Population Matters

Synchronization of resource scarcity

Synchronization of resource scarcity

According to the World Wildlife Fund, humanity is consuming each year 50 per cent more than the world produces from renewable resources. The balance comes from nonrenewable resources such as minerals. This is despite the fact that many people live very poor lives with inadequate shelter, clothing and nutrition.


Ecology and Society recently reported on a study examining the consumption of 27 renewable and nonrenewable resources as well as the relationships amongst them. The renewable resources included staple crops such as cassava, maize, rice, soybeans and wheat, which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has identified as together providing almost half of global caloric intake. Nonrenewable resources included fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil, which together supply almost 90 per cent of the energy consumed by the 50 wealthiest nations. The researchers explored the peak rates of usage of multiple resources and raised an important question: do global peak-rate years occur at approximately the same time?

The analysis led the researchers to hypothesize that multiple resources do become scarce simultaneously for two reasons. Firstly, multiple resources such as land, food and energy are consumed simultaneously to meet different human needs. Secondly, producing one resource requires consumption of other resources. For example, increasing food production requires more land and water to be used.

Oil rig

There are two other possible causes of synchronized peak-rate years: availability of substitutes and less demand, which could be caused by more efficient use, taste changes or institutional or regulatory changes. Nonetheless, neither of these factors is likely to be a strong driver of synchronization.

The researchers found that there was a peak-rate year in terms of consumption for 21 resources and for 20 the peak-rate years occurred between 1960 and 2010 — a narrow time window in human history. This raises the question of whether or not increasing extraction costs resulting from diminishing resource quantities are affecting humanity’s ability to exploit some resources.

The results of the study suggest that resource management must be coordinated and resource distribution and utilization must be taken into consideration. Resource utilization must also be considered when assessing the likelihood that humans will successfully adapt to resource scarcity.

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