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Resource scarcity will define the 21st century

Posted by Willy De Backer on June 16, 2011 at 3:12pm (This blog post first appeared as an editorial on the Friends of Europe website.)

Resources are crucial to the way we live, produce and consume. Natural resources like clean air, fresh water, diverse ecosystems and healthy soils make life on the planet possible. Energy resources such as oil, gas, coal and uranium fuel our economies. Minerals and metals are the ingredients we need to build the infrastructures of our civilisation.

During the second part of the 20th century, cheap energy and abundant, low-priced commodities transformed Western societies into exceptional havens of prosperity, material wealth and sometimes even decadent exuberance. But the coming 50 years will see a return to normality, with the world having to adapt to an age of “resource decline” and having to learn to live peacefully and equitably within the planet's biophysical limits.
The Western industrialised economies' success has been built on the rapid and relentless exploitation of non-renewable and finite energy resources such as coal, oil and gas. Without these cheap fossil-fuel resources, it would have been impossible to mine, exploit and use the metals, minerals and other commodities that made our 20th century way of life possible. Most of society’s technological innovations (e.g. our agro-industrial system, which produces cheap food, or our global transport and communication systems which enables globalisation) would not have been feasible without these cheap resources.

Unfortunately, the world is now rapidly approaching the beginning of the” resource descent”. The doubling of the world’s population since the 1970s, the growing demands from newly emerging economies and the environmental impacts of resource exploitation – climate change, ecosystems loss, fresh water and soil problems – to date are creating the “perfect storm” in a world of “peak everything”.

The new resource scarcity has several drivers. Next to geophysical limits (how much oil, gas, coal or uranium is there really available on the planet?), there are economic constraints (how much of these available resources can be economically produced and at what price?) and political limitations (where are these resources and who controls them?).
More than climate change, the new global resource scarcity will dominate political agendas at all levels of decisionmaking, and call into question our basic values, structures, institutions and probably democracy itself. The big question is, therefore, will we be able to find the vision and political leadership to lead mankind from the “age of abundance” to the “era of frugality”?

Today's dominant political narrative of how to move to a new resource-constrained development path is based upon two storylines. The first believes our economies can continue to expand and prosper by harnessing renewable energy from sun, wind and other forces of nature. It is the story of the renewable called by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council the “Energy [R]evolution”.

The second storyline expresses confidence in the idea that significant increases in resource productivity or resource efficiency will be possible. Some believe it is possible to improve the resource productivity of our economies by a “Factor Five” or more. This is the story of “Doing more with less”.

Others are more critical, less optimistic and sometimes downright gloomy about the prospect that the upcoming global resource crisis will be solved without sacrificing prosperity. These alternative narratives range from “degrowth” or “end-of-growth” scenarios to visions of “resource wars” or call themselves “user’s guides” to “the end of the industrial Age” and to the “Crisis of Civilisation”. Strong in their diagnosis of the world’s predicament, these narratives remain quite nebulous and unconvincing as to the remedies. The blueprint for the Age of Resource Descent has certainly not been written yet.

The European Union is developing several policies based on the paradigm of the resource challenge being overcome without compromising economic growth. The Europe 2020 Strategy for “smart, inclusive and sustainable growth” includes clear targets for the development of renewable energy (20% by 2020) as well as a more vaguely defined “Flagship on Resource Efficiency” and an initiative to secure raw materials for European industry.


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The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement N° 227065. The contents of this website are the sole responsibility of the One Planet Economy Network and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. 
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