Technology Against Scarcity: The Disturbing Reality of Exponential Growth

Half of all oil consumed since the beginning of the modern oil era in 1859 has been consumed from 1998 to 2021 inclusive based on data available from BP World Energy Statistical Review. Approximately 1.4 trillion barrels of oil thought to have been consumed to date (although there are estimates as high as 1.1 trillion). This means that in the last 24 years alone, the total historical consumption of oil has doubled.

It is hard for most people to imagine the huge increase in the rate of consumption of almost everything that makes modern life possible. Resources appear without most of us ever thinking about how or if rising rates of consumption can be sustained.

For copper, one of the critical metals we depend on for electrical, mechanical, and even monetary purposes, the story is similar. The US Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that approximately 700 million tons of copper have been mined to date.. Based on mining statistics from Copper Development Associationmeaning that about half of all copper ever mined was mined from 2000 to 2018 inclusive.

Can we double total oil and copper consumption again in the next 24 and 19 years, respectively?

Just for comparison, the world’s population grew 32 percent from 2000 to 2022 to date, based on US Census Bureau population clock AND Historical date. This means that, at least for these two goods, per capita consumption has increased during this period. We are not becoming more efficient with these resources per person.

Are both population and per capita consumption likely to continue to grow at these historical rates? If so, the doubling of total historical oil and copper consumption would come even faster than calculated above.

Although historical estimates of total production for other minerals are difficult to find, recent production statistics illustrate that an acceleration is occurring in a wide range of critical metals. Below I compare the increase in the rate of production over time. All information is from the USGS using the most recent annual data available, through 2017 or 2018 (“Present” in the table below).

Annual Production Rate Growth in Percentage

Metal

% Growth from 2000 to date

% Growth from 1970 to date

aluminum

162%

559%

Cobalt

208%

369%

Indium

113%

944%*

Iron ore

154%

225%

lithium

846%

2.539%

Nickel

67%

244%

silver

54%

197%

ZINC

57%

153%

*1972

To be clear, looking at aluminum in the second column, since 1970 the annual rate of worldwide production has increased 5.59 times. Annual lithium production is now 25.39 times the 1970 rate.

The most quoted sentence in Albert Bartlett famous lecture Arithmetic, Population and Energy– which he gave 1,742 times in his lifetime – is this, “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

This function appears in publicly available information about the production of key minerals and many other resources that we consider critical to our way of life. And yet it is ignored in plain sight because the ruling ideology of the age is that technology will always provide us with a way out of scarcity—by providing the substitutes we need at the time we need them in the quantities we demand and at the prices we demand. we can afford.

The flip side of this delusion is the reality that continued shortages of inputs critical to modern industrial society can sweep through our entire world system and cause it to crumble, gradually or quickly depending on the number and nature of the inputs involved.

By Kurt Cobb via Insights into resources

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