Nonrenewable resources are all those materials and energy sources consumed by our industrial society at a rate that exceeds the rate at which natural processes can renew those resources. This contrasts with renewable resources such as food and timber, which, presumably can be replaced continuously at the same rate as they are used up. Almost exclusively, these nonrenewable resources come from the Earth and from processes that operate within the Earth. Therefore, nonrenewable resources are essentially the same as Earth resources. Included among nonrenewable resources are such things as metallic and nonmetallic minerals, fossil fuels, and clean, fresh water.
Humans have a voracious appetite for every possible resource, but relative demands for any particular resource fluctuate with desire and need. Social, economic, and political factors that are not entirely predictable need to be balanced against our incomplete understanding of Earth processes. Shifts in technology or fads can turn a renewable resource into a non-renewable resource and vice versa overnight. For example, the use of chromium in the manufacture of automobiles changed drastically as auto makers shifted away from chrome-plated bumpers and trim to painted rubber bumpers and cleaner design.
In any discussion of resources, one fact must be kept clearly in mind: the ultimate resource is energy quality. Of all the things we humans use to maintain our standard of living, all but energy quality are available in essentially infinite amounts. At least some measurable, if minute, quantity of every possible resource exists everywhere. What matters for the ultimate, useful exploitation of natural resources is the distribution concentration and form that those resources take. Finding, concentrating, and refining natural resources requires the expenditure of energy currency—expenditure inevitably accompanied by the conversion of high-quality energy to less useful and lower-quality energy (the second law of thermodynamics—entropy). For example, the gasoline or diesel fuel burned by a tractor or truck is high-quality energy that represents the accumulation of the sun’s energy in organic matter and its slow transformation and concentration in the form of fossil fuel. But, once an engine consumes that fuel, it is dissipated as heat that is practically useless as a source of energy to do work. Given a choice, we will always select as a source for any resource those deposits that are easiest to find, collect, and refine into useful products. It is the fundamental uncertainty about exactly where nonrenewable resources leave off and renewable resources begin that leads to the conflict between those who view resources within a Malthusian perspective of limits to growth and those who hold there is no practical limit to resources exploitation.
Use of Nonrenewable Resources
The production and consumption of most nonrenewable resources is so removed from our daily lives that most people have no idea of what and in what quantities materials are needed to provide our current standard of living. For example, while we might have some idea of how much energy we consume, say in the form of fossil fuels to heat our homes and power our automobiles, we are, for the most part, totally unaware of the energy costs that go into food production, transportation, and so on. The overall per capita consumption of natural gas in the United States is, for example, several times the average per capita consumption used for heating homes. Similarly, huge nonrenewable industries such as the mining of sand and crushed rock aggregate for producing concrete and cement are essentially invisible to the general public.
Extent of Nonrenewable Resources
As stated before, it is possible to find a measurable if minute quantity of any potential material almost anywhere. If you looked hard enough, you could find tiny diamonds blown around by the wind in dust storms or a few atoms of gold in a gallon of sewage. What makes a resource a recoverable resource is its concentration and availability as an ore.
The estimation of the quantity of any given resource is an integral function of modern industry and government, and many authors have taken novel approaches at making such estimates. Perhaps the most soundly based of these approaches was made by Brian J. Skinner in 1980 and 1986.
Skinner systematically examined two aspects of the distribution of metallic elements: their overall abundance and the frequency distribution of ores of various grades (concentration). To understand the overall abundance of metal resources, Skinner looked at data available from the mining industry itself within the context of what geochemists know about the likely overall concentration of those same elements in the Earth’s rocks. Skinner based his analyses on the fundamental difference between what he classifies as the “abundant” and “scarce” metallic elements. Abundant elements (such as iron, aluminum, calcium, sodium, etc.) are those that are integral components of the common silicate minerals that make up the majority of Earth’s surface rocks. The scarce elements (such as gold, silver, tin, chromium) exist only in minute quantities within most silicate minerals and rocks at concentrations even less than might be expected, given their overall abundance in the Earth. Thus, some fraction of the scarce elements shuffles off by geologic processes over time into local concentrations that we call “ores.” The frequency of discovery of ores of different quality for the common elements resembles a single-peaked bell-shaped curve, because the distribution of such elements is more or less a random process. In contrast, the frequency distribution for scarce elements is bimodal—one small peak represents the discovery of an ore, while another low-concentration peak represents the rare substitution of a scarce element for an abundant one in a silicate mineral.
The results of Skinner’s analysis have two important implications. First, since he found that nearly all economic dimensions of metal resources correspond to the known crustal abundance of the elements, it appears that humans are near, if not at, the point at which we either know about or have already used up all known nonrenewable resources. Second, the consumption of scarce metals (gold, silver, platinum, chromium) may well be near or at the point where further exploitation may no longer be profitable in energy consumption terms. We have plucked the easy pickings; what is left will cost us dearly.
Continued Availability of Earth Resources
Perhaps no other aspect of nonrenewable resources generates as much controversy as attempts at estimating how long any particular resource will last (and the parallel question of how much it will cost). M. K. Hubbert of the U.S. Geological Survey was among the first scientists, in 1975, to place calendar dates on the peak and ultimate production of specific nonrenewable resources. His approach was deceptively simple. If we know the history of the production of any particular resource, Hubbert reasoned, then that history will inevitably follow a logistic type progression; that is, production will rise slowly and reach some peak, after which it will gradually decline. The logistic curve is similar to the well-known bell-shaped curve of statistics. Based on the analysis of U.S. and world oil production, for example, Hubbert predicted that U.S. production would peak in about 1975, while world production would peak in about 2005. His predictions were essentially right on the mark.
The accuracy of Hubbert-type predictions has not led to their universal acceptance. In a now-famous incident in the repertoire of environmental folklore, a group of scientists at Stanford University that included the neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich accepted a challenge from Julian Simon at the University of Maryland. The challenge was that the cost of a specific list of metal commodities totaling $10,000 in 1980 would fall by 1990. If the value of the list rose, Simon would pay Ehrlich the difference; if it fell, the reverse. The price of the list was less in 1990 than it was in 1980, and Ehrlich sent Simon a check for the difference. This exercise underscored the danger in making too simple an analysis of the future economic behavior of resources.
The availability of a nonrenewable resource is not just a function of a well-defined quantity divided by a well-known rate of consumption. The quantity of a resource is, in fact, a function of the technology that can be applied to its extraction, while the rate of consumption and demand can change with human whims and changing needs. Ultimately, we can be certain that all resources have limits and cannot be exploited endlessly, but we must always keep in mind the limitations on our ability to predict the future.
- Hubbert, M. King. 1975. “The Energy Resources of the Earth.” Pp. 31-40 in Energy and Power. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
- Lomberg, Bjorn. 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Meadows, Donella H., Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens. 1974. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome S Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: New American Library/Signet.
- Meadows, Donella H., Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
- Skinner, Brian J., ed. 1980. Earth’s Energy and Mineral Resources. Los Altos, CA: William Kaufmann.
- Skinner, Brian J., James R. Craig, and David J. Vaughan. 2001. Resources of the Earth. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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