Repeating the Same Mistake, Over and Over

Flowing Data draws my attention to this nutty chart in the New Scientist  (I have never read the New Scientist, but my experience is that in periodicals one can generally substitute "Socialist" for the word "New").  Click to enlarge.

minerals-running-out-lol

Will the world really run out of Indium in 5 years?  Of course not.  New sources will be found.  If they are not, then prices will rise and a) demand with be reduced and b) efforts to find new sources will be redoubled.  Push come to shove, as prices rise too much, substitutes will be found (which is why John D. Rockefeller probably saved the whales).  Uranium is a great example -- sure, proved reserves are low right now, but companies that mine the stuff know that there is tons out there.  That is why they are going out of business, there is too much supply for the demand.  Any spike in price would immediately generate tons of new developed resources.  And even if we run out, there are enormous quantities of thorium which is a potential substitute in reactors.

Absolutely no one who was old enough to be paying attention to the news in the 1970s could have missed charts very similar to this.  I remember very clearly mainstream articles that we would run out of oil, titanium, tungsten, etc. by the early 1990's.  Seriously, name one commodity we have plain run out of (*cough* Julian Simon *cough*).

People say, well, the resources have to be finite and I would answer, "I suppose, but given that we have explored and mined about 0.000001% of the Earth's crust and none of the floating mineral reservoirs in space (called asteroids), I think we are a long, long way from running out."

You would think that the guys running this analysis would get tired of being so wrong so consistently for so many decades, but in fact their real point is not about resources but about the US and capitalism.  The point of the chart is not really to say that the world will credibly run out of tungsten, but to tell the world that it is time to get out their pitchforks because the US is stealing all their wealth and resources.  It is an age-old zero-sum wealth fallacy that has never held any water, but remains a powerful talking point among socialists none-the-less.

For socialists, wealth is not created by man's mind and his effort -- it is a spring in the desert with a fixed flow rate.  It just exists to be taken or fought over.  The wealthy, by this theory, have not earned their wealth, they are just the piggy ones who crowd to the front of the line and take more than their share from the spring.  Unfortunately, socialists have never been able to explain why the spring, which flowed so constantly (and so slowly) for thousands of years, suddenly burst forth with a veritable torrent in lockstep with the growth of capitalism in the west.  And why it seems to dry up in countries that adopt socialism.

Postscript: A while back I posted on the New Economics Foundation  (remember what I said about "New") and their claim the world had just gone into ecological debt.

  • Ian Random

    I guess that means zinc will run out in five years

    "Indium is principally a byproduct of the electrolytic refining of zinc..."

    http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2004/1300/2004-1300.pdf

  • http://www.freiseinundlbeiben.blogspot.com max

    Also, we shouldn't forget that recycling will be more interesting, when actual prices rise for all the first use materials. So, I believe we can pretty much do this as long as we have solar power to maintain a net influx of energy =)

  • morganovich

    did they factor in reductions to future demand from Malthusian starvation?

  • dave smith

    I don't have to worry. I'll starve to death before we run out of indium becuase I've only enough food in my house for a few days.

  • http://space4commerce.blogspot.com Brian Dunbar

    Seriously, name one commodity we have plain run out of (*cough* Julian Simon *cough*).

    Yeah - we're fresh out of Julian Simons - mores the pity.

  • DrTorch

    In general New Scientist is a very good magazine. Much better than Scientific American. But yes, this sort of chart bewilders me. You guys haven't even discussed recycling efforts either.

    Funny enough I just got bashed the other day for celebrating the availability of bright white LEDs. As opposed to CFLs, which are being forced on consumers b/c they are "good for the environment", LEDs won't lead us to have mercury in the ground in water in a few years. (A beautiful set up for the next environmental crisis) What I got bashed for is that we're gonna run out of indium making the LEDs.

    I just can't win, even though by then OLED's to be developed.

  • Mark

    You do have to admit that their chart was very colorful.

  • http://blog.jackalopepursuivant.com/ Dan

    Oh, I just LOVE the scaling on this thing! The way that 20kg of aluminum is made to look like 95% of 107kg of phosphorus, and .6g of gold looks like 20% of 8.1kg of copper. The scale giving the lie away is the visual equivalent of small print--it's simply magic.

  • Sol

    Dan, that chart has a log scale.

    Mind you, I can't really see why it's there at all...

    Much like Hafnium. "We have no idea what the numbers are, but rather than leaving it off the chart, we'd better put N/A everywhere..."

  • Peter

    The point you are missing and the real reason why you will run out of these minerals without substantial increases in recycling is that they have no intention of allowing new mines to open if and when current mines run out. Its not the rare minerals that we need to worry about because other countries that don't worry about the environmentalists will probably be able to produce sufficient amounts, its the bulk items such as sand for concrete that are normally mined locally in small mines that nobody wants to pay huge shipping costs on.

  • MJ

    Seriously, name one commodity we have plain run out of...

    Common sense.

  • B

    As Don Boudreaux says in his article "We'll never run out" (http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=760789&p=1), we will never run out of certain natural resources like oil. The metaphor I most like in the article is:

    "Imagine, Russ says, a room full of pistachio nuts. You love pistachios and can eat all that you wish as long as you throw each empty shell back into the room whenever you eat a nut. You might suppose that you'll eventually devour all of the nuts in the room. Their number, after all, is finite.

    But some thought reveals this conclusion to be, well, nutty. At the start it's easy to find pistachio shells containing nuts. The more you eat, though, the more difficult it becomes to find uneaten nuts among the increasing number of empty shells. Eventually, it will not be worth the time and effort required to search amidst the empty shells for the relatively few remaining nuts. You'll voluntarily leave uneaten pistachios in the room."

  • Link

    One of the better non-fiction books I've ever read is The Prize, a history of the oil industry. Sounds boring, but it serves as an illuminating history of the 20th Century ... with lessons for today. One of the recurring themes is that oil is always about to run out -- starting soon after the Pensylvania oil rush back in the 1800s.

  • Dr. T

    "have never read the New Scientist, but my experience is that in periodicals one can generally substitute “Socialist” for the word “New”"

    Actually, you should substitute "pseudo" for "new" and retitle the magazine "Pseudoscientist."

    --------------
    “I suppose, but given that we have explored and mined about 0.000001% of the Earth’s crust and none of the floating mineral reservoirs in space (called asteroids), I think we are a long, long way from running out.”

    We also haven't begun any serious undersea mining. There are nodules on the sea floors that contain many trace elements. (The only problem is that somehow the UN thinks it owns the mineral rights beneath all the oceans and demands a 10% cut.)

  • ArtD0dger

    No, "new" stands for "nude." "Socialist" may be substituted for "scientist" in this case.

    Warren, I'm somewhat surprised you have never encountered the New Scientist because just a few months ago they published a rather shrill and notorious special issue wherein a cadre of, er, experts, called for the complete abolition of economic growth in order to save the environment. Alas, most of it seems to have disappeared behind the firewall.

  • rxc

    Interesting seeing the comment on uranium. The Japanese got worried about this about 20 years ago and figured out a way to extract it from seawater, at a cost that would be less than the peak that occured a few years ago when the speculators tried to run it up again. The uranium in the seawater comes from the rivers that wash down from mountains, and there is enough uranium in the sea to run our society for multiple millenia, if we wanted to. And, given the high quality of this energy, it would make sense to use nuclear to make process heat to convert coal and water into liquid fuels for vehicles, instead of burning it for electricity.

    But this would be bad, because it would provide too much energy to too many people, which is contrary to the shared vision of the environmentalists. Peter is right-on in his analysis.

  • ArtD0dger

    No, "new" stands for "nOOd." "Socialist" may be substituted for "scientist" in this case.

    Warren, I'm somewhat surprised you have never encountered the New Scientist because just a few months ago they published a rather shrill and notorious special issue wherein a cadre of, er, experts, called for the complete abolition of economic growth in order to save the environment. Alas, most of it seems to have disappeared behind the firewall.

  • spiffy

    No, "new" stands for "nude." "Socialist" may be substituted for "scientist" in this case.

    Warren, I'm somewhat surprised you have never encountered the New Scientist because just a few months ago they published a rather shrill and notorious special issue wherein a cadre of, er, experts, called for the complete abolition of economic growth in order to save the environment. Alas, most of it seems to have disappeared behind the firewall.

  • Frederick Davies

    "...(*cough* Julian Simon *cough*). People say, well, the resources have to be finite and I would answer, 'I suppose, but given that we have explored and mined about 0.000001% of the Earth’s crust..."

    Actually Simon's idea was that resources are infinite: in his book, The Ultimate Resource 2, he specifically says that even if the idea of very large but finite resources may be easier to understand, it is still wrong.

  • John O.

    The current "field" of environmentalism is the last stronghold of Socialism, captured in the late 20th when it became increasingly obvious to the socialists and communists of the threat of capitalism winning the struggle between the two ideologies.

    -- John O.

  • Allen

    Isn't part of the huge problem with many estimates of reserves that not only do they only reflect what we know of without acknowledging how little we actually know in general but also things like accounting rules that while they make sense for the business mean reserves aren't counted depending on the cost of extraction versus the market rate for them? That is, we know they're they're but when compiling huge data sets from around the world they end up not getting counted?

    Anyway, I love Brian's comment : Seriously, name one commodity we have plain run out of…

  • Craigo

    My first thought was also "common sense"

    The simple answer is in the demand/supply/price model.

    Gold was first exploited from visible sources (gold nuggets, panning, digging out visible seams, using amalgam plates etc). Now it is chemically extracted from rocks that look no different to any other rock. (I once worked in a selective opencast gold mine that had several stockpiles - high grade - take to mill fast, medium grade - to heap leach and low grade to "not economic yet" stockpile.)

    We now extract oil, gas etc from places that previously lower prices couldn't support. Dare I suggest that if the icecap melts for long enough, there will be an exploration scramble!

    There are unexploited resources in third world countries that simply require higher risk (and cost) to develop but are constrained by unstable politics and limited infrastructure. Look at China's activities in Africa where political expediency (or "we don't interfere in domestic politics") gives ready access to new resources that others who require a more highbrow approach are excluded from. Before you accuse me of exploiting poor third world nations, note that the front of that queue is currently occupied by leaders of third world countries actively protected by their cronies in the UN. (Note how South Africa protected Zimbabwe from scrutiny during their chairmanship of the UN Security council). This may seem off topic but have a look at Geccamines in the DRC. Recent exploitation of Cobalt was allegedly happening under protection of the Zimbabwe Army who actively helped overthrow the former dictator Mobutu and profits are rumoured (the truth is hard to find) to be shared by Mugabe, Kabila and the current owners.

    So whilst commonsensium is now in the n/a category, pragmatisium will prove to be an alternative.

  • http://chrisyeh.blogspot.com Chris Yeh

    Best paragraph I've read all week. I just had to blog about it:

    http://chrisyeh.blogspot.com/2009/04/zero-sum-fallacy-of-socialism.html