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

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


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)