Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Peak Minerals

by Ugo Bardi and Marco Pagani (October 15 2007)

Abstract: We examined the world production of 57 minerals reported in the database of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Of these, we found eleven cases where production has clearly peaked and is now declining. Several more may be peaking or be close to peaking. Fitting the production curve with a logistic function we see that, in most cases, the ultimate amount extrapolated from the fitting corresponds well to the amount obtained summing the cumulative production so far and the reserves estimated by the USGS. These results are a clear indication that the Hubbert model is valid for the worldwide production of minerals and not just for regional cases. It strongly supports the concept that "Peak oil" is just one of several cases of worldwide peaking and decline of a depletable resource. Many more mineral resources may peak worldwide and start their decline in the near future.

"Peaking" is commonly observed for oil production in many regions of the world (for example Laherrere 2005). According to Hubbert (Hubbert 1956) the production curve of crude oil and of other minerals is "bell shaped" and approximately symmetric; that is the peak occurs when approximately half of the extractable resources have been extracted. From the regional data, it is a logic step to extrapolate to worldwide production and arrive to the conclusion that a global peak ("peak oil") will be reached. In most cases, the analyses based on the Hubbert model say that peak oil could occur within a few years from now. Since crude oil is the single major source of primary energy in the world, it is widely believed that the consequences of peaking could be important, or even disastrous.

However, there is a problem with the idea that we are close to a worldwide oil peaking: no major energy resource (oil, gas, and coal) has peaked globally so far. So, how can we know that the global case is comparable to the regional cases we know? One way to answer this question is to look at the economic and geologic mechanisms that produce peaking. The Hubbert model has been analyzed in several studies (Naill, 1972, Reynolds 1999, Bardi 2005, Holland 2007). In all these models, peaking and decline is the result of the gradual increase of the cost of production of the resource; in turn due to depletion. These costs can be seen in monetary terms, but can be measured in energy units as well. In the case of oil, this increasing cost is related to factors such as the lower success rate with oil prospecting, the necessity of exploiting smaller fields, and the higher costs of processing lower quality oil. These costs will gradually reduce profits and, therefore, reduce the willingness of operators to invest in further extraction. That will slow down the growth and, eventually, cause the peak and the successive decline. This analysis is independent on the kind of resource considered and on the global/regional conditions of extraction.

However, this interpretation is far from being accepted by everybody. Some say that many regional cases of peaking are not due to progressive depletion but to political or market factors or both (see, for instance, Engdhal, 2007 for a recent restatement of this idea). Hubbert's model is also criticized because it doesn't take into account prices. In the global case, it is said, increasing market prices will keep profits coming and, therefore, operators will continue investing on increasing the extraction rate; if not forever at least well beyond the midpoint. This interpretation goes back to the 1930s, (Zimmermann 1933) with the so called "functional model" of minerals extraction that had a considerable success in the later economic literature (for example Nordhaus 1992, Simon 1995, Adelman 2004). Recent model studies that take prices into account (Holland 2006) indicate that peaking should occur anyway, but the idea that increasing prices will invalidate the Hubbert model lingers around. Some studies, indeed, assume that oil production will never peak worldwide but, rather, reach a longlasting plateu (CERA 2006).

Theories come and go, but one thing is certain: even the most elegant theory needs to be supported by facts. If we can find historical examples of global resources that have peaked and declined following a bell shaped curve, that will strongly support the idea the Hubbert theory holds for global production. Up to last year, there was only one example of such a case reported in the literature: that of whaling in 19th century (Bardi 2006). Whales are not a mineral resource, but the whale stock behaved as a non renewable resource as whales were "extracted" (hunted) at a rate much faster than their reproductive rate. Recently, Dery and Anderson (2007) have shown that the global production of at least one mineral resource, phosphate rock, has peaked in the 1980s.

Just two cases may not be enough to prove the general validity of the Hubbert model but, here, we can report that there are many more cases of global peaking for minerals production. After an exhaustive examination of the USGS database of the world mineral production (Kelly 2006) we found at least eleven cases of minerals that show a global "bell shaped" curve with a clear peak. Peaking was evident by visual examination and it was confirmed by fitting the data using a bell shaped function. We used both gaussian and logistic derivative functions, finding very similar results. Both kinds of curves can be used to fit the Hubbert curve as shown by Bardi (2005) and by Staniford (2006). In addition, we found several more cases of minerals that may have recently peaked or be near peaking, although that is not completely certain yet.

The USGS data were not just examined for the presence of production peaks, but also analyzed in terms of the amount of mineral extracted so far and extrapolated into the future. In its basic form, the Hubbert model states that the production curve is symmetric, that is the production peak occurs when approximately half of the extractable resource has been extracted. The concept of "extractable resource" is ultimately defined by the area under the extraction curve at the end of the cycle; it is extractable what is actually extracted. However, in the initial phases of the extraction cycle, it is possible to estimate this quantity as the "ultimate recoverable resources" (URR). According to BP (2007) in the case of crude oil, the URR is defined as "an estimate of the total amount of oil that will ever be recovered and produced. It is a subjective estimate in the face of only partial information." This estimate is even more subjective in the case of minerals other than oil for several reasons. One is that the knowledge of the world resources may be much more uncertain than in the case of oil. Another difficulty may be the lack of reliable historical data. Finally, minerals, unlike oil or gas, often appear as "graded" resources, that is as deposits of different concentration. So, it is difficult to determine a cutoff point of what exactly is extractable and what is not.

Nevertheless, the USGS database reports values for the "reserves" of each mineral considered. The concept of "reserves" is defined by the USGS (2007) as "That part of the reserve base which could be economically extracted or produced at the time of determination. The term reserves need not signify that extraction facilities are in place and operative." Conversely, about the "reserve base" the USGS says that "The reserve base includes those resources that are currently economic (reserves), marginally economic (marginal reserves), and some of those that are currently subeconomic (subeconomic resources)". Obviously, the reserve base is much larger than the reserves in the USGS estimations. From these data, the URR for each mineral resource can be estimated as the cumulative production up to now plus the remaining extractable amount. The latter can be taken as equal to the reserves or to the reserve base. We tried both possibilities and we found that in all cases the area under the extrapolated bell shaped curve is in much closer to the amount obtained using the "reserves" rather than the reserve base, as we'll show in the following. Note, anyway, that a discrepancy in this comparison does not, in itself, invalidate the Hubbert model: it may simply indicate that the estimations of reserves are approximate or wrong.

We examined 57 cases of mineral extraction from the USGS data. Of these, we found eleven cases where a clear production peak can be detected. These cases are listed in Table 1 {*}. The table contains also the URR derived as the sum of the amount of the already extracted resource (up to 2006) and the amount of the reserves listed in the USGS tables. This value can be compared to the amount that the logistic or gaussian fitting of the curve provides.

{*} Table 1 and all Figures are at

For four minerals (Mercury, Lead, Cadmium and Selenium) we find a good agreement of the URR determined from the logistic fitting with the URR determined from the USGS data (cumulative production so far plus reserves). For five minerals (Tellurium, Phosphorus, Thallium, Zircon and Rhenium) the URR obtained from fitting is still acceptably close to the USGS data, although smaller. The URR derived from the USGS data are significantly higher only for Gallium and Potash. This discrepancy can be due to the high uncertainty of the data for gallium, and for potash because of market reasons described in the USGS data sheet (USGS 2006). If the "reserve base" is used for the estimation of the URR, for all these minerals the results are always much larger than those derived from the fitting of the experimental data.

We show now some examples of peaking. We start with the earliest global peak that can be found in the USGS tables, that of mercury (Figure 1).

Here, there is some dispersion in the data, but the fitting is reasonably good and there is no doubt that a global peaking has taken place in the mid 1960s. The total amount of mercury mined from 1900 to the present date is approximately 540,000 tons. According to the USGS data, the world reserves of mercury are reduced today to 46,000 tons which, added to the amount mined so far, provide a total amount of extractable mercury (URR) of approximately 590,000 tons. Considering that some mercury mining took place before 1900, this value is in very good agreement with the value obtained by the logistic fit (580,000 tons).

Another historical peaking is that of lead (Figure 2), that peaked in 1986.

The fitting is better than in the case of mercury and the data for the URR calculated from the fitting (330 million tons) is in good agreement with the amount calcolated from the USGS data (290 million tons).

A more recent example of peaking is that of zirconium mineral concentrates, (mainly zircon, ZrSiO4), which is the main source of zirconium and zirconium oxide, two important materials, often used as components of high temperature resistant materials (Figure 3).

There is no doubt that the initial nearly exponential growth of production started slowing down in the 1970s and that growth stopped in the 1990 to decline afterwards. The fit of the data gives the date of the peak as 1994. According to the USGS data, the URR for this mineral should be about 670 million tons. The fitting of the production curve produces a smaller value, around 390 million tons. Note that the USGS reserves are reported in terms of tons of ZrO2, whereas "zirconium mineral concentrates" are a mix of several minerals, mainly zircon (ZrSiO4) and baddeleyte (ZrO2). A further element of uncertainty, although only a minor one, is the lack of production data for the United States for some years in the USGS data. Taking into account these uncertainties, the agreement can be considered acceptable as an order of magnitude.

Selenium, a metal important for the semiconductor industry, also peaked in 1994 according to a logistic fitting (Figure 4).

The Selenium URR calculated from the value of the USGS reserves is in good agreement with the area of the fitting curve.

There is also the case of an even more recent peak; that of gallium. Gallium is another metal important for the semiconductor industry. According to a logistic fit of the data, it peaked in the year 2000 (Figure 5).

In this case, the area under the fitting curve is much smaller than that calculated from the USGS reserves data. In this case, the uncertainty in the estimation of the reserves is very high, one reason being that Gallium is produced only as a byproduct of the extraction of other minerals.

In principle, the peaks that we have reported could be interpreted as due to factors other than depletion. Economists tend to distinguish between demand and supply and the decline of production of minerals might be seen as the result of cheaper or safer substitutes entering the market, that is to a reduction of the demand. It would be tempting to attribute the decline in production of mercury to this factor. Mercury is a toxic metal which has been substituted with various other materials and devices and it is now slowly disappearing from the market. But most of the legislation forbidding the use of mercury came much later than the mercury peak (1962) and, as we saw, mercury peaked almost exactly at the "midpoint" of the available reserves, as predicted by the standard Hubbert model. A similar case, reduction in the demand, can be made for the peaking of lead, another poisonous metal. But for many applications, for instance car batteries, no substitute has been found so far for lead. Moreover, also in this case peaking took place almost exactly at midpoint of the estimated resources.

Perhaps the only case where the a decline of production can be attributed to market factors is that of potash (K2O) that peaked at a value of cumulative production considerably lower than midpoint and where market factors were indeed reported as the cause of the decline (USGS 2006). In all the other cases shown in Table 1, there is no evident cause that could lead us to think that the decline in production can be attributed to a reduction in demand. For instance, some of the materials listed are important for the semiconductor industry (gallium, tellurium, selenium), others for the metallurgic industry (zirconium, molybdenum), and others for agriculture (phospate rock). No obvious substitutes exist for these materials. Therefore, the peaking and decline of the minerals that we have examined must be interpreted as due, at least in part, to factors related to a reduced supply, in turn related to depletion.

Other minerals examined in the USGS database show a clear slowdown of the rate of increase of production, but it is difficult to prove that a peak has occurred. That depends strongly on the data for the last few years and the data reported by the USGS (Kelly 2006) under the label "Minerals yearbook" arrive only up to 2004. The USGS reports another set of data under the label "Mineral Commodities Summaries", which are updates for the last two years; available at present up to 2006. Unfortunately, in some cases these sets of data are inconsistent with each other. For instance, Vanadium world production appears to be peaking around 2002 from the "minerals yearbook", but the data in the "mineral commodities summary" show a sudden jump in production in 2005 and 2006 that brings it well above the earlier peak. The data for vanadium in the successive editions of the "summary" are not consistent with each other, for instance in 2007 the worldwide production for 2005 has been changed to 58,200 tons from the 40,200 tons listed in the tables of the year before. The reasons for this correction are not explained but seem to be related to uncertainties in reporting from countries such as China.

Several minerals in addition to vanadium show similar sudden jumps in production that lead the production curve to abandon the tendency to peaking of a few years before. One such case is that of iron ore (Figure 6 ) which shows a true "hockey stick" in the production data.

Here, it is difficult to say whether the rapid rise in the past few years is due to inconsistencies in reporting or to an actual increase of production that may be related to the quickly growing Chinese economy (Pui Kwan Tse, 2005). Probably, both factors are playing a role and the sudden rise in production may be due to the fact that the Chinese economy is, at least in part, "out of sync" with the rest of the world. In any case, we will be able to assess the situation for vanadium, iron ore, and other similar cases only after more data will be available and when their consistency will be assessed by the USGS.

Some minerals in the USGS database show a continuous growth in production that, visually, appears to be nearly exponential. Gordon and coworkers (Gordon 2006) have recently examined five metals that show this behavior: copper, zinc, tin, nickel and platinum. They didn't use the Hubbert model, but tried to extrapolate the demand for these metals in relation to the expected growth of the world's population. They reported that "no immediate concern" exists for the availability of metal stocks, but that "the virgin stocks of several metals appear inadequate to sustain the modern 'developed world' quality of life for all Earth's peoples under contemporary technology".

Taking copper as an example, up to 2006 the experimental data can, indeed, be fitted using an exponential function, but a logistic function provides the same degree of fitting (Figure 7).

If we extrapolate the two models a few decades in the future we see the scenarios of Figure 8, with copper peaking around 2040 according to the logistic fitting.

The results of the fitting are in agreement with the USGS estimation of copper reserves. This amount is about 0.5 to 1 Gtons, even less than the value that can be estimated from the logistic model (2 Gtons). Our analysis is therefore in agreement with that of Gordon, but it provides a more detailed picture of what we may expect in the future. Other metals showing an apparent exponential production growth up to now can be examined in this way. The result is that most minerals should be peaking in the coming decades.

Obviously, all the considerations made so far depend on the assumption that the peaks shown in Table 1 are ultimate global peaks. It is a reasonable assumption, but also debatable, especially for those minerals which have peaked most recently. Some minerals are highly sensitive to market cycles and show several peaks. Gold is a case in point: the historical data show a peak in 2001, but the peak may be just one of a series of peaks observed in the history of gold production. Although the minerals reported in Table 1 appear to be scarcely sensitive to these cycles, we can be absolutely certain of the "ultimate" peak only after the extraction (or production) cycle has been completed. That, for the time being, is possible at the global level only in the case of whale oil (Bardi 2006) and perhaps of mercury (Figure 1). Nevertheless, the set of experimental data reported here and their analysis provide impressive evidence of the soundness of the Hubbert approach.

We see, therefore, that peaking and decline is a common feature of the worldwide production of most minerals, as the Hubbert model predicts. We cannot exclude that the recent generalized rise in prices of all minerals will start a new wave of investments, but, so far, the predictions of the "functional model" don't seem to be fulfilled.

We need also to consider that the costs of extraction are not just monetary but involve energy costs as well. This fact introduces a further factor that may hasten peaking and decline. The energy involved in the extraction of a mineral commodity, say, copper, does not just depend on the energy needed to extract it from the ore and refine it. It depends also on the energy needed for extracting oil (or coal, or gas, or uranium) and turning it into power and machinery useful for extracting copper. Since fossil fuels are being depleted, more energy is needed for their production and the result is a further increase in the energy needed for the extraction of all minerals. The whole world extractive system is connected in this way. This connection may explain why the peaking of most mineral commodities appears to be clustered in a period that goes from the last decades of the 20th century to the first decades of the 21st century, the period when difficulties in the production of fossil fuels started to be felt worldwide. This connection may also explain why several minerals are peaking for values of the cumulative extraction that are lower than what would be derived from the USGS estimation of the available reserves. Unless new and inexpensive sources of energy become available, we may never able to exploit the abundant "reserve base" of most minerals, and not even the reserves as they are estimated today.

In the end, "Peak oil" seems to be just one of several cases of worldwide peaking and decline of a depletable resource. The bell shaped curve is valid globally and for most minerals, not just for oil and for regional cases. In a few years, it is likely that many more resources will be observed peaking and declining.

Acknowledgement: the authors would like to thank John Busby for his suggestions regarding metals production.


Adelman, M A. "The Real Oil Problem"

Bardi, U. 2005. Energy Policy, Volume 33, Issue 1, Pages 53-61

Bardi, U. 2006.
See also Bardi U. 2007, Energy Sources B, in press.

BP 2007 (accessed). categoryId=9017934&contentId=7033489

Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) 2006.

Dery, P, Anderson, B.

Engdhal, W. 2007.

Gordon R B, Bertram M, and Graedel T E. 2006, "Metal stocks and sustainability", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS January 31 2006 volume 103 number 5, 1209-1214

Holland S. 2006. "Modelling peak oil". 20Peak%20Oil_1.pdf

Laherrere, J. 2005.

Kelly, T, Buckingham, D, DiFrancesco, C, Porter, K, Goonan, T, Sznopek, J, Berry, C. & Crane, M. (2006, accessed) Historical Statistics for Mineral and Material Commodities in the US, Open File Report 2001-006 (US Geological Survey, Washington, DC).

Naill, Roger F. 1972. Managing the Discovery Life Cycle of a Finite Resource: A Case Study of US Natural Gas. Master's Thesis Submitted to the Alfred P Sloan School of Management. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139.

Nordhaus W D. 1992. "Lethal Models". Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2, 1

Pui-Kwan Tse. 2005. The Mineral Industry of China

Reynolds, D B. 1999. The mineral economy: how prices and costs can falsely signal decreasing scarcity. Ecological Economics 31, 155.

Simon, J. 1995. "Policy Report for the Cato Institute" (accessed in 2006)

Staniford, Stuart. The Oil Drum, 2006.

USGS 2006. Mineral yearbook, Potash.

USGS 2007. Appendix C.

Zimmermann, Erich. 1933. World Resources and Industries. New York: Harper & Brothers. Also, 1951. World Resources and Industries, 2nd revised edition. New York: Harper & Brothers.


Ugo Bardi teaches chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. He is the president of the Italian section of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) ( Marco Pagani is a physicist presently teaching and physics in secondary schools. He is a member of ASPO-Italy, a social and environmental activist, and the blogger of ecoalfabeta. (

Bill Totten

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Depletion of Key Resources

Facts at Your Fingertips

by Peter Goodchild (January 27 2010)

Editor's note: The author presents a definitive essay. Learn why:

"Those who expect to get by with 'victory gardens' are unaware of the arithmetic involved".

"There are already too many people to be supported by non-mechanized agriculture".

"To meet the world's present energy needs by using solar power, then, we would need ... a machine the size of France. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials - a self-defeating process. Solar power will therefore do little to solve the world's energy problems."

"In a milieu of social chaos, what are the chances that the oil industry will be using extremely advanced technology to extract the last drops of oil?"

Peter Goodchild's new book The Coming Chaos will be appearing shortly.

-- Jan Lundberg, Culture Change

Modern industrial society is based on a triad of hydrocarbons, metals, and electricity. The three are intricately connected; each is accessible only if the other two are present. Electricity, for example, can be generated on a global scale only with hydrocarbons. The same dependence on hydrocarbons is true of metals; in fact the better types of ore are now becoming depleted, while those that remain can be processed only with modern machinery and require more hydrocarbons for smelting. In turn, without metals and electricity there would be no means of extracting and processing hydrocarbons. Of the three members of the triad, electricity is the most fragile, and its failure serves as an early warning of trouble with the other two {6, 7}.

Often the interactions of this triad are hiding in plain sight. Global production of steel, for example, requires 420 million tonnes of coke (from coal) annually, as well as other hydrocarbons adding up to an equivalent of another 100 million tonnes {22}. To maintain industrial society, the production of steel cannot be curtailed: there are no "green" materials for the construction of skyscrapers, large bridges, automobiles, machinery, or tools. But the interconnections among fossil fuels, metals, and electricity are innumerable. As each of the three members of the triad threatens to break down, we are looking at a society that is far more primitive than the one to which we have been accustomed.

The ascent and descent of oil production are those of the famous promontory known as Hubbert's curve. The back side of the mountain probably does not greatly resemble the front. It is likely that the descent will be rather steep, again because of synergistic factors. As oil declines, more energy and money must be devoted to getting the less-accessible and lower-quality oil out of the ground {10}. In turn, as more energy and money are devoted to oil production, the production of metals and electricity becomes more difficult. One problem feeds on another. The issue can also be described in terms of sheer money: when oil production costs about 4.5 percent of the economy, the latter begins a downward spiral {14}.

There is a final piece of ill luck that occurs after the peak. When individual countries such as the USA begin to run out of domestic oil, depletion can be mitigated by the importation of oil from other countries, so the descent is not as troublesome as it might have been. When the entire planet begins to run out of oil, however, there will be nowhere to turn in order to make up the difference. We cannot get oil from outer space {17}.

Global Energy per Capita

Global consumption of energy for the year 2005 was about 500 exajoules (EJ), most of which was supplied by fossil fuels. This annual consumption of energy can also be expressed in terms of billion barrels of oil equivalent {1, 6, 7, 9}. What is more important in terms of the effects on daily human life, though, is not consumption in an absolute sense, but consumption per capita, which reached what Richard C Duncan calls a "rough plateau" in 1979.

See table at

Use of electricity worldwide rose by seventy percent from 1990 to 2008 {1}. This means an increase per capita of 41 percent. Since global energy per capita is not increasing significantly, there may come a point at which there is insufficient energy to prevent widespread brownouts and rolling blackouts {6, 7}.

Fossil Fuels

The entire world's economy is based on oil and other fossil fuels. These provide fuel, lubricants, asphalt, paint, plastics, fertilizer, and many other products. In 1850, before commercial production began, there were about two trillion barrels of oil in the ground. By about the year 2010, half of that oil had been consumed, so about one trillion barrels remain. At the moment about thirty billion barrels of oil are consumed annually, and that is probably close to the maximum that will ever be possible. By the year 2030, some analysts say, oil production will be down to about half of that amount {3}.

A vast amount of debate has gone on about "peak oil", the date at which the world's annual oil production will reach (or did reach) its maximum and will begin (or did begin) to decline. The exact numbers are unobtainable, mainly because oil-producing countries give rather inexact figures on their remaining supplies. The situation can perhaps be summarized by saying that many studies have been done, and that the consensus is that the peak is somewhere between the years 2000 and 2020. Within that period, a middle date seems rather more likely. Among the many who have contributed to that debate are Kenneth S Deffeyes, Colin J Campbell, Jean Laherrere, Dale Allen Pfeiffer, and Matthew R Simmons, and the Association for the Study of Peak Oil has done its own appraisals {2, 3, 5, 18, 21}.

The quest for the date of peak oil is somewhat of a red herring. In terms of daily life, what is more important is not peak oil in the absolute sense, but peak oil per capita. The date of the latter was 1979, when there were 5.5 barrels of oil per person annually, as opposed to 4.5 in 2007 {1, 6, 7}. This per-capita date of 1979 for oil consumption is the same as that noted above for per-capita consumption of energy in general.

Coal and natural gas are also disappearing. Coal will be available for a while after oil is gone, although previous reports of its abundance in the US were highly exaggerated {23}. Coal is highly polluting and cannot be used as a fuel for most forms of transportation. Natural gas is not easily transported, and it is not suitable for most equipment.

Solar Power

The world's deserts have an area of 36 million square kilometers, and the solar energy they receive annually is 300,000 exajoules, which at a typical eleven-percent electrical-conversion rate would result in 33,000 exajoules {13}.

As noted above, annual global energy consumption in 2005 was approximately 500 exajoules. To meet the world's present energy needs by using solar power, then, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of 500/33,000 x 36 million square kilometers, which is about 550,000 square kilometers - a machine the size of France. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials - a self-defeating process. Solar power will therefore do little to solve the world's energy problems.

Minerals Other than Petroleum

Depletion of other minerals on a global scale is somewhat difficult to determine, partly because recycling complicates the issues, partly because trade goes on in all directions, and partly because one material can sometimes be replaced by another. Figures from the US Geological Survey indicate that within the US most types of minerals and other nonrenewable resources are well past their peak dates of production {26}. Besides oil, these include bauxite (peaking in 1943), copper (1998), iron ore (1951), magnesium (1966), phosphate rock (1980), potash (1967), rare earth metals (1984), tin (1945), titanium (1964), and zinc (1969). The depletion of these resources continues swiftly in spite of recycling.

In the past it was iron ores such as natural hematite (Fe2O3) that were being mined. For thousands of years, also, tools were produced by melting down bog iron, mainly goethite, FeO(OH), in clay cylinders only a meter or so in height. Modern mining must rely more heavily on taconite, a flint-like ore containing less than thirty percent magnetite and hematite {10}.

Iron ore of the sort that can be processed with primitive equipment is becoming scarce, in other words, and only the less-tractable forms such as taconite will be available when the oil-powered machinery has disappeared — a chicken-and-egg problem. To put it more bluntly: with the types of iron ore used in the past, a fair proportion of the human race would have been able to survive in the post-industrial world. With taconite it will not.


Annual world production of grain per capita peaked in 1984 at 342 kilograms {8}. For years production has not met demand, so carryover stocks must fill the gap, now leaving less than two months' supply as a buffer. Rising temperatures and falling water tables are causing havoc in grain harvests everywhere, but the biggest dent is caused by the bio-fuel industry, which is growing at over twenty percent per year. In 2007, 88 million tons of US corn, a quarter of the entire US harvest, was turned into automotive fuel.


The production rate of fresh water is declining everywhere. According to the UN's Global Environment Outlook 4, "by 2025, about 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under conditions of water stress - the threshold for meeting the water requirements for agriculture, industry, domestic purposes, energy and the environment ..." {25}

Arable Land

With "low technology", that is, technology that does not use fossil fuels, crop yields diminish considerably. The production of so-called field or grain corn (maize) without irrigation or mechanized agriculture is only about 2,000 kilograms per hectare (10,000 square meters), about a third of the yield that a farmer would get with modern machinery and chemical fertilizer {19, 20}.

Yields for corn provide a handy baseline for other studies of population and food supply. More specifically, corn is one of the most useful grains for supporting human life; the native people of the Americas lived on it for thousands of years. Corn is high-yielding and needs little in the way of equipment, and the more ancient varieties are largely trouble-free in terms of diseases, pests, and soil depletion.

A hard-working (that is farming) adult burns about two million kilocalories ("calories") per year. The food energy from a hectare of corn is about seven million kilocalories. Under primitive conditions, then, one hectare of corn would support only three or four people.

Even those figures are rather idealistic. We are assuming that people will follow a largely vegetarian diet; if not, they will need even more land. We also need to allow for fallow land, cover crops, and green manure, for inevitable inequities in distribution, and for other uses of the land. On a global scale a far more realistic ratio would be two people to each hectare of arable land.

The average American house lot is about 900 square meters, that is, less than a tenth of a hectare, including the land the house is sitting on. Those who expect to get by with "victory gardens" are unaware of the arithmetic involved.

In the entire world there are 15,749,300 square kilometers of arable land {4}. This is eleven percent of the world's total land area. The present world population is about 6,900,000,000. Dividing the figure for population by that for arable land, we see that there are 438 people per square kilometer of arable land. On a smaller scale that means about four people per hectare. Less than a third of the world's 200-odd countries are actually within that ratio. In other words, there are already too many people to be supported by non-mechanized agriculture.

The UK, for example, has a population-to-arable ratio of slightly more than ten people per hectare. What exactly is going to happen to the eight people who will not fit onto the hectare? But many countries have far worse ratios.


The world's population went from about 1.6 billion in 1900 to about 2.5 in 1950, to about 6.1 billion in 2000. It is now (2010) approaching seven billion. It has often been said that without fossil fuels the population must drop to about two or three billion {27}. The above figures on arable land indicate that in terms of agriculture alone we would be able to accommodate only about half the present number of people.

Another calculation about future population can be made by looking more closely at Hubbert's curve. The rapid increase in population over the last hundred years is not merely coincident with the rapid increase in oil production. It is the latter that has actually allowed (the word "caused" might be too strong) the former: that is to say, oil has been the main source of energy within industrial society. It is only with abundant oil that a large population is possible. It was industrialization, improved agriculture, improved medicine, the expansion of humanity into the Americas, and so on, that first created the modern rise in population, but it was oil in particular that made it possible for human population to grow as fast as it has been doing. It is not only fossil fuels that form a bell curve: there is also a bell curve for human population.

Of course, this calculation of population on the basis of oil is largely the converse of the calculation on the basis of arable land, since in industrial society the amount of farm production is mainly a reflection of the amount of available oil.

If we look further into the future, we see an even smaller number for human population, still using previous ratios of oil to population as the basis for our figures. But the world a hundred years from now might not be a mirror image of the world of a hundred years in the past. The general depletion of resources could cause such damage to the structure of society that government, education, and intricate division of labor no longer exist. In a milieu of social chaos, what are the chances that the oil industry will be using extremely advanced technology to extract the last drops of oil? Even then we have not factored in war, epidemics, and other aspects of social breakdown. The figure of one to three3 billion may be wildly optimistic.

Looking Forward

A great deal of silliness goes on in the name of preparing for the future. Global collapse should not been seen in terms of middle-class country elegance. At present there are no "transition towns" that acquire food, clothing, or shelter without large quantities of fossil fuels somewhere in the background. The post-oil world will be much grimmer than most people imagine, and that is partly because they are not looking at the big picture. Hydrocarbons are the entire substructure of modern society. The usual concept of "transition towns" evades the sheer enormity of the problems.

Whatever a "transition" polity might be, it most certainly will not be a city or town. Those who are living at the end of all the bell curves will prosper only if they are far from anything resembling an urban or suburban area. It has always been possible for small rural communities to live close to the land, somewhat avoiding the use of fossil fuels, metals, and electricity, but modern large centers of population are founded on the premise of an abundance of all three. Urban areas, in fact, will be experiencing the worst of each form of depletion described above.

In view of the general unpopularity of family-planning policies {24}, it can only be said euphemistically that nature will decide the outcome. Even if his words owe as much to observation of the stages of collapse as to divine inspiration, it is Saint John's Four Horsemen of war, famine, plague, and death who will characterize the future of the industrial world. Nor can we expect people to be overly concerned about good manners: although there are too many variables for civil strife to be entirely predictable, if we look at accounts of large-scale disasters of the past, ranging from the financial to the meteorological, we can see that there is a point at which the looting and lynching begin. The survivors of industrial society will have to distance themselves from the carnage.

The need for a successful community to be far removed from urban areas is also a matter of access to the natural resources that will remain. With primitive technology, it takes a great deal of land to support human life. What may look like a long stretch of empty wilderness is certainly not empty to the people who are out there picking blueberries or catching fish. That emptiness is not a prerogative or luxury of the summer vacationer. It is an essential ratio of the human world to the non-human.


1. BP Global Statistical Review of World Energy. Annual.

2. Campbell, Colin J. The Coming Oil Crisis. Brentwood, Essex: Multi-Science Publishing Company, 2004.

3. Campbell, Colin J and Jean H Laherrere. "The End of Cheap Oil" Scientific American, March 1998.

4. Central Intelligence Agency. CIA World Factbook. Annual. US Government Printing Office.

5. Deffeyes, Kenneth S. Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.

6. Duncan, Richard C. "The Olduvai Theory: Energy, Population, and Industrial Civilization". The Social Contract, Winter 2005-2006.

7. Duncan, Richard C. "The Peak of World Oil Production and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge". Geological Society of America, Summit 2000. Reno, Nevada, 13 November 13, 2000.

8. "Earth Policy Indicators". 15 June 15 2006. Grain Harvest.

9. Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy. "World Consumption of Primary Energy by Energy Type and Selected Country Groups". Annual.

10. Gever, John, et al. Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades. 3rd edition. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1991.

11. Harrabin, Roger. "UK Could Face Blackouts by 2016". BBC News, 11 September 2009.

12. Hirsch, Robert L. "The Inevitable Peaking of World Oil Production". Bulletin 16.3, The Atlantic Council of the United States, October 2005.

13. Knies, Gerhard. "Global Energy and Climate Security through Solar Power from Deserts". Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation in co-operation with The Club of Rome. 2006.

14. Lardelli, Michael. "The Oil-Economy Connection". Online Opinion, November 25, 2009.

15. Leopold, Jason. "Dark Days Ahead". TruthOut, October 17, 2006.

16. North American Electric Reliability Council. Long-Term Reliability Assessment. Annual.

17. Orlov, Dmitry. "The Slope of Dysfunction" ClubOrlov, June 25, 2009.

18. Pfeiffer, Dale Allen. The End of the Oil Age. Napa, California: Lulu Enterprises, 2004.

19. Pimentel, David, and Carl W Hall, editors. Food and Energy Resources. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1984.

20. Pimentel, David and Marcia H Pimentel. Food, Energy, and Society. 3rd edition. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 2007.

21. Simmons, Matthew R. Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

22. Smil, Vaclav. "The Iron Age & Coal-based Coke: A Neglected Case of Fossil-fuel Dependence", Master Resource, 17 September 2009.

23. Smith, Rebecca. "US Foresees a Thinner Cushion of Coal" Wall Street Journal. 8 June 2009.

24. Spiedel, J Joseph, et al. "Making the Case for US International Family Planning Assistance" United States Agency for International Development.

25. United Nations Environment Program. Global Environment Outlook 4. 2007.

26. United States Geological Survey. "Historical Statistics for Mineral and Material Commodities in the United States" Data Series 140.

27. Youngquist, Walter. "Alternative Energy Sources", Oil Crisis, October 2000.

28. Youngquist, Walter. Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals. 2nd edition. Portland, Oregon: National Book Company, Education Research Assoc, 2008.


Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians (1999), published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is

Peter's other articles on have been

When the Lights Go Out
Crime in the Post-Peak World
How Much Land Do We Need?
Putting Meat on the Table
Laborers Before Sunrise
The End of Electricity
Growing Your Own Grains
After the Age of Exuberance

Bill Totten

Friday, January 29, 2010

You Can Have Progress without GDP-led Growth

Interview of Pavan Sukhdev

by Tom Levitt (January 22 2010)

Deutsche Bank economist Pavan Sukhdev is heading up the groundbreaking TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) report and doing for nature what Sir Nicholas Stern did for climate change - valuing it.

Tom Levitt: Why are we putting a value on nature, why don't we just close off and protect it?

Pavan Sukhdev: The Ecologist may say that but there are a hundred thousand other people who are social NGOs and politicians looking for votes at the next election who will say, ah ha! that is just an ecologist talking who loves nature and does not care for your well-being because guess what I have built a railroad, built a bridge, given you a job and provided you with an electricity connection.

That is the person the Ecologist needs to answer, by saying ecology - in other words natural capital - used properly can also give you the jobs that you seek.

Forest maintained can also provide the poor with the fresh water that they want and guess what, yes you need to build bridges but you can do that in a way that is more earth-friendly, less carbon intensive in manufacture and creates some local opportunity as opposed to just profits for the builders who built the bridge. You have to have counter arguments that are being made explicitly or implicitly because sometimes this is not even said and people just go-ahead and destroy and there is no question of listening to the ecologist because he is "just a greenie who loves nature".

People are not even looking at the economic value of the conservation alternative or the natural capital value of nature.

TL: Do you think politicians and economists actually understand the terms 'ecosystem services' and 'biodiversity'?

PS: A lot of them do. You can go back to Obama's acceptance speech when he talked about: 'harnessing the power of the wind and the waves, harnessing sunlight, freeing ourselves from the shackles of oil'.

He was talking about a better understanding of nature and what it brings to us and how we can leverage it into our economies better instead of the way we do it now, which is to dig it from the ancient sunlight buried millions of years ago.

TL: Could those same politicians and economists also name their country's natural assets?

PS: Some perhaps could but yes, nature is still seen as a specialist subject. They are not seeing it as natural capital. That is basically what is missing.

They are seeing it as a sector, for example the forestry sector, that has profitable opportunities with sustainable management and they know it makes seventeen per cent returns. But they just see it as a sector.

What I am trying to say out here is that hang on, it is not just a sector: it is like saying that physical capital is just a sector. The fact that it is a capital upon which all other natural capital rests is something that is not properly appreciated.

The irony is that the poor would list nature as their key asset. The level of awareness in the village is there. They know climate change is happening; that the flowers flowered at a different time last year than ten to twenty years ago. They know something is going wrong. They know that water is only available to them only after they have drilled an extra ten or twenty feet into the ground.

They know things about nature that the average city dweller does not and I think that says a lot.

TL: So how will understanding the value of nature enable the market to protect rather than just trade it?

PS: You can quantify the value of something but you do not necessarily have to imply that it becomes tradable. I value my wife and daughters tremendously, but that doesn't mean that they become marketable commodities: I would not buy or sell them!

What you buy and sell is stuff that is able to be identified, privately owned and marketed. A market does not sell a public good. Pigs will fly before markets trade public goods. The only way you can get a public good into the marketplace is to first create a private liability or private asset.

Carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions are public bads that have been made into private bads by setting targets at the national and company level so that they become a private bad and therefore a liability and you can start trading them.

TL: What needs to happen to make this work?

PS: It needs a willingness to pay. It needs a sense of commitment amongst global leadership that we are in this together and we really need a Copenhagen-type deal.

I don't think the onus of responsibility should be on the UN. The G20 controls eighty to 85 per cent of economic production and 75 to eighty per cent of global emissions. The UN is a vehicle where people can meet but why should they wait when the G20 meets twice a year. The leaders can meet and decide in a smaller group.

If a group like the G20 moves in the right direction then it will be so much easier for the remaining 172 countries to follow.

TL: How can you mainstream these ideas?

PS: Basic poverty needs to be addressed, in other words food and shelter. Otherwise there is no point in discussing the finer qualities and the environment.

With a lot of respect to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), we still haven't succeeded in that and I think part of the reason for that failure is that we never bothered to see the connections. You can't deprive families of the basics and promise them a job in a factory and somehow expect that to be alright.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the model of development that most countries are going for. They are depriving the poor of something - nature's goods and services - and trying to provide something else.

If families have the basics they can save a little bit and put it into a child's education and that is how the next generation become more educated, capable and involved. I've seen this happen on the ground, it is how real development works.

It does not work by deprivation first and addition later. It works by simultaneous conservation of what you have and adding later.

TL: Can we have progress without economic growth?

PS: You can in some circumstances but you can't in others. What I am talking about is lifecycle. It is possible for a pupa to become a butterfly but it is not possible for a caterpillar to become a butterfly without first being a pupa.

At a certain stage I believe that almost any society can reach stages where progress does not result in, or correlate with, getting bigger, that is GDP, but progress relates to quality of life as in improved environment, relationships, reduced poverty, inequalities, better protected ecosystems.

I do believe society can get better, people can get happier and economies can get more robust whilst not actually increasing GDP, production or growing in the classical way.

TL: So what's the vision?

PS: The 'green economy'. It will come in stages, an evolutionary process. But it needs to be encouraged in that direction.

The green economy is the only sustaining economy. It is one that values its natural resources properly and uses them sparingly and for the right intent.

It makes use of its natural capital rather than wasting it. To suggest that you can burn capital and think you have done a good job is wrong. If you were cold you wouldn't pull out a window frame or door from your house and burn it. Every time you want a new jersey, you wouldn't rip up your carpets.

But we do that within a bigger context in terms of natural assets and that attitude has to stop.

Tom Levitt is the Ecologist's news editor

Pavan Sukhdev, a senior banker at Deutsche Bank, is currently on secondment to the United Nations Environment Programme to lead the agency's Green Economy Initiative, which includes The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study (TEEB), the Green Economy Report, and the Green Jobs report.

Pavan brings extensive experience from finance, economics and science to these projects. He has already shown himself to be a financial innovator. As a career banker, he founded and went on to Chair Deutsche Bank's Global Markets Centre in Mumbai, a 300+ person cutting-edge front-office which does leading-edge work for Global Markets in London, New York and elsewhere. Pavan has also held positions with Deutsche Bank as Head of Global Markets Finance for Asia-Pacific, and later Chief Operating Officer of the Bank's Global Emerging Markets Division, a leading and multiple award-winning markets division represented in over thirty countries across Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle-East and Africa.

Pavan was instrumental in the evolution of India's currency, interest rate and derivatives markets from 1993 till 1998. He was a member of several Reserve Bank of India (RBI) committees for the development of India's financial markets, including the Sodhani Committee on Foreign Exchange Markets. In 1997 he co-founded FIMMDA, India's association for fixed income markets, money markets and derivatives. He championed the introduction into India of the Overnight Index Swap (OIS), which is today India's most liquid traded interest rate swap instrument.

Pavan has written for newspapers and magazines (Economic Times, Indian Express, Sanctuary) to popularize the concept and measurement of green economic growth. He has also lectured frequently on these and related topics at forums such as IUCN (Geneva and Asia), the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE), Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and more.

Pavan pursues long-standing interests in environmental economics and nature conservation through his work with environmental organizations in India and Europe. Beyond his contributions to TEEB and the Green Economy Initiative, his work in this area includes: founding and serving as Director of the Green Accounting for Indian States Project, an initiative of the Green Indian States Trust (GIST); serving as President of Conservation Action Trust (CAT); co-founding and now serving as Trustee of India Environment Trust (IET).

In his spare time, Pavan also manages a model rainforest restoration and eco-tourism project in Tarzali, North Queensland, Australia, and an organic farming and eco-tourism venture in the Nilgiri hills of south India.

Bill Totten

Did the Banksters Kill James Garfield?

FSK's Guide to Reality (January 24 2010)

President James Garfield, who was murdered in 1881, is hardly ever mentioned in State brainwashing centers (schools).

Here's some interesting quotes.

"He who controls the money supply of a nation controls the nation".

"Whoever controls the volume of money in any country is absolute master of all industry and commerce".

Allegedly, the latter was said during his inauguration speech.

This quote is also interesting.

"The chief duty of the National Government in connection with the currency of the country is to coin money and declare its value. Grave doubts have been entertained whether Congress is authorized by the Constitution to make any form of paper money legal tender. The present issue of United States notes has been sustained by the necessities of war; but such paper should depend for its value and currency upon its convenience in use and its prompt redemption in coin at the will of the holder, and not upon its compulsory circulation. These notes are not money, but promises to pay money. If the holders demand it, the promise should be kept."

It seems that James Garfield knew that the financial industry was one big scam. Even in 1881 before the creation of the Federal Reserve, a regulated financial industry was forced to operate under corrupt fractional reserve principles.

That quote makes it sound like James Garfield was planning to issue more Greenbacks, like President Lincoln did to finance the Civil War. The banksters are VERY hostile to credit-based fiat money directly spent into circulation by the government. Such money does not come with debt-strings attached, and helps people escape the chains of debt slavery. In the present, deficit spending is financed by Treasury Bonds, which are owned by the banksters. The only reason the Federal government doesn't directly spend money into circulation is that contradicts the interests of the banksters.

Even though the banking cartel has a lot of power, they sometimes make a mistake and let someone with a clue become President. James Garfield is an example of such an error. Such mistakes are easily corrected via an assassination. That both eliminates a threat and sends a message to all other politicians, making sure they don't behave too honestly.

There's another interesting thing about these "Presidents were assassinated!" conspiracy theories. Lincoln, Garfield, and Kennedy were all hostile to the interests of the banksters, and all three were assassinated. For each of them, the official State explanation was "It was a lone crazy person responsible for the assassination!" rather than "Insiders killed him to protect their interests!" In the "conspiracy talk" surrounding Kennedy's assassination, people usually debate the mechanics of how Kennedy was killed, rather than "Why was Kennedy killed?"

Some people say that the Secret Service that protects the President is REALLY GOOD. The President could not be assassinated unless his security team allowed it. Allegedly, President Kennedy could not have been killed unless it were an inside job.

I wouldn't be surprised if some Secret Service agents were also on the payroll of the banksters. The Secret Service doesn't just protect the President. The Secret Service also spies on the President all the time. The Secret Service helps make sure that the President isn't exposed to any "dangerous" ideas.

If you're one of the insiders working for the banking cartel, it isn't too hard to hire someone to conduct an assassination, and then deny any connection to the banksters.

Given James Garfield's opposition to the banksters, it's not a surprise that he is not discussed at all in school.

Bill Totten

Thursday, January 28, 2010

US Feeds One Quarter of its Grain to Cars ...

... while Hunger is on the Rise (January 21 2010)

Note: As this article reports, the US now feeds more than a quarter of its total grain crop to its automobiles. That's enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels. This is important since the US supplies about half of all the world's grain exports {1}. And its particularly important to Japan, because we import more than seventy percent of the grain we consume {2}, which is not surprising for a nation that has more than ten million golfers but only 300,000 farmers. Moreover, world grain production is not keeping up with demand for food {3} causing prices to triple over the past three years {4}. When grain becomes even more scarce, will the US choose to feed us or its own automobiles? Will we Japanese citizens and our government wake up before we starve to death. -- Bill Totten

US Feeds One Quarter of its Grain to Cars ...

... while Hunger is on the Rise (January 21 2010)

The 107 million tons of grain that went to US ethanol distilleries in 2009 was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels. More than a quarter of the total US grain crop was turned into ethanol to fuel cars last year. With 200 ethanol distilleries in the country set up to transform food into fuel, the amount of grain processed has tripled since 2004.

Graph on US Grain Used for Ethanol, 1980-2009:

The United States looms large in the world food economy: it is far and away the world's leading grain exporter, exporting more than Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Russia combined. In a globalized food economy, increased demand for food to fuel American vehicles puts additional pressure on world food supplies.

From an agricultural vantage point, the automotive hunger for crop-based fuels is insatiable. The Earth Policy Institute has noted that even if the entire US grain crop were converted to ethanol (leaving no domestic crop to make bread, rice, pasta, or feed the animals from which we get meat, milk, and eggs), it would satisfy at most eighteen percent of US automotive fuel needs.

When the growing demand for corn for ethanol helped to push world grain prices to record highs between late 2006 and 2008, people in low-income grain-importing countries were hit the hardest. The unprecedented spike in food prices drove up the number of hungry people in the world to over one billion for the first time in 2009. Though the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has recently brought food prices down from their peak, they still remain well above their long-term average levels.

Graph on Number of Undernourished People in the World, 1969-2009:

The amount of grain needed to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol just once can feed one person for an entire year. The average income of the owners of the world's 940 million automobiles is at least ten times larger than that of the world's two billion hungriest people. In the competition between cars and hungry people for the world's harvest, the car is destined to win.

Graph on Number of People who Could be Fed by the US Grain used to Produce Ethanol, 1980-2009:

Continuing to divert more food to fuel, as is now mandated by the US federal government in its Renewable Fuel Standard, will likely only reinforce the disturbing rise in hunger. By subsidizing the production of ethanol, now to the tune of some $6 billion each year, US taxpayers are in effect subsidizing rising food bills at home and around the world.

For more information on the competition between cars and people for grain, see Chapter 2 in Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W W Norton & Company, 2009), on-line for free downloading with supporting datasets.

Media Contact:
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tel: 202.496.9290 extension 12

Research Contact:
Janet Larsen
Tel: 202.496.9290 extension 14

Earth Policy Institute
1350 Connecticut Avenue Northwest
Suite 403
Washington, DC 20036


{1} "Growing Food Insecurity: Food-to-Fuel and Other Challenges" by Janet Larsen, Director of Research, Earth Policy Institute (May 2008), Chart 5

{2} Ibid, Chart 8

{3} Grain Production Continues Growth After Mixed Decade

{4} Lester Brown, "Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization", Earth Policy Institute (September 29 2009)

Bill Totten

Peak Fat

A graph published by the New York Times on January 14 shows that the number of obese people in the USA has stopped growing. Peak fat?

by Ugo Bardi

The Oil Drum: Europe (January 22 2010)

The New York Times has recently reported that the number of obese people in the United States seems to have reached a plateau {1}. A real peaking of a tendency that has been going on for decades and that has made the US the "obese nation" in the world. "Peak fat", we could say.

Peaking of anything is always interesting for "peakers", people who study peak oil and the peaking of natural resources. So, is peak fat something that we can interpret as part of a general peaking phenomenon? In some ways, yes.

The interpretation given in the article is that peak fat is the result of some kind of physical limit: people can't just get fatter than they are already. It may be, but it is also true that we are not speaking of people getting fatter, but of the fraction of people who reaches values of the "body mass index" (BMI) that define obesity. So, if about 35% of adult males in the US are defined today as obese, there is no obvious physical limit that would prevent this number from going higher. Why not 50%? Or 75%?

What is the limit of obesity? It depends on what causes it. Obesity is sometimes taken as an indication of national wealth. The United States, it is said, is a rich country and there are so many obese Americans because they can afford to eat what they want. That is not the case; actually it is the opposite. In the United States, people get fat because they cannot afford to eat what they want.

There have been several studies - see, for example, {2} - showing that poor people tend to optimize their diet in terms of the ratio of calories to dollars. In other words, they try to buy the cheapest food that can provide them with the same number of calories. Unfortunately, it turns out that this cheap food is what we call "junk food"; food rich in saturated fats and sugar. This is the kind of food that makes you obese. Healthy food is expensive in terms of calories per dollar and the poor cannot afford it. Surely, there are also cultural factors that lead Americans to eat junk food. But economic factors must play a major role.

So, I can propose an explanation for the peaking of the growth of obesity. It may be that poor people in the USA are becoming so poor that they can't afford any more even a diet of junk food. They must cut on the overall food budget and that is surely a way of losing weight, although not a planned one.

Of course, this is just a hypothesis but, if it is true, then "peak fat" is indeed related to the economy and - indirectly - to crude oil. The obesity epidemics started in the 1970s, when the US economy underwent what was termed The Great U-Turn by Bluestone and Harrison, who published a book with that title in 1982. The great u-turn led to an increase in the income inequality in the US, which is lasting to this day. In other words, the poor started becoming poorer and their diet started to worsen. The trend is continuing and, at this point, it may be that we have reached a turning point that makes even junk food unaffordable for the poor. In general, these economic trends are due in large part to the diminishing availability of mineral resources - oil is just one of them. So, peak fat may well be another effect of peak oil.




Bill Totten

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Perils of Free Trade

Economists routinely ignore its hidden costs to the environment and the community

by Herman E Daly

Scientific American (November 1993)

No policy prescription commands greater consensus among economists than that of free trade based on international specialization according to comparative advantage. Free trade has long been presumed good unless proved otherwise. That presumption is the cornerstone of the existing General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The proposals in the Uruguay Round of negotiations strengthen GATT's basic commitment to free trade and economic globalization.

Yet that presumption should be reversed. The default position should favor domestic production for domestic markets. When convenient, balanced international trade should be used, but it should not be allowed to govern a country's affairs at the risk of environmental and social disaster. The domestic economy should be the dog and international trade its tail. GATT seeks to tie all the dogs' tails together so tightly that the international knot would wag the separate national dogs.

The wiser course was well expressed in the overlooked words of John Maynard Keynes: "I sympathize, therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than those who would maximize, economic entanglement between nations. Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel - these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible; and, above all, let finance be primarily national." Contrary to Keynes, the defenders of the proposed Uruguay Round of changes to GATT not only want to downplay "homespun goods", they also want finance and all other services to become primarily international.

Economists and environmentalists are sometimes represented as being, respectively, for and against free trade, but that polarization does the argument a disservice. Rather the real debate is over what kinds of regulations are to be instituted and what goals are legitimate. The free traders seek to maximize profits and production without regard for considerations that represent hidden social and environmental costs. They argue that when growth has made people wealthy enough, they will have the funds to clean up the damage done by growth. Conversely, environmentalists and some economists, myself among them, suspect that growth is increasing environmental costs faster than benefits from production - thereby making us poorer, not richer.

A more accurate name than the persuasive label "free trade" - because who can be opposed to freedom? - is "deregulated international commerce". Deregulation is not always a good policy: recall the recent experience of the US with the deregulation of the savings and loan institutions. As one who formerly taught the doctrine of free trade to college students, I have some sympathy for the free traders' view. Nevertheless, my major concern about my profession today is that our disciplinary preference for logically beautiful results over factually grounded policies has reached such fanatical proportions that we economists have become dangerous to the earth and its inhabitants.

The free trade position is grounded in the logic of comparative advantage, first explicitly formulated by the early nineteenth century British economist David Ricardo. He observed that countries with different technologies, customs and resources will incur different costs when they make the same products. One country may find it comparatively less costly to mine coal than to grow wheat, but in another country the opposite may be true. If nations specialize in the products for which they have a comparative advantage and trade freely to obtain others, everyone benefits.

The problem is not the logic of this argument. It is the relevance of Ricardo's critical but often forgotten assumption that factors of production (especially capital) are internationally immobile. In today's world, where billions of dollars can be transferred between nations at the speed of light, that essential condition is not met. Moreover, free traders encourage such foreign investment as a development strategy. In short, the free traders are using an argument that hinges on the impermability of national boundaries to capital to support a policy aimed at making those same boundaries increasingly permeable to both capital and goods!

That fact alone invalidates the assumption that international trade will inevitably benefit all its partners. Furthermore, for trade to be mutually beneficial, the gains must not be offset by higher liabilities. After specialization, nations are no longer free not to trade, and that loss of independence can be a liability. Also, the cost of transporting goods internationally must not cancel out the profits. Transport costs are energy intensive. Today, however, the cost of energy is frequently subsidized by governments through investment tax credits, federally subsidized research and military expenditures that ensure access to petroleum. The environmental costs of fossil-fuel burning also do not factor into the price of gasoline. To the extent that energy is subsidized, then, so too is trade. The full cost of energy, stripped of these obscuring subsidies, would therefore reduce the initial gains from long-distance trade, whether international or interregional.

Free trade can also introduce new inefficiencies. Contrary to the implications of comparative advantage, more than half of all international trade involves the simultaneous import and export of essentially the same goods. For example, Americans import Danish sugar cookies, and Danes import American sugar cookies. Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient. It would also be more in accord with Keynes's dictum that knowledge should be international and goods homespun (or in this case, homebaked).

Another important but seldom mentioned corollary of specialization is a reduction in the range of occupational choices. Uruguay has a clear comparative advantage in raising cattle and sheep. If it adhered strictly to the rule of specialization and trade, it would afford its citizens only the choice of being either cowboys or shepherds. Yet Uruguayans feel a need for their own legal, financial, medical, insurance and educational services, in addition to basic agriculture and industry. That diversity entails some loss of efficiency, but it is necessary for community and nationhood.

Uruguay is enriched by having a symphony orchestra of its own, even though it would be cost-effective to import better symphony concerts in exchange for wool, mutton, beef and leather. Individuals, too, must count the broader range of choices as a welfare gain: even those who are cowboys and shepherds are surely enriched by contact with countrymen who are not vaqueros or pastores. My point is that the community dimension of welfare is completely overlooked in the simplistic argument that if specialization and trade increase the per capita availability of commodities, they must be good.

Let us assume that even after those liabilities are subtracted from the gross returns on trade, positive net gains still exist. They must still offset deeper, more fundamental problems. The arguments for free trade run afoul of the three basic goals of all economic policies: the efficient allocation of resources, the fair distribution of resources and the maintenance of a sustainable scale of resource use. The first two are traditional goals of neoclassical economics. The third has only recently been recognized and is associated with the viewpoint of ecological, or steady-state, economics. It means that the input of raw materials and energy to an economy and the output of waste materials and heat must be within the regenerative and absorptive capacities of the ecosystem.

In neoclassical economics the efficient allocation of resources depends on the counting and internalization of all costs. Costs are internalized if they are directly paid by those entities responsible for them - as when, for example, a manufacturer pays for the disposal of its factory wastes and raises its prices to cover that expense. Costs are externalized if they are paid by someone else - as when the public suffers extra disease, stench and nuisance from uncollected wastes. Counting all costs is the very basis of efficiency.

Economists rightly urge nations to follow a domestic program of internalizing costs into prices. They also wrongly urge nations to trade freely with other countries that do not internalize their costs (and consequently have lower prices). If a nation tries to follow both those policies, the conflict is clear: free competition between different cost-internalizing regimes is utterly unfair.

International trade increases competition, and competition reduces costs. But competition can reduce costs in two ways: by increasing efficiency or by lowering standards. A firm can save money by lowering its standards for pollution control, worker safety, wages, health care and so on - all choices that externalize some of its costs. Profit-maximizing firms in competition always have an incentive to externalize their costs to the degree that they can get away with it.

For precisely that reason, nations maintain large legal, administrative and auditing structures that bar reductions in the social and environmental standards of domestic industries. There are no analogous international bodies of law and administration; there are only national laws, which differ widely. Consequently, free international trade encourages industries to shift their production activities to the countries that have the lowest standards of cost internalization - hardly a move toward global efficiency.


How Comparative Advantage Works

When there is no international trade, each country's production is limited entirely by its own capital and resources. Some products are comparatively less expensive to produce than others on a per unit basis.

When there is free trade, countries can specialize based on comparative advantage. All of a country's capital can be invested in making one product. Absolute cost differences between the countries do not matter. The hidden assumption is that capital cannot cross borders.

If capital is also mobile, capital can follow absolute advantage rather than comparative advantage. One country may end up producing everything if it has lower absolute costs.


Attaining cheapness by ignoring real costs is a sin against efficiency. Even GATT recognizes that requiring citizens of one country to compete against foreign prison labor would be carrying standards-lowering competition too far. GATT therefore allows the imposition of restrictions on such trade. Yet it makes no similar exception for child labor, for uninsured risky labor or for subsistence-wage labor.

The most practical solution is to permit nations that internalize costs to levy compensating tariffs on trade with nations that do not. "Protectionism" - shielding an inefficient industry against more efficient foreign competitors - is a dirty word among economists. That is very different, however, from protecting an efficient national policy of full-cost pricing from standards-lowering international competition.

Such tariffs are also not without precedent. Free traders generally praise the fairness of "antidumping" tariffs that discourage countries from trading in goods at prices below their production costs. The only real difference is the decision to include the costs of environmental damage and community welfare in that reckoning.

This tariff policy does not imply the imposition of one country's environmental preferences or moral judgments on another country. Each country should set the rules of cost internalization in its own market. Whoever sells in a nation's market should play by that nation's rules or pay a tariff sufficient to remove the competitive advantage of lower standards. For instance, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, all tuna sold in the US (whether by US or Mexican fishermen) must count the cost of limiting the kill of dolphin associated with catching tuna. Tuna sold in the Mexican market (whether by US or Mexican fishermen) need not include that cost. No standards are being imposed through "environmental imperialism"; paying the costs of a nation's environmental standards is merely the price of admission to its market.

Indeed, free trade could be accused of reverse environmental imperialism. When firms produce under the most permissive standards and sell their products elsewhere without penalty, they press on countries with higher standards to lower them. In effect, unrestricted trade imposes lower standards.

Unrestricted international trade also raises problems of resource distribution. In the world of comparative advantage described by Ricardo, a nation's capital stays at home, and only goods are traded. If firms are free to relocate their capital internationally to wherever their production costs would be lowest, then the favored countries have not merely a comparative advantage but an absolute advantage. Capital will drain out of one country and into another, perhaps making what H Ross Perot called "a giant sucking sound" as jobs and wealth move with it. This specialization will increase world production, but without any assurance that all the participating countries will benefit.

When capital flows abroad, the opportunity for new domestic employment diminishes, which drives down the price for domestic labor. Even if free trade and capital mobility raise wages in low-wage countries (and that tendency is thwarted by overpopulation and rapid population growth), they do so at the expense of labor in the high-wage countries. They thereby increase income inequality there. Most citizens are wage earners. In the US, eighty percent of the labor force is classified as "nonsupervisory employees". Their real wages have fallen seventeen percent between 1973 and 1990, in significant part because of trade liberalization.

Nor does labor in low-wage countries necessarily gain from free trade. It is likely that NAFTA will ruin Mexican peasants when "inexpensive" US corn (subsidized by depleting topsoil, aquifers, oil wells and the federal treasury) can be freely imported. Displaced peasants will bid down wages. Their land will be bought cheaply by agribusinesses to produce fancy vegetables and cut flowers for the US market. Ironically, Mexico helps to keep US corn "inexpensive" by exporting its own vanishing reserves of oil and genetic crop variants, which the US needs to sustain its corn monoculture.

Neoclassical economists admit that overpopulation can spill over from one country to another in the form of cheap labor. They acknowledge that fact as an argument against free immigration. Yet capital can migrate toward abundant labor even more easily than labor can move toward capital. The legitimate case for restrictions on labor immigration is therefore easily extended to restrictions on capital emigration.


Raising the incomes in the more populous, less wealthy nations will be difficult. Over the next forty years, world population will double. Fifteen percent of world population now earns $21,000 per capita per year. 85% of world population earns $1000 per capita per year. To reach the higher level of per capita income, the low- and middle-income countries would have to increase their use of resources by a factor of almost 36 (21 x 2 x 0.85). To avoid augmenting the damage to the environment, they would need to boost resource-use efficiency by the same factor.

When confronted with such problems, neoclassical economists often answer that growth will solve them. The allocation problem of standards-lowering competition, they say, will be dealt with by universally "harmonizing" all standards upward. The distribution problem of falling wages in high-wage countries would only be temporary; the economists believe that growth will eventually raise wages worldwide to the former high-wage level and beyond.

Yet the goal of a sustainable scale of total resource use forces us to ask: What will happen if the entire population of the earth consumes resources at the rate of high-wage countries? Neoclassical economists generally ignore this question or give the facile response that there are no limits.

The steady-state economic paradigm suggests a different answer. The regenerative and assimilative capacities of the biosphere cannot support even the current levels of resource consumption, much less the manyfold increase required to generalize the higher standards worldwide. Still less can the ecosystem afford an ever growing population that is striving to consume more per capita. As a species, we already preempt about forty percent of the land-based primary product of photosynthesis for human purposes. What happens to biodiversity if we double the human population, as we are projected to do over the next thirty to fifty years?

These limits put a brake on the ability of growth to wash away the problems of misallocation and maldistribution. In fact, free trade becomes a recipe for hastening the speed with which competition lowers standards for efficiency, distributive equity and ecological sustainability.

Notwithstanding those enormous problems, the appeal of bigger free trade blocs for corporations is obvious. The broader the free trade area, the less answerable a large and footloose corporation will be to any local or even national community. Spatial separation of the places that suffer the costs and enjoy the benefits becomes more feasible. The corporation will be able to buy labor in the low-wage markets and sell its products in the remaining high-wage, high-income markets. The larger the market, the longer a corporation will be able to avoid the logic of Henry Ford, who realized that he had to pay his workers enough for them to buy his cars. That is why transnational corporations like free trade and why workers and environmentalists do not.


Maquiladoras, or factories near the border between the US and Mexico, have become a troublesome source of pollution for that area. Some US manufacturers have built such factories in Mexico to take advantage of that country's lower labor costs and pollution-control standards. If commerce becomes less regulated, such problems may become more common.

In the view of steady-state economics, the economy is one open subsystem in a finite, nongrowing and materially closed ecosystem. An open system takes matter and energy from the environment as raw materials and returns them as waste. A closed system is one in which matter constantly circulates internally while only energy flows through. Whatever enters a system as input and exits as output is called throughput. Just as an organism survives by consuming nutrients and excreting wastes, so too an economy must to some degree both deplete and pollute the environment. A steady-state economy is one whose throughput remains constant at a level that neither depletes the environment beyond its regenerative capacity nor pollutes it beyond its absorptive capacity.

Most neoclassical economic analyses today rest on the assumption that the economy is the total system and nature is the subsystem. The economy is an isolated system involving only a circular flow of exchange value between firms and households. Neither matter nor energy enters or exits this system. The economy's growth is therefore unconstrained. Nature may be finite, but it is seen as just one sector of the economy, for which other sectors can substitute without limiting overall growth.

Although this vision of circular flow is useful for analyzing exchanges between producers and consumers, it is actively misleading for studying scale - the size of the economy relative to the environment. It is as if a biologist's vision of an animal contained a circulatory system but not a digestive tract or lungs. Such a beast would be independent of its environment, and its size would not matter. If it could move, it would be a perpetual motion machine.

Long ago the world was relatively empty of human beings and their belongings (man-made capital) and relatively full of other species and their habitats (natural capital). Years of economic growth have changed that basic pattern. As a result, the limiting factor on future economic growth has changed. If man-made and natural capital were good substitutes for one another, then natural capital could be totally replaced. The two are complementary, however, which means that the short supply of one imposes limits. What good are fishing boats without populations of fish? Or sawmills without forests? Once the number of fish that could be sold at market was primarily limited by the number of boats that could be built and manned; now it is limited by the number of fish in the sea.

As long as the scale of the human economy was very small relative to the ecosystem, no apparent sacrifice was involved in increasing it. The scale of the economy is now such that painless growth is no longer reasonable. If we see the economy as a subsystem of a finite, nongrowing ecosystem, then there must be a maximal scale for its throughput of matter and energy. More important, there must also be an optimal scale. Economic growth beyond that optimum would increase the environmental costs faster than it would the production benefits, thereby ushering in an antieconomic phase that impoverished rather than enriched.

One can find disturbing evidence that we have already passed that point and, like Alice in Through the Looking Glass (1872), the faster we run the farther behind we fall. Thus, the correlation between gross national product (GNP) and the index of sustainable economic welfare (which is based on personal consumption and adjusted for depletion of natural capital and other factors) has taken a negative turn in the US

Like our planet, the economy may continue forever to develop qualitatively, but it cannot grow indefinitely and must eventually settle into a steady state in its physical dimensions. That condition need not be miserable, however. We economists need to make the elementary distinction between growth (a quantitative increase in size resulting from the accretion or assimilation of materials) and development (the qualitative evolution to a fuller, better or different state). Quantitative and qualitative changes follow different laws. Conflating the two, as we currently do in the GNP, has led to much confusion.

Development without growth is sustainable development. An economy that is steady in scale may still continue to develop a greater capacity to satisfy human wants by increasing the efficiency of its resource use, by improving social institutions and by clarifying its ethical priorities - but not by increasing the resource throughput.


National Self-Sufficiency is a good commonly overlooked by free traders. Just as nations are better off having their own symphony orchestras and other cultural offerings, they should also keep their vital industries local.

In the light of the growth versus development distinction, let us return to the issue of international trade and consider two questions: What is the likely effect of free trade on growth? What is the likely effect of free trade on development?

Free trade is likely to stimulate the growth of throughput. It allows a country in effect to exceed its domestic regenerative and absorptive limits by "importing" those capacities from other countries. True, a country "exporting" some of its carrying capacity in return for imported products might have increased its throughput even more if it had made those products domestically. Overall, nevertheless, trade does postpone the day when countries must face up to living within their natural regenerative and absorptive capacities. That some countries still have excess carrying capacity is more indicative of a shortfall in their desired domestic growth than of any conscious decision to reserve that capacity for export.

By spatially separating the costs and benefits of environmental exploitation, international trade makes them harder to compare. It thereby increases the tendency for economies to overshoot their optimal scale. Furthermore, it forces countries to face tightening environmental constraints more simultaneously and less sequentially than would otherwise be the case. They have less opportunity to learn from one another's experiences with controlling throughput and less control over their local environment.

The standard arguments for free trade based on comparative advantage also depend on static promotions of efficiency. In other words, free trade in toxic wastes promotes static efficiency by allowing the disposal of wastes wherever it costs less according to today's prices and technologies. A more dynamic efficiency would be served by outlawing the export of toxins. That step would internalize the disposal costs of toxins to their place of origin - to both the firm that generated them and the nation under whose laws the firm operated. This policy creates an incentive to find technically superior ways of dealing with the toxins or of redesigning processes to avoid their production in the first place.

All these allocative, distributional and scale problems stemming from free trade ought to reverse the traditional default position favoring it. Measures to integrate national economies further should now be treated as a bad idea unless proved otherwise in specific cases. As Ronald Findley of Columbia University characterized it, comparative advantage may well be the "deepest and most beautiful result in all of economics". Nevertheless, in a full world of internationally mobile capital, our adherence to it for policy direction is a recipe for national disintegration.

Further Reading:

For the Common Good. H E Daly and J B Cobb, Jr. Beacon Press, 1989.

International Trade and the Environment. Edited by Patrick Low. World Bank, 1992.

Population, Technology and Life style: The Transition to Sustain ability. Edited by Robert Goodland et al. Island Press, Washington, DC, 1992.

Myths and Misconceptions of Free Trade. Ravi Batra. Scribner's, 1993.

International Trade and Environment. Edited by Carl Folke et al. Special issue of Ecological Economics, Volume 9, Number 1; February 1994 (in press).

Herman E Daly is senior economist in the environment department of the World Bank in Washington, DC. Before joining the bank in 1988, he was alumni professor of economics at Louisiana State University. He holds a BA from Rice University and a PhD from Vanderbilt University. Daly has taught in Brazil as a Ford Foundation Visiting Professor and as a Senior Fulbright Scholar. He has also served as a research associate at Yale University and as a visiting fellow at the Australian National University. Co-founder and associate editor of Ecological Economics, Daly has written several books, including Steady-State Economics (1991). The views expressed here by Daly should not be attributed to the World Bank.

Copyright 1993 Scientific American, Inc.

Bill Totten