Any comment on future shortages of food, metals, and energy is likely to be wrong, ill-informed, and of limited perspective. So why not another one this evening?
Scientific American in its latest special issue asks: How much is left? The limits of Earth’s resources.
The article concludes that we are running short of water, oil, coal, mined products (like gold and silver), and food. A predictable conclusion and one that is currently very fashionable. Ever since I, mistakenly, subscribed to the Club of Rome Report published when I was a student and my professor was pessimistic, I have been cautious of these gloomy predictions. Malthus started the trend way back in the 1800s and, from what I can tell, most of his successors have continued to get it wrong.
I know too little of food production to comment. I know little enough about energy and mined products resource to comment with insight, but why not? Everybody else does.
Here is what Scientific American says about gold:
The global financial crisis has boosted demand for gold, which is seen by many as a tangible (and therefore lower-risk) investment. According to Julian Phillips, editor of the Gold Forecaster newsletter, probably about 20 years are left of gold that can be easily mined.
And on silver they say:
Because silver naturally kills microbes, it is increasingly used in bandages and as coatings for consumer products. At current production levels, about 19 years’ worth of silver remains in the ground, but recycling should extend that supply by decades.
Finally their insight on copper:
Copper is in just about everything in infrastructure, from pipes to electrical equipment. Known reserves currently stand at 540 million metric tons, but recent geologic work in South America indicates there may be an additional 1.3 billion metric tons of copper hidden in the Andes Mountains.
From personal activities, I suspect there is a great deal of silver yet uncounted. One mining company I know claims the entire range of hills north and south of their silver deposit are alive with silver. We even found seams of the stuff while drilling for the tailings impoundment.
I was once told there is 300 years of oil in the oil sands of Alberta.
There are still many molybdenum mines last considered in the early 1980s that are not yet mines.
As for copper, there seem to be umpteen copper deposits in northern Chile that would be so profitable if only the price would go up a bit more–or at least stop falling. Not sure how all those elusive deposits are accounted for in national totals and in the gloomy predictions of impeding shortages.
Finally if the price went high enough, we could get gold from seawater. Although why we would stumps me. Other than to keep failed presidential hopefuls engaged with dreams of a return to the gold standard.
I have a friend in Huntington Beach who is getting rich on desalination plants. Just go to the local grocery store to see how much people are willing to spend on a bottle of water. More than gas.
I suspect that the issue is not the availability of gold, silver, coal, and so on. There is, I tend to suspect, plenty out there. The issue I believe is the price we will have to pay to get at the stuff. And by price I include the dollars to be spent, the hillsides to be ripped up, and the valleys to be filled. Not to mention the people to be displaced; to be displaced to make way for the mines or to be displaced in resource conflicts including (terrible thought) resource wars that could erupt.
And if people won’t move, can’t be displaced, successfully resist mines, then the price will go up. Thus the issue becomes: who will have to go without? The poor first, then the middle class, and finally the rich. OK well maybe not the rich.
Of course, many of us could get by very well with less. I do not need another big TV, fancier stove, newer fridge, and so one. I do not even need new shirts or sweaters. I admit I need to buy new pants, as most have got oil sand’s mine tar on them. I know my grandkids could get by with fewer plastic toys. They could probably pass on the bins of Lego to future generations with no harm done to creative tendencies and talents.
Yet what about the looming generation of oldies who will need electric wheelchairs and carts to transport their growing mass and feeble legs around. Maybe go buy shares in companies that mine metals to make such transport systems for the very old. And they will need electricity to power the rare-earth rich batteries. Or should they simply learn to do without?
I could write pages on the deprivations of those pathetic pictures that grace so many appeals for charity funds, mining company annual reports, and NGO attack ads. Are those very poor folk and their interminable offspring condemned to zero advance in living standards? Think Rwanda if you think it will be an easy acceptance of deprivation.
I am optimistic in spite of it all. Cast an eye back over the pages of history, and humans and human ingenuity seems to be getting better—not perfect—but better at dealing with predicted shortcomings. I have faith, and that is all it can be—faith—that smart people in free societies will find ways. No doubt many people in unfree societies will die prematurely. But not being a political scientist, I cannot say what should be done.
Recall that, in mathematical terms:
Free + Educated => Ingenuity
Ingenuity => Prosperity
Resources => Zero
Maybe you can comment in words or symbols. Thanks.