Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, September 20, 2013

Plundering the planet: an update

This is a written version of a talk I gave at the meeting of the club of Rome, in Ottawa, on Sep 19 2013.

Ladies and gentlemen, in this short talk I'll see to give to you an update of the status of the "Plundering the Planet" book,  which, as you know, is a report for the Club of Rome. And, as many of you know, the German version of the book was published in June of this year, so that I am in the interesting situation of having published a book that I can't read! But we are working at the English version, which should come out early next year.

Now, let me summarize for you the situation that "Plundering the Planet" describes. You surely have noticed that the title doesn't say "developing the planet" or "improving the planet". No, it says "plundering", which means exactly that: We are extracting mineral resources as if we were pirates plundering the coffers of a just stormed galleon.

So, where do we stand with mining? Well, it is a long story. I can tell you that the United States Geological Survey, the USGS, lists 88 mineral commodities and that's already a very respectable number. But it doesn't include, for instance, fossil fuels in their several varieties (gas, coal, oil, tar sands, shales, and the like). Then, every commodity has different sources, different areas of exploitation, different grades of products; as I said it is not easy to extricate oneself out of the mass of data available.

Anyway, I can tell you that we are in what looks like a situation of stability in the sense that the production of some commodities is growing, while for others is declining but, on the average, we don't see dramatic changes. I can tell you that right now the largest volumes produced is for construction materials: sand, cement, rock and the like. That's also the fastest growing mineral commodity in terms of production. It is growing exponentially, showing no signs of decline. It escapes me why we are working so hard to transform this planet into a sort of spherical highway, but this is the way things stand. Among metals, let me give you a couple of examples: copper production is growing, while that of gold is declining - in general we don't see dramatic changes for this category. If, then, we look at fossil fuels, the production of liquids (oil and other fuels), gaseous and solid (coal) fuels is weakly increasing on the average. But, of course, I have no intention to go through all the 88 commodities one by one. Let's say, as I was noting before, that we seem to be in a relatively stable situation - no decline on the average, but no rapid growth either.

The sensation, however, is also that we stand on the edge of a cliff and there are several factors that provide you with that sensation. The first one is prices. You see, there was a trend of price reduction that had been going on for at least a decade and everyone had noticed that: prices are going down, therefore there is no depletion problem. And then, starting with 2004: bang! We hit a vertical wall; prices have gone up and show no sign of going down. On the average, the price of such commodities as metals, has increased of a factor of three and that's not a negligible amount. Depletion does play a role in this, because it forces us to extract from lower grade resources.

If we then look at fossil fuels, you know the trend for the most important one: oil. Prices have increased of a factor of 5 in comparison to what we had about ten years ago. We are now consistently floating over 100 dollars per barrel. If you had said ten years ago that we would arrive to these levels, they you would have been considered a total madman (I remember that I said something like that at that time, but let me not go into the details.)

High prices are not the only problem with fossil fuels. There is the problem that we are succeeding in keeping production constant or increasing by means of the addition of liquids, such as biofuels, that contain less energy per unit volume than conventional oil. So, what we call "a barrel of oil" in 2013 contains less energy, on the average, than it used to contain ten years ago. And then there is the problem of net energy: depletion is forcing us to use more and more difficult resources and we need to use more energy to produce the same amount of energy. So, we are left with less energy that we can use for other purposes. And, finally, we have the fact that the economies of producing countries are growing and they tend to consume more for their internal market and export less. So, there is less oil available for non producing countries, which includes many Western countries.

So, you see, the situation can be described as very difficult. It is true that we can fight depletion and we have been doing that successfully, up to now. But it is a battle that we have won at a very high price (and only for a limited period of time). Apparently, however, we are willing to pay any price for oil, even at the cost of renouncing to a number of things that, once, were taken for granted, such as public health care, social security, public transportation, and the like.

It is a choice that we made and that we may well regret in the near future because we are not only beggaring ourselves but creating a much worse problem: a true climatic disaster. As depletion is forcing us to consume more energy in order to produce energy, the final result is that emissions are growing and they show no sign of abating.

Up to a few years ago there was a debate on whether peak oil would have saved us from ourselves. That is, if the "natural" decline of the production of fossil fuels could have caused a reduction in emissions and that would have solved the climate change problem. That debate is by now over: peak oil is not going to save us. It is arriving, but too late to stop catastrophic climate change.

In the end, the world's economy has been following quite closely the basic scenario that "The Limits to Growth" had outlined already in 1972. In a way, it is a triumph for the Club of Rome which had sponsored a study able to predict the future with such an accuracy. And, in the same sense, it is a monumental failure because we haven't been able to do anything to avoid the dire future we ourselves had been predicting. You know, it is like one of those nightmares where you are chased by a monster. You see the monster, you want to run away, but you can't. 

Yet, the first step to solving a problem is to understand it and the "Limits" study gave us the tools we need. And not just that: it gives us the tools needed to actually solve the problem. You see, what are trying to influence is a complex system: the world's economy. Complex systems have ways to oppose changes: it is the result of internal feedbacks that tend to stunt attempts from outside to budge the system from its stable condition (intended in a dynamic sense). So, attempts to change the system by brute force either don't work or they succeed in wrecking the system, which of course we don't want.

The way to steer complex systems is to identify their "leverage points" or "critical points": intervening on these levers it is possible to change things, it is a concept that arrives to us from Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows, respectively the originator and one of the authors of the "Limits" study. If we examine our present situation, it is clear that the leverage point, the critical point, is one: it is fossil fuels. We need fossil fuels, otherwise it wouldn't be possible to keep alive seven billion people on this planet, but unfortunately it is also true that we are wrecking the planet by burning fossil fuels. So we need to burn fossil fuels but we cannot burn them: it would seem to be a classic "no-win" situation.

The point is, however, that we don't need fossil fuels. What we need is something that fossil fuels provide: it is energy. And energy doesn't necessarily need to be produced using fossil fuels. So, the way of pushing the lever in the right direction is clear: if we can't stop and at the same time we can't continue, we need to use fossil fuels to replace fossil fuels,

That is, we need to use fossil fuels to produce the renewable plants that will replace fossil fuels (it may also be said about nuclear energy, although of course there are big problems with that). If we decide to do that, then there is a chance to solve the problem before it is too late. With a sufficient amount of clean energy we can keep our infrastructures functioning, keep alive seven billion people, and we can also keep mining; at reduced rates, of course, because depletion remains a problem. And we can't hope to continue our wasteful habits as we have been accustomed to, up to now; We'll need big changes in the way we do things: we'll have to be more efficient and way smarter. But with clean energy we can still supply the industrial system with minerals for many years and gradually adapt to a future less commodity-hungry industrial system. But we must do that fast and decisively: otherwise it will be too late.

So, this is the way I see the situation and I'd like to close this short presentation with a quote from William Stanley Jevons, who can well be said to have been the precursor of "The Limits to Growth" study. Already in his times, mid 19th century, and even before computers, he had very clear in his mind the dynamic factors of the problem and the crucial need for energy. So, here it is - he was actually speaking about coal, but I replaced the term "coal" with energy - Jevons would surely understand if he were with us today. For the problems we are facing, there are no miracles, no tricks, and no shortcuts: what we need is clean and abundant energy.

(from "The Coal Question", by William Stanley Jevons 1866)

Energy in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other  commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With energy almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)