Mining and society are intricately connected. We are so dependent upon mining that it is far more realistic to question how, when, and where we will mine than to question if we will mine.
But this brings forth some serious challenges. The resources we depend upon are finite, and we are consuming an ever-increasing amount of them. At the current rate of growth in consumption, it will not be long before we will need more resources than our planet can provide. What will we do then?
More significantly, what can and will we do to prevent this scenario from unfolding?
‘Rethink’ is an exploration into how society can become sustainable and what roles all of us play in achieving this goal. It is a call to action to begin the change now, with the recognition of the factors that can drive or inhibit such change. Most importantly, it is a dialogue on how we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’.
One of the dangers in finding materials that support your opinion is you are less critical of them. Psychologists refer to this as confirmation bias.
For myself, someone who has questioned resource usage from a young age, it could be too easy for me to simply say ‘and here is more research supporting…’, and up to this point, I have been working from this bias.
But what if we won’t run out?
What if technology will save us from this fate? Is it possible? Is it probable? Will the engine of human ingenuity forever keep us ahead of the resource depletion issue?
One of the arguments that we won’t really run out has to do with supply and demand. Take copper for instance. If demand for copper vastly surpasses our production levels, scarcity will lead to price increases. As the price increases, it will become less economical to use copper. The result would then be a search for cheaper alternatives to copper.
Key to this example is economics, which is one thing that can be agreed upon pretty much no matter your perspective – whatever actions we take, they will be in large part economically driven.
But back to our copper example – there are a few ways it could unfold. One, an increased valuation of copper could make previously uneconomic mineral deposits worth mining. This has happened in the past, and will happen again in the future. Whenever there is an increase in the valuation of a mineral resource, there is an increase in its production, including mining previously uneconomic known deposits. Two, it could drive an increase in prospecting. With the potential for greater returns, exploration companies may invest a greater amount of resources in searching for that which is in demand. Three, we could start to mine the anthropogenic sources of copper – our known stores located in products no longer in active use. As natural mineral resources are depleted, there are several sources created by human activity that will prove easier to recover. Four, high copper prices could drive the discovery of a replacement for copper for many of its current uses, or some copper products might be discontinued entirely. A recent example of the latter is the discontinuation of the penny. Before its discontinuation however, the copper content of pennies was reduced as copper prices climbed.
So for those that claim we will not run out of mineral resources, there is a precedent – it simply has not happened to date. The burning question however is ‘could it happen?’
When it comes to predicting the future things become a bit hazy however. There have been many predictions made about the future. Many of them based on solid data sets from their time. The problem in predicting the future however is that we can’t account for all the variables (or worse, our own biases lead us to ignore certain variables).
There are some factors we can accept though. For one, there are seven billion people on this planet and that number is projected to continue climbing. Historically, there has also been a correlation between improved standards of living and recourse consumption. There are also efforts to improve the standards of living in the developing world. Based on these facts alone, it would seem that as a species we are headed towards greater and greater consumption of resources.
But perhaps this is a good thing. Certainly by traditional economic models growth is good. In fact, by our predominant economic models growth is not just good, but essential. So what is the problem here? Historically speaking, there are several examples of where mineral development spurred economic growth and improvements in the standard of living. This led to greater consumption, which also spurred the economy. The problem perhaps lies in what is going to happen when there isn’t another developing nation to become the next producer of resources? Is it then onto the sea floor or perhaps onto the moon or asteroid mining? Is this model of growth the best we can do?
For those that believe technology will save us, perhaps the answer is yes. In this scenario, innovation will continue to develop new technologies that will advance our way of life. Once again, there are many examples of this.
The challenge however goes beyond just our ability to innovate. The question is why do we need to produce and consume more in the first place? Is it just in our nature? This is one of the critical topics discussed in ‘Prosperity Without Growth’. The argument presented is that material objects are so closely tied to our sense of self – our identity – and our social status and that consumption is so central to what we are as a species that perhaps one of the key suggestions for how to break out of the ever-growing consumption economy – namely decoupling growth from consumption – might prove impossible to achieve.
To make it seem more daunting, we need to consider what motivates us. Are we primarily a short-sighted, competitive, self-serving species? In ‘Whats blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition, and denial’, William Rees claims that indeed we are. In fact that is what we have evolved into. It would seem on the face of it we might well be doomed. How are we to change our nature, after all?
The answer lies in government. ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ presents the first steps governments can take to move us towards societies that flourish within our ecological bounds.
But the question still remains ‘What if we are wrong?’
It seems preposterous to me to even ask this question, but that is because at a very young age I questioned the idea of constant growth on a world of finite resources. But what if I am wrong? After all, we have not run out of anything, yet. But then we must consider that the global economy grew by a factor of five over the second half of the last century at the price of the degradation of an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems (from Prosperity Without Growth). Clearly, a continuation of this pattern is not sustainable.
This is where those that believe that somehow we won’t ‘run out’ of resources or compromise our planet’s ability to sustain us say that human ingenuity will prevent our collapse. Some take the argument even further. In ‘The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’, Alex Epstein argues that not only will we not run out of fossil fuels, but that policies that restrict their usage is immoral on the grounds that it reduces the ability for humanity to flourish. If increased usage of power has enhanced the standard of living for so many, then does it make sense that using even more will overall continue to enhance human wellbeing? The answer to this question will apply to all the resources we use.
So what is the answer? Is more better?
To a point it can be. Consider a person living in poverty – an increase in resources available to them may provide better shelter, or better meals, or clean drinking water. These all enhance human well being. But what about for the more affluent societies? Research (Happy Planet Index) indicates that past meeting basic needs, increases in material usage as measured through income and consumption does not increase human well being, measured by happiness. Yet still, the predominant message in our society is exactly this – that somehow having more makes us happier. This, of course, is the trap. Actually it is two traps.
Firstly, it is the mindset that traps us as individuals in the world of consumption. Secondly, as a species, it is the mindset that will see us strip the planet of raw resources to fulfill this endless need. In the short term, we will adapt. That is what we do. Longer term, some will say we will always be able to innovate our way out of resource issues while others will say we will eventually face an insurmountable challenge.
As I read over arguments from both sides of this debate I could not help but think about how our societies, past and present, have been shaped by their resource usage. It is what we are – users of resources – consumers. It is also true we, as a species, are very adaptive. We are so adaptive we have reached this point where discussion on whether or not we will eventually consume the entire planet needs to be had.
So which direction should we go? What is the ethical direction we should go in? What are the biases that are shaping these answers? Are we accounting for them appropriately?
One of Epstein’s claims is that climate change that benefits humanity is a positive effect that should not be discounted. My first thought on this was how every species changes its environment to its benefit. For example, beavers dam rivers. Where humanity has differed is we are the only species to have changed the environment and then worked to reverse the impact once we recognized the negative impacts caused. The issue is, as I see it, is we do this retroactively, and sometimes we can’t undo the damage caused. Perhaps the question of 'Are natural resources going to run out?' is distracting us from the real topic. It’s not ‘Are things going to really run out?’ The question we need to answer is what kind of world do we want to live in? This is a broad question. This is not just a question of resource availability or biodiversity. Most people will agree both are important.
The real questions come down to how we see ourselves and our societies sharing in the resources of our world, both amongst ourselves and with all the other species on the planet. If it is true that we are not going to run out of resources – in other worlds that there is plenty for everyone and everything – then when and how are we going to ‘share the wealth’ such that we are all prosperous?
If it is true that natural resources will run out, the question again becomes how are we going to ‘share the wealth’ such that all (species and peoples) are prosperous?
In the end, we are all on the same page if we think about human survival. Humanity depends upon a healthy planet. A healthy planet depends upon us to use its resources in a responsible manner. So are things really going to run out? Perhaps not. What will run out however is how many people our planet can support, which will depend upon the resources needed to support each person. But what if those of us that believe we need to reduce our environmental impact are wrong? We will have left the world more able to sustain us than we needed to – more able to sustain future generations. Does this not seem the more prudent of the options? Is it not then the moral responsibility of governments to see this happen? That is the position presented in ‘Prosperity Without Growth’.
The challenge is getting from ‘here’ to ‘there’ before our most precious resource – time – runs out.
Of course, I could be wrong.
The views expressed by the author(s) of Rethink are not necessarily reflective of the organization and are provided as ideas for consideration in context of a changing world view.