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01 / 05
No, We Won’t Run Out of Resources

Blog Post | Mineral Production

No, We Won’t Run Out of Resources

We’ve been adapting to resource scarcity for millennia. The idea that we would stop today, at the pinnacle of our development so far, is a peculiar one.

This article challenges the pessimistic view that human progress will soon come to a halt due to resource scarcity. It argues that humans are problem solvers who can adapt to changing circumstances and find new ways of using resources more efficiently. It illustrates this point with the example of germanium, a mineral that has been extracted from different sources over time depending on the demand and availability.


Pessimists often claim that human progress is about to come to a screeching halt. They say that the resources that make progress possible are about to run out, dooming us to a reversal in living standards. The Club of Rome, along with nearly every environmentalist, tells us that incessantly, usually pointing to a supposed mineral shortage that will end civilization. The pessimists insist that everything must be recycled and that we must have a completely circular economy. Alas, they fail to understand how the mineral industry actually works. On a deeper level, they fail to understand that humans have agency. We are not merely buffeted by the natural world but can solve problems ourselves.

Another group that fails to appreciate our problem-solving ability is the American Chemical Society (ACS). The Society has a list of “endangered elements,” which they think might run out in the near future. The idea that we could run out of hafnium is enough to make geologists guffaw – I actually tried this once, and that’s what happened: not just giggles but proper belly laughs. Germanium, another on that list of likely shortages, illustrates my point even better. The world doesn’t use much of it, perhaps 150 tons a year. Some of that is recycled. (There’s nothing wrong with recycling, but insisting that we must recycle is wrong.)

We first started using germanium for electronics before we switched to using silicon computer chips. Germanium is still the material of choice for getting a warm and fuzzy sound on a guitar pedal, but today, germanium is mostly used for night sights and long-distance fiber optics. That’s because adding a little germanium to glass allows it to carry light for longer distances. So, we like having germanium around, and we would miss it if we ran out.

Early germanium extraction methods used coal. There’s a little germanium in nearly all coal and more in certain other deposits. If you collect the vapor after burning coal, the germanium concentrates in the ash and can be collected. The chemical company Johnson Matthey used to have a plant in Cheshire, England, to the delight of fuzzy guitar pedal enthusiasts. Later, we realized that certain zinc ores could also provide germanium, and the world supply pivoted to a zinc mine in DR Congo. Then, we got wise to the harmful effects of coal dust floating around the countryside. Coal power plants installed electrostatic precipitators on their chimneys to collect the dust, and coal once again became the primary source of the world’s germanium.

It might seem lucky that today’s germanium supply is just a byproduct of producing electricity. But to think of it as luck is to get things the wrong way around. We are problem solvers, not just the recipients of happenstance. In the absence of that luck, we could build a factory to do it anyway. That’s how the world’s largest germanium producer, in China, works. They mine coal, burn it in a power station, and collect the germanium-infused dust. Rumor has it – and it might just be a rumor because it’s so cute – that the germanium content is so rich that they give the electricity away to the local town for free.

The point of my germanium example is to show that we are not dependent on the current methods of mineral extraction, nor do we need luck to avoid shortages. We are tool-making creatures. If we have a problem, we study the world around us and develop a way to solve it.

Like germanium, every item on the ACS list of “endangered elements” actually has a vast current supply. The current mineral extraction methods might have problems, but the total amount of resources that we can use is imponderable. And if our current methods come up a little short, we’ll find better methods of extraction.

Our adaptive abilities should be obvious, though they clearly are not. We’ve been adapting to resource scarcity for millennia, and the idea that we would stop today, at the pinnacle of our development so far, is a peculiar one.

Wall Street Journal | Mineral Production

Wyoming Hits the Rare-Earth Mother Lode

“The discovery of 2.34 billion metric tons of rare-earth elements near Wheatland, Wyo., signals the beginning of a new era in the competition for the raw materials that power the global economy. If wisely exploited, this find—estimated to be the richest in the world—will give the U.S. an unparalleled economic and geopolitical edge.”

From Wall Street Journal.

Wall Street Journal | Mineral Production

A Startup Wants to Harvest Lithium from the Great Salt Lake

“This summer, a California startup plans to start construction on a project to suck up water from the Great Salt Lake to extract one of its many valuable minerals: lithium, a critical ingredient in the rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles. The water will then be reinjected back into the lake, which Lilac Solutions says addresses concerns about the damaging effects of mineral extraction.

At its peak, Lilac says it will use a series of pipes to suck up 80,000 gallons of water a minute to harvest the mineral. The company plans to eventually produce up to 20,000 tons of battery-grade lithium a year at its site in northern Utah, located among fields of cattle and pickleweed.”

From Wall Street Journal.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War

      Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

      Stuff of Progress, Pt. 11: Crude Oils

      The many useful applications of crude oils have helped to lift living standards in all countries.

      On August 27, 1859, a small group of men working in a remote part of the Pennsylvanian forest did something that would profoundly transform the history of industrialization. On that hot summer afternoon, Edwin Drake and William A. Smith set out to lead the first team in history to sink a purpose-drilled exploration well in search of crude oil for use in the manufacture of kerosene, a petroleum distillate used as a lighting fuel. Working out of a small drilling frame erected on Oil Creek, and plagued by mechanical failures and other technical problems with the well, the team made slow progress, drilling just 1 meter (3 feet) each day. Despite running out of funds, Drake and Smith laboriously drilled to a depth of 21.2 meters (69.5 feet), whereupon the drill encountered the underlying oil formation. Crude oil entered the well, first gradually and then in such volumes that Drake and his team simply ran out of places to store the crude and began filling empty whisky barrels. The discovery of liquid petroleum in economically viable quantities at Oil Creek kicked off the age of liquid and gas hydrocarbon energy capture. By doing so, the team sped up the process of industrialization.

      Crude oil (better understood as crude oils, as there are many types of crude) is a naturally occurring mixture of volatile liquid hydrocarbon compounds consisting principally of carbon (between 80 and 87 percent) and hydrogen (between 11 and 14 percent), with trace elements of sulphur, nitrogen, oxygen, etc. Nearly all crude oil deposits were formed as a result of geologically slow accumulation of dead oceanic microorganisms. The microorganisms drifted down to the sea floor, taking with them, on an individual level, an inconceivably small amount of chemical energy or hydrogen encapsulated in its cells. Layers of microorganisms built up on the bottom of warm seas over tens of millions of years. The seafloor containing these bio-rich layers was eventually subducted further into the Earths crust, where pressure and heat would gradually transform the layers into crude oils and natural gases. It was this store of chemical energy that Drake and Smith successfully tapped in the summer of 1859.

      Crude oils have provided civilization with an unprecedented reserve of chemical energy. Crude oils packed more energy per kilogram than any fuel source our species had encountered before. With an energy density of roughly 45 MJ/kg, crude oils contain nearly twice as much energy as coal for an equivalent mass. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, civilization underwent an energy capture progression, from wood, to coal to oil. Each new fuel brought with it enormous new opportunities. While the earliest uses for crude oils were confined to the manufacture, and lighting and heating fuels, scientists and entrepreneurial industrialists swiftly found an astonishing array of suitable applications for these hydrocarbons. By 2019, civilization was consuming slightly over 100 million barrels of crude oils daily. To put that into another perspective, it is a volume of fifteen billion, nine hundred million liters daily – enough refined petroleum fuel (gasoline) to fill an average family car roughly 125 million times.

      The chemical energy locked up in crude oils is not solely used to fuel cars. On average, the largest fractions of any given barrel of oil are petroleum fuel (gasoline), distillate fuel (diesel), jet fuel and heavy bunker fuel oil used to energize global fleet of container ships as they collectively move 90 percent of all international cargo. The refined fuels derived from crude oils are also used to energize more than 99 percent of all aircraft, heavy cargo transport by rail and nearly all the worlds heavy industrial equipment, from concrete pumps and excavators, to rock crushers and road going prime movers. The remaining fractions are turned into feedstocks for various oils, greases, plastics, synthetics, lubricants, asphalts and much more.

      Crude oils are used in applications that help lift living standards in all countries. The list of products and synthetic compounds that, in their manufacture, use crude oils as their base feedstock, runs on into the tens of thousands. Without access to an abundant and inexpensive supply of crude oil, we would lose access to an enormous range of plastics, synthetic rubbers, detergents, epoxies, oils, insecticides, polymers used in fabrics, fertilizers and pharmaceuticals. Today, the countries with the largest reserves of crude oil are Venezuela (300 billion barrels), Saudi Arabia (267 billion barrels), Canada (167 billion barrels) and Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the UAE, Russia, Libya and the United States. Taken together, roughly 672 billion barrels of proven oil reserves are estimated to exist in the top ten global reserve holders alone. Despite predictions of an imminent oil shortage, extending from the late 1950s right through the first decade of the 21st century, crude oil has remained an abundant and inexpensive prime mover of human progress, and a powerful force for the ongoing improvement in living standards globally.