World Mineral Resources: Enough to Last
Until the rise of capitalism as a source of energy mankind was mainly dependent upon wood which was also a major raw material. Today wood has been replaced by minerals as the major source of energy and for many of its uses as a raw material.
The development of industrial societies in the capitalist era is directly related to the expansion in the exploitation of the world’s mineral resources and there has emerged a significant correlation between the consumption of energy per head per annum and the Gross National Product per head per annum in any country. Countries with the highest energy consumption per head turn out higher values of product per head, and they tend to be large consumers of the non-energy minerals.
Capitalism’s need to form more capital, its drive for profit and a lower cost of production of minerals has often led to an irrational exploitation of mineral resources, and a constant search for alternatives. Flooded mines, collapsed workings, underground explosions and fires has made the future of some deposits difficult. Thousands of workers have lost their lives or had their bodies maimed just to meet the need of capital.
In the past coal, and more recently oil, has been the base for economic growth in the industrial countries. Since 1880 there has been an almost thirtyfold increase in the world’s production of commercial sources of energy. Although oil is now more important than coal the world output of the latter continues to rise because under-developed countries find its exploitation technically more feasible. As industrial development becomes more widespread throughout the world, and as population increases, the demand for energy will become greater.
One estimate of demand is that by the year 2000, compared with 1960, the population will have doubled and energy consumption will have risen five times.(1) Population forecasts can be said to be well informed guesses, and as consumption under capitalism depends upon the vagaries of the market and the extent to which such competition results in physical conflict, such an estimate can only be very tentative.
Nevertheless increases in consumption are historically obvious and present trends have at times caused concern about the ability to meet future energy needs.
The reserves of coal deposits are easier to prove than those of oil. The reserves of both change because of technical developments and new discoveries, which are both likely to be more significant in the future. For example although undoubtedly the most likely areas to contain minerals have been surveyed, only 20 per cent of the U.S.A. has been mapped geologically. (2)
One estimate of coal reserves maintains that even if coal supplied all energy needs up to the year 2000 there would still be enough coal for another 100 years at the level of consumption expected to be prevailing at the end of this century. (3)
Because oil reserves are never really proved until commercial exploitation takes place estimates vary widely. (4) Undoubtedly new techniques will increase the percentage of oil taken from existing fields, and although recently the extent of proven reserves has not kept pace with output this may be a reflection of the opposite situation in the twenty years after the war when there was not a fuel “glut” as there is at present.
It would appear that fossil fuels are likely to supply the world’s energy for many years to come for hydro-electrical power is of small importance outside a few countries and as yet solar radiation, an almost inexhaustible supply of energy, is technically limited to minor uses. Nuclear power with the development of the Advanced Gas-cooled reactor and the Fast Breeder reactor will be of more importance in the future despite the vast projects necessary and the doubts about the supply of high quality ores.
A similar situation exists for the non-fuel minerals. Some advanced countries have exhausted their better deposits of iron, copper, lead, zinc and other ores. Fears of shortage of the non-fuel minerals are largely a reflection of the fact that more ores have been extracted from ‘the earth since 1900 than in the entire period of man’s history before that date.
The total demand for minerals of all kinds is increasing as new uses are constantly being found for minerals already important to man as well as for those of little importance in the past. For example although steel output is constantly rising it is being replaced for many uses by aluminium and pre-stressed concrete.
The two world wars have played a significant part in depleting the non-fuel mineral reserves of Western Europe and America. Nevertheless discoveries elsewhere in the world are being exploited. The post war fears of shortages are being overcome by modern survey methods, i.e. electromagnetic surveying from the air and geochemistry aiding the discovery of vast new deposits in isolated backward areas of the world.
Despite increasing exploitation of the world’s mineral resources it is now becoming recognised that they never will be exhausted. Advances in technology permits exploitation of leaner ores and also creates new resources.
The fears of shortage of supply of all minerals is in reality a reflection of capitalism in which production for sale causes periodic gluts and shortages which are accentuated by political division. The needs of the market may dictate that mineral resources be exploited in a manner that is not technically the best. The British coal industry in the last century and the American oil industry in the early years of this century provide good examples.
Capitalist society accentuates the demand for minerals in a manner that a sane society would think ludicrous. The production of battleships, locks, cash registers, bombs and thousands of other articles designed to protect or secure property, or if only of commercial use, are wasteful of mineral resources.
If there were fears of world shortages of minerals it would be doubly criminal to use them in the production of articles to kill, to restrict the freedom of, and to assist the exploitation of man by man. But capitalism cannot be doubly indicted for its technology has amply demonstrated that man need not fear a shortage of mineral resources for hundreds of years to come.
1. SEARL, M. F. Report to the. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
2. FEISS, J. W. Technology & Economic Development. Ch. Minerals.
3. AVERETT, P. U.S. Geological Survey.
4. SCHURR, S. H. Technology & Economic Development. Ch. Energy.