“Scarcity: Humanity’s Final Chapter?” by Christopher O. Clugston provides a comprehensive analysis of the limited current and most likely future availability and usage of 89 non-renewable natural resources (NNR) (fossil fuels, metals, non-metallic minerals). The amount of authoritative data (referred to in a comprehensive End Notes and References chapter) it provides underpins the basic tenet that this usage of NNR is an unsustainable process.
It covers the usage of the various NNR profiles in the extraction/production levels in appreciable detail in the Appendixes chapter. This information identifies whether the NNR is used in the production of goods, the provision of services or the construction, operation and maintenance of infrastructure. It does not deal with the wastes produced by these processes or the impact on the environment of these operations.
The economic viability of the production of NNR is considered . This is quite surprising because often the future production of an NNR will be dependent on the availability of other NNR rather than an assumed future financial cost.
In Epilog, Clugston calls for an intelligent response to ‘humanity’s’ predicament. But he has identified the scarcity of NRR as being a predicament when it is only one of those that society will inevitably have to deal with.
The Myths and Reality chapter deals with a number of common myths and the associated reality. Ironically the major myth that NRR scarcity is the only predicament is not covered. Coping with global overpopulation and aging is a difficult one. Dealing with the aging of the vast infrastructure that society has become so dependent on is another predicament. So is coping with the devastation of the environment (including climate change, ocean acidification together with reducing fertile soil and aquifer water availability) by the operation of technological systems
Many of the comments on the myths covered in the book are very perceptive within that limited context. The myths dealt with in the book are discussed in the following.
‘Human Ingenuity and Initiative Can Solve any Problem’. The Reality comment is sound except that it refers to ‘economically viable NNRs’. The reality is that possible physical operations will determine what NNRs are viable. Money can only affect the decisions made about these possibilities whilst it holds its value.
‘Economic and Political Solutions Can Solve Any Problem’. The Reality comment sums up the situation with respect to NRR scarcity very well. But that is not the only problem facing society.
‘We Will Grow Our Way Out of It’. This myth has a big influence on the attitudes of the political and industrial ‘leaders’ in society and the masses go along with that delusion. The Reality comment deals with the limitations of financial markets, particularly the growth of debt, to cope with the increasing cost of NRR as these costs now become more apparent.
‘Everything is Cyclical – with an Upward Bias’. The Reality comment points out the past nature of the ups and downs have occurred while requirements for NNR could be easily met. That delusion cannot continue as a range of NRR become scarce. The commitment to use many NNR to operate and maintain the vast existing infrastructure as it irrevocably ages is not taken into account
‘Plentiful NNR Supplies Remain to be Discovered’. Surprisingly the Reality comment refers to ‘economically viable NRRs’ when it is ‘ecologically and physically viable NRRs’ that will set the limits. But the essential point is that there are limits to the NRRs that can possibly be extracted. Innovative technology can only extend these limits slightly because most advances have already being made.
‘”Official” NNR Estimates Typically Understate Remaining Reserve Quantities’. The Reality comment explains how the misleading estimates have contributed to the common misunderstanding of what will happen to NNR supply.
‘Increasing NNR Prices Always Bring About Sufficient NNR Supplies’. The Reality comment again deals with ‘economic viability of NRRs’. Increased NNR prices have had a significant influence on supply in the past but that influence will change dramatically as NNRs become scarcer.
‘We Can Always Produce Additional NNRs’. The Reality comment focuses on the economic aspects of NNRs supply when the reality aspects are likely to have a major impact. For example, there is growing social and political pressure to reduce the mining and use of coal due to the impact of the consequential emissions on the climate.
‘Legal Restrictions Currently Limit Access to Plentiful NNR Supplies’. The Reality comment provides sound refutation perspective.
‘NRR Substitution will Eliminate NNR Scarcity’. The Reality comment provides refutation perspective but based on intangible financial considerations rather than sound technical issues.
‘Technical Innovation Will Insure Sufficient Incremental NNR Supplies’. The major point in the Reality comment is that technology can marginally increase the supply of NNR but it cannot create additional NNRs.
‘Incremental Financial Investment Will Insure Sufficient NNR Supplies’. The major point made in the Reality comment is that NNR exploration and production are subject to diminishing marginal returns as they become fewer, smaller, lower grade and less accessible. Oil is a typical example of this predicament with the use of fracking being an example of the developing predicament for sections of the oil industry.
‘Recycling Will Extend NRR Supplies Indefinitely’. The Reality comment provides perspective on both the impossibility of recycling of some NNRs and the limited practicality of others.
‘NNR Conservation Will Enable US to Reduce NNR Utilization Levels’. The Reality comment questions whether that will ever occur because of its impact. The real point is that NNR are being irreversibly used up even if the rate of utilization is reduced.
‘Increased Efficiency and Enhanced Productivity Will Reduce NNR Requirements, Demand and Utilization’. The Reality comment points out that these improvements actually tend to reduce human labor.
‘Population Stabilization Will Solve our NNR Scarcity Problem’. The Reality comment points out that even if the unlikely population stabilization did occur, it would only slow down the rate of usage of NNR.
‘”Stopping Growth”, “Downscaling”, or “Moving toward Sustainability” Are Viable Solutions to NNR Scarcity’. The Reality comment points out that these would only slow down the rate of usage of NNR so defer global societal collapse. This is misleading. NNR are used for the operation of the infrastructure of civilization. Decisions to cut back on the operations of the infrastructure do not lead to societal collapse.
‘We Can Avert Societal Collapse through a “Soft Landing”, ‘Humanity’s Real Problem is the Unequal Distribution of Wealth’. Again the Reality comment focuses on what will happen to society when NNRs become scarce when it is the operation of the infrastructure that will be the developing predicament.
‘Advanced Nations Such as the US Are Less Dependent on NNRs’. The Reality comment soundly sums the situation for the US. It applies to the developed economies but not to the developing ones.
‘Pre-collapse Preparation is the Answer’. The Reality comment notes that society has handled isolated disasters in the past but not the scale of disasters related to ever-increasing NNR scarcity.
‘Post-collapse Preparation is the Answer’. The Reality comment deals only with how some people will cope with obtaining fundamentals. It does not deal with how people will cope with the loss of such services as electricity for heating, air conditioning and communication or liquid fuels for land, se and air transportation.
‘Post-collapse Life Will Be Preferable to Our Industrial Lifestyle Paradigm’. Again, the Reality comment deals with how people will react without taking into account the services they will have to do without.
There are a number of other views amongst people, including the powerful, that are myths that distort our world view. The major myth is that continuing economic growth is possible. Numerous knowledgeable people (including Clugston) have provided convincing arguments for decades as to why this growth is not sustainable but many governments still pursue this delusion. Asian countries, with China and India leading the way, are doing their utmost to emulate Western countries even as their ecosystems deteriorate.
Another major myth is that using physical energy for the operation of technological systems can be done without taking into account the associated transformation of material to waste and the aging of the processing system due to friction. Even scientists have failed to point out the misunderstanding that has led to this myth. Climate disruption and ocean acidification and warming is the major deleterious consequence of belief in that myth but society will also have to deal with the disintegration of infrastructure. That is a developing predicament due to that lack of understanding of the ecological cost of necessary maintenance.
Clugston effectively defines one of the major predicaments that global society will have to deal with as effectively as possible in coming decades. His book is but one contribution to insight into how industrialized civilization really operates in providing people with throw away goods and sometimes useful services without taking into account the irreparable and unsustainable ecological cost. Despite these warnings (in peer reviewed academic papers, books like Clugston’s and in online forums) by numerous knowledgeable and concerned people over many years, society blithely continues to head down this devastating path. Clugston refers to many of these sound contributions in End Notes and references.
The coming scarcity of NNRs is only one of the predicaments that society will have to deal with this century. The loss of services provided by the aging infrastructure has been noted above. The role of friction in this irrevocable process is not widely recognized even though the need to use energy and materials (NNRs) for maintenance is.
Concern about irrevocable climate change is even growing in governments but this predicament and the associated ocean acidification and warming is not yet being realistically addressed. Neither is the damage being caused by the production of a wide range of land, sea, air and organism pollutants.
However, over population is probably the gravest predicament for society as food shortage is likely to be the major factor in the inevitable die off. The declining availability of NNRs will have a major impact on all aspects of food supply from land preparation to serving up.
The trickle up of material standard of living that capitalists have been promoted for decades is clearly coming to an end in many Western countries and this is leading to social disruption, particularly among the young.
Ironically, many organisms have been responding to environmental disruption for decades yet most of society is only slowly waking up to these unintended consequences of industrialization. The ‘leaders’ of society are still blinded by the delusionary economic growth paradigm.
The cancer that is anthropocentrism will continue to dominate thinking amongst even the powerful in society until reality becomes too painful. Making money for wealthy (financially but not environmentally wise) investors will continue to dominate the decision processes until money inevitably loses its potency as the predicaments take over control.
It is ironical that a wise Roman summed up a long time ago what society is doing wrong.
Tertullian died before the start of the third century crisis that saw the Roman empire nearly disintegrating in a series of military defeats, civil wars, economic collapse, and currency devaluation. If Tertullian had been living today, he would be called a terrorist. But he, like many others, was just reacting to the increasing shrill and absurd official propaganda of his times.
His view was “...our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.”