Peak All
Peak All

Peak All coming very soon
Abbreviated from an article in issue 2605 of New Scientist magazine, 23 May 2007, page 34-41

Earth's natural wealth: an audit

The catalytic converters that keep exhaust pollutants down to an acceptable level, all use platinum, and it is slowly lost through exhaust pipes. Platinum is also a vital component of fuel cells – and supplies are running out. If all the 500 million vehicles in use today were re-equipped with fuel cells, losses would mean that all the world’s
platinum would be exhausted within 15 years
. Unlike oil or diamonds, there is no synthetic alternative: it is a chemical element, and once we have used it all there is no way of getting any more. What price then pollution-free cities?

Alarming? The same goes for many other rare metals such as indium, which is being consumed in unprecedented quantities for making LCDs for flatscreen TVs, and the tantalum needed to make compact electronic devices like cellphones. How long will global reserves of uranium last in a new nuclear age? 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.

So just what proportion of these materials have we used up so far, and how much is there left to go round? We can't be sure. The annual global consumption of most precious metals is not known with any certainty. Estimating the extractable reserves is also difficult. For rare metals such as indium and gallium, these figures are kept a closely guarded secret by mining companies.

A materials chemist at the University of Augsburg in Germany estimates that we have, at best, 10 years before we run out of indium. In January 2003 the metal sold for around $60 per kilogram; by August 2006 the price had shot up to over $1000 per kilogram.

Geologists who have calculated the costs of new technologies in terms of the materials they use, all agree that the planet's booming population and rising standards of living are set to put unprecedented demands on the materials that only Earth itself can provide. Some technologies are not worth pursuing long term.

Take the metal gallium. This is used with indium to make a new generation of solar cells that promise to be up to twice as efficient as conventional designs. Reserves of both metals are disputed, but in a recent report by a chemist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, concludes that current reserves "would not allow a substantial contribution of these cells" to the future supply of solar electricity. He estimates gallium and indium will probably contribute to less than 1 per cent of all future solar cells - a limitation imposed by a lack of raw material. How many years would these minerals last if every human were to consume them at just half the rate of an average US resident today?


The calculations are crude but 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. In a more sophisticated analysis Augsberg University in estimates that zinc could be used up by 2037, both indium and 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. It all puts our present rate of consumption into frightening perspective.

Demand for copper shows no sign of levelling off, and based on 2006 figures for per capita consumption, by 2100 global demand for copper will outstrip the amount extractable from the ground.

"We need to minimise waste, find substitutes where possible, and recycle the rest." University of Birmingham in the UK, has found that platinum makes up as much as 1.5 parts per million of roadside dust and is developing a bacterial process that will efficiently extract the platinum from the dust.

Tailings from worked-out mines contain small amounts of minerals that may become economic to extract. Some metals could be taken from seawater. "It's all a matter of energy cost. You could go to the moon to mine precious materials. The question is: could you afford it?"

"Virgin stocks of several metals appear inadequate to sustain the modern 'developed world' quality of life for all of Earth's people under contemporary technology." And when resources run short, conflict is often not far behind. It is widely accepted that one of the key motives for civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1998 and 2002 was the riches to be had from the country's mineral resources, including tantalum mines - the biggest in Africa. The war coincided with a surge in the price of the metal caused by the increasing popularity of mobile phones (New Scientist, 7 April 2001, p 46).

The Chinese government is investing in mineral mines in Africa and buying up high-tech scrap to extract metals that are key to its developing industries. The US now imports over 90 per cent of its so-called "rare earth" metals from China.

Urgent action is required. Firstly, we need accurate estimates of global reserves and consumption. Then we need to set up an accelerated programme to recycle, reuse and, where possible, replace rare elements with more abundant ones. Without all this, any dream of a more equitable future for humanity will come to nothing.

All the mega-problems:
vital list from The Meaning of the 21st Century: a vital blueprint for ensuring our future, by James Martin, founder of the 21st Century School at Oxford University.

The problem most talked about at the moment is global warming and its effect on the Earth's climate. It's important to understand that there are other problems, some more serious than climate change, for example, the possibility that a World War with nuclear and biological weapons could wipe out civilization. The following are the large-scale problems of the 21st century:

1. Global Warming
Global warming will lead to severe climate change. Unless stopped, it will upset the basic control mechanisms of planet Earth.

2. Excessive Population Growth
World population may grow to 8.9 billion people, with a growing demand for consumer goods and carbon-based energy, far exceeding what the planet can handle.

3. Water Shortages
Rivers and aquifers are drying up. Many farmers will not have the water essential for food growing. There will be wars over water.

4. Destruction of Life in the Oceans
Only 10% of edible fish remain in the oceans, and this percentage is rapidly declining.

5. Mass Famine in Ill-Organized Countries
Farm productivity is declining. Grain will rise in cost. This will harm the poorest countries.

6. The Spread of Deserts
Soil is being eroded. Deserts are spreading in areas that used to have good soil and grassland.

7. Pandemics
AIDS is continuing to spread. Infectious pandemics could spread at unstoppable rates, as they have in the past, but now with the capability to kill enormous numbers of people.

8. Extreme Poverty
2 to 3 billion people live in conditions of extreme poverty, with lack of sanitation. The difference between rich and poor is becoming ever more extreme.

9. Growth of Shantycities
Shantytowns (shantycities) with extreme violence and poverty are growing in many parts of the world. Youth there have no hope.


10. Unstoppable Global Migrations
Large numbers of people are leaving the poorest countries and shantycities, wanting to find a life in countries with opportunity. Migrations will become more extreme if we have severe climate change.

11. Non-State Actors with Extreme Weapons
Nuclear or biological weapons are becoming easier to build by terrorist organizations, political groups or individuals, who are not acting for a given state.

12. Violent Religious Extremism
Religious extremism and jihads may become widespread, leading to large numbers of suicide terrorists and religious war between Muslims and Christians.

13. Runaway Computer Intelligence
Computers will acquire the capability to increase their own intelligence until a chain reaction happens of machines becoming more intelligent at electronic speed.

14. War That Could End Civilization
A global war like World War I or II, conducted with today's vast number of nuclear weapons and new biological weapons, could end civilization.

15. Risks to Homo Sapiens’ Existence
We are heading in the direction of scientific experiments (described by Lord Martin Rees) that have a low probability of wiping out Homo sapiens. The combination of risks gives a relatively high probability of not surviving the century.

16. A New Dark Age
A global cocktail of intolerable poverty and outrageous wealth, starvation, mass terrorism with nuclear/biological weapons, world war, deliberate pandemics and religious insanity, might plunge humanity into a worldwide pattern of unending hatred and violence — a new Dark Age.




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