According to some estimates, humanity currently uses resources 50 percent faster than they can be regenerated, but several major resource shocks have gone underreported – and may change the way we live irrevocably.
Pressure on oil and metals resources have long been known, but impending lesser-known supply issues for other key materials that have gone largely unnoticed outside of the extraction industry could lead to price spikes, massive backward shifts in technology, and even global conflict in the coming decades.
While the element helium is incredibly abundant in the universe (second only to hydrogen) it is not abundant here on Earth, so we can’t just ramp up production when people realize we’ve almost run out.
There are also no comparable substitutes for helium, an element which allows humanity to maintain temperatures near absolute zero (-273.15 C, −459.67 F), and which is essential for scientific, industrial, and medical research.
MRI scans, superconductor research, silicon wafers for consumer electronics, fibre optics, guided missiles, and even the Large Hadron Collider all need helium. In short; we need helium and yet few, if any, steps have been taken to avert a global helium shortage.
Helium is formed through the decay of radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium and can often be found in natural gas reservoirs, but separating it from the natural gas is prohibitively expensive in many cases. As a result, the cost of helium has increased by 250 percent in recent years.
It is so important that it features on the US Department of the Interior’s list of elements critical to national security.
Sand is the primary component in concrete, asphalt, and glass, as well as other building materials, while also an integral part of the silicon used in the electronics industry. Thanks to the fracking revolution, the oil and gas industry has also ramped up demand for sand.
It is the second most-used resource on the planet behind water.
The UN estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, which will necessitate a massive increase in construction and infrastructure projects, all of which will require immense amounts of sand.
On top of that, rising sea levels worldwide will necessitate even more sand as concrete barriers are the most useful in staving off coastal flooding. When sand is extracted from river beds and coastlines though, it further exacerbates flooding, leading to a vicious cycle.
It’s important to note that a specific kind of sand is used in the construction industry, sand which contains a diverse, irregular mix of grains, as opposed to the finer, rounder, and single-sized grains of sand found in the world’s deserts like the Sahara.
Phosphate rock, found in only a handful of countries, including the US, China, and Morocco, is an element which is vital for fertiliser and integral to humanity’s future food security. And it’s running out.
Morocco alone controls three-quarters of the world’s remaining phosphate reserves, and so-called ‘peak phosphorus’ is expected to occur some time between 2035 and 2075 based on estimates using current and projected consumption levels.
There is currently no known substitute for phosphorus in food production. It cannot be produced or synthesized in a laboratory. A sudden 800-percent price spike in phosphate in 2008 led to farmer riots and suicides in countries across the world.