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The Big Picture: Resource Collapse

Puccinia_graminis_teliospores.png(The Big Picture is my series on the major driving forces likely to shape the next 20 years. The first post, on Climate Change, went up in early February.)

Truism #1: Human society's continued existence depends on the sustained flows of a variety of natural resources.
Truism #2: What that set of natural resources comprises can change over time.

We (the human we) have pushed the limits of many of the resources our civilization has come to depend upon. Oil is the most talked-about example, but from topsoil to fisheries, water to wheat, many of the resources underpinning life and society as we know it face significant threat. In many cases, this threat comes from simple over-consumption; in others, it comes from ecosystem damage (often, but not always, made worse by over-consumption).

The most obvious cause of over-consumption is population. Long a contentious issue for environmentalists, the argument that "we have too many people," logical in theory, faces serious ethical questions when turned to practice. One example: how do we decide who gets to continue living? Over-consumption is compounded by rising standards-of-living allowing more people to consume even more than before, and by a historically-rooted assumption that the Earth is big and can always provide.

But some resources simply have limits -- there's a maximum amount of oil to be extracted, or copper to be dug up. Some resources (topsoil, fisheries) can renew themselves, but at a rate far slower than our use. Unfortunately, what we've seen from other dwindling resources is that humans have a tendency to try to grab the last bits for themselves, even at the expense of others. This is the so-called "tragedy of the commons," and its most visible present-day manifestation has to be ocean fisheries. Many seafood species are the on the verge of total collapse, perhaps even extinction; official efforts to limit or halt fishing of certain species face desperate communities dependent upon the industry.

The other driver for resource collapse, ecosystem damage, is somewhat more complex. In some cases, such as honeybees, we still have little certainty as to why the resource is in such danger. In the case of wheat, the risk comes from a combination of human and natural activity.

If you hadn't heard that wheat is threatened, you're not alone. It's a relatively recent problem: a fungus known as Ug99. Emerging in Uganda in 1999 (hence the name), this black stem rust fungus seemed to be slowly moving north into the Middle East, not yet hitting locations dependent upon wheat as a primary food crop; this slow movement seemed to offer biologists time to come up with effective counters and to breed resistant strains of wheat, a time-consuming process. But that luck didn't hold.

...on 8 June 2007, Cyclone Gonu hit the Arabian peninsula, the worst storm there for 30 years.

"We know it changed the winds," says Wafa Khoury of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, because desert locusts the FAO had been tracking in Yemen blew north towards Iran instead of north-west as expected [...]. "We think it may have done that to the rust spores." This means, she says, that Ug99 has reached Iran a year or two earlier than predicted. The fear is that the same winds could have blown the spores into Pakistan, which is also north of Yemen, and where surveillance of the fungus is limited.

In Iran, the spore will encounter barberry bushes, which trigger explosive reproduction of Ug99 (and more potential for mutation). From Iran to Pakistan, and then to India (much more dependent upon wheat) and to China. From China, it can blow to North America (as dust and soot do already). The fungus ignores current strains of wheat with fungal resistance, because it initially faced monocultures of wheat with single markers for resistance, allowing for easy mutation and replication.

I'm just glad the Norwegian seed vault is now up and operating. But as disturbing as the potential for collapse may be, the second truism listed above offers cause for hope.

Ecosystem services is the term to remember this time around. It's tempting to think of ourselves as dependent upon the resources we currently use, but that's not quite right. What we depend upon are the services the various resources provide -- the energy, for example, or the protein. In principle, if we can receive those service a different way, we may avoid the repercussions of the collapse of a particular resource. It's true that, in some cases (like water), the resources effectively are the services, but even here, we have to be careful not to think of a particular source (e.g., aquifers) as being the only possibility.

Bird poop provides an instructive example. In the 19th century, guano from birds native to Peru offered the world's best form of fertilizer -- so good that guano became the subject of imperial ambitions, national laws, and international tension. In "When guano imperialists ruled the earth," Salon's Andrew Leonard quotes from President Millard Fillmore's 1850 state of the union address:

Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price.

But by the end of the century, the market for guano had collapsed, along with Peru's economy, because of the development of industrial "superphosphate" fertilizer. It's worth noting that, even if superphosphate hadn't been developed, Peru would have been in trouble -- the supplies of guano were just about depleted by the time the market collapsed. That's right: The world was facing "Peak Guano," only to be saved by catalytic innovation.

Resource Collapse and... Climate Change
I addressed this in The Big Picture: Climate Change, but as I noted a week or so ago, a recent article by NASA's James Hansen points to another point of intersection. In "Implications of “peak oil” for atmospheric CO2 and climate" (PDF), Hansen and colleague Pushker A. Kharecha argue that the effort to keep atmospheric carbon levels below 450ppm (widely considered the seriously bad news tipping point) may be greatly helped by limitations on the amount of available oil. With a reasonable phase-out of coal, active measures to reduce non-CO2 forcings (including methane and black soot), and draw-down of CO2 through reforestation, limiting CO2 to 450ppm can be readily accomplished due to limits on oil reserves. This doesn't require the most aggressive peak oil scenarios, either -- simply using the US Energy Information Administration's estimates of oil reserves is enough. Using more aggressive numbers, atmospheric CO2 peaks at 422ppm.

We may end up avoiding catastrophic climate disruption despite our own best efforts.

Resource Collapse and... Catalytic Innovation
The clearest connection between resource collapse and catalytic innovation is in the realm of substitution services. Nobody wants oil, for example, people want what can be done with oil. That can mean other forms of energy, such as electricity (for transportation), or it may mean other sources of hydrocarbons, such as thermal polymerization (for plastics), and so forth. The big concern: will the substitute technologies be ready by the time the resource is (effectively) gone?

Often, the issue really isn't technology, but expense and willingness to change. Driving the cost of alternatives down to make them competitive with the depleting resource can be difficult; even more difficult can be getting people to accept a substitution service that isn't exactly like the old one (even if it's objectively "better"). Cultured meat would be far and away better than today's meat processing industry -- environmentally, ethically, health-wise -- but, even if the product looked, tasted and felt just like "real" meat, a substantial number of people would likely avoid it simply because it was weird.

More important may be questions of culture and "ways of life." Substitutions rarely mean the same workforce providing one resource shifts seamlessly over to its replacement; more often, the substitute comes from an entirely different region, or may require different kinds or numbers of workers.

It also means a change in mindset or interpretations of the world around us. I've commented before about the imminent emergence of photovoltaic technologies allowing us to make nearly any surface a point of power generation. To an extent, this seems superficially obvious, but try taking a walk or drive with your mind's eye set on what would be different with a solar world. What rationale would we have, for example, for not giving any outside surface a photovoltaic layer? How would we design the material world differently? What would disappear -- and what would suddenly become ubiquitous?

Or there may be larger issues of infrastructure delaying an otherwise "easy" transition. Take alternative power vehicles: in many ways, making the cars & trucks run on clean energy will be the easy part. Think of all of the gas stations that would have to change or go out of business; think of all of the jobs lost when old skills become less valuable; think of the thousands of car repair places needing to retrain and retool. If you take the scenario I posited in The Problem of Cars last year, imagine all of the elements of the present day that would have to change in order for it to become possible.

Resource Collapse and... Ubiquitous Transparency
As with the climate, the role of ubiquitous transparency is to keep a close eye on the flows of production and consumption that might otherwise be invisible (at least until it's too late).

The scientific benefits would likely be the proximate driver. Whether the ultimate users are regulatory officials or participating panopticoneers depends on the balance of top-down vs. bottom-up power. Ultimately, it won't just be the points of production being watched, it will be the points of consumption, as well.

Resource Collapse and... New Models of Development
This is both harsh and simple.

If the newly-developing nations persist in trying to follow a Western path of development, then the competition for dwindling resources will end up as a critical point of tension and, likely, warfare. The more powerful nations will scrape by, while the ones less-able to throw their weight around will suffer. The more that the newly developing nations emulate Western consumption, the more that they're likely to face famine, economic collapse, and millions of casualties.

Conversely, if the newly-developing nations take a leapfrog-alternatives path, with a strong emphasis on efficiency and experimentation, they could find themselves the eventual winners of the century. The leapfrog concept is straightforward -- the areas with less legacy infrastructure can adopt new systems and models faster -- and emerging catalytic technologies and economic models seem custom-made for new adopters. But this isn't without risk; the new systems and models are intrinsically unproven, and may not work as well as expected. Leapfrogging nations may find themselves facing famine, economic collapse, and mass deaths anyway, and probably compounded by the expenditure of resources needed by the leapfrog systems and the loss or weakening of the old systems.

Resource Collapse and... The Rise of the Post-Hegemonic World
Resource collapse isn't the cause of the rise of the post-hegemonic world, but it's an important driver. It weakens the powerful, and opens up new niches of influence. It triggers conflict, setting the mighty against the mighty. It reveals vulnerabilities.

Most importantly, it sets up the conditions for the emergence of new models of power, as ultimately the most effective responses to resource collapse will come from revolutions in technology and socio-economic behavior. Those actors adopting the new successful models will find themselves disproportionately powerful.

Right now, none of the leading great power nations seem well-suited to discover and adopt such new models. The same can be said of the leading global corporate powers. The climate and resource crises of the 2010s and 2020s will be compounded by a vacuum of global leadership.

Ultimately, I suspect that the identity of the pre-eminent global actors of the mid-21st century will surprise us all.


Wonderful post, Jamais, and a worthy successor to the previous one in the series. It is also well balanced in its analysis of what resource collapse can imply, catalyzing change.

I'll be chewing on it for a long time. :)


Hey thanks for the great blog, I love this stuff. I don’t usually do much for Earth Day but with everyone going green these days, I thought I’d try to do my part.

I am trying to find easy, simple things I can do to help stop global warming (I don’t plan on buying a hybrid). Has anyone seen that www.EarthLab.com is promoting their Earth Day (month) challenge, with the goal to get 1 million people to take their carbon footprint test in April? I took the test, it was easy and only took me about 2 minutes and I am planning on lowering my score with some of their tips.

I am looking for more easy fun stuff to do. If you know of any other sites worth my time let me know.

Great post, we over here at Futurismic follow your writing with great interest. Peak resources and climate change will change our world. There are many potential solutions in the offing but they all require our ways of life to change. At the moment I don't think the threat is visible enough for most people to want to do that, change is hard, perhaps the hardest thing for many people. Most of the climate change denialists seem to do it because they think global warming is some liberal conspiracy to raise taxes and subsidies for science (after all the right wing has been doing that for energy and financial companies for years, so why should the left be any different?)

To really overcome these problems, the reluctance towards change will have to be solved. This happens gradually over time (eg the Internet) but perhaps not fast enough for what is needed. The easiest catalyst for change is troubled times and I fear it'll only be until people realise the water they are in is at 70 degrees before they try and scramble out of the pot.

Jamais, thank you for interesting post.

I have recently read Peter Schwartz's "Inevitable Surprises" and his opinion is that population growth is not really an issue. Growth rate began to slow down and, moreover, some countries are experiencing population decline. Combinating this with trend of current diseases & disasters and slowdown in birth rate for developed countries will probably stabilize resource usage.

What do you think about this?

One American consumes about 30 times the resources of a Bangaladeshi, giving America an *effective* population of 9 billion.

Overconsumption is the problem, not overpopulation. You can see this clearly with a variety of other measures, such as CO2 emissions which rationally should be per-human, and instead the industrial nations argue they should be decided relative to current CO2 emissions.

Thats the problem with the majority of the western world. Living in the developed western world here in Australia for example, has in my opinion garnered a selfish mentality of "it'll replenish itself" or "we'll still be able to survive well into the future". As the role of business, capitalism and 'corporate greed' plays a massive role in the western world, governments have been slack in implementing and funding R&D projects looking to seek out richer, energy efficient alternatives.
Obviously keen on allowing our big energy giants down here in Oz from continuing on with their booming supply into China and much of Asia, has demonstrated the government's yearning for increased economic welfare, but with an increased cost on the environment.
We'll only see disaster in our eyes, only when it slaps us in the face, and by that time it'll be too late.

That's just my two cents worth.
Enjoyed your interview with C.Reilly on his podcast. Top stuff.

So. When is the next "Mad Max" flick coming out? ;)

Great insight. So it's not just human pandemics we have to worry about but pandemics to any of our major food stuffs. That's obvious, now you have pointed it out...

An evolutionary model seems to fit well with your scenarios. Oversimplifying: Systems fail, people die, resistant adaptations survive.

Intelligence driven adaptions should be able to avoid the worst if we could make people plan ahead. Maybe next time ;-)

Great comments, folks.

Population is a tricky issue. In general, I don't think that it's a long-term problem -- not because it'll go away, but because there's a strong link between education of women and reduced family size, and we'll hit a stability point reasonably soon. But at a gross level, it's obvious that the more people you have living in an unsustainable manner (meaning more than just carbon footprint), the bigger the problem. Eliminating unsustainability is ultimately a better path than population reduction.

Vinay, I'm not eager to embrace the simple CO2/person metric, just as I'm not willing to embrace the CO2/GDP "intensity" measure, as the sole signifier. Some combination is surely necessary, something that acknowledges both absolute limits and improvements to what can be done with a given level of resources. The goal should be to see population x production x resources needed as a total that needs to be driven down to below the available resources.

Hmmm, that may be a good post.

csven, maybe Mad Max needs a reboot like Star Trek.

Like most 20th century environmentalists, you overlook the fact that human beings and their assorted social and technological systems are themselves Ecosystem Resources.

Resource depletion has many reasons. One reason, rarely mentioned and not widely understood, has to do with the nature of our monetary system. The present paper money system allows for unlimited creation of credits and debts in order to promote economic growth. The total foreign debt of the US economy is around $10 trillion. That debt is, as many experts confirm, unpayable. In other words, not only did we burn hundreds of billions of barrel of foreign oil wasting a precious asset, we also did not properly pay for that oil. The payment consists of promises to pay in the future in form of bonds and stocks held by foreign investors. The present subprime mortgage securities fraud is only the beginning.

A return to a monetary standard based on a commodity like gold (or any other combination of valuable minerals in scarce supply) would drastically reduce economic growth and in this way contribute to resource conservation.

We must stop breeding new humans as well as new paper money. Paper money = invitation to deplete all natural resources.

The final section on the rise of the post-hegemonic world, is particularly interesting.

Unfortunately, if resource collapse weakens the powerful, it weakens the weak even more. Undeveloped countries rely on powerful countries for economic aid, health care, technology assistance, energy, and a host of other supports.

The world might do without hegemonies during a transitional period. But it will not be pretty. A sense of proportion is a bitter lesson to learn.


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