As we exhaust the fossil fuels and minerals of the planet, we face the intertwined devastating threats of depleting the raw materials that have built the modern world, while increasingly suffering from the global warming that their extraction has played a major role in causing. This you will learn clearly when you read Ugo Bardi’s Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet.
The following is an excerpt from Extracted that presents an earth that is running out of minerals to plunder, while global warming accelerates:
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Debates about how to respond to mineral depletion tend to focus on the short term. But let’s try to glimpse a little bit further into the future. We see that we are squeezed between the two complementary problems of resource depletion and ecosystem disruption. Together, these problems are making us become inhabitants of a new planet—one that will have a different climate and will be much poorer in terms of available resources. We also see that there is no obvious way of “solving” these problems as long as we intend to maintain the lifestyles that we have had until now.
Big changes are ahead, but exactly what kind?
Predictions about the future are always difficult to make. However, we can engage in a game of scenario building and try to see at least what kind of alternatives we might be facing. Jorgen Randers described a detailed four-decade scenario in his book 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, in which he describes the possible evolution of a world squeezed between climate change and mineral depletion. Randers’s conclusions are that the change may be gradual and involve some degree of adaptation but that, overall, we’ll fail to react decisively and effectively against the tremendous difficulties we’ll face in terms of climate change, overpopulation, and resource depletion. Randers’s work is just an illustration of the many ways of seeing the future. Such attempts at predicting the future are fraught with difficulty, but they can be worthwhile if we don’t attempt to make detailed predictions. Long-term trends, on the other hand, can be identified and analyzed.
Here, without establishing a specific time frame, we can look to a future in which the present problems will have played out their effects and the planet will have reached some kind of equilibrium after the great storm created by the industrial age. It could be a few centuries from now, or even much earlier than that.
First, it may be that one of the two problems (climate change and the associated ecosystem destruction) becomes so big and so intractable that it dominates the future. That might happen if the various enhancing feedbacks that govern the Earth’s climate go out of control and shove the planet into a vastly different climatic state. One extreme is the so-called Venus scenario, as described, for instance, in James Hansen’s book Storms of My Grandchildren. In this case a runaway greenhouse effect would sterilize Earth, with temperatures at several hundred degrees Celsius and an atmosphere composed mainly of CO2, like the planet Venus. Obviously humans couldn’t survive that.
Even if the reality were less extreme, we could see a “post-Permian” climate situation, with tropical temperatures of about 50 to 60°C. In such a case humans could survive only in the extreme northern and southern continental regions, in conditions completely different from the present ones. Humans might even find themselves inhabiting places such as a Greenland free of ice or even Antarctica.60 We might find a way in such a future to adapt to these conditions. But in this scenario, the decline of humans would be so dramatic that our lifestyle may become similar to that of our ancestors of hundreds of thousands of years ago. Richard Duncan called this possibility the Olduvai scenario, from the name of the African valley where fossils of our remote ancestors have been found.
There are elements that may make the Venus scenario physically impossible or at least extremely unlikely. The same cannot be said for the post-Permian scenario, since we know that such conditions did occur on the Earth in the past. However, although extreme warming scenarios cannot be ruled out, they are not necessarily our future. Ecosystem collapse is not unavoidable; it is a consequence of human actions. Even though we aren’t currently acting to avoid it, we could choose to do something to mitigate the problem, or we could be forced to do so, although unwilling, by the depletion of all mineral resources and in particular of fossil fuels. So the consequences of climate change might not be so terrible as some extreme scenarios describe them.
Though we might be able to avoid the worst in terms of climate disruption, something that is truly unavoidable in our future is the disappearance of high-grade ores and the dispersal of the elements they contained all over the planet in forms that cannot be recovered—at least not without enormous energy costs. So what kind of future can we expect as the result of ore depletion?
One possibility is that we simply return to a purely agrarian society as the result of the disappearance of fossil fuels and the consequent disappearance of the energy needed to run an industrial society. After all, the world’s economy was purely agrarian just a few centuries ago, and the big flaring up of fossil fuels could turn out to be just a short-lived episode—a peculiar moment of energy availability that generated a lot of commotion and movement but abated rapidly, returning humans to the condition that had been normal in the past ten thousand years or so. In 1976 Marion King Hubbert had already shown the world’s fossil fuel consumption as a short-lived spike in a paper titled “Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History.”
Again, this is a scenario that cannot be ruled out. A future agricultural civilization would have to cope with badly depleted soil resources left by the ruthless exploitation of a few centuries of the industrial age. But soil can reform, although it takes centuries, and such a civilization would eventually find a form of equilibrium, probably with a population much smaller than the present one. If it is any consolation, our descendants would not need the large amounts of resources that our society needs now. Just as people in the Middle Ages mined the remnants of Roman buildings to get iron and stone, our agrarian descendants would have plenty of metals from what we left: aluminum from our beverage cans, gold from our jewelry, copper from our pipes. They would also have plenty of iron and steel from our buildings and all other manner of stuff that we leave behind. Today we produce more than a billion tons of steel per year, but in Napoleon’s time that figure was less than a million tons per year. Just using the iron we have produced and dispersed over the planet, our descendants could happily forge swords and plows (and perhaps also muskets and cannons) for tens of thousands of years.
Such a society would be poor compared to our standards. The surplus of energy produced by agriculture is small in comparison to what the opulent industrial society is accustomed to. In a purely agrarian society, the availability of charcoal, from scarce wood resources, would limit the ability to smelt metals, to build machinery, and to create all the structures that have made possible today’s complex society. With these limits, this future society would be a low-technology system based mainly on human and animal labor. That wouldn’t necessarily be so bad: after all, when Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa and Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, each was living in a purely agrarian society. But would such a society ever be able to restart an industrial revolution? Possibly not, since it would not have the same low-cost coal that started the industrial revolution a few centuries ago. But who can say? Maybe there are other ways to create a complex society.
Copyright 2014 by Chelsea Green Publishing. Cannot be be reproduced without permission of the publisher.