Functionally Unlimited Resources Exist
The worry is often put forward that we are going to run out of resources. That as population increases we just MUST run out of stuff. In this article I will be presenting a selection of examples of why this is not so. Please remember that this is far from a complete list. I have left out more resources and technologies than I’ve put in the article. These are just a sample sufficient to prove the thesis, the others were left out not due to lack of merit, but due to lack of space.
This is sometimes accompanied by the dire predictions of exponential growth of population and the inevitability of an exponential rising of population to near infinity in very short order. Ignoring the “Four Horsemen” (famine, plague, pestilence, war – and hoping we can avoid that solution), the “running out” thesis has significant problems. Not the least of which is that natural systems do not grow exponentially, they have an S shaped growth curve. Populations slow their growth as they get larger.
The first formal time this “running out – DOOM!” scenario hit The Big Time was when Thomas Malthus first made it the foundation stone of what was to become the area of study known as Economics (“home laws”, so Home Economics is literally “home home laws”… kind of silly, really.) It was the work of Malthus that led to Economics being named The Dismal Science. Oddly enough, Malthus gave us the foundation of both the Tory and Whig approach to the economics of the poor and even had Karl Marx making the argument that technology would prevent a Malthusian Catastrophe! (Charity vs workhouses vs technology. Roughly the same three sides of the argument today: welfare, work-fare, economic advancement.) So against my will I find myself in agreement with Karl Marx on an economic point!
Now, a couple of hundred years later, we still have not had a Malthusian collapse.
But surely we are pressing up against some hard limits. Fresh water, food, fuel, land. Things get used up! I hear it in the news and on TV!
Well, no. Let’s take a look, one category at a time.
There are enormous quantities of fresh water on the planet. The Amazon and the Mississippi both dump truly gigantic quantities into the ocean. Ditto the Nile, the Danube, the Yellow, and all those dozens of rivers in Russia. Often some of that water has been used and reused dozens of times before it reaches the ocean. Yet it could be used again, if desired. But we find it is more convenient to let it go back into the ocean for the sun and wind to distill it into fresh rain rather than to clean it up for our use once again. These folks give it as about 40,000 cubic kilometers per year. Thats 1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000 x 40 cubic meters. Per year. If we divide that by a billion ( 1000 x 1000 x 1000 using the U.S. system) we get 40,000 cubic meters per 6 people on the planet per year. Or about 6,000 to 7,000 cubic meters per person per year. (Roughly the size of a football field covered with water one yard deep.) Rather a lot… especially when you consider that we can reuse the water several times before it returns to the ocean or sky.
But even then, most of the fresh water was not used even once. Look at the Amazon. Substantially unused. So to the extent that there is a problem, it is more about location than quantity. We have lots of fresh water, just not where we would like to have more. We have demonstrated plenty of ability to move water long distances and to store it when we choose to. So it’s been a choice, not a shortage.
Why don’t we “get on it” and move more water? Sometimes it is for political reasons. National boundaries or political movements to “protect” the environment or status quo. Sunbelt Water was going to use tankers to move water from Canada to California, but ran into political issues. It’s not a technology or geography problem. Their plan to use supertankers shows that. They could transport water to any coastline or port in the world.
There are still some folks looking at reasonable, yet grand, water transfer systems. Westward Ho describes one of these. The fascinating thing about it, for me, is the imaginative “leverage” of using existing rivers, dams, and hydroelectric generators to make the system much cheaper and more practical. There are still some Engineers ready, willing, and able to Dream Big! It is not a shortage of practical ideas or imagination either.
Other times it is because in many ways it is now cheaper to make clean fresh water. It is mostly about the economics of cheapest supply and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) politics.
The Saudi Kingdom now gets 70%+ of it’s drinking water from desalinization and some is used for growing vegetables in greenhouses. (You can download an interesting pdf file about them here. They are an existence proof of the ability to run major cities on sea water. There are even folks who are combining the desalinization with the structure of the greenhouse!
Desalinizer technology has recently had a leap forward with the invention of a device to recover pressure. Much energy went into pumping water to pressure on one side of the membrane only to toss that away by letting the pressure drop as the waste stream was disposed. Now we recover that energy with about 98% efficiency.
Thanks to this device, it is now cheaper to make fresh water along the coast of California rather than to put a dam in the mountains and a pipeline to carry it to a city near the shore.
Fresh water is unlimited, thanks to advances in desalinization. There is no shortage of fresh water.
Stone, rock, clay, bricks, masonry, ceramics, glass
I would hope that it is fairly obvious that the bulk of the planet crust is made of rocks, stones, and other minerals and that as they weather and break down we get sand, clay, and other fine particles. These can then be made into ceramics, masonry products, bricks and glasses.
We can produce all the crushed rock, marble and granite blocks, paver tiles, and similar material objects we could ever use. Similarly, this stuff (rock) weathers into smaller bits that make vast deposits of sands, silts, and clays (see the Sahara Desert for sand…) From these we can make glasses, ceramics, bricks. Etc.
One special case is limestone. It is used to make cement. We use lots of cement in the modern world to make everything from roads and bridges to major buildings, dams, aqueducts, stadiums… you name it. It’s even been used to make concrete rail road ties in place of wooden ones. Even though concrete is a 3 – 2 – 1 (roughly) mix of gravel, sand, and cement, could we run out of that 1/6 th that is cement?
Nope. About 10% of the sedimentary rocks on the planet are limestone, yet more is formed each year from the ocean. There is more than could ever be used, and once eroded away, it would eventually be reformed in the ocean. And while we presently use coal to provide the thermal energy to turn limestone into cement, we could easily use other energy sources.
There is no shortage of rock, stone, clay for bricks, etc.
There is more limestone for cement making that could ever be used, and more formed every day in the oceans.
All over the planet there are deposits of iron rich rocks, laid down millions of years ago when life first formed and the oxygen it gave off combined with some of the iron that makes up the bulk of our planet. These are called Banded Iron Deposits. How much? About 230 BILLION tons of iron in 800 Billion tons of ore, per these folks. So I make that as somewhere over 100 tons of iron ore with about 40 tons of iron in it per person on the planet. I don’t think I could imagine what to do to use up my 40 tons if I tried, and iron / steel is the most effectively recycled material on the planet, so it doesn’t “go away” much once mined… But if we ever did run low, there is more in the Manganese nodules on the ocean floor, as we will see below.
The banded iron formations of the planet are hugh and iron is an incredibly high proportion of the planet.
So there is no limit on glass, stone, masonry, brick, ceramic, steel & iron structures, glass. What’s left? Other metals? Copper is often expensive and somewhat scarce when the business cycle booms. Are we running out of Copper?
The same Minerals Institute folks put land copper at 1.6 Billion tons. That’s only about 1/4 ton per person. Somehow I still don’t feel deprived. But each year more things that were made from copper are made from plastic, aluminum, or other materials. And copper is highly recycled. But there is the question of what to do if you need more than a few hundred pounds per person.
Copper is present in polymetallic and manganese nodules on the ocean floor. We don’t harvest them because there is not enough demand for the stuff we can already mine on land. There is also the small matter of a U.N. desire to “spread the wealth” by putting high taxes on any attempt by a private company to mine the stuff; but that doesn’t reduce the quantity that exists. From the wiki page:
“The promise of nodule exploitation was one of the main factors that led developing nations to propose that the deep seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction should be treated as a ‘common heritage of mankind’, with proceeds to be shared between those who developed this resource and the rest of the international community. This initiative eventually resulted in the adoption (1982) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the establishment (1994) of the International Seabed Authority, with responsibility for controlling all deep-sea mining in international areas.” [...] “In the meantime, interest in the extraction of nodules had waned. Three factors were largely responsible: the difficulty and expense of developing and operating mining technology that could economically remove the nodules from depths of five or six kilometers and transport them to the ocean surface, the high taxes the international community would charge for the mining, and the continuing availability of the key minerals from land-based sources at market prices”
My suspicion is that something similar is in the works for carbon based fuels and the “international community” interest in “Cap and Trade”… but I digress.
There are about 500 BILLION tons of nodules and the harvest techniques are already developed (that’s about 100 TONS per person on the planet…) but the land resources are so cheap that it’s hard to compete on the economics today. (Especially if the World Government wants to tax you to death.)
“The chemical composition of nodules varies according to the kind of manganese minerals and the size and characteristics of the core. Those of greatest economic interest contain manganese (27-30 %), nickel (1.25-1.5 %), copper (1-1.4 %) and cobalt (0.2-0.25 %). Other constituents include iron (6 %), silicon (5%) and aluminium (3%), with lesser amounts of calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium, titanium and barium, along with hydrogen and oxygen.”
That’s about another ton per person of copper. But it also ignores the fact that more nodules are forming all the time, so eventually there would be even more deposited. The true upper bound is limited by erosion from the earth’s crust and the quantity dissolved in the oceans. However much it is, it’s vastly more than we need.
All the other common base metals are in greater supply, or much lower demand, or both. I have no idea what we would do with 100 Billion tons of Manganese, but I’m sure we could come up with something if we had to…
So there is no shortage of METALS and there never will be.
Plenty of ceramics, stone, sand, glass, metals – I’m running out of things to run out of… I guess we could use more silver, gold, and platinum; but I don’t see them as limiting to our ability to have a good life…
But what if we run low on things to build with like timber? What if we don’t run out, but just can’t extract enough per year to build what we want?
Even then, we can make rather nice homes out of trash. The Earthship (click for photo gallery) is an existence proof of that. Made from old tires, dirt, empty bottles (notice the bottle ends around the door frame), … They collect their own rainwater (and work in 7 INCH, or less than 18 cm, per year rainfall zones just fine…) and process their own sewage and make their own electricity… and work well even in the rather scruffy semidesert of New Mexico so land is just not a problem for them…
Everything can be a resource. It just takes a bit of imagination. We run out of stuff when we run out of planet and ideas.
Take wood, for example. While we can farm all we need, sometimes folks get carried away with the scarcity idea. This has led to a technology to use straw as a replacement (no, not just bales of the stuff in “straw bail home construction“, but actual structural boards and beams made from it.)
There are several companies that have developed engineered building materials made from straw composites. They have names like “strawboard” and “goldenboard”. We burn, plough under, feed to animals, or just leave in the field to rot millions and millions of tons of this stuff every year. If we made it all into building materials, the whole country would be built over with structures in just a few years (think single digit to low double digit.) We will never run out of construction panels, plyboard, or ‘timbers’. The biggest issue these products face is that their raw material is harvested for only part of the year, where trees are harvested year round. So the companies are not very profitable (yet) and have trouble competing with cheap plentiful wood because the factories only run part of the year and it is not economical to store straw the rest of the year.
That, btw, is an example of the usual kinds of trap the Malthusian approach falls into. It assumes that a lack of economically available substitute product today means no substitute exists (shortage! running out!) when it usually just means the original is still so dirt cheap that the alternatives can’t price compete effectively. The Malthusians also assume that a ‘tight market’ somehow means “shortage” when it usually is no such thing; it’s just a production rate limit at peak demand.
as just two of many examples. One of the technologies simply presses the straw together with heating. The natural binders of the straw glue it together into a solid piece. No “petro”chemical glues needed…
Maybe you’re thinking “Plastics, there’s a future in Plastics!”… well, we’re not going to run out of them, either. We can make them from plants and from trash as well (as several companies already do… I own stock in a couple of companies that do this. Braskem S.A., stock ticker symbol BAK, in Brazil for example). We can grow feed stock for bioPlastics at the rate of over 50 tons per acre per year with trees. More with algae (about 10 times more and perhaps more than that!). The process of making plastics also provides the raw feedstock for making all the other “petro”chemicals of the world (refrigerants, motor oils, antifreeze, alcohols, pesticides, medicines, cleaners and detergents, waxes and polishes, paints, synthetic leathers, fabrics like nylon and polyester and all the rest.)
In many ways, growing plastics and “petro”chemicals is a return to the past. Henry Ford used a soy based plastic for parts of his early cars. The plastic was invented by George Washington Carver – an amazing genius with plants and bio/organic chemistry; who also made plastics and chemicals from peanuts and other plants.
Your “viscous sponge” at the kitchen sink is an example. It is made in a method closely tied to cellophane and rayon. Even chemicals like butanol, ethanol, and acetone are made from biological sources using bacteria. This creativity is still with us with the recent invention of fabrics made from Beech trees.
For example, RenTech uses coal or trash or any biomass to make fuels like Diesel and chemicals. There are many other companies doing similar things. Most any chemical company knows how to do this kind of thing.
So no shortage of plastics, nor any other “petro” chemical, and there never will be…
Paper, wood, forest products: they are all farmed and renewable too…
No, at the end of the day there is not much that leaves the planet so we never “run out” because it never goes away…
How about energy and fossil fuels?
But surely we’re running out of fossil fuels!
Yes, in about 500 years, maybe, if we try really really hard to burn it all. But we never run out of usable energy, and that is what really matters. I have an entire post devoted to the energy “issue”:
So we would need to use non-fossil fuel energy to make the replacements in the future. Not exactly a problem. It’s a well established technology that works and is in use today powering several countries. It’s just not a problem.
The simple fact is that as long as you have energy, you can get all the other resources you need or want at reasonable costs.
What about food and land?
Land isn’t really a “stuff”. It deserves it’s own full writeup so I’ll cover this in more depth in another posting, here I’ll just give a sample, but land is not a limit. With unlimited energy and plenty of materials you can build all the chicken condos and aquaculture swimming pools and vegetable growing greenhouses to produce several orders of magnitude more food than we do at present. We can get more than 10 times as much food per acre just by using greenhouses (made with farmed plastics…)
But clearly we have a fixed amount of Land!
From: The C.I.A. Factbook, We have for “world”
arable land: 10.57% permanent crops: 1.04% other: 88.38% (2005)
Arable land is the present use, not a limit on what can be used. So we have roughly 11.61% of the land used for crops. There is a lot still available… There are several agronomy systems for upgrading marginal land into productive arable land.
Add in the fact that several algae grow systems can be put on any kind of land (closed industrial systems) and there really is no food vs fuel issue.
Anyone who wants to see how greenhouses can do this needs only to visit Disney World. They have a working (Gigantic!) hydroponic greenhouse in The Land exhibit in Epcot center. Take the “Behind the Seeds” tour. This is a working facility and the food produced (including the fish!) are served in the park restaurants.
They grow food plants of all sorts in sand and air – hydroponics and aeroponics; and they grow fish and alligators in aquaculture tanks. The politicians and lobbyists can continue to have alligator shoes for generations to come… They even have a very large palm tree! Similar tech is in use today around the world (including Saudi Arabia who have lots of sand and not so much arable land… 1.67% per the CIA ).
So just how big was the Sahara again? And how much water is in the Atlantic?
But maybe someday we could fill up the surface?
Think vertical. We can make more surface area for living (or for pigs and chickens or even for lettuce plantations) by making high rises. We can put 100 times as much on one area of land with a 100 story building. That is why we have 100 story buildings… But do we have to?
Everyone on the planet could live at the same density of London in roughly 6 patches about the size of the UK with the rest of the planet being completely empty of people. Last time I looked London was an OK lifestyle… and even six patches the size of the U.K. would disappear in the vastness of the world. (Heck, I think I could fit everyone into the space taken by Texas and maybe Oklahoma at the same density!) But what if you don’t like the view in West Texas?
Want an ocean view? Last time I did the calculation, everyone could have an ocean view condo with no structure higher than about 4 to 6 stories (though it’s a bit hard to figure out due to the coastline being fractal and of indeterminant length) using ONLY the North American continent and with no structure more than a hundred feet deep. (i.e. a single building facing the ocean with no buildings behind it…) The rest of the world, again, being empty of people.
The simple fact is that we have a planet that is mostly empty and we choose to live together in places like New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Buenos Aires because we like that life style; not because we are running out of land. And we choose to grow crops in a way that makes the most profit with the least capital stock and labor, not the maximum product per acre. It’s a choice, not a limit.
There is no shortage of land. Food shortages have nothing to do with production, they have everything to do with politics, wars, religion, and economic access.
“Running Out” is just a Broken Idea from Paranoia
The simple fact is that the “running out” thesis is broken. We aren’t. We can’t. We won’t. It comes from folks being scared by exponential functions (and The Club Of Rome promoting the scare stories due to their misguided paranoia, IMHO of course).
It is just wrong.
Sidebar on Club of Rome: The nature of their errors can be seen in this quote about them.
“The Club of Rome created and promotes two mutually contradictory theories: Anthropogenic Global Warming and Peak Oil. While the UN’s IPCC report projects a warming by 2100 AD of as much as 4 C, it acheives this prediction by putting unrealistically exaggerated consumption numbers on fossil fuels. Most notably, the standard projection of the IPCC models that the world will consume 10 times more oil over the 21st century than the proponents of the Peak Oil theory admit is in the ground in total. Without this allegedly unsustainable consumption rate of oil, the IPCC’s warming projections are not nearly as severe. Yet to this day the Club of Rome continues to promote both theories as equally valid.”
The paranoid “Doom is just around the corner” mind set leads to some odd ways of thinking…
And I haven’t even pointed out that what is a resource changes over time. Few of us are stressed about the shortage of whale oil, nor the pending decline in good flint for making tools. Yet both of those were critical resources at one time in the human past, with real issues due to “shortages”. (The last gasp for whale oil was in the ’70s when it was found that jojoba oil could replace it in specialized lubricants. We now farm jojoba in the desert…) In the ’70s it took about one ounce of Platinum to make a catalytic converter for automobile smog reduction. Now it’s fractions of an ounce and it isn’t even platinum. (Paladium, nickel, and other catalysts have been developed including some ceramics.) We constantly find new techniques to use the existing materials in new and different ways. That is the ultimate “trump card” in the whole “running out of resources” debate. IFF we ever run low on something, we find something else that can replace it.
This was the major fault in The Limits to Growth (a book promoted by the Club of Rome). Computer model projections was the second major fault. Projecting an exponential instead of an “S” curve is still broken, even if done by a computer.
The basic problem with the “peak stuff” thesis is that “stuff” doesn’t go away. We do mine the easiest to refine stuff first, but the reality is that there is only one thing standing in the way of, for example, all the copper you want. That is energy. And once you have unlimited energy (which we do) then the “stuff” just becomes a question of price…
So what does “go away”? Things we burn, like oil, coal, and tropical forests. Things that go extinct, species. Nuclear fuel (though we showed in the “no energy shortage” article that that’s basically infinite for all practical purposes). Kinda running out of ideas about this point…
But if oil, coal, etc. are in the common energy bucket, it doesn’t really matter if we “run out” and it “goes away” in a couple of hundred years; there are plenty of other energy sources. So we’re left with just two things that we ought to be fighting tooth and nail to preserve:
Forests and Species.
That is where, IMHO, folks ought to concentrate their preservation efforts.
So is there doom and gloom there? Do we run out of wood?
We can grow tree farms of fast species and drastically reduce the pressure on forests. We don’t do it enough, but we could. Some high yield Poplar and Eucalyptus species run 25 to 50 TONS per acre per year. Quite a lot per person … So no “shortage” of wood or fiber, but a need to focus on more intensive tree farming. The pulp and paper industry has already headed down the path of intensive tree farming, so it is happening. It is now cheaper than cutting a wild forest.
That leaves us with species. We have real issues there. Mostly from habitat destruction. But even here, there is hope. We are now able to sequence genes and recreate lost species. All those pelts, skins and other odd bits in museums become a repository of hope. While it would be better to have arks full of gametes and best to have a live critter; having a preserved dried critter is ‘workable’.
Add in the fact that the vast majority of all species are kinds of beetles, and the problem shrinks even more. If I lose a beetle with 2 red spots on it’s wings that lives on one single tree in Bolivia, but right next to it are almost identical beetles with 2 reddish spots in one case and 2 red spots with a red fleck in another; am I really all that impoverished? (And yes, there are some tropical beetle species that seem to be specific to a single large very old tree… Darwin can work fast!)
Frankly, with not too much money we could preserve frozen gene sample from every major critter on the planet and a heck of a lot of everything else (modulo the beetles…) and hold off extinction. Add in a world society of affluence and you get lots of money to preserve habitat and build parks.
The danger comes in the transition. From too poor and technologically unable to damage to ecosystem but very hungry; to empowered with the tools of destruction but not yet realizing that you don’t need to destroy the forest to survive any more. That is when you get “the march of the chain saws”… So we need to get folks through that transition as fast as possible. Once they reach affluence, they want to preserve the forest, not fight it.
That is how to “save the planet”. Put 4 or 5 billion people to work at shops, offices, and factories in cities, with apartments and cars, shows, theaters, parks, stadiums, and all the food they can eat from highly efficient farms and aquaculture. THEN they want to save the forest & the Tiger …
But keep them in mud hut villages on the edge of starvation? The forest is cut for fuel and the Tiger is the enemy out to kill them, so they kill the Tiger first.
So what does this have to do with copper, steel, and cement?
With energy, you can make all the steel and cement you want. There is more limestone than could ever be “consumed”; and that used for cement can be recycled back into new cement anyway. The planet is mostly iron. We never can run out. The other big critical need is copper. It is at the heart of an electric society. There are more tons of it on the ocean floor in manganese nodules than we could ever use. With concrete, steel, and copper; you can build cities and cars. Add in “petro” chemicals that are unlimited thanks to algae and trash conversion; and you see where this is headed. A little sand and then glass is unlimited too. Build your city of glass and steel skyscrapers!
So we don’t need to fight wars over “stuff”, and nobody needs to break their back trying to fight for a living with a hostile forest or desert. We can build all the high rise cities needed to house 20 billion people and not begin to put a dent in the world. Steel, concrete, copper, glass, plastics, rubber, (and aluminum and magnesium and…). With desalinization we save the river environment from destruction with dams. With aquaculture we save the oceans. With greenhouses we save the open lands. With intensive tree farms we save the forests.
In the end, the path to saving the planet passes directly through modernity and the technological urban society. (As much as I love the semi-rural life and personally do not like city life; most people like it, and it is the solution.) It is the notion that we need to not use technical solutions, and that we need to go back to the land in rural villages, that is broken. Down that path lies the destruction of nature.
There is no shortage of stuff, and there never will be.
So no, we won’t run out. Please, let go of the worry. Let go of the “Disaster soon, help needed” mindset. (And maybe kiss an engineer, or buy them a beer – depending on your respective genders and interests ;-) for all they have done for you…)
And especially let go of the notion that you need to give up some liberty so that “The Powers That Be” can help get you out of the resource catastrophe that is just around the corner, because it isn’t there…
All they will do is help get you out of your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. (The scare stories already dampen the happiness …)
This life is not a dress rehearsal, take big bites, and do not ever let anyone tell you that there is not enough stuff for everyone on the planet to live a full, happy, and wealthy life. Just go make it happen.