Monday, July 1, 2013


For maybe two million years, our ancestors lived relatively sustainably as hunter-gatherers.  Their simple way of life utilized renewable natural resources in a low-impact manner.  This worked very well until advances in weaponry enabled the possibility of megafauna overkill, which pushed many societies into a dark new direction — overtool — an addiction to powerful technology that forced some ancestors out of balance with the family of life.

Unfortunately, it’s possible to abuse and diminish renewable natural resources, and this is not sustainable.  About 10,000 years ago, some societies shifted to agriculture, which increasingly damaged renewable resources via soil mining, forest mining, and water mining.  The agricultural way of life provided little benefit for most people, but it excelled at ecosystem destruction, swept away ancient limits to population growth, and spread like cancer, eventually eliminating most sustainable societies.

Later came the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.  This was a sharp wrong turn, because we began using nonrenewable natural resources (NNRs).  Minerals are nonrenewable, so no form of mineral mining is sustainable, in theory.  Obviously, Indians making a few stone pipes caused insignificant harm.

Then, less than 300 years ago, the industrial way of life emerged.  It led to explosive population growth and massive ecological damage.  It was ridiculously unsustainable, because it was heavily dependent on consuming NNRs.  The rate at which it devoured mineral resources grew every decade, and has reached staggering levels today.

Imagine a society that was absolutely dependent on beer for its survival, and it had a finite supply of beer — one keg.  If they drank more and more of their nonrenewable beer every day, what would eventually happen?  They would run out of beer, and their society would collapse.

What would happen if they realized that the reserves of essential beer were shrinking, and they created a consumption ceiling that permanently capped guzzling at current rates?  Would the keg of nonrenewable beer last forever?

The problem here is the beer society’s complete dependence on the depletion of a finite nonrenewable resource.  Their politicians couldn’t eliminate depletion via laws and regulations, and their economists couldn’t fix this via money printing or borrowing.  It is simply impossible for this type of society to survive long-term.  The only possible outcome is collapse.  Societies can only be sustainable when based on using renewable resources in a low impact manner (an important idea to teach the young ones).

Christopher O. Clugston gasped when he realized this very important concept.  He fired up his computer, did a lot of research, and wrote a mind-blowing book, Scarcity — Humanity’s Final Chapter?  He identified the 89 NNRs that are essential to the existence of our industrial global society, and studied each of them.  He identified the NNRs that are now scarce, or will be scarce soon.  “By 2008, immediately prior to the Great Recession, 63 (71%) of the 89 analyzed NNRs were scarce globally.”  Scarcity means that society’s requirements for the NNR exceed the available supply that is affordable.

He found that the extraction of all NNRs in 2008 was dramatically higher than in 1900.  During this period, both the global economy, and the world population grew explosively — GDP grew 25 times larger.  To continue on the current trajectory would require enormous additional quantities of NNRs, far more than actually exist.  If the world chose to end growth, and keep the economy at current levels, it would still exhaust the remaining NNRs at a brisk rate.  Every industrial society is a dead end.

In 1900, America was essentially self-sufficient in all the NNRs it needed to whoosh away like a bottle rocket.  We grew like crazy, and temporarily became a superpower.  Things have changed.  “By 2008 America was (net) importing 68 of the 89 analyzed NNRs, including 100% of 19 NNRs.”  Importing NNRs is a further drain on our wealth.

Scarcity drives up prices.  In just the eight years between 2000 and 2008, the prices of most NNRs increased.  For example: cadmium 1,206%, chromium 266%, molybdenum 795%, oil 244%, potash 230%, sulfur 750%, thallium 202%, tungsten 239%, vanadium 547%.  Do you smell trouble?

Rising prices for resources hindered growth, and inspired corporations to move manufacturing operations to low wage nations, to cut costs.  Consequently, America shifted away from manufacturing, toward a service economy, which had less need for NNRs, and produced less real wealth.

Meanwhile, the government had kicked the teeth out of regulations that were created to prevent the financial services sector from disemboweling our economy, as they did in 1929.  This enabled America to produce less real wealth, and more imaginary wealth, which Clugston refers to as pseudo purchasing power.  This allowed us to purchase NNRs with Wall Street fairy dust — an exchange that will come to a tearful end when NNR exporters lose their faith in the value of fairy dust.  Our government is borrowing like there’s no tomorrow, generating stratospheric levels of debt that it has no intention of repaying.  It’s also printing money like crazy.

In 2008, the Great Recession fell out of the sky, rapidly vaporizing trillions of dollars of imaginary wealth.  We were blasted by a tsunami of fraud, idiotic recklessness, and pathological greed.  Clugston points out that growing NNR scarcity was a fundamental contributor to this meltdown.  He has a strong suspicion that 2008 was a major turning point in the human journey.  He wouldn’t be surprised if the industrial global society went into free-fall by 2050, probably sooner.

People who soar away in beautiful hallucinations of economic recovery have lost their connection to reality.  Looking forward, Clugston believes that the best-case scenario is little different from the worst-case.  No nation is sustainable, and all will fall, sooner or later.  World leaders will never agree to cooperate in reversing both population growth and economic growth.  “It is not clear to me that any intelligent response to our predicament exists,” sighs Clugston.  What is clear is that all paths eventually lead to sustainability, a return to the gentle use of renewable resources by a human population of a few million.  “Sustainability is inevitable.” 

Samples of Clugston’s work can be found here and here.  He predicts a painful future based on just overpopulation and NNR scarcity.  The threats of pandemic disease, nuclear disasters, and climate change catastrophes are beyond the scope of this book.  Clugston is not a geologist, but Walter Youngquist has a high opinion of this book.  Scarcity is a fire hose of mind-altering ideas.  It blows away many magical fantasies, and reveals more than a few super-inconvenient truths. 

Clugston, Christopher O., Scarcity — Humanity’s Final Chapter?,, Port Charlotte, Florida, 2012.


Brian Bowman said...

Overtool. Quite the term to add to one's vocabulary.

What Is Sustainable said...

Yup. Technological innovation + critters with minimal foresight = high risk.