12 March 2012

Peak oil? How about peak everything?

We are all familiar with the concept of peak oil. Oil is a non-renewable resource therefore at some point global production will reach its maximum capacity and then decline, creating an urgent need for alternate energy sources. Peak oil has already occurred in the United States, in 1970 in fact, as the accompanying graph shows.

What is discussed much less is that all non-renewable resources will eventually reach peak production. In the Untied States this has occurred for many commodities, including bauxite in 1943, copper in 1998, iron ore in 1951, magnesium in 1966, phosphate rock in 1980, potash in 1967, rare earth metals in 1984, tin in 1945, titanium in 1964 and zinc in 1969.

The United States is the most richly endowed nation that ever existed and only a few short centuries ago its resources were virgin, yet it is now seeing one resource after another decline and the country become increasingly dependent on other nations. The global supplies of these resources have not yet peaked, but with the U.S., the world's largest economy, requiring ever more of other people's resources, and with nations such as China and India increasing their vast economies at eight or nine per cent per year, we can expect to see what is happening to the Americans happen internationally.

For example, China produces 97 per cent of the rare earth metals,  elements critical to such hi-tech products as catalytic converters, color TVs, flat panel displays, batteries, petroleum refining, missiles, jet engines and satellite components. But China can't keep up with demand and it is getting skittish about exporting what it increasingly needs itself.

Even what we tend to think of as renewable resources are depleting. For example, every year significant areas of agricultural land are lost to desertification, salinization, erosion and development.

As resources deplete we might expect substitution and efficiencies to make up for some of the losses, but they can hardly make up for all of them. Unless we want a future where humanity is like a pack of dogs fighting over the last bone, we are going to have to change our ways, and change them dramatically. We must start planning for a steady-state global economy where renewable resources are exploited at a rate lower than the Earth's ability to replace them; where non-renewable resources are used at declining rates and extensively recycled; and where human population is constrained to a level consistent with the above. We must start thinking of growth in ways that increase human happiness without increasing consumption, ways that are far more cooperative and far less competitive. And we must start now.

We can transition peacefully into a new economy or we can allow chaos to precipitate us into a new economy. The choice is ours.

1 comment:

  1. Bill, the first thing we must recognize is "overshoot". This is the date on which our consumption of the planet's biomass exceeds annual production. At the overshoot monitoring site, www.footprintnetwork.org they have fixed that point for 2011 at September 27th. This year it will be several days earlier.

    The evidence of creeping overshoot is visible and tangible. We see it in the loss of species, particularly collapsing global fisheries; in the rapid depletion of groundwater reserves; in spreading desertification as exhausted farmland is transformed to desert.

    In order to "eat our seedcorn" we increase intensity of production - more irrigation, more fertilization which only accelerates soil exhaustion. This is akin to how the world's first great civilization, the Mesopotamians, collapsed.

    As their population burgeoned, they required greater agricultural production. That meant expanding into the Tigris and Euphrates delta and reliance on more irrigation. At first this was successful using mildly brackish water but the Mesopotamians did not realize that the salts gradually accumulated in the soil until, quite abruptly, their vital farmland became sterile and useless. In the result their civilization collapsed.

    We have arrived at the convergence of a number of critical challenges, global warming being just one. A solution to them all entails living within our planet's finite means and that, in turn, means addressing equitable means of resource allocation.

    Unfortunately, even the most affluent nations are showing limited ability to address critical inequality problems within their own societies which doesn't hold much promise for their willingness to tackle the same issues globally. In a world in which the powerful see "fair" as "unreasonably generous" the default option becomes more likely - we turn on ourselves. Indeed this is already beginning.