From our limited anthropocentric (human-centered) perspective, we perceive only the
economic, political, and social manifestations associated with our “predicament”.
Since the mid/late 20th century, we in the industrialized West have resorted increasingly to
“pseudo purchasing power” in order to compensate for the increasing divergence between the
levels of real wealth created by our economies and our actual consumption levels.
Through pseudo purchasing power, we have been able to “augment” our consumption of natural
resources and derived goods and services during the past several decades—specifically by:
Liquidating our previously accumulated economic wealth reserves—e.g., depleting our
savings, “cashing out” our home equity, and selling our physical assets;
Exchanging ever-increasing quantities of fiat currency—“printed money” that has no intrinsic
value—for real wealth;
Incurring ever-increasing levels of unrepayable debt—at the personal, corporate, and
government levels; and
Underfunding investments critical to our future wellbeing—e.g., “social entitlements”,
pensions, retirement accounts, and infrastructure upgrades and maintenance.
While living beyond our means economically has enabled us to maintain (temporarily) the
industrialized lifestyles to which we in the West have become accustomed; our unsustainable
fiscal profligacy has also caused increasingly frequent and severe economic bubbles and
recessions, which in turn have caused intensifying political instability and social unrest.
But these are merely symptoms of our predicament.
Regrettably, due to our limited anthropocentric perspective, we cannot possibly
comprehend the ecological cause underlying our “predicament”.
Our industrialized existence is enabled almost exclusively by enormous and continuously
increasing supplies of the nonrenewable natural resources (NNRs)—fossil fuels, metals, and
nonmetallic minerals—that serve as the raw material inputs to our industrialized economies, as
the building blocks that comprise our industrialized infrastructure and support systems, and as the
primary energy sources that power our industrialized societies.
As an example, NNRs comprise approximately 95% of the raw material inputs to the US economy
each year. America currently (2008) uses nearly 6.5 billion tons of newly mined NNRs per
annum—an almost inconceivable 162,000% increase since the year 1800—which equates to
approximately 43,000 pounds yearly per US citizen.
Ironically, through our incessant pursuit of global industrialism, we have been eliminating—
persistently and systematically—the finite and non-replenishing NNRs upon which our
industrialized way of life and our very existence depend.
And because the natural resource utilization behavior that enables our current “success”—our
industrialized way of life—and that is essential to perpetuating our success, is simultaneously
undermining our very existence, neither our natural resource utilization behavior nor our industrial
lifestyle paradigm is sustainable.
This is our predicament.
More regrettably, the implicit assumption underlying our limited anthropocentric
perspective is that there will always be “enough” NNRs to perpetuate our industrial
lifestyle paradigm—and that humankind need only be concerned with using these NNRs to
provide ever-improving material living standards for ever-increasing numbers of our everexpanding
Unfortunately, the fundamental assumption underlying our anthropocentric perspective is wrong.
While there will always be plenty of NNRs in the ground, there are not enough economically
viable NNRs in the ground to perpetuate our industrial lifestyle paradigm.
Our ever-increasing global NNR requirements are manifesting themselves within the context of
increasingly-constrained—i.e., increasingly expensive, lower quality—NNR supplies.
NNR discoveries are fewer in number, smaller in size, less accessible, and of lower grade
and purity; and NNR exploration, extraction, production, and processing technologies are
experiencing diminishing marginal investment returns—i.e., each incremental unit of
technology investment yields smaller quantities of economically viable NNRs; while
Our global NNR requirements are increasing at historically unprecedented rates. Whereas
approximately 1.5 billion people occupied industrialized and industrializing nations in the late
20th century, that number currently exceeds 5 billion, most of whom have yet to even remotely
approach their full NNR utilization potential.
The unfortunate consequence associated with this “demand/supply imbalance” is that the earth
cannot physically support humanity’s current—much less continuously increasing—NNR
requirements going forward.
Global NNR scarcity was inevitable; the persistent utilization of finite and non-replenishing NNRs,
especially at levels required to perpetuate our industrial lifestyle paradigm, is unsustainable by
definition. Our quest for global industrialism during the past several decades merely expedited the
onset of epidemic global NNR scarcity.
In fact by 2008, immediately prior to the Great Recession, global NNR scarcity had become
epidemic. Sixty three (63) of the 89 NNRs that enable our modern industrial existence—including
aluminum, chromium, coal, copper, gypsum, iron/steel, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum,
natural gas, oil, phosphate rock, potash, rare earth minerals, titanium, tungsten, uranium,
vanadium, and zinc—were scarce globally in 2008.
At the time this essay is being written in February 2012, the vast majority of NNRs are:
As an increasing number of NNRs become increasingly scarce …
Diminishing NNR Input → Diminishing Economic Output (GDP) →
Diminishing Societal Wellbeing (Population Level and Material Living Standards)
Most regrettably, given our limited anthropocentric perspective, we believe that the
underlying cause associated with our predicament is “systemic”; and that our
predicament can be remedied by improving or replacing our existing economic, political,
and social systems.
Wrong again. The fundamental cause underlying our predicament is ecological—ever-increasing
NNR scarcity—it is not systemic. Neither our incessant barrage of economic, political, and social
“fixes” nor the wholesale replacement of our allegedly “defective” economic, political, and social
systems will enable us to extract enough economically viable NNRs to perpetuate our industrial
lifestyle paradigm going forward.
Metaphorically, our well is running dry, yet we insist on tinkering with the pump.
Our historical reality of “continuously more and more”—which we in the industrialized West have
experienced since the inception of our industrial revolution and have come to take for granted—is
giving way to our new reality of “continuously less and less”, for geological reasons that are totally
beyond our control.
Our transition to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm, within which a drastically reduced subset of our
current global population will experience pre-industrial, subsistence level material living
standards, is therefore both inevitable and imminent.
And because we are culturally incapable of orchestrating a voluntary transition to sustainability,
our transition will occur catastrophically, through self-inflicted global societal collapse. All
industrialized and industrializing nations, irrespective of their economic and political orientations,
will collapse, taking the aid-dependent, non-industrialized world with them.
We are the pathetic victims of a tragic predicament of our own inadvertent creation, which is
beyond our collective capacity to “fix”; nor can we possibly prepare for its inevitably catastrophic
and chaotic consequences.
While a “solution” to our predicament—which would enable us to perpetuate our industrial
lifestyle paradigm for the indefinite future—does not exist; an “intelligent response” to our
predicament—which would enable us to avert global societal collapse—might exist.
However, for reasons ranging from ignorance to denial, we as a species have failed to seek,
much less to formulate, an intelligent response to our predicament.
Most people are completely unaware of the fact that our industrial lifestyle paradigm and our
industrialized economies are enabled almost exclusively by enormous and ever-increasing
quantities of finite, non-replenishing, and increasingly scarce NNRs. They cannot, therefore,
possibly understand that ever-increasing NNR scarcity is responsible for our current
economic deterioration, political instability, and social unrest; and, more importantly, for the
imminent demise of our industrialized way of life.
Too, most people have a strong vested interest, either as current participants or as aspirants,
in perpetuating our industrial lifestyle paradigm. Those who are aware of our predicament
and of its catastrophic consequences often choose to deny a reality that they consider too
unpleasant or too inconvenient to contemplate.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of our influential “thought leaders”—business executives,
politicians, academics, economic/political analysts, media commentators, social activists, and
other “concerned citizens”—remain ignorant or in denial; and thereby perpetuate ignorance on
the part of the general public, either unintentionally or intentionally.
Most unfortunately, while the probability that we can formulate and implement an intelligent
response to our predicament, thereby mitigating its catastrophic consequences, is certainly very
small; the probability that we will experience imminent global societal collapse in the event that
we remain ignorant or in denial and fail to respond intelligently is 100%.
Metaphorically, ever-increasing NNR scarcity is exerting a relentless, remorseless squeeze, like a
vise tightening around the collective skulls of humanity. And while the vise handle turns almost
imperceptibly at only 1/1000 of a revolution per day, the handle will make 3 complete revolutions
within the next 10 years, 6 complete revolutions within the next 20 years, 9 complete revolutions
within the next 30 years...
In the absence of an intelligent response to our predicament, humanity will crack somewhere
along the way.
We have backed ourselves into a corner from which an escape—should any of us manage
to escape—will be horrifically painful.
Our industrial lifestyle paradigm is not sustainable—it must and will end, soon;
Sustainability is not optional—we will be sustainable, either voluntarily or involuntarily;
A voluntary transition to sustainability would involve draconian reductions in our population
level and material living standards;
An involuntary transition could easily engender the extinction of our species.
NNR scarcity is the most daunting challenge ever to confront humanity.
If we Homo sapiens are truly an exceptional species, now is the time to prove it.
Note: for supporting evidence and references, please request a draft copy of my forthcoming
book “Scarcity—Humanity’s Final Chapter?” Contact: email@example.com
Chris Clugston worked for thirty years in the high technology electronics industry, primarily with information technology sector companies. He held management level positions in marketing, sales, finance, and M&A, prior to becoming a corporate chief executive and later a management consultant. Since 2006, he has conducted extensive independent research into the area of “sustainability”, with a focus on nonrenewable natural resource (NNR) scarcity. He has sought to quantify, from a combined ecological and economic perspective, the extent to which America and humanity are living unsustainably beyond their means, and to articulate the causes, magnitude, implications, and consequences associated with this “predicament”. Mr. Clugston holds an AB/Political Science, Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Penn State University, and an MBA/Finance with High Distinction from Temple University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.