The No Breakfast Fallacy: Why the Club of Rome was wrong about us running out of resources – by Tim Worstall (The Adam Smith Institute – 2015)

1. Introduction

The scene is an early morning current affairs radio show. Very important people talk to the nation here. Evan Humphries (for it is he): “Mr. Worstall, why is it that your new report shows that soon all will be dead?”

Worstall: “Evan, it’s 7 am. Currently there is food in the fridges of the nation for breakfast. But in two hours time that will be eaten, gone, there will be no more. Therefore everyone will die because NO BREAKFAST.” Sorry, might I just rerecord that?

Worstall: “Evan, mineral reserves are disappearing at an alarming rate. Official figures show that within 30 years most of them will be used up and there are no more reserves. Industrial civilisation will crash, billions die, because NO MINERALS.”

In that first instance we would agree with Worstall: eating breakfast does mean no breakfast in the fridge. We’d also agree that Worstall is mad because we understand that there is a vast industry dedicated solely to replenishing that breakfast before 7 am tomorrow.

Pigs will get on with makin’ bacon, those that were baconed into existence 6 months ago will be slaughtered, their older bretheren sliced after they’ve been nitrated and the warehousing and retailing system will click on another day and provide the necessary bacon for that next day. And so on ad infinitum.

The second explanation of why we’re all going to die will get you a book contract, vast wealth and if you’re lucky, a Fellowship of the Royal Society. For no one really seems to understand what a mineral reserve is nor what it is that a lot of the mining industry does. A mineral reserve is a lot closer to that fridge than it is to any other part of the preparation chain. Yet when people talk about mineral availability they tend to talk about those mineral reserves. Which are, in this rather tortured analogy, the fridges of the nation, those minerals that we have ready and prepared for consumption.

Very large parts of the mining industry are like that food production system, preparing the hugely larger amount of mineral resources into those reserves where they are near ready for consumption. And of course food availability is not limited to those crops or animals that are currently extant: nor are those mineral resources. The whole planet is made of minerals so there’s rather a large amount to go around even after we consider those resources.

This book is not trying to solve nor even discuss all environmental problems that exist. It’s not even trying to discuss all that might occur over the use or not of all minerals and or metals. It doesn’t address the possible pollution of areas by mineral processing, it doesn’t address nor even attempt to the possible problems of actual use: say, algal blooms from the over use of pesticides.

It attempts to discuss one thing and one thing only. Are we likely to run out of any of the minerals or metals that we like to use in anything of a timescale that should be of concern to us today? To avoid excessive narrative tension we shall reveal the answer now: no.

It’s true that there are many people who insist that we are just about to run out of everything that makes industrial civilisation possible. But as this book walks through their arguments we find that they’ve simply misunderstood the numbers that they use to discuss matters. Those misunderstandings coming in different grades of silliness, of course. In one chapter we look at some claims made in New Scientist and find that they have entirely and completely misunderstood what a mineral reserve is or means.

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