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« Policy questions | Main | A letter from the Conservative leader »

Running out of natural resources

Gaia Vince, a environment writer with the BBC, has an interesting article about the world's lack of indium, a a rare element used in high-definition screens for iPads and the like. (The link is to a proxy view on the article, since people in the UK aren't allowed to see this part of the BBC's output).

In response, climatologist Michel Crucifix asks

Industrial adaptation to exhaustion of a natural resource. Did it happen before (excl. agriculture) ?

I've suggested coal as a reaction to deforestation, or fibre optics as a reaction to high copper prices, but there must be loads of other examples.

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Reader Comments (79)

The whole of human history is a battle with limited resources - with human ingenuity winning out in remarkable and entirely unpredictable ways when there is the political and economic freedom for it to do so. Very well done for engaging on this point Bish.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

I'm not sure you will find many instances of actual exhaustion. Usually the price goes up with shortage and then ingenuity comes to the rescue. It happens without anybody noticing. Note that the replacement is usually technically preferable too, it is an improvement not a weak substitute.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterRhoda

I can't view proxies (ssshhhh, I'm at work), but:

[Snip - O/t]

Otherwise, economics is the process of allocation of scarce resources and technological progress. Place this article in hte bin with all other "but we will run out" stories.

More prosaically, the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeckko

She's got previous - she did that absurd centrefold feature in the New Scientist that finally caused me to cancel my subscription and set me on the path to full blown climate scepticism.
It's a memorable name - seems like her parents had her name down as an eco-warrior from birth, just like some put their kids down for Eton.
Here's an article by the silent earth

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid S

"I've suggested coal as a reaction to deforestation": utter baloney , my Lord Bishop. Read some Oliver Rackham - he gets very annoyed by this sort of schoolboy rubbish.

[I read several books by Rackham, but many years ago. I must remind myself! Glad I posited it as a question!]

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:12 AM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

In the UK, we appear to be running out of skills rather than material things.
We are certainly running out of freedom.
Democracy is in very short supply.
Frustration is inreasing exponentially.
Povety in increasing.
Mindless political decisions are at an all time high.
Customer services are at an all time low. (hardly detectable)
Literacy and numeracy are both at the low end of the bell curve.
Still; looking on the bright side, wind turbines are on the increase.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:20 AM | Unregistered Commenterpesadia

I would put it another way Andrew, it seems fairly obvious that the current 'green thinking' is antithetical to all of mankind's previous advancement: going green means - going backwards.

'Necessity is the mother of invention', mankind can prevail, this is what sets us apart.

I have no doubt that we can overcome most setbacks, however, I am not optimistic we could all survive if and when the ice returns. There will not be enough time to adapt in the North [or South for that matter], which is why we should 'make hay' whilst the 'Sun is warm' - these glorious times will not last and we know this from the recent historical/palaeo record - it gets out nice then it changes abruptly.

We should not be made to feel guilty about being lucky enough to live in times such as these - the hairshirt green nutters would have us all back in the caves - they should be careful for what they wish for.

[Snip - O/T]

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

I used to buy 1.2 tonnes of Indium a year and had to be an expert on the market, you do not get indium mines but you get indium from further processing of the slag from Lead and Zinc refinement, Indium is present in the Earth at the same % as Silver and is not going to run out as long as the price stays profitable. When the price drops the processors either stop this extra processing or stockpile it until the price increases as the majority of production is in China. It has what's called a very inelastic supply that is hard to ramp up production so the slightest shortage causes rapid price rises, the last was caused by the ramp up of LCD production, it went from $100 a gram to $1400 in 7 months, I stopped being concerned with price and was told just to get some at any price to keep production going. Within 2 years it had dropped again as the LCD makers started recycling all their waste and stockpiled the output for a rainy day and then finally stopped buying for 8 months.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Prices are for Kgs not grams, senior moment !!!

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Not one to get stuck thinking inside the box, her musings on the problems of climate change and over population at least hold out the promise of a solution: “I have begun discussing the question with climate scientists, engineers, sociologists and philosophers. The most obvious logical solution is to move the people where the resources are, and I explore this idea in a recent article. There are other options. How about enforced sterilization of people that have produced one child - this would immediately shrink the population? Or serious development of alternative habitable zones, for instance those in the ocean or on the Moon?” So, aside from being an end of the world, global warming doomsayer, lovely Gaia is also in favor of government enforced sterilization and possibly moving to the moon.

From your link David S - she sure is a kook.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.


Mar 9, 2012 at 11:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

For my entire lifetime, and I pre-date the Beatles, I've heard stories about how we are about to exhaust the supply of one thing or another yet I am not aware of a single thing that we have run out of.
Does anybody know of anything that we have managed to exhaust the supply of?

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

Here she is is her own words.

Clearly a practical and productive sort of lass - obviously if more of us wandered around the planet, whimsically musing and scribbling about it, the world's economy would be in much better shape than it is.

On the other hand, if we were all like Gaia and her bloke, we wouldn't have even discovered stuff like indium - so we'd be really short of things to worry about.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:45 AM | Registered CommenterFoxgoose

I remember my Children's Encyclopedia telling me in the 50s that the world had only 50 years supply of coal left. What goes round comes round.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

We've replaced oil from wales with fossil oil coming from the ground. We've replaced the use of trees for wood for various goods with the use of plastics which is a byproduct. We've switched from horses to cars. If we keep at it we will be switching from cattle farms to synth meat. In the end the shortage of something natural gets avoided by switching to something more synthetic and more efficient with a lower impact on wales, horses, trees and hopefully cattle. This switch is usually for economic reasons, if something is not sustainable it becomes expensive, making more efficient options clearly less expensive.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterKriek

Interestingly, a graph of indium prices (source) suggests that the markets don't see exhaustion of indium as being quite the problem that Gaia Vince does.

Blow me down with a feather. Still, the markets could be wrong and Ms Vince right - in which case I look forward to hearing of her millionnaire status in the the not-too-distant future.

But you say she didn't put her money where her mouth is? She doesn't actually believe what she's writing, she just does it for the retainer and to stay in the good books of her green mates?

Even that's not a problem. Such people being given any influence over policy making however is.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake


Yes, and that only works in a free market.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford


Mar 9, 2012 at 11:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterNeil Craig

When mining companies or processing plants speak of reserves of whatever they mean proitable to extract given present techniques and the expected range of future prices. Both constraints can change however. They always do.

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterBob Layson

I just get an advert for proxy viewing on the iPad.

Is it just me who is incensed that uk viewers are paying for this content, on pain of imprisonment, but are 'not allowed' to view it?

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterLynn

Forgot to mention, the next price spike in Indium will come with the next generation of Solar panels, They use Indium to improve yields. Ironic or not ;)

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:14 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

When I tried the link via the proxy, I just got the proxy web page. Looking at Michael Crucifix's twitter remark, I found the direct link, which, as expected, BBC refused to show me.
But it works fine when pasted into the proxy's address form:

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:26 PM | Unregistered Commentermalcolm

I don't believe fibre optic cables were developed because copper was becoming expensive. There were other reasons which made it an attractive technology for many applications. e.g. freedom from RFI and eventually, lower losses.

Copper becoming more expensive may have made fibre optics even more attractive for applications where it was suitable.

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:30 PM | Unregistered Commentercosmic

I've suggested coal as a reaction to deforestation, or fibre optics as a reaction to high copper prices, but there must be loads of other examples.

Aluminium has been used as a substitute for copper (its resistivity is less that twice that of copper, so it's not too difficult to make wires having the same resistance as the copper wires they are replacing). It's not uncommon to find aluminium wiring in old French houses.

But, prior to the invention of electrolytic refining of aluminium, its price was comparable to that of silver.

Silver, with conductivity slightly better than copper, is a very good copper substitute - during WW2, because of the scarcity of copper, silver borrowed from Fort Knox was used for electromagnet coils for uranium enrichement.

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:35 AM TerryS

Does anybody know of anything that we have managed to exhaust the supply of?

Cornish tin?

I think that, in general, you don't exhaust the supply of anything. As something becomes more difficult or expensive to extract, you simply use less of it and find substitutes. If gold were as plentiful as zinc, it would be used for all sorts of things.

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

Arguably, a more important element is neodymium, the key component of the permanent magnets required for wind turbines and advanced electric motors used in hybrid vehicles..

It is fairly rare, and as of 2010, 97% of the world’s supply came from .... China.

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

Can we lay off criticism of her name, and stick to the content of the article please.

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:35 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Mar 9, 2012 at 11:52 AM Richard Drake

Blow me down with a feather.

I always thought it was knock me down with a feather.

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

Just prior to the end of my full time education in the mid 1970's, and eagerly looking forward to a career in geophysics and wondering what rare substances we should be looking for to prosper, we were told, while on a visit to a consultancy run by an ex-oil company executive, what the world needed most and was in the shortest supply. The answer: human intelligence and political stability!

(... and thanks to Griff for the opportunity to hear such wise words!)

And it is still in short supply!

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

TerryS. I too came from a worked where we were totally dependent on coal and can well remember the teachers in St Anne's, Overbury Street telling us that there were only 60 years of call left in the ground. I can also remember sleeping with my innumerable cousins in the unlit attic of my grand other's house. We would tell each other ghost stories and hide under the blankets. It appears some people don't pass over that phase of their childhood and continue liking stories that scareninto adulthood.s

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:52 PM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

Based on 20+years in the minor metals world I can tell you Indium Corporation of America are correct. These greens are simply demented. The thing about metals is, when the price goes up, people recycle more & producers search out more deposits. If the price continues to go up, engineers& scientists find alternative materials using good old fashioned ingenuity. In the case of laptop & iPad screens, the current preferred technology is ITO (indium tin oxide) on glass. In the next few years, because of the cost and the relative inelasticity of supply - since it takes time to bring new mining deposits on line - you can expect to see ITO on glass replaced by carbon nanotube technology.

@Breath of Fresh Air: I was selling Indium at the time. We had champagne at that year's sales meeting. I had the morally corrupting pleasure of choosing which buyers could get some material. Woe betide any buyer who had pissed me off over the last year, I can tell you. But once the users figured out how to recycle the damn stuff the party was over.

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterSebastian Weetabix

I can't see the article and also fear I am being a bit dim. Why is agriculture excluded? What natural resource has been exhausted?

Mar 9, 2012 at 12:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterGareth

"The Ultimate Resource 2," Julian Simon.

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterFred Harwood

I notice Gaia hasn't got any quotes from any actual metallurgists or mining/refining/recycling experts. As for indium "can be painted on glass" - jeez. Give me strength. It's funny how whenever the BBC alights on something I know about, I am depressed by just how poor their journalists grasp of things is.

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterSebastian Weetabix

Well, as someone once said, the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones. (attributed by some to Al Gore, but then so is the Internet, and by others to Sheik Yamani a good deal earlier)

We are getting pretty good at making things better and better and better. Especially since the industrial revolution. I see no physical or biological or indeed 'ecological' reason for this to stop. I can see quite a few political ones. Such as the attitudes represented by the BBC and all those politicians who were panicked into voting for the Climate Change Act.

I'd like to say 'ho hum' to all of that, not just to this indium excursion, but of course it is too late. While it looks like the indium 'scare' is being nipped in the bud, the CO2 one has longer to run.

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

@ Martin A

Exactly - mineral reserves are always reckoned on the basis of the quantity economically extractable right now. North Sea oil was unrecoverable when Saudi oil was $3 a barrel but it became recoverable at $12 or $15.

The only raw materials I can think of that we have ever "run out" of are in fact those that ecofascists would laud as ostensibly renewable: whale blubber, natural rubber, hardwood, and what not. While these are technically renewable in that the source self-replicates, they sure as hell aren't sustainable.

This is why I agree with Matt Ridley that sustainable development is in fact an oxymoron and that the only development that is truly sustainable is that which depends on things we've never run out of - such as oil and coal.

Fossil fuels are the true renewables because the supply is renewed every time the price rises.

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterJustice4Rinka

I always thought it was knock me down with a feather.

It probably was until I got to it :)

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

"Aluminium has been used as a substitute for copper"

Don't I know it! Our local telephone cables are aluminium, put there in the 70's during a copper shortage, and although they conduct reasonably well, the terminals corrode very effectively. I get 1Mb/s on a good day...

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

you would not have liked me, I had a fixed price for that year at the old price. It was the next year I needed the supply for and for some reason the current supplier did not want to supply me on new higher fixed price for next year or even a variable one ;) . Eventually got a supply directly from Chinese smelter but had it shipped out in one shipment before they changed their minds.

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:13 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Lynn (12:10) the reason you're not allowed to see it is that you are NOT paying for it.

It's the product of one of the BBC commercial arms, so is free to nobody. The odd things is that we aren't given the option of seeing it via some pay channel.

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:28 PM | Unregistered Commentersteveta

This is truly hilarious. Some of you are no doubt old enough to remember the early years of colour TV. What you may not remember was the prophesied doom of that technology due to the element EUROPIUM running out. Europium is a very scarce element on earth, which was used to produce the reds on early cathode ray tubes.

Can't these eco-doomsters think up anything new?

The really sad and pathetic aspect to this story is not the repetition. If the availability of indium ever becomes a problem, then some clever people will find a solution. We are humans, that's what we do!

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterHeide De Klein

With regards to copper, most of the water pipes in the home (in the UK) were made from copper. This has now mostly been replaced with plastic piping.

Re: geronimo. St Michaels, West Derby Rd

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

Peak oil
Peak gas
Peak indium

Peak attention grabbing more like.

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeroen B.

Peak stupidity? I wish.

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve

"Complex Composite Materials: Replacement Found for Rare Material Indium Tin Oxide"

Researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e, Netherlands) have developed a replacement for indium tin oxide (ITO), an important material used in displays for all kinds of everyday products such as TVs, telephones and laptops, as well as in solar cells. Unfortunately indium is a rare metal, and the available supplies are expected to be virtually exhausted within as little as ten years. The replacement material is a transparent, conducting film produced in water, and based on electrically conducting carbon nanotubes and plastic nanoparticles. It is made of commonly available materials, and on top of that is also environment-friendly.

Mar 9, 2012 at 2:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterMac

What all the doomers miss is that the "reserves" of a resource doesn't mean anything like what they think it does. Mineral resources are obviously price sensitive and the reserves at any given time are dependent on (among other things) the price at the time the estimate of the resources is made.

As a very general rule, if you double the price of a mineral resource you can multiply the 'reserves' by a factor of ten.

So when someone says "OH my God there's only 13 years of Indium left", what they mean is that the price is just about to go up and the reserves will increase as a result.

Also bear in mind it actually costs money to create the "resource" amount. Land has to be bought, leases signed, deals struck for supply and so on. Beyond about 30 years into the future it simply isn't economic to create the resources.

As an example, the deranged eco-loon Lester Brown keeps saying we're just about to run out of copper. The truth is we'll never run out of copper; at the current rate of production [15million tons p/a] it will take 1 million years to extract 1% of the total quantity of copper in the earth's crust. Obviously that is more digging than we could ever justify, even over a million years, but also we would at that point have a thousand tons of copper for every man woman and child on the planet.

So no. We aren't going to 'run out' of anything. That's not what happens.

Mar 9, 2012 at 2:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnteros

I mentioned here a while ago - I read a fascinating piece a couple of years ago on the idea that a shortage of tin resulted in the start of the Iron Age. (I think the idea was that the tin trade routes were disrupted, as opposed to us actually running out.)

We all know what a huge mistake the Iron Age was. If only we'd had the tin.

Mar 9, 2012 at 2:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames Evans

@Martin A

Plenty of cornish tin left - the reason we're not still mining it is, as ever, entirely economic - one of the biggest mines in the Duchy, South Crofty, has estimated reserves of more than 40,000 tonnes according to a USGS report cited on Wikipedia.

Mar 9, 2012 at 2:29 PM | Registered Commenterflaxdoctor


Peak stupidity? I wish.

Yeah, even Einstein thought it might be limitless, in one of the 20th century's most famous jokes. But this a great slogan, thanks.

All the stupidity consists of is putting way too much faith in governments and the elites who like to feel in charge of them to work out ahead of time what to do about every claimed shortage. I'm among those who think that stupidity has spiritual roots so that's the direction to seek the cure. There has to be something bigger and smarter than government in the minds of ordinary people that gives meaning to the term "speaking truth to power". To find He has a human face is an even deeper surprise and completes the breaking of the spell.

Mar 9, 2012 at 2:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake


Seriously, and what pray, does the BBC's 'commercial' arm sell? Wouldn't be the programmes that the licence paying public funded by any chance?

Mar 9, 2012 at 2:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterLynn

The only natural resource we seem to be running out of is human intelligence!

Mar 9, 2012 at 2:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterLynn

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