Technology versus scarcity: the disturbing reality of exponential growth

Half of all oil consumed since the dawn of the modern oil age in 1859 was consumed from 1998 to 2021 inclusive, based on data available from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. About 1.4 trillion barrels of oil They are believed to have been consumed to date (although there are estimates as low as 1.1 trillion). This means that in the past 24 years alone, total historical oil consumption has doubled.

It’s hard for most people to imagine the huge increases in the rate of consumption of virtually everything that makes modern life possible. Resources appear without most of us wondering how or if increasing 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 US Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that approximately 700 million metric tons of copper have been mined to date. According to the mining statistics of the Copper Development Associationthis means that about half of all the copper ever mined was mined from the year 2000 to 2018 inclusive.

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

For comparison, the world’s population has increased by 32% between 2000 and 2022 to date, based on the US Census Bureau Population Clock and historical data. This means that, at least for these two products, per capita consumption has increased over this period. We don’t become more efficient with these resources per person.

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

While historical estimates of total production for other minerals are difficult to find, recent production statistics show that an acceleration is occurring across a wide range of critical metals. Below I compare the increase in production rate over time. All information is from the USGS using the latest available annual data, up to 2017 or 2018 (“Present” in the table below).

Percent Annual Production Rate Increase

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 increased 5.59 times. For lithium, annual production is now 25.39 times higher than in 1970.

The most quoted phrase in by Albert Bartlett famous conference Arithmetic, population and energy– which he gave 1,742 times in his lifetime – is this, “The greatest fault of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

This function is exposed in publicly available information on the production of key minerals and many other resources that we consider essential to our way of life. And, yet, it is ignored in plain sight because the prevailing ideology of the times is that technology will always give us a way out of scarcity – by providing the substitutes we need when we need them. need in the quantities we need and at the prices we can afford.

The flip side of this illusion is the reality that the enduring scarcity of inputs essential to modern industrial society could ripple through our entire global system and cause it to collapse, gradually or rapidly depending on the number and nature of the inputs involved. .

By Kurt Cobb via Resource overview

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