Crash Course Chapter 18: Environmental Data

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the final chapter of data. The remaining two chapters are summaries and conclusions.

Let me start right out by saying that this is not going to be about global warming. Instead, I want to focus on more linear, less complicated, and, I believe, more immediate concerns.

The primary intent of the Crash Course is to show you that there’s a bit of a disconnect between an exponential money system that enforces a creed of constant growth, and living on a spherical planet. In this section, a lot of you are going to find out that the planet is a whole lot smaller than you might have thought.

Most of the reason is contained in this curve right here. Population.

Consider that the entire human population finally reached 3 billion in 1960, and that projections call for adding another 3 billion in only 42 more years. All of history until 1960, to get to the first 3 billion souls; roughly 40 years for the next 3 billion.

Remember the Fenway park example of 44 minutes to fill up 3% of the park but only 5 more minutes to fill up the remaining 97%? That’s the dynamic in play here.

Before we contemplate 50% more humans in only 40 years, let me show you the pickle in which the current crop already finds itself.

This year there will be 70 million more humans on the surface of the planet than last year. 70 million. To put that in context, that is nearly three times as many people as live in the top ten most populous US cities combined. Worldwide population growth is equivalent to three of each of these cities, each year, for the next forty years.

More people means more demand for resources. More aluminum, more food, more consumer goods shipped to more places, and more cars. Always more cars.

And in case anybody has the misperception that maybe this isn’t such a big deal, because maybe these people will be living in China in a dirt hovel with maybe a donkey and a wicker basket, let me show you one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. In many respects, it is newer and more modern than most Western cities. This is what everybody aspires to.

People are the same the world over. We all want to live in bright, shiny cities, and we want to shop for nice things in nice districts. As a quick aside, China is said to have between 1.3 and 1.6 billion citizens. This means the entire US population of 300 million people, or 0.3 billion, would be referred to by the Chinese as a ‘rounding error.’

In fact, the top five most populous cities in the US combined have fewer inhabitants than the largest city in China.

But I want to return to the earlier statement that over the next forty years another 3 billion people will crowd onto the surface of the planet.

One trait that humans share with all organisms is that we use the easiest to obtain and highest-quality resources first. When we use the earth’s resources, we start with the deepest soils, the largest trees, and the richest fishing waters. That is, we naturally exploit the highest quality resources first.

At this point, I want to recall that oil is a finite natural resource, and because of this we find that individual oil fields and collections of oil fields exhibit a classic extraction profile that resembles a bell curve.

We can broaden this to create a generalized resource extraction profile, where we start with the closest, richest, most accessible, and highest grade resources first, before moving on to successively harder, poorer, thinner, or more distant resources. What this means is that over time, the energy required to obtain those resources goes up, as do the costs. About this, there can be no doubt.

Here’s an example. When we first came to this country, we were finding some pretty spectacular things just lying around, like this copper nugget. Soon those were all gone, and then we were onto smaller nuggets, and then onto copper ores that had the highest concentrations. Now?

Now we have things like the Bingham canyon mine in Utah. It is two and a half miles across and three-fourths of a mile deep, and it started out as a mountain. It sports a final ore concentration of 0.2%. Do you think we’d have gone to this effort if there were still massive copper nuggets lying around in stream beds? No way.

Let’s take a closer look. See that truck way down there? It’s fueled by petroleum; diesel, specifically. If we couldn’t spare the fuel to run that truck, what do you suppose we’d carry the ore out with? Donkeys? These trucks carry 255 tons/ per load. Suppose a donkey could carry 150 lbs. This means this truck carries the same in a single load as 3,400 donkeys. That’s quite a lot of donkeys.

My point here is that a hole in the ground a couple miles across and three fourths of a mile deep is a pretty spectacular display of the use of energy. When energy begins to get scarce, it seems unlikely to me that we’ll be digging too many more holes like it, which means copper will become scarce.

Now here’s where the concept gets interesting. The amount of energy and money that is required to extract any mineral or metal is a function of the ore grade. We would measure that as the percent of the ore that consists of the desired substance. So a 10% copper ore, for example, would consist of 10% copper and 90%, uh, other stuff. Like rock or something. If we plot out how much other stuff we have to extract and then dispose of in pursuit of our desired substance, we get a chart that looks like this. Look familiar to you yet? It should; it’s an exponential chart.

It tells us that if we had an ore body with only 0.2% copper in it, we’d need to mine 500 pounds of ore in order to extract one pound of copper. I used this particular value because that happens to be the concentration of the Bingham Canyon mine. This helps to explain why this hole is so big. It tells us that without these giant trucks, we probably wouldn’t be mining such low ore grades. It means that we are already on the far right edge of this bell curve, in terms of energy and cost.

Do we do this because we like the challenge of low ore grades? No, we do it because we’ve already high-graded all the other known ore bodies, and this is what we are down to. We do it because it is the best option left. We do it because, in only 200 years, we’ve already burned through all the better grades.

Let’s look at another example, coal. Coal production, as measured by tons mined, has been steadily growing at 2% per year since the 1940’s. This sort of stable, continuous, exponential growth is exactly what our economy and society demand. President Bush recently said we have 250 years of coal left, implying that this red arrow can continue in this direction for another 250 years. In other words, there is no urgency here; just a whole lot of coal waiting for us to come and get it.

But there’s a wrinkle in this story. Coal comes in several different grades. The most desirable is shiny, hard, black, anthracite coal. It yields the most heat when burned, has low moisture content, and is highly valued in the steel-making industry. Then comes bituminous, offering slightly less energy per pound of weight. Then subbituminous. And then finally something called lignite, which is really low energy/high moisture stuff that is pretty much only useful for burning. The next grade below lignite is, uh, rocks, which burn only slightly less vigorously than lignite.

Let’s look at the US history with mining anthracite. Notice a trend here? The reason we are not mining more of the stuff is because it’s pretty much all gone. Our entire bequeathment of anthracite, formed over hundreds of millions of years, was largely used over a span of about 100 years.

So we moved on to the next best stuff, bituminous coal, and here we might note that a peak in production was hit in 1990. Was this because we lost interest in this better grade of coal? No, it simply means we started to run out of it. Naturally, we then moved on to the next grade, subbituminous coal, which we see here making up the difference. And even lignite is getting into the game, although I wouldn’t expect to see that line really begin to move up until subbituminous coal production peaks out.

Now here’s the REALLY interesting part. Remember I said that the heat content, or available free energy, of coal got progressively worse with each grade? If we plot the total energy content of the coal mined, instead of the tonnage, we get a very different picture. Where the tonnage has been moving up in a nice neat 2% climb, we note that the total energy has leveled off and has climbed by exactly zero percent over the last 9 years. Ah! So we’re using energy and spending money to mine more and more coal, but we are receiving less and less back from those efforts? Let’s bring back this image again. Where do you think we are on this curve? Are the best years still in front of us? Do you feel secure with the “250 years of coal” that the President has said we have left?

The net energy of coal varies quite widely, but, in extracting lignite, we are already pretty far down the net energy curve.

Well, that’s okay; we can switch to uranium, right? Dismiss any lingering concerns and build hundreds of nuclear plants?

It turns out there is a little wrinkle in this story, too. When we look at the ore grades that exist for uranium, we see that they range from a high of over 20% to as low as 0.007%. Of all the ore grades proven and inferred to exist, 30% of them are greater than 0.1% in purity, leaving 70% below the grade of 0.1% Only one country, Canada, has proven reserves at a grade higher than 1%, while 11 countries have already entirely exhausted their uranium ores.

When we consider ore grades in such extremely low concentrations, the mining yields are quite dramatic, but not in a good way. Here’s where 70% of the known uranium reserves lie, requiring that anywhere from 500 pounds to 10,000 pounds of ore body be removed and processed to obtain a single pound of the mineral uranium oxide.

Clearly, as with copper, we are slipping down a slope of declining ore concentrations for uranium, and it cannot be disputed that greater energy and cost is demanded at this end of the curve.

Just in the sake of interest, France gets 90% of its electricity from nuclear power, but their uranium extraction peaked in the late 1980s, while the US passed its mining peak in the early 1980s. Both countries are well past Peak Uranium. If uranium is the energy of the future, the future lies somewhere outside of these two countries.

In fact, this same general theme naturally applies to anything we humans set our attention to. Phosphorus (a mineral essential to farming), fish in the oceans, and every single source of metal are all telling the same story: We are running out of high grade materials. For most things, there is either already a shortage, or one will arise within the next few decades. And even these assessments assume that sufficient energy exists, allowing us to dig as many mile-deep pits as we wish in our quest for the last low-grade ores.

The story here is that we, as a species, all over the globe, have already mined the richest ores, found the easiest energy sources, and farmed the richest soils. It is said that for every bushel of wheat taken to market, a bushel of topsoil is lost. In that sense, given that it takes hundreds of years to form a single inch of topsoil, it can be said that our farmers are actually mining the soil.

We have taken several hundreds of millions of years of natural ore body and energy deposition, and thousands of years of soil creation, and largely burned through them in the few years since oil was discovered. It is safe to say that in human terms, once these are gone, man, they’re gone.

Another measure of human activity is that certain sensitive ecosystem stress markers are showing up. Species loss is one example, but there are many others, such as the dead zones that are appearing all over the globe in the shallow seas.

In fact, if one cares to look, there are red lights flashing all over our collective dashboard, ranging from species loss to oceanic depletion, to aquifer depletion, to topsoil loss, to energy depletion, and on and on.

When I get even one red warning light on my dashboard, I pull over to see what’s wrong. So far, my sense is that the world is stepping on the gas instead

And driving every single bit of this is simply this: 70 million new people arrive on the surface of the planet each year. This means that a stunning 50% increase in the number of humans clamoring for natural resources will have to be negotiated over the next 40 years.

If we get clever about this, my sense is that we can do just fine. If we simply chose to grow because that’s what our money system requires and that’s the default position for our politicians, then it seems likely that we’ll simply go faster until we hit a wall. The choice seems clear – either we undertake voluntary change now, or face involuntary change later.

Back to the economy. Its primary assumption that the future will not just be bigger, but exponentially bigger, than the present, is going to have to contend with this reality. I submit to you that these limits are going to play out in very real terms over the next 20 years.

And so we can finally put all three “E”s in one spot. Our economy is based on an exponential money system that explicitly enforces a paradigm of continuous growth and implicitly assumes that the future will be much larger than the present. Growth requires energy; there is no getting around that; so the trends in Energy stand in stark contrast to the major underlying assumptions upon which our entire economy and way of life are founded. Peak Energy is a very real, very close prospect.

In the rest of the Environment we see, very clearly, that we humans have high-graded virtually every resource and are now working our way into poorer, thinner, deeper territory as we seek the resources that define our lifestyles. Biosystem stress is flashing warning signs on our dashboard. Pretending that we can just carry on consuming as we have, while the world population increases by 50% over the next 40 years, is not a workable plan. In fact, it is no plan at all.

The continued exponential extraction of resources is a difficult enough story to believe just given the depleting ore grades that we are witnessing. But when we combine that reality with what we know about our energy supplies, the story becomes even more unworkable.

Because each of the key environmental resources upon which we depend – metals, minerals, soil, water, oceanic fish, and all the rest – have been “high graded,” their continued extraction is going to increasingly be in competition for dwindling energy supplies that we’d also like to use to transport ourselves, to construct buildings, and to stay warm.

Taken together, it becomes quite clear that our challenge is to adapt to a world of less, not more. A world where we have to put more energy into carefully managing what we have than seeking out new sources to exploit. We have an economic system that must grow, coupled to an energy system that can’t grow, both of which are linked to a world of rapidly depleting resources. Out of the three “E”s, this is the one that is going to be doing the changing, and you need to be ready for that. That’s what this entire Crash Course has been about.

Let me make this even simpler. I want to be sure to get this point across clearly. Our economy must grow to support a money system that requires growth, but is challenged by an energy system that can’t grow, and both of these are linked to a natural world that is rapidly being depleted.

Let me close by saying that if I thought these represented unfixable problems, I would not have dedicated, full time, the last four years of my life developing this Crash Course and raided my bank account to make it freely available to all. I am an optimist, and I want a better future of our own design.

We can no longer afford pleasant platitudes about 250 years of coal left, without appreciating the actual details involved.

It’s time to think big, develop a clear sense of priorities, and cast off the adolescent view that nothing bad is going to happen to us because so far it hasn’t. And it’s time to show that we care about future generations that are going to follow us. How do we wish to be judged? What is our legacy?

For better or worse, you happen to be alive at one of the most dramatic turning points in our species’ history that ranks right up there with climbing down out of the trees. The only real question is, what role do you want to play? Shall your life be filled with fear or a resolute sense of purpose?

The only way these challenges can become insurmountable is if we let them, by ignoring them for too long.

Okay, it’s time to place all of these challenges onto a single timeline so that we can assess the urgency of the risks that we face. Please join me for Chapter 19: Future Shock.

Thank you for your attention.


  • Sun, Jun 17, 2012 - 4:37pm



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    Chris,Like the new look of the web site.
    Have you considered adding a short discussion of fracking to this chapter?
    I think it would make it stronger.  There is not much misinformation out now implying we have plenty of natural gas so we don't have to worrying about peak oil.

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  • Mon, Jun 08, 2015 - 2:06am



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  • Mon, Jul 13, 2015 - 6:30am



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  • Fri, Nov 20, 2015 - 7:52am



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  • Sat, Jan 09, 2016 - 8:07am



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    This chapter looks good. I

    This chapter looks good. I will try to learn all things from this. Nice explanation...

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