Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The invasion of the resource zombies

 (image from WikiHow - Creative Commons license)

You probably heard that new ideas are "are born as heresies and die as superstitions". But it can be worse than that: there are ideas which simply refuse to die and, like zombies, continue forever haunting the human mindscape. One of these ideas is that the problem with mineral resources consists in "running out" of something. A typical manifestation of this zombie-idea is a recent article by Matt Ridley which appeared on "The Wall Street" journal with the title "The World's Resources Aren't Running Out"

I can hardly imagine a more unhelpful article than this one: it contains all the platitudes typical of this field, including the almost obligatory smear at the Club of Rome on the basis of the idea that "The Limits to Growth" study of 1972 had predicted that by now we should have run out of mineral resources (and, of course, we didn't). Pure legend; that study never said anything like that. It is just another zombie-idea haunting the human mindscape.

But, apart from platitudes and legends, the article by Matt Ridley is wrong because it is based on a classic strawman: the one that says that we should worry about "running out" of mineral resources. It is not so. Let me say it emphatically, assuredly, and unequivocally: we are NOT running out of anything. That's not the problem; the real problem with resources is diminishing economic returns. It means that we have extracted the "easy" (i.e. inexpensive) resources and that now we are forced to extract from "difficult" (i.e. more expensive) resources. Let me show you what's happening with an example: the case of silver extraction.

This image, from the blog "SRSrocco Report," says it all. In less than 10 years, the yield of silver extraction went down to nearly half of what it was at the beginning. That is, we need today to process almost twice as much rock than it took 10 years ago to extract the same amount of silver. And, of course, processing rock is expensive. We are not running out of silver: production has remained more or less constant over the past decade, but extracting it costs more. This is just an example; as I discuss in my recent book "Extracted", all mineral resources are showing the same problem: diminishing yields of extraction.

Now, you can rhapsodize about new technologies as much as you want (and as Matt Ridley does in his article) but there is a real problem here. To extract minerals, you need to drill, lift and, grind rock and that takes energy and resources (read: money). Technology can make many things, for instance wonderful smartphones, but you can't grind rock with smartphones. Technology, just like almost everything else, suffers of the problem of diminishing returns (I discuss this point in detail in a recent article of mine).

So, there is a reason for the increasing prices of all mineral commodities - it is diminishing economic returns. Unfortunately, however, some minds tend to be infected by the virus of the resource zombie that tells us that there is nothing to worry about. But there is a lot to be worried about: if something costs more, then you may not be able to afford it. In such case, you might as well say that it is not there (or even that you "ran out" of it).

So, it is not a good idea to sit back and hope that the wonders of technology will free us from resource depletion: no problem can ever be solved if you refuse to admit that it exists. Then you can find solutions in the form of higher efficiency, substitution, recycling and more. It can be done, but we need money, planning, and sacrifices. More than all, we need to shoot the resource zombie in the head and recognize the problem in order to act on it.


H/t SRSrocco report


  1. Carlos de CastroMay 6, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    Well... From 2010 to 2013 silver extraction went down from 140 to 119 million oz (15% in only 3 years). Therefore, diminishing returns imply diminishing extractions. And also running out of (easy) silver.
    Probably there is a positive system feedback: running out of easy oil (conventional peak oil) cause diminishing returns that cause running out of not so easy oil (heavy oil) that cause more diminishing returns that cause running out of expansive oil (fracking) that will cause system collapse.

  2. Important distinctions Ugo.
    And not just for mineral resources, I think.

    There reaches a peak point for returns of crops as well.
    At some stage the inputs can turn the crop yield negative - in weight as well as economically.
    In this case drought becomes the common limiting factor if you push too hard for yield.
    35% of world crop of Corn / Z. mays is grown in USA, mostly in their Corn belt.
    Read a short account here http://www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6183/484.short

  3. "Then you can find solutions in the form of higher efficiency, substitution, recycling and more".
    Yes, but to advance the discussion, we should shoot another dangerous zombie: the idea that we'll be forced to very minimalist life styles because of resource-environment limits (sources and sinks). I'm still not convinced that this is the case. High quality of life doesn't require high resource-energy consumption, ok, but it's not exactly low-energy either. Materials can be recycled, if we redesign products. Recycling require energy. But there is plenty of solar-wind energy, and bottom-up LCA studies says that the energy payback time is excellent. The issue of variability of solar-wind is largely overrated (see the studies of Mark Jacobson from Stanford). There are no limits to human progress if we change the structure of the economy (circular economy, low-car cities, solar-wind, etc). Cassandra shouldn't be surprised of the hold in popular press of panglossian zombies. Unless a positive narrative for a new model of *progress* is put forward, this stream of zombies will never die. Don't you see here a feedback?

    1. ..but but....if we change the structure of our economy from linear to circular it's quite likely that we had to change our worldview from linear progress to "circular progress" (whatever it means...)

  4. I am in complete agreement with you, Luigi. We have plenty of energy and we can rebuild our economy around the idea of recycling. There are no limits to recycling and, as a consequence, there are no limits to prosperity. Prosperity is not the same as growth. We can have prosperity without growth but up to now we have been silly enough to prefer growth to prosperity. Very silly indeed: smart as zombies

    1. I'm replying also to Quesalid.
      There has been already a relevant effort in redefining progress. See the Human Development Index by the UN. This index overcomes disadvantages of GDP. A case for new progress can be made according to this framework.

      Dear Prof Bardi, since there is no disagreement in the feasibility of a redefined progress, why your narrative leans toward the pessimistic side?
      Your posts are always informative and thoughtful, but there is this "cassandra touch" that, in my humble opinion, is counterproductive (I welcome the change in the blog's name, but the leaning didn't change!).
      Anyhow, keep up your excellent work.

    2. Well, I never saw myself as "thinking negative". If I give this impression it is, possibly, because sometimes I tend to react to the brainless optimism of some people - just like Matt Ridley. But I am also often dismayed by the brainless pessimism of some others - must say less common ones. Optimism means that we can work our way out of the crisis; not that we can sit our way out of the crisis!

    3. BTW - about Cassandra: the story says that the Trojans were destroyed by their brainless optimism. Cassandra, instead, had suggested them a way out of catastrophe. She was a positive thinker!

    4. In addition, I am sure that at the time of Cassandra, there were brainless pessimistic Trojan who proceeded to demolish the walls themselves

    5. "Pessimism of the reason, optimism of the will" A. Gramsci
      Maybe we should be optimist in our will and our ability to solve the problem (this is the positive half).
      Maybe we should be pessimist trying to solve the problem the old way (more technology, more integration, more management and bureaucracy, more information, more speed - this is the negative half).
      Is possible to substitute "more" with "different"? The answer is the exploration....

    6. Carlos de CastroMay 8, 2014 at 10:23 PM

      Ugo, Luigi:
      Yes, we can rebuild our economy around the idea of recycling (this is the very technogy of the biosphere)... for the next century or two, not now. An other zombie: there are tech solutions ever (progress myth).
      You need energy to recycle, and renewables can't do this work in our Civilization. Deconstruct first this prone to collapse Civilization and then think in renewables (after).
      Wind + solar + geo + ocean can surpass 5 TWe (Jacobson exaggerated consciously). The pessimist will write: new wind and solar will collapse with the fossil collapse. The optimist will write: We will construct a 5TWe sustainable world (outside of this extremes are zombie myths). The pessimist will write: not with our myths. The optimist: we will change also our myths. the pessimist: OK, but deep myths take centuries to millennia to change. The optimist: Survival instinct will do that in decades...
      About wind limits:
      (this work is confirmed not denied by Jacobson new works, although Jacobson lie in their recents papers and write the contrary).
      Solar power limits:
      (this work takes, in fact optimistically, Ted Trainer thesis and Prieto and Hall
      low EROEI results)
      Biofuel despair:
      (this work show how our Civilization work with renewables)

      Renewables could do a great work to address the energetic and the climatic problems, but, at present time, does not address the biodiversity, soils, minerals, water and inequality problems, in fact, are a problem for these issues.
      May be only the energetic and the climatic problems are in the Press because that fact, this is the dark side of our zombie myth of Progress.

    7. Carlos de CastroMay 8, 2014 at 10:24 PM

      Sorry... Wind + slar etc. Can Not surpass 5 TWe...

    8. You are right, Carlos, in that renewable technologies cannot sustain THIS civilization. Which is to say that they can sustain a better civilization: more peaceful, more satisfying, more balanced and more good things embedded.

  5. Good post. In my blog post below, I also criticize Ridley's reasoning, pointing out some additional fallacies:


    I thought his most hilarious reasoning was the suggestion that we should not worry about phosphorus depletion (a looming problem) because we can always suck the phosphorus atoms back out of the soil. As if that could ever be economical

    1. Yes, Ridley's post is so silly that I couldn't bring myself to criticize it point by point. I see that you did that - good work!



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)