It is shouted by the modern day Chicken Littles of the world as though it were a sin to have breakfast since no chicken will ever lay another egg. Yet it begs the question:
Running out! of what? Exactly?
The claim is extended to a variety of resources. Everything from metals to ores to minerals and even food and water. Yet we don’t really care about things like hematite, we care about the iron we can extract from it. Or even more often, the things we can make from that iron and even more than that, the services we can perform with those objects made of iron.
Do I care about the hematite, the iron, or the knife?
The truth is that for most of us, we think about the set of kitchen knives and not very much at all about the iron in them.
So it isn’t a shortage of iron, so much as a shortage of kitchen knives that would cause us some grief.
When our old knives wear out, do they “go away”? And just where is “away”?
No, they stay right here on earth. They might be resharpened (perhaps after a visit to the Goodwill Store) or they might be recycled into a new set of knives (or even a new car). Even if we throw them away, over a much longer time period that iron will rust and return to the natural soils or the oceans and eventually become ore again. Geological processes have not stopped just because we exist. They are slower than our recycling processes, but they do still work.
So first off, we need to realize that what we are really caring about is various devices and services, not any particular element or material. Even then, the elements never “go away”.
For that reason alone, the Running Out! Scare is a broken concept. Simply because what is a resource changes over time. The devices we want, the materials we make them from, they are in constant flux. 3000 years ago, knives were bronze and copper was the important resource. Then the Iron Age came along when we started making them from Iron (copper having gotten a bit expensive). Eventually stainless steel. Now my kitchen knife set is made of a Zirconia ceramic. Does that mean Zircon is now Running Out!!!? Or does it just mean we can make knives from all sorts of metals and ceramics, as we feel like it, based on price and performance? The stone age did not end for lack of stones. Nor the Iron Age for lack of iron. Nor will the Space Age end for lack of space.
The simple fact is that “what is a resource?” depends only on our creativity in making things. Since creativity is unlimited, resources are also unlimited. We find ever better ways to extract various atoms from the earth around us, and ever more interesting things to make with them, at ever lower real costs. That is technological progress and it applies to raw material resources as well as to end products.
The Limits To Growth – Meadows et. al.
This book was written back in the ’70s. When it had currency, I studied it. Literally. There was an Economics class at my university that was entirely devoted to the study of that book and the various critiques of it.
The general motif of the book is a Computer Scare Story. They take the then-known economical to produce quantities of resources and did a linear projection of their extraction. Against this they plotted an expected exponential growth of demand from an expected exponential growth of population. At the point where these crossed, they screamed DISASTER!!! DOOM IN OUR TIME!!! but via a computer program running the math, so as to make it look all scientific.
There are a great many problems with that approach. A brief list is in the top page that collects links to the various “Not Running Out” postings: https://chiefio.wordpress.com/nro/. Their basic faults being failure to notice that growth is S shaped, not exponential, and that what is a resource changes over time with technical change and price. Compounded by a complete failure to understand that resource economics defines the present resource as what is economical at the price now and not at higher prices or with new extraction methods. Raise price a little, you get a lot more “reserves” to mine or pump as more dilute sources become economical to produce.
Since what is a resource changes over time, to focus, as they did, on specific resources in isolation is fundamentally flawed. Using only then-known resources is also a broken idea. Clearly demonstrated by natural gas. As I recall it, they predicted (or “projected” if you prefer their Politically Correct distinction without a difference) that we would run out of natural gas in the 1980s. Well, 30 years later we are awash in natural gas and the prices are depressed.
But despite all that, many folks have bought the Running Out! Scare story hook line and sinker. Just expect it. People love to be scared. They love to have a Mission. They love to be part of a cause, especially one that is to “save the planet”. They really love being in the role of hero. When you inform them it is a silly waste of time since we are NOT running out, they don’t take kindly to it. Expect that, and ignore their protests. They are delusional and seduced by the need to be a messiah and important somehow.
So what’s the real state of things?
Open Your Eyes and Look Around
Really. Just do it. What do you see? Books? Book cases and furniture. Appliances, TV sets, rugs, windows, cups and dishes, pots and pans, maybe cars and trains, skyscrapers and airplanes, houses and streets. THOSE are the things we want, not lumps of iron or cubic feet of gas. We can make them in very many ways and from very many other things.
Now look a bit deeper. Of what parts are these things made?
Nails, screws, bolts and nuts, wood, fabric, surface sheets & finishes, paint, beams, panels and foundations, wires, semiconductor chips, glass moldings, buttons and knobs.
But what are THOSE made of?
A much shorter list of basic materials. Often called “raw materials” for the most primitive sources and “processed materials” for the more refined and fabricated ones. Mostly that consists of a variety of rocks (sand, gravel, rock, aggregate, muds & clays), plants (wood, fibers for paper and cloth, food), metals (iron, copper, zinc, tin, cobalt, calcium, aluminum…) and non-metallic elements (oxygen, nitrogen, sulpher, carbon, chlorine, argon, boron, …) for the base materials. Some fabricated ones are things like glass, ceramics, plastics. While some natural complex materials are things like oil, bones & hides.
We then use those things to fabricate all the other things we want in life. Sometimes with making special materials along the way, like “petro” chemicals and artificial fertilizers, cement / concrete and semiconductor materials. We also use farming to produce foods and animal products from little more than dirt and work.
From those materials we build up the rest of our economy.
When you focus on the basic raw materials, rather then the intermediate products (man made or natural) and look at how they map to the desired end products and services, it becomes much more clear why “Running Out!” is just silly.
Take the toilet as an example. We can make them from ceramics and plastics (most in our modern society today are those kinds). So mud to make the ceramics (or bones for fine ‘bone china’…) and any carbon source to make the plastics. Yet I’ve also seen them made from stone, metal, and even wood. So are toilets critically dependent on the supply of ceramic mud? Nope. It is like that for almost everything in our society. There are a few odd bits at any one time in technical history that are dependent on some particular element or raw material, but we then invent new methods and new designs that don’t need that material when (and if) it becomes an issue. Rubber is an interesting story.
Sidebar on Plastics and “Petro” Chemicals:
Many of the Chicken Littles get excited about “saving the oil for plastics”. Why can only be explained by ignorance. Originally the organic chemical industry was based on coal. Eastman Chemical still uses it last I looked. During the ’60s, oil became VERY cheap, so we used it as ‘feed stock’ to make a variety of chemicals. The term “petrochemical” was born to signify it was made from petroleum. Yet nothing prevents making those same chemicals (like plastics) from any OTHER carbon source.
In fact, the first step of the process is typically to turn your carbon source (coal, oil, natural gas, garbage, poultry byproducts have all been used commercially) into something called “Synthesis Gas”. A mix of Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen. Using that standard gas, you can make all the “petro” chemicals you want. There is zero need to “save the petroleum for petrochemicals” and in fact after the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970s, the USA industry substantially converted to using natural gas.
Sidebar on Rubber:
Tanks and trucks and airplanes and such use a LOT of rubber. At the start of World War II it was all made from the sap of the rubber tree. This became a big problem when Japan captured the plantations that were the source of most of the rubber in the world. Can’t fight a war without it, and Japan had it. So we set about trying to fix that. Ford had set up a plantation in South America some years earlier, but it was not a rousing success.
The eventual solution was found in isoprene and neoprene artificial rubbers. Now nobody talks about a shortage of rubber anymore. We can make it anytime we want. We still use some natural rubber in the mix in most rubber items as it has some qualities that make it better in some uses, and since doing the work to make a complete replacement is just not worth it. Yet.
History is just chock full of stories like rubber. Where one material was suddenly critical, so folks set about finding ways to replace it, and did. There are now whole categories of materials where we can make as much of it as we want at any given price, so they are effectively unlimited. Plastics and rubbers are two of them. Glasses and ceramics are another. Some sands and muds work better than others, but the supply is functionally unlimited. Cement and concrete are another group (including the newest member of that group, the geopolymers) as are native rocks. Most of the periodic chart of the elements is metals, so the earth is mostly metals. Extracting any particular metal at the lowest possible price takes some care, but absolute supply of metals is functionally unlimited. Similarly, extracting oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (and through it carbon if desired), and argon from the air are unlimited compared to demand. Pure water and salts from the sea are also made if needed. With just those things we could build an entire technological society, if needed.
What is the earth made of?
Well, it has a lot of water on the top in the oceans. We can now turn that salty water into fresh water at acceptable prices, so “water shortage” is really just a question of how much money you want to spend. The bottom of the oceans are littered with everything from calcium carbonates (useful for cement) and clays, to ‘manganese nodules’ that also contain a lot of copper and other metals. Several hundred pounds per person and far more than I could use in my share.
The next layer is a variety of rock types. These give us all manner of metals and non-metal resources. The geological process of the planet are still working (though geology is slow) and is still sorting more magma into things like gold, silver, zinc, copper, and more. The various rocks can be used to make all manner of ceramics and glasses too. Some parts of the planet are soaked in oil and some have vast fields of carbon as coal. That carbon is in addition to truly gigantic fields of various carbonate rocks.
Above all that is a layer of air. Mostly nitrogen and oxygen (both harvested for various uses as liquid air) and a smaller amount of argon and other noble gases (also harvested via air liquefaction).
Most of the middle of the planet is an iron / mixed metals core. For that reason volcanic magma is often very iron rich. We have more iron than we could ever even imagine using.
Literally, the entire planet is a big ball of resource.
In space, there is much more stuff available, if desired or needed. The entire solar system is a resource. But it would be better if we went there, since there isn’t enough room to bring Titan here. ;-)
Making Things From Stuff
All the various fields of Engineering are devoted to the job of taking those piles of stuff and using them to make the things we desire at the lowest cost and with the best things. We’ve been at this job for thousands of years and now our Engineering skills are really quite remarkable.
So what we do is to take those basic materials, and from them make the things we want. That processing from materials to products takes “know how” (that we now call technology) and energy. That know how is often embodied in various tools and machines, but sometimes is still done by hand. A rock on the ground is a useful tool as it sits. It can be a hammer stone, an anvil, a corn grinding implement, even a seat (to sit on while a smaller stone is the weight on your fishing line); depending on size, shape, kind of rock, and any shaping we have done to it.
Our earliest technologies were about ways to use rocks, plants and animal products as raw materials, or “resources”, to make things. You can build a pretty good life using just those materials. As animals and plants reproduce, we need never “run out” of them. The entire land surface of the planet is made of rocks and their erosion products, so not going to run out of those either. For generations folks made comfortable homes using rocks, plants, and animals. We can still do that today, though we now often add some more modern bits like windows and electric wiring. Yet a typical suburban home is made of sticks (wood frame), rocks (usually processed a bit to make cement / concrete), and ‘finishes’ that are substantially like the old plant and animal based ones, even if made from oil or natural gas. (Rugs, paints, curtains).
Early on in history we learned how to farm animals and plants instead of just hunting and gathering them, so as to increase supply and reduce the cost (or work) to get them. We now apply even more know how and make machines to do a lot of the farming for us.
So from the beginning of history, people have been using resources and finding ways to make the supply bigger and the costs lower.
That trend continues to today.
Today we no longer worry about where to get more hides to make shoes and coats. Each person is so well fed that the real question is what to do with all the hides from so many farmed animals. I have one sheep skin rug that I’ve used for about 35 years. During that time I’ve eaten far more than one sheep as dinner.
There is no shortage of hides, bones, leather and other animal resources and materials. In fact, each year huge quantities of those things are made into fertilizer and plant foods. We simply could not use that many leather coats, sets of bone china, or similar products.
Farming has advanced to the point where we now plough under loads of stems, leaves, and more. We only eat the flower of the broccoli plant, for example, despite the leaves being edible too, and we don’t care at all about eating the stems for fiber in the diet (Yes, I’ve tried them!)
That story can be repeated for most crops. From corn (maize) stalks to rice hulls, the problem is not a shortage of plant fibers, but how best to be rid of them. (Folks have made ‘pressed board’ out of stems and grasses and built houses from it, they have turned it into fuels, and much more).
There is no shortage of plants, plant fibers, and plant products. The advance of technology has increased the supply faster than the demand can use it all up, and land needed to produce has dropped, not risen. We now feed a huge chunk of our corn production to automobiles instead of to people and animals and we still have too much.
There is no shortage of the land on which to grow it either. We can now make arable land as desired and even grow plants without any land at all, using methods like hydroponics and aeroponics. There will be more on that in another chapter.
When it comes to rocks, our use of rocks as rocks has become fairly small. We no longer spend days searching for a nice big chunk of obsidian to make a good blade, scraper or arrow head. We can make various ceramics and glasses as desired, using rocks turned into feedstock to ceramic and glass factories and chemically or physically rearranged. There are mountains of clay and sand to use for various ceramics and concretes too, and nature is constantly making more via erosion processes.
The example of the stone knife vs a modern ceramic knife may seem a bit trite, but it really is a profound example of technical advance creating resources. In the stone age, we find tribes with good obsidian deposits trading chunks with other tribes, and those pieces found great distances away from their source. It was a precious and rare resource. Now glass is ubiquitous and we hardly think about it. Working obsidian into a fine blade took hours of highly skilled craft work. Now in my kitchen is a set of “ceramic knives” that are the same basic product as the old stone knives of obsidian. But we make them cheaply with little labor and the edges are finer and stronger with overall superior quality. We do this by creating the rock we want, in the shape we want it. Creating the material and the product in one operation.
Instead of one hard to make obsidian knife, I have a superior set of a half dozen knives. (Plus 2 peelers!)
Similarly, we no longer build water viaducts by stacking up natural rocks, mile after Roman mile. Instead, we cook limestone and then use that to make a kind of liquid rock, concrete, that is used to make concrete pipes. These kinds of manufacture pipes are used all over to carry water to cities and carry waste away.
We learned to mix sand, gravel, and burned limestone to make concrete. There is so much sand, gravel and limestone it literally covers the planet. We could not possibly use it all.
Yet there is another point here. Cement and concrete do not leave the planet. There is no such place as “away” and it can not go there. Old concrete can be simply ground up and reused to make new concrete, so we will never run out of the materials needed to make that liquid stone, or the products made from it. Even if some cement eventually erodes to atoms and washed out to sea, the oceans turn it back into new limestone.
We have a perpetual supply of limestone, cement, sand, gravel and other stones as the natural processes that creates them continue to act. The present quantity is so overwhelmingly large we could never use it all.
There is no shortage of stones, rocks, sands, gravels, marble, limestone, etc. etc. And thus no shortage of the products made from them. Among those products are the major roads, freeways, bridges, buildings, infrastructure of pipes and even power poles and dams for fresh water year round. The Civil Engineer is abbreviated C.E. and sometimes in jest called the Cement Engineer as so much civil engineering work is based on cement and concrete structures. We use so much of it precisely because it is so ubiquitous in supply and low in cost.
A Tiny Bit Of Chemistry
The elements of the universe consist of a few groups. One divide is into metals and non-metals. Some elements where those two meet are semi-metals and are used to make semiconductors.
Think on that for a moment. Rocks are made of a mix of metals and non-metals. How can you ever run out of metals if you can’t run out of rocks and they are made of metals and non-metals mixed? Especially when the metals you extract can not “go away”. The same reasoning applies to non-metals.
We do spend a good amount of time looking at the rocks all over the globe. Finding the rocks richest in the particular metals and non-metals that we want, available at the lowest costs to produce. Geologists do a lot of that. That does not mean those rich low cost rocks are the only source of supply, just the best and cheapest. For now… And our present technology level…
As an example, let’s look at feldspars.
Feldspars (KAlSi3O8 – NaAlSi3O8 – CaAl2Si2O8) are a group of rock-forming tectosilicate minerals that make up about 40% of the Earth’s continental crust.
So it has K Potassium used in plant fertilizers, Al Aluminum useful to build things and as a replacement for copper in electrical wires. Ca Calcium used in making cements and for nutrition too. There is also a lot of O Oxygen and Si Silicon. So much we don’t really need it. But that’s basically what you use to make glass and various abrasives. Some do have Na Sodium in them, but that’s everywhere. Still, it is useful for making lye and soaps and in a variety of chemical processes.
So just in that one most common rock, we can make everything from rock buildings to glasses and ceramics, and extract metals for everything from fertilizers to electrical wiring and much more. Even build pickup trucks, motors, and bikes out of it, along with pots and pans. We do look for other rocks as our preferred source of Aluminum and Potassium, but that is for our convenience and lower price, not because it is impossible to use this more common rock.
Production and uses
About 20 million tonnes of feldspar were produced in 2010, mostly by three countries: Italy (4.7 Mt), Turkey (4.5 Mt), and China (2 Mt).
Feldspar is a common raw material used in glassmaking, ceramics, and to some extent as a filler and extender in paint, plastics, and rubber. In glassmaking, alumina from feldspar improves product hardness, durability, and resistance to chemical corrosion. In ceramics, the alkalis in feldspar (calcium oxide, potassium oxide, and sodium oxide) act as a flux, lowering the melting temperature of a mixture. Fluxes melt at an early stage in the firing process, forming a glassy matrix that bonds the other components of the system together. In the US, about 66% of feldspar is consumed in glassmaking, including glass containers and glass fiber. Ceramics (including electrical insulators, sanitaryware, pottery, tableware, and tile) and other uses, such as fillers, accounted for the remainder.
Hmmm… From fiberglass insulation to glasses and ceramics, pottery and tiles and even a variety of chemicals. All from THE most common rock on the planet. Tell me again how we can “run out”?
Now this matters more than one might think. Aside from just how much cement and concrete is used in the modern world, the simple fact is that the supply of metals comes from rocks, as does the supply of other materials. That the supply of rocks is not limiting means those other materials are also not limiting. We use the easiest to use kinds of rocks first, but we could use the most common rocks to yield metals if we needed to do so.
So underlying all the metals, like iron, aluminum, cobalt, lithium, copper, etc. etc. – you find some particular kind of rock (or a dirt or a salt deposit) that is the easiest from which to extract the metal. We could get the metal from other kinds of rocks, but at a higher cost or a somewhat more complicated process. We may do that someday, but don’t need to do it just yet.
Now again, we have to ask: Where is ‘away’?
All those metals ever mined (aside from a trivial bit shot out of earth orbit) are still here. It does not “go away”. It may become dilute enough that we find it cheaper to extract it from native rock instead of scavenging the dump, but it IS still here should we need to go there.
If we used up all the richest easiest ores of silver laying on the surface, do we “run out” of silver?
Well, no. We’ve already used up the “native silver” where pure silver was found free on the surface. We’ve also used up the richest surface ores. Each time we found ways to extract silver from even more dilute ore, and so a lot more silver became a ‘resource’ and available to us. We’ve done this several times, so we know what happens. We recycle the exiting silver. We dig deeper and develop better ways to use more dilute deposits. We develop better ways to know where to dig. As of now, most sliver production comes as a byproduct of copper refining, so it doesn’t even take a mine and silver ore.
Why search the land, drill holes, move hillsides, haul silver ores, just to get more of something you get for “free” from refining copper?
If, for some reason, we suddenly needed a lot more silver, we could go looking and mining. But until then, we really need zero new silver mines. That is a very important point.
Resource Economics Is Important
The economics of resources says the supply depends on the price. It is just wrong to say “There is THIS much silver” to mine without saying at what price. As price rises, more expensive to work deposits pay to work, so you suddenly get more resource. It really does work that way.
Raise the price a little, you get a lot more supply of resource. This basic fact makes it stupid to talk of “running out” of known supply. As supply gets scarce, the price rises, and more supply becomes worth finding and producing. In some cases, the prior mine tailings have become the current mine ore due to price rises and technical advances.
We stop looking for more supply when we have found enough and the price is too low to justify looking for more. We look, and find more, when prices rise enough to pay for it.
Similarly, a bit higher price pays for new extraction methods. Mining and ore enrichment technology has regularly produced new supply out of rocks that were ‘useless’ before. Each more dilute source contains exponentially larger quantities of the desired metal than the prior more concentrated ore, simply because there are vastly more rocks with a little of something in it than there are rocks with a lot of that metal in them.
To claim “running out” is to claim “no new inventions, ever”.
Energy As Key Resource
Plants, animals, rocks, ores, metals, non-metals, ceramics, glasses, masonry, cement and concrete, water, salts and fertilizers. All essentially unlimited.
What is the last, ultimate, resource sort not on that list? Energy sources.
All those changes, refining, reforming, extraction, transportation processes and more all need an energy source to operate. It is fairly trite but true that with technology and enough energy you can make anything else you need. So are we running out of energy?
Much noise is made about running out of oil or having an ‘energy shortage’. It is basically non-sense. The only shortages that happen are man-made and often artificially so to raise prices. This inevitably fails in the long run as higher prices lead to more supply, but in the short run it can gain $Millions.
We already have, in hand, technologies to provide all the energy needed for the global economy for all foreseeable time and at acceptable prices. Millions of years worth of energy, at least. At prices not significantly different from today. There are several forms and sources for this energy, but I will mention just one here. Ocean uranium.
How was this done? Well, some very clever Japanese researchers found a way to make a plastic mat that adsorbs Uranium from sea water. The cost is about double the cost of that from mines on land, so we don’t use it at present, but the cost is still so low it would not change electricity prices if we were to use this method. It is well inside the range to run the economy at a profit. There is more U in the oceans than we can use and more erodes in every year from the mountains of the world.
There is no energy shortage, there can not be one, and there never will be one. We just use cheaper more convenient land sources at present. (Yes, there can be local temporary shortages due to stupidity, government mistakes, and lack of will to use the available Uranium. But that is a shortage of intelligence, not of energy.)
But what about Oil? Isn’t it limited, running out, and needed to make plastics and fertilizers and chemicals? Well, no. Some decades back we learned how to make oil if needed. Germany ran their W.W.II war machine on synthetic oil made from coal.
More importantly, what we use is not crude oil. We use fuels, lubricants, plastics, organic chemicals. All those products can be made from other carbon sources. We have made them all from other sources in the past, and many are made from natural gas today. Using nuclear process heat, we can continue using gasoline, motor oil, Diesel fuel, and plastics forever.
Even garbage can be used as the feedstock to make fuels and “petro” chemicals. At least one company has done it. There is no risk we will run out of garbage.
The source I find most interesting is the farm. We can, and do, grow plastic feed stocks. “Bio-plastics” are relatively common now. Rayon and your kitchen “viscous” sponge are two early plastics made from plants. Cellulose makes cellophane, rayon, and the “viscous” fluid used to make the sponge. George Washington Carver made plastics from soybeans used in early Ford Automobiles
The founding president of Israel used a bacteria to grow chemicals.
Chaim Azriel Weizmann (Hebrew: חיים עזריאל ויצמן Hayyim Azri’el Vaytsman, Russian: Хаим Вейцман Khaim Veytsman; 27 November 1874 – 9 November 1952) D.Sc, Sc.D, LL.D was a Zionist leader and Israeli statesman who served as President of the Zionist Organization and later as the first President of Israel.
Weizmann lectured in chemistry at the University of Geneva between 1901 and 1903, and later taught at the University of Manchester. He became a British subject in 1910, and while a lecturer in Manchester he became known for discovering how to use bacterial fermentation to produce large quantities of desired substances. He is considered to be the father of industrial fermentation. He used the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum (the Weizmann organism) to produce acetone. Acetone was used in the manufacture of cordite explosive propellants critical to the Allied war effort (see Royal Navy Cordite Factory, Holton Heath). Weizmann transferred the rights to the manufacture of acetone to the Commercial Solvents Corporation in exchange for royalties.
See also: Acetone–butanol–ethanol fermentation
All that was before the age of genetically engineered bacteria. Simply put, we can ferment all the industrial organic feed stock we want and the fuels we want. There are some algae that produce up to 1/2 their weight as oil. It is just cheaper to pump and refine fossil oil instead. For now…
Simply put, organic chemicals (those with carbon in them and often called “petro” chemicals) can be made from any carbon source (gas, oil, coal, trees, garbage) by many processes. Typically those things are first turned into synthesis gas to make all the rest, but some of the desired chemicals can just be fermented or grown directly. Similarly, we have several methods to grow, ferment, refine, or synthesize fuels if desired or needed.
There is no shortage of plastics, the ubiquitous chemicals from which so much is made today. We can grow them, and make them from all manner of other things. Similar things can be done to ‘grow fuels’ if desired. We can use nuclear power to generate all the electricity we could need to power all those other chemical processes, and we can use nuclear electricity to directly drive oil pumps (long after the energy needed to lift the oil exceeds the energy in it, we can turn it into motor fuel as the form of the fuel matters) and we can use nuclear process heat to manufacture motor fuels if desired.
Given that nuclear power is unlimited, that means motor fuels are also unlimited. We need only build the factories and pay a modestly higher price for the gasoline and Diesel (or alcohols or…) based fuels.
Engineering is the art and science of using what you have to make what you want. Engineers look at the prices of different materials, and their properties, then choose the best way to make the desired product at the best price. This means that what is a needed resource changes with the price and desires.
Take a look at power or telephone poles. They can be made from wood, or concrete, or aluminum or steel (and likely a few other things I’ve not seen). We could make them from plastics, garbage, geopolymer (a kind of synthetic cast rock), laminated wood, straw (suitably processed) or even lake mud. We don’t since we have cheaper choices in wood and concrete and aluminum. But it IS a choice.
We have a few thousand year history of technical change in what resource or material is used for which products. We never “run out”, we just change the preferred material. The stone age ended when we learned to make tools from copper.
The copper age ended when we learned to add tin and zink to make bronze and brasses.
The Bronze age ended when a scarcity of copper made it expensive (after what looks like a natural disaster wiped out the shipping culture mining and supplying copper to Europe) so we started making swords and tools from iron.
Today, my kitchen is slowly converting from iron and stainless steel based tools back to a special kind of stone. Customized at the molecular level to make superior ceramic knives and ceramic coated aluminum pans.
We have not run out of rocks, copper, bronze, iron, or ceramics. All those materials are still here on the planet and still used. No rocket has sent them out to space and out of the solar system. We do not run out, we change.
The next chapters will look at specific raw materials and resources in more detail. Folks who wish to poke at any particular resource are best served by going to that chapter first (once written).
Along the way, various products and services will be profiled, but with an eye to showing the variety of materials used, or that could be substituted. In some cases, input-output charts with choices may be shown. (So, for example, [corn, trees, coal, gas, oil] can all become synthesis gas used to make [oil, Diesel, plastic, alcohols…] and more.)
The point being that if any one input becomes dear, we just shift to a cheaper one or invent something new. We have at least 10,000 years of doing this under our belt, so I see no reason to think it stops with us.
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