We’re Running Out of Stuff

I am a regular reader of the Peak Oil Reviews that Tom Whipple writes for Resilience.org every week. The importance of oil to modern society, its function in geopolitics, and its central role in climate change make it a resource worth monitoring, if for no other reason than the fact that when we finally start running out of the stuff the world will change in utterly gut-wrenching ways.

But there are other resources that deserve similar scrutiny. While they may be less obvious than oil they are comparably important for the smooth functioning of modern society, and the world may change in pretty dramatic ways when we start running out. In recent weeks I’ve come across articles on three such resources whose supplies may be running dangerously low.

The first is David Owen’s piece in the New Yorker about how we’re running out of sand, which plays an unrecognized but critical role in building materials, glass, computers, phones, and more. In this case the problem isn’t absolute scarcity as much as the inaccessibility of the remaining sand deposits. Owen writes:

Deposits of sand, gravel, and stone can be found all over the United States, but many of them are untouchable, because they’re covered by houses, shopping malls, or protected land. Regulatory approval for new quarries is more and more difficult to obtain: people don’t want to live near big, noisy holes, even if their lives are effectively fabricated from the products of those holes. The scarcity of alternatives makes existing quarries increasingly valuable.

It’s not hard to imagine a day when the price of sand gets high enough to allow quarrying companies to buy out those houses and shopping malls and sufficiently pad the pockets of enough elected officials to clear the regulatory hurdles. Just look at what fracking companies have been able to do when oil broke $80 per barrel.

Another “we’re running out of X” piece I came across recently was this article from Ethan Siegel at Forbes about helium. A new helium scare article hits the web every year or so (here are ones from 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016 (this last one from Wired magazine actually makes the case that this is not such a big deal)).

Helium’s primary industrial use is as a coolant for superconducting magnets such as the ones used in MRI machines. Siegel gives a good detailed explanation for why helium is so scarce. In brief, the radioactive process that generates helium inside the earth’s crust takes hundreds of millions of years, and we’re obviously using it at a faster rate than that. Also it’s hard to contain because it floats away. Also, the US Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that the US national helium reserve be sold off, which has flooded the market, depressing prices, boosting consumption. Great job, guys.

While helium scarcity is worrisome, the recent discovery of a large helium reserve in Tanzania means that there’s more of the stuff out there than we know about, and that 2016 article from Wired linked above indicates that medical device companies are getting better at recycling waste helium. So maybe there’s cause for optimism.

The third resource that we’re in danger of running out of is probably the most frightening of all, even more so than oil: phosphorus. The notion of peak phosphorus has been a subject of debate (and nightmares) for at least a decade now. And as with helium it is a perennial source of hand-wringing magazine articles and fear-mongering blog posts. While the consequences of peak phosphorus are far more dire than a world without MRI machines, or even a world without gasoline, there is no consensus as to whether we are in fact running out, and at the same time  some promising work is being done on phosphorus conservation and recycling.

The event that has brought phosphorus into the news lately has less to do with the threat of scarcity than some recent findings on the historical relationship between the Earth’s phosphorus and the rise of more complex life on Earth. Back in January (I’m a little late to this) a team of earth scientists published a paper in Nature describing the results from an analysis they conducted of some 8,000 samples of sedimentary rock that once made up the bed of ancient oceans. The researchers were studying phosphorus levels over time, and the samples, which spanned 3.5 billion years, gave them a deep, longitudinal data set to study.

Their results show that phosphorus levels in ancient oceans were pretty low until about 800 million years ago, when they started to rise, possibly as a result of massive plate tectonic activity. This event coincides with a genetic change that is thought to have brought about the evolution of the planet’s first multicellular organisms (and event that all of us multicellular organisms should be immensely grateful for).

Tim Lyons, one of the scientists who co-authored the paper, quoted in Astrobiology Magazine (where I first heard of it), describes their findings this way:

“We are now in a wonderful position to unravel the captivating chicken-and-egg relationships among the evolution of life, the rise of oxygen, the shifting availability of phosphorus in the oceans, and even the possibility of episodic nitrogen limitation,” Lyons said. “My money is on the important role of plate tectonics and, 800 million years ago, the breakup of a supercontinent.

This has implications for a number of things, from geology to the search for life on other planets. For me the it is a sobering reminder of just how closely life on this planet is tethered to a scarce resource that very few people are paying much attention to.

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