A sobering look into the future, part 1
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
With the tumultuous first decade of the 21st century behind us, what do you suppose the rest of the century has in store for us? The increasing fanatic Islamist terrorism is certainly a major cause for concern, as are continuing high unemployment and our growing national debt, and in the longer run, the predicted future impacts of global warming. But none of these potential threats to our future have the certainty of the undeniable fact that we live on a finite planet with finite resources, inhabited by a burgeoning population, a significant portion of which has expectations of a standard of living approaching that of the U.S. and Western Europe. The inevitable consequence of this fact is that we will begin to run out of essential resources before the end of this century. The upcoming depletion of the world’s resources will have a devastating effect on our economy and our civilization. It is not a question of whether – it is only a question of when.
The seeds of this upcoming crisis were sown by the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the 18th century with the invention of the steam engine and the rapidly expanding use of coal for both generating steam and meeting the demand for increasing quantities of iron and ultimately steel. Until that time the world functioned primarily on renewable resources, and there had been relatively little consumption of nonrenewables.
The explosive consumption of the world’s resources has been driven by a combination of advancing technology and runaway population growth. The world’s population increased from about 1 billion in 1800 to 1.5 billion in 1890, but then doubled in 70 years to 3 billion in 1960, then doubled again in just 40 years to 6 billion in 2000, and is projected to reach 8 billion by 2024. The unsustainable demand of this phenomenal population growth on the world’s resources is multiplied by the equally phenomenal increase in per capita consumption of those resources.
This is particularly apparent in the 30-fold increase in the extraction of critical metals such as copper and zinc during the last century, the per capita use of which has nearly tripled since 1950. Much of this increase has been due to the spurt in use by China, but greater use in this country is also a contributing factor. The known reserves of these two metals are projected to be depleted in 50-100 years and 25-50 years, respectively. Another resource that has recently attracted notice is the “rare earth metals,” which are essential to the production of television sets, computers, optical fiber cables and wind turbines. Although there is a source of rare earth metals in California, nearly all our needs are currently being supplied by China, which is the world’s primary producer. But China is threatening to limit exports in order to conserve its reserves for its own use. The known sources of rare earth metals are projected to last perhaps 50 years. All of the above projections could be extended somewhat by finding new deposits and increasing recycling, but their ultimate depletion is inevitable. Prospects for steel and aluminum are considerably better, but these ores are also finite, and will ultimately run out, certainly within a few hundred years. Furthermore, production of aluminum is by electrolysis, requiring enormous amounts of energy, which brings us to the topic of energy, which will begin Part II.
– Glenwood Springs resident Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent.
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