The Story of Resources

Limits to Growth – Club of Rome

In 1972, the famous report Limits to Growth (LtG) was published, causing a worldwide shock. Some 13 million copies were sold in 52 languages, 800,000 articles and studies followed and numerous quotes and references by politics, science, NGOs and industry can be found. The report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the Club of Rome described 12 future scenarios, based on simulations as generated by the Integrated Assessment Model World3. Each of the scenarios looked at the development of five world variables, depending on the economic growth pursued by humanity.

One of the scenarios, called Business-as-Usual, showed the development of the variables when no measures were taken to limit the exponential economic growth as occurred until 1972. According to the model this would result in a dramatic decrease in the availability of natural resources, causing an overshoot and collapse for industrial output per person, food per person, pollution, and ultimately the number of people that can be sustained on planet Earth.

The report has been misunderstood and criticized by many institutions and individuals, despite the fact that follow-up reports and more accurate models such as World7 reiterated the conclusion that humanity is still on track for the described Business-as-usual scenario. The current biodiversity and climate crisis (both resulting from excessive resource production, usage and disposal) just reemphasize the message.

Current Status

The current World 7 Model is the latest advanced tool, enabling us to include most of the elements of the periodic system. It tells us that a long list of materials, all needed to mobilise the economy, are getting ever closer to their limits (see enclosed picture of estimated peak-production dates). A reality with serious consequences, that is not yet well understood by society, politicians, and leaders from companies and financial institutions.

World 7 is the baseline for the Resource Wende programme, named after the famous Energy Wende in Germany. Wende meaning: turn around. Not only the model’s materials, but the very physical environment is included in the Resource Wende, such as water, nature, space, health and the many conditions which mankind needs to survive. It is clear that all is meeting it’s zenith now. Reviews of all kind reveal that the limits are here and now.

The limits of mining

In the early days, high ore grades of raw materials could be easily found and extracted right below the earth surface. These days are gone. Oil exploration has moved to deep-sea, fracking and tar-sand mining. The more remote and the lower the ore-grade of a mine, the more infrastructure, energy, chemicals, water, manpower and pollution it takes to mine the same amount of materials. There comes a point where the return on investment becomes negative, which means that the mine will not be (further) explored. For fossil fuels the energy invested to mine, produce and distribute the materials becomes larger than the energy gained by applying it.

As estimated in the Critical Minerals Market Review 2023 by the IEA, the yearly combined usage of fresh water and produced mining waste is about 10 billion ton. To put this into perspective: This is about the same as the total weight of all goods transported by ships around the world each year. The amount of waste produced, land and water used, will only increase as the ore grade of mines goes down.

The limitations of recycling

Recycling has traditionally been seen as the silver bullet to fill the growing gap between resource supply and the increasing demand. Obviously recycling is a no-brainer and must be done to prevent all kinds of unnecessary (toxic) waste, however the maximum amount of recycling is limited (as explained by Markus Reuter in many publications) due to:

  • Mechanical losses: When compound materials are mechanically separated, losses occur (small particles are left behind).
  • Chemical losses: Separating and purifying compound and polluted materials is done through a chain of chemicals processes. A percentage of the materials are permanently lost depending on the design choices made in the recycling plants.
  • Material losses: When the material density of a material in an product gets too low (called entropy), it can not be retrieved anymore. For example, there is quite some gold in the oceans, however it so so dispersed it can not be economically retrieved anymore.
  • Energetic losses: Recycling is an energy intensive process. This energy is for a large part lost.

The current recycling rate of most raw materials is (far) below 20%. Let’s assume we can elevate this for most of them to 50%, which is quite an ambitious target. This means that after 5 recycling rounds, only 3% of the original amount of materials is available for reuse, so the remaining 97% needs to come from primary sources.

Source: EU – Report on Critical Raw Materials and the Circular Economy

CUTEC – Remondis

Based on a study by the ‘Clausthaler Umwelttechnik-Institut (CUTEC)’, Remondis has produced an infographic that shows for 14 raw materials:

  • Until which year it is technically and economically feasible to explore the resources. Due to the remaining lower quality grades and as a consequence higher energy and financial requirements related to exploration, the economic lifetime of a reservoir is way shorter than the technical lifetime.
  • To what extend these materials can be substituted or recycled. Due specific qualities of the original material and also scarcity of the alternatives, the opportunities for substitution are limited. Recycling opportunities are also limited due to the natural degradation of materials and costs involved in recycling.

Understanding exponential growth

A legend about an Indian king Shahram and Sissa ibn Dahir shows the consequences of exponential growth: What happens if you fill a chess board with grains of wheat by starting with one grain in the first field and doubling the amount on each field until you reach the 64th field? The answer is staggering: 2000 times the grain production in 2020.

When looking a the figures presented as part of the Great Acceleration, there are similar dramatic, exponential increases in socio-economic and earth-system trends caused by human activity.

For Raw Materials something similar is happening. Below a figure created by Simon Michaux, indicating the following developments:

  • Until 2022, humanity has mined about 700 million tons of Copper (Cu);
  • If the worldwide economy would grow by 3% each year, the same amount of Cu will be mined in the coming 22 years;
  • According to the United States Geological Survey scientific agency the current amount of Cu reserves is about 880 million tonnes, leaving not much behind for future generations after another 22 years of mining;
  • Some basic calculations about the amount of Cu needed to move away from fossil fuels and generate the first generation of worldwide renewable energy infrastructure is 4,7 billion ton Cu!!

Overshoot and Collapse

In a sustainable world, resources would be equally shared with current and future generations, as stated in the famous Brundtland report Our Common Future in 1987: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Let’s assume we have a sustainability horizon of 10 generations. Ideally, during this period a sustainable production level would be maintained depending on the economically explorable resource volumes (called reserves). At this moment, the supply of resources is maximised to meet the current demand. The amount of reserves intended for 10 genrations is depleted in only two generations. This inevitably leads to overshoot towards peak production (highest point of addiction, followed by a rapid decline in production volumes (collapse).

Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs

On the website of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the relation between climate change, the energy transition, resource scarcity and geopolitics was described in a revealing article:

  • Cleaner and greener energy has been positioned as the panacea to reduce climate change and put an end to geopolitical tensions as caused by fossil fuels
  • The move to these sources will, at least on the short term increase the dependency on more concentrated producers of scarce raw-material and as a consequence also increase geopolitical tensions and the likelihood of a war for resources.
  • The growing reliance on and demand for energy, combined with the fluctuations of renewable energy sources, put secure energy supply at risk.

Given the above, it is not hard to imagine a situation where the current economic and welfare growth will outpace the energy and raw materials supply volumes. Current integrated assessment models show that this will cause an overshoot & collapse scenario: The more production volumes exceed planetery boundaries, the steeper the decline after peak production is reached.

Collateral damage

Geopolitical tension

Recently the US Inflation Reduction Act and the EU Critical Raw Materials act have been approved. From a (critical) raw materials perspective, both acts are a means to reclaim and secure the supply of minerals for the economy and transitions of individual continents, states and countries. Both are a reaction to the recent supply chain hick-ups and invasive resource strategy of China, that has provided a very dominant position in the area of mining, but most of all in the area of processing. At this moment in time China is still a net exporter of resources, however this is expected to reverse in the coming decades due to economic and welfare growth. When reserves volumes decline and the claim by individual nations grows, this can only be realised at the expense of other countries and geopolitical peace. History shows what happens when critical ingredients for individual economies and societies become scarce.

Source: EU – Report on Critical Raw Materials and the Circular Economy

Source: IEA & Metabolic

Crossing planetary boundaries

The excessive exploration, processing, use and disposal of resources is the root cause the existing key sustainability challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss. Below an overview of the six out of nine planetary boundaries that have been trespassed due to human activities. By addressing the overshoot of resource supply, we do not only prevent a harmful economic and societal collapse in the near future, but also make a big step forward in solving some of the existing crisis.


Resources have traditionally not been shared equally between nations. The gap between developed and developing countries has grown, but also the differences within countries has increased. In most societies, there seems to be a rule that the more an individual possesses, the more that person wants to acquire, despite the fact that life satisfaction does not increase above a certain level of wealth. As a consequence, the material footprint of an individual growths depending on its income.

Source: UNEP-IRP – Global Resources Outlook 2019

The difference in resource consumption is also visible when looking at the CO2 footprint distribution below shown below.

Source: Oxfam Novib

The bad news: in the market economy, the growing resource scarcity will most likely make the gap between rich and poor even bigger, not only between existing generations, but also with future generations. The good news: The bulk of the consumption, pollution and emission is caused by high-income individuals. If they are willing to sacrifice the top-quartile of their wealth, it will hardly have a impact on their life satisfaction, while making a huge difference in many sustainability areas (e.g. climate and biodiversity). Moving away from a Winner takes it all system, towards an economy where the commons our equally shared.

Source pictures:

Harald Sverdrup

Harald Sverdrup is a professor at Norwegian and Iceland universities. He and his colleagues have devoted their life on scientifically calculating the scarcity of resources and modelling the consequences for economic growth, industry dynamics, energy- and food-production, society, population, health and wellbeing. The complex interrelations (illustratively shown here) are visualised using World 7 as a modelling tool. If you would like to know more about the outcome of the various studies, your really need to read his article in Geochemical Perspectives, volume 3, number 2, as published in October 2014. An draft update called the Final Countdown is recently published. A shorter Dutch article from the P+ magazine (May 2020) is available here.

During one of the dialogues as conducted in November 2019, Sverdrup presented his work during a presentation. Below his final conclusions:

  • A systemic approach is a condition for resolving the challenges:
    • Sectoral approaches and tweaking the present system is insufficient;
    • When society is materially circular, that creates a circular economy;
  • Systemic changes need to be multi-sectorial, causally linked and pervasive:
    • Energie-wende is linked to Resource-wende, which is linked to Social-wende;
    • Rearranging the structure of the systems and resetting parameters, imply transformative changes to existing society and power-structures;
    • Involve all fundamental systems; industrial-, economic- and social dynamics;
    • Unresolvable goal conflicts will lead to challenging choices citizen must be prepared for;
  • Transformative changes take time:
    • Plan with at least 20 years from start to implementation. Decisive action is required now.

Simon Michaux

Simon Michaux has done extensive research into the ability to phase out the current energy production mainly based on fossil fuels and replace it with a worldwide network of renewable energy infrastructure. He has used all kinds of publicly available information (current and future energy mix, materials used in renewable technologies, current and estimated fuure energy demand, raw materials production levels in 2019) from many different sources (e.g. IEA, manufacturers of renewable infrastructure and geological databases). Based on this information, he has calculated the expected raw material demand to develop only the first generation of renewable energy infrastructure. The results are frightening. Below an overview of the demand calculated in the number of years needed to produce this demand, again based on the current state of technology and the raw materials production levels in 2019. Most of these materials are currently not used in our economy in the quantities required, so recycling will not be a viable solution. After 20 years most of the infrastructure needs to be replaced.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this scientific study is that a transition to renewable energy to phase out fossil fuels is not feasible, at least not for the whole world.

Remark: The Resource Wende is in favor of phasing out fossil fuels currently used for energy production, to mitigate climate change risks. However, there is also a need to face the current reality blindness related to raw material demand, potentially resulting in stranded assets or only a small part of the world being able to make the step to renewable energy. Replacing the current energy supply using another source, without addressing the growing energy demand, will not lead to the desired outcome.