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Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science…

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Technology vs Scarcity: The Worrying Reality Of Exponential Growth

  • The global consumption of oil and copper has doubled in the last 24 and 19 years, respectively.
  • This rapid acceleration of human consumption can be seen across plenty of resources, a trend that appears to be entirely unsustainable.
  • It appears that Albert Bartlett was correct when he said, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."

Half of all the oil consumed since the dawn of the modern oil age in 1859 has been consumed from 1998 through 2021 inclusive based on data available from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Approximately 1.4 trillion barrels of oil are thought to have been consumed to date (though there are estimates as low as 1.1 trillion). That means that in just the last 24 years total historical oil consumption has doubled.

It is hard for most people to imagine the vast increases in the rate of consumption of practically everything that makes modern life possible. Resources appear without most of us ever thinking about how or whether the rising rates of consumption can be sustained.

For copper, one of the critical metals we depend on for electrical, mechanical, and even monetary purposes, the story is similar. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that about 700 million metric tons of copper have been extracted to date. Based on mining statistics from the Copper Development Association, that means about half of all the copper ever mined has been mined from the year 2000 through 2018 inclusive.

Could we double total oil and copper consumption again in the next 24 and 19 years, respectively?

Just for comparison, the world's population grew 32 percent from the year 2000 through 2022 to date based on the U.S. Census Bureau population clock and historical data. This means that, at least for these two commodities, the per capita consumption rose over this period. We are not becoming more efficient with these resources per person.

Is it likely that both population and per capita consumption can continue to grow at these historical rates? If so, the doubling of total historical consumption of oil and copper would come even sooner than calculated above.

Although historical estimates of total production for other minerals are hard to find, recent production statistics illustrate that an acceleration is taking place across a wide range of critical metals. Below I compare the increase in the rate of production across time. All information is from the USGS using the latest annual data available, through either 2017 or 2018 ("Present" in the table below).

Increase in Rate of Annual Production in Percent

Metal

% Increase from 2000 to Present

% Increase from 1970 to Present

Aluminum

162%

559%

Cobalt

208%

369%

Indium

113%

944%*

Iron Ore

154%

225%

Lithium

846%

2,539%

Nickel

67%

244%

Silver

54%

197%

Zinc

57%

153%

*1972

Just to be clear, looking at aluminum in the second column, since 1970 the annual rate of production worldwide has gone up 5.59 times. For lithium annual production is now 25.39 times the 1970 rate.

The most quoted sentence in Albert Bartlett's famous lecture Arithmetic, Population and Energy—which he gave 1,742 times during his life—is this, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."

That function is on display in publicly available information about production of key minerals and many other resources we consider critical to our way of life. And, yet it is ignored in plain sight because the governing ideology of the age is that technology will always give us a way out of scarcity—providing the substitutes we need at the time that we need them in the quantities we require and at the prices we can afford.

The flip side of this delusion is the reality that the sustained scarcity of critical inputs to modern industrial society could cascade through our entire worldwide system and cause it to crumble, gradually or quickly depending on the number and nature of the inputs involved.

By Kurt Cobb via Resource Insights 

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Leave a comment
  • DoRight Deikins on July 17 2022 said:
    Anyone who works with trash dumps or storage units would know where much of that over-consumption goes. In fact, one of the fastest growing chains in Latin America sources all its products from US cast-offs (things, not people)!

    I would say: The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand where our joy derives. So many think it comes from things and self, including self-aggrandizement.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on July 18 2022 said:
    Technology has indeed been enhancing the reach of the world for energy resources and vital metals needed for the running of the global economy since the dawn of the modern age. It has until now given us a way out of scarcity—providing the substitutes we need at the time that we need them in the quantities we require and at the prices we can afford.

    Let take oil as an example. Technology has enhanced the recovery factor (RF) of oil resources thus enabling us to extract globally on average 34%-35% thus adding to oil reserves without even drilling one new well. Enhanced oil recovery technology has enabled us to produce more oil even from fast-depleting wells. Saudi giant Ghawar oilfield, the world’s largest, is a case in point.

    But there is a limit to what advances in technology can achieve. It can neither discover what isn’t there nor can it produce what is completely depleted.

    The demand for resources will increasingly continue to be determined by the rise in global population and the growth of the the global economy.

    And while crude oil and gas will continue to drive the global economy throughout the 21st century and probably far beyond, it is virtually impossible for demand to continue to rise exponentially. That is when prices start to hit the stratosphere and the global economy starts its quest for alternatives driven by technology. If not, the world will have to change its way of life altogether.

    Technology will never ever be an absolute answer to scarcity.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert
  • D Meadows on July 19 2022 said:
    my god the hippies were right

Leave a comment




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