November 25, 2017

Non-renewable resources

Appendix D: A Blueprint for Survival.

The Blueprint occupied the entire issue of The Ecologist Vol. 2 No. 1, January 1972, in advance of the world’s first Environment Summit (the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm).

The principal authors were Edward Goldsmith and Robert Allen, with additional help from Michael Allaby, John Davoll, and Sam Lawrence.

So great was demand for A Blueprint for Survival that it was republished in book form later that year by Penguin Books, on 14 September 1972.

Note: click on the images to enlarge them.

For the purposes of this discussion, non-renewable resources are divided into two types: metals and fuels.


The 16 major metals we are concerned with are:

  • Silver (Ag)
  • Aluminium (bauxite) (Al)
  • Gold (Au)
  • Cobalt (Co)
  • Chromium (Cr)
  • Copper (Cu)
  • Iron (Fe)
  • Mercury (Hg)
  • Manganese (Mn)
  • Molybdenum (Mo)
  • Nickel (Ni)
  • Lead (Pb)
  • Platinum (Pt)
  • Tin (Sn)
  • Tungsten (W)
  • Zinc (Zn)

Blueprint for Survival - Figure 2 (Introduction & Appendix D)As can be seen from Figure 2, at present rates of consumption all known reserves of these metals will be exhausted within 100 years, with the exception of six (aluminium, cobalt, chromium, iron, magnesium and nickel). However, if these rates of consumption continue to increase exponentially at the rate they have done since 1960, then all known reserves will be exhausted within 50 years with the exception of only two (chromium and iron) – and they will last for only another 40 years!

Of course this is by no means the whole picture: there will be new discoveries and improvements in mining technology, and we can turn to recycling, synthetics, and substitutes. It should be obvious, however, that recycling, although a necessary and valuable expedient in a stable economy, cannot supply a rising demand (it is not a source of metals, merely a means of conserving them); while synthetics and substitutes cannot be imagined into production, but must be made from the raw materials available to us, those most suitable being themselves in short supply.

Petroleum, for example, from which many valuable synthetic polymers are derived, will run out within the lifetime of those born today and will probably be increasingly scarce – and correspondingly expensive – from about the year 2000. Improvements in mining technology will be necessary in any case if we are to make use of the lower grades of ore that will be the only ones available to us as reserves are depleted.

However, exponential increases in consumption will inevitably lead to a situation in which grades decline much faster than technology is improved and costs will therefore soar. Similarly, as William W. Behrens has shown, the dynamic of exponential growth will considerably reduce the lifetime of new discoveries. For example, even if reserves of iron (which has a relatively long lifetime) are doubled, they will stave off exhaustion for only another 20 years. [1] Thus, given present rates of usage and the projected growth of those rates, most raw materials will be prohibitively expensive within about 100 years. Political difficulties will arise well before then – as indeed they are beginning to do in the case of oil.

As Preston Cloud has pointed out, the extra iron, lead, zinc and so on, necessary to raise the level of consumption of the 3,400 million non-Americans to that of their fellows in the United States is from 100 to 200 times present annual production – and although this would be exceptionally difficult to achieve, it is paltry compared with the problem of providing an equivalent standard of consumption for the doubling of world population projected for 40 years’ time. [2] And yet we in the industrial countries expect our consumption of metals to go on rising and at the same time lure the non-industrial countries with promises that they too can have ‘wealth’ like ours!

Only those acrobats of the imagination who argue that, come what may, technology will find a way, believe that problems such as these can be solved in any way save a diminution of consumption. In particular, they are confident that the abundance of cheap energy they assure themselves will be available in the near future will enable us to extract the metals present in ordinary rock and in seawater. Yet energy is already very cheap (comprising only 4.6 percent of the world’s total industrial production by value), [3] while the real limit on such enterprises is likely to be not energy but the fragility of ecosystems. For example, the ratio of unusable waste to useful metal in granite is at least 2,000 : 1, so that the mining of economic quantities of metals from rock or seawater will very quickly burden us with impossible quantities of waste.


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Blueprint for Survival - Table 2 (Appendices A & D)The bulk of our energy requirements today is met by fossil fuels, which like metals are in short supply. At present rates of consumption, known reserves of natural gas will be exhausted within 35 years, and of petroleum within 70 years. If these rates continue to grow exponentially, as they have done since 1960, then natural gas will be exhausted within 14 years, and petroleum within 20. Coal is likely to last much longer (about 300 years), but the fossil fuels in general are required for so many purposes other than fuel – pesticides, fertilisers, plastics, and so on – that it would be foolish to come to depend on it for energy [4].

Recognition of this has led to the present emphasis on nuclear fission as a source of energy. However, the only naturally occurring, spontaneously fissionable source of energy is uranium 235, and this is likely to be in extremely short supply by the end of the century. [5] Accordingly, the future of nuclear power rests with the development of complete breeding systems. Breeder reactors use excess neutrons from the fission of uranium 235 to convert non-fissionable uranium 238 and thorium 232 into fissionable plutonium 239 and uranium 233 respectively. Their successful development will mean that man’s energy needs will probably be met for the next 1,000 years or so, during which time it is hoped that deuterium [- deuterium fusion can be developed – which] will provide us with virtually unlimited energy.

Because the successful development of breeder reactors in time to take over from fossil fuels is possible, it may be that fuel availability will not be a limiting factor on growth. This means nothing, however, since shortages of other resources and pollution by radioactive by-products and waste heat will quickly prevent the continued expansion of energy consumption. Since radioactive pollutants have been dealt with in the appendix on ecosystems, we will here consider only waste heat.

Every use of energy always produces waste heat. Power stations ‘solve’ the problem of heat production either by using large amounts of cooling water, or to a lesser extent, air. The disadvantage of the former method is that if the heated water is returned to source it damages the aquatic ecosystem and if it is evaporated into the atmosphere the source is considerably depleted. The disadvantage of the latter method is that because air temperatures are higher than those of water, the thermodynamic efficiency of the power station is much reduced.

Efficiency is a great problem. In the US, electricity provides 10 percent of the power actually used by the consumer, but accounts for 26 percent of gross energy consumption. Earl Cook has calculated that at present rates, by the year 2000 electricity will provide 25 percent of ‘consumer-power’ and account for between 43 and 53 percent of gross energy consumption. At that point, half the energy produced will be in the form of useful work and half in the form of waste heat from power stations.

Even if we ignored the waste heat from power stations, that produced by the actual consumption of electricity will quickly call a halt to growth. For example, in the US in 1970, heat from that source amounted to an average of 0.017 watts per square foot, and Claude Summers has calculated that if consumption continues to double at the present rate, within only 99 years, after 10 more doublings, the average will be 17 watts per square foot – compared with the average of 18 or 19 watts the US receives from the sun! [7]

Clearly, well before this point energy consumption will be limited by the heat-tolerance of the ecosphere.

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1. William W. Behrens, “The Dynamics of Natural Resource Utilisation”. In Proceedings of the Computer Simulation Conference, Boston, Mass 1971.
2. Preston Cloud, “Mineral Resources In Fact and Fantasy”. In William W. Murdoch (Ed.), Environment:. Sinauer Associates, 1971.
3. United Nations, Statistical Yearbook 1969.
4. World Petroleum Report. Mona Palmer Co. New York 1968.
5. M. King Hubbert, “The Energy Resources of the Earth”. In Scientific American, September 1971.
6. Earl Cook, “The Flow of Energy in an Industrial Society”. In Scientific American, September 1971.
7. Claude M. Summers, The Conversion of Energy. In Scientific American, September 1971.
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