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Cover of 'Extracted - how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet', by Ugo Bardi.
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  • Cover of 'Extracted - how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet', by Ugo Bardi.
    Cover of 'Extracted - how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet', by Ugo Bardi.

Minerals are finite. We had better start conserving them

Ugo Bardi

19th May 2014

Are we going to run out of minerals? That's the central question of a debate that has been raging for a couple of centuries, writes Ugo Bardi, when it first became clear that minerals are not life forms - and do not reproduce as we extract them from the Earth's crust.

What we need to fight for is a world that does not consume more than the Earth can recreate. It is called a sustainable world.

The debate forms around two distinct groups: the 'Cassandras of depletion', who claim that minerals will become rarer and rarer until there is no more; and the 'Sirens of abundance', who place their bets on human ingenuity, saying that technological progress will make up for depletion.

The prevalent opinion has been oscillating back and forth between these two extremes but, today, we seem to be reaching a point when we can arrive to a conclusion: depletion is winning over human ingenuity.

Quantities are limited. Aren't they?

Before the 'Sirens' begin to wail loudly, let's briefly review the arguments of the debate. On the Cassandras' side there was (and remains) a simple fact: the amount of any mineral we can extract from the Earth's crust is limited. Eventually, we run out of minerals-at least in their extractable forms.

The Sirens' rebuttal (often involving complex mathematical models) was, and remains, simple: technology can help us extract from less and less concentrated mineral deposits.

So, it is true that you gradually run out of concentrated resources, but you can always move to less concentrated ones. Since low concentration deposits are more abundant than high concentration ones (this is called 'Lasky's law' in geology) you arrive to the counterintuitive effect that you don't run out of minerals, you 'run into' them.

So, who is right? The position of the Cassandras looks simple: You have a cake, you eat it, and then you don't have it any more. That of the Sirens, instead, looks untenable: Your cake gets bigger as you eat it!

And mineral prices keep on falling

But the Sirens had a trump card: They could show that most mineral prices had been decreasing in real terms while their production was increasing. You could interpret this fact as a sign of growing abundance, just as the Sirens were claiming.

Some people tended to over-interpret this trend, as in the case of the economist Julian Simon, who liked to be known as the 'doomslayer' for his strong criticism of the Cassandras and in particular the 1972 report to the Club of Rome titled 'The Limits to Growth'.

In his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource (Simon, 1981) Simon proposed that mineral resources would last for "billions of years" just on the basis of five price trends over a couple of decades - a case of over-extrapolation if there ever was one.

But it was true that prices, on the average, had been going down. So, were Sirens right in their song of nearly infinite abundance?

'Technology' is not just a variable in an equation

The problem here is that the complex formulas of economists' model often lump 'technology' in a single parameter that is supposed to grow steadily over the years. Alas, it doesn't work that way.

As I show in a recent paper of mine (Bardi, 2014)⁠, while it is true that new technologies can lower the costs of extraction, as you gradually move to more difficult resources you have to spend more and more money for more sophisticated technologies that bring proportionally lower advantages. This phenomenon is called 'diminishing economic returns'.

In this case, it tells us that, in the long run, technology just can't keep pace with the increasing cost of extraction brought by depletion. So, at some moment we expect that mineral prices should start an irreversible increase.

Now, prices are increasing sharply

And that's exactly what we are seeing: During the past five to ten years the prices of all mineral commodities have skyrocketed and show no signs of decreasing.

For instance, crude oil now costs at least five times more than ten years ago. Prices might collapse because of a strong recession as it happened in 2008-2009, but production would also collapse and that would be much worse for the economy.

In other words, from now on, depletion may be winning over technology. Or, your cake is now getting smaller the faster you eat it, and you have to chew harder before you can swallow each bite.

This is also the finding of a recent study by Professor Charles Hall and his coworkers (Lambert 2014) who examined the energy yield (EROI) of crude oil. Their conclusion is clear: "Depletion is a more powerful force than technological innovation."

The law of diminishing returns

This conclusion is valid for practically all mineral resources and not just for mining: the principle that depletion causes diminishing returns is very general and also concerns the 'other side' of mineral extraction, that we usually call 'pollution'.

In this case, we are gradually running out the ability of the ecosystem to absorb our waste products. Consider the atmosphere: as the IPCC reports have been telling us, the fossil carbon that we have been extracting and burning has not disappeared, it has been accumulating in the form of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).

So far, we had been thinking of the atmosphere as a 'free' resource, in the sense that we could dump into it whatever we liked at no cost. But, as we keep burning fossil carbon, we are discovering that this resource is running out and it has a cost in terms of the effects of climate change.

Even here, these costs are increasing and technology can help us only up to a certain point: the efforts to increase the efficiency of the use of fossil energy show diminishing returns.

Still fighting for a sustainable world

So the Cassandras of depletion appear to be winning over the Sirens of abundance, but it's a hollow victory and one where it's unlikely we'll see a banner claiming "Mission Accomplished".

Humans are not fighting a battle against the Earth to deprive her of her mineral riches and - if they were - they would be fighting a losing battle.

What we need to fight for is a world that does not consume more than the Earth can recreate. It is called a sustainable world.

 


 

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Florence, where he teaches physical chemistry. His research interests include mineral resources, renewable energy, and system dynamics applied to economics. He is a member of the Club of Rome, of the scientific committee of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), and Climalteranti, a group active in climate science. His previous books include 'The Limits to Growth Revisited'

This article draws on his new book: Extracted - How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.

The book: Extracted - How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet is published by Chelsea Green, May 2014, with a Foreword by Jorgen Randers. 

UK readers: the book is available here on Amazon.

References

Bardi, U. (2014). The mineral question: how energy and technology will determine the future of mining. Frontiers in Energy Systems and Policy. doi:10.3389/fenrg.2013.00009

Lambert, J. G., Hall, C. A. S., Balogh, S., Gupta, A., & Arnold, M. (2014). Energy, EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy, 64, 153-167. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2013.07.001

Simon, J. (1981). The Ultimate Resource. Princeton University Press.

 

 

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