“Truth is like poetry.
And most people fucking hate poetry.”
Adam McKay, The Big Short
— We will never run out of minerals, or petroleum for that matter. There is an ample amount of these resources in Earth’s crust, actually more than we could ever extract.
— Phew! Are we saved then?
— Well, this was the truth part. Now it’s time for some poetry.
In order to have a better understanding of our world and to have at least a chance at gaining an insight into our future, we must understand some simple facts pertaining to the basis of our modern high tech civilization. How, and thanks to what technology, can we feed 8 billion people? How can 1 billion of us live so decently, surrounded by all the bells and whistles this civilization has to offer? Is this going to last forever? Can it last forever…?
Let’s start with a basic fact of life: we live off of what we pull out of the ground. Literally. From potatoes to microchips, everything we touch, eat, use and burn comes from under the ground. Plants take up nutrients like nitrates, potassium and phosphorus from the soil and turn them into edible food. Drilling rigs bore holes thousands of feet deep to bring up oil and natural gas to the surface. Excavators tear up the ground and haul rocks to a truck, which carries them into a refinery or a smelter. There they magically turn into clean metal sheets and slabs, Portland cement, glass or silicon monocrystals. Machines, equipment, building materials, consumer goods are then get built and manufactured from these raw materials.
Everything we touch, eat, wear, use then throw away has its origins under our feet. No exceptions.
Up until fairly recently, for the last 3 million years of our existence as primates on Earth at least, we depended on what Nature had to offer. What plants took up with their roots and converted into food with their leaves. We ate their fruits and the animals feeding on them. All this was part of a natural circulation, where dust became plants, plants became us, and we became dust. All the organisms supporting this endless cycle were there long before us, from bacteria to bees, from grass to grazing herds. Nothing needed to be “solved”, “saved” or “tackled”. It just worked, for millions and millions of years. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked.
Then came the idea to tore up the land, kill all its inhabitants and propagate the seeds of a single plant species to feed no one else but us. We even had a name for this radical new technology: grain agriculture. We did this for a couple of millennia in boom and bust cycles as we depleted Nature then collapsed, predictably. Then came someone called Thomas Malthus who has realized the prime reason behind: we have a limited area where we can do agriculture, while people have an unlimited propensity to procreate (not least because a child could help to grow more food than he or she ate). You can call this an inconvenient truth, a sword of Damocles hanging over pre-industrial Britain, but what most people did instead is to call this “Malthusian thinking”, bragging how his views have been discredited by “progress”. His name has become a convenient thought stopper. Limits, however, did not disappear because of our denial.
What limits?! Are you a Malthusian, or what?!
What in fact has happened, is that we’ve found a way to break away from the natural cycle of nutrients, previously imposing a limit on how many people can be fed by a given land area. But only temporarily. We have achieved all this fantastic growth in our population and well being by digging up large accumulations of minerals with the power of fossil fuels. Of course, we have started with the easiest stuff to shovel: guano, aka bird poop which we have spread on our lands as fertilizer. It worked: yields increased, and the population “problem” was solved. So we wanted more. We dug a little deeper — cleansing entire islands of life in search for more solidified turd — until we’ve suddenly found ourselves converting massive amounts of natural gas into ammonia, as we have started to ran low on the original substance. By refining potash and phosphate rock, and adding them to nitrates, the perfect synthetic fertilizer was ready to double or even quadruple harvests all around the globe. “Progress” and “human ingenuity” has saved the day, once more.
In our exuberance we haven’t realized that we were living on what ecologist Catton called: ‘ghost acreage’. All this boom in harvests were like doubling the land area we had for growing food. It was like we have suddenly discovered another planet to grow food on. All this, however, was not a result of natural cycles, but something entirely dependent on fossil fuels (natural gas, diesel) and a set of mineral rocks; literally flooding the world with nutrients previously locked up in rocks. There was a minor “problem” though: in the process we have become reliant on a finite set of resources, which were unable to regenerate themselves.
“Why is this a problem? Earth’s crust is 30–70 km thick and full of minerals! We will never run out of any of this stuff. We just need to find a way to extract them.”
This is all true. There is a subtle, fine poetic touch hidden from plain sight, though: not all resources have been created equal. We have (or rather, used to have) a few reserves with exceptionally high quality, easy to mine, close to the surface minerals. Like guano atop a nice island. All we needed was a shovel and a cart. Not unlike the case with early coal seams, ponds of petroleum, or copper nuggets lying around near rivers and streams. Now all of this prime stuff is gone: cleaned up to the very last bit.
Then came the trickier ones. Mines got deeper. Water had to be pumped out and removed. Rocks needed to be blasted away. The resource quality also got poorer: it gave less heat per unit, contained less copper per ton. Substituting depleted good resources with slightly worse ones, in a subtle incremental way, or expanding current operations to dig up the drags was where things headed. A trend which has haven’t stopped ever since. In fact, it has only accelerated.
Truth to the matter, the distribution of mineral resources on the surface (and below the surface) of this planet share the same trait without exception. There is very little high grade stuff, some more mid-grade minerals, and a hell-of-a-lot low grade, dispersed, hard to find, hard to mine material. So, while on average Earth’s crust is full of mineral resources, most of it is so diluted and mixed up with so much other stuff, that we will never even bother touching them. Take a look at Uranium for example:
The real “problem” is, that the same is true for all of the resources we depend upon for dear life. Potash. Phosphate rock. Fossil fuels. Copper. Lithium. You name it. The very energy we need to keep on mining the planet, be it in the form of food for human workers, diesel fuel for their trucks and excavators or copper used in electrification, is coming from mineral resources all facing the same dismal fate. Sure, there are still a lot of them, but most are in a very diluted form, located in small deposits and dispersed across a large area. We are in the process of eating up the high grade, concentrated stuff at a rapacious pace, and moving towards ever lower quality ores and fuels. That is why the energy needed to mine and refine a unit of mineral ore doubles every few decades, and since this means we are facing an exponential rise in demand, we are in for some rather “unexpected” surprises. Note, how this is a predicament with an outcome, and not a “problem” with a solution.
There is no energy without minerals, and there are no minerals without energy.
Sounds like a trap for you? Well, as long as fossil fuels provided enough surplus energy to power not only their continued extraction, but the build-out of an industrial civilization with all its infrastructure, buildings, factories and workers (all fed by high quality minerals from the mining industry), this huge blob we call the economy has just kept growing larger and larger. Rich deposits in the core industrial countries were slowly depleted as they were converted into a range of products and citizens, though, and got gradually replaced with imports from impoverished and disempowered “third world” nations.
Depletion knows no borders though. If you can run low on a resource in a country, then you can be sure as hell, that you will eventually run low of it in another country as well. Another great example for this is the 2023 Critical Materials List, released by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which evaluated materials for their criticality to global “clean energy” technology supply chains. If you take a look at the two charts (one for short term, the other for long term risks) you can clearly see the pattern: minerals get rarer and ever more critical, not the other way around. The reason is simple: rich deposits slowly deplete everywhere, while demand just keeps growing and growing ever larger and larger. Do you still wonder why we have an inflation problem, or a ballooning national debt crisis?
Those who did not pay attention, or rather still keep denying that we are in a predicament, might ask why don’t we give out more mining permits? Opening more mines takes more energy, especially when we plan to mine poor quality resources — no matter how we power them. Extracting more energy to fuel all this activity, plus building the necessary infrastructure, manufacturing all the machines, railways, bridges, power plants does the same, though: takes even more energy and metals. Financing all this mining activity would take exponentially rising prices for metals and an infinite supply of both cheap energy and subsidies for the industry to compensate the resulting run-away inflation.
Needless to say, this is absurd. Even if we had a working fusion reactor already, we would still needed to build those subsequent reactors, produce all that cement, steel, niobium-titan wires and all the technological bells and whistles needed by such a plant — all from an ever faster degrading metal (especially copper) reserve and plummeting surplus energy from the existing energy supply and use system.
What used to be a virtuous cycle of high grade ores extracted by high grade fossil energy in the middle of the 20th century, has slowly reached a screeching halt by 2019. Now, the process has started to morph into a vicious cycle, where we try to extract raw materials (taking an exponentially increasing amount of energy to get) with a rapidly failing energy system.
For those who still think that this is pure hyperbole, and that things cannot be that bad, here are some stark reminders. In 2020 the weight of human made stuff has surpassed the weight of all things living on this planet (here is a great visualization). All of this was mined fairly recently: thanks to exponential growth (a perfect fit for the past century) we were doubling this amount every 20 years, so half of all this simply wasn’t there two decades ago. For the next doubling, this means, that we would need to mine, refine and smelt the same amount of materials as we did during the course of the entire human history. Even a small change in energy demand (due to ever lower resource quality) makes a colossal difference here.
Folks, we are running up against a hockey stick curve here.
It should not come as a surprise then, that the offshore wind industry (the most metals and resource intensive of all “renewables”) is now experiencing a financial crisis of its own as a result. If I may venture a guess, the next one will be the electric vehicle business. The image of a lake holding abundant resources on the horizon (‘Look how much metal Earth’s crust contains!’) is now slowly proving to be nothing more than a mirage. While optimists keep saying that all we need is to open a new mine or tweak a little on how we extract those metals, they miss the point entirely that all this would take an exponential increase in energy and material use in an increasingly energy and material deprived world (i.e. it’s not gonna fly).
For every voice (Nate Hagens, Simon Michaux, Dr Louis Arnoux and many others) who are actually working with governments on the topic of understanding material and energetic limits to our endeavors, however, there are a thousand other voices touting there is nothing to worry about. ‘Just give us that mining permit.’ ‘Just let us bomb that country into obedience.’ ‘Just grant that subsidy to our business.’ ‘Just let us continue business as usual… and all will be fine.’
No, it won’t be fine. The jig’s up. It’s high time for some serious reckoning, so at least we know what is actually putting an end to this civilization, before we nuke each other into oblivion.
Until next time,