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Four crucial resources that may run out in your lifetime

By

August 27, 2009

Can the Earth sustain 9 billion people? We'll find out in the next 50 years.

Can the Earth sustain 9 billion people? We'll find out in the next 50 years.

We're living in lucky times. Living standards - in the Western world, at least - are the highest in history. It's an era of relative peace and plenty that would amaze our ancestors. But it's not going to continue forever; we're already stretching many of our natural resources to their limits, and the world's population will jump from 6.5 billion to around 9 billion over the next 50 years. Get ready for a painful correction - here are four interconnected resources that are headed for a catastrophic squeeze within our lifetime.

Oil

The modern world is built on oil. It powers transport, construction, manufacturing, food production - our entire economy. The sky-high living standards and widespread disconnection from manual labor that we enjoy today is all thanks to the Industrial Revolution of the early 1900s, and it's based on cheap, accessible oil.

The Peak Oil theory, if you haven't already encountered it, suggests that oil production for a given reserve will follow a bell curve. Production for the reserve will rise to a peak, and then begin declining due to the fact that as levels get lower, it becomes more expensive to retrieve, ending up at a point where you have to put more energy into sucking up and refining the oil than you get out of using it. The theory is said to hold whether you're talking about an individual oil well, an entire oil field or the entire global oil reserve - and once the peak is passed, the decline in production is said to be as sharp as the rise toward the peak was.

It's a theory backed by the vast majority of scientists and energy economists, such as the International Energy Agency. And according to the theory, we're very close to that peak point right now, if it hasn't already passed. Certainly, the more positive estimations say we might be a maximum of 10 years from the peak at current projections. And this at a time when the Earth's population is ballooning, and massive countries like China and India are industrializing and increasing their oil demand at an enormous rate.

For some truly scary and apocalyptic reading on what might happen once that peak hits, check out lawyer Matt Savinar's Life After the Oil Crash website, which draws together a pretty convincing range of sources.

On the rebuttal side, there are people promoting the idea that oil isn't a fossil fuel, created by dead biomass buried beneath the Earth's surface. The Russian theory of "abiotic oil" that became popular in the 1950s claims that oil is produced from a monstrous reserve of hydrocarbons in the Earth's primordial core. Oil is created in the Earth's incredibly hot mantle layer, and pushed up into the crust, where gargantuan reserves are available to us if we just drill deep enough.

But it's a scientifically unproven theory, promoted in recent times most strongly by one man, Thomas Gold, an astronomer who died in 2004. And the responding arguments for biogenic oil, from Petroleum Geologists, are very strong.

So it looks fairly clear that sometime in the next few decades, oil production is going to start to fall, just as global demand is rising. Prices are forecast to skyrocket, and the effect on societies worldwide will reflect just how important fossil fuels are to us. Apart from oil control wars - which many would say we're already witnessing in the middle east - we can expect the industrial world to be turned on its head, starting with the economy and ending with a complete lifestyle revolution where food production, among other things, is brought right back into the backyard.

You can see why we tend to make alternative energy stories such a high priority at Gizmag.

Food

Consider this: since 2005, the price of wheat has more than tripled. So has the price of corn. Rice has gone up more than 500%. These price increases reflect a dwindling of global food stocks - demand for food is rising faster than our ability to produce it. The phenomenon has been dubbed the "global food crisis of 2008" - but some are beginning to refer to it as the "perpetual food crisis."

It's not just rising populations we're facing, it's a rising standard of living in developing mega-countries such as China and India. As these giant economies start to move, the national diet steps up from a grain base to start including more and more meat. In China, for example, the average person ate around 20kg of meat per year back in 1980. In 2007, that was more like 50kg and rising.

Meat is produced by feeding grain to livestock - and the calorie yield of meat is about one fifth of the grain used to produce it. Eating meat, in other words, is effectively throwing out 80% of the calories you could be eating if you ate the grains instead of passing them through a cow. In tough times, meat is a wasteful food - not only of calories, but of agricultural land.

As we learned from Dr. Dickson Despommier in Gizcast #9, we're already farming around 80% of the arable land on the planet. In simple terms, by 2030 we're going to have to find a way to meet an estimated 50% greater demand.

Part of our response will come in the form of enhanced genetic engineering of crops to produce higher yields, in high-tech fertilizer and pesticide solutions. But the widespread use of genetically engineered crops tends to put the planet's agricultural future - and a lot of its money - in the hands of corporate giants like Monsanto, which has already been accused of abusing its dominance.

Most fertilisers are based on fossil fuels - so as oil goes into decline, these will become vastly more expensive - and pesticides which, while they provide a degree of protection against crop losses, can often have their own issues, leaching into groundwater and causing delayed-reaction health issues.

With high obesity rates, the Western world could certainly afford to cut down on food consumption - but this would represent a seismic change in attitude, and is highly unlikely until we're forced to by soaring food prices. But, even if we do start eating less, the problem will continue to worsen unless our production capacity dramatically rises, or our population dramatically lowers. It's not a nice picture.

Water

Along with increased food and energy requirements, we're going to need vastly more water. We'll need it agriculturally, industrially, domestically and as part of energy production needs. All those demands are growing fast. And while we're not actually running out of fresh water, we can't create more to go around - at least not without considerable expense.

According to the World Economic Forum, within 20 years water will become a bigger theme for investors than oil - and water scarcity is likely to worsen the global food crisis by preventing food production equal to the size of the grain crops of India and America combined.

Climate change is already playing havoc with established weather patterns, causing drought, flood and other extremes of weather that set new records each year. In many extreme weather events, fresh water falls so fast and in such huge amounts that it becomes impossible to capture and use, and it becomes a destructive force instead of a replenishing one.

The vast majority of our fresh water supplies - somewhere around 70% - are used in agriculture, and this gives us a good place to start looking for conservation solutions. And it's an area in which technology can definitely make a big impact. But still, many are predicting that the water squeeze will hit before we even start feeling the effects of peak oil.

Fish

While food as a whole is forecast to come under intense pressure, the future for fish seems far bleaker. It's estimated that unless drastic (and extremely politically difficult) action is taken immediately, humans will eat fish pretty much out of existence within the next 50 years. According to most projections, we will be the generation that runs out of wild fish.

A combination of commercial greed, weak policy, consumer disinterest, massive waste and blatant disregard for what flimsy rules are in place has seen about 30% of fish species lose more than 90% of their populations since 1950. Once a population hits a certain terminal level, it simply can't sustain itself any more. And as each species dies out, the reduction of biodiversity accelerates the rate of decline of the other species around it.

The problem becomes far worse when fisheries and consumers ignore the minimum size limits set to allow fish to reach maturity and breed before they're eaten. Undersize fish are scarily common in European markets and others around the world.

The only plan that seems to have any chance to stall or reverse this accelerating decline is to set up marine wildlife reserves all over the globe, covering between 30 and 40% of the world's oceans. But it would be virtually impossible to reach international consensus on such a plan, let alone enforce it across the massive expanses of the world's oceans.

Fishery lobbies stridently oppose any measure to allow fish stocks to recover, and commercial boats ignore or find ways around the laws that are passed. You can understand why; their catches and their profits are in a steep decline. They feel the rules need to be relaxed so they can earn a living. It's a great example of the catastrophic short-term decision-making our species is renowned for.

This has, of course, been a hugely simplified overview of these four interconnected issues. And there are some potential solutions being developed for each - although each proposed solution seems to come with significant drawbacks and large expenses of its own. The simple fact is that our burgeoning population is already putting the planet's resources under severe stress, and it's going to take a number of broad and large-scale breakthroughs to invent our way out of trouble. If we don't, the next hundred years could look a lot like a reversal of the last hundred.

Apologies if this piece comes across as unnecessarily pessimistic - I'll get back to finding the solutions tomorrow!

About the Author
Loz Blain Loz has been one of Gizmag's most versatile contributors since 2007. Joining the team as a motorcycle specialist, he has since covered everything from medical and military technology to aeronautics, music gear and historical artefacts. Since 2010 he's branched out into photography, video and audio production, and he remains the only Gizmag contributor willing to put his name to a sex toy review. A singer by night, he's often on the road with his a cappella band Suade.   All articles by Loz Blain
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18 Comments

How about we stop using corn for biofuel and use it to feed people.... just a thought.

John Mulnix
27th August, 2009 @ 08:21 pm PDT

It is amazing just how similar the human race is to a virus. Replicate until the host is killed.

Regards,

Royce R. Vines

rrvau
27th August, 2009 @ 10:19 pm PDT

there must be a time where all the major governments in the world will have to agree to an immediate plan to cope with all the problems mentioned, ( highly unlikely )

robinyatesuk2003
28th August, 2009 @ 06:58 am PDT

we have to stop using fossil fuels, and we have to stop NOW!!!! wind, solar , i don't even like bio-fuel research. make coal plants capture co2 emissions it can be done, they just won't install the equiptment unless we the tax payers pay for it. ludicrious with the amount of profit the energy companys make!!!! write your congressmen and women, relentlessly!!!

Mark Alan Sink
28th August, 2009 @ 07:30 am PDT

TECHNOLOGY!!!!!!!! is the answer and start changeing our behabour, strong rules and regulations world wide...................

gfeuchte
28th August, 2009 @ 08:08 am PDT

Not even close. Oil won't run out, just get too expensive to be worth extracting it. As soon as the economy recovers by late next yr, the price will hit $150/bbl and keep going up until it causes the next recession. This will finally spur the movement to replace it though that will take 10 yrs.

The good thing is you can stop using it much faster. I did by building my own EV 12 yrs ago.

Running out of food is a joke. There is no food shortage just as there is no energy shortage. Just the US produces enough to feed 1/2 the world. And crop wastes can easily be used for the energy, fertilizer needed with no oil, NG, etc input. Many farms now make methane to power generator that could be used in tractors. Just sun, water and air can make N2 fertilizers.

Just by switching to grass fed animals instead of grain fed in the US, another billion, maybe 2 could be fed.

Water is very plentiful just needs cleaning which can be done with solar or wind fairly cheaply.

Fish is another story as the acidification, warming grows of the oceans wild fish will have great problems. Not only does coal burning cause the acidifying, but also poisons them with mercury so even now one shouldn't eat fish more than 1/week. I wouldn't eat farmed fish because of what they feed them. Not that it couldn't be done more healthy like growing clean algae to feed them, just they don't.

Our, these problems are not technical but political where big business, corrupt politicians prevent solutions because they want all the money, power even if billions die.

jerryd
28th August, 2009 @ 08:46 am PDT

Four crucial character types that will never run out:

1. Frustrated apocalyptic doomers

2. Hippies who blame the modern world for not giving them a free lunch

3. Politically savvy Leftists who manufacture a problem so they can sell the solution

4. Mainstream media who finds these stories get a lot of attention, until the details are scrutinized.

Todd Dunning
28th August, 2009 @ 10:35 am PDT

I don't see what the big deal is...we continue to consume the worlds resources until they run out...then we die...then when most of the people are dead, the world will be able to recover and eventually, humans, in whatever form they have evolved into by this time, can begin to propagate again in massive numbers...then consume the world's resources again, then die out again...it's like a yo-yo and follows nature...live with it..or die....it's that simple!

Ed
28th August, 2009 @ 01:01 pm PDT

Technology and better cheaper ,more affordable radical breakthrough technology. Fosil fuels are unnecessary for energy, transportation even for chemistry IF there is a switch for massive alternative use.In particularly solar. AND YOU SOLVE GLOBAL WARMING. That is one crisis over.

Food can be grown out of the thin air, if you know how (aeroponics) and in large qualities even on your roof top. Just make it a kit d.i.y solution.

Even water can be obtained out of the thin air (humidity) in sufficient quantities, even in deserts.

Fish...stop the stupids. (Not just "whale wars").

nehopsa
28th August, 2009 @ 03:08 pm PDT

The biggest issue is climate changes, because what we are experiencing now is the feedback of past decade's pollution, so we can only try to imagine the effects on the environment caused by the pollution of today.

pressed by the cirumstances we will find the solution to face the other issues.

Giuseppe Picciuca
29th August, 2009 @ 02:56 am PDT

I think it's VERY good that people are thinking 'next generation' energy BEFORE we need it. Reason? Imagine the scene at the local grocery store the day the delivery truck can't get fuel. Curses. Worse yet, empty shelves. Empty shelves=no customers=business CLOSED. Domino effect from there, plus hungry people having to learn how to farm on-the-fly. NOT pretty. This century promises to be a real challenge, to a lot of people. 'Normal' may go away, so better to be kind of prepared and stay mentally flexible and work on creative solutions just in case of 'oh...@@#$'.

Emmett Brown
29th August, 2009 @ 08:09 pm PDT

I just brought a daytona 675 and I like burning the gas and the tyres.

I will miss that, when oil forces it into a museum, until a nice electric version is brought out. Otherwise quite looking forward to the doom and gloom.

Bring on the war, pestilence and disease, we need a good thinning out.

Craig Jennings
30th August, 2009 @ 02:19 am PDT

This kind of mixing of units in statistics irritates the hell out of me:

'Consider this: since 2005, the price of wheat has more than tripled. So has the price of corn. Rice has gone up more than 500%'

Why not say that the price of rice has risen five-fold? Why suddenly start talking in hundreds of percent (= hundreds of per hundred), which always confuses stupid people anyway......

PNB

paulblez
30th August, 2009 @ 05:48 am PDT

I don't agree with you sir. I think fish is not going to run out of supply as well as food. our scientists are researching on food genes which will make us produce them whenever we want in future.

Kuldeep Sinha
31st August, 2009 @ 06:42 am PDT

"abiotic oil is an unproven theory", correct, but so is biogenic oil. Oil has been found by the Russians who use the abiotic theory in places that are impossible according to the biogenic theory. Note that the biogenic theory is promoted by scientists employed by big oil who have an economic incentive to justify high prices by claiming oil is not renewable. Wells do replenish if not pumped dry. Why does Gizmag believe the biogenic theory?

voluntaryist
3rd April, 2010 @ 02:47 pm PDT

The human race ain't got a drip of common sense between the lot of them...

We continue to kill and rape our planet or resources and continue to kill species of animals that have no doubt been here longer than we have, and we continue to fight each other for fuels that we all know we're soon to run out of.

And yet we sit around and do nothing to try and change the way we're producing energy and admitting it, far too many cars on the road these days, almost every country is overpopulated and going bankrupt.

I'm a very scientific guy, but seriously I'd rather 2012 be right than what's coming once we run out of fuels and natural resources, people will be killing each other for food and water. Locked n' loaded :P

Mark Standing
7th November, 2011 @ 08:15 pm PST

The situation doesn't look good but seriously I got scared AFTER I read the comments.

Most of the people that have read and decided to share their opinion just did the exact opposite of what the OP was trying to do. We need to unite and stop mindlessly throwing our resources away because that's how capitalism "works". Of course the rich don't care about us, or the environment, they live this false dream of being untouchable, and although one may argue that they pretty much are, I would urge them to remember that they and their loved ones can bleed and die just as the rest of us.

Yes, food and water can be saved if we discover a stable energy source to replace oil (also one that can be miniaturized), but delaying the inevitable won't solve our problems as a species, countries with an alarming population growth also need to take actions and start limiting family sizes.

And about oil, I don't give a crap about which theory is right or wrong.... it needs to go !

Last but not least is the issue of fish... seriously, if earth one day runs out of fish because of us, then we do not deserve our place on this planet, we would have failed as a "intelligent" life form, and we would deserve to go extinct and maybe leave planet earth to be roamed by the next self conscious being that would follow, maybe cockroaches ?!?! who knows.

Stefan Padureanu
25th April, 2012 @ 12:54 pm PDT

We will run out of oil? Really? Odd how each and every year we find MORE OIL than we thought before! North Dakota alone has MORE OIL than Saudi Arabia, the very first oil well ever drilled in the U.S. produces oil to this day, over 80 YEARS LATER!

Africa, Mexico, Brazil, all these countries have vast oil reserves yet to be even touched, and we have only searched a minor part of our earths surface for oil. There are reserves we haven't even found yet!

Christopher Kurz
17th May, 2012 @ 09:40 pm PDT
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