peak everything: dude, where’s my lifestyle?

mineral audit of current reserves, click for larger

Still dreaming that the planet might one day provide all its citizens with the sort of lifestyle now enjoyed in the west?

Dream on! Why? We're running out of many resources that are key ingredients for this lifestyle, especially including the new green technologies.

Limitations on how much of these materials is available could even mean that some technologies are not worth pursuing long term.

No way, you say? Here's a quick audit of earth's natural wealth (via New Scientist).

(Bear in mind that the annual global consumption of most precious metals is not known with any certainty. Estimating the extractable reserves of many metals is difficult, and some figures are kept a closely guarded secret by mining companies.)

Start with platinum, one of the world's rarest and most expensive metals, which is a vital component of catalytic converters and also fuel cells.

According to Dan Cohen, "if all the 500 million vehicles in use today were re-equipped with fuel cells, operating losses would mean that all the world's sources of platinum would be exhausted within 15 years."

Oh, and, unlike with oil or diamonds, there is no synthetic alternative: platinum is a chemical element, and once we have used it all there is no way on earth of getting any more.

BTW, turns out we're spewing platinum all over our roadways. The catalytic converters that keep exhaust pollutants from cars, trucks and buses down to an acceptable level all use platinum, and over the years it is slowly but steadily lost through these vehicles' exhaust pipes.

So, if ya wanna become a platinum supplier, you might start a street-sweeping business. That's right. Geologist Hazel Pritchard notes that the grime and litter swept up off our streets is laced with traces of platinum, and she is hunting for places where it is concentrated enough to be worth recovering. Her team of collaborating scientists is developing a bacterial process that will efficiently extract the platinum from the dust.

Other resources now being used up at an alarming rate include rare metals such as indium, which is being consumed in unprecedented quantities for making LCDs for flat-screen TVs, and the tantalum needed to make compact electronic devices like cellphones.

Even reserves of such commonplace elements as zinc, copper, nickel and the phosphorus used in fertiliser will run out in the not-too-distant future.

By 2100 global demand for copper will outstrip the amount extractable from the ground.

Says Cohen, without more recycling, antimony, which is used to make flame retardant materials, will run out in 15 years, silver in 10 and indium in under five.

Zinc could be used up by 2037, hafnium - which is increasingly important in computer chips - could be gone by 2017, and terbium - used to make the green phosphors in fluorescent light bulbs - could run out before 2012.

Also, the world has limited current reserves of gallium, which is used to make the semiconducting material at the heart of a new generation of solar cells. One chemist estimates that gallium and indium will probably contribute to less than 1 per cent of all future solar cells, simply due to this lack of raw material.

Cohen's piece provides estimates of the effect that increases in living standards will have on the time it will take for key minerals to run out.

Of course, there are some obvious things we can do to forestall these resource peaks, including minimizing waste, finding substitutes where possible, and recycling the rest.

And, some of these metals could be obtained in unorthodox places. For example, notes Cohen, replacing copper water pipes with plastic, say, would free up large quantities of copper for other uses. Tailings from worked-out mines contain small amounts of minerals that may become economic to extract. Some metals could be taken from seawater.
Oh, and, bear in mind that the US now imports over 90 per cent of its so-called "rare earth" metals from China, according to the US Geological Survey. Does this look like a potential source of conflict to you?

Meanwhile, the world's governments are scrambling to get on top of this resource challenge. Next month an OECD working group will be convened to come up with some of the answers about current reserves.

Ah, good, then! We need not lose any sleep over this (heh).

Published by Ken on June 11th, 2007 tagged Island Vulnerabilities, Systems Thinking

2 Responses to “peak everything: dude, where’s my lifestyle?”

  1. Peak computing? « Computing for Sustainability Says:

    [...] While others focus on prominent issues - peak oil and carbon are particularly obvious right now - we try to stick to a wider interpretation of sustainability. My eyes pricked up then when people starting writing about “peak everything“. This graphic is from a New Scientist article by Armin Reller (University of Augsburg in Germany) and Tom Graedel (Yale) (see also long extract on Richard Dawkin). [...]

  2. AndyK Says:

    I feel the need to balance out my criticisms on the anti-hybrid-hype post ( with some credit-where-credit-is-due. This article has a similar shocking or alarming message, not to mention a great title, and yet I find the discussion much more balanced and, most importantly, focused on solutions. I really like the platinum road-scraping idea, not to mention revisiting old waste streams.

    I have always thought that the next wave of resource speculation will be for old landfill real-estate. Just go look at the shoreline south of Hanamaulu Bay (behind the airport runways), where the ocean is eroding into the hillside of an old dump. Lots of recyclable iron there, if only we recycled iron on this island.