Monday, September 29, 2014

A Spaceship called Eschatology

This article appeared on "" on Aug 12, 2014.

Image from NASA

“Eschatology” is a Greek word meaning “the science of the end.” In ancient times, it used to be popular with theologians, but today it seems to have picked up interest to describe various kinds of catastrophes which could happen in the future. Things like giant asteroids falling on the Earth or, in the far future, the sun becoming so bright that it will cause the oceans to evaporate and wipe out all life.
Now, if eschatology means big, rapid and irreversible changes, you could argue that we’re going through a full-fledged eschatological event right now. It is a mineral eschatology caused by humans. Gigantic amounts of minerals have been extracted, processed, and dispersed in the atmosphere, in the oceans, and in the ground. It took hundreds of millions of years to create the ores we have destroyed in a few centuries. Hundreds of millions of years will be needed to recreate them – if indeed that will ever happen. The Earth is not any more what it used to be when humans first appeared on it, and it will never be the same again.

It looks like we’ve built a spaceship called eschatology that’s transporting us to an alien planet on a one-way trip. A planet hotter than the one we are used to living on because of the greenhouse gases generated by the mining and the burning of fossil carbon. A planet with many characteristics we might find very unpleasant: from the flooding caused by the melting of land glaciers, to the persistent pollution caused by the heavy metals and radioactive minerals we’ve dispersed everywhere. But perhaps the greatest difference is that in this new planet we won't find any more of the rich mineral ores which have provided us with energy and resources we used to build our industrial civilization.

We may be able to adapt to a hotter planet, although that could mean enormous suffering for humankind. Within limits, we can also clean up the pollution we have generated. But how to live in a planet without cheap mineral resources?
It is true that minerals are never destroyed – so they will still be there and, in part, could be recovered from industrial waste. But, in the long run, in order to keep mining we would need to mine the undifferentiated crust, and that would be unthinkably expensive in term of the energy required. To say nothing of the disaster it would be in terms of pollution. The essence of the eschatological event we are living in is that the time of mining is almost over, at least in the form we have known it for centuries. That is, from miners with their picks and helmets in deep underground tunnels.

But if eschatology means the end of something, it may also mean the beginning of something else. If mining is heading to an end, we can still have minerals if we are willing to change the wasteful and inefficient ways we’ve been using to get them. We must close the exploitation cycle, and completely recycle what we use. It is possible, but it needs energy – much more than we needed to mine pristine ores. This energy cannot come from fossil carbon: that would simply accelerate depletion and worsen the climate problem. We need clean and inexhaustible energy: mainly sun and wind.

It is unlikely that this energy will ever be so cheap and abundant as the energy that was provided by fossil fuels at the beginning of their exploitation cycle; so, we'll need to use it wisely. We'll need to be much more efficient than we are today: we'll need to create more durable industrial products, use energy carefully and substitute rare minerals with ones more common in the Earth's crust.

Clean energy, recycling, and efficiency. This set of strategies is our ticket for survival in this interplanetary trip. In the end, spaceship Eschatology could give us a chance to abandon the ever-growing and never happy civilization of today and create a new civilization which could have enough wisdom to live and prosper on what is available and no more.

– Ugo Bardi is Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence and author of Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014). 


  1. "We must close the exploitation cycle, and completely recycle what we use. It is possible, but it needs energy – much more than we needed to mine pristine ores."

    I can't understand how this can be true. Aluminum, steel, copper, and lead are already recycled in significant quantities. I am sure that the energy used to render these metals to a usable condition (similar to smelter output) is far less than production from virgin ore. For example, Wikipedia reports that the savings for aluminum is 95%. What am I missing?

    1. Sure: some metals are already efficiently recycled. But in most cases we don't go over about 50%. We arrive at most at about 80% in the case of lead. It is because recycling, just like mining, suffers of diminishing returns. The more you recycle, the more it costs. So, at some level, it is more convenient to mine than to recycle. It is, however, a race toward higher and higher costs, and that's the problem.

  2. I think the philosophical term you want is actually "teleology", not "eschatology".

    1. es·cha·tol·o·gy
      the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.

      the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes.

      Looks to me like Ugo's topic is closer to eschatology.

  3. Significant quantities are not sufficient. If it is not 100% then eventually all virgin stock becomes depleted over time. Virgin stocks for some materials cannot currently be recovered economically without cheap energy because they are already severely depleted. Copper and gold are good examples but consider Iron. The days of plentiful highly concentrated iron ore are long gone. What you are missing is the severity of the problem which can be mathematically established beyond doubt. To anyone who cares and does not want to ignore reality that is.

    Of the metals you list none of them are fully recycled and all are being dispersed through the environment to a degree which will soon deprive us of their use. This will happen as soon as they cannot be economically obtained. Not before they are technically all gone.

  4. My current ID on Zero Hedge is "Retrograde Eschatologist". Tyler Durden banned my Rogue Economist ID for too much PLUGGING. :)


  5. Ugo
    Very effectively put: indeed the study of end-times...
    And WWF says today: "The steep decline [50% since 1970] of animal, fish and bird numbers was calculated by analysing 10,000 different populations, covering 3,000 species in total."

    As you say "... the ever-growing and never happy civilization of today".

    When will the Red Queen economies stumble and the civilisation fall back? The blue-green space ship however damaged will continue its circular journey, but if our civilisation reverts inevitably to relying on now impoverished agrarian resources (damaged soils; recycled poison etc. all having long 'recovery' periods) it is worth figuring what we might take with us on the voyage?


  6. Whoever confuses eschatology with scatology will end up in… deep poopoo.

  7. As you say "... the ever-growing and never happy civilization of today"

    Good catch Phil that last paragraph deserves a nod. It is a gem. Then if there be philosophers as kings and kings as philosophers the wisdom to live and prosper on what is available and no more will eschatonate an age of tranquillity and peace. Much better than an alternative of death and slavery I think, for that is what the fruit of imprudence will bear.

  8. Biosphere rate of recycling: >98% for C, N, P... (Tyler Volk: Gaia`s body).
    CO2 is a very dispersed form of C (400 ppm in the atmosphere) and then a tree...
    Yes: renewable energy, recycling, efficiency, and also frugality and much, much more humility against the biosphere technology.

  9. During the euphoria days of nuclear energy (1950-ish), the promoters made the claim that energy would become so cheap that we would in fact extract our minerals from undifferentiated rock. I guess we all know how that worked out.



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)