All posts by C-Rock

Earth and Life

Earth day is this week, but what do people really mean when they say, “Earth”?  I think we can all agree that the Earth is composed of a hydrosphere, a lithosphere, an atmosphere, and a biosphere all interacting in a vast, interconnected system.  Now I ask:  how are the “different” spheres really “separate” from each other?  Because, aren’t animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi all partly composed of water?  For example, humans are made up of about 60-70% water, by mass.  In addition, aren’t skeletons and teeth made out of minerals (e.g. apatite)?  Also, don’t all organisms (bacteria, fungi, plant or animal) need certain geologic nutrients like zinc, sulfur, calcium, phosphorous, etc. to live?  Don’t individual organisms need to have air or dissolved oxygen in their respiratory organs at all times they are alive?  And it’s obvious that humans have lots of their own biologic tissue (cells) but don’t we also have billions of bacteria living and dying within our bodies as they perform all sorts of useful tasks like helping us digest food and helping our immune systems?  The answer to all these questions is:  YES!  Look this all up if you don’t believe me.  Now, isn’t it obvious?  Animals have a hydrosphere (water in tissues), a lithosphere (skeletons, nutrients from plants), an atmosphere (air in lungs, oxygen in blood), and a biosphere (cells, and a bacterial ecosystem).  Plants also have a hydrosphere (water in tissues), a lithosphere (nutrients from soil), an atmosphere (carbon dioxide in tissues), and a biosphere (cells, fungi on roots or trunk, and a bacterial ecosystem).  I ask again, how can the four spheres on Earth really be “separate” from one another?  It’s all the Earth and it’s all interconnected in one vast system.  In addition, it is important to note that plate tectonics and volcanism are integral to how the atmosphere and biosphere function and evolve over geologic time (hundreds of millions of years).  What this all means is that the Earth must resemble the Earth at all scales from the cellular to the global biosphere; otherwise, how could it be the Earth?  Everything on Earth or from Earth is the Earth!  Astronauts are obviously bringing their bodies (water, nutrients, bones) into space so they are literally extending Earth into space.

Now, this is a much different view of Earth and life then what we are taught in school.  Modern industrial humans have a secular cultural mindset or “story” that tells them that life is just a struggle for the Earth’s resources and you are separate from everyone else and everything else.  You are just a separate being struggling against everything else so you can get enough resources to survive and reproduce and there is no higher purpose to it all.  Really? That’s it?  Wow, it’s no wonder that this cultural mindset results in the trashing of the entire Earth (global pollution, ecosystem destruction, etc.), as this same cultural mindset pressures people to trash their own minds, bodies, and communities with anxiety, stress, insomnia, substance abuse, 60-80 hour work weeks, racism, greed, addictions of all sorts, etc.  Remember:  everything on Earth is the Earth!  If you trash one thing, you trash it all.  I don’t think many people realize that their own minds and bodies are types of environments, and that they are allowing them to be polluted.  It seems like the time is right for a new cultural mindset, don’t you think?  Are there really thousands of isolated social and environmental problems today that each require a separate yet super-complex solution? Or is there just one major problem underlying them all?  I think that problem is that many people don’t really understand what they are, who they are, or what they are a part of.  They are perpetually insecure and life is never just good enough on this planet.  They require perpetual “progress” and they are perpetually fearful of the “outside” world.  As a result, they are always afraid of everything.  If you are afraid of everything, then you attempt to control everything (we use technology, laws, and rules), but the end result of that process would be total control:  totalitarianism.  How do you have freedom when your society has total control over everything?  Technology, laws and rules are very useful in certain situations, but taking all of these things to the extreme would be kind of dumb, right?

What is the point of life, then?  Were you really born just to out-compete everyone else for the Earth’s finite resources? To consume vast amounts of these resources (materialism/consumerism), and to just complain about it all (“work’s such a drag” or “my car sucks” or “my phone sucks”), and then die?  I don’t think so, I mean, how is that not a pretty lame way to live?  Regardless of your opinion on materialism/consumerism, many resource geologists over the decades including M. K. Hubbert, Walter Younquist, and Colin Campbell have pointed out that materialism/consumerism as a way of life is inevitably screwed no matter what you think of it because of geologic depletion problems.

Is life really supposed to be just a struggle for resources?  Or does the Machine (industrial culture) and its high priests and priestesses (neoclassical economists) just benefit from us thinking about life in that way?  Gotta go out and compete against everyone else for those scarce resources:  jobs, cars, houses, and spouses, right?  Wow, I really don’t buy that mindset as the best way to organize a society or a local community or to live a life.  I am calling the Machine out on its bluff:  I think it’s full of chickenshit bullshit.

Go outside at some point and observe a tree for a while.  Are you and the tree struggling/competing for resources (survival of the fittest)?  No!  You need the tree’s exhaled oxygen to live and the tree needs your exhaled carbon dioxide to live.  You are both working together and it’s all interconnected!  Even within individual species, many of the individual organisms form cooperative communities (human villages, packs of wolves, ant colonies, etc.).   So the statements “survival of the fittest” or “life is a struggle/competition” just depend on how you are looking at the situation; they depend on your frame of reference, and they depend on your mindset.  This goes for the human economy too.  A lot of very different industries work together as oppose to compete:  geologists and engineers in the mining industry mine the materials to make a computer and the engineers of the computer industry sell their computers to the geologists or engineers so they can better mine or recycle more materials!  They are all working together, it is not all just a competition!  Even within individual industries, like the computer industry, there is much cooperation between companies (e.g. they are using each others gadgets to develop new gadgets).

I think life can only be thought of as a perpetual struggle or competition if one has a fear of death.  Death of organisms, death of species, death of planets, death of stars…. But wait!  Most of the matter you see around you, including yourself, was created by the deaths (supernovas) of super-massive stars eons ago.  From death arises life!  It is the balance of nature.  It is the way of nature, and there is nothing to fear from it.  If you fear death then you fear life.  Ironically, it seems as if the “life is a struggle to avoid death, life is a competition” viewpoint taken to an extreme pushes humans to go to war, to cheat, to steal, to lie, so that everything we do in our lives seems to become a battle against someone else or something else.  We battle our own minds (anxiety, stress), we battle each other (verbally, legally or with physical weapons), and we battle the biosphere (pave it over).  Perpetual war at all scales of reality.  How is that not a stupid way to use the gift of life?

If so, why not have a different view of life?  If you have a personality that is naturally resistant to peer pressure (I think most people have this ability at some level), then why not take your ability all the way to its zenith?  Resist the underpinnings of the industrial culture mindset!  Most of it is a bunch of BS, anyway (though, there’s some good stuff in there too, to be sure).  We don’t really owe anything to industrial society because industrial society could not exist without Earth!  We owe everything to Earth.  The exponential growth industrial economy is going to die at some point (and is slowly dying now) because of either peak resources or runaway climate change, so why cling to it out of fear of change?  It served its purpose and now it’s time for it to go; it’s really very simple.  From death arises life.  A sustainable society of some sort will inevitably arise in it’s place, so we might as well get started on building that society sooner rather than later.

You can think of life on Earth as a bunch of “separate” organisms struggling for resources, as an endless competition with no real purpose, and as a perpetual battle at all scales of reality.  On the other hand, you can also think of all the life on Earth as a beautifully interconnected system that is working together towards some higher purpose (evolving).  The first viewpoint is responsible for a society that works against nature at every scale and is killing the very life-support systems (e.g. climate, biosphere, healthy mental state) it depends on for its survival.  I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out what kind of culture/society the other viewpoint will create.  Science tells us that in order to truly understand “reality” we must not project human “feelings” onto the reality “outside” of us.  But how the hell are the statements:  “survival of the fittest,” “life is just a competition for resources” or “life really has no higher purpose” not just projections of human insecurity emplaced on the infinite beauty of nature?  Evolution is a scientific fact, but there are many ways to interpret that fact, and I think I’ve made my choice of interpretation pretty damn clear.

If you think that creating a sustainable society and a better life for yourself is just too hard for whatever reason, then do you not realize that you are just being imprisoned by your own mental chains?  Break the chains.  If you want a practical way to slowly extricate yourself from this unsustainable and insecure culture, read this book:  This book basically lays out a way for an individual to break out of the materialism and consumerism ideals that permeate every aspect of our culture.  If you are truly enamored by our current culture and are perfectly happy with your life, then that’s fine too.  I just personally think a lot of people are “faking” it.  I know I was at one point.  Definitely take some time to make sure you aren’t faking it.

And just one more point about changing your mindset:   do people really think they need to memorize 5,000+ tips or facts on how to live a happy life or to be a good person?  What’s with all these endless books about 500 tips to ace the interview or 500 tips to ace your marriage?  How does any of that make any sense?  I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this past Saturday.  I think all it really takes to be truly happy and to be a good person is to change your viewpoint on what life is really all about.  If you are unhappy, change the way you think about life in general, stick to some general, fundamental principles and all of the infinitely complex external details of your life will crystallize together into a pretty good, but not perfect, life.  That’s how the Earth did it.  Just four fundamental spheres:  the hydrosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere interact as one to create all the beautiful complexity you see around you.  Simply amazing.

So, that’s my manifesto on Earth and Life.  Welcome to the planet, folks!

Oh, and that reminds me to ask:  what would the Earth be without the Sun?  Without sunlight?  How are they really “separate” things? And what would the Sun be without….  Hey, wait a minute…


Musings on Complexity: Interconnections Abound

Albert Einstein, in his theories of special relativity and general relativity, speculated that space, time, energy, matter and forces were not in fact “separate” entities in the “Newtonian” universe, as was commonly believed at the time.  He theorized that space and time were inseparable (spacetime) and energy and matter (E=mc²) were equivalent and that these “things” were all tightly coupled together with gravity. The theory was proven correct by subsequent experiments. Everything is interconnected! Truly one of the greatest discoveries of all time (uhhh… spacetime?) However, what is even more interesting to me is that these discoveries at the time and even today were and are described as COUNTER-INTUITIVE in most physics books.

Aaarrggh!!! What arrogance! If you read about tribes of hunters and gatherers, you’ll find that many of them believed that everything: humans, animals, plants, wind, water, Earth, the stars, and even time were all interconnected in a vast cosmic web:  oneness.  Ohhhh, how BARBARIC! What a PRIMITIVE idea! Hmmm, is relativity really counter-intuitive, or does it just seem that way because of the cultural baggage that gets packed into our brains by mass society?

Here we are in 2015 with many global problems, and what is our technocratic and “advanced” society trying to do to solve them? Do we really want to fully control our planet, and solve all social, ecological and environmental problems with measurement and technology? How could that not end up as totalitarianism? Even if we could theoretically have total control; practically speaking, how many problems today were caused by previous so-called “solutions”?  There’s been a lot of unintended consequences stemming from “solutions”.  How do we solve that problem? Our society is trying to quantify and control the infinite complexity of the universe! How could this possibly end well!? Do many scientists, engineers, economists, and other social scientists truly understand the implications of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in mathematics? He proved that mathematics can never be both complete (every statement can be proved true or false) and consistent (can only the true statements be proved?)! This theorem has huge implications for quantitative science and for a society trying to quantify everything! If you think all of this is over your head, IT IS NOT! Here, if I have one grain of sand and another grain of sand, that makes two grains of sand, right? 1+1 = 2.  That’s true. Well, in reality, aren’t grains of sand composed of silicon and oxygen atoms, which are each composed of other particles down to the quantum level? 1+1 = 2 is quite a simplification!  How do you “objectively” apply that simple mathematical statement to extremely complicated reality?  I can’t believe our “advanced” culture does this with humans and social systems! 1 human + 1 human = 2 humans, right? WHAT!? We just reduced the infinite complexity of a human being to a SINGLE DIGIT!  Not to mention reducing the infinite complexity of a human relationship to the number 2.  Ohhh, I guess a human being is just another bit to be input into the computer to solve a problem, right!? Just another statistic!? That reminds me of that “Feel Like a Number” song by Bob Seger…

But C-Rock!!!! What you write here is heresy! How are we supposed to solve all of the world’s problems if what you say is true!? Aren’t computers and genetic algorithms and artificial intelligence going to save the world!? Oh my…. well, I personally believe each of us knows very deep down the difference between right and wrong, and how to live a good life. I mean, really, are another 100 exabytes of external data really going to make a difference for you in order to make the “right” decision?

I’m sick of all these damn measurements we make on everything. No wonder so many people, even in wealthy countries, are anxious, depressed, and confused, including myself at one point, before I realized it was all bullshit. Grade point averages, wages, net worth, age, prices, hours, minutes… good grief!  Well, these things do have their uses but to obsess over them as our society does is pathetic. The infinite beauty of life, of the universe, reduced to mere numbers. Yikes!  Putting a price on an ecosystem; on a human life? That’s progress? The benefits of our scientific and other kinds of progress are impossible to deny but the costs of progress are truly astronomical, and Earth has already begun instituting bankruptcy proceedings against our society in the form of climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and the depletion of high-grade mineral ores.  The growing Permaculture movement gives me hope that many people are finally starting to sense and do something about all of this on an individual level.

I don’t buy the whole measurement and price scheme thing (total technological and economic control) as a solution to everything and I’m someone who reads the World Almanac, chock full of data and numbers, for fun almost every day! I’m obsessed with data and numbers! Oh yeah, and I’m a scientist (geologist) as well! HAHA! I guess the econ-techno-totalitarian control freaks will have to send me away if I keep writing about this stuff! Ahh! One of our own is turning against the Machine, gotta keep him quiet! Thankfully, though, many of us live in democracies (imperfect ones) and I am far from the only scientist or engineer raising these questions.  Philosophers and other social scientists have always brought up these questions but they get drowned out by our society’s tendency to focus mostly on the progression of economics, science, and technology, which is unfortunate.

Alright, you can probably get a lot of people with a PhD in either physics, economics, philosophy, computer science, or psychology etc., to tell me that I’m being naïve, that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that I don’t know “how the world really works.” Yeah, but do they know everything? Type the word “complexity” into Google Scholar and you’ll get 4,120,000 results.  Wow, the study of complexity is complex!  Do they really know everything about complexity and how it affects their disciplines?  I sure don’t with geology.  Unintended consequences abound. Oh, and just a head’s up, never tell an Earth scientist that they “don’t know how the world really works.”

So what does all this mean for us? It means freedom! Think for yourself!  Be your own philosopher. You intuitively know the Golden Rule(s), you intuitively know what you want out of life, you intuitively know which technologies seem “right” or “OK” and the ones that are disturbing, and you intuitively know the things required to build a trustful, local community.  All of those timeless proverbs can’t all be wrong, can they?  I may not know everything or if the things I do know are truly right, but the one thing I do know for sure is that everything is interconnected in an infinitely beautiful cosmic web, and you know what?  That’s good enough for me.

Suggested Readings:

1984 George Orwell
Brave New World Aldous Huxley
Peeking at Peak Oil Kjell Aleklett
Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering The Planet Ugo Bardi
Overshoot: The Ecological Basis For Revolutionary Change William Catton, Jr.
Ishmael Daniel Quinn
Energy and the Wealth of Nations Charles A.S. Hall and Kent Klitgaard
Ascent of Humanity Charles Eisenstein
Complexity: A Guided Tour Melanie Mitchell or any other “systems thinking” book

The Scale of Extraction

Mining makes up a small percentage of world GDP and an even smaller percentage of the labor force, so it is mostly “out of sight, out of mind” as an industry.  Look at the pictures below, however, and it will no longer be out of sight!  Though, I can’t say the same for out of mind…

Click on the pictures to view them or right-click them and open them up in a new tab.  All pictures were taken from Google Earth.

Below is the Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah, USA, and the downtown portion of Boston, MA, USA for size comparisons.  If you look carefully you can make out a landslide in the pit.  The landslide is almost as big as the financial district of Boston!

Bingham Canyon Mine and Boston

Below is the Mission copper mine in Arizona, USA and downtown Boston.

Mission Mine and Boston

Below is the Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile.  It looks like downtown Boston can fit right into the pit, with room to spare!

Chuqui Mine and Boston

Below is an entire copper mining complex consisting of the Chuquicamata mine and the Radomiro Tomic mine in Chile.  The complex includes leach pads, smelters, equipment storage areas, and waste rock piles.  The entire complex is as long as Manhattan.  The waste rock pile or leach pad (looks like a hand fan) in the top of the image covers a larger area than does downtown Boston.  That’s a big pile of rocks!

Copper Mining Complex Chile and Manhattan

Below is the Yanacocha gold mining complex in Peru.  It is almost as long as Manhattan, and definitely wider.

Yanacocha Gold Mining Complex and Manhattan

Below is an iron ore mining complex near Hibbing, Minnesota, USA.  It is also almost as long as Manhattan.  I have little doubt that some of the iron from this mine made it into the infrastructure of Manhattan.  In fact, it looks as if they are mirror images of each other:  flip the mine over and out pops a city.

Minnesota Iron Mine and Manhattan

Finally, here is an industrial agriculture mining complex in a northern section of Texas, USA.  You may not think of this place as a mining complex, but here, industrial agriculture is “mining” topsoil and fossil groundwater.  In other words, these farms are eroding topsoil faster than it can be replenished and pumping out groundwater much faster than the aquifer below is recharged, and let’s not even get into fossil fuel and fertilizer use.  The state of Rhode island is given as a size comparison to this particular industrial process.  Manhattan and downtown Boston are also included, but they are obviously dwarfed by industrial agriculture.  Agriculture can be done sustainably (and a good amount of it already is) but as long as energy and water are considered “cheap” it will also be done unsustainably in marginally arable places like the one pictured below.

Industrial Agriculture and Rhode Island

Even though mining is a small part of the world economy its environmental impacts are obviously enormous.  Also, the rest of the industrial economy can’t operate without mining so it is ignorant to think that just because it is a small part of the world GDP, it is relatively unimportant.  It is easy to think of the economy just in financial terms, but, as these pictures show, there is a physical economy hidden beneath the cloak of finance.

Petroleum: The Market’s Greatest Illusion

How much value should one put on a gallon of crude oil?  Who knows…

Well, there is this interesting idea:

Buckminster Fuller wrote in his book, Critical Path: “the brilliant Denver, Colorado oil geologist, Francois de Chardenedes … regarding the amount of energy employed as heat and pressure, for the length of time initially that it took nature to photosynthetically process Sun radiation into the myriad of hydrocarbon molecules that comprise all the vegetation and algae … a large percentage of which Sun-energy-nurtured-and-multiplied molecules are ultimately processed into petroleum.

The script of de Chardenedes’ “Scenario of Petroleum Production” makes it clear that, with all the cosmic energy processing (as rain, wind and gravitational pressure) and processing time (paid for at the rates you and I pay for household electricity), it costs nature well over a million dollars to produce each gallon of petroleum.”

This means that if humanity, instead of nature, wanted to “produce” (i.e. create) an energy source with the qualities of oil, it would also cost us a helluva lot of money!  Remember, we extract oil, we do not produce it.  Also, remember why we use oil despite its well publicized bad aspects:  (1) it is energy dense (2) it is easily transportable (3) it is easy to store (4) we can make many different products out of it, other than fuel, and (5) it is already there, we don’t need to grow it like biofuels.  It is an outright fantasy that oil companies (financed by debt) can extract oil for just a few tens of dollars a barrel and say that they are “producing” a product with all of these qualities.  Yet our culture accepts this fantastic illusion quite readily.

Now, Buckminster Fuller had a unique if not controversial way of looking at things, but this idea seems plausible, if it isn’t, it’s still interesting.  I can’t find Francois de Chardenedes’ work online but we can perform a quick back of the envelope calculation to see if his findings were reasonable.  Let’s say it takes 1 kWh of energy per day to create the algae/plankton, bury a few pounds of it, and heat it up to generate a gallon of petroleum. These biologic materials need to be buried and “cooked” for say, a period of 100,000 years (petroleum is generated over geologic timescales, so this estimate is very generous).  At $0.10 per kWh, the production cost would come to $3,650,000 per gallon.  A barrel (42 gallons) would cost $153,300,000 to produce.  Hmmm… YIKES!

1 kWh is not a lot of energy.  It is 0.4% of the average American’s daily energy use (including residential, commercial, industrial and government energy use).  Though at a rate of 1 kWh/d it does add up to a lot of energy over geologic timescales.  Therefore, let’s say we way overestimated the energy needed to make a gallon of petroleum, and it only takes 1 kWh per year over 100,000 years to produce it (0.0027 kWh/d, a total of 100,000 kWh).  It would still cost $10,000 to produce a gallon of petroleum.  A barrel would cost $420,000 to produce.

It seems the drive I took the other day that consumed 1 gallon of gas really should have cost me at least $10,000+ or even $3 million, not $2.90.  Holy crap! It’s a trap!  That’s quite a distorted economic incentive. The fact that people in OECD countries reduce their demand for oil when the price of a gallon of oil reaches $2.38 ($100/bbl) should provide some food for thought.

Fossil fuel subsidies? I don’t know… It seems we are subsidized by fossil fuels.  Which is way worse; as we are entrenched by our society’s fossil fuel inertia.  To give you an idea of this, to de-carbonize 12 TW of fossil fuel power out of 15 TW of total world power, would require the world to build a 1 GW nuclear power plant or equivalent renewable power plant every 3 days for the next 99 years.  12,000 nuclear power plants.  The world currently has ~440 nuclear power plants and many are old.  This sounds expensive, and this is assuming that world power use does not increase over the next 99 years.  However, the simple cost analysis in this post showed that petroleum is way more “expensive” than we think and suggests we should do whatever it takes to move to alternatives ASAP, without even stopping to argue about climate change.

Anyway, I think all of this endless arguing about the oil price slide and whether “Peak Oil” is debunked is a waste of time.  I am guilty of this myself.  By reading more, I have come to realize, as have many others, that peak oil is just a symptom of a larger and more fundamental problem with our culture.  I can’t pinpoint it right now but these questions may shed some light on it:

How much energy or resources does one require in order to live a “good” life? To be happy?

What is the real cost of non-renewable energy or other non-renewable resources? How do depletion problems over time periods of decades factor in?  What about climate change or ecosystem destruction?

How much is the real cost distorted by a culture bent on endless consumption of non-renewable resources to increase its status and wealth?  What is wealth?

Will technology save us from depletion problems, climate change, and ecosystem destruction? How can it if all of the technology that has ever been invented just got us to the point where we are now, asking these questions?

How do we enable the developing world to develop western consumption-heavy lifestyles on only renewable energy and renewable materials? We are having some substantial difficulty doing just that ourselves for any number of technological, economic, political, or social reasons.  On that note, what does sustainability really mean?

I heavily advise taking your savings from this period of low oil prices to invest in energy conservation, solar panels, a hybrid vehicle, a good commuting bike, or something along these terms.  Do not be fooled by the petroplex illusion.  I was for a while, but it is possible to wake up from “the Matrix” (and it’s fun!).

That fact that there are many people in America who still cannot afford these “green” technologies (including a nice bike!) even with our GDP of $17 trillion, is troubling.  This fact is obviously evidence that the free market is distorted for any number of reasons (duh!), but, in my opinion, it is mostly distorted by our individual limits of understanding complex systems (such as our own economy).  It’s possible that our Geodestinies, like Peak Oil, are still far into the future, but we are getting closer to them with every commodity super-cycle that comes to pass.  My advice for the future:  tread lightly.

Happy Holidays!

The End of The Stone Age

According to Wikipedia, the Stone Age ended around 8,000 to 4,000 years ago (6,000 – 2,000 B.C.).  However, looking at these images below may make one think otherwise, right?

Stone Age
Clockwise from top left. Sunrise gold mine in Australia (Wikipedia), limestone quarry in Italy (Michael J. Zirbes), sand/gravel pit in New Jersey (Google Earth), Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile (Google Earth).

We still live in the Stone Age! We still live in the Bronze Age!  We still live in the Iron Age, Coal Age, Oil Age, Gas Age, and the Atomic Age!  In fact, given the billions of tons of soil, rock, minerals and fossil fuels that we move or extract each year, it seems as if humanity is living in these “ages” more than ever before.  Our current civilization has not moved past these ages, we have just added onto them with our technological advances.  We must remain humble, however, as these technological advances are the very reason why we are now even more inextricably linked to the materials of Earth than in all of human history.

Humans have created millions of amazing machines and other objects by extracting and cleverly rearranging naturally occurring elements from the Earth’s crust.  We even have technology (nuclear reactors) that can create elements from other elements (e.g. Americium in your smoke detector).  But come on! How do we get off saying that the Stone Age has ended?  Take a look inside your home or office and try to find something comprised of raw materials that do not include something taken from the Earth (soil nutrients, rock, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.).

Even if we develop asteroid mining operations in the future (it will be very difficult and expensive to do, I imagine) we will still be in a type of Stone Age (The Space Stone Age?).  Consequently, to think of ourselves as “above” or “past” the “primitive” Stone Age is quite arrogant and ironic, in my opinion (I know not everyone thinks that, but it seems to me that many do).

Historians and archaeologists in the year 3000 may look back and laugh at how we viewed our technological progression through history:

Speaker at a  future history/archaeology conference: “The people of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries actually told themselves the Stone Age ended 4,000 years before, even as they were blowing through the Earth’s ancient endowment of fossil fuels, metal ores, and topsoil in a matter of centuries.”

(Audience bursts into laughter)

“During this time period, some of these societies even described themselves with such words as ‘post-industrial’ or ‘sustainable’.”

(Audience falls out of their seats, tears of laughter streaming down their faces)

“While I must sincerely thank our ancestors for all of the wonderful technology they invented and their advancement of scientific knowledge, I have to ask:  did they really have to strip the Earth’s crust clean to do it? And did they have to do it with the hubris of saying they were past the Stone Age? I mean, really, what were they thinking?”

How Much are Non-Renewable Resources Really Worth?

Crude Oil As an Example

Gasoline prices are falling right now in the USA, but some people still complain from time to time that prices are still too high as they are around $3.45 per gallon, nationwide.  Much of the fall in gasoline prices is due to the drop in the price of crude oil, a non-renewable resource (on human timescales).  A barrel (bbl) of WTI crude oil is worth around $93 as of September 2014, but what the heck does that number really mean?

Given that crude oil is a finite (i.e. non-renewable) resource, there will be a point when oil becomes so scarce and the price becomes so high, that people will be prompted to look for alternatives (according to standard economic theory).  Obviously, this has already been happening since 2005, when oil reached $50+/bbl, and it is happening even more today with $90+/bbl oil.  However, $93/bbl is equal to $2.21 per gallon (42 gallons constitutes 1 bbl of oil).  That means that even at today’s “high” prices, a gallon of oil is still cheaper than a gallon of milk.  Amazingly, back in the 1990s, oil was worth less than $1 per gallon.  While it may seem that the laws of supply and demand are working well to give us an accurate price for oil, something seems amiss.  How could the lifeblood of the modern economy be worth so little, although most of us think of it as expensive? Our modern society has constructed almost all of its transportation network based on a non-renewable resource that we value at only $1-$3 per gallon.  I personally believe that this is not a very wise valuation.  It appears that the price and value of crude oil are not the same (like a lot of other stuff in life), as the importance of crude oil to the global economy cannot be understated.  A lot of people willingly spend $100+ for designer sunglasses or a smartphone, but get angry when the core fuel powering their lifestyle costs more than $2 a gallon.  Talk about misplaced values.

Given that oil is non-renewable and faces depletion concerns (i.e. peak oil) and climate change concerns, many of us would like to construct a renewable energy infrastructure to replace oil and the other fossil fuels.  However, the construction of a renewable energy infrastructure will require vast amounts of energy and capital, things that are in short supply in today’s energy-constrained global economy.  Hence, we face what physicist Tom Murphy calls the energy trap, or the incentive to hold on to our current energy sources (fracking boom) instead of investing energy and capital (which are now in short supply) in replacing the fossil fuel system with renewable alternatives.

Well, maybe we should have started building our renewable energy infrastructure in the 1990s when oil prices were much lower, and the economy was doing much better!  However, the very fact that prices were lower meant there was no incentive to invest in alternative energy sources or transportation replacements (EV’s, buses, etc.), which is unfortunate in hindsight.  Nevertheless, Marion King Hubbert did tell the USA way back in 1956 that peak oil would be a problem in the future, so we can’t say we didn’t see this rise in oil prices coming.  Market forces (with respect to non-renewable resources) seem to only work well on short-term information, given that the world did not seem to expect the rise in oil prices that started around 2003.

To me, it appears that this problem of getting society off of fossil fuels stems from the price of oil not taking into account that oil is a finite resource.  Indeed, It seems as if the market (on the supply side) considers only the capital and labor (wells, pipelines, geologists, engineers, etc.) we are willing to expend to extract the oil, not to produce it.  Most of the oil in the Earth was produced tens to hundreds of millions of years ago!  We do not pay for the production of oil, as it is a freebie created by solar power, ancient algae/plankton, and tectonic forces over geologic time (i.e. hundreds of millions of years).

Extraction of oil from an oil field in west Texas.  The field of view is 8 miles across.
Extraction of oil from an oil field in the Permian Basin of West Texas. The field of view is approximately 8 miles across. Image from Google Earth.

Other Non-Renewable Resources

The same argument I made for oil could be made for the other fossil fuels:  natural gas and coal.  In addition, a similar argument could be made for the other non-renewable resources we mine such as copper, iron, nickel, zinc, uranium, gold, silver, platinum, lithium, phosphorous, rare earths, and others.  These elements were created (i.e. produced) in supernovas billions of years ago, before the Sun and the planets even formed (1).  On Earth, many of these useful metals that were originally dispersed widely throughout the crust were concentrated into ores over hundreds of millions of years by geologic processes (tectonics, groundwater flow, etc.).  Again, it seems that we pay only for the extraction of these elements and not for the production or concentration of them.  I will note here that humanity has in fact already developed a technological process that can produce elements from other elements:  neutron capture in nuclear reactors and particle accelerators.  This process is used to create Americium, for use in smoke detectors, and Technetium, for use as a radioactive tracer in radiology, as these two unstable elements are not found in nature (1).  However, we have had this technology for over 50 years, and yet in 2014 we still have mines that are approaching depths of 2.5 miles into the crust.  That tells me that neutron capture may not be economically viable as a replacement for ores even with the higher metal prices and lower ore grades nowadays.  This is probably so preciously because we do not pay (i.e. value) the ancient supernovas or geological processes for creating and concentrating these minerals that we mine.

The Chuquicamata copper mine in northern Chile.  The field of view is approximately 7 miles across (Google Earth).
The Chuquicamata copper mine in northern Chile. The field of view is approximately 7 miles across. Image from Google Earth.

Changing How We Value Non-Renewable Resources

Looking back on the past 250 years of the industrial revolution (has it really ended?), it seems kind of shortsighted that we based most of our entire technological and economic systems off of non-renewable resources (though, I am grateful for it, these resources were used to make this computer I am typing on).  Even 35+ years after the major fossil fuel shocks of the 1970s, the world still relies on fossil fuels for a majority of its energy use.  Also, the world still mines a lot of metals even with increased recycling rates nowadays.  Alas, we have built ourselves into quite a corner, and I think we will all learn our lesson with this present energy/materials shock (it is not over, although many of us would like to think it is).

Given that non-renewable resources inevitably face depletion problems and increasing environmental concerns, I think we should value non-renewable resources much more than we currently do.  Lifestyles in developed countries (i.e. OECD countries, especially the USA and Canada) are highly dependent on non-renewable resources that are continuously being extracted from the Earth. The higher prices for these resources we find in today’s economy indicate that we maybe running close to the limits of how many resource-intensive lifestyles the global economy can maintain.  By valuing the resources at even higher prices (higher tax?) by taking into account that they are finite and that they have other negative externalities (social and environmental), we could increase rates of conservation and recycling.  We would probably have to tax mining as well, to prevent the higher prices from causing the rates of extraction to increase.

Another possible choice to avoid depletion problems would be to scale down our developed world lifestyles and find or invent renewable substitutes for all of the non-renewable things we use (i.e. some kind of biological economy).  That would render many non-renewable resources as worthless, and hence there would be no need to worry about depletion problems (except for land, water, nutrients, and topsoil).  Actually, this “biological” economy is somewhat how all human economies worked prior to the industrial revolution (i.e. the economies were predominantly agricultural, and most of the energy used to fuel them was biomass).  Indeed, a lot of developing countries today operate with that type of economy.  However, to keep our currently highly technological lifestyles in developed economies, we would need our organic chemists and chemical engineers to invent replacements for all of our non-renewable materials with carbon based materials at low cost.  Obviously this would be a very difficult and drawn-out endeavor, and it would be, most likely, impossible to complete.

The Challenges Ahead

All in all, as opposed to hoping for technological developments to solve the depletion problems of non-renewable resources, it may be the wiser choice to voluntarily scale down our developed world lifestyles and think these big-picture problems through a bit.  I look out at today’s global economy and see that it is performing increasingly desperate maneuvers to extract non-renewable resources from the Earth to keep our “business-as-usual” lifestyles going.  The US oil industry is drilling into impermeable source rocks for oil instead of permeable reservoirs (and calling it a “technological revolution”); farmers in California are drilling 2,000 feet below the surface into depleted aquifers to extract fossil groundwater; and miners are depleting high grade ore reserves and are going after much lower grade ores.  These desperate maneuvers will be increasingly difficult to maintain in the future due to diminishing returns.  Consequently, it may be the wiser path for developed countries to voluntarily cut down their consumption (and thereby mining) of non-renewable resources to avoid depletion problems. It would be quite hypocritical to call for developing countries to cut back their resource use as their per-capita consumption rates are still nowhere near the rates in developed countries.  Though, the world economy may reach the point soon where even developing countries will no longer be able to increase their consumption rates of non-renewable resources.

We all look for people to blame for higher resource prices and the economic and environmental problems associated with extraction (e.g. politicians, oil industry, mining industry, speculators on Wall Street, etc.).  However, the main reason these people do what they do is that they are trying to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demands of our developed world lifestyles.  If you truly “value” your non-renewable resource fueled lifestyle, then I encourage you to try and dig an 800 meter deep open-pit mine, extract the metals yourself, and do it all while protecting the environment.  Go get some quartz and try to purify it into solar panel-grade silicon, all while not expending any fossil fuel energy.  Go build a dense plasma focus device to make your own elements and avoid extraction/depletion problems.  As these examples show, extracting non-renewable resources and turning them into useful products are not trivial things to do, and they invariably come with harsh “side effects.”  In my opinion, the more we all understand how truly valuable non-renewable resources are the better we as a society can change our expectations of the future (unlimited economic growth) to match up with reality (there are limits).

In my next post I will discuss how much our society values renewable resources and ecosystems (i.e. the biosphere).


1)  Bardi, Ugo.  Extracted:  How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet.  White River Junction, Vermont:  Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014.


Where Did Our Cheap Oil Go?

Aerial view of the oil sands operation in the Alberta Province of Canada.
Aerial view of the extraction of the oil sands in the Alberta Province of Canada (Google Earth). The field of view is approximately 25 miles across.

In March 1998, two geoscientists by the names of Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere wrote an article in Scientific American titled “The End of Cheap Oil” which explained that a peak in conventional (cheap) oil would occur within the next 10 years, leading to higher oil prices.  The general public in the USA pretty much ignored the statements of this article (at their peril, by buying SUV’s and Hummers in the early 2000s), but we can see now, looking back, that Colin and Jean were correct!  In April 2007, some oil company CEO’s even admitted that the age of cheap oil was over.  In this post I will delve into the economic costs of oil exploration and extraction in this new age of the oil industry (this post grows out of Points 1 and 4 of my first post).  I will not go into the social and environmental externalities of oil extraction, as there is enough there for hundreds of posts, and indeed entire books have been written about these externalities (e.g. Crude World by Peter Maas). 

Exploration and extraction of crude oil has come a long way technologically from the days when Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial oil well in 1859.  Today (2014), oil & gas companies use extremely sophisticated methods to explore for and extract crude oil from the Earth’s crust.  These technologies include the use of supercomputers to create 3-D and 4-D (3-D over time) seismic models of oil and gas reservoirs to optimize exploration of new fields and optimize exploration of the peripheries of old fields.  Extraction technologies include horizontal drilling and the notorious hydraulic fracturing method; which was developed in the 1940s ( 

Now, with the incredible rate of technological development over the past 155 years, not to mention increasing economies of scale, one would think that it would be easier and cheaper to extract oil from the crust than it used to be.  However, this is obviously not the case, as the break-even price for developing shale (tight) oil wells ranges from $60 to $80 a barrel, not to mention the high costs facing deep-water oil wells and oil sands development (these are other examples of unconventional oil). 

This is sobering.  All of the incredible technological development in the oil industry has resulted in increasing oil prices over time, not decreasing.  Yes, the USA is definitely extracting a lot more oil than before the boom began in 2009, but this oil is expensive, a lot more expensive than the conventional oil produced at the previous peak of oil extraction in 1970. 

So why is the shale oil boom in the USA even occurring? If it is so expensive to drill for, couldn’t a company make more money by drilling conventional (i.e. cheap) oil? Well, yes, of course! The break-even price for Iraqi oil is only $20, as conventional oil is much more easy to produce than unconventional oil (think of the oil gusher scenes in the movie Their Will Be Blood).  So we have a problem.  The problem is that there aren’t really any large conventional reservoirs left in the USA to develop!  That’s why the shale oil boom is happening now.  Decline of conventional crude oil extraction caused world oil prices to rise making it attractive to drill in shale.  The hydraulic fracturing technology has been around since the 1940s, but back then there were more than enough conventional oil fields to develop so the process was not widely used until around 2003 (when oil prices started rising). 

Why do you think oil companies are trying to drill in the Artic or are drilling even deeper than the Macondo well (2010 BP Blowout) in the Gulf of Mexico?  Why deep-water oil off of Brazil and Africa?  Why oil sands?  It’s because oil prices are high and the discoveries of cheap oil reservoirs have declined.  There could be 5-8 trillion barrels of crude oil in the Earth’s crust, but at what cost and rate can we extract it, and how much of it is actually recoverable? We’ve already extracted around 1.2 trillion barrels of the easy stuff!  If it costs $75-100+/bbl to develop the remaining oil then economies will try to switch to a different energy source for transportation, and the world economy will probably struggle to grow in the process.  Which, interestingly, would be a good thing for controlling CO2 emissions. 

Evidence for High Costs and Difficulties

Here are some articles indicating the difficulties and high costs facing oil companies in their race to extract the remaining crude oil from the crust:

Many oil companies are finding it very difficult to even explore for oil in the basins of the Artic Ocean, let alone extract any of it:

The Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea off of Kazakhstan was the largest conventional oil field discovery in the past few decades (discovered in 2000).  Its development has been extremely problematic over the past 14 years:

Brazil’s pre-salt oil field discoveries were hailed as game changers by the media in 2007/2008 and yet 6 years later it is still hard to get oil out of them, though, very recently (summer 2014) the development of these fields maybe turning a corner; albeit at a very high cost:

Shell pulled out of oil shale (Note: different from shale oil) research and development last year after 31 years trying to figure out how to make the economics work; if they can’t do it at $100/bbl, what price do they need?:

Last but not least, Saudi Arabia, the king of conventional, cheap oil is now looking for oil and gas fields in the Red Sea:

Saudi Arabia has (supposedly) 268 billion barrels of reserves (virtually all conventional oil, cheap to produce) but they are now looking into the deep-water regions of the Red Sea for expensive-to-produce oil?  That should be concerning, as maybe their supergiant conventional fields (e.g. Ghawar) are finally starting to show some wear. 


Even the oil majors (IOC’s) admit that the easy oil is gone, yet they deny Peak Oil extraction will occur anytime soon.  As such, they are presumably betting that the world economy is willing to pay $100-$150+ per barrel for the next few decades.  That may not be the case as people are trying as hard as they can to give up fuel-intensive cars and trucks and looking for alternatives (electric cars, hybrids, public transportation, etc).  In addition, global economic growth maybe hindered by triple-digit oil prices for the foreseeable future, thereby impacting demand for oil.

It seems to me (and to a lot of “experts”) that oil companies the world over are stuck between developing increasingly expensive oil and dealing with a world economy that is ready to shift to a different transportation fuel or method as soon as it becomes widely available (maybe cheap, driverless, electric cars?).  All in all, the world oil companies will probably have to at some point give up spending more and more money on extracting expensive, unconventional oil and just become natural gas companies (this may already be happening due to the cuts in capital spending that many IOC’s are currently making).

If we include social and environmental externalities in the costs of extracting oil, then oil is truly becoming very expensive as we try to tap unconventional reserves like shale oil and oil sands.  For unconventional oil there is just more social and environmental impact per barrel produced (e.g. CO2 emissions per barrel produced).  It will be interesting to see how long the world economy is willing to put up with these increasing economic, social, and environmental costs.