Another excellent article from the folks over at TreeHugger.com about various resources being depleted around the world and some of the root causes. Here’s a brief summary of these scarcities. Be sure to visit this page and the links for more to get more details about each Peak Resource.
Blame Earl Butz. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Agriculture brought in the Farm Bill that dramatically increased the amount of corn produced in America. He encouraged farmers to “get big or get out,” and to plant crops like corn “from fence row to fence row.” Further billions in subsidies to farmers encouraged production, and soon America was awash in cheap grain, and with it cheap meat. Food costs as a portion of the American diet dropped to the lowest level in history; we became corn. Michael Pollan writes: “If you eat industrially, you are made of corn. It holds together your McNuggets, it sweetens your soda pop, it fattens your meat, it is everywhere. It is fed to us in many forms, because it is cheap- a dollar buys you 875 calories in soda pop but only 170 in fruit juice. A McDonalds meal was analyzed as almost entirely corn.”
In 1956, American geophysicist M. King Hubbert calculated that the rate of production of fossil fuels would peak in the United States in about 1970 and then start declining. He was laughed out of the conference room. However, ultimately he was proven correct; now we are probably at the worldwide Hubbert’s Peak. A hundred years ago you just stuck a pipe in the ground and the oil rushed out; now it is not so easy, and America’s oil comes from deep under the ocean, is cooked out of rocks in Alberta, or is purchased from nations with security issues. Now the United States, Canada, Norway, and the United Kingdom are well past their peak, while Saudi Arabia and Russia are approaching it. Oil is still being found (there was a recent big hit in Brazil, and there are thought to be big reserves in the Arctic.) but it harder to get at and a lot more expensive.
Really, Peak Soil – the world is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is replenishing it. Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe tells us that dirt is complicated stuff, made from sand or silt, then years of plants adding nutrition, bugs and worms adding their excrement, dying and rotting.
“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.”
Blame the price of oil. Everyone knows that the price of oil is way up, but it is an international commodity. Natural gas, on the other hand, usually is subject to more local rules of supply and demand in North America alone. However it does follow the market. Director of Energy Policy Malini Giridhar of Enbridge Gas told the Star: “Oil trades between 6 to 12 times the price of natural gas,The price ratio is now 11 times, which is close to the upper end of the range.” Commodities markets are pushing up natural gas in reaction to higher oil prices, she said, rather than to gas supply and demand.
Blame Willis Carrier. Before he invented air conditioning,not many people lived in the American Southwest, it was just too hot for much of the year. It was only after World War II, when air conditioning became common and affordable, that the mass migration of people and industry could happen from cooler Northern states to California, Nevada and Arizona. Without AC, Atlanta and Florida are almost uninhabitable.
Blame air conditioning. It is the biggest draw on the grid, and as the climate warms, the demand is only going to get higher. Coal is the quickest and easiest solution, but also the dirtiest; burning a ton of coal generates 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide. Coal plants also spit out mercury and acid. Our politicians are promising millions to develop “clean coal”, but that is unlikely to kick in before 2030.
Blame rats. First of all, most of the rice in America is sold to Asians for whom it is a staple; it really doesn’t take much of a panic to run out of Basmati rice over here. Most rice is eaten in the country where it is grown, and only 6 percent of the rice crop is traded around the world. In some countries, as much as 17 percent of the crop is eaten by rats; so good secure rice storage might be the first place to start.
Blame China. They can’t get enough of the stuff and they don’t care where it comes from- in Shanghai, 24,000 manhole covers were stolen in 2006. The United States now exports $61 Billion in scrap to china each year, now the second biggest export. India and Russia are also net importers now. Blame Growth. Demand for products made from metals is exceeding production capacity; copper mines are expensive and environmentally controversial and consumption is outstripping supply. Blame M. King Hubbert. He was talking about oil, but the Hubbert’s Peak theory applies to any resource- as supply gets scarce it gets more expensive to get it out, and in some cases the resources are running out. Lester Brown predicts that there is less than a 25 year supply of copper. Chile, which produces 1/3 of the world’s copper, should see production declines starting this year.