We Can Never Run Out of Energy or Matter. But We Can All Too Easily Run Out of Brains

Arthur C. Clarke? Gerard K. O’Neill? Apocryphal

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was optimistic concerning the ability of human ingenuity to transcend current limitations. He believed that future technologies would overcome raw material shortages. The only constraint he feared was a lack of engaged human brains. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Arthur C. Clarke’s 1962 collection of essays titled “Profiles of the Future” presented bold predictions about future capabilities. For example, he suggested that “translating machines” would be available by 1970. 1 Yet, the research prototypes constructed during the 1970s were severely limited and flawed. Nevertheless, Clarke’s underlying optimism has been justified. Machine translation today is still imperfect, but it is a valuable tool that is employed by millions online every day.

Also, in 1962 Clarke described a wide variety of speculative ideas including strategies for obtaining power from the sun and raw materials from the sea and asteroids. 2 He suggested that “space mining” would be possible by 2030. 3 His forward-looking approach helps to explain his exuberance: 4

This survey should be enough to indicate—though not to prove—that there need never be any permanent shortage of raw materials.
. . .
In this inconceivably enormous universe, we can never run out of energy or matter. But we can all too easily run out of brains.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1968 the U.S. economist and social theorist Stuart Chase published a book assessing the future titled “The Most Probable World”, and he reprinted Clarke’s words: 5

Mr. Clarke wisely discounts the moon, but he offers a number of stimulating, and to me practical, ideas for salvaging natural resources. He sums them up with a very practical warning: “In this inconceivably enormous universe we can never run out of energy or matter. But we can all too easily run out of brains.”

In 1972 author and editor Jerome Agel published “Is Today Tomorrow? A Synergistic Collage of Alternative Futures”, and he included an altered version of the quotation. The phrase “inconceivably enormous” became “infinite”. Also, “matter” and “energy” were swapped: 6

Arthur C. Clarke: “In this infinite universe we can never run out of matter or energy, but we can all too easily run out of brains.”

In 1981 Princeton physicist and space colonization enthusiast Gerard K. O’Neill published “2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future”, and he included a short version of Clarke’s quotation: 7

Clarke reminded us that “anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties, if it is desired greatly enough,” and made it clear that if we fail to make proper use of nature’s bounty, it’s our own fault. “We can never run out of energy or matter,” he wrote, “but we can all too easily run out of brains.”

In conclusion, Arthur C. Clarke should receive credit for the remarks he made in his 1962 book “Profiles of the Future”.

Image Notes: Illustration of human brain on a background suggesting digital computers from geralt at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1967 (First publication 1962), Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke, Section: Chart of the Future, Quote Page 233 to 235, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1967 (First publication 1962), Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke, Chapter 12: Ages of Plenty, Quote Page 141 to 155, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1967 (First publication 1962), Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke, Section: Chart of the Future, Quote Page 233 to 235, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1967 (First publication 1962), Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke, Chapter 12: Ages of Plenty, Quote Page 155, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1968, The Most Probable World by Stuart Chase, Chapter 7: Energy, Quote Page 95, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1972, Is Today Tomorrow? A Synergistic Collage of Alternative Futures by Jerome Agel, Chapter: Technically, We Are Beyond Survival, Quote Page 63, Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1981 Copyright, 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future by Gerard K. O’Neill, Part 1: The Art of Prophecy, Quote Page 27, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)