What do we do when the planet runs out?

We’re constantly bombarded with news that suggests the global economy is enjoying an indefinite growth spurt. Britain is in year 15 of a boom, China and India are the economic super powers of the future, America grows steadily despite all Bush’s attempts to the contrary. Even in continental Europe, which we’re told is well on the way to humiliating economic decline, average annual growth is still something like 2%. There may be bad years, and for heaven’s sake don’t mention sub-Saharan Africa, but on the whole we’re all climbing up, up, up towards wealth unimaginable to our forefathers.

You can see why people believe this. Taken as a whole, the world has got richer just about every year since the 18th century. The Industrial Revolution broke us out of the Malthusian trap, in which more people meant less food, and we were away into a world in which each generation in the developed world could realistically expect a little more than their parents had.

Okay, so the pattern didn’t hold in much of the third world, but that was just a question of bad policy/corrupt government/post-colonial malaise (delete as appropriate).

But what if this can’t go on forever. What if we’re approaching a second, more intractable Malthusian trap. What happens if there just aren’t enough resources on this planet to sustain 6 billion people in Western lifestyles.

I don’t want to worry anyone, but commodity prices have almost doubled in the last twenty years. That to me suggests demand is outpacing supply. And, while it’s quite conceivable that when oil prices get high enough we’ll switch to renewables, it’s much harder to work out what we can do when we start running out of copper or zinc. Maybe there just isn’t enough metal on earth to provide every one of us with a car and an iPod.

So come on then, free marketeers: how are we getting out of this one?

  1. how are we getting out of this one?

    The same way we got past “peak sabre tooth tiger”. By eating other stuff…?

  2. matt.h2o said:

    Donald – *which* other stuff?

    D’you think that the regular famines in Africa are a result of people being squeamish about the cornucopia of other foodstuffs? Would we solve all their malunutrition problems by introducing some Chinese insect delicacies?

  3. Robert said:

    Space travel.

  4. Malcolm said:

    It’ll just become stupidly expensive to buy anything that isn’t made of plant stuff.

    Also remember that the population of developed countries is dclining (if you ignore immigration). Once people become affluent they tend ot only have one or two children.

    Less children = more ipods and cars.

  5. I’m not sure, Matt, that there’s much evidence that the famines you allude to are generally caused by food shortages, local or global.

  6. matt.h2o said:

    So it’s a mass outbreak of bulimia, then?

  7. ian said:

    Famine is one thing – shortages of essential materials like copper, titanium etc will be quite another. If we are to use technology to deal with the social ills of the planet – like famine – then we have to face up to this. I don’t see many vegetable replacements for for TVs or iPods on the horizon, let alone steel mills.

  8. Where’s Jim Bliss when you need him?

    Though I think his answer to “how are we getting out of this one?” might be that we ain’t gonna (though he’d put it much more eloquently obviously).

  9. Jonn said:

    I genuinely want to hear what the likes of Tim Worstall would say to this point – I suspect it’ll involve prices going up until people switch to alternative materials.

    Which seems rather a shortterm solution, doesn’t it?

  10. Ian, I reckon I could just about survive without the TV or the iPod. Metals can be recycled, some almost 100% efficiently; most household waste ditto. We still don’t know what ore reserves for tons of them round the world are, anyway. A power grid can (probably) be run on 100% renewables. So what’s the problem? Will life have to change? Yes. Are we “All doomed, doomed, I tell you”? I doubt it.

    Matt, if you know sod all about why famines generally happen, that’s hardly my fault.

  11. matt.h2o said:

    Market failure and poor government may be the proximate causes of most modern famines, but that doesn’t negate the fact that in famine-stricken zones people are reliant on the market to buy sufficient food to survive – i.e. the population has already exceeded the natural carrying capacity of the immediate environs – and that the ability of other areas to bid away food is linked to the tightness of global commodity markets.

    People used to be able to forage for food, you might remember from your history lessons.

  12. Alex said:

    Are we really likely to keep consuming steel at the same rate? There are only so many bridges we will ever need to build. I can well imagine that as China and India finish building their mass infrastructure the commodity boom might bust. Regarding TVs or iPods, in the future they may well be made of “plant stuff”: starch-based plastics are a big field of research at the moment. I wonder how much of the world’s copper-line telco infrastructure will get ripped up for recycling and replaced by either fibre (i.e. melted sand) or wireless (and we ain’t never gonna run out of radio)?

  13. Alex said:

    Also, that graph you link to is a case of picking the statistics to fit the theory. In 1988, commodity prices were low – in 1979 they were sky-high, but that bit isn’t on the graph. They were low in the 1960s, ran up hugely in the 70s, tanked in the 80s, ran up again in the 00s.

  14. Matt, try war, poverty, inequality, kleptocracy. Famines are caused (and can be stopped) by human beings. However, if you’re right, and I’m wrong, there’s even less need to worry. There’s a natural corrective to overpopulation: it’s called disease and starvation. So, it’s not all bad news.

    This is well OT, anyway. Enough famine banter. Ta.

  15. matt.h2o said:

    Actually, the whole disease/starvation thing being the correction to overpopulation was the essence of the Malthusian trap, which Jonn mentioned above. I don’t quite see how that’s off-topic.

    As for war/famine – erm, you may want to look at the correlation between war and food scarcity in Africa. Whenever there’s less food, there’s more war. What a surprise! I suppose you know there’s a drought in Darfur, for instance?

  16. G. Tingey said:

    There is a place, only 500 kilometres from here, where it is raining soup – unlimited energy.

    500 km straight up.

    What we desperately need is a much cheaper method of getting to orbit.

    Even if people do not go very far (irradiation problems) it should be possible to mine the rest of the Solar System for the minerals/fuels wee need.

    But the politicians are so short-sighted, and we do not have the technological/scientific advance we need in this field.

  17. Vasey said:

    Well, when technology advances far enough, assuming we don’t kill ourselves off first, we’ll be able to mine the moon for various metals that are present there and probably manage other planets and the asteroid belt eventually. That’s way, way, way off though, not in our life-times I wouldn’t think.

  18. Tom Mac said:

    According to The Sceptical Environmentalist we are discovering copper and zinc at a faster rate than we are mining it, and in any case estimates of total resources show massive amounts, sufficient to last for centuries.

    Obviously that’s a controversial book, and indeed I disagree with Lomborg on his major conclusions and above all his main premise – that everything should be viewed in terms of its utility to humans. For example, just becuase we HAVE enough copper doesn’t mean that mining and quarrying all of it is a good idea…

    But anyone who cares about the world should engage with him, because he has interesting things to say (like the info above).
    You should def read his book, cos then this argument could be on a better ground – ie not “OHMYGOD, copper’s going to run out!!!” but “Do we really want to strip mine and quarry the world indiscriminately?”

    BTW, rising commodity prices are also to do with underinvestment in things like copper mines, not just scarcity of copper per se…

    Malcolm’s point is good too – declining population is almost inevitable once a certain level of development is reached.
    Increasing development also has other benefits – see yesterday’s Guardian for how RE-forestation is occuring in countries like Spain and Ukraine. I witnessed this myself when I walked across Spain – in Gallicia one sees huge areas of marginal land that had been cleared for cultivation, which is being reclaimed by trees as people move to the cities and it becomes uneconomic to farm.

  19. Tom Mac said:

    Of course, you could say that the land in Spain can be abandoned because more land in the global south is being cleared –
    but then the farming that would have happened in Spain would have been extremely inefficient – the Green Revolution, plus maybe a tentative second one, could still save land…

  20. Jonn said:

    Okay, Tom, I’ll rephrase: does this planet have the natural resources to give all 6 billion of us comfortable western lifestyles?

    This is a genuine enquiry, not an attempt to inspire hysteria. I’d like to believe it’s possible and that over time we’ll get there. I’m just not sure I do believe that. More to the point, I’m not sure anyone really knows, do they?

  21. Tom Mac said:

    I guess you’re right that the American lifestyle in all its particulars is impossible for 6 billion,I’m not sure that in say 60 years time everyone will want the current “American style” affluent lifestyle. As for example we become richer, we realise more the value of things like forests and hills. And as counties and nations develop, they acheive levels of organisation that allow them to enforce things like anti-logging laws.

    (I’m sure an economist could talk about this in terms of relative utility etc – when you’re poor, you may like hills, but if there’s copper in one then you’ll definitely dig it to shit for the cash. whereas the huge number of protests in areas like the peak district against quarries have a lot to do with the fact that few local people would need jobs in quarries… they get more value from walking the hills)

    That may be a bit optimistic, but we need optimism. The key point, what I was talking about earlier re Lomborg’s opinion of utility, is that essentially the only thing that will guarantee the survivial of a natural world we can be happy in and that can support us is if we regain a respect for nature, and put it at the heart of our life. As we get richer, this might become easier to do, and more widespread?

  22. Where’s Jim Bliss when you need him?
    Sitting here reading this thread in bemusement, Larry. Where else?

    As some of you may know, I have pretty definite views on this subject, but I’ll try to be as genuinely objective as I can.

    There seem to be three broad viewpoints when discussing the subject of the limits to growth.

    The first I describe as the “kooky economist view” (also known as the “Milton Friedman position”). This is – in essence – that there are no limits to growth. None whatsoever. Friedman, in an interview regarding natural resources, famously proposed that the amount of any given resource was essentially infinite. With regards to crude oil, for instance, he claimed that as we approached the last drop the price would rise so high that nobody could afford to use it. Instead people will be forced to use cheaper alternatives. This position is kooky for three primary reasons (and a number of secondary ones). Firstly it assumes that market mechanisms have complete control over the exploitation of resources (so, for instance, a powerful military will never seize and use the last of a resource without paying for it). Secondly it relies upon misdirection by radically redefining the terms “finite” and “infinite”. The word “infinite” does not mean “too expensive to use”. Used in a technical sense, it may very well mean that in the field of economics. But in practical terms, when someone asks whether the amount of oil in the ground is infinite, they are speaking about a physical resource and not an economic commodity. To conflate the two in order to answer “yes” is plain dishonest. And thirdly the “kooky economist view” makes the assumption that every natural resource has an abundant substitute and that every abundant substitute itself has an abundant substitute and so on ad infinitum.

    The second I call the “rational economist view”. This view accepts that the earth’s natural resources are indeed finite, but that they are so mind-boggling abundant that a mere 6 billion of us couldn’t come close to depleting them.

    Neither view, unfortunately, bears much relation to the one I hold which I call “the physical systems view”. The kooky economist view is deliberately dishonest and bears no apparent relation to reality (physical resources can clearly be depleted irrespective of their price; market mechanisms do not have complete control over the way resources are distributed and consumed). And the rational economist view, much to my own dismay, does not appear to tally with the available data. For instance, the question of when crude oil production will peak and enter decline is a controversial one, but even the most optimistic projections place it within the next 50 years (those projections come from economists and economic think-tanks; physical systems analysis by petrogeologists appears to place the peak between 2005 and 2020).

    When faced with this data, the rational economist will fall back on one of two ‘solutions’. Either we switch to a substitute, or we discover a technological solution. Both of these ‘solutions’, however, aren’t. Solutions that is. They are statements that a solution will exist at some point in the future and that point will be before the depletion of the resource in question causes catastophic economic collapse. As such they may be adequate for economists, but won’t cut the mustard for systems engineers (my profession before I dropped out to be a writer).

    “Hey Jim, I noticed on this schematic here that you’ve got the pipework system all laid out, but there’s no indication of the incoming water source. What gives?”

    “Oh, don’t worry about that, someone will come up with a solution later”.

    “Hey Jim, you’re fired.”

    “Fair enough, that was a ridiculous idea… betting the success of the project on an as-yet undiscovered solution.”

    You see, there is no known substitute for crude oil for many of the applications we currently use it for. Nor is mining the solar system a practical solution. For those genuinely interested in taking a serious look at that proposal I suggest Robert Zubrin’s seminal book, Entering Space: Creating a Space-Faring Civilization. Zubrin is one of the world’s foremost aeronatical engineers (and he developed NASA’s plan for reaching Mars) and he analyses the various proposals for exploiting the solar system’s resources. His conclusion is that it cannot be done without first developing a fusion propulsion system.

    So once again we’re betting the success of the project on an as-yet undiscovered solution. When the project is the survival of our civilisation I’d suggest that’s just not good enough.

    Those on this thread who have suggested (flippantly?) that we can just make our ipods and everything else out of plant material have sadly not understood that arable land is just as much a natural resource as anything else. And is equally subject to the limits of growth. The reality is that indefnite growth within a finite physical system is simply impossible. Whatever Kooky Friedman might have to say about it. The solution, therefore is really quite simple. We stop growing. It’s either that or face decades of resource wars, mass famine, genocide and finally social collapse.

    Oh and to Tom Mac who claimed, “That may be a bit optimistic, but we need optimism.” can I just say, No we don’t.

    Both optimism and pessimism are a denial of reality. What we need is unadulterated realism. That’s the only sensible way to approach an engineering problem. I wrote an article called “Beyond Optimism and Pessimism” which you can read HERE.

  23. Jonn said:

    Thanks, Jim. That’s exactly the kind of summary I’ve been looking for since the blindingly obvious hit me a couple of days ago.

    So – how big a problem is it when we run out of oil? Getting a naunced view of this one is difficult, since everyone vocal seems to think either

    a) it’ll never happen and anyway we’ll find an alternative, or

    b) we’re so screwed we might as well try mass suicide now as the least worst option.

  24. Jonn, read Jim’s link – it addresses your question exactly.

  25. Tom Mac said:

    The old “optimsim and pessimism, 2 sides of the same coin” thing is just glib.

    No one is denying that we must change – many people already are, others aren’t – and “realism” is clearly the core of that process.
    But optimism will help us to realise that life post-all out consumerism will be good. I think many people on this site and elsewhere realise that consumerism is deeply unsatisfying, and life with out it will be fine, and in truth better. No one I know is really consumeristic anyway. But many people are, and they have to be shown that it can’t go on. I would suggest the best way to do that is not to stride around proclaiming your HARDLINE REALIST schtick.

    Healthy realism will show people that this way of life can’t continue.
    Optimism will show them that ultimately that doesn’t matter.

  26. Jeez… Friedman’s just dropped dead. Hope it wasn’t anything I said.

  27. Tom Mac, I really don’t believe that there’s anything glib about pointing out that optimism and pessimism are both psychological responses to the same thing… a difficulty in accepting reality. They are denial mechanisms.

    Over several years of discussing this subject I have discovered that the vast majority of people believe that “pessimism is bad” / “optimism is good”. It is this view that I wish to challenge.

    As for my proclaiming my HARDLINE REALIST schtick (could you be any more condescending?), the essay you’re referring to was about viewing the ‘peak oil problem’ (for want of a better phrase) as a systems engineering issue and not an economic one. Failing to take an ULTRA-HARDLINE REALIST (one better than mere HARDLINE REALISM… I love these block capitals, they make me feel manly. And yes, that’s me being condescending. Touché.) when solving engineering problems is a quick way to get fired and/or get people killed.

    In fact, I’ll even go one better, taking a pessimistic view (i.e. deliberately exaggerating the potential problems) is a far better way to approach engineering problems than optimism. It’s that attitude that ensures that bridges get built to withstand improbably high stresses.

    The world I see is one waaay out of control. Economic growth is far and away the most important priority of pretty much every government you care to mention and billions of people are locked into that mindset.

    If you know lots of people who can be dissuaded from that view with a gentle dose of healthy realism and an optimistic view that their plasma screen TV and 4×4 SUV and cheap holiday in the sun “ultimately don’t matter”, then you know a very different set of plasma-screen, 4×4 owners to me.

  28. Tom Mac said:

    Sarcasm, about font size? Touche indeed, Mr Bliss, touche indeed.

    We clearly both agree on the problems that lie ahead, and in as far as anyone can think about solutions, we prob agree on that too. But unfortunately, it’s a matter of tone – if you don’t leaven realism with optimism, you’re left with hectoring. And most people, when you hector them, turn off. That’s realism. It’s not nice, but it’s true.

  29. Tom, I agree with you to a large extent. But I should probably let you into a little secret. I’m not 100% certain I give a damn whether people turn off or not.

    I say and write what I believe to be the truth. I’m as honest as I can be and although plenty of people disagree with me, that’s fair enough so long as they also do so honestly (most do, some don’t). Once I’ve presented my position, people can do with it as they choose.

    You see, I believe two things on this issue – honestly and utterly. Firstly that we have the practical tools to transform our current civilisation into a sustainable one with a minimum of human suffering and with the ultimate outcome of a genuinely improved life for all of our descendants. Secondly that we will not do this.

    Instead we will fight the resource wars we’ve already begun and the limits of growth will be violently imposed by nature rather than adopted rationally and systematically.

    I hope to hell I’m wrong about that. And I accept completely the possibility that I am. Practical fusion power generation may arrive to save the day (or at least provide us with some breathing space), a charismatic political leader may arise who can convince the masses that radical changes in lifestyle are required.

    You see the disconnect between acknowledging that and achieving it is huge and there’s just not enough time to rectify that by soothing cajoling. You disagree, and that’s cool. This problem needs fighting on all fronts… you try sugar and I’ll try shouting.

    I think I came to this conclusion when I watched hundreds of people on the anti-Iraq war march disembark from a coach carrying “No blood for oil” placards. I wanted to point out to them that we probably wouldn’t be spilling blood for oil if they didn’t demand it through their use of motor transport. I didn’t say anything though as they happened to be a coach-load of burly muslim men from oop north who probably didn’t want me lecturing them about their complicity in the carnage.

    PS: The wee barb wasn’t about font size, but about the use of capitals. In online discussion that generally denotes the raising of a voice, aggression, or shouting. I was merely responding to that.

  30. Actually Tom, reading back on it, it was your use of the word “schtick” that initially got my back up and generated the pointed response. The word has connotations of dishonesty and inauthenticity for me. As though you’re suggesting that I don’t believe what I’m writing. And yes, I take offence at that suggestion. I have been wrong about many things in my life, and I may well be wrong about this one, but I am not dishonest.

  31. Old and Cynical said:

    If and when things run out, and I am not sure I share either Jim’s view or the Freidman Position – very few people are 100% right or 100% wrong, things are usualy grey rather than black or white, life will not end, things will just change. There was life before iPods, computers, oil etc. And whilst things were not perfect – shoving 5 year olds into mines and up chimneys is not to be recommended, in some respects life could have been considered better than now. Living in a caring family and enjoying healthy meals together rather than rushing around as strangers and eating junk sounds pretty good to me. A life without global warming, aids, nuclear bombs, vaious “rages” etc may not be so bad after all.

  32. Vasey said:

    AIDS won’t go away just because modern technology has disappeared, you know? Personally, I’d rather not live through the convulsions the world would go through when crucial resources began to run out; war would be inevitable, and they would be _vicious_ wars.

  33. Merrick said:

    Donald: ” power grid can (probably) be run on 100% renewables.”

    Not on the scale we want to consume it, it can’t. To say so is to fundamentally misundersatand fossil fuels. They are millions of years of captured solar energy. Solar panels are a few hours, biofuels a few years. Yes, that panel my be a more efficient a converter than the oilseed rape, but nowhere near enough to replace a serious chunk of the fossils.

    Alex: ‘starch-based plastics are a big field of research at the moment.’

    This, like the biofuels solution for cars and heating, raises the question of where we’re going to grow all these techno-plants.

    There are 6 billion of us now. By the middle of the century it’ll probably be 10 billion. Every one of them will need to eat every day.

    This will coincide with climate change raising seas levels, desertifying fertile lands and drying rivers currently depended on for irrigation.

    It will also coincide with the supply of oil and gas dwindling forever, and the corresponding skyrocketing of the price as demand outstrips supply. Oil and gas being the things that give us our agrichemicals that have delivered the bumper crops that allow 6 billion to be well fed.

    This leads to the strongest argument for veganism I know of; we presently feed half the world’s grain to animals who give very little of it back in their flesh and milk, and just shit most of it out.

    Were we to feed it to people instead we could all eat well and who knows, maybe even grow us some starch plants for plastics too.

    But it doesn’t work like that because we do not grow food to feed people. We grow it to sell it to them.

    So, if i can afford the great squandering of foodstuffs for my steak, then we’ll buy food for my cows off people who then starve. All through the big Ethiopian famine of the 80s, as we were sending boats of grain from Band Aid, we were importing their foodstuffs for animal feed.

    So it is that today we chop down Indonesian rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations for the rich nations’ eco-friendly biofuels, and fish stocks collapse while we use fishmeal to fertilise lawns.

    As long as people pay, those who get paid will fuck over the poor. We only deliver such high standards of living to the rich because someone else does all the work. We’re very squeamish about having slaves in our fields now, so we keep them overseas where it’s not so unsavoury.

    Try giving decent working hours and standard of living to the people who make all the consumer stuff you buy from China, Malaysia and wherever. See how much that stuff gets priced out of your reach.

    And this is before we get into the most serious and pressing issue of our time, climate change.

    As we now understand it, we have to keep under a 2 degree increase on pre-industrial temperatures. Once we go over that, we stop being the big emitter and the bioshphere takes over; peat bogs decompose, the organic sludge at the bottome of arctic oceans gives off methane, and the whole warming process spirals. Without a thing we can do.

    Keeping it under a two degree increase means a global CO2 cut of about 60% in 25 years. for us rich folks, that’s 90%. There’s simply no way you can do that and keep our energy-intensive way of living up.

    No renewable source of power can replace the fossils. Now imagine how much more true that is if we were to extend our standard of living to the 80-90% of the world who consume less than us.

    Old & Cynical’s right, that there are perfectly satisfying ways to live outside of modern consumerism. Indeed, it seems there’s a clear correlation between a society’s affluence and its rates of depression.

    The longer we see unlimited affluence as intrinsically good and probably the very purposae of life, the more suffering we pile up for those who live in the mess we leave.

  34. To Old & Cynical (and others), please let me clarify my position lest there be any confusion. I’m in no way suggesting that a decline in available net energy will result in human extinction. If I’ve even half-implied that, then let me assure you it wasn’t my intent.

    Human life will survive the collapse of our civilisation in much the same way it survived the collapse of every other one.

    Of course, climate change, now that’s a whole other kettle of fish-meal. I suspect that won’t kill us off either, even if things get really bad. But there’s a big difference between a few scraggly post-industrial primates scraping a living off an increasingly hostile piece of rock, and the kind of world I think most of us would like to see.

    But assuming we don’t completely bugger up our ecosystem, and we don’t decide to all nuke one another (I’m looking at you, North Korea) or spray each other with bio-weapons, then humanity will survive peak oil. I just don’t believe our current civilisation – or anything remotely resembling it – will.

    In the long term this is a good thing. In the medium term (i.e. the lives of your children and grandchildren) the transition will be somewhere between an apocalyptic worst-case scenario and a gradual, systematic best-case. I write about this in the hope of generating some support for the best-case. My views on human psychology lead me to conclude, however, that it is extremely probable that the transition will end up being closer to the worst-case.

  35. Vasey said:

    You know, all these dire predictions about what happens when oil runs out, we could just shift to nuclear power, you know? There’s more than enough U-238 out there to keep us going for the forseeable future, and there’s thorium too.

  36. Vasey, you write that “There’s more than enough U-238 out there to keep us going for the forseeable future”. Upon what are you basing that statement?

    According to the Australian government (the world’s largest exporter of uranium and holder of the largest reserves) in a report published 6 years ago:

    “At current (their emphasis) rates of consumption, existing and estimated uranium reserves recoverable at up to $US80/kg (compared with current spot prices around $US20/kg) are sufficient for only about 50-60 years. Growth in the nuclear industry will reduce this period. Of course, further uranium discoveries can be expected, and very substantial higher cost uranium resources exist (e.g. seawater offers a virtually unlimited supply, albeit at about 10 times current prices). Higher costs, however, will make inefficient resource use even less sustainable.”

    You can read that report HERE.

    Also, what the report doesn’t mention is that the energy cost to extract uranium from seawater is substantial, making the process only slightly energy positive and requiring a truly enormous expansion in nuclear power station numbers (both to cover the current power we’re getting from fossil fuels, and the extra power to cover the extraction of uranium from seawater).

    Proposing perhaps the most ambitious expansion of industrial construction in human history right when we start to face fossil fuel depletion is frankly bizarre in my view.

    Also, I’m unclear on how you plan to use nuclear power to replace the liquid fossil fuels currently driving 98% of global transport network. Crude oil depletion is not just about dimishing energy, it’s about a serious liquid fuels shortage and that’s not exactly the same thing.

  37. Vasey said:

    That quote you posted should, more accurately, be:

    “The thermal fuel cycletypified by the LWR (the MHTGCR is also a thermal reactor)is an extremely inefficient use of uranium resources, generating energy primarily from the fissile uranium isotope U-235 which comprises only 1/140th of natural uranium[8]. At current rates of consumption, existing and estimated uranium reserves recoverable at up to $US80/kg (compared with current spot prices around $US20/kg) are sufficient for only about 50-60 yearsgrowth in the nuclear industry will reduce this period. Of course, further uranium discoveries can be expected, and very substantial higher cost uranium resources exist (e.g. seawater offers a virtually unlimited supply, albeit at about 10 times current prices). Higher costs, however, will make inefficient resource use even less sustainable.”

    U-235 reserves won’t last. I wasn’t talking about U-235. I am at a loss as to what you were trying to prove with that report. And really, even if U-238 is much more expensive than U-235, it’s still a damn sight better than nothing, which is what we’ll have when oil runs out unless we find a viable alternative. Most of the cost of nuclear power isn’t in getting the fuel anyway. Look here, here, and here if you want to see what I mean. The fuel costs, as of now, are low, the other costs are _very_ high. Fuel will just have to join the costs at the high end. End result, more expensive electricity. Survivable. It’ll hurt the economy, sure, but that’s not the end of the world.

    Vehicles? Well, we’ll have to shift over to electric cars or something like that. It’s not like we have much of a choice, is it? It’s either move to something else or we all starve. Not a tough choice to make that.

  38. You’re absolutely correct, Vasey, and I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.

    I have a terrible habit of automatically discounting the use of U-238 as a fuel. I realise, however, that my reasons for doing so rest on a subjective belief that the production of large quantities of plutonium across much of the world is not an acceptable solution to our situation. I accept that others do not share that view, and once again apologies for my unjustified assumption.

    However, even leaving aside that particular objection and accepting that there are significant reserves of U-238, I still have several objections to your proposal. The amount of electricity you are talking about producing is mind-boggling. Truly enormous. You’re still talking about the largest industrial engineering project in human history, and you’re talking about beginning it exactly when the resources we need to carry out such a project are running out.

    And even then, electricity is simply not a substitute for liquid fuels. There is no non-liquid fuel solution to mass air-travel, for example. And the other products of crude oil (from plastics to pesticides and about a million things in between) cannot be created simply by moving electrons.

    In my view the only sane solution… the only one with even a half a chance of succeeding is to cease using so much energy. I find it amazing that people find it easier to contemplate an enormous increase in plutonium-producing nuclear power plants than to imagine restructuring our society to eliminate the private car.

    It is this fact; that people see it as a foregone conclusion that we need to find a way to continue living the way we do; that convinces me there’s no chance of a smooth transition to sustainability.

  39. vervet said:

    As natural resources diminish, with consequent price increases, it becomes more cost-effective to recycle … that’s what we do.