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Resource Depletion and Overuse Part II

There are many examples of justified concern over depletion and unsustainable use of resources—or, at least, the easily reached and relatively cheap to extract ones. A little discussed but very important example is phosphate. It is anticipated that the world’s known phosphate deposits will be exhausted by the end of the century. The largest phosphate deposits are found in North Africa (Morocco), the United States, and China. Although phosphorus is used for other purpose, its use in agricultural fertilizers may be one of the most critical for the future of civilization. In the absence of efficient nutrient cycling (the return to fields of nutrients contained in crop residues and farm animal and human wastes), routine use of phosphorus fertilizers is critical in order to maintain food production. Today much of the fertilizer phosphate that is used is being wasted, leading to excessive runoff of the mineral, inducing algal blooms in lakes and rivers and contributing to ocean dead zones—both sink problems.


We could discuss many other individual nonrenewable resources, but the point would be the same. The depletion of nonrenewable resources that modern societies depend on—such as oil, zinc, iron ore, bauxite(to make aluminum), and the “rear earths” (used in many electronic gadgets including smart phones as well as smart bombs)—is a problem of great importance. Although there is no immediate problem of scarcity for most of these resources, that is no reason to put off making societal changes that acknowledge the reality of the finite limits of nonrenewable resources. (“Rare earth” metals are not actually that rare. Their price increase in recent year has been caused by a production cutback in China, which accounts for 95 percent of world production, as it tries to better control the extensive ecological damage caused by extracting these minerals. Production of rare earths is starting up once again in the United States and a large facility is planned for Malaysia, where it is being bitterly opposed by environmental activists. The main current issue with rare earth metals is not scarcity at the tap end, but rather pollution associated with mining and extraction—again a sink problem.)

What is important is that the environmental damage and the economic cost mount as corporation and countries dig deeper in mining for resources and use more advanced technology and/or in more fragile locations. Mining companies are using new technologies such as robotic drills and high-strength pipe alloys to drill deeper after the surface deposits are depleted. Seafloor mining is another approach used to deal with declining easy-to-reach deposit. In the beginning of what may well be a major effort to exploit seafloor mineral resources, a Canadian company has signed a twenty-year agreement with the government of Papua New Guinea to mine cooper and gold some fifty kilometers off the coast.

Still another way to deal with depleted high-quality deposits is to exploit those of lower quality. In highlighting this development, the CEO of a copper mining explained: “Today the average grade—the grade is the measure of the amount of copper you can turn into material—is half of what it was 20 years ago. And so to get the same amount of copper from a deposit, you have to mine and process significantly larger quantities of material, and that involves higher cost.” This mining approach creates larger quantities of leftover spoils to pollute air, water and soil.

The exploitation of the Canadian tar sands is an example of high prices for oil inducing the use of a deposit that is both costly and ecologically damaging. However much damage this extractive operation may do to the environment, it will significantly extend the period that the resource is available, though at higher prices.

There are of course important exceptions to new harder to reach deposit driving or keeping prices higher. For example, with the ecologically damaging hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling for oil and gas extraction from shale deposits, so much natural gas is being produced in the United States that its price has plummeted. This, however, reflects an extreme undervaluation of the ecological and social costs of fracking, which are immense—and dangerous to both human beings and local and regional ecosystems.

One of the most critical actually occurring resource “tap” problems facing the world is a lack of fresh water. Normally fresh water is considered a renewable resource. However, there are ancient fossil aquifers that contain water that fell literally thousands of years ago. These aquifers, such as those in Saudi Arabia and in North Africa, need to be viewed for what they are—nonrenewable or fossil water. There are also aquifers that are renewable, but which are being exploited far above their renewal rate. The aquifers in the U.S. Great Plains ( the Ogallala aquifer), in northwestern India, and Northern China are all being exploited so rapidly relative to recharge rates that water levels are falling rapidly. This means deeper wells must be drilled and more energy used to raise the water greater distance to the surface. Drilling deeper wells is clearly only a temporary “solution”. In addition, there is so much water taken, mainly to irrigate crops, that China’s Yellow River, the Colorado River in the United States and Mexico, and the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in the Middle East rarely reach their normal outlets to the sea. Thus, the situation with water (as with the ocean fisheries) makes it clear that even a renewable resource can be overexploited with detrimental consequences. China is engaged in a costly and ecologically questionable effort to bring water from the headwaters of the Yangtze River in the south to the increasingly parched northern regions.

Another current critical resource problem is agricultural soil, which is related to a number of other issues including water availability. It takes between 500 and 1000 pounds of water to grow one pound of grain. Thus, water-short countries are searching for other regions of the world, in land grabs, to grow food for their people. With the neoliberal emphasis on “free trade” as a cure-all, it might seem that all a country with a food shortage needs to do is to purchase food on the “free” international market. But with severe pain caused by the rapid rise of food prices on international markets in 2007-2008, again in 2011, and to a lesser extent in 2012, a number of countries are trying to protect their people by having food grown abroad, but specifically for them.

Sovereign wealth funds and private capital purchase or lease land under long-term agreements. The spikes in food prices over the last five years have encouraged major importers to bypass international markets to buy needed food and to assure supplies by obtaining land in other countries. Governments (such as China, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Egypt, India and Libya) and private capital have been buying up or leasing under very favorable terms and truly astounding amount of agriculture land in Africa (mainly), southeast Asia, and Latin America- involving some 70 million hectares (about 170 million acres). It is estimated that since 2002, 5 percent of Africa’s agricultural land has been bought or leased under long-term agreements by foreign investors and governments. These agricultural land grabs are partially an issue of water. The land purchases and leases include the implicit right to use water that in some cases may actually exceed the quantity of locally available water.

Saudi Arabia, now a significant participant in the land grabs, decided to use some of their oil to power pumps in order to irrigate large areas of desert lands. After 1984, fossil water represented more than half of all water used in the country. At its maximum use in the mid-1990, more than three quarters of the water used was mined from prehistoric deposits. As a result, for some years the country was actually self-sufficient in wheat-growing enough to feed this staple to over 30 million people. But by 2008, the fossil aquifer had been nearly mined out, and the country now must import all of its wheat.

There are other reasons, in addition to its relation to water shortages, for the growth of global land grabs-from the use of land to grow biofuel crops to greater consumption of meat (with greater use of corns and soybeans to feed animals) to weather-related crop failures to commodities speculators driving prices up when shortage occur. Private capital-with British firms leading the charge-has been especially interested in controlling land in Africa to produce biofuels for European markets. All of the land grabs displace people from their traditional landholdings, forcing many to migrate to increasingly marginal land or to cities in order to live. The results are more hunger, rising foor prices, expanding urban slums, and frequently increased carbon dioxide emissions.

Source: DIGEST, January 2014

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