Sunday, October 03, 2021

Things do not have to run out for their scarcity to become destabilizing

Economic cornucopians who believe "innovation" and "substitution" will solve every constraint on the resources needed for modern civilization use a clever piece of misdirection to deflect the arguments of those concerned about limits. These cornucopians say that the claim by the limits crowd that we will "run out" of resources we need to maintain the smooth functioning of our complex industrial society is nonsense.

But that statement is a straw man designed to avoid the real issue, an issue which we see in abundance all around us today, namely: Things do not have to run out for their scarcity to become destabilizing. This is a key argument among those concerned about limits and the effects of those limits on the stable functioning of modern society.

We have not run out of fossil fuels but shortages are creating widespread problems in China and Europe. We are not running out of water in the world, but there is not enough of it in the right place to supply all the needs of those living in the American Southwest. That lack of water is leading to a reduction in geothermal power generation as well. And, drought in California is reducing the amount hydroelectric generation by a third so far this year.

High natural gas prices in Europe are not only affecting those who burn the fuel for heat and transportation, but also those who use natural gas as a chemical feedstock. Two British fertilizer plants ceased operations because the high price of natural gas is making it too costly to produce nitrogen fertilizers. But there were knock-on effects of that closure which have imperiled the U.K. meat industry because the industry uses these plants' vast production of carbon dioxide—a byproduct of nitrogen fertilizer production—in stun guns to kill animals before slaughter and for cooling and packaging.

The fertilizer plant closures have now spread to Belgium, Germany, Austria and Norway.

But the effects of natural gas shortages go even further. Natural gas is used extensively in Britain and Europe for electricity generation and electricity prices are skyrocketing. The rising price of both electricity and heat has now resulted in the shutdown of a large portion of the Netherlands' greenhouse industry, a major supplier of fresh vegetables and flowers to Europe.

Back in China, the energy crisis is shutting down factories and could lead to shortages of many manufactured goods worldwide. The problem is so acute that the Chinese government has ordered energy companies to secure fuel supplies at all costs.

Earlier this year the lack of computer chips became a big story as it endangered the production of practically all electronic devices. The worst hit sector seems to be the automotive industry which has seen its sales dip because it cannot produce as many cars due to a shortage of specialized chips made for autos.

Meanwhile, food prices have been rising for a number of reasons: poor harvests due to extreme weather, supply-chain problems, and worker shortages.

With regard to workers, we have not run out of truck drivers; there are just not enough of them to meet demand in Europe. Since its exit from the European Union, Britain has had special problems attracting truck drivers so much so that it cannot find enough of them to deliver fuel to service stations. Military personnel and tankers are now being pressed into service to deliver that fuel.

On the high seas, shipping containers are suddenly in short supply for various reasons: lopsided trade flows that fail to return containers to their point of origin; periodic port shutdowns due to COVID outbreaks that strand ships and their containers; a shortage of workers to unload those containers once they arrive at their destination leading to long delays in returning them to shippers for others to rent; and long lead times for the delivery of newly manufactured containers (because so many shippers have ordered additional new containers).

We are seeing just how much the cornucopian view of the future depends on the smooth functioning of a tightly networked complex global system which is filled with fragilities—fragilities that the pandemic and the emerging scarcity of physical resources and labor are making all too visible. The long-term sustainability of that system is now being called into question across the board. And, it's not because anything is running out. The problems in the system are showing up long before that will ever happen.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


Joe Clarkson said...

Well said1

We don't know where it is exactly, but there is a tipping point coming where interdependent supply failures will amplify each other and cause systemic failure. David Korowicz has published numerous papers on this topic for many years.

tom said...

You're right Joe. The guy who wrote "The Collapse of Complex Societies', Tainter, had a column in the nYT recently saying much the same thing. Great Article Kurt.

Anonymous said...

Excellent posting, Kurt. I value your thoughts.

SomeoneInAsia said...

As was once pointed out, a human body does not have to run out of water completely before it suffers the deleterious effects of water shortage; even the removal of a mere 10% or even 5% of the water in it is enough to lead to serious consequences. Cornucopians can't see the reality of the matter because they have copious amounts of fecal matter pasted over their eyes.

The Industrial Revolution was a Faustian bargain. The Devil pays well in the short run, but the long run is now.

Don19 said...

Here on the UK the Government has come to an agreement with the fertilizer plants so that production can restart.

In the 90s we had a dash for Gas policy and are now paying for especially as the wind hasn't been blowing to power our much vaunted turbines.

I do believe in Global warming but we are sitting on enough gas to keep all the lights on fir at least 50 years.

Basically if Germany can get away with getting its gas from Russia and China burning as much coal as it can get then our Government should take advantage of our reserves

Sissyfuss said...

Limits to Growth has arrived and yet, the human population continues to grow by over 80 million more hungry mouths to feed each year. The stable climate is unraveling due to our pollution levels which are also growing but Gaia is the master of degrowth, her most efficient tool a die-off. The good times are really over for good.

sv koho said...

Fine post Kurt. I think what is happening can best be seen as perhaps a corollary of Leibig's Law of the Minimum. It was applied in the 19th century to agricultural processes but I would argue it has capability to all manner of growth processes. Leibig postulated that growth of a particular organism(s) is not a function of the total available resources but the least available.. The networked complex economy can be brought to its knees by just one scarce link in that chain, the fragility you mentioned. If Leibig hadn't beat you to it, we could name this Kurt's Law.