Today’s portent of doom: peak phosphorus!

 Here we go again.  Is there a book telling scientists how to incite panic?

Peak oil stems from oil’s special property.  The high quality reserves are a liquid, so there’s a discontinuity in the usual relationship between resource quantity and volume (lower quality, greater volume).  There is a large jump in quality between conventional (liquid) oil and unconventional oil (heavy oil, bitumen, and kerogen).

But the concept has proven so easy to market, we now get peak water.  Peak copper.  Peak lithium.  And now peak phosphorus…

A drumbeat of warnings

  1. A Potential Phosphate Crisis“, Philip H. Abelson, Science, 26 March 1999
  2. Peak phosphorus“, Patrick Déry and Bart Anderson, Energy Bulletin, 13 August 2007
  3. The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought“, Dana Cordell, Jan-Olof Drangert and Stuart White, Global Environmental Change, May 2009
  4. Peak Phosphorus“, James Elser and Stuart White, Foreign Policy, 20 April 2009 — “It’s an essential, if underappreciated component of our daily lives, and a key link in the global food chain. And it’s running out.”
  5. The Story of P(ee)“, Melinda Burns, Miller-McCune, 10 February 2010 — “In which phosphorus, a substance present in every living cell, is being used up and flushed away.”
  6. Experts warn of impending phosphorus crisis“, Der Spiegel, 21 April 2010
  7. For more information see the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI)
  8. In April began the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative, based at Arizona State University

Two critical voices

(a)  “Peak Phosphorus? Hit the snooze button“, Peak Oil Debunked, 12 December 2007 — Excerpt:

I asked Stephen M. Jasinski, the USGS phosphate rock specialist, for his opinion on this matter, and he said: “Phosphate production has likely peaked, but reserves will last about 300 years with current technology.” Apparently, Mr. Jasinski sees the reserve base figure of 50 billion tons as the more credible figure in the long-term, and that would make the area under the red curve in Fig. 1 seven times bigger than shown.

In conclusion, you can press the snooze button on “Peak Phosphorus”.

(b)  Peak Hype“, Muck and Mystery, 10 March 2010 — Excerpt:

Miserabilist doomers have added “peak phosphorus” to their strand of worry beads.

Unremarked and unregulated by the United Nations and other high-level assemblies, the world’s supply of phosphate rock, the dominant source of phosphorus for fertilizer, is being rapidly — and wastefully — drawn down. By most estimates, the best deposits will be gone in 50 to 100 years.

This is fortunate. No good can come of politicizing yet another factor of agricultural production by rent seekers and power mad parasites. The idea that “the best deposits” are finite is hardly news and of little significance since the definition of “best” depends on the methods used to mine them and the value of the material being mined. There are vast amounts of phosphate rock that are readily usable when the easiest deposits play out. They would be more expensive to use now, but the cost of mining them in future is speculative at best since technologies will be developed only when they are needed, just as has happened with other mining technologies such as those for fossil fuels, metals and even gems.

… The rock formation being mined in Florida and N. Carolina is part of vast reserves all along the Atlantic seaboard. They are the tip of a far larger sedimentary formation. They are the cheapest and easiest to mine, so it is reasonable that they would be mined first, but there is plenty more available when the price is right or the technology advances in ways that reduce the costs of mining. The worst thing that could happen is for ignorant politicians and activist groups to start meddling. Their only object is to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of society. We don’t need more parasites, we need fewer of them.

(c)  A closing word from Paul M. Romer (Prof Economics, Stanford), writing about Compound Rates of Growth at the Library of Economics and Liberty:

Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding: possibilities do not merely add up; they multiply.


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