Peak Everything

Or, Stuff We’re Running Out of and Have No Good Way to Replace

I’m sure you all are well-familiar with the peak oil phenomenon, but did you know that oil isn’t the only thing that modern civilization needs to survive that we’re depleting at an alarming rate or is almost gone altogether? Here are a few lesser-known resources that may no longer naturally exist by the 22nd century.

Phosphorous

Phosphorous mine in Israel. Wikipedia

Phosphorous is a weird thing– you probably recognize the word from the periodic table of elements hanging up on the wall of your chemistry classroom. How in the heck could we be running out of a basic element? Where is it all going?

For you gardeners out there, you probably associate phosphorous with fertilizer, and rightfully so. Commercially-produced chemical fertilizer is where all of the world’s supply of phosphorous is going, and it’s going there at breakneck speed. Phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium form the basic nutritional needs of just about every plant on earth; this is where you get your fertilizer ratios from: 9-9-9, 6-20-10, and so on. The problem is that the phosphorous in these commercial formulas come from rock phosphate, a sedimentary formation that takes millions of years to form, and is only found in a few geographical areas on earth.

From Resilience.org:

Phosphorus (chemical symbol P) is an element necessary for life. Because phosphorus is highly reactive, it does not naturally occur as a free element, but is instead bound up in phosphates. Phosphates typically occur in inorganic rocks.

As farmers and gardeners know, phosphorus is one of the three major nutrients required for plant growth: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Fertilizers are labelled for the amount of N-P-K they contain (for example 10-10-10).

Most phosphorus is obtained from mining phosphate rock. Crude phosphate is now used in organic farming, whereas chemically treated forms such as superphosphate, triple superphosphate, or ammonium phosphates are used in non-organic farming.

Philip H. Abelson writes in Science:

The current major use of phosphate is in fertilizers. Growing crops remove it and other nutrients from the soil… Most of the world’s farms do not have or do not receive adequate amounts of phosphate. Feeding the world’s increasing population will accelerate the rate of depletion of phosphate reserves.

and

…resources are limited, and phosphate is being dissipated. Future generations ultimately will face problems in obtaining enough to exist.

It is sobering to note that phosphorus is often a limiting nutrient in natural ecosystems. That is, the supply of available phosphorus limits the size of the population possible in those ecosystems.

Peat

A peat harvest in 1905. Wikipedia

I don’t know of any source that make reference to a “peak peat”, but from my understanding of the bell curve that peak predictions rely on, it would make sense to consider peat through this lens.

Peat is basically like a thick, cakey mud that’s dug up from moors and bogs for use in a number of different industries. In rural areas with few trees, it’s cut up into bricks, dried, and used as fuel for stoves and fires. In places like Russia and Finland, peat actually constitutes a sizable percentage of grid energy. Because of its high carbon content, it’s also used to purify water and also, with sphagnum moss, used as a potting soil additive to improve texture and water retention.

Unfortunately, being the product of thousands of years of anaerobic decomposition under special wetland conditions, peat harvesting is completely unsustainable. What’s more, peat bogs are huge carbon sinks, which are both a blessing and a curse for us at this point in time. Good, because under ideal conditions, these areas help mitigate climate change, and bad, because, well, some of the larger ones to be found in tundras all over the world are beginning to thaw for the first time since the last Ice Age, and have the potential to release billions of tons of methane in the process.

From Gardenrant.com:

Peat moss is mined, which involves scraping off the top layer of living sphagnum moss. The sphagnum peat bog above the mined product is a habitat for plants like sundews, butterwort and bog rosemary, as well as rare and endangered animals like dragonflies, frogs and birds, not to mention the living moss itself.  Despite manufacturers’ claims that the bogs are easy to restore, the delicate community that inhabits the bog cannot be quickly re-established.  Yes, peat moss is a renewable resource, but it can take hundreds to thousands of years to form.

Like all precious wetlands, peat bogs purify fresh air and even mitigate flood damage.

And there are archeological reasons to preserve peat bogs.  In the acidic moss below the living layer, wooden artifacts of people who lived long ago survive, even the remains of the people themselves.  CO2 is also preserved – trapped in the moss, but released into the air when mined. In fact, peat bogs store about 10% of all fixed carbon.

In the U.S., peat moss is almost exclusively used by the horticulture industry. 40,000 acres of sphagnum are currently being harvested in Canada, with 90% of the product destined for gardens in the U.S. In the U.K., where peat moss is burned as fuel, as well, nearly 94% of the lowland bogs have been altered or completely destroyed due to harvesting.  And most of our peat is shipped hundreds of miles, often when it’s wet and heavy, which adds further to the fuel required for shipping.

Many conservationists, gardeners, and wetlands scientists in these countries have recommended a boycott of peat. The Royal Horticultural Society hopes for a 90% reduction by 2010.  Areas in Ireland have already banned the harvesting of peat moss altogether.

For those of you looking to replace peat moss in your gardens, coco coir is a relatively renewable resource (and actually does the job better), and conifer needles do a good job of acidifying your soil.

Copper

El Chino, an open-pit copper mine in New Mexico. Wikipedia

Copper is another basic element from the periodic table that we’ve all but used up. It’s used in countless industries for countless applications from the pipes in your house, to your city’s high-tension power lines, to the ammo in your handgun, to the some of the smallest components in your electronic gadgets. Copper is also a component in a number of important alloys, including brass and bronze. The stuff is understood to be the first metal to be extensively used by humans, and its adoption dates back at least 10,000 years.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that 97% of all the copper that has ever been mined was dug out of the ground in the last 100 years and change. Let’s phrase that a different way so I can convey how mind-boggling that is: it took us 10,000 years to mine only 3% of the copper humans have ever used, and only 115 to mine the rest.

If you’ve ever done work on your home or electrical projects, you’ll know that copper is expensive. And if you’ve ever driven around the deserts of the US Southwest, you’ll probably have seen billboards about copper theft. Speaking of copper theft, from Wikipedia:

Copper wire thefts have also become increasingly common in the US. With copper prices at $3.70 a pound as of June 2007, compared to $0.60 a pound in 2002, people have been increasingly stealing copper wire from telephone and power company assets. Gangs have been created, a black market for copper wire has emerged, and men even have been injured in power plants while trying to obtain copper wire. Other sources of stolen copper include railroad signal lines, grounding bars at electric substations, and even a 3000-pound bell stolen from a Buddhist temple in Tacoma, Washington, which was later recovered.

For example, Georgia, like many other states, has seen enough copper crime that a special task force has been created to fight it. The Metro Atlanta Copper Task Force is led by the Atlanta Police Department and involves police and recyclers from surrounding metro areas, Georgia Power, and the Fulton County DA’s office.

A piece from Mines 2 Markets details what claims of peak copper mean:

The trigger now is the demand to wire up the cities in Asia’s booming economies, in India and, particularly, China. China’s vast programme of urbanisation and industrialisation exploded demand for copper from 2000 onwards. Urban population increases (by 2025, one billion people are projected to live in urban areas) will create 221 Chinese cities with over one million people (Europe has 35 such cities). On official data, China accounts for around 40 per cent of current world copper demand. […]

The use of the word “peak” has become emotive. Peak theory, most often associated with oil, was first postulated by American geophysicist M King Hubbert. A Shell employee, he created a model projecting that oil production would peak by 1995, a concept long contended.

But there are major differences between oil and copper, most importantly that copper stays around, and then stays around some more. The International Copper Association (ICA) says 80 per cent of copper ever mined is still in use. The cent or penny in your pocket may contain remains of some ancient Egyptian piping.

Complicating the picture, control of copper supplies is seeing structural change. Industrialised nations have preferred to focus on “new economy” high tech activities and services, believing that minerals could always be acquired on global markets supplied from overseas.

Resource nationalism and labour unrest are key threats to production according to CRU. Increasing government interventions in the copper market are frequent: increased taxes and royalties in Chile, Peru, Zambia, Russia, China, India and, recently, Australia. There has been loss of licences in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and more governments acquiring stakes in mining businesses. […]

Billions and billions are being spent across the copper industry, driven by thoughts of a booming Asia. The market rates investment in copper mines higher than for other non-ferrous metals, while demand, as Rio Tinto forecasts, continues its upward trend.

Yet behind the annual ebb and flow of surpluses and deficits, the conundrum of “peak copper” has yet to be tested. All that seems certain is that, like oil, in today’s money, cheap copper, at least, may have peaked.

Topsoil

dust storm, kansas, the dust bowl, the great depression, erosion, drought

Dust storm picking up over a barren field. History.com

Topsoil. You know the stuff: brown, full of humus, water-retentive, and alive with microorganisms and networks of fungi. All the healthy, natural deliciousness that allows plants to grow strong and healthy. Yeah, we’re running out of this too. And the US ought to be well-familiar with what happens when topsoil disappears. Remember that little thing called the Dust Bowl? From Resilience.org:

The world is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is replenishing it. At the same time, population is growing exponentially – 9.3 billion by 2050, according to UN projections.

Areas of the world – particularly northern China, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Australia are already losing large tracts of arable land. Soil management is about more than heaping on chemical fertilizers. A 2008 New York Times article, Scientists focus on making better soil to help with food concerns, that examined the complex nature of simple dirt found that:

Soil does not arise quickly. In nature it starts with a layer of glacial grit,or windblown sand, or cooled lava, or alluvial silt, or some other crumbled mineral matter. A few pioneer plants put down shallow roots, and living things begin to make their homes in and on the surface, enriching it with their excrement, and enriching it further when they die and rot.The resulting organic matter feeds a whole underground ecology that aerates the soil, fixes nutrients, and makes it more hospitable for plant life, and over time the process feeds back on itself. If the soil does not wash away or get parched by drought, it very gradually thickens. It takes tens of thousands of years to make 15 centimeters of topsoil, about 6 inches’ worth.

The UN’s Global Environment outlook, published 2007, states: “Deficiency of plant nutrients in the soil is the most significant biophysical factor limiting crop production across very large areas in the tropics.”

Honorable Mentions: Lithium, Neodymium, Uranium

Lithium

From Peak Generation:

Lithium is central to the electric cars, because it’s used to create superior batteries – and it’s starting to run out, too. Although clearly less urgent than the items above, this is here to make the observation that it’s wrong to assume that after hitting the peak in global resources we can carry on as before, except that the commute will be in battery-powered cars.

A typical ithium-ion cell can generate approximately three volts, compared to 2.1 volts for lead/acid and 1.5 volts for zinc-carbon cells. According to an April 2010 column Peak Everything? on “free minds and free markets” website reason.com, it’s running out fast:

For example, the Chevy Volt, scheduled to be at dealers this fall, will be energized by 400 pounds of lithium ion batteries, plus a gasoline engine to produce electricity to extend the car’s range of travel once the batteries are drained. In 2007, William Tahil, an analyst with the France-based consultancy, Meridian International Research, issued a report that alarmingly concluded that there is “insufficient economically recoverable lithium available in the Earth’s crust to sustain electric vehicle manufacture in the volumes required.” Tahil added, “Depletion rates would exceed current oil depletion rates and switch dependency from one diminishing resource to another.”

In fairness, a couple of companies are claiming to be developing far superior batteries, that use more common materials – but then if fuel cells lived up to their claims, we’d not even need these. In addition, seawater contains an estimated 230 billion tons of lithium, though at a low concentration of 0.1 to 0.2 ppm – but whether this be harvested in a world of declining hydrocarbons is open to debate.

Neodymium

Also from Peak Generation:

Neodymium is a rare earth metal that makes the strongest permanent magnets known. These are used in products ranging from magnetic computer discs to wind turbines.

Think that when oil supplies start to dwindle, we can all commute in a fleet of hybrid or electric vehicle? Back to reason.com:

For example, the magnets that drive a Prius hybrid’s electric motor use more than two pounds of neodymium. . . Because China can more cheaply produce neodymium than any other country in the world, that country is now the source of 95 percent of the world’s neodymium. Recently, however, China’s government warned that it would begin restricting exports of neodymium (and other rare earth metals) in order to insure supplies for its own manufacturers.

However, this item does state that inventors of a new AC induction motor claim to have eliminated the permanent neodymium magnets. But it’s still an example that driving a Prius is no solution to a future of peak resources.

Uranium

From the MIT Technology Review:

Perhaps the most worrying problem is the misconception that uranium is plentiful. The world’s nuclear plants today eat through some 65,000 tons of uranium each year. Of this, the mining industry supplies about 40,000 tons. The rest comes from secondary sources such as civilian and military stockpiles, reprocessed fuel and re-enriched uranium. “But without access to the military stocks, the civilian western uranium stocks will be exhausted by 2013, concludes Dittmar.

It’s not clear how the shortfall can be made up since nobody seems to know where the mining industry can look for more. […]

But what of new technologies such as fission breeder reactors which generate fuel and nuclear fusion? Dittmar is pessimistic about fission breeders. “Their huge construction costs, their poor safety records and their inefficient performance give little reason to believe that they will ever become commercially significant,” he says.

And the future looks even worse for nuclear fusion: “No matter how far into the future we may look, nuclear fusion as an energy source is even less probable than large-scale breeder reactors.”

Dittmar paints a bleak future for the countries betting on nuclear power. And his analysis doesn’t even touch on issues such as safety, the proliferation of nuclear technology and the disposal of nuclear waste.

The message if you live in one of these countries is to stock up on firewood and candles.

There is one tantalising ray of sunlight in this nuclear nightmare: the possibility that severe energy shortages will force governments to release military stockpiles of weapons grade uranium and plutonium for civilian use. Could it be possible that the coming nuclear energy crisis could rid the world of most of its nuclear weapons?

What about peak water?

Yes! That should definitely be on here. But, as a born and bred Southern Californian, the subject of water management and drought is near and dear to my heart, so it will be getting its own post.

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3 thoughts on “Peak Everything

  1. Great topic! We don’t tend to think about the minerals excavated when thinking about conservation measures in the home. Can’t wait for your water blog – living in So Cal, it is near and dear to us!

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  2. Your posts are always very informative and instead of solely focusing on your own footprint you also research and cover all the resource-based topics I (and many others ) desperately need to have a better knowledge of. Thank you for being my invaluable resource and keep it coming! :)

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    • Thank you very much! I’m glad some readers appreciate these posts as well as the others. :)

      I believe that the personal is political and vice versa, so it would only make sense for me to have both kinds of content!

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