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There Is More to It than Oil

The end of our industrial lifestyle paradigm will be dictated by Liebig's Law, and by humanity's response to its consequences. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know at this point which increasingly scarce nonrenewable natural resource (NNR) or NNR combination will ultimately prove to be industrialized humanity's limiting factor.

Consequently, humanity's global societal collapse may be triggered by scarcity associated with one or more NNRs other than those commonly considered "most critical" to the perpetuation of our industrial lifestyle paradigm—fossil fuels, or oil specifically. After all, the space shuttle Challenger disaster was caused by a faulty o-ring.

NNR Scarcity

Many analysts of nonrenewable natural resource (NNR) scarcity focus on fossil fuels specifically, or on oil exclusively. From their perspective, energy—or "liquid energy" (oil)—is the primary or sole enabler of our industrial lifestyle paradigm; and energy scarcity is the greatest imminent threat to our industrialized way of life.

Totally overlooked or given only passing mention by these analysts are the metals and nonmetallic minerals that serve as the building blocks for the infrastructure, machinery, tools, and products that enable our industrialized way of life. If fact, of the 89 NNRs that enable our industrial lifestyle paradigm, 86 are metals and nonmetallic minerals; 3 are fossil fuels.

While the criticality associated with the 89 NNRs varies, each plays an important role in enabling the lifestyles to which we in the industrialized West feel entitled, to which billions in industrializing nations aspire, and to which scarcity associated metals and nonmetallic minerals, especially in combination, will be equally as disruptive as will scarcity associated with fossil fuels.

Metal and Nonmetallic Mineral Scarcity

Such disruptions became painfully evident at the inception of our Great Recession in 2008, by which time 59 of the 86 metals and nonmetallic minerals that enable our industrial lifestyle paradigm had become scarce globally.

(An NNR was considered scarce globally in 2008 in the event that globally available NNR supplies between the years 2000 and 2008 were insufficient to prevent an inflation adjusted NNR price level increase during the 2000-2008 period. In such cases, the 2008 globally available, economically viable NNR supply was insufficient to completely address the 2008 global NNR requirement.)

Among the globally scarce metals and minerals in 2008:

Selected Globally Scarce Metals

 

Metal


2000-2008
Price Increase


 

Critical
Applications

Chromium


266%

Stainless steel, super alloy in jet engines and gas turbines

Copper


190%

Thermal and electrical conducting applications, including super-conducting; metal
alloy; and antibacterial applications; essential to all plant and animal life

Iron Ore


132%

The only feedstock for iron and steel

Magnesium


99%

Structural applications (aluminum alloy) in cars, aerospace equipment, electronic
devices, and beverage cans; die casting (zinc alloy); desulfurization of
iron/steel; reducing agent (uranium production); and titanium production

Manganese


227%

Aluminum, iron, and steel alloy (stainless steel); gasoline additive; pigment;
(disposable) dry cell batteries; required by all living organisms

Molybdenum


795%

Alloy and superalloy in aircraft parts electrical contacts, industrial motors and
tool steels; catalyst; lubricant; fertilizer; adhesive; and pigment; required
element in higher life forms

Tin


145%

Alloy (in bronze, pewter, and solder), anti-corrosive metal coating, food
packaging, manufacture of window glass, and superconducting magnets

Tungsten


239%

High temperature electrical and electronic applications such as incandescent light
bulb filaments, rocket engines (nozzles), and turbine blades; fabrication of
cutting and wear-resistant materials; x-ray tubes, wear-resistant and high
temperature alloys and superalloys; armaments; and catalyst

Uranium


215%

Fuel in the nuclear power industry, weapons (including high density penetrators),
and dating rocks and fossils

Vanadium


547%

Iron and steel alloy, high speed tool steels, catalyst in the production of
sulfuric acid, superconducting magnets, and surgical instruments

Data Source: USGS

Selected Globally Scarce Nonmetallic Minerals

Nonmetallic Mineral


2000-2008
Price Increase


 

Critical
Applications

Clays


25%

Bricks, ceramics, tile, refractory agents, and sealants

Fluorspar


39%

Hydrofluoric acid, as the feedstock for fluorine bearing chemicals (refrigerant and
thermoplastic applications); processing aluminum and uranium; water
fluoridation; and petroleum refining

Graphite


24%

High technology applications—composites (carbon fibers), electronics, lubricants,
batteries and fuel cells—and refractory applications

Gypsum


115%

Wallboard, plaster, and cement; also used as a soil conditioner

Phosphate
Rock


145%

Primary component of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) fertilizers, which are
indispensible to modern agriculture; animal feed supplements; and industrial
chemicals

Potash


230%

Primary component of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) fertilizers, which
are indispensible to modern agriculture; used in manufacturing soaps, glass,
ceramics, chemical dyes, drugs, synthetic rubber, de-icing agents, water
softeners, and explosives

Sand
& Gravel


71%

Industrial sand and gravel are used in glassmaking, hydraulic fracturing applications,
foundries (casting), as an abrasive (sandblasting), on icy highways, and
water filtration

Sulfur


750%

Production of sulphuric acid, the world's most widely produced and used inorganic
chemical; fertilizer and fertilizer production (phosphate extraction); black
gunpowder, matches, insecticides, and fungicides; essential element in living
organisms

Data Source: USGS

By the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, metal and nonmetallic mineral producers were finding it increasingly difficult to bring online sufficient economically viable supplies to completely address global requirements—despite the fact that the price levels associated with the vast majority of metals and nonmetallic minerals trended upward since the year 2000 or before.

By 2008, the earth could no longer keep pace with ever-increasing global metal and nonmetallic mineral requirements. Sufficient quantities could not be physically extracted from the earth in a timely and cost-effective manner to perpetuate global pre-recession economic output (GDP) levels and growth trajectories—the vast majority of metals and minerals, in addition to the three fossil fuels, had become scarce globally.

The Great Recession—which should be understood more broadly as an ecological phenomenon rather than simply as an economic phenomenon—ensued.

The Total NNR Scarcity Story

It could be argued that in the absence of sufficient fossil fuels, the earth's metals and nonmetallic minerals could not be used to enable our industrial lifestyle paradigm. It could just as easily be argued that in the absence of sufficient metals and nonmetallic minerals, the earth's fossil fuels would be equally as useless in enabling our industrialized way of life.

The point is that all NNRs are important; and while coal, natural gas, and oil are certainly indispensible to the perpetuation of our industrial lifestyle paradigm, all NNRs must be taken into account when considering humanity's future.

Consider that even if we are somehow able to solve our "liquid fuels problem", or more broadly, our "energy problem", we will not resolve humanity's predicament—i.e., our industrial lifestyle paradigm is unsustainable. Most metals and nonmetallic minerals will become increasingly scarce going forward, thereby undermining our industrial lifestyle paradigm within the next few decades—even if energy is unlimited and free.

And ironically, because many of the metals and nonmetallic minerals that are critical elements of our prospective "alternative energy solutions" are scarce as well—see the following table—it is almost inconceivable that sufficient economically viable supplies of these metals and nonmetallic minerals will remain available to solve our energy problem.

 

Globally Scarce Metals and Nonmetallic Minerals in 2008

 

NNR


NNR
Price Levels


2000


2008


Change

Aluminum


$1,550


$2,020


30%

Antimony


$1,360


$4,670


243%

Asbestos


$163


$565


247%

Barite


$44


$54


23%

Beryllium


$152,000


$265,000


74%

Bismuth


$7,720


$21,200


175%

Bromine


$852


$1,120


31%

Cadmium


$343


$4,480


1206%

Cement


$74


$78


5%

Chromium


$721


$2,640


266%

Clays


$18


$22


25%

Cobalt


$28,100


$51,800


84%

Copper


$1,840


$5,330


190%

Fluorspar


$118


$164


39%

Gold


$8,530,000


$21,200,000


149%

Graphite


$506


$625


24%

Gypsum


$14


$31


115%

Hafnium


$177,000


$260,000


47%

Indium


$178


$519


192%

Iodine


$13,800


$16,300


18%

Iron Ore


$24


$57


132%

Iron
and Steel


108


221


105%

Kyanite


$210


$232


10%

Lead


$910


$2,010


121%

Lime


$57


$70


22%

Magnesium
Comp


$384


$391


2%

Magnesium
Metal


$2,640


$5,260


99%

Manganese


$551


$1,800


227%

Mercury


$4,260


$13,200


210%

Mica
Scrap/Flake


$317


$388


22%

Molybdenum


$5,330


$47,700


795%

Nickel


$8,180


$16,000


96%

Niobium


$19,700


$27,773


41%

Nitrogen
(Ammonia)


$145


$405


179%

Perlite


$32


$36


14%

Phosphate
Rock


$24


$59


145%

Potash


$147


$485


230%

REMs


$6,110


$9,160


50%

Rhenium


$873,000


$1,540,000


76%

Salt


$23


$28


25%

Sand
& Gravel (Con)


$5


$6


24%

Sand
& Gravel (Ind)


$14


$23


71%

Selenium


$8,020


$53,900


572%

Silicon


$1,080


$1,720


59%

Silver


$162,000


$398,000


146%

Soda
Ash


$69


$102


48%

Stone
(Crushed)


$5


$7


39%

Strontium


$830


$942


13%

Sulfur


$23


$199


750%

Thallium


$1,230,000


$3,710,000


202%

Thorium


$78,100


$151,000


93%

Tin


$7,730


$18,900


145%

Titanium
Concentrate


$94


$111


18%

Titanium
Metal


$8,240


$11,800


43%

Tungsten


$7,840


$26,600


239%

Uranium


$11


$33


215%

Vanadium


$6,780


$43,900


547%

Zinc


$1,160


$1,480


28%

Zirconium


$355


$597


68%

Data Source: USGS (Prices are yearly averages per metric ton and are inflation adjusted)

Note that the fossil fuels were scarce globally in 2008 as well!

Global Fossil Fuel Scarcity in 2008

 

NNR


NNR Price
Levels


2000


2008


Change

Coal
(ST)


$19


$29


52%

Natural
Gas (000 CF)


$3.37


$8.63


156%

Oil
(BBL)


$29


$101


244%

Data Source: EIA (Prices are yearly averages and are inflation adjusted)

Energy is certainly an essential enabler of humanity's industrial lifestyle paradigm; and fossil fuels are certainly humanity's major sources of primary energy. But fossil fuels are only part of the NNR scarcity story, and focusing on fossil fuel scarcity or oil scarcity to the exclusion of metal and nonmetallic mineral scarcity is myopic at best and tragically misguided at worst.

Editorial Notes: Chris Clugston Bio Since 2006, I have conducted extensive independent research into the area of “sustainability”, with a focus on nonrenewable natural resource (NNR) scarcity. NNRs are the fossil fuels, metals, and nonmetallic minerals that enable our modern industrial existence. I have sought to quantify from a combined ecological and economic perspective the extent to which America and humanity are living unsustainably beyond our means, and to articulate the causes, magnitude, implications, and consequences associated with our “predicament”. My previous work experience includes thirty years in the high technology electronics industry, primarily with information technology sector companies. I held management level positions in marketing, sales, finance, and M&A, prior to becoming a corporate chief executive and later a management consultant. I received an AB/Political Science, Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Penn State University, and an MBA/Finance with High Distinction from Temple University. [email protected]

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