Peak Everything?

Forget peak oil. What about peak lithium, peak neodymium, and peak phosphorus?

When you really need something, it's natural to worry about running out of it. Peak oil has been a global preoccupation since the 1970s, and the warnings get louder with each passing year. Environmentalists emphasize the importance of placing limits on consumption of fossil fuels, but haven't been successful in encouraging people to consume less energy—even with the force of law at their backs.

But maybe they're going about it all wrong, looking for solutions in the wrong places. Economists Lucas Bretschger and Sjak Smulders argue that the decisive question isn't to focus directly on preserving the resources we already have. Instead, they ask: “Is it realistic to predict that knowledge accumulation is so powerful as to outweigh the physical limits of physical capital services and the limited substitution possibilities for natural resources?” In other words, can increasing scientific knowledge and technological innovation overcome any limitations to economic growth posed by the depletion of non-renewable resources?

The debate over peak oil is heavily politicized, so let's set it aside and test the idea of imminent resource peaks and their consequences for economic growth on three other non-renewable resources: lithium, neodymium, and phosphorus.

Peak Lithium

Lithium is the element at the heart of the electric car revolution that many green energy enthusiasts are trying to foment. 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.” Not everyone agrees with Tahil’s peak lithium prognostications. Geologist R. Keith Evans, who has long been involved in the lithium industry, issued a rebuttal arguing that lithium resources are much higher than estimated by Tahil. Evans also asserts that as prices rise other sources of lithium will become economical. And lithium prices have indeed been increasing. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume we are “running out” of lithium? So then what?

Even Tahil’s original report argued that there were alternative battery technologies in the works using far more common substances that could substitute for lithium. For example, the Swiss company ReVolt is developing rechargeable zinc-air batteries which hold 300 percent more charge than lithium ion batteries and cost half as much. And then there is Fluidic Energy which claims that it can develop a metal air battery that will hold 11 times the charge of the best lithium ion batteries for less than one-third the cost. A car running on such batteries would have a range of 400 to 500 miles on a single charge. These batteries are made from far more available materials which can be fairly easily recycled.

Peak Neodymium

Neodymium is a rare earth metal used extensively to produce permanent magnets found in everything from computer magnetic disks and cell phones to wind turbines and automobiles. For example, the magnets that drive a Prius hybrid’s electric motor use more than two pounds of neodymium. Interestingly, neodymium magnets were invented in the 1980s to overcome the global cobalt supply shock that occurred as the result of internal warfare in Zaire. 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.

In March, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo) introduced his Rare Earth Supply-Chain Technology and Resource Transformation (RESTART) Act of 2010. The RESTART Act would offer federal loan guarantees to mining and refining companies to recreate in five years a domestic rare earth minerals industry. Rare earth minerals independence, if you will. On the other hand, if neodymium supplies really are a problem, perhaps there is a technical fix. For example, the privately held Chorus Motors has invented and developed an improved AC induction motor that completely eliminates the permanent neodymium magnets to supply the energy needed to accelerate hybrid or electric vehicles. If this technology is widely adopted, it would free up neodymium supplies for other uses and also tend to lower the metal’s price

Peak Phosphorus

In the 1840s, scientists discovered that plants need the element phosphorus to grow. The phosphorus fertilizer industry grew rapidly, initially by exploiting vast deposits of seabird guano left on oceanic islands. Today phosphate rocks are mined to produce the fertilizer. The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI) notes that modern agriculture is dependent on continual inputs of phosphorus fertilizer and that known reserves could be depleted within the next 50 to 100 years. The current issue of Foreign Policy ominously warns that failing to meet the challenge of “peak phosphorus” would mean that “humanity faces a Malthusian trap of widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced.” But unlike petroleum or natural gas, phosphorus, as an element, is not destroyed when it’s used and so could be recovered and recycled.

The folks at the GPRI point out that the phosphorus in just one person’s urine would be close to the amount needed to fertilize the food supply for one person. So why not recycle urine? In fact, NoMix toilets have been invented which allow for the collection of urine separate from solid wastes, allowing phosphorus and nitrogen to be recovered and used as fertilizer. In addition, crop biotechnologists are exploring ways to produce plants that dramatically increase the efficiency with which they use phosphorus, which would reduce the amount fertilizer needed to grow a given amount of food.

Stanford University economist Paul Romer has observed, "Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding: possibilities do not merely add up; they multiply.” The above examples show that while the production of physical supplies of resources may peak, there is no sign that human creativity is about to peak.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.

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  • ||

    Unfortunately, we are not even close to Peak Retard.

  • Jeffersonian||

    FTW!!

  • ||

    Good job, sir.

  • Sean||

    Don't think we will ever run out of 'tards. I think we may though because all the new cases of autism now would in the past with less better diagnosing be diagnosed as retards, so we are substituting autistics for retards.

  • ||

    Clearly the answer lies not in harnessing the rotational energy of the corpses of our Founding Fathers, but in harnessing the unlimited Power of Retard.

  • ||

    I understand that breast implants are on the decline, so we must've reached Peak Bosom.

    And, of course, we've reached Peak Agave, as Mexican farmers continue to burn their agave fields to grow corn for ethanol.

  • zoltan||

    No worries, Heidi is making up for the decline. She's a one-woman bailout.

  • ||

    The average American bra size just went up to a 36 DD. If American women can just manage to keep on eating, astronomical growth will always be assured.

  • Zeb||

    If that is true, then fat people really should be excluded from that calculation. It makes it very misleading.

  • ||

    Peak resource is going to be the new movement to replace global warming. Gradually over the next ten years global warming will go from discredited to forgotten. And the puritanical elites will move onto resource depletion as the new excuse to control everyone's sinful lives.

  • ||

    Don't forget ocean acidification.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Don't forget ocean acidification.


    Which can be dealt with limestone.

  • ||

    Which is great, since AGW/AGCC was the boogeyman they pulled out to replace the previous Peak Oil Scare.

    Maybe we can worry needlessly about AGCC again in 25 years when its in fashion again.

  • ||

    When do I get to start my asteroid belt mining company?

  • max||

    Forget asteroid mining, put your efforts into what has worked in the past, finding a substitute. I know it hard to believe, but a common substance like snake oil can replace scare resources like whale blubber. I also believe that if Billiards remains popular a substitute, perhaps celluloid, will be found to replace ivory in the making of Billiard balls with elephants becoming in short supply. It might be possible to substitute the Hittite metal for bronze in some applications as tin becomes scarcer and copper is depleted. Flax shows potential as a source of clothing (albeit inferior) if woven properly as leather becomes scarce. While there is not enough silver to maintain the amount of currency the growing economy of China needs there is a proposal to substitute semi-precious metals like gold for some currency and even use paper currency to meet the needs of the economy.

  • Paul Ehrlich||

    Keep the fucking Julian Simon away from me!!

  • Paul Krugman||

    Julian Simon is all evil and consumptiony.

  • Jeffersonian||

    I had a PhD engineering prof tell me solemnly in 1981 that we'd be out of oil in 1997.

  • ||

    I'm not surprised. Nobody knows how much oil we can actually extract from the Earth, but everyone's willing to give it a guess.

    I'll give us another decade to recover and peak and perfectly happy to admit wrongness in 2021.

  • Sean||

    Peak oil is a myth. There is an infinite amount of oil in the earth, hence it is impossible to run out no matter how much we use. I am not sure about the other chemical elements besides oil listed this article, but technology may work there. For example, maybe we can make lithium, phosphorus or neodymium out of something else we have more of, like aluminum or iron?

  • Bingo||

    For example, maybe we can make lithium, phosphorus or neodymium out of something else we have more of, like aluminum or iron?


    Not sure about neodynium, but you can't can't create lithium or phosphorus as they are actual elements. (Okay, technically you could smash atoms and create minute quantities of the stuff). Of course, elements arent consumed in the manufacturing process, so they could be recycled.

    And there's always asteroid mining!

  • Bingo||

    Aside from double-posting it appears I've also forgotten my periodic table, good grief. Neodymium is an element too.

  • ||

    You sicken me.

  • Bingo||

    For example, maybe we can make lithium, phosphorus or neodymium out of something else we have more of, like aluminum or iron?


    Not sure about neodynium, but you can't can't create lithium or phosphorus as they are actual elements. (Okay, technically you could smash atoms and create minute quantities of the stuff). Of course, elements arent consumed in the manufacturing process, so they could be recycled.

    And there's always asteroid mining!

  • ||

    We are out of oil. All the stuff we're getting now is made from peo-ple.

  • Sean||

    So it is silent green?

  • ||

    Sealent Green? Oilent Green?

  • yojimbo||

    Silent? Has the bitching stopped?

  • President Obama||

    We should make a bunch of green jobs to find all these solutions.

  • Kroneborge||

    Again this is why it's important to focus on the difference between growth and development.

    The growth in resource use is coming to and end. There is a finite amount of resources (or a finite limit to what can be extraced without reducing future yield).

    Development is essential open ended. We can use resources more effiently.

    However, that doesn't mean we should't take resouce use into account. Moreover, the price mechanism will not always give a timely enough signal.

    For example when oil spikes, there aren't enough subsitues currently available to fill in. Same can be said for many other things.

    Thus it behooves us to plan a bit, and not wait for disaster to bite us in the ass.

    Probably the best book I ever read on resource use was

    http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-G.....0807047090

    Highly recommended but a bit technical in some spots. Still even those without an economics degree should get plenty out of it.

  • ||

    "The growth in resource use is coming to and end."

    The key question is when? The growth rates of a human embryo in the first three weeks would produce an elephant if continued for nine months.

    It is a mathematical tautology to say that growth cannot continue forever, but without knowledge of the limits of the resources, limits to the efficiency with which they may be extracted and the limits to the efficiency of utilization, the observation is meaningless.

  • ||

    "Thus it behooves us to plan a bit, and not wait for disaster to bite us in the ass."

    Luckily there's this thing called profit motive that accounts for that. Every single major oil company is frantically looking for alternatives. The reason is because there is so much profit at stake.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    the price mechanism will not always give a timely enough signal.

    This is one of the most important things to remember when mulling this stuff over. With timely signals the market will adjust in useful ways.

    Without them...well imagine that peak oil is true and imminent: that starting in July the price heads sharply up never to return. At that point most of the money spent in the last couple of years fixing interstate highways is a wasted investment. Likewise most exurb and outer suburb development. And all those HOV lanes. And any oil fired power plants built in the last decade. And recent automobiles. And so on.

    The sudden and unpredicted (or predicted but ignored) depletion of a resource hurts a lot more than a gradual or well anticipated one. When supply curves are reasonably elastic, the latter situation can be expected to pertain. Likewise when there are functional substitutes.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    The sudden and unpredicted (or predicted but ignored) depletion of a resource hurts a lot more than a gradual or well anticipated one.


    When was the last time that there was a sudden and unpredicted, or predicted and ignored, depletion of a resource?

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    By depletion? Various fisheries have collapsed send horrifying shock waves through the restaurant industry from time to time for, oh must be months at a time. The whale oil industry pretty much did themselves in century ago, too. I can't think of an example of an infrastructure resource failing in modern times. (Though I imagine we could dig up one or two from isolated ancient civilization as study cases. Likewise for politically caused shortages.)

    Nor am I particularly worried. Not about oil, or lithium, or ...

    But it is still the key question. Changes on the time scale of infrastructure investment are important to industry insiders but no bother to the rest of us. Changes much faster than that will get you where you live.

  • ||

    EWOTBM: Fisheries collapse because they are open access commons. No property rights means that even when the price mechanism is signaling disaster (which is always does) that fishers have no incentive to respond other than taking as many fish as they can as fast as they can. One of the main ideological problems with environmentalism is that it wants to expand and create new open access commons which would inevitably lead to more such failures and environmental destruction.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    Ron, sure. Not arguing that.

    But the point I've evidently not made explicit enough is that while markets respond well to shortages, the time scale on which that response can occur efficiently is limited by the infrastructure investment timescale for using the resource and/or its substitutes.

    That's my only point here.

    When the redfish just up and disappeared from the markets, the only people who lost were celebrity chef's who made it the center piece of their menu. No big deal.

    If something we build 30-year-expect-lifetime infrastructure for suffered an equivalent event, we'd be really hurting. Unless the scarcity developed over a few decades, in which case the market would adjust smoothly.

    I tell you three times: timescales always matter.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    However, that doesn't mean we should't take resouce use into account. Moreover, the price mechanism will not always give a timely enough signal.


    When was the last time the price mechanism failed to give a timely enough signal?

  • Kroneborge||

    I submit that it is failing to do so with a number of current resources, oil being chief among them, but has also done so in other things like wild fisheries.

    Don't believe me? How did our economy react when oil was at almost $150???

    How do you think it will react next time that it hits there (almost certainly within 5 years). Are we really making the necessary changes we need at the speed we need to prepare our economy for those types of prices?

    Sure eventually our economy will adjust, but it would be more efficient if the changes were made sooner.

    The capital intenstive nature of the changes that need to be made, or misalligned with the sharper price changes that occur in todays commodity markets.

  • ||

    Kroneborge|4.27.10 @ 6:34PM|#
    "How do you think it will react next time that it hits there (almost certainly within 5 years). Are we really making the necessary changes we need at the speed we need to prepare our economy for those types of prices?"

    I seem to recall a lot of fore-lock tugging when oil hit $150, and predictions of the horrors to come, but other than the longs getting burned when the tap was turned back on, I can't recall any terrible circumstances.
    Beyond that, what in the world would you propose as 'necessary changes' and how would they come about absent price signals?

  • Barry O||

    "Beyond that, what in the world would you propose as 'necessary changes' and how would they come about absent price signals?"

    Let me explain to you how this will affect us all...

  • ||

    *That's* what I'm afraid of....

  • Michael Ejercito||


    Beyond that, what in the world would you propose as 'necessary changes' and how would they come about absent price signals?


    We can let Harry Connick, Sr. decide.

    He is doing a bang-up job with the John Thompson appeal.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Don't believe me? How did our economy react when oil was at almost $150???


    Higher gas prices, which discouraged consumption of oil-based products and encouraged consumption of alternatives.

    How do you think it will react next time that it hits there (almost certainly within 5 years). Are we really making the necessary changes we need at the speed we need to prepare our economy for those types of prices?


    Who should make these preparations?

    No one person in the Universe could possibly know the needs and wants of over six billion people. The best thing to do is to let each and every one of the six billion people on Earth to make that decision for themselves. It is not perfect, and many of those people will make poor decisions; there is no better way.

    Sure eventually our economy will adjust, but it would be more efficient if the changes were made sooner.


    And who will make these changes?

    Barack Obama?

    Harry Connick, Sr.?

  • ||

    Looks like Kroneborge done came and went.
    Same story we've heard for (in my case 50) years wrapped in a claim of 'I study this'.
    I'd suggest Kroneborge go tout his/her investment advice on, oh, Daily Koz. They'd eat it up and waste some money.

  • Kroneborge||

    I would suggest a net zero gas tax as an appropriate way to use the price mechanism to give the proper signals to the market.

    That would give people time to adjust, and make the right capital decisions. Also it would give them some certainty, which is often the most important part of the decision to invest.

    For example, you could do a 5 cent a month increase in the gas tax each month (with a corresponding rebate in payroll or income taxes to keep the tax burden the same) and do this until the gas tax hit the desired level.

    Also if you do investing, and you aren't paying attention to the commodity oil thing you aren't paying attention. The investment service I subscribe too is actually libertarian leaning, but that really doesn't matter

    Facts are non partisan.

    Fact oil is a finite resource, and every day supply decreases
    Fact most of the cheap oil has been pumped, there is more oil out there, but it's harder to get and costs more
    Fact demand for oil keeps increasing due to China and India

    None of this should really be contrversial.

    Now, if you want to wait till prices surge on their own, that's fine. Me, I think it would be better if you gave the economy the appropriate price signals earlier because it will take so long for adjustments to be made.

    Either way, I think investing in oil is going to pay off VERY well.

  • ||

    every time we've had runaway inflation.

    http://www.amazon.com/Great-Wa.....amp;sr=8-2

  • ||

    Kroneborge|4.27.10 @ 3:39PM|#
    "...Probably the best book I ever read on resource use was
    http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-G.....0807047090 ..."

    From a review:
    "Herman Daly has been warning his readers of the dangers of unrestrained growth longer than some of them have been alive!"
    IOWs, he's one more Malthusian who, when the sun goes giant, will be proven 'right'.
    Kroneborge, I'd suggest you look here:
    http://www.cato.org/pubs/polic.....0n2-1.html

  • Kroneborge||

    Actually, if you read the book he disgishes between growth and development. Growth in resource use has limits. Growth in development does not.

    Like I said, if you really want to gain an understand of how things really work, read this book.

    I don't know how much knowledge of economics you have, and some parts are a bit technical, but even with that caveat it's still a great read.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "The growth in resource use is coming to and end. "

    How do you know?

  • Kroneborge||

    Empirical evidence. A great example would be wild caught fish. Fisheries have been in decline for quite a while, and many have collapsed.

    Oil production is another. Despite quite a bit of investment, supplies are just barely keeping static.

    It's true that if the price of oil went WAY up, then supply could increase some more still. But I don't think most people are really that interested in oil at the $200-300 a barrel range.

    We should also remember that in the short term (a period of several months to several years) market technicicals and emototions can breifly override fundamentals.

    For example the oil runup in 2008 was partially fundamental, but was also partially bubble.

    From everything I've read (and I spend a considerable amount of time looking into this from an investment persective) commodities in general and oil in particular will be going much higher.

    Yet right now, the price mechanism isn't fuly supporting that (mainly due to the depression). Thus important capital spending decisions are getting made in what will most likely turn out to be an inefficient manner.

    And if you don't think that happens, well then I give you the housing market over the last couple of years. Hundeds of billions at least in misallocated capital.

  • ||

    Kroneborge|4.27.10 @ 5:36PM|#
    "....Yet right now, the price mechanism isn't fuly supporting that (mainly due to the depression). Thus important capital spending decisions are getting made in what will most likely turn out to be an inefficient manner."

    OK, so what should those capital expenditures be based on?
    Pareto efficiency is certainly a laudable goal, but several methods of pursuing it on a societal basis have been shown to be murderous.
    What have you in mind?

  • ||

    Also:
    "A great example would be wild caught fish. Fisheries have been in decline for quite a while, and many have collapsed."

    And?
    The "resource" here is food; wild fish is one of the alternatives.

  • Almanian||

    We here in the midwest are concerned with Peak antifreeze.

    Although I guess that won't matter once the gas runs out 10 years ago...er...or once Teh Globull Climate Changes incinerates us. Or something.

  • ||

    In March, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo) introduced his Rare Earth Supply-Chain Technology and Resource Transformation Development (RESTART RETARD) Act of 2010.

  • Kroneborge||

    It should be noted though, that having China control 95% or so of the rare metals industry is probably not a good thing.

    Remember China doesn't always play fair (think OPEC and market controls)

  • Mike H||

    They only control such a large swath because the Clinton administration made the US’s largest rare earth mineral mine into a national park.

  • ||

    rare earths really aren't all that rare. china supplies all the rare earths because demand isn't that high and they happen to have one of the easier deposits to exploit.

  • ||

    Kroneborge|4.27.10 @ 5:38PM|#
    "It should be noted though, that having China control 95% or so of the rare metals industry is probably not a good thing."

    Somehow, I'll bet you left out a qualifier or two (or three) here.
    "95% control of the rare metals industry" covers entirely too much ground to be taken at face value.
    The currently known deposits? The processing? The distribution?
    BS meter is getting a real spike....

  • ||

    kroneborge is right, but check out what I wrote above.

  • Tman||

    What's that? You want me to post that awesome link to that page of Professor Emeritus John McCarthy's called Sustainability of Human Progress?

    You're welcome. Don't thank me, I'm a giver.

  • Peak Indium||

    Hey, don't I get any love?

  • Peak Praseodymium||

    I hear you.

  • Ragin Cajun||

    What about Peak Unobtanium? We'll have to kill some smurfs or something.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    Dude, killing smurf is good on it's own merits. No need to invoke unobtanium shortages, just declare open season.

  • ||

    there is no sign that human creativity is about to peak.

    What about peak stupidity; have we reached that yet? From where I sit it looks like we have only begun to tap that infinite resource.

  • ||

    Eventually, Malthus (and his disciples) will be right about SOMETHING.

    Or not.

  • ||

    We're not near peak laudanum, though, right?

  • Jeff P||

    I experienced Peak Sperm many years ago...

  • ||

    The folks at foreign policy and foreign affairs are always happy to use malthusian fear to help perpetuate the defense industry

  • Barry O||

    Damn that Hillary!

  • KWebb||

    It's already really easy to recover phosphorous. Animal feces are still used as fertilizer. Recovery from human sources isn't too difficult either. The output from waste water treatment plants has a large amount of phosphorus in it, especially in places where the EPA hasn't clamped down on it. Pipe it over to some facility that grows the algae or the aquatic plant of your choice. Harvest it, dry it, grind it up, throw it on fields.

  • Dello||

    You kids are too young to remember, but in my day, I still recall Peak Whale.

    And Peak Buggywhip. What a rough time that was. Kids today got it so easy.

  • Mark Plus||

    Bailey writes:

    >Stanford University economist Paul Romer has observed, "Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding: possibilities do not merely add up; they multiply.” The above examples show that while the production of physical supplies of resources may peak, there is no sign that human creativity is about to peak.

    The human mind created a cheap substitute for a finite gold supply called fiat money. Yet many libertarians want to forbid the use of this invention, even though it doesn't differ in principle from other neat hacks which keep falsifying limits-to-growth forecasts. Why do they want enforce Malthusian status on gold while exempting all other resources?

  • ||

    Mark Plus|4.27.10 @ 7:25PM|#
    The human mind created a cheap substitute for a finite gold supply called fiat money. Yet many libertarians want to forbid the use of this invention, even though it doesn't differ in principle from other neat hacks which keep falsifying limits-to-growth forecasts. Why do they want enforce Malthusian status on gold while exempting all other resources?"

    Perhaps because fiat money has shown itself to be not really a replacement?
    I'm not in favor of the gold standard, but I'm certainly not convinced that non-competitive fiat money (that is fiat monies which cost a premium to covert back and forth) are a (or the) real replacement.

  • Barry O||

    That deserves a +1 Mr. Plus.

  • ||

    Hey some of us have a consistent worldview.

  • ||

    I think we reach these "peak" resource outlooks due to government intervention on behalf of big business in order to control prices and choice of energy. Weather those energies be traditional or "green" it makes no difference as they will utlimately be regulated through executive authority by way of the EPA.

    I like to use the example of algae based biofuels which are a great idea because of their quick yields but do you think that a small business owner who has the capital to start the company at a local level to fuel its communties citizens would be allowed to do so?

    The EPA would come in and say the fuel is toxic, unsafe, etc and dont forget the Dept of Transportation would say that filling your vehicle with the fuel is a felony. Then later they would reverse all that as soon as a company like Chevron had a hold on the production of it.

    BTW I own a NON flexfuel vehicle and have ran E85 a numerous times and its harmless.

  • Some Guy||

    BTW I own a NON flexfuel vehicle and have ran E85 a numerous times and its harmless.

    It will run your car just as well, but will eat away your gas tank over time.

  • ||

    if your vehicle already has 100k worth of miles on it and is an older model.

  • ||

    When oil is burned for energy, it is an essentially irreversible process. Thus, at some point, if we continue to use oil, we will run out.
    Lithium, Neodinum, etc. are elements. The amount of these elements on earth is constant. Unlike oil, they cannot be used up.

  • ||

    yes, but eventually we'll be mining trash piles to get to them.

  • DoDoGuRu||

    And?

    How is a mountain materially different than a trash pile?

  • Some Guy||

    Though I'm certainly no expert, I think that the fact that we haven't been looking for Lithium, etc for as long as we've been drilling oil will mean there are likely more hidden reserves we haven't found yet.

    With oil we're certainly running out of low-hanging fruit, but we should still be set for the immediate future - though not as cheaply as today.

  • ||

    Yes, we CAN make lithium and phosphorus out of other materials. However, nuclear transmutation is a terribly inefficient process. Would probably take more than the world's entire energy output for years to make a few Volts/Prius-worth of lithium from fusing H and He or slinging shit at beryllium/benmark/other-heavier-elements till they break down to Li.

    The alchemists were right: you can make gold out of lead. Sadly, the process is so expensive it kinda ruins the whole point.

  • ams||

    The ONLY resource that mankind ever need worry about running out of is abundant energy. With energy, we can close the loop on any recycling process you care to name. With energy, our landfills are tomorrow's mines. After all, atoms don't vanish from the earth, nuclear physics and deep space probes excepted. We'll still have exactly the same matter in our hands tomorrow that we do today - it will just be in a less convenient energy and entropy state.

    Right now we get our energy from oil. I could easily see us getting energy from fission for thousands of years. So, if any resource mine-outs are allowed to properly be handled by the market, rather than political hysteria and instinctive fears more appropriate to our hunter gatherer ancestors (which did live in a more or less zero sum world), then I wouldn't be very existentially concerned.

  • ||

    The problem with this is that the economics and technical viability of a thorium-232 or depleted uranium reactor have yet to be established. That's an awfully thin reed to be betting on.

  • ||

    I think the science is there, the will to accomplish it...not yet

  • ams||

    Speaking of which, we already have a thriving recycling program in terms of bulk industrial metals. Aluminum is highly prized because it is less expensive to recycle than it is to produce from bauxite.

    This should suggest that no government programs are needed to ensure the availability of resources. When the time is right to switch to recycling from mining, the market will adjust, as it already has without the knowledge or championship of the greens.

  • ||

    ams|4.27.10 @ 10:46PM|#
    "Speaking of which, we already have a thriving recycling program in terms of bulk industrial metals. Aluminum is highly prized because it is less expensive to recycle than it is to produce from bauxite."

    I'm not sure about this; is it less expensive 'pareto', or less expensive given the government programs for recycling?

  • ams||

    I'll have to look it up. My understanding from prior work conversation was that scrapyards pay much more for aluminum than for steel or other more common metals, due to aluminum being so energy intensive to produce. But, having the data in hand is always the final arbiter.

    I'm talking about the industrial scrapyards, not the can collections on corners.

  • π||

    Aluminum is considerably lighter than steel, recycles easily, and is in high demand at present. Scrap yards purchase by weight, what they pay varies from yard to yard, but for the most part is determined by demand in relation to supply.

    At present China is modernizing rapidly and funding it with large scale manufacturing creating a massive hunger for raw materials including metals. The increase in demand has grown faster than sources of supply, so most metals are very high in value right now.

  • ams||

    Okay, so I found this on a scrap metal auction site. I'm not sure the units they are using (looks like "meters" or something), so it only provides a relative idea at the moment. What is really weirding me out about the chart is zinc. I thought zinc was cheap as dirt.

    Copper 7645 7691 7700 Lead 2291 2324.5 2362
    Aluminium 2262.5 2290 2393 Tin 18805 18945 19110
    Nickel 26850 26800 26450 Al.Alloy 2100 2140 2205
    Zinc 2375 2410 2465 NASAAC 2110 2140 2255
    Cobalt 0 42500 42350 Molybdenum 0 40000 40000
    Steel(Med.) 475 505 615 Steel(F.E.) 535 550 615

  • Zeb||

    Aluminum produced from bauxite is subsidized as well through cheap hydroelectric power (takes a lot of electricity to make aluminum). And I believe that aluminum is one of the few recycling programs that is efficient enough not to need subsidy. You can take aluminum cans and sell them to a private scrap yard any day. Not so much with glass or plastic bottles.

  • ||

    I remember an extremely progressive Environmental Science professor I had explain to the class that the majority of our recyclables are crushed, compacted, sold and shipped off to China where they use it. I found it somewhat earth shattering that all those programs of special bins to seperate and "reduce", "reuse", etc were just a money making gimmick. In the U.S.A. we still get our school pencils the ooooold fashion way...cut down an anciet Redwood and make 'em from that!!! God I hope my glue comes from horse hoof...

  • ||

    I don't understand your objection to private enterprise ("money making gimmick") participating in the (re)distribution of resources. If you're claiming that the metals and plastics are mixed together after having been collected separately, you'll need to provide reliable evidence, since it doesn't make intuitive economic sense.

  • ||

    I remember an extremely progressive Environmental Science professor I had explain to the class that the majority of our recyclables are crushed, compacted, sold and shipped off to China where they use it. I found it somewhat earth shattering that all those programs of special bins to seperate and "reduce", "reuse", etc were just a money making gimmick. In the U.S.A. we still get our school pencils the ooooold fashion way...cut down an anciet Redwood and make 'em from that!!! God I hope my glue comes from horse hoof...

  • ||

    I'm looking forward to Peak Cannabis.

  • ||

    The debate over peak oil is heavily politicized, so let's set it aside


    Why? I get the strong impression of an admission of defeat on this point.

  • Chad||

    I agree. It sounds like a dodge to me. We either hit peak oil in the summer of 2007, or we will modestly exceed that peak sometime a few years from now, and then will decline after that. Libertarians and conservatives just hate dealing with this fact.

    Several other resources, 3He, U235 and regular helium, are also problematic in the same way: they are largly consumed or lost upon use. 3He supplies are terribly short. It is a by-product of nuclear arms manufacture, and supply is dwindling just as demand is spiking (it is critical for the neutron detectors that we use to sweep ports of entry for nuclear bombs, among other things). We are trying to recycle it as best we can, but it eventually leaks and then escapes the atmosphere into space. Regular helium faces the same escape problem, though supplies are not in short-term jeopardy. However, helium production is tied to oil drilling, and which way is that going? U235 and other fissionalbe isoppes, of course, are consumed as we use them.

    Other things, such as lithium, copper, gold, titanium, etc are at least in principle infinitely recycably, as we don't lose them as we use them. However, the question is at what cost. We already spend about 10% of our incomes here in the US on raw materials and energy. What happens if this doubles or triples? That is a tremendous blow to our wallets...and it is all but inevitable.

    Of course, we are mining water and soil as well. Ron conveniently forgot about these. Expect food costs to rise and yields to suffer as we either have to abandon certain areas because we drained the aquifers and depleted the soil, or shifted to much lower-yielding dry farming.

    Kroneburg is on the right track: there is a distinction between growth and development. Up until now, we have had both, intimately intertwined. We have to prepare for a world where the latter is all we have, and the former may even reverse. We are adults now, and need to focus on being better rather than bigger.

  • ||

    It's too bad you're such a tool, Chad, because you're right about this. Isn't the best thing though to rely on price signals in a non-fiat currency system to guide us through resource scarcity?

    You say "we are adults" so shouldn't we as individuals be allowed to choose what we want and what we don't without having a nanny state decide for us?

  • Kroneborge||

    IMO, yes we should. Although, adjusting the price signals a bit through a net zero gas tax is IMO still a good idea.

    I think with the adjustment time needed by the economy its the only prudent thing to do.

    And of course that's totally aside from all the other reasons why it would be good to consume less oil. The environment, the trade deficit etc

  • Chad||

    The problem with "price signals" is that they are almost never accurate, and indeed, are often wildly off the mark.

  • ||

    Of course, we are mining water and soil as well. Ron conveniently forgot about these. Expect food costs to rise and yields to suffer as we either have to abandon certain areas because we drained the aquifers and depleted the soil, or shifted to much lower-yielding dry farming.

    You can't use up soil, you can only extract all available nutrients. However, you can replenish nutrients via fertilizer, so I don't see your point. Aquifer depletion is a serious problem, but mostly because its been "free". Proper management of surface collection and costing back to users should alleviate this problem.

  • Chad||

    "soil" without the nutrients is dirt.

    What are you planning to do to encourage proper managment, as it clearly isn't happening now.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    In re: He-3 as necessary to efficient neutron detection.

    Substitute technologies based on gadolinium and and chlorine already exist (and perhaps boron, not sure about that).

    And since gadolinium has few industrial uses and the Chinese have been refining rare earths on a monumental scale (and you get them all rather non-selectively), gadolinium has become cheap as dirt.

    (This has been a boon to the neutrino detection community despite the tricky chemistry of Gd.)

  • Chad||

    I agree that there are other technologies. None work as well as of yet, unfortunately.

    Sometimes, I think free marketers would be willing to play Russian roulette, on the assumption that the market would solve the problem of the loaded chamber coming up before the bullet got to their brain.

  • Tex||

    According to my calculations using data from the Energy Inforamtion Administration for world consumption and reserves, there were 28 years of oil remaining in 1980 at then-current levels of consumption. In 1990, there were 41 years left. In 2000, 36 years. In 2009, 42 years.

  • ||

    same calculations have been made for decades...we are always 10-30 years away from running out of whatever fuel is the favorite of the curent day.

    When the prices go up the sahres of the market that go to 100-year old yet still emerging technologies such as gas-shale starts increasing...the unconventional becomes the conventional over the course of a decade...as did deep see rigs, horizontal dilling, coal bed mathane, oil sands over the last etc.

  • ||

    I think Ron Bailey needs to watch the Crash Course by Chris Martenson.

  • Robertg||

    To bad we are no where close to peak lie from environmentlist

  • ||

    But are we close to peak aboo?

  • ||

    Wow! one can tell from the really elightened and brilliant responses from all of the libertarians here (i.e. Peak Retard, Bosom, etc.) that we have nothing to worry about... our brilliance will transcend any natural limits and we will grow forever. Worry not my little free-marketeers: pollution and consumption and debt forever to the end of the horizon! I'm not even sure we need nature... we can probably keep little remnants of a few species of animals, ocean, and tropical forests in some terrariums somewhere as a reminder... if they pay for themselves, of course!

  • ||

    Here is a good graphic for Ronald Bailey....

    http://flowingdata.com/2009/04.....rces-last/

  • Zeb||

    The problem with charts and statistics like that is that they always assume that we will keep doing everything exactly the way it is done now and not come up with any new ideas at all. Which has never been the case.

    The other problem with information like this is what the fuck are you going to do about it. There are 6 billion people who all need and want to consume stuff. This is not going to go away. People will go on consuming the stuff that is easy to consume until it is gone or to inconvenient/expensive to consume anymore. So whether or not the more alarming environmental and resource depletion warnings are true, I chose to hope for the best and assume that people will find some solution. Because the alternatives I can see are ugly: either some sort of world government enforcing a primative and restricted lifestyle, or a more natural collapse of civilization and all the nastiness that entails.

  • ams||

    How about we just produce enough energy to actually run civilization and stop pretending that starving civilization of energy will result in anything other than horrible poverty? We have the means to do so, the only question is whether the politicians will let us.

  • Bob Loblaw||

    Another peak issue Mr. Bailey missed is peak gold:

    http://www.businessinsider.com.....on-2009-11

  • ||

    I'd like to start a meme, "Peak Government Power." We're using it like it will never run out, and we've got to cut down on our squandering and wasteful ways. As Maggie the Magnificent said, "You run out of other peoples' money." And when the taxpayers go Galt, those entitled masses can turn on you in a flash when you're in power.

    We need to conserve government power by using it like it was the last barrel of oil in the world and quit flying government officials around like they were energy free, start giving more attention to the government footprint of the denizens of the various areas of the nation. If you don't need that extra agency or czar, don't let it get established. Take a government audit of your personal life and if you don't use or need a particular government service, vote for candidate who oppose it, because there are a vocal minority who will support it, otherwise.

    How about recycling government officials, agencies and bureaucrats , instead of leaving them just lying around drawing pay when you they're of no more use. We need to trim back on waste. All that legislation that doesn't benefit anybody but big corporations, minority activists or big labor unions? If it's not benefiting everybody, let's repurpose the money it's slurping up!

    No more tax guzzlers! Nobody needs a huge 4x4 Congressman. Look for a Independent Hybrid who runs on Tea.

  • Enrico||

    So the question becomes: how long can human creativity keep the second law of thermodynamics at bay?

  • Ian||

    As things get more expensive alternative sources for these materials become economically feasible -

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/sci/tech/401227.stm

  • ||

    The folks at the GPRI point out that the phosphorus in just one person’s urine would be close to the amount needed to fertilize the food supply for one person. So why not recycle urine? In fact, NoMix toilets have been invented which allow for the collection of urine separate from solid wastes, allowing phosphorus and nitrogen to be recovered and used as fertilizer. In addition, crop biotechnologists are exploring ways to produce plants that dramatically increase the efficiency with which they use phosphorus, which would reduce the amount fertilizer needed to grow a given amount of food.

    Yet those "improved" biotech crops won't be used in a system that makes use of the urine sourced phosphorus.

    The above examples show that while the production of physical supplies of resources may peak, there is no sign that human creativity is about to peak.

    There is indeed such a sign - the public education system. As the state gets better and better at controlling the minds of the people in order to prevent the development of intelligence and cognitive abilities - there will be fewer and fewer human minds capable of such creativity.

    In addition there is also the regulation and taxation which prevents creative people from being able to create and implement creative solutions.

    Phosphorus is a good example. By the time the state got involved in a big time way with agriculture - it was known that urine was the essential source. The state decided to replace that option with oil derived phosphorus. Now, here we are 80 years later, and once again we are reminded that we are literally flushing this valuable resource away, and what is the most likely option on the table for humanity? Biotech crops. Why biotech? It's controllable by the state, that's why. Everyone has access to and can control their own urine leaving no means for control by the state. Biotech however can be used to advance our society down the road to serfdom.

    I'm sure Ron Bailey will go the biotech route, as will almost all of the other readers of Reason. I for one am going the urine route. We'll see which one works better after the next 80 years.

  • ||

    The primary "peak" is HUMAN POPULATION! Need I write more?

  • ||

    Yes maybe human innovation can over- come resource short falls. That is exactly what the advocates for green energies are saying. The point is to get going on it and devote the needed resources to retool our systems. Thus enters the politics.

    Smug humanism won't do. We need to put that creativity to work.Today!

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  • ปลวก||

    I also believe that if Billiards remains popular a substitute, perhaps celluloid, will be found to replace ivory in the making of Billiard balls with elephants becoming in short supply.

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