New NPG Paper Foresees Rising Scarcity And Costs Of Non-Renewable Natural Resources

Mar 10, 2014, 10:02 ET from Negative Population Growth

ALEXANDRIA, Va., March 10, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- For more than two centuries, the United States and the rest of the industrialized world have taken for granted the abundance and affordability of the high quality non-renewable natural resources (NNRs) – minerals, metals, and fossil fuels – vital to maintaining and expanding their high-consumption industrial societies.

These were "the good old days" that are now vanishing, according to ecologist and resource economist Chris Clugston, who since 2006 has meticulously researched global and U.S. sources, cost, and availability of NNRs.  In his new NPG Forum paper "Whatever Happened to the Good Old Days?," Clugston finds that falling quality and rising costs of the world's remaining NNRs are a major factor in the great recession of 2008 and the anemic economic recovery since then.  He projects economic growth will continue shrinking because of high costs and declining availability of resources.  Clugston warns that while there may be occasional temporary surges of prosperity, the scarcity and costs of key NNRs will pinch off booms and keep the overall trend line of growth downward. 

The paper summarizes and updates Clugston's 2012 book, Scarcity – Humanity' Final Chapter?  His sobering conclusion:  the industrial world's voracious extraction of NNRs has collided with the law of diminishing returns.  More than seventy percent of the 89 vital NNRs Clugston examines were experiencing scarcity in 2008, with higher costs or diminished quality, thus depressing industrial demand and dampening growth.

While world leaders seek economic or technological remedies for faltering growth, Clugston stresses that the problem is ecological.  NNRs are plentifully scattered throughout the earth's crust, but concentrated deposits that are economically viable for extraction are rare.  Most of the low-hanging fruit has been picked.  Those known NNR deposits remaining require increasingly difficult and costly extraction methods that raise the "cost floor" of the commodities – extractions in tar sands and shale formations, the deep sea bed, or in areas that are rugged and remote such as the Arctic, and areas that are urbanized or reserved or are environmentally fragile.

Clugston addresses population pressure as a factor in the resource scarcity dilemma only tangentially, noting the skyrocketing demand for NNRs stemming from the rapid growth of the world's industrialized nations from a total of one billion to more than five billion between 1950 and 2000.  Spreading industrialization and continued high fertility in the third world are further increasing the demand for resources.

For Clugston, the good old days are over for good.  Industrial societies programmed to expect "continuously more and more" must adjust to the reality of "continuously less and less."  The author warns that the societal stress of waning growth may by mid-century spark widespread social and political conflicts such as resource wars, and require far-reaching and painful adjustments.  The transition of humanity to a sustainable paradigm is inevitable, but it is humanity's challenge to ease the shock of that transition. 

SOURCE Negative Population Growth