LazyNihilist wrote:I think there is one instance of a society running out of "raw material". Easter Island. May be it's an anomaly.
It's crazy to think that after the fall of Rome it took Europe close to 1500 years to get back to that level of prosperity.
Depends when we think Rome fell but let's say 341. Probably by 1550 Renaissance Italy was above that level of prosperity. For some types of civilization, eg clean water, Europe didn't get above Rome until the 1800s. However the muslims did so in Granada in Spain in the 1300s.
If you go through Jared Diamond ("Collapse") there are a number of cases of resource exhaustion (he focuses on islands).
Turning to larger examples, for example England in the 1600s had run itself out of wood for making charcoal-- but then made large scale use of naturally occuring coal for heating, and for ships and construction wood imports from the rest of the world (Russia and Scandinavia, and then North America-- the pineboards in my apartment were likely Russian c. 1840s). Medieval England was itself pushing the limits of soil exhaustion.
Ireland at the beginning of the 1830s of course-- the population was larger then than it is now. A population explosion had led to a potato monoculture. When the Blight came, it led to mass starvation, death, and exodus. Something over 1 million Irish died in 10 years, and 1 million emigrated. In a pattern repeated many times in India, Britain dithered, then instituted minimal 'food for work' relief for starving peasants. Cheap foreign food imports were blocked by the Corn Laws. The study of the Indian famines is part of how Amartya Sen got his Nobel Prize. However even had the British government of the 1830s been more proactive, Ireland had exceeded its feasible population that it could sustain.
In fact the whole expansion of the Greeks and then the Romans can be seen as a frantic quest for more food, as their farming practices led to soil exhaustion and erosion in their original heartlands. The British Empire did something similar: Britain became a net food importer probably in the late 1600s (I'd have to check) having had a series of Malthusian Crises. It's been a food importer ever since, even during WW2 when there were mass efforts to grow more food locally, plus sternly enforced calorie rationing. Britain was also a major energy producer throughout the Industrial Revolution (waterpower and then coal) but since the dawn of the age of oil, has normally been a significant oil importer (the North Sea period really only lasted 1979-1999, and for part of that Britain was a net exporter of oil and gas).
A big rationale for the expansion of British power in the Middle East after 1913 was to secure oil supplies, the Royal Navy having, under Churchill, switched from coal to oil generated steam. Hence our efforst to dominate Iran and Iraq in the 20th century, as well as to retain control of the Suez Canal.