We often hear about the depletion of natural resources, mainly due to human greed, which accelerates their consumption in a disproportionate way compared to their natural capacity to regenerate. Depending on the nature of the good in question, the reason may be the continuing demand for energy for human production activities and pollution.
The limits of natural resources and environmental damage are also accelerated by the increase in the middle classes – and their consumption – in emerging countries such as India and China.
The result, which will reshape the Earth in this first century, is the disappearance or significant decrease of various types of resources and plant and animal species.
The popular American science popularization journal Scientific American has developed a beautiful picture to show us the past and future situation of many natural resources. Born on August 23, 1845, over the centuries it has not lost its original verve, so much so that in 2011 it received the “National Magazine Awards for General Excellence”.
The forecasts proposed by the magazine are certainly not reassuring. Based on current rates of resource exploitation or pollution and possible future increases, they identify the year in which many resources will be depleted or disappear and the percentage remaining.
Proof of the magazine’s excellence, the graph is informative but intuitive. It began in 1975 and has grown to 2560 to show changes in the quantities of five categories of natural resources: minerals, fossil fuels, biodiversity, food resources and water. Here’s an analysis.
Indio. Expected to run out in 2028. Indium is a silvery metal found next to the pond in the periodic table, sharing many of its properties, such as colour and density. At current production levels (indium oxide is a thin film conductor used in flat panel televisions), it is estimated that it will disappear within 17 years.
Silver. Expected to be depleted by 2029. Because silver kills microbes, it is increasingly used in the coating of consumer products. In addition to making them valuable, of course. At current levels of consumption, it has about 19 years to live, but if recycled, it can be used for a few decades.
Gold. It is expected to be exhausted by 2030. The global financial crisis, which has accelerated the demand for this mineral, has undoubtedly affected its extinction. According to Julian Phillips, director of the gold forecaster, gold reserves will probably “only” have “another” 20 years.
Copper. Depletion expected by 2044. Copper is used in almost every component of infrastructure, from pipes to electrical equipment. Known reserves currently stand at 540 million tonnes, but recent geological work in South America indicates that there may be an additional 1.3 billion tonnes of copper hidden in the Andes. In short, at least another 30 years at least, we have guaranteed it.
Lithium. Expected to run out in 2560. Although demand for this mineral is growing, as it is an essential component in electric car batteries – so demand is expected to accelerate dramatically in a few decades – known reserves of lithium to date are large enough to last for more than five centuries. Not to mention the lithium contained in seawater.
Here too, the data are no less reassuring. Productivity is strongly influenced by rising temperatures. In the United States, productivity is expected to increase in the states with large plains, but there will be a drop in those in the Southwest, which are already in trouble today. Russia and China will increase their production, while India and Mexico, again for global warming, will reduce it. In general, developing countries will improve the quantities of primary food produced.
By 2050, more than €5 billion a year is expected to be spent to combat the negative effects of climate change on nutrition. But by 2080, the global agricultural landscape will be radically different from what it is today.
From 1976 to 2005, glaciers lost mass at a frightening rate. In parts of Europe and America, glaciers in some areas have decreased their thickness by half a metre per year. By 2025, water reserves in some parts of the world will fall below 500 cubic metres per person per year. This is, among other things, the minimum acceptable level for a functioning society.
The most critical situations in the immediate future are in some African countries, such as Ethiopia, which is trying to ensure that up to 50% of the Nile can be used. Without the river, the whole of Egypt would today be deserted. In Eastern Europe, the situation of the Danube is very critical because it is very polluted. Countries close to its mouth, such as Hungary and Moldova, are looking for new sources of water. In the Middle East, the Jordan, tormented by drought and diverted by Israeli, Syrian and Jordanian dams, has lost 95% of its flow.
In the former Soviet Union, the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, has lost 75% of its water because of the Soviet Union’s senseless agricultural programmes since 1960. By 2060, due to increased drought in some areas and increased rainfall in others, the orography of many waterways will be altered. According to scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, in 50 years, while in East Africa, Argentina and other regions there will be an increase in available water, in southern Europe and the west coast of the United States there will be much less.
By 2070, the ice covering the Himalayas will be reduced by 43%. This would be a blow to the rivers it feeds, such as the Yellow River, the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Ganges. This has dramatic consequences for the people who draw their water from these rivers. The glaciers in the Alps are melting so fast that the Rhône is expected to melt completely by 2100.
In short, the scenario is worrying and alarming, but there is still time for humans to do something about it. He has glimpsed a menacing iceberg on the horizon and how the Titanic is heading against us. But he can still turn around, correct his mistakes, before it’s too late. And it is a duty, especially for our children and grandchildren, to ensure that they do not pay for the greed of those who came before them in the consumption of natural resources.