Thursday, April 29, 2010

Peaks And Valleys

Reason magazine science correspondent Ronald Bailey has an interesting article on resource peaks on the magazine's website, which examines not just the much-discussed "peak oil" problem, but also the possible coming peaks in lithium (necessary for manufacturing the currently most commercially viable type of high-capacity battery), neodymium (used in the manufacture of permanent magnets widely used in a variety of electronic and mechanical systems) and phosphorus (the mineral behind the explosion in agricultural productivity the world has experienced over the past 50 years). In each case, Bailey examines the potential economic, social, and environmental consequences of exhausting our supplies of these resources, before suggesting some possible technological workarounds that are either already in existence or currently in development, concluding that whatever problems may result from resource depletion, human ingenuity can likely provide solutions.

I'm certainly far from an expert on the technical aspects of these issues, but I find it difficult to share Bailey's entirely sanguine outlook. I don't doubt that we may be able to work around some, or even most, of the problems - engineers are pretty clever people. I am skeptical that in every case we will be able to find solutions that are economically viable on a large scale, or that avert disruptive or even disastrous potential conflicts (military or otherwise) over current supplies of key resources. Even if we find an alternate method of manufacturing every single device that requires neodymium magnets, for example, it is unlikely that all these alternate products will be as cheap as the ones we have now. This could create serious problems, both by widening inequality between haves and have-nots and by crimping worldwide economic growth by making current logistics and delivery systems which rely on technology and have helped fuel enormous economic growth over the past half-century scarcer and more expensive. If computer hard drives cost ten times what they do now to manufacture, for example, it would likely scale back the current capabilities of the internet, which I suspect could have a fairly deleterious effect on global trade in addition to curtailing the ability of bored college students to download porn and illegal music. Furthermore, we've got ample evidence that conflict over scarce resources is a major driver of warfare in today's world - look no further than the civil war in Iraq (fought as much over who gets ownership of the country's richest oilfields as over any cultural or religious questions), or the recent war in Sierra Leone (in which the country's diamond supplies both precipitated and bankrolled the conflict). I think there's good reason to worry that as a number of critical natural resources become scarcer, conflict over what remains of them becomes more likely, particularly that more people than ever before now live resource-intensive post-industrial lives.

Maybe it's the inherent bleakness of my worldview, but I feel that the problem of resource depletion merits at best cautious optimism, and more likely genuine concern. I'm not going to panic a la the back-to-nature movement, but nor am I going to put my faith wholeheartedly into the notion that the coming techno-utopia will solve all our problems. We may survive the great challenges of the next century, resource depletion among them, but it's likely to be as bloody, messy, and difficult a challenge as surviving the challenges of the last was.

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