?

Generally, proponents of socialism tend to say yes. There is a fixed pie of wealth, so we should make sure that it is split evenly.

Proponents of capitalism disagree. Rather than splitting a single pie, we ought to focus on creating more pies (a.k.a. wealth). But how realistic is that? Isn’t there a fixed amount of resources on earth? After all, no one is out there creating matter out of nothing.

Sometimes this train of thought sounds convincing, until I read something like this:

People around the world produce an estimated 6.4 trillion litres of urine every year. BRL [Bristol Robotics Laboratory], a collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England, want to make the most of this abundant resource. […] They have developed a new technique to turn urine into electrical power—or “urine-tricity” as they call it. (from The Economist)

Forgive me if this seems crass, but how cool is that? Scientists have found a way to turn completely useless (well, not anymore) human waste into something incredibly valuable. Their experiments have found urine capable of “recharg[ing] commercially available batteries, including those in mobile phones.” We haven’t found a replacement for fossil fuels, but still…maybe it is possible to make something out of nothing?

This illustrates an important point. As Damian Von Stauffenberg states, “What creates wealth? People create wealth! The source of wealth is inside our head. It’s our creativity, something we’ve been endowed with.” Although we will never be able to create physical matter out of thin air, we have immense power to generate wealth through human ingenuity. And this changes everything.

[pq]We have immense power to generate wealth through human ingenuity.[/pq]

If economics is not a zero-sum game, it means our focus should be on creating more wealth for everyone, rather than limiting what some have so that everyone can have an equal—and small—share. So, in this case, rather than limit how much energy people consume, we should invest in research that finds creative new sources.

What does this mean for public policy?

Policies that address poverty and inequality by simply dividing a pot of wealth that already exists are old hat. By the complex regulatory structures that such policies form, they inevitably crowd out potentially amazing innovations. Furthermore, a system that merely redistributes wealth to those in need ignores the potential that those same people have to create wealth themselves. Policies that instead seek to unleash the potential of human creativity in us all—i.e. by improving our education system or creating the conditions for a vibrant economy—will move us toward a brighter future.

I mean, if we can turn urine into electricity, what else might be possible?