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Waves of the Future - The Magian Age

Climate Change, Non-Renewable Resources, Energy, Contaminants, Carbon Pricing...

The Depletion Wall

5. The Present and the Future

The Conservation of Renewable and Nonrenewable Resources, the Depletion of Metals, Waste Management, Recycling Market


Renewable Energy & Resource Management
Non-Renewable Resources

Overview  Reviews

See also Book I of the Waves of the Future Series

CHAPTER 5


PART III

AN ASSESSMENT OF THE PROBLEMS



5. The Present and the Future

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 that.

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 of affairs.

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., 1972).

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.

The 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.

Part 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 are depleted.

In 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 false.

What 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 the Limits 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.

In, A Comparison 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.

The 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 growth, etc.

The 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.

The 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.

Turner's findings can be summarized as this:

The 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, 2008, p.37)

These results are interesting firstly because real data of the period between 1970 and 2000 was plugged into the heavily criticized original Limits to Growth model and showed it to be consistent and reasonably close to what actually occurred over the last few decades.

Secondly, 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).

Thirdly, 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 collapse.

Turner's 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.

The 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 to Growth authors did not totally rule out collapse as a possible outcome.

Turner 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.

As 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)

A 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.

Turner (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).

Improved 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.

While 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
The 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 implemented.

Erring on the Side of Caution
In 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 Synopsis, 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 everybody.

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 health.

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.

Corporations
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.

Certain countries 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 of caution.

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 otherwise?

Pollution
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 included:

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 14)

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 and carcinogens.

The World's Ultimate Sewage Lagoon
Another significant 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 sites.

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 for centuries.

Renewable Resources
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.

Non-Renewable Resources
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 excessive levels.

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.

The Context
Accurate 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.

The 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 planet.

It 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 planning.

The 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.

In 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.

One important element to take into account is the size of the world's population. It has almost doubled since the release of the Limits to Growth 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 difficult.

Problems 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.

The 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
Price
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, p. 190)

Reserves are 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 follows:

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. 189)

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 crashes, etc.

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 exploitable.

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 economically exploitable.

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.

However, 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.

Growth 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 find.

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 world's problems.

Substitutability
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 below.

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!

While significant 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.

Table 1. Mineral Price Variation for Select Years.

Mineral

----- 1989 ----- in constant 1998 Dollars/Ton

----- 2002 ----- in constant 1998 Dollars/Ton

----- 2008 ----- in constant 1998 Dollars/Ton

Price Multiplier Between 2002 & 2008

Iron Ore

$41.20

$23.50

$56.60

2.4

Cobalt

$22,700.00

$15,500.00

$51,800.00

3.3

Aluminum

$35.30

$18.40

$20.00

1.1

Silver

$232,500.00

$134,000.00

$398,000.00

3.0

Gold

$16,200,000.00

$9,060,000.00

$21,200,000.00

2.3

Zinc

$2,380.00

$772.00

$1,480.00

1.9

Tin

$15,100.00

$5,830.00

$18,900.00

3.2

Copper

$3,800.00

$1,510.00

$5,330.00

3.5

Nickel

$17,500.00

$6,130.00

$16,000.00

2.6

Prices 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 depletion.

The unlimited-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).

Generally speaking, 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
Conservation 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 fairly low.

Governments 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.

Implementing 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 strategy.

Economic Growth
Obviously, economic 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 their people.

India and 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 minerals?

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).

Manganese 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 Revolution:

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)

Because 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
Interestingly enough, 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?


Copyright Waves of the Future, ©2012


More information: WWF USGS Mineral Tables Degrowth Limits to Growth World Population Growth Conservation International Sierra Club UN Population Division