Ladies and Gentlemen: In this corner, we have Homo sapiens, the ingenious species that currently dominates Earth’s planetary ecosystem and that, owing to its ever-increasing utilization of finite and non-replenishing nonrenewable natural resources (NNRs), has increased extraordinarily both its population level and material living standards since the inception of its industrial revolution.
And in this corner, we have Nature, impartial keeper of the natural order, the inviolable laws governing the biogeochemical processes and phenomena that enable all of existence, including human existence.
The contestants are engaged in a no-holds-barred, winner-take-all fight to the finish. Will human ingenuity prevail, thereby enabling Homo sapiens to become the only species ever to conquer Nature? Or will Nature emerge triumphant by holding Homo sapiens accountable for its unsustainable natural resource utilization behavior?
Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen.
Nonrenewable Natural Resources—The Enablers
Our modern industrialized existence is enabled almost exclusively by enormous and ever-increasing quantities of nonrenewable natural resources (NNRs)1—the finite and non-replenishing fossil fuels, metals, and nonmetallic minerals that serve as:
• the raw material inputs to our industrialized economies;
• the building blocks that comprise our industrialized infrastructure and support systems; and
• the primary energy sources that power our industrialized societies.
NNRs play three essential roles in enabling our industrial lifestyle paradigm.
• NNRs enable renewable natural resources (RNRs)—air, water, soil, forests, and other naturally occurring biota—to be used in ways and at levels that are necessary to support the extraordinary population levels and material living standards associated with industrialized human societies. Examples include water storage/distribution systems, food production/distribution systems, and energy generation/distribution systems, which would support only a negligible fraction of today’s global human population in the absence of NNRs.
• NNRs enable the production and provisioning of infrastructure, goods, and energy that are inconceivable through the exclusive utilization of RNRs. Examples include cars, airplanes, computers, skyscrapers, highway systems, gasoline stations, communication networks, electric power grids, and nuclear power plants.
• NNRs enable the creation of enormous real wealth surpluses, which are necessary to support the thriving middle-class population segments that differentiate industrialized societies from pre-industrial, RNR-based, agrarian, and hunter-gatherer societies.
Within the context of our industrial lifestyle paradigm, human prosperity2—defined by economic output and material living standards—is enabled by NNRs.
NNRs → Human Prosperity
(Economic Output and Material Living Standards)
Examples of the critical role played by NNRs in enabling human prosperity:
• NNRs comprise approximately 95 percent of the raw material inputs to the United States economy each year.3 • During 2006, America used over 7.1 billion tons of newly mined NNRs, which equated to nearly 48,000 pounds per U.S. citizen.4
The tightly-linked causal relationship between NNR utilization and economic output (GDP) is clearly demonstrated by America’s experience since the inception of its industrial revolution.
Figure 1. 1800–2008 U.S. NNR utilization and GDP
Between the years 1800 and 2008, total U.S. NNR utilization increased by over 1,600 times, from 4 million tons to 6.5 billion tons. As a result of this spectacular increase in NNR utilization, the size of the U.S. economy (GDP) increased equally as spectacularly, by nearly 1,800 times, from $7.4 billion in 1800 to $13.2 trillion in 2008.5, 6, 7
Remarkably, the correlation between the increase in U.S. NNR utilization and the increase in U.S. economic output (GDP) during the past two hundred–plus years is nearly one-to-one.
Despite recycling, reuse, conservation, substitution, efficiency improvements, productivity enhancements, and technical innovation, global NNR production (newly mined extraction) has increased extraordinarily during our modern industrial era.
As the following data demonstrate, annual global NNR production levels associated with the most critical NNRs have increased enormously in just the past generation (thirty years).8
Table 1. Annual global NNR production (metric tons unless otherwise specified)
Moreover, we believe without question that annual global NNR production levels will continue to increase as required for the indefinite future.
We have yet to understand that while there will always be plenty of NNRs in the ground (we will never “run out” of any NNR), and over the near term there will likely be more NNRs of nearly every type supplied each year, in an increasing number of cases there are not enough economically viable NNRs to completely address our global requirements—i.e., to increase global prosperity at a rate that we consider “acceptable.”9
Global NNR scarcity is becoming increasingly prevalent.
NNR Scarcity: Shifting Global Demand/Supply Dynamics
Humanity’s incessant quest for universal “Western style” prosperity through global industrialization caused fundamental shifts in global NNR demand/supply dynamics during the latter decades of the twentieth century.
• On the “demand side,” approximately one billion people occupied industrialized and industrializing nations during the mid/late twentieth century.10 By the year 2000, as a consequence of the industrialization initiatives launched by China, India, Brazil, and other emerging nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, that number had increased to over five billion.
As a result, global NNR requirements increased nearly instantaneously and extraordinarily during the early years of the new millennium. More important, early twenty-first century NNR utilization levels within the newly industrializing nations represented only tiny fractions of their longer-term requirements.
• On the “supply side,” owing to persistent and increasing exploitation11 since the beginning of our industrial revolution, the quality associated with the vast majority of NNRs has been decreasing—i.e., global NNR discoveries and deposits are generally fewer in number, smaller in size, less accessible, and of lower grade and purity.12 Increasingly, the cost advantages derived from new NNR exploration, extraction, and processing technologies are failing to offset the cost disadvantages attributable to exploiting Earth’s lower-quality NNR deposits. The result is diminishing returns on NNR-related investments—that is, each incremental dollar invested in NNR exploitation yields smaller quantities of economically viable NNRs.13
Global NNR supplies, which had generally remained sufficiently “low cost” during the mid/late twentieth century to enable relatively low price levels, became increasingly “high cost” during the early years of the twenty-first century.
Owing to rapidly increasing global NNR demand during this period, we were forced to exploit lower quality NNRs. Unfortunately, human ingenuity—i.e., technology, resourcefulness, innovation, efficiency improvements, and productivity enhancements—could not constrain the escalating costs associated with exploiting these lower quality NNRs.
Epidemic Global NNR Scarcity
By the year 2008, immediately prior to the Great Recession, costs (and prices) associated with most NNRs had increased to levels that were unprecedented during our modern industrial age. Global NNR scarcity had become epidemic.14 In fact, sixty-three of the eighty-nine NNRs that enable our modern industrialized existence—including aluminum, chromium, coal, copper, gypsum, iron/steel, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, natural gas, oil, phosphate rock, potash, rare-earth minerals, titanium, tungsten, uranium, vanadium, and zinc—were scarce globally in 2008.15
Fueled by incessant central government fiscal stimulus (unrepayable debt) and central bank monetary stimulus (money printing and interest-rate suppression) since the Great Recession, the industrialized and industrializing nations of the world have attempted to recover economically and restore prerecession prosperity.
Despite this historically unprecedented economic “pump priming,” however, repeated postrecession recovery attempts have failed, as global NNR demand was throttled in each case by increasing and/or inordinately high NNR prices. Global NNR scarcity and economic malaise have persisted through 2014.16
And while it remains unclear at this time whether our current episode of global NNR scarcity will prove to be temporary or permanent, it is clear that our early twenty-first–century experience with NNR scarcity is a precursor of things to come.
During our modern industrial era but increasingly over the past several decades, continuously decreasing NNR quality has prevailed over human ingenuity.17 That is, significant cost increases associated with NNRs of continuously decreasing quality have overwhelmed human technology, resourcefulness, innovation, efficiency improvements, and productivity enhancements.
Our enormous and ever-increasing global NNR requirements within the context of lower quality/higher cost (less affordable) global NNR supplies have brought about increasingly prevalent NNR scarcity, which has caused faltering global prosperity.
Increasing NNR Scarcity → Faltering Prosperity
In less than half a century, global humanity has experienced a transition from robustly increasing prosperity to anemically increasing prosperity.18 We are “rolling over” from our old normal of “continuously more and more” to our new normal of “continuously less and less.”19
Figure 2. Historical global prosperity growth trajectories
Humanity’s fate was sealed during the eighteenth century with the advent of industrialism; the NNR genie had been released from the bottle and could not be put back. We remained oblivious to our fate throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by misconstruing our windfall of temporary NNR abundance as permanent NNR sufficiency.20
What Happens Next?
The probability that we will discover and extract sufficient high quality/low cost NNRs to reverse our faltering global prosperity trajectory is infinitesimal—given that we have failed to do so during the past fifty years despite unparalleled human ingenuity during that time, and given that our global NNR requirements remain enormous and are still increasing in almost all cases.
While temporary upticks in national and global prosperity growth rates are certainly possible during the near term, a return to persistently robust global economic growth and rapidly improving material living standards is nearly impossible.21
The episode of epidemic global NNR scarcity that we are experiencing during the twenty-first century is Nature’s wake-up call to the fact that our industrial lifestyle paradigm—the way of life that we in the industrialized West consider “normal”—is anything but normal. Our NNR–enabled industrialized existence is a onetime anomaly that is coming to an end.
Humanity’s Destiny: The ‘Squeeze’ Is On
Picture a vise tightening around the collective skulls of humanity in a relentless, remorseless “squeeze.” The handle of the vise turns at only 1/1000th of a revolution per day, which causes incremental pain that is almost imperceptible on a day-to-day basis.
Over a ten-year period of time, however, the vise handle makes more than three complete revolutions; over twenty years, more than seven revolutions; and over thirty years, more than ten revolutions. While the exact timing cannot be known with certainty, somewhere along the way, humanity will crack.
The sad irony is that through our unsustainable natural resource utilization behavior—i.e., our continuous utilization of enormous quantities of finite, non-replenishing, and increasingly scarce NNRs—it is we ourselves who are turning the handle!
The sadder irony is that we have no choice—in order to perpetuate our industrialized existence, we must persist in our unsustainable natural resource utilization behavior, thereby continuing to turn the handle!
Regrettably, because the natural resource utilization behavior that enables our “success”—our industrial lifestyle paradigm—is simultaneously undermining our very existence, we Homo sapiens are both the inadvertent perpetrators of our self-inflicted predicament and the unwitting victims of our self-inflicted demise. . . .
It would be convenient if humanity’s inevitable unraveling would commence in one thousand years, or five hundred years, or even fifty years. We could then dismiss it as a concern for future generations and continue to enjoy our industrialized way of life in the meantime. Unfortunately, our unraveling is occurring now.22
Should currently declining global prosperity growth trajectories persist going forward, both global economic output and global material living standards will peak and enter terminal decline prior to mid-century.23
Figure 3. Projected global prosperity growth trajectories
Irrespective, however, of humanity’s actual unraveling scenario,24 the ultimate outcome will be the same. Global competition for increasingly scarce nonrenewable and renewable natural resources will devolve into resource wars, which will devolve into global societal collapse through an ecological/economic/societal chain of events that is being driven by ever-increasing, geologically induced, global NNR scarcity.25
Historically Unprecedented Global Requirements for Finite and Non-replenishing NNRs, Within the Context of NNR Supplies of Continuously Decreasing Quality *
Diminishing Returns on Investments in NNR Exploitation →
Persistently High/Increasing NNR Cost/Price Levels →
Stagnating/Decreasing NNR Demand/Utilization Levels →
Stagnating/Decreasing Economic Output Levels →
Stagnating/Decreasing Material Living Standards →
Increasing Economic, Political, and Social Instability/ Unrest/Conflict →
Collapsing National Economies followed by Global Societal Collapse
The “squeeze” is on, as evidenced by persistent global economic malaise, increasing global political instability, and escalating global social unrest. The disenfranchised (the hundreds of millions who have attained some level of industrialized prosperity and are watching it slip away) and the denied (the billions who aspired to industrialized prosperity and are realizing that they will never attain it) are becoming increasingly frustrated, angry, and violent.26
The Winner, and Still Champion . . .
Were we truly the wise species that the name Homo sapiens implies, we would understand that our recent era of vigorously increasing global prosperity27 was enabled by temporarily abundant and affordable supplies of finite and non-replenishing NNRs, most of which are now becoming increasingly scarce and expensive.
We would also understand that our persistent global economic malaise, increasing global political instability, and escalating global social unrest are merely symptoms and manifestations of faltering global prosperity, which is a consequence of ever-increasing global NNR scarcity.
We could then refrain from wasting additional time and resources pursuing irrelevant economic, political, and social “fixes” to our geologically based predicament. Rather, we could focus our energies on optimizing our species’ inevitable transition to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm.28
Regrettably, because it is inconceivable to us that continuously decreasing NNR quality (Nature) will ultimately triumph over human ingenuity, we will fail to acknowledge these inconvenient truths. We will not, therefore, mitigate voluntarily our unsustainable natural resource utilization behavior, much less eliminate it entirely.
Rather, we will intensify our exploitation of fossil fuels, metals, and nonmetallic minerals in order to perpetuate our industrial lifestyle paradigm for as long as possible, unravel as described above, and bring about our global societal collapse—almost certainly by the year 2050.29
Paradoxically, the more vigorously we strive to perpetuate our unsustainable industrialized way of life through ever-increasing NNR utilization, the more quickly and thoroughly we will deplete Earth’s remaining NNR and RNR reserves, thereby hastening and exacerbating our global societal collapse.
1. NNRs are considered “nonrenewable” because their supplies are not naturally replenished on a time scale that is relevant from the perspective of a human life-span, in the event that they are replenished at all.
2. “Human prosperity” is defined by quantifiable criteria: economic output (GDP) and material living standards (per capita GDP).
3. Lorie A. Wagner, Daniel E. Sullivan, and John L. Sznopek, “Economic Drivers of Mineral Supply,” U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 02-335, 2002, 21. Available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2002/of02-335/of02-335.pdf.
4. Historical U.S. NNR utilization data compiled by the Mineral Information Institute is available upon request from the author.
5. Estimated total U.S. mineral utilization in the year 1800: per capita U.S. mineral utilization in 1776 was approximately 1,200 lbs./year (available at www.mii.org/pdfs/Minerals1776vsToday.pdf). I increased the per capita quantity to 1,500 lbs. for the year 1800, so total U.S. mineral utilization was 1,500 lbs. times 5.3 million people, which equals (3,975,000 tons) ~ 4 million tons.
6. Estimated U.S. total mineral utilization in the year 2008: per capita U.S. mineral utilization in 2008 was ~42,719 pounds (available at www.mii.org/pdfs/Baby_Info.pdf); times 304 million people = ~6.5 billion tons.
7. U.S. year 1800 and year 2008 inflation adjusted GDP data from www.measuringworth.com.
8. Annual global NNR extraction data obtained from “Historical Statistics for Mineral and Material Commodities in the United States”; U.S. Geological Survey, 2013, available at http://minerals.usgs.gov/ds/2005/140/; “Mineral Commodities Summary 2014,” U.S.GS, 2014, available at http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mcs/2014/mcs2014.pdf; and “International Energy Statistics,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2014, available at www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm.
9. For details regarding NNR occurrence in general, and economically viable NNR occurrence specifically, see Chris Clugston, “Whatever Happened to the ‘Good Old Days’?,” Negative Population Growth, 2014, 3, available at www.npg.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/WhatEverHappenedGoodOldDays.pdf.
10. The global industrialized population estimate of approximately 1 billion is based on the assumption that roughly 25 percent of Earth’s 4.1 billion people lived in industrialized regions in 1975. These included most of Europe, Russia, North America, Japan, Australia, and the four Asian tigers.
11. In the broadest sense, NNR exploitation comprises exploration, extraction, processing, provisioning, and utilization.
12. For mining industry expert commentary regarding decreasing global NNR quality, see Chris Clugston, “21st Century NNR Scarcity—Blip or Paradigm Shift?” 2013, 21–24. Available at www.wakeupamerika.com/PDFs/21st-Century-NNR-Scarcity_Blip-or-Paradigm-Shift.pdf.
13. For additional information regarding diminishing returns on exploitation, see “21st Century NNR Scarcity—Blip or Paradigm Shift?” 4, 5.
14. A complete listing of NNR price changes between the years 2000 and 2008 is available in my Scarcity—Humanity’s Final Chapter?, Book locker.com, 2012, 376–78, www.nnrscarcity.com.
15. A complete listing of globally scarce NNRs in 2008 is available in Scarcity, 51–53.
16. For additional information regarding post–Great Recession global economic recovery attempts, see Clugston, “Whatever Happened to the ‘Good Old Days’?” 7, 8.
17. For mining industry expert commentary regarding the battle between human ingenuity and decreasing NNR quality, see Clugston, “21st Century NNR Scarcity—Blip or Paradigm Shift?” 21–24.
18. Global GDP and global per capita GDP data can be found at “World Development Indicators,” World Bank, 2014 (available at www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&met_y=ny_gdp_mktp_cd&idim=country:U.S.A&dl=en&hl=en&q=us+gdp#!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=ny_gdp_mktp_cd&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:U.S.A&ifdim=region&tdim=true&hl=en_U.S.&dl=en&ind=false). 2014 estimates are derived from “Global Economics Prospects,” World Bank, 2014. Availab
le at www.worldbank.org/en/publication/global-economic-prospects.
19. For details regarding humanity’s transition from “continuously more and more” to “continuously less and less,” see Clugston, “21st Century NNR Scarcity,” 13.
20. For details regarding the basis for our misperception regarding permanent NNR sufficiency, see Clugston, “Whatever Happened to the ‘Good Old Days’?” 4, 5.
21. Absent immediate, enormous, and continuous high quality/low cost NNR discoveries in heretofore untapped areas (e.g., the ocean floor, ocean waters, under the polar ice caps, and Earth’s mantle) and continuous and extraordinary increases in NNR exploitation efficiencies, which would merely buy us time in the extremely unlikely event that they were to occur, a return to vigorously increasing global prosperity is impossible.
22. For details regarding humanity’s unraveling, see Chris Clugston, “Austerity—Our ‘New Normal,” 2012, 12–13. Available at www.wakeupamerika.com/PDFs/Austerity-Our-New-Normal.pdf.
23. The graph is a linear extrapolation of World Bank “World Development Indicators” through the year 2050.
24. For details regarding humanity’s four possible unraveling scenarios, see Clugston, “Whatever Happened to the ‘Good Old Days’?” 11–13.
25. For details regarding the consequences associated with increasing global NNR scarcity, see Clugston, Scarcity—Humanity’s Final Chapter?, 87–94.
26. The Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts the likelihood of future social unrest and political instability (see www.economist.com/blogs/theworldin2014/2013/12/social-unrest-2014); the International Labor Organization maintains a “Social Unrest Index” (see www.ilo.org/newyork/voices-at-work/WCMS_217280/lang–en/index.htm). Also see the Fund for Peace 2014 Fragile States Index (fsi.fundforpeace.org/rankings-2014/); 126 of 178 analyzed nations (71 percent) received an “alert” or “warning” status. The most telling analysis is a time series map depicting the increasing incidence of global social unrest (protests) between 1979 and 2013 by John Beieler (johnbeieler.org/protest_mapping/, from www.johnbeieler.org) using Google’s GDELT dataset (gdeltproject.org/).
27. Wikipedia, “Homo sapiens,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/homo _sapiens.
28. For a description of a sustainable lifestyle paradigm and a discussion regarding humanity’s inevitable transition to sustainability, see Clugston, Scarcity—Humanity’s Final Chapter?, 90–91.
29. For a discussion regarding the inevitability associated with global societal collapse, see Clugston, Scarcity—Humanity’s Final Chapter?, 92–93.
Christopher Clugston holds an MBA/Finance with High Distinction from Temple University and worked for forty years in the high-technology electronics industry. Before embarking on his independent research, he held management-level positions in marketing, sales, finance, and mergers and acquisitions prior to becoming a corporate chief executive and later a management consultant. Since 2005, he has conducted extensive independent research into the area of “sustainability,” with a focus on nonrenewable natural resource scarcity. His work includes the book Scarcity—Humanity’s Final Chapter? and numerous related research papers and articles.