Are we running out of resources?
A rock is just a rock unless you know how to extract what is inside it. Once you have the knowledge—once you know that that rock is not like any other rock, that rock is chalcopyrite, it is an ore, it is an ore of copper—once you know that, then it becomes a resource.
And then you need more know-how still: you have to know how to extract it, know how to crush the rock then, crucially, to heat the rock, and in many cases, add some chemicals into this whole process so that out the end of this you get copper. That’s mining and refining. For almost all of our metals—the essential building blocks of our civilization—we get them from rocks through difficult, high energy extraction. It’s just physics that a particular temperature is needed in many cases to break the bonds between the pure metal and the non-metals with which it is chemically combined in these ores we call otherwise call rocks. To reach such high temperatures takes a furnace, and powering a furnace takes resources. Almost always, the only viable option is coal right now—we know of nothing else up to the task. In theory one might use the heat from a reaction using radioactivity—which might take uranium—but then this itself would need to be mined for that purpose, and it would be ridiculously expensive to refine metals using fission reactions.
This substance—coal—not only fuels the overwhelming majority of our electricity production on Earth as of 2021 (it’s around 54% of all electricity globally with another 22% coming from oil and gas 1)—but coal is also absolutely crucial for the production of so many of the other solid resources we know about that literally form the foundations of our built environment: the iron, steel, aluminium, copper and other metals. As many have observed before, coal is essentially highly concentrated solar energy. Deposited over the course of millions of years beginning around 300 million years ago, coal is literally the energy from the sun trapped in the cells of plants forming bonds between carbohydrate molecules which are then gradually ossified into long chains of carbon atoms. These carbon atoms are linked together by bonds, and it is the bonds which hold that original energy from sunlight captured by photosynthesis and now stored in the rock we call coal.
Before steam engines were a thing, people still needed to do certain kinds of work. For example, they needed to crush rocks for smelting, or pound wood to make pulp for paper, or they needed to mill four in a grist mill so that bread could be baked. And the first way of doing this without using hand was to use a water wheel—literally a big wheel driven by flowing water on streams and rivers. So from feeding to reading, the movement of large wheels helped do the work on larger scales that people by hand could only dream of. Eventually, in a place like England where so much of this sort of innovation began, the number of suitable places to build water wheels were taken up. It took the creation of great innovators like Thomas Savery, Thomas Newcomen and most famously James Watt to lay the foundations in the 1700s for the mass production of the steam engine. Here then was a device which converted stored energy—potential energy—into heat and then into the energy of motion: work. And work at a far greater rate than any water wheel could hope to have done. That’s literal power, and why the unit of power is now known as the Watt.
But steam engines require steam. So how to produce that? High temperatures require high energy density, and again, this means coal. The early steam engines led to faster means of transportation—the steam train and eventually the upgraded version of the steam engine the so-called steam turbine was able to take the power of super high pressure steam to literally turbocharge the conversion of thermal energy from burning coal into spinning an electrical generator—the entire basis of modern electrical generation. For that, the often unsung hero Charles Parson’s needs to be named and thanked as it was he who, in 1884, invented the steam turbine—crucial to powering so-called turbogenerators for the production of AC electricity which Parson’s commercialized in the late 1800s in both Britain and Germany and eventually across Europe and changed the standard of living for billions forever, bringing cheap electricity and opening the possibility of new widgets and inventions never before possible.
Much research time has been spent explaining all the ways coal is a health hazard. But what is far less often lauded are all the ways coal has increased health outcomes. Without it, we would not be at the present state of development we are, and the good that coal has done for civilization—in helping to create and maintain civilization—needs to be set against the necessary side effects of its use. As always, there exists a fundamental principle of physics and epistemology here: solving one bad problem never leads to an unproblematic state. It simply leads to new, better problems to solve. And this is why the world around us improves: not because we reduce the number of problems. Quite the opposite. We solve the worst of our problems only to multiply the number of better, more interesting problems. Problems in our future will only ever increase in number. But with an effort, the ones that would otherwise destroy us rather more quickly are eliminated.
The world was often too cold or too hot, it was too dark or too dangerous, it was too arid, too polluted, too unfiltered, too lacking in technology, computation, medicine and efficient transportation. In short, it was too lacking in electricity, and now we have more of that thanks to resources we have learned how to exploit. But we need more of them.
We need more resources.
Everyone should be living much more like the most wealthy people in the most wealthy nations are living now. It should be considered a moral abomination that billions of people are not living in multiple story homes with robotic assistants to control their lights, security, doors, air-conditioning and the temperature of their pools. And to build all this we need resources, and to power it all we need resources and more of them. And to get there fast, we need to exploit the resources we have now as fast as we can, as efficiently and as cheaply as possible.
Coal is finite—and it is just one resource we should be using more of so that energy is far cheaper than it is and can be exported to others more cheaply too so that they can be living as the most wealthy among us live. But though any particular resource like coal is finite, resources in general are not. What we need to turn a useless rock like coal into electricity or chalcopyrite into copper is knowledge. Knowledge is the catalyst that turns the useless into the useful, and even into the essential.
We never knew that pitchblende ore could be turned into uranium until advanced knowledge of mining and nuclear physics taught us how. We never knew that crude oil contained within it long chains and rings of carbon atoms which could spawn an entire discipline of science: organic chemistry. This is the science, among other things, that spawned the entire plastics and petrochemical industry. Crude oil, and the chemicals that can be created from crude oil has produced useful materials including medicines, clothing, building materials, computing components—they form the basis of our modern civilization.
But organic chemistry is complicated. Very complicated. All of these things—so much of the underlying technology we take for granted—contain crucial materials that contain some kind of plastic or solvent or adhesive and so on, ultimately derived from crude oil. But that is only done because we know how. If we did not know how, crude oil would be nothing but a useless sludge still in the ground. And we would still have a life expectancy of 45, living in stone and mud huts and riding horses into the fields to til the Earth for rice and wheat.
It is our knowledge of resources that drives progress.
Shouldn’t we be afraid of running out? No. The lesson here is that the limiting factor is not resources—but knowledge. Knowledge of how to take the useless and turn it into the useful. To create solutions from the matter around us—to literally transform the physical reality in which we find ourselves into a home. Outside our physical home, it is our resource.
Hasn’t everyone at some time or other marvelled at glass? Here is a substance—completely waterproof, effective at keeping out not merely the cold wind but also the noise of chirping crickets and perhaps your neighbors constructions and chattering and not to mention the disease ridden mosquitos. Here is a substance almost perfectly transparent yet totally ridged, so it can be put in frames and opened and closed at will. Why should the universe have had laws that permitted such a substance to even exist in the first place? It did not need to be this way, and yet sand allows for it. But not just any sand: it has to be very pure silicon dioxide sand. And then it needs to be blended with small amounts of sodium oxide, calcium oxide and some other chemicals and then heated to extremely high temperature. So we are back once again to using fossil fuels as the only viable option for this process. To make windows flat, the liquid glass is floated on liquid tin—which needs to be kept at its melting point, again requiring high energy. The fact sand is a resource at all in this way takes knowledge once more, otherwise it’s useless stuff on a river bed or at a beach.
What is the lesson here?
Coal: it wasn’t a resource, now it is. Oil: it wasn’t a resource—now we’ve learned how to use it—it is a resource. Sand: it wasn’t a resource, now it is.
This is the lesson, over and again. What we learn, what we know, the knowledge we create takes useless matter and turns it into something useful: a resource.
It’s not that we are running out of resources. We used to have less resources. Our ancestors in hunter-gatherer tribes had barely any resources. One might well say they had wood, for fire and weapons. They had wild animals—for food and clothing. And some plants as a resource to supplement their diets with berries and their weaving into crude, uncomfortable rags to wear and baskets to carry their meager belongings. They had insufficient resources. They should expect once a generation or more to starve or be frozen to death or eaten by a wild animal or poisoned by a polluted stream that contained too many animal feces or some other bacteria from a decaying carcass. They lacked resources. The world back then lacked resources because the people then lacked knowledge—the only thing that could turn the inert, useless material around them into something that could have made things more comfortable. That might have solved some of their urgent problems of survival.
So we are not running out of resources. It’s the opposite: they are proliferating. But only because we are creating knowledge at a rate unprecedented. But knowledge production needs to be fuelled. It takes energy. These days we want to power our computers and lots of them. And we need to protect those computers in buildings that are temperature controlled and out of the harsh environment of the natural world. All of this takes more and more resources. And the faster we wish to create knowledge and use computers to help us calculate the best ways to improve our world the more energy we will need and the more people we want to have access to these same means of producing knowledge as we do, the cheaper that energy will need to be.
We already know of some of the resources that can power and protect all of this. I’ve spoken about some. But there will be a child born today—who knows where—who makes the discovery of the next resource. An otherwise ignored rock perhaps that contains within it copious quantities of this raw material which, subject to a complex chemical process, is then able to do wonders only science fiction writers can dream of. Will this rock contain a resource that makes batteries even more light weight than our present crop of lithium cells? Could it contain even more stored energy? Might it be a material that allows future computers to operate even faster at far lower temperatures? Might there be a trace metal, otherwise barely ever extracted, contained in a mineral of some ore in strata of rock that no one but academic geologists paid much heed to? We don’t know yet. But we do know that this is what it takes: knowledge.
Matter is unlimited, and whether that is actually or merely effectively won’t trouble us for thousands and millions of years. We can make all of the Earth rather like the best parts of New York, or Paris or Sydney: picturesque, clean and comfortable. We can then set about to make the rest of the solar system rather like the Earth. Even the space between the planets: powered by some energy dense resource of the future and constructed from some metallic alloy mined from rocks in asteroids that might otherwise be a danger to us as meteors.
And then we continue to zoom out, turning the galaxy into our civilization. Converting the matter there into our home. Using that matter as our resource as we learn more and more about the geology, the chemistry and the physics of the matter that is a constant across the universe. We create the knowledge, then we control reality. We cocoon ourselves in civilization and protect ourselves from the hostile environment by constantly bringing into existence resources. We do that. We create the resources. It is not the planet or even the universe that gives us resources. It is us who creates the knowledge. And it is knowledge that turns useless matter into useful resources. So we are doing that. We are creating resources out of what is around us.
That rock is just a rock. But we create the resource. We create the copper. We create the electricity. We create the civilization. And this will just go on and on. But only if we choose for it to happen. Only if we make an effort, continue to explain the world around us. Explain what is in those materials and what they might be used for.
In 1972 a book “The Limits to Growth” was published. Using the best computer simulations of the time, its authors predicted all petroleum reserves would have been utterly consumed by 1992/1993.
Their predictions also forecast running out of aluminium, gold, mercury, silver, tin and natural gas (among other things) by the mid 90s. The book runs for over 200 pages. It is authored by respected experts in relevant fields. It is a veritable goldmine as a resourceful catalog of pessimistic prophesy (pardon the puns). It has sold ~30 million copies.
So, are we running out of resources? Is poverty, catastrophe and famine inevitably around the corner? Were the authors “basically correct” but just wrong about the size of the error bars on their dates?
No one can include in such forecasts what we will discover tomorrow. Over and again, the doomsayers predict this or that will run out and that will lead to our doom. But this is simply false.
Resources are not limited. Only human knowledge is limited. Should any particular resource begin to run short, our creativity will bring into being the knowledge of how to replace that resource from either some other source or by using some other means to accomplish what that resource did.
We know for a fact coal is limited in simply on Earth because the Earth is finite. But should we begin to run low of coal in the centuries to come, if, for some astonishing reason, we do not find a way to more efficiently produce electricity (such as through nuclear fusion) we already possess the knowledge now of how to generate and store electricity in such a way as to replace coal. But for now, by comparison, those ways of generating electricity are far more expensive. But only because no resource has yet been discovered that is objectively better at producing electricity more cheaply.
One day there will be such a resource created by us because coal will be exhausted. Of course, it seems reasonable to presume—though impossible to predict—that long before coal reserves come close to being depleted—that there will be a way to generate electricity more cheaply. Perhaps someone will create a more efficient geothermal power station, or vastly better photovoltaic arrays and higher energy density batteries.
The most transformative entity in the universe is explanatory knowledge. Knowledge is information that solves a problem. Knowledge is likewise independent of its physical substrate, as we say. In more simple terms, knowledge can be instantiated—or represented—in very disparate media, very different physical forms and yet still encode the same information. A resource is that media. Resources are required to construct that media and fuel our ability to write to that media. A resource is the media in which houses, car and computers are built. A resource is that physical thing out of which civilization is constructed. And what constructs and transforms is knowledge.
And we will never run out. No, so long as we keep choosing to create. If we keep doing what it is we do as people. We are explainers and constructors. We are creators. We are resource makers.
We are a beginning of infinity. We are running out of nothing but optimism. But that too is just another transient blip in our culture, not necessarily shared by those who strive for things to get better and who notice they have and expect that they will. And things will get better—relentlessly. We should keep in mind just how terrible it was in the past so that we can know the present is paradise by comparison.
And in the future? The signs are that we are choosing to improve and make progress. We will continue to learn how to transform things for the better. So, are we running out of resources? No. Resources only ever increase as we create more knowledge of how to exploit the otherwise useless matter around us. We are resourceful, and the universe is that resource. And so far as we know: it is infinite.
(Originally appeared on YouTube: https://youtu.be/FY9njrte8tc.)
https://www.energy.gov.au/data/electricity-generation. Some references dispute this number. ↩︎
March 26, 2022