Will the Earth ever run out of resources?

Sydney Hollingsworth. 07/10/2021

Coal mines in Columbia (Scott Wallace/World Bank)

You have probably heard doomsday warnings such as “climate change will be irreversible by 2030” or “fossil fuels will run out by 2060” to the point that the end of humanity seems inevitable and quickly approaching. But is it true? There is a common theme for these predictions - depletion of natural resources, that humanity’s overconsumption will be its downfall - but what’s actually going on? How can an entire planet run out of resources so quickly?

We know that there is only a finite amount of soil, fossil fuels, water, heavy metals, and minerals on Earth, so we must run out eventually, right? And it is true that as a species, we are using these finite resources very quickly; between 1950 and 2000, humans have consumed more natural resources than over the course of all of previous human history, and scientists have been warning against overconsumption since the 1970s.

Scientists’ predictions for what the future will bring have consistently changed, despite having known about overconsumption for years. A 2002 report from the World Wildlife Fund claimed we would have to colonize at least 2 Earth-sized planets by 2050 to make up for the rate at which we use up natural resources. Now, in 2021, this prediction is less popular because we know that it is neither realistically possible nor necessary.

Although the numbers seem to be against us, we’re still alive, and the fuel, soil, and minerals that we use everyday never seem to run out. The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth manifesto, written in 1972, predicted that we would have already run out of heavy metals such as gold, copper, mercury, silver, and zinc by now, but we haven’t. In fact, they’re quite common and used on a daily basis. So what does this mean? Were the scientists wrong? Not quite…

To “run out” of something really means there will be none left for us to use, not necessarily none left in the entire world. But why does that matter? Well, Earth is much bigger than you might think, and there are plenty of natural resources on it we could use, but reaching them is another story. There are smaller, less dense pockets of ores and minerals deep beneath the Earth’s surface, but reaching them would be too expensive and only considered when we have already depleted all the other, more easily accessible deposits and have no easier options.

To say we will run out of resources fails to account for new technology. Resource availability is not determined by the finite amount of the resource, but by our ability to obtain it. Historically, technology needs to advance to extract a greater amount of resources, and we don’t have any reason to assume this won’t keep happening.

How can we be sure that technology will advance at an effective rate? Well, in many ways, it already is. Ore mines have expanded to the arctic in recent years and plans for deep sea mining operations and asteroid mining are underway for the more distant future. Heavy metals can be recycled from electronic waste, and elements such as nitrogen are extracted from the atmosphere to produce fertilizer.

So will we ever really run out of resources? In short: no, or at least not anytime soon. The earth is far from actually “running out” of the resources we depend on. As time passes they will just become more and more expensive as their extraction becomes less convenient, eventually being replaced by cheaper, reusable options when the cost becomes too ridiculous for continued use.

However, this outlook does not take into consideration the full picture of what is going on in the world. It is important to point out that for the general public to make the switch to renewable resources, the cost of non-renewable resources must rise enough to outweigh the cost of renewable ones.

We can see this happening today: renewable energy sources such as solar or wind already exist, but they are not used nearly as much as fossil fuels, because the cost of extracting fossil fuels is cheap compared to green energy. As fossil fuels become more difficult and costly to obtain, oil prices will rise and consumers will turn to renewable energy, making it widespread and more affordable.

But from the perspective of those living in poverty, their world will run out of resources long before this point. While 1st world countries can still afford the rising oil prices and do not yet feel the need to transition to green energy, 3rd world countries will be unable to afford either.

Additionally, our current rate of consumption may not cause the Earth to deplete its resources anytime soon, but it does have drastic consequences on the environment. Global warming is a much larger issue than depletion of natural resources, and if we don’t do something, it will likely bring our downfall long before we run out of natural resources.

My goal is not to downplay the costs of human exploitation of the environment, but to create a more accurate, less self-centered view of what is happening. We are certainly not destroying the Earth; our home planet has been through much worse and will carry on long after we’re gone, although how it appears on the surface may be quite different. Whether or not we will be included in its future depends on what we do next.

Cover Photo: (Friends of the Earth Europe)

Sydney Hollingsworth