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  • 10.31.11

Are We Really Running Out Of Everything?

Or is “peak” anything just a myth? As the world races to mine and control the rare earth metals we need to power the tech of the future, how much do we know about how much stuff we really have?

Are We Really Running Out Of Everything?
This copper mine in Chuquicamata, Chile, is the largest circumference and second deepest open pit copper mine in the world. Copper mines, however, are starting to yield less and less copper. Wikipedia

Is there a resource problem for future generations? Are we running out of stuff? Most of the gold that has been mined since we learned to extract it is still with us, for instance, so when we say we are running out of raw materials, what does that really mean?

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There are varying opinions on this matter, and unfortunately, compelling arguments from both ends of the spectrum. On the abundance side, there are economists such as Steve Horwitz, a Ph.D. from St Lawrence University, who argues that all who have prophesied about the end of resources have been proved wrong, from the claims that we were running out of oil at the of 20th century to the concerns about diminishing copper in the ’60s, all the way to the present day with our concerns about running out of, well, everything.

His belief is that because all of these past doom-mongers were thankfully wrong, all current concerns about the end of certain resources are misguided, too. Bjorn Lomborg, a well-known voice against the fears over climate change, has mirrored this belief that we are all worrying too much about resource scarcities. This has not been helped by calamitous “end of the world” claims by organizations on the other end of the spectrum, such as the WWF, who in 2002 made the outlandish assertion that the “earth will expire by 2050” (you can infer that claim from the data that can be found in this report).

But reports of diminishing resources are not only coming from environmentalists. Dr. A.M. Dierderen, a Dutch researcher for the safety and security branch of TNO, an independent research institute for the government of the Netherlands, has reported that we have only a few decades’ worth left of most of our important metals. His primary concern was whether the Dutch government would have enough elements for its military use, and if not, what could be used to substitute for the scarce ones. Add to this the recent news reports that China currently produces 97% of the rare earth metals and intends to keep ahold of them for its own needs, and it would seem that this is an issue that needs immediate action.

But hang on. Japan recently reported that it had found huge deposits of these elements in the mud floor of the Pacific Ocean around Hawaii, enough, a researcher claims, to satisfy 20% of the current demand from just 0.4 square miles of mud. And up until 1984, all of the U.S.’s rare earth requirements were satisfied by one mine in California. The mine was shut down because it was simply more expensive than the current Chinese supplies.

So, arguments can be made that either we are living on a planet of superabundance or that we have only a few years before it all goes kaput. Both are compelling–and both have data to back up their claims. How do we move forward?

What is agreed upon–regardless of worldview–is that the resources we have left are getting harder and harder to extract, requiring more energy, more water, creating more emissions, and leaving more contaminated waste.
In copper mines today, the norm is that copper makes up only 1% of everything taken from the mine. That’s down from 4% in the 1900s. And copper mining wastes constitute the largest quantity of metal mining and processing wastes generated in the U.S., according to the EPA. The rare earth elements found in the Pacific mud are at concentrations of up to 0.1% (1 gram per kilogram mined). That is considered a rich deposit for rare earths. But what is the cost to the ecosystem around it to get at that deposit?

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The lower the concentrations of each deposit, the more oil (energy) it takes to extract each kilogram of copper, gram of dysprosium (the rare earth used in efficient motors), or the gallon of oil from the low-yielding tar sands in Alberta. It is this reduced yield that most troubles me, because the waste and emissions increase; double, triple or even tenfold, for smaller and smaller gains.

I take the optimist’s view and say no, we are not running out of stuff entirely. But the price we will have to pay, where the economic price is directly related to the damage done (lower yields means higher price, and greater damage to the environment) may be nearly equivalent. It’s something anyone who uses these materials–in their business or in their day-to-day life–needs to assess more carefully.