Running on Empty
Squandering the Earth’s Natural Resources Sure Was Fun
Dec 20 2012
According to the Bible, right after God pooped out humanity, He told us, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground… I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth.” What He didn’t tell us was that all this shit is finite—that if we continued to fuck one another silly without contraceptives, eventually the planet wouldn’t be able to sustain the human race. This is yet another reason why God isn’t real, and He isn’t going to save us from anything. So get over it already.
Mother Nature, on the other hand, is one very real and very bad bitch who is capable of shaking Homo sapiens off her topsoil like a nasty case of dandruff. And pretty soon, if things keep going the way they are (and let’s just be honest, they will), the seed-bearing plants will rot, “meteorologist” will cease to be a job description, most everyone will freeze to death, and cannibals will roam free, feasting on any remaining stragglers.
In recognition of this terrible—but inevitable—outcome, we asked our international offices to put their research caps on and find out which sorts of precious materials and resources their countries were running out of the fastest. We know you only flush for No. 2 and work in a green office or whatever, but the sort of problems detailed below are, at this point, pretty much unfixable. Not much else to do but sit back and watch the long, slow death of the floating rock we call home.
The United States has lots of abundant resources—purple mountain majesties, spacious skies, and so on—but it may soon be in danger of running out of amber waves of grain. According to Steven Stoll, professor of environmental history at Fordham University, America’s arable farmland is shrinking. Part of the problem is that farmers are finding it more profitable to sell their land to developers than to use it for its intended purpose—the American Farmland Trust estimates that between 1982 and 2007, 41 million acres of rural space was lost this way. The erosion of soil is also an increasing threat: A Cornell University study found that Kansas, once one of the country’s most abundant agricultural states, loses 650 tons of topsoil—the two-foot layer of nutrient-rich soil that’s vital to growing pretty much anything—per year. Though the US continues to export over $130 billion in agricultural commodities each year, it is also exporting smaller amounts of crops like soybeans and grain than it has in the past. One of the only things keeping America’s farming industry alive is the fact that the prices for the basic foodstuffs it produces remain high.
The main problem in Bulgaria is that they’re running out of Bulgarians. According to data from the Bulgarian Center for Demographic Policy, its population is decreasing at a rate of 70,000 to 80,000 people per year, or about six people per hour. Why? Fewer and fewer babies are being born, death rates are increasing, and young people who have limited career prospects want to get the hell out of the country. These three factors are most likely going to persist throughout the near future, and signs of brain drain have been apparent since the mid-80s. The Bulgarian National Statistical Institute says that the population has decreased from about 9 million in 1989 to 7.3 million in 2011. By 2060, that number will have dropped to less than 6 million, and in 2134 there won’t be a single Bulgarian left.
Even though Germany is one of the most economically influential countries in the world and therefore needs a lot of resources, it doesn’t contain a lot of the good and profitable stuff like iron, oil, and gold. So hardworking Germans are forced by nature to depend on other nations, spending tens of billions of euros a year to import natural resources from other Western European countries, as well as places like Australia, China, and Canada. The one exception to this scarcity is coal, the mining of which fueled the country’s industrial revolution in the 19th century and provided thousands of jobs in the Ruhr Valley and the Saarland. Those jobs have since vanished, thanks to the government’s phasing out of subsidies for the mining of black coal (the most energy-efficient type of coal) beginning in 2007. According to Bernd Lehmann, a professor of geoscience at the Clausthal University of Technology, black-coal mining in Germany had become too expensive for the government to subsidize—not to mention the fact that the country wants to move toward fuels that don’t fill the air with toxic smoke and contribute to climate change. “Germany is in the middle of a transition and urgently needs to get away from fossil fuels,” Bernd said, though he noted that coal will be a valuable energy source for at least the next 100 years, and the extraction of black coal is on the rise globally. And though there may be no more black-coal mines in Germany moving forward, the country’s excavation of brown coal—an even dirtier form of energy—continues unabated, since that industry isn’t dependent on government money.
Corn is the lifeblood of Mexico—it may have been domesticated by Paleoamericans there 10,000 years ago, and today some of the poorest Mexicans get half of their calories from corn tortillas. But increasingly, the country has had to rely on the US for this all-important crop. Part of the problem is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which removed trade barriers and forced Mexicans to compete with the USA’s cheap, government-subsidized corn—as a result, many struggling farmers had to abandon their land and way of life. Corn imports from the US have continued to increase (they were up 25 percent last year), despite prices rising due to the expanding ethanol energy industry. Activists have been demanding more local corn production, with the slogan Sin maís no hay país (“Without corn, there’s no Mexico”), but their cries have gone unheeded. The decline of corn farming goes beyond political and economic factors, though. Adolfo Jiménez, an adviser at the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fishing, and Nutrition, blames the environment. “Ten or 15 years ago, you could predict times of drought and times of rain, but today, it’s really hard to know, and that affects the production of corn,” he said. Competing with the US agricultural industry is doubly worse when nature is handicapping you.
The Netherlands is the world’s eighth-biggest producer of natural gas and its fifth-largest exporter; it extracts 30 percent of the natural gas produced by the European Union, mostly thanks to the massive Groningen gas field in the northeastern part of the country. But the end of this gassy gravy train is nigh, something that even the industry’s boosters admit. “The Netherlands is 100 percent self-sufficient,” said Aart Tacoma, an environmental specialist at NOGEPA, a trade association of Dutch energy companies. “The gas industry in the Netherlands provides 12 billion euros for the public treasury every year. And that number is growing. But the gas is becoming scarce, so this means that the Netherlands will be more dependent on imported gas.” It’s estimated that the country’s natural-gas fields will be exhausted in 70 years, and when that happens, the economy will be in a lot of trouble. “We’ll have to import from Russia and Norway, but they have different types of gas, which will force us to build new stoves,” Aart said. “Tax revenues and employment will decline too.”
Each year, between 50,000 and 80,000 tons of sardines and anchovies are fished out of Italian seas, but thanks to some environmentally unfriendly practices it’s only a matter of time before Italy runs out of these delicious, salty delicacies. The biggest reason for the fishy decline is a technique called a volante, which involves dragging a net suspended between two boats slightly above the seabed. In the 15 years since the adoption of this practice, it has become widespread in key fishing grounds like Chioggia, Pila di Porto Tolle, and the Sicilian Channel, and the number of trawlers has increased 130 percent between 1995 and 2012. Neither the Italian government nor the European Union has ever conducted a scientific study to gauge the effects of this type of fishing (they still label it “experimental” even though it’s been practiced for more than a decade), which many claim has had a destructive impact on fauna. According to Allesandro Giannì, campaign manager for Greenpeace Italy, research shows that the anchovy and sardine population has decreased by more than 75 percent since the 90s. Of course, this has resulted in increased prices for these fish, and this in turn has led to an increase in fishing, creating a vicious cycle. Eventually, Greenpeace warns, overfishing will lead to such a dramatic decline in the supply of sardines and anchovies that industry-dependent towns will collapse, and Italians will be without their favorite pizza topping.
Over the past 200 years, Australia has experienced a larger decline in its varieties of flora and fauna than any other continent, which is going to have massive ramifications for the environment and the economy in the near future. Nicholas Mikhailovich of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, said that as plants and animals become endangered and go extinct, it becomes harder and harder for nature to go about its ordinary business of pollinating crops and making sure us humans can grow plants that keep us alive. Then there’s tourism, an industry that contributes $35 billion to the economy per year and makes up 2.5 percent of Australia’s GDP. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park alone brings in $5.4 billion a year, but you can bet that fewer people will show up if the reefs and creatures that inhabit them die off due to the acidification of the ocean, which is going to happen by 2050, according to Nicholas.
The primary threat to Australia’s biodiversity is mining, the country’s largest industry, and it’s not slowing down. Fragile ecosystems such as the Simpson Desert, the Kimberleys, and Cairns have been marked for future mining projects, exacerbating the environmental threat. Unfortunately, Australia’s economic dependence on mining (the industry makes up 10 percent of the GDP) ensures that plants and animals aren’t going to stop going extinct anytime soon.
Sweden’s lumber industry is nicknamed “the spine of Sweden’s economy,” as wood is one of the country’s main exports, and more than 60 percent of its territory is covered by forests. This doesn’t mean Swedes live in a natural wooded wonderland—the vast majority of their forests are regrowth, which means they are heavily managed by the government and loggers, and barely 1 percent are primeval, old-growth forests. That’s a big problem, because while 100 million hectares of trees are planted every year to supplant the 80 million hectares that are harvested, man-sown forests don’t generate the old, decaying, and dying trees known as deadwood, which provide sustenance for small organisms and are vital to the forest ecosystem. According to entomologist Gunnar Isacsson of the Swedish Forest Agency, it takes thousands of years for a forest to generate enough deadwood for some creatures to survive, and that as a result of industrialization almost entirely wiping out Sweden’s primeval forests, several species—like the white-backed woodpecker and the long-horned beetle—are now endangered or extinct.
The UK’s natural-gas fields in the North Sea have generated a lot of wealth for the nation over the past few decades, but that’s rapidly becoming a distant memory. Production peaked in the year 2000 and has been in steep decline since. The UK became a net importer of natural gas last year, a milestone nobody wanted to reach. Part of the problem is that the UK relies on the stuff to produce a lot of its electricity thanks to the “dash for gas” in the 90s, when a slew of gas-fired power stations were built because, at the time, it was cheap. It’s almost impossible to predict when the North Sea will run out of gas entirely, because how much remains and how easy it is to extract affects its price, which influences demand. But if production continues to decline at the same rate it has been, it will reach zero by 2015. That means the nation will have to buy all of its gas somewhere else (at the moment, its main supplier is Qatar). It’s easy to imagine a future where the UK is dependent on foreign countries for a big portion of its energy, and this could have numerous unpleasant consequences, from price increases and shortages to resource wars.
Every expert we spoke with agreed that Austria isn’t going to run out of natural resources anytime soon. The country is rich with oil, copper, zinc, lignite, timber, iron ore, and magnesite, and various industries extract about 169 million tons of this stuff every year. Robert Holnstiener of the Federal Ministry of Economy, Family, and Youth said that any shortages the country is experiencing are due to geopolitics, not the earth running out of anything. Austria’s agriculture industry is suffering, however, as small farms are becoming less and less economically viable. Unlike in the US, a lot of these farms aren’t being replaced with developments, but instead with forests. These forests aren’t being cut down and turned into lumber, however, as Austria continues to import most of the wood it requires. It seems that Austrians are just A-OK with abandoning their farmland and letting nature take its course.
According to the Polish Geological Institute, the country will run out of zinc and lead before other minerals. Lead is used for the production of batteries, cables, pipes, paints, and those big, heavy blankets you wear at the dentist during an X-ray. Zinc is mainly used as an anticorrosion agent, which keeps things from getting rusty and broken. Mirosław Rutkowski, spokesman for the Polish Geological Institute, said it’s difficult to predict the condition of Poland’s natural resources in the future, as we don’t know where technology will take us. Twenty years ago, no one would have guessed we’d all be after lithium, which is used to make batteries for cell phones. But Poland will probably need lead and zinc long after they’ve been depleted.
Niobium is a little-known bright, soft, grayish metal that’s worth more than gold these days. It’s so malleable, moldable, and flexible that it has become essential for space, nuclear, and heavy construction industries, as well as for the production of medical equipment like prostheses and MRI- and CT-scan-machine components. Niobium’s also resistant to corrosion and extreme heat. So this is one serious motherfucker of a material, basically, and Brazil has 98 percent of it. Nearly 75 percent of the niobium used in the entire world comes from a single mine in the city of Araxá. But niobium is not going to stick around forever. The question is: What is the world going to do when Brazil runs out of it? Some minerals that could replace it include titanium, tungsten, and tantalum, but all of those alternatives are way more expensive. Hopefully, we’ll find some new magical metal before the niobium goes bye-bye. Then again, that will probably be centuries from now, by which time we’ll probably all be dead anyway.
Bring a box of tissues and read more from our Hopelessness Issue: