A global resource crunch little understood by Americans

The image above shows a Liebherr mining excavator and associated truck. Such an excavator can weigh > 800 tons and produce 4,000 horsepower

The crisis that our climate is in is now evident to all. It reminds us of the extreme risks humankind ran by failing to rein in our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Many of us have long understood that fossil fuels that exist in limited quantities—and that as humankind draws those fuels down toward “empty” we will need to have in place robust energy systems based on renewables. But there are three other broad types of planetary resources whose depletion by humans is now also close to crisis point. These three categories are: metals, non-metallic minerals, and biomass.

Click to enlarge. Source

This graph from the University of Vienna’s excellent Materialflows.net website tracks the annual global extraction of all of these four resource categories over the half-century 1970-2019, measured in billions of tonnes. In those years, the annual extraction of fossil fuels (grey) increased by around 150%. But the annual extraction of of metals (blue) and non-metallic minerals (orange) both increased by around 350%.

The world population of humans increased by 110% in that period—which was roughly proportional to the increase in the extraction of biomass, shown there in green.

By the way, sustainability scientists calculated a while back that 50 billion tonnes of total annual resource extraction is roughly what’s sustainable over the long haul. We breached that limit in the mid-1990s and are now close to extracting twice that amount.

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The global risks of a U.S. governance collapse

The above image shows Slim Pickens riding a U.S. nuclear missile to its target, from “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)

With this week’s unveiling of yet more indictments of former Pres. Donald Trump and the defiant (Trump-stoked) reaction of his supporters to the indictments, the U.S. governance system now looks closer to suffering a major, systemic collapse than at any point since 1787.

Given the United States’ possession of a mega-capable nuclear arsenal, any such collapse would have massive—potentially existential—consequences for all of humankind. Policymakers and publics worldwide need to start planning how to forestall the worst possible consequences of any such scenario. Starting now.

I don’t think I’m being alarmist. I lived and worked in Lebanon for the first six years of that country’s civil war (1975-81.) I have done in-depth reporting in two other countries recovering from civil wars (Mozambique and Rwanda), and conducted research in other conflict zones. Now, living here in Washington DC I can sense the extreme risk posed to this country’s political system by the battling narratives, the sharp erosion of trust in national institutions, the greed, the positioning, the exchange of harsh accusations, and the mounting fear and intolerance.

But the United States is not Lebanon. It is not Mozambique, or Rwanda, or any of the numerous other countries wracked by civil wars in recent decades. This is a polity that has sat at the apex of the world system since 1945. Its massive, extremely capable military is deployed on every continent. And did I mention the nuclear arsenal? An internal political implosion in this country would be far more momentous for humanity than any of those other civil wars.

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