Resource Lifetime Is Infinite

This graph purports to say how long each resource will last. It is insane. (Click the image to embiggen greatly)

Sidebar about the image: When I went to embed it, I ran into difficulties with the download. I resorted to a screen capture and crop of the open page in my browser. I’d had that image cached for a good while (weeks) thinking I ought to do something with it. It would seem to not be at the original source now ( ) I’ve not gone hunting to see if it is just a name change or if they got enough flack about it to do a retraction. The basic thrust of the article it was in, and of the graph, is that we are consuming the resources of the planet so fast, and they are all so limited, that shortly technological society will come crashing to a halt. That’s wrong, but that was their thesis.

Fantasy About Resource Limits

Fantasy About Resource Limits

WHY is it insane? Let me count the ways…

First, and most important, the quantity of a resource available depends on its price. At higher prices, more sophisticated extraction and refining methods that are already known and used for higher value metals and material become economical to use. At each high cost extraction method, an exponentially larger amount of material is recoverable. Shortage is its own solution.

Resource Substitution, it’s a thing. Short of hardwoods? We moved to veneers. Shorter? We invented polymer overlays that look like hard woods over pressboard substrates. Silver scarce for RFID tags? Use copper. Shortage of Lithium for batteries for eCars? Use the Potassium Ion Battery instead. There is NO resource that can not have a substitute.

When did any given metal or material pack up and rocket off the planet? Really. A high concentration resource might be made more dilute as the material ends up disbursed by use into the general environment, but the stuff did not pack up and rocket off of the planet. There really is no such place as away. Shit stays right here on this rock. At present, we can extract Uranium from sea water cheaply enough to provide all the power we could ever want. We don’t. only because land based mines are just a bit cheaper; but the fact remains that any element we want is available in functionally unlimited quantities; it is just a matter of price. How much does it cost to concentrate it?

Technology advances. As of now, most lettuces and tomatoes for the table are best raised in an entirely artificial greenhouse. Even agricultural land isn’t a limit to growing food. Hogs can be raised in “High Rise Hog Towers” so even meat is not limited by land. Since the ability to produce meat, eggs, and plants depends on refining minerals and making polymers from the environment, and that depends on energy, which in the limit depends on Uranium for nuclear power, that is in unlimited supply even at present thanks to known U extraction from sea water methods: There simply isn’t a problem. For decades to centuries with known existing technologies. There is no reason to think that the people of 100 years from now will be more stupid or less able than we are now, so any “issue” is far far in the future, at worst.

The Stone Age did not end for lack of stones, nor did the Bronze Age end because bronze ceased to exist, nor did the Iron Age end for lack of iron. We invent new things that cause the prior higher cost method of living to be less valuable.

The entire planet is a resource. Have we run out of Planet?

We have more rocks than we can use, and more sea water and …. but if for some reason they were important to use we would find the price rising and they would become a resource.

That’s the basic issue to wrap your mind around. A “resource” drives a price that makes more resources happen. The only time a resource ceases to be of interest is when the price makes it unattractive. Heard a lot about the shortage of Whale Oil lately? No? That’s because we substituted Kerosene for whale oil in lamps in the 1800s for lighting (and electric lights for kerosene in the 1900s) and in the 1980s to 1990 we substituted Johoba oil for Whale Oil in lubricating automatic transmissions. Whales are not much of a strategic resource nor much of an economic commodity today, precisely because of Resource Substitution and Technological Advancement. It is that factor that drives all else.


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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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14 Responses to Resource Lifetime Is Infinite

  1. View from the Solent says:

    is an excellent description of the nonsense of running out of resources. It’s old, but the story never changes.
    (ignore the scare warning for snowflakes)

  2. E.M.Smith says:

    Searching for the original article, I found a Forbes article that also calls New Scientist a bit daft. It links to “their graph” but at a different source and that one is also gone. It’s looking more like “disappear the stupid down a black hole and hope nobody notices”. I don’t know if it is the same graph or not, as it too is gone. It looks like this may be a standard mode for N.S.

    Jan 24, 2013, 11:16am
    It’s 2013: Let’s Check Those New Scientist Claims About Running Out Of Terbium And Hafnium

    Tim Worstall

    Forgive my little foolishness but I do like to go back to past claims of how everything is running out and measuring them up against reality. And here’s something from the New Scientist published back in 2007. Something which offers a testable claim about how resources are running out. They seem to be saying that terbium should have run out last year: so that means no more compact fluorescent light bulbs ever. And further that hafnium is going to run out in 2017.

    Clearly we haven’t run out of terbium as CFLs are still being manufactured. And we’re most certainly not going to run out of hafnium in a few short years. The reason why is very simple indeed. New Scientist hasn’t a clue what it’s talking about.

    It is also of note that “Gas discharge lights” or “Metal discharge lights” come in many different chemistries, so if any given metal did become uneconomical, we would just use a different one. A very good example of this is the “mantle” on old Coleman Gasoline Lanterns. Originally made with Thorium, they had a trivial level of radioactivity that didn’t bother anyone for about a lifetime of use. But paranoia was advanced. Now they are made with a different but related metal. The lamp color is very slightly less white and has a touch of a golden overtone I rather like. That’s all that happened. No big deal.

    The Forbes author does a good job of explaining the difference between a reserve and a resource. I’d chosen not to do that as it just confuses some folks (especially those on the “Green” side); but his description may get past that issue.

    Here’s the piece.

    In a more sophisticated analysis, Reller has included the effects of new technologies, and projects how many years we have left for some key metals. He estimates that zinc could be used up by 2037, both indium and hafnium – which is increasingly important in computer chips – could be gone by 2017, and terbium – used to make the green phosphors in fluorescent light bulbs – could run out before 2012. It all puts our present rate of consumption into frightening perspective.

    This is quite simply nonsense. Nonsense of the highest order. And I can tell you why it’s nonsense as well. When you look at their lovely diagram you’ll see that their calculation comes from the reserve base. Divide reserves by annual consumption and you get the number of years that reserves will last. That really is all they do.

    But here’s the problem with doing that: to a useful level of accuracy we have no reserves of either terbium or hafnium. “Reserve” does not mean “the amount of an element available to us”. It means the amount that we have examined, drilled, tested, weighed, can extract at current prices and with current technology and still make a profit doing so. And we have to spend a lot of money doing all of that weighing, drilling and testing etc.

    That’s what explains the difference between “resource” numbers and “reserves” numbers. There’s lots of resources out there but we’ve not bothered to spend the money to turn them into reserves. This is applicable to phosphorous, aluminium, iron and so on. However, this problem gets much worse when we consider metals that are produced as byproducts. Take, say, gallium. We get it in small amounts from the making of aluminium. We process a lot of aluminium, so there’s quite a lot of gallium around. But there are no reserves, not a single gramme, of gallium around. For it is not economic to extract it, on its own, from the aluminium bearing ores. Thus there are no reserves: there are only resources. And we know that there’s lots of resources: something like a thousand year supply in the aluminium we already think we’ll dig up. No reserves at all but plentiful supplies for as far, and further, as the eye can see into the future.

    And terbium and hafnium are produced as byproducts. Terbium is a rare earth and it’s contained in varying amounts in all rare earth ores. There are no reserves of it: no one at all has ever bothered to spend the money to prove that there’s economically recoverable amounts of terbium in any deposit. There’s lots of people who have done that with rare earths, from which we would get terbium in the end. But no actual terbium reserves. The world uses a few tonnes of terbium a year. Maybe, at a stretch, a few tens of tonnes. And there’s tens of thousands of tonnes out there, that we know. Just no reserves: meaning that using the reserves numbers just doesn’t work.

    With hafnium this problem is even worse. Their misunderstanding of metals and metals extraction that is. On this chart they seem to have global reserves of hafnium at 1,124 tonnes. Which is a number that had me howling with laughter when I saw it. This is simply nonsense.
    Ah, OK: 2% of zircon is hafnium. So, what are the reserves of zircon then? 52 million tonnes: meaning that there’s about 1 million tonnes of hafnium out there. That’s reserves recall: not resources. This is the stuff that has been measured, weighed and drilled.

    So how can we have these people insisting that reserves are only 1,124 tonnes? Quite simply, because they are ignorant of how the market for this metal works.
    Tim Worstall

    I’m a Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, a writer here and there on this and that and strangely, one of the global experts on the metal scandium, one of the rare earths. An odd thing to be but someone does have to be such and in this flavour of our universe I am. I have written for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Express, Independent, City AM, Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer and online for the ASI, IEA, Social Affairs Unit, Spectator, The Guardian, The Register and Techcentralstation. I’ve also ghosted pieces for several UK politicians in many of the UK papers, including the Daily Sport.

    The whole article is worth the read so hit the link.

    What’s clear is that “New Scientist” isn’t. Clear or Scientist.

  3. H.R. says:

    Well, if it’s any comfort to the authors of the piece, there’s an infinite supply of stupidity, according to Einstein’s back of the envelope calculations. We’ll never run out.

  4. CoRev says:

    “When did any given metal or material pack up and rocket off the planet?” is the essence of what I have been saying for decades, ever since working on Apollo, and getting that minimal level of resources PERMANENTLY off planet. Even most of the satellite resources return.

    Only the illiterate and easily led have believed this BS.

  5. Richard Hill says:

    “There is no reason to think that the people of 100 years from now will be more stupid or less able than we are now, so any “issue” is far far in the future, at worst.” WRONG
    EM, you should read more science fiction. What about KoolAid? and the Mayans?…..

  6. E.M.Smith says:

    @Richard Hill:

    I’ve read a great deal of S.F….

    I just subscribe to the notion that we’re already pretty close to the minimum level of IQ needed to keep society going and that Darwins Award candidates are leaving the gene pool at a good enough clip to keep the average about where it is.

    Even the loss of smart women as they go to college and don’t have babies is likely only a temporary drop in our society. Shortly the Muslim World will overwhelm Europe and Africa and that “issue” will be ended… (for them…)

    Note that I make no assertion about which society / culture will be the surviving one 100 years from now. Just that it will be about the same IQ as we have now…

  7. Larry Ledwick says:

    I suspect it is a sawtooth wave cycle, three steps forward two back each time ratcheting up a bit above the previous peak. As you say I think we are entering a culling cycle and a disproportionate share of the low IQ types will be dropping out of the gene pool in the next 50-100 years.

  8. philjourdan says:

    ” it is just a matter of price.”

    The invisible hand…

    But I disagree that folks in 100 years will not be more stupid. The education system in the first world seems to be guaranteeing they will be.

  9. Larry Ledwick says:

    IQ and education are not the same thing, IQ is the native ability to use your brain to solve problems and see complex relationships, education is learning facts and relationships to solve specific problems. You can be a natural mechanic without having been formally educated in how to use tools.

    I agree the mainline education system sucks but a lot of people are self educating on line and we also have the charter and alternative schools which are keeping quality education alive.

  10. Eric Fithian says:

    I downloaded your small pic of that item, and threw it into TinEye ( Many of the results seem to date to 2014…
    One with an excellent size (2030 x 1243) is at

    Just so we can print out a quadruple-size backdrop for our dart boards … !

  11. jdseanjd says:

    A great summary of resources reality. Thank you EM. A bit of cheer for Christmas.
    In just the same realistic therefore optimistic manner the brilliant economist Julian L. Simon deals with the resources question in his book The Ultimate Resource 2, 1998.

    The ultimate resource is human ingenuity.

    He also deals with pollution, food supply, population, oil & nuclear energy & much more.
    All the false boogey men the 1%s burden us with through their corporate-owned fear porn MSM in their efforts to twist our futures toward their aims.

    I cannot recommend Simon’s book too highly.
    John Doran.

  12. cdquarles says:

    Exactly right. Not only are we not running out of planet, recall Julian Simon, as noted above. Resources, like values, reside in minds; also as noted above. We won’t run out of resources until we run out of minds. That’s what worries me. The various flavors of “cultures of death” are a problem. Not drugs, not money, not guns. Bad Ideas (R) (TM) that are evil because they are antithetical to life and a more abundant life are our society’s problem.
    I also recommend Capital and Interest, A Theory of Money and Credit, and Human Action, in addition to The Ultimate Resource series.

  13. E.M.Smith says:

    @Eric: Thanks for the pointer!


    Ah yes, a book I intended to read at the time but never got to.. Perhaps it is now time…

    @CDQ: I think that is what offends me about the Globalist Elite. Yes it is easier to drive folks off a cliff with fear, but it is moral and superior results to lead them with wisdom.

    We need moral positive leadership, not immoral negative fear mongers destroying cultures that took thousands of years to grow and polish.

  14. R. de Haan says:

    The “Cradle to Cradle” Economy is all part of the Agenda 21/30 and just like the Climate Change Scam is aimed to fleece tax payers and send them to the poor house to die.
    In the past we performed recycling because there was an economic advantage. Today recycling in many cases is performed to cash in really big subsidies and destroy the Western Economies.
    And we’re all watching as we go down the drain.
    Even the Yellow Vests in France have been bought off with a fist full of euro’s and empty promises while the “Agenda” continues.

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