What Happens When the World’s Resources Run Out?
The complex modern way of life that has increasingly besieged the planet in recent generations is devouring resources far faster than ever in human history. Not just obvious things like oil, coal and natural gas, but also a host of metals, minerals and elements that we use every day.
If industrialized nations started running out of some of these things, massive disruptions would result.
Uh … don’t look now, but we are already starting to run out of them. That’s right—practically all of them.
In his book A Race for What’s Left, author Michael Klare says the world is plunging into “a crisis of resource depletion.” Basic analysis of trends in population growth and resource usage proves that humanity is on an unsustainable course.
History is full of examples, both human and otherwise, of the chilling consequences to a society or population that overruns its resources.
Last year the world population passed 7 billion, and more than 200,000 are added to that number every day. Meanwhile, a burgeoning global middle class is suddenly demanding luxuries that have long been restricted to the Western world: meat in their diet and oil-burning cars, for example. The world’s most populous nation, historically underdeveloped China, has emerged as the world’s leading automobile manufacturer, last year producing more cars than the U.S. and Japan put together. Unsurprisingly, last year, world oil use reached a record high of 87.4 million barrels a day. Appetite for several other commodities is also rising.
Right now, the United States houses less than 5 percent of the world’s people and consumes 20 percent of its resources. What happens when 10 or 20 percent of the world’s people want to live like Americans?
William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel have produced a model for estimating the ecological demands that various standards of living put on the planet, called the Global Footprint Network (gfn). They estimate that the average person on Earth needs 4.4 acres of land and sea to support him. Considering living standards, the average person in China needs 5.4 acres, while the typical American needs nearly 20 acres.
This model has produced the same conclusion that several other sources have, including the United Nations: that for all people to have a standard of living like the average American would take four or five more Earths’ worth of resources.
The reality is, current demand is already rapidly depleting supplies of finite resources such as oil, coal, natural gas, metals, minerals and even water. New discoveries of easily accessed sources are getting more rare, and older sources are declining in output.
Peaking supply and rising demand point to the inevitability of a crunch that, at the very least, would drive prices up to levels that could ruin already fragile economies.
One obvious sign of the approach of this crisis point is the means by which more and more resources are being collected today. Because easily accessible reservoirs of many crucial resources are disappearing, governments and corporations have begun to exploit more difficult-to-reach, expensive, environmentally risky and even dangerous sources. Oil, for example, is being coaxed out of the inhospitable Arctic, or the deep oceans, creating disasters like that in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010. It is coming from tar sands, a costly process that takes an enormous amount of energy to harvest and convert into usable form. Natural gas is being mined through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which produces 80 million gallons of toxic wastewater per well and may have other environmental drawbacks. Rare earths, a group of minerals used in a variety of modern technologies, are in extremely short supply. Because of the environmental dangers of mining them, America shut down its production of them years ago. Meanwhile, China bought up a virtual monopoly on them, and now is able to practically hold to ransom the rest of the world that seeks to use them.
One of the most basic human needs is food, and the looming limits on food production are many. Rising oil and gas prices increase food production costs at every level of the process, including for the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that are used in growing the crops. Phosphorus, crucial for fertilizer, is in limited supply that won’t keep up with rising demand indefinitely. Arable land is becoming scarcer, in part because of soil degradation and erosion from ruinous farming practices. Most of the world’s big fisheries are experiencing dramatic declines in their fish supplies. Adverse weather events like droughts and floods are increasing, which reduce crop yields or even wipe out harvests.
Based on the gfn model, Rees and Wackernagel calculate that if present rates of growth in demand persist, by the 2030s mankind would need two Earths’ worth of resources to supply them. They also estimate that for what humanity consumes in 12 months, it takes the planet 18 months to regenerate. “Humanity is living off its ecological credit card,” Wackernagel said in 2006.
There is no “central planning” to address most of these questions. What is beginning to emerge, then, is an increasingly combative environment in which each country angles to secure its own future by staking its claims at whatever cost it deems necessary.
Africa and Latin America are becoming battlegrounds, particularly for China and European nations, over who will control the commodities locked away there. Several countries, particularly in Asia, anticipating trouble on the horizon, have been snapping up huge tracts of African farmland—not to feed Africans, but to ensure that their own people have enough food in the future. Competition over energy resources is increasingly shaping the way major powers deal with one another, with energy exporters using political leverage against importers that are dependent on them.
Again, history vividly illustrates the kind of consequences such rivalry tends to create: famines, broken economies, societal upheaval, war.
But it is not just history that should raise our concerns. These are exactly the sorts of perilous conditions that biblical prophecy reveals will besiege our world in its final days, the beginning of which we are in right now. Epic clashes within and among populations, many of them over resources, are coming!