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Waves of the Future - The Magian Age

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

The Depletion Wall

6. Current Trends and Estimates

Managing Renewable and Nonrenewable Resources (Metals) for the Future


Non-renewable Mineral Resource Management, Recycling Markets, Waste Reduction...

Green Packaging, Recycling, & Reuse
Renewable Energy Management and Biofuel Net Efficiency
A Strategy for Conservation and Non-renewable Resource Management

Overview  Reviews

See also Book I of the Waves of the Future Series

CHAPTER 6


6. Current Trends and Estimates

As expressed in the previous section, reserve estimates are approximate at best. They are influenced by many variables and vary over time. That being said, looking at a range of figures can at least give us an idea of what the current situation is as well as trends and patterns.

Resource Depletion
The Best-Case Scenario
Bjorn Lomborg, a controversial Danish academic at the Copenhagen Business School, wrote in 2001 a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. As the title suggests, the work is an attempt at debunking environmental claims with respect to resource shortages, overpopulation, global warming, deforestation, etc.

At the time, Lomborg was accused by his peers of scientific dishonesty (including fabrication of data). Complaints were made and investigated by two different administrative bodies with very different results. The debate goes on even today. He is reported to have up until 2010 “campaigned against the Kyoto Protocol and other measures to cut carbon emissions in the short-term, and argued for adaptation to short-term temperature rises as they are inevitable” (Lomborg, 2010, December 19).

Many consider him an environmental denier although he himself objects to it. The least that can be said about his book is that the figures are far from reliable, and one should remain skeptical about The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg's work was chosen because it offers data that is on the right of the political spectrum and very likely represents a best-case scenario. As well, his analysis is now 11 years old and can be compared to the World3 model and serve to exemplify the importance of certain assumptions and variables.

Page 139 of The Skeptical Environmentalist features a table of the approximate number of years of consumption left for several mineral resources. The data was for the year 1997 and sourced from a 1998 US Geological Survey document.

With the exception of chromium—for which there were apparently 625 years of supply—the largest reserves were for aluminum, iron ore, and cobalt, for which there were between 228 and 333 years of supply left. There were about 130 years left of nickel according to the same table. While these do not point to a world collapse in the 21st century, the reserves for silver, gold, zinc, tin, and copper were much smaller and expected to last respectively 28, 31, 55, 60, and 56 years (p. 139). These minerals would therefore run out respectively in 2025, 2028, 2052, 2057, and 2053.

As the data dates back to 1997, all of these figures should probably be revised down since consumption levels would be up from the global population increasing (15% to 20%) and the world's economic output growing, and the estimates assuming 0% rise in demand.

An important factor in considering Lomborg's data is the fact that he used reserve base figures, which include subeconomic resources as discussed earlier. As such, the surprisingly low results for many minerals actually represent a very optimistic scenario.

Countries like China and India—again, hosts to over one third of the total number of people on the planet—have accelerated their economic growth very significantly in the recent past. The resulting higher demand for oil made the news frequently in 2004, often stated as one of the causes of the cost of petroleum remaining high. Of course, OPEC also has something to do with it.

Presumably, metals will go through a similar pattern, their consumption also rising significantly and reducing most, if not all, of the above estimates. Although it is difficult to exactly predict when scarcity will occur, what is certain is that the numbers above are shockingly low, considering that most of these metals are essential to society and will not renew themselves. As important is the fact that these figures come from someone who does not believe that there is a resource shortage and who has opposed carbon reduction initiatives up until 2010—and changed his position after that.

A Second Scenario
A second scenario is based on the work of André Diederen, a senior scientist at TNO (Holland)–an independent Dutch organization which does research for both the private sector and government on a range of topics: competitiveness matters, social and economic policy, environment, as well as security.

Diederen himself specializes in defense matters, but the issue discussed in his 2009 research paper, titled Metal Minerals Scarcity: A Call for Managed Austerity and the Elements of Hope, goes farther than just defense matters as this quote from its introduction at The Oil Drum: Europe website suggests: “The implications of metals scarcity reach far beyond the 'niche' of defence related materials and might affect our entire industrial civilization” (Diederen, 2009). Briefly, the results of his analysis lead him to advocate a strategy of managed austerity or conservation.

His assessment of mineral reserves should offer a more realistic picture of the current situation as it assumes a 2% growth in demand for the future. In comparison, the total gross domestic product for the world for the first decade of this century averaged 2.57% (World Bank, World Development Indicators & Global Development Finance). His data is based on 2008 USGS figures.

Diederen (2009) calculated that the reserves for iron ore, cobalt, and aluminum would respectively last another 48, 59, and 65 years to respectively 2056, 2067, and 2073. The reserves for silver, gold, zinc, tin, and copper were again much smaller, expected to last another 12, 15, 15, 17, and 25 years respectively (p. 13). These minerals would therefore run out around 2020, 2023, 2023, 2025, and 2033.

A Third Scenario
As a benchmark, this third scenario pulls the 2010 mineral reserve figures from the US Geological Survey Global Mineral Resource Assessment Project (US Geological Survey, 2011) and projects the years of consumption left based on reserves and annual production. For the purpose of benchmarking, it assumes no GDP or population growth. As such, it should be considered an optimistic scenario as both are expected to continue to increase. While it will not help to accurately determine how long resources will last, it does provide a zero-growth benchmark based on the latest reserve data available. See the results in table 2 below.

A Fourth Scenario
The fourth scenario, Latest Data, is similar to the third one except that it assumes a gross domestic product growth of 2.57%, which is the average annual GDP increase during the first decade of this millennium (2000-2009). This timespan does include both periods of growth and recessions. As such, it represents a latest-data type of scenario as far as the most recent available information and trends are concerned. Table 2 summarizes the findings.

Note that mine production is used in lieu of consumption of new materials. As minerals are extracted for the latter, the two items approximate each other. Because of stockpiling, production also tends to have smaller swings in economic cycles than does consumption, making it a more reliable variable. Furthermore, mine production is what is needed—in addition to recycled materials—to meet annual demand (total consumption). As such, the years of supply data does indirectly take into account recycling.

The average of two years of production (2009 and 2010) is used to increase the accuracy of results. In the table, the data from Lomborg and Diederen is adjusted for 2011. For example, if there were 228 years of supply of iron ore in 1997 (the year on which Lomborg based his calculations), there would be 215 years left as of 2011.

Lomborg's figures are much higher than those of all other scenarios. This is due in part to his use of reserve base rather than reserves estimates. This assumes that the mineral reserves that are uneconomic at this point in time will all become economically exploitable one day. As seen in the section on price and the cost of energy and other inputs, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. The price of most inputs is going up and not moving the other way.

Table 2. Years of supply left for certain minerals based on reserves and annual production using data from USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2011.

Mineral

Average Annual Production 2009-2010

Reserves USGS 2011

Years of Supply Lomborg 0% Growth

Years of Supply Benchmk 0% Growth

Years of Supply Diederen 2% Growth

Years of Supply Latest 2.57% Growth

Iron Ore (MMT)

2,320

180,000

215

78

46

42

Cobalt (TMT)*

80

7,300

320

91

57

46

Aluminum (MMT)*

205

28,000

230

137

63

58

Silver (MT)

22,000

510,000

15

23

10

18

Gold (MT)

2,475

51,000

18

21

13

16

Zinc (TMT)

11,600

250,000

42

22

13

17

Tin (TMT)*

261

5,200

47

20

15

15

Copper (TMT)

16,050

630,000

43

39

23

26

Nickel (TMT)*

1,475

76,000

117

52

28

32

* Measurement units differ from the ones in USGS data tables.

Figures are adjusted for 2011. The data for aluminum includes bauxite and alumina sources only. Some of the minerals are more complex to assess than others, and the definitions used here may not match exactly those of Diederen or Lomborg. Source: USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2011. MT = Metric Tons; TMT = Thousand Metric Tons; MMT = Million Metric Tons; BMT = Billion Metric Tons.

Even Lomborg's data shows very low figures for many minerals. Gold and silver would run out in a couple of decades, and several other commodities would become scarce around the middle of the century, pretty much in line with the highly criticized original World3 model.

Lomborg's data is also calculated in years of consumption at stable 1997 levels. In other words, it assumes no economic growth. This is misleading even if one is only looking at trends. In the two decades preceding his assessment, the trend was that there had been respectively 3.14% (1980-1989) and 2.74% (1990-1999) annual GDP growth for the world as a whole.

While they and the latest rate of 2.57% for the 2000-2009 period appear to be small, they add up and compound over time just like interests do. At a rate of 2.57%, consumption would double after 28 years, triple after 44, quadruple after 56, and quintuple after 64. For example, if there are 200 years of aluminum left 28 years from now, those reserves at double the consumption rate will actually last only 100 years, adding up to a total of only 128 years' worth of reserves, not 228 as first thought. What a difference!

As a general rule, the higher the number of years of supply left, the more they are affected by compounded growth rates and the more off the final figures will be. This is exemplified in table 2. The supply of aluminum in the Latest Data scenario is less than half of what it is in the Benchmark one which assumes 0% growth, dropping from 137 to 58 years. However, the years of supply for tin and zinc are much less affected.

Lomborg's data is likely to be significantly misleading on not one but two counts: the facts that it includes subeconomic resources and that it assumes 0% growth, with the greatest amount of variation (more than 50%) occurring in the higher range of the data.

The data in table 2 points to our being in serious trouble with respect to non-renewable resources. Table 3 translates the years of supply into actual dates (the year at which current reserves would be depleted) for the four scenarios.

By the mid 2020s, we will be running low on the reserves of several minerals. At that point in time, speculation is likely to start kicking in and prices will sharply increase. By the late 2020s, the economically exploitable part of the reserve base will have been used up in some cases and be running low in others. We would have to start delving into marginal and uneconomic resources.

Table 3. Year of depletion. A comparison of the four dataset estimates of the final year of supply of select minerals.

Mineral

Lomborg Based on Reserve Base 0% Growth

Benchmark Based on Reserves 0% Growth

Diederen Based on Reserves 2% Growth

Latest Data Based on Reserves 2.57% Growth

Iron Ore (MMT)

2225

2088

2056

2052

Cobalt (TMT)*

2330

2101

2067

2056

Aluminum (MMT)*

2240

2147

2073

2068

Silver (MT)

2025

2033

2020

2028

Gold (MT)

2028

2031

2023

2026

Zinc (TMT)

2052

2032

2023

2027

Tin (TMT)*

2057

2030

2025

2025

Copper (TMT)

2053

2049

2033

2036

Nickel (TMT)*

2127

2062

2038

2042

* Measurement units differ from the ones in USGS data tables. The data for aluminum includes bauxite and alumina sources only. Some of the minerals are more complex to assess than others, and the definitions used here may not match exactly those of Diederen or Lomborg. MT = Metric Tons; TMT = Thousand Metric Tons; MMT = Million Metric Tons; BMT = Billion Metric Tons.

Table 4 takes a closer look at the issue of subeconomic resources. The question it attempts to answer is how long would subeconomic resources last if we were willing and able to afford to pay the higher prices they will command.

Lomborg's figures are adjusted as of 2011. They should normally closely match the Benchmark scenario which also assumes 0% growth. A certain amount of variation is expected to occur naturally on account of several factors, for example, differences in reserve base size and consumption rates between 1997 and 2010.

Table 4. Years of supply left for certain minerals based on reserve base estimates using data from USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2009, 2011.

Mineral

Average Annual Production 2009-2010

Reserve Base 2011

Years of Supply Lomborg 0% Growth

Years of Supply Benchmk 0% Growth

Years of Supply Reserve Base 2.57% Growth

Years of Supply Sub-Economic 2.57% Growth

Iron Ore (MMT)

2,320

345,360

215

149

61

19

Cobalt (TMT)*

80

12,840

320

160

63

17

Aluminum (MMT)*

205

37,590

230

183

67

9

Silver (MT)

22,000

526,000

15

24

18

0

Gold (MT)

2,475

95,050

18

38

26

10

Zinc (TMT)

11,600

456,800

42

39

27

10

Tin (TMT)*

261

10,479

47

40

27

12

Copper (TMT)

16,050

967,900

43

60

36

10

Nickel (TMT)*

1,475

147,050

117

100

49

17

* Measurement units differ from the ones in USGS data tables. Figures are adjusted for 2011. The data for aluminum includes bauxite and alumina sources only. Some of the minerals are more complex to assess than others, and the definitions used here may not match exactly those of Diederen or Lomborg. Source: USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2009, 2011. The reserve base for 2011 was obtained by subtracting the 2009 and 2010 productions from the 2008 reserve base, which is the last year for which USGS provides the data. MT = Metric Tons; TMT = Thousand Metric Tons; MMT = Million Metric Tons; BMT = Billion Metric Tons.

Lomborg's data shows huge overestimates in the higher part of the range. That is in part due to his decision to ignore economic growth in calculations. The 13-year span between 1997 and 2010 would add up to about 30% to 35% growth in consumption at a 2.57% compounded annual rate. Other figures are lower than expected, perhaps on account of variations between the 1997 and 2010 data and increases in the reserve base of some minerals since 1997.

Table 4 shows two things. Firstly, it clearly demonstrates the dramatic impact of consumption growth on reserves. The Lomborg and the Latest Data scenarios show major differences in years of supply for all metals except silver and gold. With these two exceptions, they respectively dropped 72%, 80%, 71%, 36%, 43%, 16%, and 58% from iron ore to nickel. Much of these differences is attributable to Lomborg's decision to ignore increases in consumption. The compounded growth over the short 13-year period between his 1997 and the 2010 data—which was very substantial as seen above—added to a dramatic fall in years of supply.

This underscores the importance of taking into account economic growth when determining how long reserves will last even if we only look at trends. It also positions economic growth as a resource killer and supports the conclusion of the World3 model that technological solutions alone would not be enough to prevent a world collapse: social policy to curb growth or make it greener would be needed.

The second thing that table 4 shows is that the subeconomic part of the reserve base is fairly small (last column of the table), adding only one to two decades of years of supply to the figures in table 2. This is due in part to the compounding of economic growth. The farther we look into the future, the higher the rate at which we consume resources. There are not hundreds of years of supply of even iron ore as Lomborg's analysis would lead us to believe, but only decades, with the reserve base running out for most minerals above from the mid 2030s to the mid 2070s. As such, we cannot count on the larger reserve base to save the day.

This is not hocus-pocus or fear mongering. Anyone can check the latest reserve figures at the USGS website (see the Bibliography at the end). The 0% growth benchmark is obtained simply by dividing reserves by annual production. Compounded growth is more difficult to calculate but can be approximated with retirement savings calculators on the Internet. These will let you calculate how long a given annual consumption will take to grow to match a given quantity of reserves or size of reserve base.

For example, using the calculator at http://www.retirement

calculators.org/ you can figure out how long the reserve base for iron ore will last by entering 0 in the Initial Amount box, entering 193.33 in the Monthly Deposit box (the average 2009-2010 annual production of 2320 divided by 12 months), entering 2.57% in the Interest Rate box (the average annual growth rate), selecting Annual as frequency, and entering 100 years in the Number of Years box. Javascript must be enabled for the calculator to work. The resulting list will show that the current annual production/consumption of iron ore will add up to the current reserves (180,000 MMT) late in year 42 and match the reserve base (345,360 MMT) in the middle of year 61.

This brings us to the next question. Is there hope that reserves will increase significantly? Table 5 shows that the supply of iron ore, cobalt, aluminum, silver, gold, zinc, copper, and nickel has increased since 1997 and that only the reserves for tin have actually diminished.

This, however, is no cause for celebration as demand has also gone up. In fact, table 6 shows that despite increases in reserves, the years of supply have decreased overall and for half of the minerals involved. Furthermore, the current reserves for many minerals still only stand at two to three decades (assuming 2.57% growth). Many of these may soon peak if they have not done so already.

Note also that while the likelihood of further growth in reserves decreases with time as new deposits become increasingly more difficult to find, the world's consumption of minerals will likely continue to grow in the foreseeable future and would double in the next three decades if economic expansion matches that of the 2000-2009 period.

Table 5. Establishing growth and depletion patterns. Reserves from 1998 to 2011 based on USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 1998-2011.

Mineral

Reserves

1998

Reserves

2001

Reserves

2003

Reserves

2005

Reserves

2007

Reserves

2009

Reserves

2011

Iron Ore (MMT)

167,000

140,000

150,000

160,000

160,000

150,000

180,000

Cobalt

(TMT)*

4,000

4,700

6,700

7,000

7,000

7,100

7,300

Aluminum

(MMT)*

23,000

25,000

22,000

23,000

25,000

27,000

28,000

Silver

(MT)

280,000

280,000

270,000

270,000

270,000

270,000

510,000

Gold

(MT)

45,000

48,000

42,500

42,000

42,000

47,000

51,000

Zinc

(TMT)

190,000

190,000

200,000

220,000

220,000

180,000

250,000

Tin

(TMT)*

7,700

9,600

6,100

6,100

6,100

5,600

5,200

Copper

(TMT)

320,000

340,000

480,000

470,000

480,000

550,000

630,000

Nickel

(TMT)*

40,000

49,000

61,000

62,000

64,000

70,000

76,000

* Measurement units differ from the ones in USGS data tables.

The data for aluminum includes bauxite and alumina sources only. Some of the minerals are more complex to assess than others, and the definitions used here may not match exactly those of Diederen or Lomborg. Source: USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 1998-2011. MT = Metric Tons; TMT = Thousand Metric Tons; MMT = Million Metric Tons; BMT = Billion Metric Tons.

Table 6. A comparison of the years of supply of certain minerals based on 1996-1997 and 2009-2010 annual production levels and corresponding reserves using data from USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 1998-2011.

Mineral

Annual Production Average USGS 1996-1997

Annual Production Average USGS 2009-2010

Reserves USGS 1998

Reserves USGS 2011

Years of Supply 1998 Data 0% Growth

Years of Supply 2011 Data 0% Growth

Iron Ore (MMT)

1,025

2320

167,000

180000

150

78

Cobalt (TMT)*

27

80.15

4,000

7300

135

91

Aluminum (MMT)*

115

205

23,000

28000

188

137

Silver (MT)

15,250

22000

280,000

510000

5

23

Gold (MT)

2,275

2475

45,000

51000

7

21

Zinc (TMT)

7,620

11600

190,000

250000

12

22

Tin (TMT)*

199

260.5

7,700

5200

26

20

Copper (TMT)

11,150

16050

320,000

630000

16

39

Nickel (TMT)*

1,080

1475

40,000

76000

24

52

* Measurement units differ from the ones in USGS data tables.

Figures are adjusted for 2011. The data for aluminum includes bauxite and alumina sources only. Some of the minerals are more complex to assess than others, and the definitions used here may not match exactly those of Diederen or Lomborg. Source: USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 1998-2011. MT = Metric Tons; TMT = Thousand Metric Tons; MMT = Million Metric Tons; BMT = Billion Metric Tons.

The Issue of Economic Growth
The problem of exponential growth was one of the major issues that the 1972 World3 simulations tried to warn us about because for many years it might seem that resources are plentiful and we have nothing to worry about, but by the time shortages begin to occur, it will be too late to act as the depletion process will already be accelerating.

As expressed earlier, at an annual GDP growth of 2.57%, consumption would double, triple, quadruple, and quintuple in respectively 28, 44, 56, and 64 years (assuming everything else remains equal). This means that resources would be consumed at twice their 2011 rate starting in 2039 and at respectively three, four, and five times that rate starting in 2055, 2067, and 2075.

Compare these dates with those in table 3 and the World3 simulation results. The business-as-usual scenario does point to a world collapse in the second half of this century. Just how long will resources withstand the pressure in 2067 when consumption is at four times the current rate, or only 11 years later when it reaches five times what it was in 2011? This explains in part why digging into marginal and subeconomic resources would delay the crisis by only a couple of decades.

According to the latest estimates (medium variant) from the United Nations (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2011), the world's total population will still be growing in 2050 as well as in 2075. In the first decade of this century, it grew at about 1.12% annually. The fact that it is less than the 2.57% GDP growth suggests that the human condition has improved, 2.57% less 1.12% leaving a net economic gain of 1.45% per capita annually.

At 0% growth, conditions would worsen as the world population continues to increase and is expected to continue to do so for several decades. The same amount of resources with 1.12% more people would mean about 1.07% less per person every year. Of course, the above assumes that everything else (for example, conservation rates) remains equal. Even a 0% growth scenario would still mean significant trouble in a couple of decades. About half of the minerals in table 6 would be running out at that point in time. Are we passed the point of no return?

The Wall Effect of Exponential Growth
Table 7 shows the wall effect of exponential growth. Most of us have already seen graphs showing the geometric progression of a given variable. They resemble the right half of a capital U, with a curve almost flat at the bottom and rising sharply as one moves right. A geometric progression accelerates with time and, more often than not, feels like running into a vertical wall rather than a steep incline. Those are very common in environmental sciences as the effects of population growth compound over time.

These types of graphs have been used so much that we have become desensitized to them, and numbers can be in some cases more explicit than pictures. This is the purpose of table 7. It breaks down the reserve base of some minerals into its reserve and subeconomic shares and then compares the years of supply left for each.

The data in table 7 shows that while subeconomic resources are substantial—often almost as large as reserves—they will not last any significant amount of time after the latter are depleted. The primary reason for it is that, again, resource consumption increases and compounds over time.

Even the large stocks of iron ore, cobalt, and aluminum will not last very long after we have reached the middle of the century. Not much will be able to save us under those conditions. The current reserves of iron ore—standing at 180,000 million metric tons—will last us 42 years. When they become exhausted in 2053 and annual consumption is almost triple what it is today, the substantial remainder—165,360 million metric tons—of subeconomic resources will last only 19 years despite the quantity being almost as large as today's reserves.

Add to this the fact that both reserves and subeconomic resources (i.e. all of the reserve base) for most other minerals will have been exhausted by 2050—some by over two decades—and we have pretty much the conditions described by the World3 model standard run scenario for that period of time. Presumably, consumption would decrease as prices go up while conservation would increase. This would slow down the process of depletion, but would it be enough?

Table 7. The wall effect of exponential growth. A comparison of the reserve and subeconomic shares of the reserve base in terms of years of supply left assuming 2.57% growth and 2009-2010 production levels using data from USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2009, 2011.

Mineral

Total Reserve Base 2011

Reserve Share 2011

Sub- Economic Share 2011

Years of Supply Reserves 2.57% Growth

Years of Supply Sub-Economic 2.57% Growth

Iron Ore (MMT)

345,360

180,000

165,360

42

19

Cobalt (TMT)*

12,840

7,300

5,540

46

17

Aluminum (MMT)*

37,590

28,000

9,590

58

9

Silver (MT)

526,000

510,000

16,000

18

0

Gold (MT)

95,050

51,000

44,050

16

10

Zinc (TMT)

456,800

250,000

206,800

17

10

Tin (TMT)*

10,479

5,200

5,279

15

12

Copper (TMT)

967,900

630,000

337,900

26

10

Nickel (TMT)*

147,050

76,000

71,050

32

17

* Measurement units differ from the ones in USGS data tables.

Figures are adjusted for 2011. The data for aluminum includes bauxite and alumina sources only. Some of the minerals are more complex to assess than others, and the definitions used here may not match exactly those of Diederen or Lomborg. The reserve base for 2011 was obtained by subtracting the 2009 and 2010 productions from the 2008 reserve base, which is the last year for which USGS provides the data. Source: USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2009, 2011. MT = Metric Tons; TMT = Thousand Metric Tons; MMT = Million Metric Tons; BMT = Billion Metric Tons.

One concern with respect to exponential growth is the point at which we are on the curve: early on or at an advanced stage where a crisis cannot be avoided. A second concern is how steep the incline would really be. Table 7 points to reserve shortages beginning to occur for many minerals in the 2020s, with about a decade's worth of subeconomic resources left after that.

We know that the price of resources can increase sharply when shortages are in sight and even decades before they are to occur. There is not a general sense of this happening partly because so far the cases are isolated and we can afford to pay higher prices for the few minerals that have gone up in price. Partly it is also due to the issue of elasticity of demand. This refers to the ability to reduce demand for a given resource. Conversely, increasing supply would have the same effect.

Energy as a whole is relatively inelastic with respect to demand: people need to fill up their gas tanks regularly, electricity has to be available all the time, and the world cannot go without either of them for more than a few days without chaos ensuing.

On the other hand, energy is relatively elastic with respect to supply, at least in the long term: as the reserves of petroleum decrease and prices increase, the world will be able to shift to a variety of plentiful alternatives. In other words, the ability to increase the supply of energy is very good. While the shortage of oil itself may currently feel very painful, there will not likely be a wall effect in the future of energy, just a moderate upward climb.

The demand for metals is much more elastic than it is for energy. If shortages do occur and prices go up, people will be able to have their cars repaired instead of buying new ones and to postpone the purchase of many consumer goods that contain metal. We can expect that this will help delay the crisis initially but will not likely be enough to prevent a wall effect because the supply of minerals is very inelastic as a result of their non-renewability, low substitutability, massive consumption rates, etc.

A Potential Future
This section will try to paint a picture of the future based on the various tables and issues discussed so far. Note that it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen and when. This is just a more fleshed out look at the future, one of many possible.

The scenario tries to take into account a number of factors, among them a slowdown in population growth later on this century and a reduction in consumption as a result of increased prices, higher recycling rates, and economic downturns. Other factors such as speculation, cartelization, and wars are next to impossible to assess with any degree of accuracy.

We know that metals have tripled in price between the lows and highs of economic cycles. Based on that, we can probably expect a tripling of average prices by the end of this decade. The 2020s would see continuing price increases and probably an economic crash similar to the ones triggered by OPEC's high oil prices in 1973 and the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008.

The price hikes and hard economic times would serve to slow down consumption and delay the depletion process by a few years. The exhaustion of the economically exploitable part of the reserve base (i.e. reserves) of silver, gold, zinc, and tin would occur a decade later than expected. The 2030s would see that happening and signal even higher prices. Most countries would still be drowning in the national debts incurred following the crash of the 2020s, and the new decade would be one of prolonged recession and hard economic times.

The 2040s would see frantic attempts on the part of governments to deal with the mineral crisis. The much higher prices, the resulting increased conservation efforts, and the depressed state of the world economy would postpone the expected doubling of mineral consumption rates from the beginning of the decade to the 2050s. The growth of the world's population would start to slow down, but that would make little difference as the numbers would reach 9 billion people by 2045, on their way to 10 billion by 2085 (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2011).

Under the crushing weight of this massive consumption machine and the higher costs of minerals, energy, and depletable fertilizers, the industry and agriculture of the 2050s would buckle under. Off and on, two to three billion people would go hungry around the globe, and the world population would still keep increasing, although more slowly.

As the World3 model suggests, at that point in time solutions would become increasingly ineffective and counterproductive. The preservation of old-growth and tropical forests would be abandoned, giving way under the need to feed the hungry, and environmental initiatives would be abandoned for lack of funding and the pressing need to address the problem of poverty and fund the military in an increasingly unstable world.

The 2060s would mark, in a barely perceptible way at first, the inception of a new period for the world, the Military-Industrial Age. Scarcity would have been highly profitable for the owners of resources in the 2030s, 2040s, and 2050s just as it has been for oil companies in the recent decades. There would have been plenty of money to lobby politicians and fund political parties of the right. In difficult economic times, democracies would have been powerless to prevent speculative profiteering—as they were in better times with respect to oil—and a shift of power to corporations.

The military would become indispensable in protecting society from mounting threats from unstable parts of the world as well as for the acquisition of resources and protection of mineral interests for corporations. Under continuously deteriorating economic conditions, voter sentiment would shift to the right and increasingly support regressive policies. The clock would roll back on rights and freedoms. Opposition to this by progressive and left political parties would only lead to increased repression.

Democracies would generally remain in place but would so change in nature as to more closely resemble today's authoritarian states than anything remotely reminiscent of their original nature. Tomorrow would feature puppet- or pseudo-democracies which would serve the needs of corporations and live in constant fear of takeover by the military they themselves fund.

How events actually unfold in the second half of the century is difficult to tell. Whether the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) emerges dominant after the world economy collapses and a third world war breaks out or after governments are able to manage to muddle through a protracted period of economic depression and social turmoil would depend on a number of factors, including shifts in international alliances and decisions made by politicians.

By the 2070s, the world population would still be growing, resources still dwindling, the cost of living still increasing, and no solution would be in sight.

Whether the above happens sooner or later than described, the process and chaos will still happen relatively quickly, especially on account of the little prospect of relief as prices would go only one way—up—and resources dwindle.

Of course, a doomsday scenario cannot be ruled out at this point in time. While the relationship between the US, Russia, and China has gained in stability, countries like Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea are still highly problematic and pose a threat to everybody. Even a limited conflict, for example between Pakistan and India, could set off a nuclear winter which could mean huge numbers of people starving to death within a year and severe food shortages all over the world.

Pakistan has admitted passing on nuclear technology to Iran. It also indicated during its 2001-2002 standoff with India that it was prepared to use nuclear arms first. How will Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea act under the massive pressures that will develop as we approach the depletion wall?

In latter part of the 21st century, widespread poverty and hunger would revive socialism and radical leftist movements which would challenge the domination of the military-industrial complex and launch the world into another power struggle reminiscent of the Cold War of the 20th century. For the lack of efforts on the part of many Islamic states in embracing pluralistic values and equal religious rights as Muslims are granted in Western and many other countries around the world, Islamism would regain strength and once again threaten world stability.

As the total number of people on the planet nears the 10-billion mark around 2085, many would start contemplating epidemics, biological warfare, or a limited nuclear conflict—and the massive death toll these would entail—as a way out of the crisis—however horrific that reality might be.

What we know for sure is that the Club of Rome did develop a model and ran simulations that did take into account decreasing growth rates of the world population, increasing recycling levels, the possibility of extending reserves, etc. We also know that the business-as-usual simulation of that model did describe reasonably well what would happen in the three decades following it (1970-2000). The latest 10 years of data also trend with the simulation. Is the model going to be as accurate for the coming decades?

Important Considerations in Assessing Data
The latest data on mineral resources points to serious troubles ahead. It also serves to remind us that it is important to consider all significant factors of the resource equation, which Lomborg failed to do. As a result, and predictably, his conclusions are not borne out by the last 13 years of actual data.

In the years to come, we can expect that some people will deny the possibility of a resource crisis, telling you that higher prices will lead to more exploration, that we will be able to shift from one metallic mineral to another, or that science will provide us with all the answers despite its failing track record so far.

Just Too Horrible to Contemplate
It is crucial for our collective future that scientists, political leaders, and the rest of us make the difference between just-too-horrible-to-contemplate and impossible. In other words, we should not make the same mistake as the World3 critics.

Bankers knew about the subprime mortgage problem long before the crisis hit. Reputed economists had warned about the issue. There is no doubt that many bank CEOs assumed that what was just-too-horrible-to-contemplate was automatically also impossible. The world found out the hard way and at massive expense that it was not the case.

Just a few years ago, Zimbabwe experienced hyperinflation. At its worst point in November 2008, the monthly inflation rate was reportedly almost 80 billion percent, or about 100 percent per day, prices nearly doubling from one day to the next. Just too horrible to contemplate? Zimbabwe is not alone. Since the 1980s, over a dozen countries have been victims of hyperinflation.

Things that are just too horrible to conceive do happen as seen in the examples above. A world collapse is just too horrible to contemplate. Yet, it is certainly a strong possibility based on the most recent data.

A Reality Check
Lifestyle has been a buzzword of the baby boomer generation for a long time. It is now being overtaken by a new one, retirement, and stories about the need to increase the population so that there are going to be enough people to support us into a comfortable lifestyle during our old age.

The US and Canada have been increasing their populations actively for decades, earlier on to increase the size of their markets, and now to support retiring baby boomers. Obviously, this spells disaster for the environment. The consequences are also devastating in terms of depletion of non-renewable resources as well as for the world's ability to feed itself.

When we, baby boomers, choose to support population growth policies to keep our lifestyles up during retirement, we do it at the cost of increasing environmental destruction and resource depletion as well as of starving many. If there were three billion people on the planet today as was the case in the 1960s, we could afford to feed everyone, especially with the scientific knowledge and technological advances of the last few decades.

The Illusion of Coping
One question comes to mind: can we afford those lifestyles, or rather, have we ever been able to? As mentioned earlier, since the 1970s we have been borrowing heavily to support ourselves. However, unlike a bank loan which we pay back ourselves, national debts are a form of theft as it is our children that will have to repay the money borrowed to support our lifestyles. For the last four decades, we have essentially been living off our children's credit. All the while we were funding for ourselves generous retirement accounts.

There is worse, as mentioned earlier we advocate population growth policies which will result in increased hunger worldwide. In other words, our comfortable retirements will also come at the expense of human credit, i.e. of increasing the number of hungry on the planet.

If this is not bad enough, we are also incurring a huge environmental debt. Much of the food that we grow is often done at the expense of degrading the environment with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Our industries continue to contaminate soil, water, and air with a cocktail of harmful chemicals. We will be leaving a planet much more contaminated than we received it. As such, we are funding generous retirement accounts at the expense of incurring a heavy environmental debt, one that will be inherited by, once again, our children.

By the time we pass on, the reserve base (which includes both economic and subeconomic resources) of most metals will be near exhaustion. So, in addition to incurring huge national, human, and environmental debts, we will have also borrowed heavily against the planet, leaving the largest part of mineral stocks depleted. Political and social pressures brought about by scarcity will likely cause local conflicts and the many deaths they would entail, and perhaps a third world war.

Is this going to be the baby boomers' legacy? We will be leaving our children trillions of dollars' worth of debts. Will our retirements be at the cost of starving millions, the continued destruction of the environment, and the large-scale depletion of most minerals—the very future of humanity?

On the outside, it may look like we are coping, that our bank accounts are full, that food production increased faster than population growth—at least in the early 2000s—that economic growth is slowly erasing abject poverty, and that we still have time to act with respect to non-renewable resources.

In reality, the ugly truth is that we cannot afford our current lifestyles and the societies we live in, and we have not been able to do so since the 1970s, if ever. The appearance of coping is just an illusion, one made possible by incurring massive debts against our children, humanity (in the form of future hunger and deaths, the environment, and non-renewable resources). Perhaps baby boomers' lifestyles would better be renamed deathstyles as it is what they will translate into for future generations.

Civilization itself began some 10,000 years back. Any significant use of non-renewable resources only started about a century ago. Are we going to wipe out the remainder of the world's non-renewable resources in but a few decades? Putting things in perspective is a quote from The 21st Century Environmental Revolution:

The earth was formed approximately five billion years ago. Its remaining life expectancy is about another five billion years....

In the last 50 years, we have used up as much of the earth's resources as have all the generations before that. In the same period of time, we have depleted maybe 25% of the known oil reserves. Experts estimate that in about 10 to 20 years these will have peaked and will begin to decline. In total, the bulk of world oil reserves will have lasted maybe 200 to 300 years. (Henderson, 2010, p. 59-60)

We have to wake up to the realization that the earth and probably most planets are exceedingly resource poor. The depletion of nonfuel minerals is a one-way street. Once they are gone, they are gone and will not grow back.

The Invisible Factors: Socioeconomic Capital
The concept of capital is generally understood as money for most people. It actually represents various factors of production like buildings, machinery, infrastructure, etc. It is essentially the hardware needed to produce goods. We might have natural resources and labor, but without machines or tools nothing gets fabricated.

There are certain factors that help society to function. These are forms of socioeconomic capital. The more of it you have, the better society is for it. For example, a free press exposes corruption, injustice, human rights abuses, etc. It essentially acts in society as a check-and-balance mechanism or an antivirus. Freedom of speech is also a form of capital. It allows for criticism, feedback, and improvement. Democracy, although very imperfect, prevents extreme minorities from imposing their wishes on society or taking control of a country.

Socioeconomic capital takes time to develop. Even if a long-term dictatorship were to legislate a totally free press overnight, changes would only occur progressively. For example, state and corporate interests would support media promoting their own values rather than a really free press. Human rights activists face various forms of repression in many countries. Democracies can be established overnight but only mature and stabilize over time.

Awareness of issues and commitment to a better world are other forms of socioeconomic capital and help create better and stronger societies. How does this apply to the problem of non-renewable resources?

The first book of this series did provide a feasible solution to address the problem of non-renewable resources: the Green Economic Environment. The system is essentially free, making it highly viable politically, and could be implemented virtually overnight. While we have a perfect strategy for the environment, there is a huge gap between a solution and its implementation.

There are many invisible barriers to making the GEE a reality, for example, deficiencies in terms of communicating and publicizing the benefits of the strategy. While celebrities and public figures can easily command the media's interest and draw attention to a cause, smaller groups and micro-thinktanks generally do not have the clout to do so. Big corporations have huge financial means to buy publicity or hire lobbyists. Smaller groups don't.

The greenhouse effect was actually discovered in the 1800s but went unnoticed for a long time. Even after the idea was picked up and publicized by the media, it took a couple of decades to gain general public acceptance, and we still have yet to pass to action, at least in a decisive way.

The process of going from an idea to a workable solution, to a publicly accepted option, to a political agenda item, to an implemented strategy is invisible but no less solid for it. Even a perfect plan can die for lack of socioeconomic capital, which can be in the form of poor support for the environment, a nonpoliticized electorate, a poorly developed sense of social justice, etc.

Sources of negative socioeconomic capital include, for example, an overly powerful corporate lobby, political corruption, a defective economic system which promotes the wasteful use of non-renewable resources, various negative vested interests, deliberate corporate disinformation, etc. Of course, greed is one of the major culprits in terms of lack of socioeconomic capital. How selfish a society is will greatly affect the political outcomes on issues requiring significant commitment or funding.

Even though there appears to be still enough time to act with respect to non-renewable resources, we might already have past the point of no return. Under current socioeconomic capital conditions, there is at the very minimum a two-decade lag in terms of passing to action even in the best case scenario.

The only thing that could change this is if public figures and Hollywood celebrities picked up the cause of non-renewable resources and promoted a system, like the GEE, powerful enough to address the issue.

Hollywood Charity: The Double-Edged Sword
We are all familiar with famous actors and wealthy individuals getting involved in charity work. While taking up a cause is without question laudable, it can make things worse.

One concern is whether Hollywood fame or any act of charity results in increasing total aid or just shifting it around, rerouting to a specific cause donations originally targeted to others and leaving short many smaller but important charities and groups that are unable to compete with Hollywood fame.

A second concern is the problem of alleviating symptoms (immediate needs) instead of really resolving problems by addressing their root causes. Foreign aid, for example, went through a shift in Canada in the 1970s. Originally, a lot of food was sent to developing countries. Undeniably, the intent was good, but it had the potential for leading to dependency, turning a temporary need for help into a chronic problem. Government agencies then shifted from a strategy of feeding people to one of helping them feed themselves.

This underscores the importance for public figures and Hollywood celebrities to balance support between immediate needs and long-term strategies. Mitigating current problems alone is shortsighted and can have the effect of killing long-term strategies not only by siphoning scarce funding away from them but also by lessening the need to address the real causes of problems. In this sense, aid can sometimes be more damaging than doing nothing at all.

Population growth is perhaps the biggest problem facing humanity today. Yet, it receives little attention from Hollywood. Other than the obvious attraction to immediate-need causes, the likely reason for it is that the issue is somewhat controversial as it raises the question of family rights. Population growth is starving a billion people today, and things will only get worse. The discussion on family rights needs to be opened, or the consequences will be disastrous. What better people to do this than public figures and celebrities?

The depletion of non-renewable resources will have catastrophic consequences for humanity. Again, it receives next to no attention from Hollywood and will likely be the source of a huge amount of poverty and bloodshed in the decades to come. Public figures and celebrities need to start focusing their efforts more on long-term solutions.

They need to understand that addressing exclusively immediate needs will have deadly consequences later. Population growth and the depletion of non-renewable resources are the two most significant issues for the future of humanity and should be in the news on a weekly basis and on everybody's agenda. We need to act today while there is still time to do so.

Like a double-edged sword, short-term thinking can be harmful and have deadly consequences despite the good intentions. Had the world population not doubled since the 1960s, we could probably feed everybody today. We cannot afford that kind of thinking anymore whether on the part of governments, individuals making donations, or organizations involved in charity work. We have to be a lot smarter and support the initiatives, groups, and organizations that look for fundamental solutions as opposed to temporary mitigation.

News Headlines on Mineral Reserves
In December 2010, one of the headlines on BBC News online was: “China will cut rare earths export quotas: China has said it will cut exports of rare earth minerals by 10% in 2011.” The article pointed out that China owned 97% of known reserves of rare earth minerals and that the US had not mined any in 2010 (BBC News, 2010, December 29).

The metals (which include scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, Praseodymium, etc.) are used among other things in the production of computer monitors and televisions, and for laser and medical technology. This reinforces the points made in this book regarding two issues: the shortage of minerals and the problems of cartelization and speculation. China probably tries to limit supplies in order to increase prices just as OPEC countries have been doing for petroleum. Of course, this is officially denied by Chinese authorities.

Another news headline a month later read: “World food prices at fresh high, says UN.” Yet, early 2011 was far from being a peak in a growth cycle. If anything, we were barely out of a recession. The article described how food prices in December 2010 were higher than at their peak in June 2008. The sudden rise was on account of unpredictable weather: droughts in Argentina, wildfires in Russia the preceding year, and floods in Australia.

These phenomena are all potentially caused by global warming. The article talks of a very tight situation which would become problematic if more natural disasters occurred. This is strangely reminiscent of 2008 and something that has been warned about on the Waves of the Future website (https://www.wavesofthefuture.net) since then.

Other reasons provided in the article included increased biofuel production in the US, rising oil prices, and a “fast-growing world population.” Here are a few additional quotes: “some risk of higher energy prices and higher food prices being very destabilizing in some countries.... Concerns about inflation in the prices of other key commodities.... Copper prices went into 2011 at record highs.... If oil returned above $100 a barrel this would be 'particularly worrisome' ” (BBC News, 2011, January 05).

Doesn't this resemble a little bit what has been discussed so far? It is only 2011, with oil prices still low compared to 2008, and things are going to get much, much worse, but already the world is straining to cope. This exemplifies quite well the problems at hand, being hit on all sides as energy prices increase, metallic reserves diminish, and the world population continues to grow. This is very real and a very, very mild taste of the future.

On the Easter Island Road
Given the above, what can we expect for the future? Where do we fit in the chain of failures listed as the causes of collapse of societies by Jared Diamond? How fast are things going to happen? The answer to many of these questions is fairly speculative and will obviously depend on the remedial actions that we might take, if we ever take any and do so in time.

What is certain is that we are fully on the Easter Island road. We are in the process of wiping out both renewable and non-renewable resources. We are destroying other assets such as land and water through deforestation and pollution. And, we seem totally impotent to stop any of it.

To a large extent, it is perfectly clear what the problems are. We may have failed to anticipate or perceive some of them, but that was a long time ago. We have known for at least several decades about the issues surrounding deforestation. We have also known about contaminants and the threats they pose to many living species, not to speak of global warming.

Have we failed to attempt to solve problems? Environmentalists certainly have not. The alarm has been—and continues to be—sounded loud and clear. Various lobbies have opposed and defeated just about all their attempts to address the issues.

In nearly all but the very worst cases, we have been essentially unable to stop the progression of problems, to stop our continuing down the Easter Island road. The current reality is that even though we perfectly well know that we are destroying the planet and its resources, we are totally unable to stop. Is there any reason to believe that this will change in the future?

Just as we have been doing so far, we will likely wait until crises occur and then attempt to temporarily mitigate them, Hollywood stars and all. But when the problems escalate, combine, and begin hitting us from all sides at the same time, what will we do? We are barely coping at present. Kicking up the economic engine into high gear will only increase environmental and conservation problems, speed us down the Easter Island road, and hasten our demise. Our inability to solve the problems of pollution and conservation is not related to the environment itself. This is another reason why we keep failing.

As it stands, the question with respect to non-renewable resources is not whether we are on the Easter Island road; it is how many decades we are from its end, from hitting the depletion wall.


Copyright Waves of the Future, ©2012


More information: USGS Conservation International Sierra Club UN Population Division