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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)

James Evans

the article you're referring to is this New York Times classic about Simon-Ehrlich wager. I think it was discussed hereabouts once.

Also, the one natural resource that is truly finite and that we're close to exhausting it so we've banned its trade all together is ivory.

Mar 9, 2012 at 3:10 PM | Registered CommentersHx

Wow!! Tough snip policy here.

Simply noting the irony (without insult I add) in the name of the author is "O/T"??

Mar 9, 2012 at 3:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeckko

Wasn't it Lomborg who dealt with the myth of resource depletion at some length in The Skeptical Environmentalist?
I remember especially his example of silver where the reserves increased dramatically when we all bought digital cameras and it was no longer needed for photo-processing. As long as we have human ingenuity we are most unlikely to "run out" of anything we need.
I've always understood the logic of the argument that everything is finite and therefore it would seem that sooner or later we will run out but it's the argument of someone who has never thought seriously about the subject. I find that a 10-minute discussion is usually enough to convince people that resource depletion is not something the next half-dozen generations need to bother about.
People other than fanatical eco-warriors, that is!

Mar 9, 2012 at 3:58 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Vince Cable is old enough to remember the Club of Rome and its report in 1972, The Limits to Growth, which dealt with resource depletion. It used computer models to show that by now civilisation should have collapsed because we would have exhausted many of our vital natural resources.

Has the Club of Rome's computer model been recycled for use in predicting climate change, I wonder?

Mar 9, 2012 at 4:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

I thought that "Gaia Vince" was a new nickname coined by Your Grace for our illustrious cabinet minister but unless he is moonlighting by working for the BBC, I must have treated him unfairly by implying that he had forgotten all about the Club of Rome and the Limits to Growth.

Presumably Gaia Vince is too young ever to have heard of the Club of Rome. Perhaps someone should draw her attention to its notorious predictions.

Mar 9, 2012 at 4:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoy


Wow!! Tough snip policy here.

Simply noting the irony (without insult I add) in the name of the author is "O/T"??

High time I say but there's an obvious reason in this instance. Go here and Open the conversation behind the first tweet. If you don't know how, just read that one. And realise that there's more to all this than just some cheap shots from pseudonymous 'wits'. There's a real engagement going on between known people. Good on our esteemed host.

Mar 9, 2012 at 4:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake


Actually that's not what I had read - but thanks for the link. It gives the names of the historians involved, so I can probably find what I was reading again with a bit of googling. Ta.

Mar 9, 2012 at 4:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames Evans

Gold sols are a possible ITO replacement.

Mar 9, 2012 at 4:48 PM | Unregistered Commentermydogsgotnonose

Mar 9, 2012 at 1:12 PM James P

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...

What dept are you? 61 here.

I had a geriatric (but quite fast - 2.8 litre) Volvo 260. The fuses had aluminium contacts and were housed behind the panelling, next to the outside skin of the car. Hence, in cold weather, drenched in condensation. If the car would not go, it was often because of corrosion of the fuse contacts. That was another example of where using Alu was a really bad idea.

In the end I found some bronze fuses.

Mar 9, 2012 at 4:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

I don't know how accurate the full article on wikipedia is on "limits to growth" but it seems more accurate than Roys interpretation...

"n 2008 researcher Peter A. Victor wrote, that even though D.H. Meadows et al. probably underestimated price-mechanism's role in adjusting, their critics have overestimated it. He states that Limits to Growth has had a significant impact on the conception of environmental issues and notes that the models in the book were meant to be taken as predictions "only in the most limited sense of the word" as they wrote.[19]

In a 2009 article published in Science titled “Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil,” Hall and Day noted that “the values predicted by the limits-to-growth model and actual data for 2008 are very close." [20] These findings are consistent with a 2010 study titled “A Comparison of the Limits of Growth with Thirty Years of Reality” which concluded: “The analysis shows that 30 years of historical data compares favorably with key features… [of the Limits to Growth] ‘standard run’ scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st Century.” [21]"

Or have I been asleep and we are somehow past the midway point of the 21st Century?


I see the crude total production plateau graph, and note the Feb 2000 BBC headlines "The price of oil has surged to its highest level since the 1991 Gulf War". The price surged to $30 per barrel back then and made a splash, now brent is at $125 and crude $107 we don't seem to be worried, or make any connection to the current global financial crisis, it would be called a "global depression" but for "fudged" numbers.

Maybe I'm concerned about nothing, but until someone solves the melting reactor issues with Thorium, there would seem to be larger issues worth considering in more depth.

Mar 9, 2012 at 5:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrosty

An erudite and light-hearted explanation of the differences between reserves and resources, and the economics thereof. Written by a mining engineer who gave up blogging a couple of years ago but left his blog online.
Ignore the 'unsuitable' warning sign, he wore it as a badge of honour and couldn't be bothered to argue against the trolls.

Mar 9, 2012 at 5:57 PM | Registered CommenterView from the Solent

I can confirm that Gaia Vince is absolutely her real given name. She was a close friend of my daughter at school. Her mother, who I believe had a theatrical background must have been inspired giving her that unconventional name. Gaia was never destined to be conventional. I suspect it came from the Greek mythological goddess, rather than Lovelock's reincarnation.

Mar 9, 2012 at 6:52 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

View from the Solent
Thanks for that link. Excellent assessment of the situation by someone who knows what he's talking about. Ought to be compuslory reading for all politicians and journalists followed by a written exam to make sure they've actually understood it.
Love the concept of "oxygen thieves". I don't think I've come across that one before.

Mar 9, 2012 at 7:06 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

@ Frosty

I don't know how accurate the full article on wikipedia is on "limits to growth" but it seems more accurate than Roys interpretation...

No it is not! The Wikipedia article was written with the benefit of hindsight. I am old enough to remember how the media and opinion formers treated the the Limits to Growth report when it came out. The whole point of the models was to show that we were running out of resources. Why do you think that the word Limit was in the title?

Mar 9, 2012 at 9:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoy


"It used computer models to show that by now civilisation should have collapsed"

why do you think middle of the 21st century means "by now"?

Mar 9, 2012 at 9:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrosty

Can we please quash the idea that 'rare earth' elements ( are rare. They're not. The name only fools those who don't do their research very well.

All of them are more abundant in the earth's crust than Indium. Eurpopium, for example, is almost as abundant as Tin, yet 500 times as much Tin is produced every year as Europium.

Antimony has about the same abundance as Indium, yet more than 200 times as much Antimony is produced every year as Indium.

At current production rates we are much more likely to run out of Antimony than Indium.

The reality is that there is no reason to run out of any of these elements; you only have to do enough digging.

Gold is near the bottom of the abundance table. None of the greenies are shouting about running out of Gold, are they?

The irony is that those who would turn off our electricity supply are worried about running out of a material (Indium Tin Oxide) largely found in iPhone, iPad, iPod and television screens!

Mar 9, 2012 at 10:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterBilly Liar


get this error from your link (but no big deal)
"Our proxy retrieves web pages and secures them through our dedicated proxy server so you dont have to worry about being traced."

ok, SF is fiction for now, but we have abundant resources on the planet,we need to use them sensibly to expand within our solar system.

at 54 yrs I wonder what has happened to the space race in the west (nobody seems to even talk about it).

we (some people) in the west, all seem to have given up on grand plans & now are terrified of climate change because of the kids?

SF is fiction but the best points to the best future for Humankind & therefore life, which may to be a Noah's Ark,so our destiny's to expand.

we need to expand to other planets

Mar 9, 2012 at 10:56 PM | Unregistered Commenterdougieh

Copper, at least, is not really a important commodity any longer. As noted, most copper water piping in today being replaced with plastic and for at least the last 30 years all high tension power cables have been made of aluminum, which makes up about 12 % of the worlds crust.

And although copper is still needed in electric motors, even household electric wiring can be aluminum. The only issue is knowing how to connect it up. And all that was worked out 40 years ago when the South American copper mines when on strike for a year and forced the price of copper up.

The current high prices of copper will force a return to the use of aluminum, which is stronger and much lighter. The Airbus 380, the largest commercial airliner being built, is mostly wired with aluminum for the weight reduction.

It is only the rare earth magnets what have a problem and those elements have encouraged new mines to be opened.

Where there is a need, there is a way.

Mar 10, 2012 at 12:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

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

Surely this isn't right? After all, all of the highest prices in history have been in the past decade...

Mar 10, 2012 at 12:33 AM | Unregistered Commentermct

The whole point of the models was to show that we were running out of resources. Why do you think that the word Limit was in the title?

Sometimes current high commodity prices are used to show the Club of Rome was on to the right idea.

However, their prediction was that prices would rise as we ran out, forcing economies into collapse. Their key idea is that production would fall.

Current high prices are not caused by their effect at all. They result from production being unable to keep up with demand, even though production has steadily increased.

There have been limits to growth all right, but they aren't Malthusian.

Mar 10, 2012 at 3:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterMooloo

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 | Phillip Bratby

Hi Phillip. Coming from a coal mining back ground (underground not open cast), I remember being taught the same stuff. I moved away many years ago before Scargill realized he was like Phill Jones and not to good at Excel and could not work out reserves above ground.

None of the hard grafting lads could find their way to the pit head now especially because the pit tops have been flattened and landscaped. Sadly the coal is still down there but the skills (apart from new more efficient methods, are now experts at stocking the shelves at Tesco! Bless them, they still wander round the market town on a Saturday whilst I try to keep warm in Cyprus but that is forward planning for you! I was once offered a trip down to see what it used to be like, I sat in a cafe at the end of the road and watched my brother pull on the coveralls and hard hats and break a promise to our mother to NEVER go underground"

Mar 10, 2012 at 4:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterPete H


Mar 10, 2012 at 5:04 AM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

Your Grace, I apologize that I did not read the comments before posting my own, and so did not see your request to avoid criticism of her name.

However, I do think that (however she came to have that name) seeing the name "Gaia" in a writer about nature and environment, especially one of her activist bent, necessarily evokes associations with the more extreme environmental activism.

It is of course your blog to moderate as you see fit, but I do think that someone writing the kind of stuff she writes under a byline "Gaia" gives rise to the impression that she claims to speak for all of "Gaia".... her current worldwide quest to hype environmental crises real or imagined, as outlined on her own website, also seems crafted to consciously give that impression.

It is her "watermelon" project that deserves ridicule, perhaps, not her name; but it is difficult to separate the two with the background of Lovelock et al in mind.

[BH adds: Since it was the name she was given at birth, it's not fair to make these associations]

Mar 10, 2012 at 5:24 AM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

Well found your Grace!

Perhaps she's unaware that transparent conducting Zinc oxide is an effective replacement for ITO. Its just the latter has been around for longer. I don't think we're going to run out of Zinc any time soon.

There's a whole book about it here;

She could have even read it for free!

You could argue why we aren't moving away from ITO. But that's not her beef. For a person who wrote for NS, this illustrates a surprisingly narrow view.

Ho Hum indeed.

Mar 10, 2012 at 6:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterSir Digby CS

TerryS says:

Does anybody know of anything that we have managed to exhaust the supply of?
Mar 9, 2012 at 11:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

How about good will towards; M Mann, Gavin, Al Gore, The BBC, The Guardian, bird chompers, subsidies for unreliable methods of producing electricity...!

And that is just the start of the list!

Mar 10, 2012 at 8:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Walsh

I'm going to stick my neck out and say that nothing on earth has ever run out - well except for Unobtanium obviously.

Mar 10, 2012 at 3:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterBilly Liar

There is absolutely no indium shortage, nor will there be while the world has VMS zinc mines. The zinc refineries could plug any indium shortage gap should they so wish by upgrading their technology and improving recoveries. However, it is probably much more profitable to keep prices high and recoveries low,

Many zinc refineries do not even bother to recover indium.

Most indium is found associated with sphalerite (ZnS) in Volcanogenic Massive Sulphide (VMS) deposits.

Mar 10, 2012 at 7:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Miller

I was surprised when I read about certain kinds of natural resources which are not so well known but whose depletion would pose a serious problem for some industry sectors especially for the world of information technology. I am really concerned about whether the scientists will be able to find an effective solution to this problem other than the devastation of one of Earth's most valuable natural resources – the ocean as suggested in the article.

Mar 16, 2012 at 1:23 PM | Unregistered Commenteranthony

Sad as it may be, it is a fact that we're running out of a lot of natural resources. We should really consider alternatives such as renewable energy sources before it is too late.

electric motor repairs melbourne

Jun 11, 2012 at 9:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterMillhouse Weinstein

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