The Limits To Growth makes it pretty clear that resource shortages are going to be the driving force behind this century’s economic collapse and massive reduction in human population. In today’s world of abundance, however, that’s a hard concept to get our minds around. I struggle to grasp it myself and struggle further with how to convey it to other people. Think of human civilization as a bridge, with every bolt holding it together as one of the resources we depend on. If we start removing bolts, the first few will have almost no impact. Remove a few more and the bridge remains intact, but we may see some shifting or evidence of stress. Remove enough bolts though, and eventually we’re going to find the one that causes the whole thing to come crashing down. Recently, articles have surfaced heralding the loosening of two important “bolts” in our bridge: phosphorus and helium.
First, from the sad-but-true files: kids parties of the future are going to be a lot less fun. The world has a finite supply of helium, and we’re currently burning through it so quickly that a leading academic is warning us to ban balloons this holiday season. As a chemist at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Peter Wothers isn’t making this call because he’s a Grinch, but because he knows helium has several very important uses other than brightening up a child’s day. Helium is a critical element in high tech manufacturing of semiconductors and fiber optic cables, industrial welding, and medical devices such as MRIs.
I led with helium because the loss of balloons is easily relateable, and the effects are tangible in our everyday lives. It’s easy to feel the loss of balloons, as they’re objects we associate with children’s happiness. Yet even if all balloons are to become relics of the past, the world will survive. Our planet might become a little less fun or happy, but I’ll go out on a limb and predict that we won’t see nations going to war to protect their supplies of inflatable unicorns.
You know what countries might be willing to go to war over though? Food. Specifically, the ability to grow it, because fertilizer will become very scarce in the next couple of decades due to a global shortage of phosphorus. The world today is addicted to fertilizer, and it’s not hard to see why — yields from fertilized crops are much higher than those from unfertilized crops. A shortage of fertilizer will mean lower yields, and lower yields mean production will drop below demand and people start starving. Jeremy Grantham, the author of the report linked above, thinks that without fertilizer the world can only support around 1.5 billion people. Now I’m not a mathematician, but that seems like a bit less than the 7 billion we currently have. This might sound a bit crazy, and I wish the herald of this collapse were some crazy person, but Mr. Grantham is actually a very well known and well respected investor. He is a founder of GMO, an investment firm that commands over $97 billion in assets, and he is particularly known for his success in predicting economic bubbles (most notably the crash of 2008).
I’m obviously not saying people are going to die from this right now. Looking at Grantham’s chart, it’s clear we haven’t even hit peak levels yet. What I’m saying is that we’re headed for a cliff…it’s right there in front of us and we can see it coming. Lest you shrug and assume we’ll invent our way out of it before it’s too late, I beg you to think that through. What technology is waiting in the wings that will multiply crop yields several times over? What magical process are we going to be able to develop and implement worldwide in a mere 20 years to avoid disruption? It takes time to invent, it takes time to implement, and it’s pretty hard to do either when no one is even talking about the problem. Compare such an effort against the United States’ floundering attempts to address problems with Medicare (shortfalls projected by 2024) or Social Security (bankrupt by 2036). If we care enough to address these medium-term financial problems, how can there be no movement to address the fact that the world won’t be able to feed itself by 2040?