For millennia, humans have adapted to resource shortage. It's a strange thought that we'd come to a halt now, at the height of our progress thus far.
Pessimists frequently assert that human development is going to come to a standstill. They claim that the resources that allow advancement are running gone, dooming us to a reversal in living standards. The Club of Rome, like practically every environmentalist, tells us this all the time, generally citing a fictitious mineral scarcity that would bring civilization to an end. The pessimists argue that everything should be recycled and that we should have a fully circular economy. Regrettably, they have little understanding of how the resource sector operates. They don't comprehend that humans have agency on a deeper level. We are not just influenced by the natural environment, but we may also solve issues on our own.
Another group that fails to appreciate our problem-solving ability is the American Chemical Society (ACS). The Society has a list of “endangered elements,” which they think might run out in the near future. The idea that we could run out of hafnium is enough to make geologists guffaw – I actually tried this once, and that’s what happened: not just giggles but proper belly laughs. Germanium, another on that list of likely shortages, illustrates my point even better. The world doesn’t use much of it, perhaps 150 tons a year. Some of that is recycled. (There’s nothing wrong with recycling, but insisting that we must recycle is wrong.)
We first started using germanium for electronics before we switched to using silicon computer chips. Germanium is still the material of choice for getting a warm and fuzzy sound on a guitar pedal, however, germanium is now mostly utilized in night vision and long-distance fiber optics. Because a small amount of germanium is added to glass, it may transfer light over greater distances. As a result, we enjoy having germanium on hand and would miss it if we ran out.
Early germanium extraction methods used coal. Nearly all coal contains a trace amount of germanium, with certain sources containing even more. The germanium concentrates in the ash and may be recovered if you capture the vapor after burning coal. Johnson Matthey, a chemical firm, used to have a factory in Cheshire, England, much to the pleasure of fuzzy guitar pedal fans. Later, we realized that certain zinc ores could also provide germanium, and the world supply pivoted to a zinc mine in DR Congo. Then, we got wise to the harmful effects of coal dust floating around the countryside. Coal power plants installed electrostatic precipitators on their chimneys to collect the dust, and coal once again became the primary source of the world’s germanium.
It may appear fortunate that today's germanium supply is a byproduct of power production. To conceive of it as luck, on the other hand, is to get things backwards. We are problem solvers, not just the beneficiaries of luck. We could establish a factory to accomplish it even if we didn't have that luck. That is how China, the world's top producer of germanium, operates. They mine coal, burn it at a power plant, and collect the germanium-laced dust as a byproduct. The germanium content is so rich, according to hearsay – although it might just be a story since it's so charming – that they give the electricity away for free to the nearby community.
My germanium example demonstrates that we are not reliant on present mineral extraction processes, nor do we require luck to prevent shortages. We are beings who create tools. If we have an issue, we investigate the environment and devise a solution.
Every item on the ACS list of "endangered elements," such as germanium, has a large present supply. Although existing mineral extraction processes have flaws, the overall number of resources available to humanity is limitless. And if our present approaches fall short, we'll look for improved extraction methods.
Our adaptive capacities should be self-evident, but they aren't. We've been adjusting to resource constraint for millennia, so the idea that we'd come to a halt now, at the apex of our progress, seems odd.