The Physical Limits to Society’s Progress
Our immense progress in improving society’s standard of living over the last several centuries was possible because of advances in the discovery and production of energy. To assume that will continue is a grave error.
At the heart of the question of how our civilization can sustain its economic growth in the long run lies a paradox: (1) To sustain modern civilization and the economy and make the necessary energy transition away from finite carbon-emitting energy we will have to mine gigantic, unprecedented quantities of ores from the earth and transform them into useful material products; (2) our efficiency in doing so has increased enormously in past decades due to continuing innovation, and could continue to increase in the future, and we could even use more and more recycled materials; (3) but to do all of that will require monumentally increased quantities of energy.
Thus, to propel the energy transition necessary for a sustainable future we will have to use much, much more energy. Do we really have a good sense of how much energy will be required and of what kinds, and where we will get it? Will we be able to do it?
The material world is 90% of the iceberg
Almost all the attention these days goes to the “immaterial” or intangible world: the digital world, the world of computers, of finance, of artificial intelligence. It even makes up the largest percentage of the economy, of GDP.
But that world could not exist without the material world that supports it. Journalist Ed Conway’s new book, aptly titled Material World: The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization, tells us the story of that material world. Conway’s book is one of six on the shortlist to receive the Financial Times’s coveted best business book of 2023 award. I am rooting for it to win, because it is far and away the most important book on the list. It covers a subject that is, with the notable exception of Vaclav Smil’s excellent recent book, How the World Really Works, far too often ignored.
Conway’s book does not focus directly on energy, yet the need for more energy keeps coming up in the book. It focuses on six of the basic materials that make the world work: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. All except lithium have been bedrocks of the economy for a very long time, though oil only for less than the last 200 years. Lithium is a new addition because of its importance for batteries for energy storage in electric vehicles and to reduce fluctuations in energy supply and demand.
The stories of these materials, how they are obtained and how they are transformed into useful products is fascinating. Most of us will not have any encounters with their mining and processing, which is why they are so often ignored.
The quantity of materials we extract from the earth is mind boggling
One bit of important information we learn from Conway’s book is just how much we extract from the earth to make material products that underpin our civilization and how fast that rate of extraction is increasing.
Here are some measures that Conway supplies in the book to give you an idea:
In 2019, the latest year of data at the time of writing, we mined, dug and blasted more materials from the earth’s surface than the sum total of everything we extracted from the dawn of humanity all the way through to 1950.
…the amount of sand, soil and rock we humans mine and quarry and dredge each year is some 24 times greater than the amount of sediment moved each year by Earth’s natural erosive processes … Humans, in other words, are a considerably bigger geological force than nature itself.
There are now more than 80 tonnes of concrete on this planet for every person alive.
…it is estimated that around half of the nitrogen in our bodies was fixed from the air via the Haber-Bosch process. Were it not for these chemicals, we would have to turn over pretty much every square mile of land on the planet to agricultural production, covering it with manure from an equally enormous stable of animals, and even then we would still only be able to support roughly half the world’s population.
Today, the only real limitation on how much fertilizer we want is how much energy we are willing to spend in exchange.
In short, our civilization depends crucially on the extraction of massive quantities of ores from the earth and nitrogen from the atmosphere, and the energy needed to produce them, and those quantities have been increasing by leaps and bounds.
If the energy is to be obtained from wind and solar instead of conventional fossil-fuel energy as many people now believe, those quantities mined will have to increase by still more leaps and bounds – and so will the energy needed to mine and process them. Says Conway, “…solar panels need roughly seven times as much copper as conventional power stations while offshore wind needs about ten times as much copper to generate the same amount of power.”
We have been getting better and better at extracting and processing them
While Conway shows how massively the quantities of materials demanded by our economy have increased, he also shows that we have kept pace with that demand by getting better at meeting it, at essentially the same pace as demand for them increases. For example:
Between 1900 and today, the quantity of stone ore needed to move and process to produce a single tonne of copper rose from 50 tonnes to 800 tonnes. The amount of water consumed along the way went from 75 cubic metres to 150. The energy needed for all this work rose from around 250KWh to over 4,000KWh. Yet here is the most striking datapoint of all: over that period, rather than increasing, the inflation-adjusted copper price was essentially flat.
In other words, the concentration of copper decreased from 2% in 1900 (one tonne of copper per 50 tonnes of stone) to 0.125% now (one tonne per 800 stone). And Conway notes that much earlier, in the 18th century, it was routinely 12%. The ratio of copper to ore can only continue to decrease.
The quantity of ore required to produce a ton of copper increased over those 30+ years by a factor of 16 (from 50 tonnes to 800 tonnes) because the higher-quality ores have been tapped out, leaving only ores of lower copper concentration to mine. But even though the concentration of copper in those ores has been drastically reduced, technological advances enabled copper to be produced at the same price.
Note, however, that it also required 16 times as much energy as 30 years earlier. Assuming copper concentration in ores continues to decrease, how long can this continue? Especially since much more copper will be required if the energy is somehow produced by wind and solar.
The blithe assumption is that we will find a way because we always have found a way; the march of technology and the incentive to innovate has always proven at least a match for dwindling resources.
But we have not, in fact, always found a way. We have always found a way over the last 150 years, the years since the industrial revolution started to kick in and coincidentally, the years during which we exploited the earth’s deposits of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas. Just possibly, it was precisely those fuel resources – together with, but not solely due to, our talents at innovation – that enabled us to do this.
If it was only the fossil fuel era that produced our hubris about being able to surmount any problem with technology, to overcome every shortage, then we may be in trouble if the fossil fuel era comes to an end.
A wealth of stories about natural resources and their processing
Conway traveled far and wide to gather material for this book. It shows in the writing. It’s a thrilling travelog about a mine and mineral search.
For example, he describes passing through a non-descript town and riding a winding road in Chile to arrive at a gigantic hole in the ground, the Chuquicamata copper mine in the Atacama desert, one of the largest mines in the world. The mine is larger than New York’s Central Park and deeper than the tallest building in the world. Its sides are steep enough to induce vertigo in a person standing by the side. The observer can see trucks on the floor of the pit in the distance. They look tiny, but they are among the biggest vehicles on earth. It takes one of those vehicles more than an hour to get from the pit’s floor to the top.
Many people will have seen the Grand Canyon, but very few have seen a mine like this, though it is on a similar scale. Remember that we are transforming the earth’s surface with mines like this at a far faster rate than the erosive forces that created the Grand Canyon.
In the chapter on sand, Conway describes how glass was created in the Sahara desert about 29 million years ago, when a meteor exploded in a region called the Great Sand Sea desert causing sand dunes to fuse into glass. In December 1932 “…an Irishman called Pat Clayton [w]as crossing the lip of one such dune … when he suddenly heard a crunching sound beneath his wheels. He got out to investigate and discovered that the desert was covered in great sheets of yellow glass.” He then goes on to describe how glass is made and all the kinds of glass and all the things we can do with it (think, for example, of a smartphone screen).
There are many other such stories that make the book a page-turner and an enormous pleasure to read.
But information like this comprises only a tiny portion of the narrative we hear and read in news media and books. This could prove to be a detriment to our materials-and-energy-transition plans. What Conway calls the “ethereal world” hogs most of the narrative and the excitement.
For example, I was chagrined to read in Michael Lewis’s book, Going Infinite, about Sam Bankman-Fried and his cryptocurrency exchange FTX that when Bankman-Fried as a junior year physics student at MIT went to the university’s job fair, many of the companies recruiting were high-frequency trading firms like Jump Trading, Tower Research Capital, Hudson River Trading, Susquehanna International Group, Wolverine Trading, Jane Street Capital.
Meanwhile, as Conway reports, “at the time of writing there was such a dearth of young people wanting to study mining that the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall, one of the world’s pre-eminent metallurgy institutions, had suspended new intakes for its mining engineering degree.”
He then adds, “If there is no one left who knows how to procure the minerals we need, what hope have we then?”
I can envision a novel of fiction in which all work is devoted to high-frequency trading, artificial intelligence, and computer-game development. Suddenly, the workers are unable to do their jobs because there is no electricity, fiber optic cables, or communications, their maintenance having been neglected in favor of work in the ethereal world.
It may not even be fiction.
Economist and mathematician Michael Edesess is adjunct professor and visiting faculty at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. In 2007, he authored a book about the investment services industry titled The Big Investment Lie, published by Berrett-Koehler. His new book, The Three Simple Rules of Investing, co-authored with Kwok L. Tsui, Carol Fabbri and George Peacock, was published by Berrett-Koehler in June 2014.
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