Can we learn from the
past and avoid making the same mistakes in the future? This is what
this chapter aims to explore.
A Brief Assessment of the Present
We cannot take the
present state of the world for granted. Current economic successes
may only herald tomorrow's decline. Easter Island was an example of
At face value,
perpetual growth holds many promises. However, within a context in
which resources are limited, increasing economic activity might not
bring about the desired outcome—a better life for all. On the
contrary, it could aggravate problems and hasten the world's demise,
ruining the planet and the future for many generations. Before
getting into details, let us take a closer look at the current state
Background: Limits to Growth
It is not always easy
to anticipate what the future will bring. Four decades ago, the
Club of Rome (a non-profit global thinktank) issued a report which
pointed at the possibility of a world collapse halfway through the
21st century (Limits
to Growth, Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J., et al.,
The analysis, based
on a computer model called World3,
was the first of its kind in trying to tackle the issue of
sustainability by simulating interactively five global variables:
population growth, industrial production, food production,
pollution, and consumption levels of non-renewable resources.
intent of the Limits to Growth
initiative was not to make exact predictions about the timing of a
world collapse but rather to create a dynamic model with feedback
loops that would simulate real life interactivity between major
global subsystems and show trends and how a change in one variable
would impact others.
of the model's importance also rested in its ability to demonstrate
that some of the subsystems, for example population, could grow
geometrically or exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8) rather than linearly (1,
2, 3, 4) and have a dramatic impact on the speed at which resources
that respect, the simulations were fully successful but, by the same
token, were also heavily criticized, often discredited as gloom and
doom scenarios. Some of the claims made by the report's detractors
were later found to be themselves exaggerated when not entirely
is certain is that the report's conclusions were shocking: the
potential for a world collapse in this century. The question that
interests us at the moment is whether the model was accurate in its
portrayal of reality and conclusions. Three updates of the report
(a second edition in 1974, Beyond
in 1992, and Limits
to Growth, The 30-Year Update in
2004) have been produced and improved the model's accuracy. In all
cases, the general conclusions in terms of the seriousness of the
world's problems and the possibility of a collapse remained
essentially the same.
of the Limits to Growth With Thirty Years of Reality,
(2008), Graham Turner, a senior scientist at CSIRO Sustainable
Ecosystems, Canberra, Australia, compared
three of the original scenarios with actual data from the last 30
years to determine the legitimacy and accuracy of the Limits
to Growth simulations.
first scenario, the standard run,
essentially involved a current-policy type of situation in which
governments continue doing as they have in the past: limited efforts
in addressing environmental problems such as pollution, global
warming, the conservation of non-renewable resources, population
second one, the comprehensive technology
simulation, assumed a significant amount of human intervention in
terms of addressing sustainability problems with the use of
technology. For example, recycling levels are increased to 75%,
pollution reduced by 25%, food production doubled, etc.
third simulation, the stabilized world
scenario, involved much more aggressive human intervention in both
the technological and socio-political arenas. This meant, for
example, birth control policies, an orchestrated economic shift
towards services and away from physical goods, the protection of
agricultural land with regulations, etc. in addition to renewable
energy initiatives and other technology-based solutions.
findings can be summarized as this:
observed historical data for 1970–2000 most closely matches the
simulated results of the LtG [Limits to Growth] “standard run”
scenario for almost all the outputs reported; this scenario results
in global collapse before the middle of this century. (Turner,
results are interesting firstly because real data of the period
between 1970 and 2000 was plugged into the heavily criticized
model and showed it to be consistent and reasonably close to what
actually occurred over the last few decades.
they were found to compare closely to the standard run simulation—a
business-as-usual scenario that assumed no significant shift in
government commitment to the environment—which parallels what has
happened over the last four decades. Had the original standard run
simulation been exaggerated as critics professed, the real data
would have shown it to be overly pessimistic and would have compared
favorably with the other two more positive scenarios (comprehensive
technology and stabilized world).
while the real-world data does not provide absolute proof of a
collapse halfway through this century, the 30-year period between
1970 and 2000 represents almost 40% of the timespan between 1970 and
a presumed global crisis. Such significance cannot be ignored.
Another 30 years of waiting could put us at the doorstep of a world
technology scenario does postpone the global meltdown but by only a
few years, to the second half of the century. The real-world data
of the 1970-2000 period offers little hope unless governments take a
lot more determined action with respect to pollution, global
warming, resource depletion, and other environmental problems.
third scenario, the stabilized world, does paint a more optimistic
view of the future, but again, real-world data of the 1970-2000
period does not show us to be on that road. Nor is it reasonable to
assume that society would be prepared anytime soon to take the
actions required to bring about such an outcome: aggressive
technological changes and determined social policy.
Even under this scenario, the original Limits
authors did not totally rule out collapse as a possible outcome.
cautiously concluded that the 1970-2000 data only partially
confirmed the World3 simulation results. However, he pointed out
that many current developments, namely with respect to oil reserves,
climate change, and the prospect of food shortages, seem to be
trending similarly to the now 40-year-old simulations.
well, he highlighted the interesting fact that as growth continues
(standard run scenario),
The attempts of the World3
model to alleviate pressures in one sector of the global system by
technological means generally results in increasing pressures in
other sectors, often resulting in a
vicious cycle or positive feedback. (Turner, 2008, p.34)
recent example of this is in 2008 when the production of biofuels
using agricultural crops resulted in food shortages and sharp
increases in the price of staples, especially in the developing
world. The production of biofuels from edible crops might have
been part of the solution in a three-billion-people world. It is
not part of it when almost seven billion have to be fed. Many
potential solutions will decrease in effectiveness or vanish
altogether as growth continues.
(2008) also noted that increased efficiency generally had adverse
effects as it promoted growth. As supporting evidence, he pointed
out that while carbon intensity decreased over the last century,
greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase over the same period
of time (p. 35).
efficiency should be a positive element for the future and the
environment, but in the absence of appropriate socio-economic policy
(for example, to shift consumption away from non-renewable resources
and reduce the world's population), it can make problems worse.
This is in line with one of the conclusions of the second
simulation: technological solutions alone are not enough and will
only delay a potential collapse by a few years.
we have to remain careful about trends and simulation results, the
findings based on 30 years of recent data are just too powerful, too
close to what had originally been expected for that period of time,
and too heavy of consequences to ignore.
A Fourth-Wave Simulation
model has not been tested with a market-integrated strategy such as
the Green Economic Environment, which perhaps offers the only hope
at this point in time. As argued in the first book of the Waves
of the Future
series, the GEE might be the only approach powerful enough to
address the issues at hand. That being said, knowing that it would
work will not help us if the environmental strategy is never
Erring on the Side of Caution
the book Limits
to Growth: The 30-Year Update,
the authors concluded: “Humanity has squandered the opportunity to
correct our current course over the last 30 years” (Meadows, D.H.,
et al., 2004, A
p. 5). While a collapse might still be avoidable at this point in
time—with a huge amount of resolve and action—we did lose
precious years (actually decades) for failing to heed
the call made by the Club of Rome in 1972.
It is true that the
World3 simulation results were dramatic, but had we taken remedial
action then and found out four decades later that the model was
overly pessimistic—which now appears not to be the case—we would
only have ended up with a world less polluted, less populated, less
plagued with climate change problems, and with enough food for
That would also have
meant more plentiful resources for the future as well as cheaper
prices. We would already be ahead of the game in terms of
transitioning to renewable and cleaner energies. If World3 had
erred, it would have been on the side of caution with only positive
consequences for us.
Many corporations have
a vested interest in preventing progress from being made on
environmental issues and resource conservation. Many oppose a green
agenda because they are large polluters or enrich themselves by
depleting the earth's resources. Scientists and environmentalists
were right about global warming. Yet, the industry and its lobby
kept denying its existence for decades just like they denied the
toxicity of many chemical compounds we now know are harmful to human
The issue of a
potential world collapse may be just like a cancer which if detected
and treated early is curable and if not, is deadly. The Club of
Rome did detect the problem soon enough, but 40 years of inaction
might have just squandered the only opportunity we had for a cure.
Erring on the wrong
side can have very dramatic and horrifying consequences. We might
or might not find out for ourselves in the next few decades. Easter
Island learned the lesson the hard way. What is certain is that we
cannot count on the corporate world to sound the alarm about
pollution and the depletion of resources.
After the first and
second oil crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, the oil industry was
heavily criticized for price gouging and increasing profits at the
expense of consumers. You would think that the sector would have
tried to adopt more morally and socially responsible policies, but
questions were raised again about the same issue in 2008. Guess who
was laughing all the way to the bank when oil prices peaked at over
$140/barrel that summer? Not the consumer!
Mark Cooper, Director
of Research at the Consumer Federation of America, looked at the
profits of the five big oil companies (ExxonMobil, Shell, BP,
ChevronTexaco, and ConocoPhillips). He (2008) concluded:
The unprecedented increase in
oil industry profits in 2008 is the culmination of a six-year run up
that has seen petroleum industry profits increase by more than 600
percent since 2002.
Cooper reported that
profits went from about $30 billion in 2002 to an expected $180
billion by the end of 2008. During the same period, the weekly
price of gasoline at the pump (all grades) went from about
$1.50/gallon to more than $4.00/gallon (Cooper, 2008, November 2).
This was all happening in times when people were hurting from
already high prices.
were talking about forming a rice cartel when there were fears of
mass starvation in 2008 as a result of a tripling of the price of
that staple. For corporations, shortages are a positive occurrence.
We should not count on them to sound the alarm or err on the side
In the decades
preceding a presumed world collapse, power will shift to
corporations as the supply of many resources decreases. Profits
will flow into their coffers as people themselves are being squeezed
and find it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to make ends
meet. At least, this is what our experience with petroleum is
showing us. Is there any reason to believe that the future will be
This section will look
at two significant contamination indicators.
In 2005, the
Environmental Working Group (EWG, a US nonprofit research
organization) and Commonweal (a nonprofit institute) produced a
report on the carcinogens and toxic compounds found in the blood of
the umbilical cords of 10 human babies. The sample was small but
the results were shocking. In total, 287 industrial chemicals and
pollutants were identified. According to the report, these
Eight perfluorochemicals used
as stain and oil repellants in fast food packaging, clothes and
textiles — including the Teflon chemical PFOA, recently
characterized as a likely human carcinogen by the EPA's Science
Advisory Board — dozens of widely used brominated flame retardants
and their toxic by-products; and numerous pesticides. (Houlihan,
J., Kropp, T., Wiles, R., Gray, S., & Campbell, C., 2005, July
Of the total number of
compounds, 180 have been found to be carcinogenic in humans and
animals. Many—217 to be more specific—are also known to be
harmful to the nervous system. Tests on animals have proven some
208 chemicals to produce developmental problems and abnormalities.
Do you remember the
corporate world ever warning us about our babies being born with
hundreds of potentially harmful compounds in their bodies, producing
reports on the harmfulness of their activities, or sounding the
alarm bell about the problem?
The research conducted
by EWG and Commonweal is highly significant in that it provides a
snapshot of the state of the planet at the moment and the depth of
the quagmire we are in. Our bodies are part of the very environment
in which we live. They are actually made of it and cannot be
dissociated from it. As such, it should not surprise us that if we
live in a cesspool of toxic materials, the bodies of the babies we
give birth to will be composed of a cocktail of harmful chemicals
The World's Ultimate Sewage Lagoon
indicator of pollution levels is the state of the world's oceans.
Many of the chemicals that we use everyday—for cleaning, washing,
and grooming—or spray on the ground in pursuit of higher
agricultural yields end up in our rivers and lakes. So do the
outflows from domestic sewage systems and those from industrial
They are then carried
downstream and eventually make their way to the oceans, which become
their final resting place. As contaminants keep flowing into them
year after year, oceans will over time become the world's ultimate
sewage lagoon, if that is not already the case.
As time goes on,
pollution levels in the world's oceans will increase, resulting in
further damage and the destruction of more and more of their
resources. Mercury contamination in tuna fish is only one of many
stories pointing to the fact that significant damage has already
occurred. Like the people of Easter Island, we are starting to lose
commercial species, ones that have fed generation after generation
How are we doing in
terms of renewable resources? Here is an example. Diamond (2005)
listed the following fisheries as having collapsed or been lost in
the 20th century: “Atlantic halibut, Atlantic bluefin
tuna, Atlantic swordfish, North Sea herring, Grand Banks cod,
Argentinian hake, and Australian Murray River cod” (p. 480).
What is even more
shocking than losing the fisheries themselves is that they were
supposed to be renewable resources. The sad fact is, at this point
in time we cannot even manage renewable resources, and pressures
will only increase as the world's population continues to grow.
Just like the people
of Easter Island, we are destroying renewable resources and
important sources of food and income for the present and the future.
In terms of
non-renewable resources such as metals, there is virtually no plan
to conserve them at the moment. The more minerals we dig out and
consume every year, the more wealth is generated and jobs created.
Governments are more than likely to promote the industry at the
moment than engage in conservation.
The problem is
especially acute for nonfuel minerals because of their low
substitutability, as already expressed. As reserves decrease,
shortages will begin to occur and prices will increase and reach
The crucial question
at this point in time is, how much is really left? If we still have
thousands of years' worth of reserves, it would essentially be a
non-issue. On the other hand, if the resource estimates of the
World3 computer model are accurate, we are already at a critical
stage. Here is a closer look at the issue.
estimates of the amount of mineral reserves left at the moment are
difficult to establish for a number of reasons. For example, they
vary depending on price and technological development.
Global Mineral Resource Assessment Project (http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs053-03/)
is perhaps the most, if not the only, comprehensive attempt at
trying to assess the total reserves of most nonfuel minerals on the
is a cooperative international effort
run by the US Geological Survey (USGS) and aiming to provide
countries around the world with better information on the
availability and supply of minerals in order to improve government
decision-making with respect to resource development and economic
project's conclusion: “No global shortages of nonfuel mineral
resources are expected in the near future” (US Geological Survey,
2003). The real difficulty with respect to this statement lies in
interpreting what it really means. It could refer to an absence of
shortages for the next six to eight years, which is often as far as
governments plan ahead, but no one really knows for sure.
any case, even a six- to eight-year window does not really tell us
how severe the problem is. A given timespan can have a very
different meaning depending on what it leads to: a mild economic
slowdown or a rapid decline resulting in a world collapse.
important element to take into account is the size of the world's
population. It has almost doubled since the release of the Limits
report in 1972. This means that resources are being exhausted much
faster than they were 40 years ago and that finding new supplies
able to satisfy the much higher annual demand becomes increasingly
are also magnified by the shortage of energy. When the price of oil
is up, everything that requires energy becomes more expensive,
including food and minerals. Metals themselves already see stiff
price increases in periods of economic growth and when shortages
occur. Higher energy prices only serve to compound the problem.
statement made by the USGS perhaps has more meaning in its omissions
than in what it actually says. While it might be true that there
will not be significant shortages of minerals in the near future,
the statement fails to point out the potential consequences
resulting from the low substitutability of metals were shortages to
occur in the medium term.
Issues Relating to Reserve Estimates
The US Geological
Survey defines the word reserves as follows:
That part of the reserve base
which could be economically extracted or produced at the time of
determination. The term reserves need not signify that extraction
facilities are in place and operative. (US Geological Survey, 2010,
therefore only the part of a resource that is economically
exploitable. The reserve base
is a broader concept sometimes referred to as total
reserves and defined as
That part of an identified
resource that meets specified minimum physical and chemical criteria
related to current mining and production practices, including those
for grade, quality, thickness, and depth....
The reserve base includes those
resources that are currently economic (reserves), marginally
economic (marginal reserves), and some of those that are currently
subeconomic (subeconomic resources). (US Geological Survey, 2010, p.
For the sake of
simplicity, in further discussions the reserve base will be defined
as reserves and subeconomic resources (of which marginal reserves
are a part).
Since reserves are
actually only what is economically recoverable, their quantity
depends on market prices. For example, tripling the amount
currently paid for metals would make profitable some of the
resources considered uneconomic at the moment. As such, reserves
are extendable on account of market value. However, the reality of
even just a doubling in price of a commodity can be harsh as the oil
experience has shown us: a rise in the cost of living, price
increases for other commodities and goods, food shortages, economic
Higher market values
can extend reserves, but there are limits as the expense of
exploiting low grade minerals tends to grow exponentially and
eventually reach a mineralogical barrier,
a point at which the extraction costs in energy and other
resources become prohibitively expensive and beyond anything that
could be considered economically feasible.
The Cost of Energy and Other Mining Inputs
The costs of energy
and other mining inputs (for example, machinery) have the opposite
effect of a rise in price. The higher they are, the more reserves
shrink, primarily because the latter are defined as that part of the
resource that is economically recoverable.
While consumers might
be willing to pay a higher price for a given resource—and in doing
so increase the ability of a company to develop more costly
deposits—a rise in the costs of energy and other inputs can cancel
out that effect. Depending on the price of energy and other
resources like metals (out of which machinery is made), some of the
subeconomic part of the resource base might never become
For example, if a
mineral from a given deposit currently costs $100 per ton to extract
and the market price for it is $110, the commodity would be
profitable, and so would all other deposits whose extraction costs
are between $100 and $110. Suppose that the price of oil triples
and increases extraction costs of the mineral by $10. Then, the
deposits whose extraction costs are between $100 and $110 would
become unprofitable, not only shrinking existing reserves but also
pushing subeconomic resources farther away from ever becoming
The Total World Population
As expressed earlier,
the size of the world's population is an important factor in terms
of assessing how long reserves will last. For
example, if 100,000 units of a certain resource were available in
1965 when the total world population was about 3.3 billion and the
annual consumption was 1,000 unit, the total supply of the resource
would have been 100 years' worth of consumption.
the same quantity in today's reality would last less than 50 years
on account of the world's population nearing 7 billion, assuming the
per person consumption remained the same. The total resource would
actually have to double to 200,000 units for it to last 100
years—which would be very difficult to do.
in the total number of people on the planet reduces reserves not in
quantity but in the length of time that they would last. The
world's population has been growing rapidly and is expected to
continue to do so for several decades.
Science and Technology
Science and technology
have served to increase reserves in the past. For example,
horizontal drilling and other new techniques have enabled the
exploitation of oil and gas resources that would have been otherwise
out of reach or too expensive to extract.
Research and new
technologies will continue to develop and help extend reserves.
But, they are only two of the many parameters of the equation, and
there are limiting factors. Science itself tends to behave like a
depletable resource. Discoveries are easy to come by at first, then
solutions become more and more complex, expensive, and difficult to
While there is a lot
of expansion to expect in new sciences like genetic engineering,
breakthroughs in many of the older physical sciences occur less
often and are generally more costly and elaborate in nature. Will
science solve all of our problems as many environmental deniers
profess? It has not done so in the past, despite the exponential
scientific growth of the last century.
The fact that oil
reserves have or are expected to peak soon proves the point. All of
the new science and technologies have not been enough to prevent the
world's consumption of petroleum from outstripping new discoveries.
The same can be said about the fact that our own children are now
born with dozens of harmful chemicals and carcinogens in their
tissues, that dozens of species go extinct every year, that world
commercial resources like tuna fisheries are being degraded, or that
the cutting down of tropical rainforests continues unabated despite
decades of activism.
Birth control has
been around for decades, yet the world's population continues to
grow despite many going hungry. News headlines in 2008 were that
food stockpiles were at historical lows. Despite the Green
Revolution and its boost to agricultural productivity, there are
more people going hungry today than ever before! Many hold the
belief that science will find a solution to all of our problems. In
practice, it has failed to do the job because it has limitations and
does not exist in isolation.
Since 1972, science
and technology themselves have proven that they were not able to
prevent oil from peaking, to stop the destruction of the
environment, to halt the growth of the world population, to provide
enough food for all, or to slow down the depletion of resources.
They are positive
factors in terms of extending reserves and helping to postpone a
potential world collapse. However, their track record over the last
40 years should dispel any hope that they will be a panacea for the
Energy is a poster
child for the unlimited-resource argument and the concept of
substitutability. As oil becomes depleted and its price increases,
society will convert to other sources of energy just as has begun to
happen since petroleum hit $140 a barrel. As such, we may deplete
oil reserves completely but will not run out of energy because
petroleum has alternatives that are both renewable and available in
almost unlimited supplies.
The question is, does
the same model apply to metals? It does not because
substitutability is low and there are essentially no renewable
alternatives nor any available in the enormous quantities that will
be needed. Here is a closer look.
There is a certain
amount of substitutability among metals. Aluminum, steel, and
magnesium alloys are all heavily used today and represent possible
substitutes for each other in many industrial applications,
including electrical wiring and motor vehicle parts. Their reserves
are larger than those of other minerals although by no means should
they be considered extensive. They could also be replaced in
specific cases by plastics, fiberglass, or carbon fibre. Despite
this, they may not survive the test of true substitutes as shown
For a metal to be
considered a suitable replacement for another as resources peak and
shortages begin to occur, certain conditions have to be met. True
substitutes have to be available at reasonable prices. On that
account alone, the world will not generally be able to transition to
a variety of reasonably priced metallic alternatives. It is not
only one mineral resource that is being depleted at the same time,
it is all of them. Prices will increase across the board as they
peak and shortages are in the offing.
When it comes to
mineral resources, a doubling or even tripling in price can be
considered a small difference. Between the bottom of a recession
and the peak of the next economic growth cycle, the price of many
commodities often more than doubles.
Table 1 shows the
prices of different minerals in two periods of strong economic
growth (1989 and 2008) and at the bottom of the market downturn that
followed the Internet and technology stock crash in 2002.
With the exception of
aluminum and zinc, all metals at least doubled in price in the 2002
to 2008 six-year period. Nearly half (cobalt, silver, tin, and
copper) more than tripled. This is still at a point in time when
shortages are not in sight, at least for most metals, and
speculation is not a concern. Price hikes will occur much more
rapidly when either of those enters the picture. Remember that the
price of crude oil went from about US $90 a barrel in February 2008
to a high of $147.27 on July 11 of the same year. That is an
increase of over 60% in less than six months!
swings in price are normal for many minerals, these can be very
painful for consumers and countries. Between 2004 and mid 2008,
petroleum prices more than tripled. In addition to the resulting
pain at the pump, the peak in the price of oil pressured the US
financial system at its weakest point—the subprime mortgage
sector—and crashed the world economy.
1. Mineral Price Variation for Select Years.
----- 1989 ----- in constant 1998
----- 2002 ----- in constant
----- 2008 ----- in constant
Between 2002 & 2008
are in constant 1998 US dollars/ton. Data for aluminum is from
bauxite sources only. Source: US Geological Survey. Historical
Statistics for Mineral and Material Commodities in the United
States, Version 2010. MT = Metric
Tons; TMT = Thousand Metric Tons; MMT = Million Metric Tons; BMT =
Billion Metric Tons.
The above underscores
two things: the fragility of the world economy with respect to
relatively small variations in the price of mineral commodities and
the potentially catastrophic consequences of moderate and larger
price increases as would occur at a more advanced stage of resource
advocates argue that we will not run out of metals because once a
commodity is exhausted, society would jump to an alternative. Once
that supply is gone, it would then move on to another one. In
addition to good substitutability and the need for reasonable prices
discussed above, a true substitute would have to be available in
large quantities or be renewable.
Again, oil is the
poster child for this argument. Most alternative energies are
available in relatively large quantities and a variety of forms and
sources (biofuels, wind energy, hydro-electricity, solar power,
etc.). Many are also renewable, meaning that they are theoretically
unlimited. In practice, several types of power or fuels require a
lot of energy in their production and will be constrained to various
degrees by increases in the price of oil and other resources.
Metals are used
massively in today's society. In fact, they are a mainstay of the
infrastructure of countries as well as of their manufacturing
industry. Massive use would point to the need for massive reserves,
which brings us to the next point. If metals are being depleted
simultaneously, none of them will be available in the substantial
quantities required to act as substitute when others begin running
short. Neither would they last any significant amount of time as
when they start replacing other metals, their consumption would
double, triple, and more (their own share plus that of the other
minerals they are substitutes for).
there are no true substitutes for metals. From the above, it should
be clear that there will not be any jumping from one metallic
resource to another as they become depleted. Most metals are
massively and concurrently used today. Prices will increase across
the board as reserves peak and start running short. No plentiful
substitutes will exist at that point in time, nor would they be
available at reasonable prices in most if not all cases.
Conservation and Recycling
programs could reduce our consumption of metals, and recycling would
decrease demand for raw materials. Both are positive factors in
terms of extending reserves, but after decades of environmentalism,
little occurs in that respect. Of course, everybody recycles, but
in terms of percentage of material recovery, the results are still
cannot really be counted on to take action aggressively enough to do
what needs to be done in that respect. A more likely scenario is
that as the price of metals doubles, triples, and quadruples,
markets for recyclables will develop on their own. The only problem
is, by the time this occurs, it will be too late. Many metals will
have peaked already.
a green economic environment as proposed in the first book of this
series would create markets for recyclables sooner and could be the
only approach powerful enough to address the issue of resource
depletion. Conservation is central to and one of the pillars of the
growth is an important consideration with respect to reserves. The
greater the industrial production, the faster the depletion of
non-renewable resources. Governments around the world are pushing
for increased economic growth as a means to improve the welfare of
China—representing together almost one third of the world's
population—have seen tremendous growth in the last decade. How
long will the planet be able to sustain this? While economic
expansion is a positive for society, it is a negative factor in
terms of mineral reserves. The world's population has grown at an
annual rate of a little above 1% in the first decade of this
century, economies have expanded at a rate of about 2.57% during the
same period. Not only are there more of us, but we also consume
resources at a faster rate.
Manganese Nodules: The Last Frontier
When oil became
increasingly difficult to find on solid ground, the industry moved
offshore. Is the same thing going to happen with respect to nonfuel
There are significant
amounts of several types of metals in oceans. They lie in large
seabed deposits of potato-size nuggets called manganese nodules.
They were discovered in 1803 and are essentially chunks of
rocky material that contains significant amounts of manganese, iron,
and base metals. They have been found in several locations around
the world at various depths.
Manganese nodules are
technically renewable as they
grow by bacteria depositing on their surface certain minerals found
in sea water. However, their rate of formation is so slow (2 mm or
0.8 inch per 1,000,000 years) that the renewability of the resource
is in question. Furthermore, their rate of growth depends on the
total surface available for depositing minerals. Any exploitation
of the resource would reduce its ability to renew itself.
There are many considerations
with respect to mining manganese nodules. The more obvious ones are
environmental concerns and the difficulty and cost of exploiting a
resource that is deep below the ocean's surface (two to five
kilometers on average).
nodules represent a significant source of nonfuel minerals. They
are a positive factor in terms of extending reserves of certain
metals. The question is whether we want to save some of that
resource for our children or wipe everything out. The issue is
perhaps better captured in The 21st Century Environmental
Seabed resources are probably
the only thing future generations will have left after we are done.
The last thing we want to do at this point is to move into this last
frontier. The solution to our problem does not consist in wiping
out one resource after another. It lies in bringing ourselves under
control. (Henderson, 2010, p. 60)
oil has relatively cheap renewable substitutes, the impact of its
depletion on future generations will be moderate. This is not the
case for nonfuel minerals. Will society resist the temptation of
delving into what might be our last significant source of minerals?
What will happen to this last-frontier resource? Will it be first
come, first served
or are we going to try to preserve it for future generations so that
they too have resources to build their physical infrastructure with?
World3: The Factors
the World3 model did take into account many of the factors discussed
above. In fact, population, industrial production, and the
consumption of non-renewable resources represent three of the five
economic subsystems on which the model is based. Factors
influencing mineral reserves, such as substitutability, the cost of
resource extraction, the potential for technological development,
recycling rates, etc. are also considered.
This brings us to the
last question: how much resources is really left?