It’s been widely reported that we’re running out of the rare-earth elements and various other metals that make our smartphones and computers run. But rarely do you get very precise information about how dire that problem is. It’s not that we don’t know–it’s simply that we haven’t had any decent information designers addressing the data.
Given its clarity and concision, its no wonder that the chart actually won the $2,000 first-place prize in a contest run by David McCandless’s Information Is Beautiful.
Of course, its very clarity makes you wonder about the data. Granted, it all does come from very respectable sources such as the U.S. Geological Survey. But there’s clearly two things at work here: 1. Understanding the amount of metals and minerals we have. 2. Understanding how quickly we’ve used them in the past and are using them now. The first part is relatively straight forward and predictable–mining rarely stumbles upon earth-shattered deposits in this day and age.
But the second part is hard: As technology progresses, we use what resources we have with increasing efficiency. That’s one reason why all predictions of peak oil have been off (in addition to more and more innovation in oil mining). Does this mean we don’t have anything to worry about? Not by a long shot.
Increasing efficiency tends to increase the rate we consume a natural resource–a counterintuitive finding called the Jevons Paradox. Simply put, if we get more efficiency out of a gallon of oil, that means that we produce more stuff–and that in turn leads to economic growth and even faster consumption of oil. Some people argue that we’re at some sort of peak in consumption power–that our increasing efficiencies are leading to better cars, for example, rather than people buying a third car. Maybe, maybe not–when you think through the full implications of the Jevons Paradox, you quickly realize that curbs on consumption–whether they take the form of resource conservation programs or energy taxes–are probably the only way to avoid it.
It’s for that reason that I’d argue that the Jevons Paradox is probably the world’s least appreciated Big Idea: It implies that our noble quest for energy and resource efficiency is far more complex than the press or pundits ever let on.