Monday, November 30, 2015         


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Shortage of raw material is fact we must confront

By Richard Brill


Mineral resources are nonrenewable. They are both finite and irreplaceable, and they are diminishing.

However much we might trust or distrust science and government, believe or not believe doomsayers or deniers, it is inescapable fact that there is a finite amount of raw material available on the planet. That fact is not refutable based on one's views or beliefs.

We will eventually see more and more raw materials becoming critically scarce, driving up the price until at some level of scarcity a given resource will become too expensive or will carry unacceptable environmental costs.

Raw materials are market commodities that follow a supply-and-demand relationship. Ores will be mined only if they are profitable, and future societies will have to be willing to pay dearly to keep supplies coming.

As the price goes up, it becomes economical to mine lower-grade raw materials in less accessible places where operational costs are higher. It also provides motivation for searching for raw materials in ever more remote locales.

It is not only the economic costs that go up to locate and exploit more distant, deeper and lower-grade raw materials. The human and environmental costs increase as well, as the Chilean coal mine disaster so aptly illustrated.

There is a certain irony in that as a species we humans have viewed ourselves as masters of the universe on one hand yet on the other hand believe that our actions are too puny to significantly affect the planet's ability to provide for us.

Why is it so difficult to accept that we are capable of significantly altering such a huge planet? Scientific research, which has been so good at unraveling and understanding the physical and chemical laws that govern the planet, also is the best way we have to project the consequences of our actions or inaction today.

Through most of human existence, we thought that Earth was created to cater to our needs. Scientific knowledge has gradually suggested to us that we are a part of nature rather than above it, but we have mysteriously ignored the message that it was not created just for us.

Ancient cultures performed rituals to be sure that the earth would provide for them, but despite their beliefs cultures have perished when the local environment ceased to provide for them. Despite our denial we may be facing a global environment that cannot provide for us.

We can discuss, argue and bluster until we're blue in the face about whether this generation, the next one or the one after that will face the ultimate shortages. Or we can do what all of the uncountable generations before us have done: leave it as a legacy to the next generation to decide or not decide.

This Ponzi scheme that we are running with raw materials will crash unless something changes. What we suspect is that it will take a crisis to focus attention on the issue.

Until future generations learn how to synthesize matter like the Star Trek replicator that works by rearranging subatomic particles, resource management will be a necessary part of environmental planning.

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