Debunking Peak Phosphorus

U.S. Rock Phosphate Production vs. Price, Source: Adapted from USGS data

The media’s fascination with the prospect of peak oil has spread to another commodity — phosphorus. In Julian Cribb’s 2010 book, The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It, Mr. Cribb highlights the 2007 work of Canadian physicist Patrick Déry, who applied the same analytical technique to world rock phosphate production that M. King Hubbert used to predict peak oil in the United States. Déry’s analysis suggested that the world reached peak rock phosphate production in 1989. Furthermore, the chart above demonstrates that the United States appears to have reached peak production long before that.

Curious, I decided to apply Hubbert’s analytical technique — so-called Hubbert Linearization — to the problem using more recent rock phosphate reserve and production data from the U.S. Geological Survey. What I found surprised me.

The Role of Phosphorus in Agriculture

Source: Adapted from Novozymes

Before delving into the details of my findings, it is important that I address why phosphorus is so important. The last century’s green revolution in food production succeeded because of the human application of mechanized equipment and systematic use of fertilizer on the farm. These two items drove tremendous leaps in agricultural productivity that helped sustain the world’s dramatic population increase in the twentieth century. One critical nutrient used in both fertilizer and animal feed that helped drive these crop yield improvements was phosphorus.

About ninety percent of industrial phosphorus makes its way to the agricultural industry. Of this ninety percent, animal feed accounts for about ten percent and fertilizer makes up the remaining ninety percent.

Perhaps because of a perceived peak in global rock phosphate production, prices have surged in recent years. But has the world really reached peak phosphorus production?

Applying Hubbert Linearization to Rock Phosphate Production

To answer this question, I first blindly applied the analytical technique to world rock phosphate production using data from 1900 to 2009. This technique provided a normal curve that suggests the world hit peak production in 1994 and that the ultimate amount of phosphoric rock ever recovered will be on the order of 8.9 billion metric tons. This number, the so-called ulimate recoverable reserves (URR) is supposed to equal the cumulative amount of phosphoric rock mined from 1900 to 2009 plus recoverable reserves still in the ground. My results are shown in the chart below.

Hubbert Linearization, Source: Adapted from USGS data, ©2011 Reflections of a Rational Republican

Here is the problem. The U.S. Geological Survey 2010 estimates indicated that there were 16B metric tons of reserves in the world in 2009. Adding this 16B in reserves to the cumulative amount mined globally since 1900 yields a URR of about 23B, a number over two and a half times higher than the 8.9B figure implied by the “best-fit” curve.

Backsolving for the 23B figure and applying the same analytical technique yields the following result, which implies a peak production year of 2022 and a URR of 23.9B. This curve clearly does not have as nice a fit as the prior one, but it roughly foots to U.S. Geological Survey reserve estimates.

Hubbert Linearization, Source: Adapted from USGS Data, ©2011 Reflections of a Rational Republican

U.S. Geological Survey Quadruples Global Reserve Estimates in January 2011

USGS World Rock Phosphate Reserve Estimates, Source: Adapted from USGS

While peaking rock phosphate production in 2022 is better having reached a peak in 1994, it still would be a concern for global food production. However, in January of this year, the U.S. Geological Survey more than quadrupled its reserve estimates from 16B metric tons to 65B metric tons. Using this revision, I again ran a Hubbert Linearization. When I tried to match the URR to that implied by the U.S. Geological Survey’s estimates of 72B, the normal curve fell out of view. So I assumed that countries would not be able to mine all of these reserves economically and fit the curve for a URR of 33B. This extremely conservative estimate implies that phosphoric rock will not peak until 2038, which suggests that global production has not peaked nor will it be peaking any time soon.

Hubbert Linearization, Source: Adapted from USGS data, ©2011 Reflections of a Rational Republican

So the next time someone suggests that peak phoshorus is a looming concern, you can take comfort that the data does not seem to support their case.

About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Finance executive, engineer, former military officer, and science fiction and horror writer. Editor of the Weird World War III anthology.
This entry was posted in Clean Energy, Clean Tech, Climate Change, Energy Security, Finance and Economics, Food Security, International Security, Media, Policy, Politics, Predictions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Debunking Peak Phosphorus

  1. Reserve estimates are just that – estimates – and therefore one can dispute the amount that is underground and one only knows for certain when deposits have been depleted. Plus the fact that as prices rise, deposits that were originally deemed unprofitable all of sudden do become profitable. The same applies when tailings that were just dumped can be enriched at competitive costs. Quadrupling reserves out of the blue shows just that. The reverse exercise has been done for coal reserves – some countries have halved reserves.

    One more reason to take ‘peak’ theories with a pinch of salt.

  2. I personally believe that there is more to peak oil theory given companies laser-focused efforts over the past century to extract the resource, whereas I think people are over-playing the concern over phosphorus.

    However, I will be wrong if the USGS’s estimates are too optimistic. Plus, given the four-fold revision, it is tough to put any confidence in anyone’s numbers as you suggest.

  3. Julian Cribb says:

    This calculation does not appear to allow for a doubling in global food demand by 2060, which will inevitably involve a doubling in agricultural phosphate demand, to which we can add biofuels demand.
    It also ignores the fact that not all phosphate rock is of equal quality and that the poorer grade material requires 3 or 4 times more fossil energy (from more costly peak oil?) to extract.
    This will drive up fertilser prices, as it did in 2008, and market speculators will accelerate the trend.
    At any event this means that P fertilisers will not actually run out, but may well become prohibitively expensive for most of the world’s farmers, especially to those in newly-mechanising countries in Asia, S.America, N.Africa etc, not to mention the less rich farmers in America, Canadae Europe and Oceania.
    Reduced use of fertiliser converts directly to smaller harvests, which in turn convert directly to steep rises in food prices at the supermarket, as the speculators again do their work.
    I think the Republican Party, which supports farmers, needs to take a more thoughtful look at this than just tweaking the graphs. It may not play so well in Peoria.

    • Julian,

      I am thrilled that you have taken the time to visit and read my blog.

      Just to provide you with some context, I actually agree with the basic premise of your book and have written frequently on the risks of fossil fuel-intensive agriculture. See these posts for example: The Great Famine of 2011: Food, Fossil Fuels, and Fragmentation, North Korea: Linking Fuel to Famine, The Next Real Estate Bubble? Food Price Inflation Strikes in the Midwest, and Architecture of Anarchy.

      In regard to your specific points, I will address each in turn.

      “This calculation does not appear to allow for a doubling in global food demand by 2060, which will inevitably involve a doubling in agricultural phosphate demand, to which we can add biofuels demand.”

      These charts only address phosphate rock supply. Rock phosphate prices would undoubtedly increase dramatically after 2038 in the most optimistic chart I presented as production begins to decline thereafter and, as you say, global food demand is predicted to double and there will be increased biofuels demand.

      “It also ignores the fact that not all phosphate rock is of equal quality and that the poorer grade material requires 3 or 4 times more fossil energy (from more costly peak oil?) to extract.”

      The first and third charts do not ignore the fact that not all phosphate rock is of equal quality as their URRs are less than half that predicted by the USGS. Your point on the second chart may be valid. I do not have enough data to confirm one way or the other.

      “This will drive up fertilser prices, as it did in 2008, and market speculators will accelerate the trend.
      At any event this means that P fertilisers will not actually run out, but may well become prohibitively expensive for most of the world’s farmers, especially to those in newly-mechanising countries in Asia, S.America, N.Africa etc, not to mention the less rich farmers in America, Canadae Europe and Oceania.
      Reduced use of fertiliser converts directly to smaller harvests, which in turn convert directly to steep rises in food prices at the supermarket, as the speculators again do their work.”

      No argument here. We are in complete agreement (see my other food-security related posts). This issue is something that very much concerns me.

      “I think the Republican Party, which supports farmers, needs to take a more thoughtful look at this than just tweaking the graphs. It may not play so well in Peoria.”

      It’s not just the Republican Party, but just about any politician in the Midwestern United States. Agricultural and ethanol subsidies waste tax payer money and discourage developing countries from investing in their agricultural sector (as I believe you so eloquently have argued).

      The fundamental point of this post is to show that we have more time than many have initially thought. For instance, the quadrupling of global rock phosphate reserves was announced by the USGS in January 2011, after the publication date of your book. I think this is good news since it provides humanity with a bit more time to develop alternatives. That said, phosphorus will still peak, I just don’t believe that it has already happened in light of the new data.

      And also to be fair, my title is not as nuanced as it probably should have been.

      Thanks again for taking the time to visit my site.

  4. Julian Cribb says:

    Its a pleasure Sean. And congratulations on taking the analytical approach, rather than the all-too-common “it ain’t happening” approach.
    My concern, and I’m sure yours too, is for the farmers.
    The solution is straightforward, though not necessarily simple or cheap: recycle all the nutrients now entering our cities and being sent to landfill or disposed of in sewage. This can assure humanity against ever running out of nutrients, but will require rather more intelligence in global urban design that is evident so far.
    My objective in raising the issue of ‘peak P’ is to stimulate the kind of discourse that will lead to this development and the necessary investment.
    The previous 400 generations of humans recyled their nutrients: the last two have forgotten to do so. Not so smart.
    best wishes

  5. Thanks, Julian.

    I wasn’t even aware of the peak phosphorus theory until I discovered it in your book and I appreciate your effort to get out the message.

    People are so focused on peak oil right now that some do not see its more terrifying second order effect — its importance in our fossil-fuel intensive food production and distribution system. Some are also unaware that without fuel and fertilizer, humanity is in trouble.

    Finding ways to make agriculture less dependent on fossil fuels and, as you say, recycling nutrients, are areas that global leaders and regular people should explore before it is too late — the North Korean faminine is a testament to the risk of ignoring this looming problem.

  6. Julian Cribb says:

    So are the downfalls of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in the past few weeks. In both cases the protests began with people protesting over the price of food. Nothing brings down a government more effectively than a food shortage (as Louis XVI and Nicholas III both had cause to reflect).

    • I completely agree.

      The news media sometimes presents both as “Twitter” revolutions. While Twitter may have been an enabler, the spark that initiated both revolutions was the rising price of food. This, of course, will only likely get worse as the last standing monarchs stockpile more food as insurance against an angry population. According to The Economist, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Algeria began doing so shortly after the revolutions started.

      And don’t get me started on North Korea.

      Complicating everything is that certain wheat-growing regions in China are experiencing their worst drought in decades. China, which is normally a net exporter of wheat (and North Korea’s single largest food supplier), will likely export less this year to feed its own population. North Korea will likely be directly impacted, especially since the West has stopped supplying grain shipments because of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and the shelling of South Korean civilians.

      Stay tuned for potential instability on the Korean peninsula…

  7. Nicolas II not III of course

  8. Barrie Bain says:

    Thank you for a concise critique of why the peak phosphorus analysis is flawed. There appears to be an accademic bandwagon, backed by the organic movement, to try and apply peak oil theories (flawed also) to phosphate rock by using obsolete data and by misinterpreting the late 1980s downtun in production (the fall in output was a response to the collapse of phosphate demand in the then USSR and in Central Europe). The IFDC has done further work on the USGS data and issued a report suggesting 300 years reserves.
    A recent analysis by Michael Mew, an industry consultant, suggests that reserves could stretch to 1000 years, assuming a slow down in demand growth.

    A doubling of food production does not mean a doubling in phosphate requirements – improved application and farming techniques and new crop varieties will mean phosphate consumption per ton of food should fall. Greater efficiency in the mining and processing of phosphate rock will also extend the life of reserves.
    Even through we are hundred of years away from peak phosphorus, there is a concensus in the industry that there should be more phosphate recycling to extend the life of reserves.

    • Barrie,

      Thanks for reading my blog and providing the suggested links.

      I am bascially on the fence with peak phosphorus. I see good arguments on both sides. Phoshorus will peak, the question is when.

      I think the peak will be further out than most in the organic movement, but I think it is very difficult to predict given the complex interaction of variables that will impact phoshate demand. As you suggest, technological innovation is a key wildcard as is movement in the industry to recycle more phosphorus.

  9. Pingback: Red phoshorus | Trelittle

  10. Joe says:

    “So the next time someone suggests that peak phoshorus is a looming concern, you can take comfort that the data does not seem to support their case.”

    Not true. For one thing, 28 years really isn’t a long time, when you’re talking about an essential part of fertilizer, which has no known substitute.

    Next, even if your analysis is correct, you can still see that global production starts to slow down well before it hits its peak. So, even if peak phosphorus is still a couple of decades away, you can see that we have already passed the inflection point in your production curve (it happened some time in the 90’s). So, it’s just a matter of time before global demand starts to increase at a faster rate than global production. In fact, this may have already happened – it’s hard to find accurate data for global phosphorus demand.

    The key point is that even if we haven’t hit peak phosphorus yet, that certainly doesn’t mean that production will be able to keep up with demand. A crisis is looming.

    • Joe,

      I did not intend for this comment to suggest that peak phosphorus is not a concern at all. I meant that it was not imminent (i.e., we did not reach the peak in the last two decades).

      Therefore, fortunately, we have more time.

      However, I do agree that a crisis on the horizon, it is just not here yet as many advocates of peak phoshorus theory suggest.

  11. Ark Angel says:

    Sustainable Worldwide Human Populations and Phosphorus
    Over the last couple of weekends I have been investigating the world’s sustainable human population. Out of this fascinating investigation I have determined that there are 2 types of sustainable world wide human populations. The simplest is what I call the “hunter gatherer” population; and the second is mainly an “agricultural” population. Sustainable growth limits for each type can be roughly estimated as follows:

    Hunter Gatherer Populations
    Current estimates put the start of agriculture at around 11,500 years ago at the beginning of the Neolithic period. However this was only practiced in a small way in only a few parts of the world. Agriculture did not really take off until the beginning of the Bronze Age; about 5,000 years ago when sharp and reliable harvesting tools could be made. Consequently it can be basically said that the end of the Neolithic Stone Age and the dawning of the Bronze Age period represented the last time when the world’s human population was essentially a hunter gatherer population. The estimated world’s human population at this time was only 25,000,000 people; refer Wikipedia: World population. This is the world’s minimum sustainable hunter gatherer population. This population relied entirely on what the natural world provided them, and there was little to no organised Nature management.

    Agricultural Populations
    With good Nature management (e.g. agriculture) I estimate that sustainable worldwide human populations can potentially grow to around 50 times that of hunter gather populations. Such practices however are limited by the availability of natural resources, e.g. water, nutrients, energy for planting and harvesting, a suitable growing climate, plants with the right growth genetics, the natural world for pest control, etc. Such systems are limited by Justus von Liebig’s “law of minimum” which basically states that natural systems will grow to their maximum potential based on the limit of any one of these key natural resources.

    Consequently, from this list of natural resources I’m going to choose 1 key element that must be present, and it must be replaced either by recycling or by natural weathering processes from the earth’s surface each time a food crop is grown. That key element is Phosphorus. Phosphorus is a finite resource and there is no substitute for its use in all forms of agriculture, or in deed the natural world. Phosphorus has been purposely mined for agriculture in one form or another since 1840, refer Wikipedia: Peak Phosphorus. At this time the world’s population was around 1,250,000,000 people. Hence this is my back of the envelope stab at a sustainable world wide agricultural population.

    Based on this estimate, the sustainable population for each country can be estimated by determining its current arable land area in sq. Km., then divide this value by 13,805,153 sq. Km. (e.g. the world’s total estimated arable land area, refer Wikipedia: Arable land), and multiplying this result by 1,250,000,000, e.g. the sustainable estimate for America is:

    1,250,000,000 x 9,629,091 x 0.1904 / 13,805,153 = 166,000,000 people, as apposed to 311,000,000 that it is today. The final adopted value however will depend on the availability of the other key elements like that mentioned above.

    Sustainable Populations and Phosphate Resources
    In 2011 the world’s population will pass 7,000,000,000 people, e.g. 5.6 times my estimated sustainable population limit. This population has only been able to grow to this level by mining the world’s high grade phosphate rock resources; resources that have accumulated over millions of years.

    In recent years there has been much debate about the availability of high grade phosphate rock resources. After searching the internet; at current projected increasing population and consumption growth rates, I have seen literature estimates for unmined economic reserves range from a scandalous 100 years to 1,000 years, with about 300 years being the industries best estimate.

    What is interesting about this discussion is the lack of thought that has been given to a world’s sustainable human population. What do we do after say 300 years and we find that we haven’t got the energy or the dollars to mine the next tonne of low grade phosphate rock? I think saying “whoops” would be totally inappropriate. In this scenario there is also the chance that world wide hunter gatherer population numbers will again be achieved.

    The next obvious question to ask then is how long would it take for the world’s population of say 7,000,000,000 people to reach a sustainable estimate of 1,250,000,000 people, assuming a current phosphate rock reserve estimate of 300 years?

    Just to put things into perspective, my back of the envelope calculation tells me that if an effective 1 child per female policy was put in place this year (e.g. the minimum socially acceptable requirement, and that currently adopted by China); it would take approximately 150 years for the world’s human population to reach 1,250,000,000 people. Using a current phosphate rock reserve estimate of 300 years; this will expand out to say 2 x 300 = 600 years with a declining population. The estimated effective birth rate per woman would then be an average of about 1.7 children; which is a far more palatable proposition than a 1 child per female birth rate. It is worth bearing in mind that the world’s current average birth rate is about 2.6 children per female.

    My feelings on these disheartening statistics are that no matter what, we still need to investigate and plan to set sustainable agricultural practices in place and positively aim for worldwide human population levels that are lower than what we have today; just like that suggested above. This is a far better survival insurance policy than none at all. We as a species cannot forever rely on a technological fix to bail out future generations in this regard. Plus our collective attitude to date shows a total disrespect to our neighbours and the natural World that supports us. Apart from this, I wouldn’t want to live in a world with “wall to wall” people, worry about where my next meal is coming from, how I was going to pay my energy and water bill, or wether my neighbour or the unruly disposed mob was going to kill me for my possessions; and not have the privilege to see and hear a song bird or two. There is no time to waste.

    Ark Angel

    • Ark Angel,

      A very thought-provoking and excellent analysis of the problems the world faces in a coming food crisis.

      I agree that we still need to investigate and plan for finding sustainable agricultural practices in place. That said, I would never rule out a technological fix. I think pursuing both in parallel is the best option. Three hundred years is a great deal of time. Space exploration and colonization seems far-fetched, but may actually be a real option. After all, the survivors of the U.S. Civil War would never have imagined that their country would put men on the moon just 104 years later. The path of human technological change has been breath-taking and only continues to surprise and amaze. I wouldn’t rule it out. Especially as the alternative, as you have so thoughtfully outlined, is a smaller human population.

      • Ark Angel says:

        Dear Sean,
        I hope all is well. Thanks for your comment regarding not ruling out technology to potentially help solve the problems faced with dwindling supplies of a key resource like Phosphorus. I just wanted to basically point out that the world’s human population has a momentum that cannot be instantly stopped without drastic consequences.

        A good manager in this case would conduct forward projecting scenarios and then set milestones and contingency plans in place to switch from one management tact to the other, e.g. setting a mile stone for switching from a business as usual and a technological fix scenario, to an acceptable reduced sustainable population scenario.

        What is also interesting about this case is that Morocco has the largest known reserves of Phosphate rock in the world, e.g. probably about 2/3’s of known reserves. However the majority of Morocco’s supply of phosphate rock comes from Western Sahara, which Morocco has occupied since 1975. Consequently this is a potential hotspot where there is a high chance of supply disruption occurring. Such an event would have potentially disastrous knock on consequences not only for America, but also for America’s neighbours and allies. Consequently the road ahead is not a smooth one. Such an event should also be factored into any contingency plans.

        Ark Angel

  12. Ark Angel says:

    Dear Sean,
    I hope all is well. To my knowledge China has to some extent taken partial steps towards protecting its phosphorus reserves, and to reducing its population growth rate. For example, China currently has a 110% export tariff on phosphate fertilizer, plus it has a limited 1 child policy for those of its citizens living in its cities. However China’s population is still growing.

    Whichever way you look at it, the fete of the world’s phosphate reserves is directly linked to the world’s human population survival and to some extent to the availability of biofuel alternatives. In my view, the forward planning required to navigate safely through this impending crisis is beyond the ability of short sighted market places to solve the problems of this issue in a humane manner. I also believe that any reliance on a technological fix is but an alchemist’s dream.

    The milestone to take action towards a more sustainable human population is now. World governments must step up to the plate and start to plan now. Otherwise people will start to have their political rights eroded by dwindling unsavoury choices as the polarized politics of the haves and the have nots starts to take over, e.g. increasing food riots, farmer suicides, terrorism, starvation, mass refugee migrations, growing shanty town developments, political collapse, war, etc. It should be noted that we are already starting to feel the economic pinch from these local and world wide issues.

    So what actions are required to achieve a humane transition to a sustainable population? In my view, these typically include:

    1. A positive action goal to achieve an effective world wide population growth of 1.7 children per female for the next 600 years. Each country is to have a goal to be able to live within its own sustainable population limits as previously discussed.
    2. We need to start planning to conserve and recycle what phosphorus reserves we have now with more efficient agricultural practices, e.g. intercropping with windbreaks, land erosion and river silt mining through terracing and flood irrigation practices, no till farming, recycling all crop residues and animal fertilizers (including human excreta), etc.
    3. Decentralizing our large cities so as to minimize transportation energy requirements, and optimize the food transport and phosphorus recycling process.
    4. Like Carbon, set appropriate Phosphorus taxes, with an appropriate reduction in income tax so that Phosphorus is used wisely for food and fibre growth in balance with alternative biofuel production where appropriate.

    Ark Angel

    • Ark Angel,

      I think #1 will be hard to achieve globally and #2 seems like a sensible idea. #3 can only be achieved if companies move away from city centers and/or they start to make use of currently available technology to reduce daily commute requirements. What is frustrating is that the technology exists for employees to telecommute from home, yet most still follow the archaic 8 to 5 workdays at the office. If the government simply mandated that knowledge workers telecommute 2 days a week, productivity may actually increase (i.e., I personally would save 3 hours of commute time a day), congestion would decline, and fuel consumption would decline.

      I love your idea for #4, especially with the matching income tax offset.

      The only major point of disagreement is on whether technology will save the population. Malthus predicted a disaster, yet technology prevented one. I don’t think technology is the only answer, but I think it will be a major part of the solution.

  13. Ark Angel says:

    Dear Sean,
    I hope all is well. With an estimated 300 years of easily available phosphate rock left to mine, peak phosphorus is likely to occur in about 100 years time with a business as usual approach. However the world has already experienced a pseudo peak phosphorus event in our life time.

    Within 18 months of Patrick Dery & Bart Anderson’s Peak Phosphorus article in August 2007; which stated that peak phosphorus had been achieved in 1998, the price of phosphate rock rose ~13 fold. Needless to say the base assumptions in this article have since been shown to be incorrect (as you have shown yourself). When the market woke up to this error, the price fell quicker than it rose.

    Such an event is quite a powerful incentive for world governments to start acting now. However this still may not be enough to encourage sustainable population policies with some short sighted or corrupt governments. Perhaps they can be encouraged along by special trade arrangements. However typical population control policies, include improved population and sex education (especially for women in third world countries), contraception, abortion on demand, accepting gay marriages, tax incentives that encouraging the required minimum family size; for third world countries improved sanitation and living conditions that ensure family members live a healthy life so that they can bear children and support their parents in their old age, etc.

    The sooner countries adopt population control policies; the easier it is for the more palatable population control options described above to be adopted first. With declining population policies in place, people in third world countries can also look forward to greater political freedom, a more health lifestyle and economy. A larger tax base per head of population for necessary infrastructure works can also be expected, e.g. in Pakistan, only 1.6% of its 160,000,000 inhabitants is a registered tax payer; hence there is a lot of room for improvement.

    With regards to technology being part of the solution, I agree with you, however there are limits as to how successful technology can be. Plus there are also choices as to what type of lifestyle the population wants, e.g. not everybody wants to be a farmer or grow their own food. The obvious areas where technology can have an impact are in the allied technology areas. Typically this includes:

    1. As mentioned previously, decentralizing cities, however also backing this up with tax breaks for business to decentralize; and high speed optical fibre computer networks to improve communications and reduce commuting requirements.
    2. Improved phosphorus recycling technologies in agriculture and city sewage management.
    3. Improving the genetics of food and fibre plant species so that they can grow in less that perfect arable soil conditions.
    4. Develop non biofuel based technologies for everybody to use for energy consumption and transportation.
    5. Create more palatable vegetarian dishes so that we eat less meat.
    6. Develop appropriate tax incentives so that innovative solutions in the above mentioned technology areas can be achieved by industry and everyone.

    Ark Angel

    • Ark Angel,

      I think we are in rough agreement. The only area I have some discomfort is on population control policies. While the Chinese policy helped slow population growth, it also resulted in a dangerously high male to female sex ratio. Several academics have shown that high sex ratios can be an accelerant for instability.

      That said, providing people who have more children with a tax credit is a terrible policy now in the US. Perhaps providing people who have fewer children with a tax advantage is a better way to go. As a conservative, abortion on demand makes me a bit uncomfortable, as allowing a broader application of the death penalty would likely upset many liberals.

      That said, in looking at ways to reduce population growth, both policies should seriously be considered.

  14. Ark Angel says:

    Dear Sean,
    I am sure the Chinese are aware of fact that female infanticide is going on; and that this may shock foreigners with a different set of values. Part of this problem is cultural in nature and the other part is no doubt political expediency. I don’t condone this practice; however please bear in mind the pressure of overpopulation does distort conventional human value systems and decision making processes. As in any economic market where there is an oversupply of goods or services, or people, things do become cheap. In this case, female infanticide is another form of cheap population control. Admittedly, a better way to have tackled this problem would be to attach the right of choice to bear any child, be it limited, to females only.

    Mistakes do happen (my wife is a pleasant mistake), however while preventing females the right to have abortion on demand may be a noble and just cause, especially if it gets you elected to Office, it also creates the following moral dilemmas in the overpopulation debate when no thought is given to the consequences:

    1. On the home front, it places burdens on families that will result in increases in divorce, homelessness; crimes of all persuasions, incarceration, and capital punishment. There is no doubt; this policy increases the emotional and physical cost of running the country.
    2. On the international front, abortion is one of only a few contraception methods that will work. The emotional and physical cost problems as described for 1 above still apply, however there is also the real possibility that unprevented births will result in increased populations of refugees, soldiers and deadly conflicts. There is no doubt; this policy increases the emotional and physical cost of running the country, both at home and abroad. In the end it potentially could come down to a simple choice of lowering population numbers by abortion or by bomb and bullet. Which is the more moral and just method of population contraception then?

    I would have thought it obvious that the sooner this problem is tackled in a bipartisan approach on the home front; and on the international arena, the easier it will be to choose less drastic population control measures first off. It is only when world population numbers reach sustainable numbers that the real value of human life can be appreciated.

    In past history various civilisations have face the very issues that I have raised above. Some have succeeded and some have failed. If you want to read more about the successes and the failures, I encourage you to read, Jarred Diamond, 2005, Collapse.

    Ark Angel

    • I actually prefer bomb and bullet to abortion to be honest. At least the killing is likely confined to those who are causing the violence.

      Again, this is where my pragmatic nature struggles with my moral side. Abortion will have to be considered, but other things could be on the table as well that are more just. For instance, forced sterilization for pedophiles and rapists, and more liberally applied capital punishment should be considered long before abortion on demand. Again these are extreme measures. Humanity still has time to find a technological solution before it starts taking more extreme measures.

      I have not read the book (it’s on my list), however I am familiar with the story of Easter Island and the extinction of it’s populace. A cautionary tale indeed.

  15. Ark Angel says:

    Dear Sean,

    I hope all is well. The whole purpose of my discussion on world population control is to prevent the conditions that would result in innocent starving people naturally turning to war, terrorism or refugees over scarce recourses. Today the interdependence of the world market are such that not even America is economically immune from these things occurring, e.g. American taxpayers and its allies have literally spent untold billions on foreign military adventures in Asia, Africa, Middle East and at home (e.g. American/Mexican boarder control) over issues where I believe overpopulation is the root cause. Whereas, if all the citizens of the world had good government and were able to live a sustainable comfortable lifestyle within their own countries, then the need to go to war or turn to terrorism, or be a refugee would be negligible.

    Clearly the money spent on these misadventures by America and its allies would have better been spent on education and family planning schemes, both at home by leading example and abroad by support; and on planning and preparing for a sustainable future. Technology cannot solve these issues over night. After a lengthy R&D period, it typically takes 20-30 years more before a new technology is readily accepted. Consequently I believe the best way to achieve this task is to immediately start valuing and accounting for key elements in the environment that are crucial to our survival now, e.g. phosphorus, clean water, shelter materials, etc.. That way everybody, including the ruling elite is aware of their impact on future world wide growth and the populaces’ sustainable piece of mind …

    Ark Angel

    • Ark Angel,

      I completely understand and greatly value your perspective. I think we are in broad agreement. That said, I believe the most humane thing to do would be to cull the bad apples via war rather than innocent ones through abortion — even though it would likely be more expensive. Unfortunately, if things turn south it will probably be a mix of both.

  16. Ark Angel says:

    Dear Sean,

    The “bad apples” of the world probably think the same about America, or somebody else. Being a “bad apple” is a natural environmental cause and effect outcome. No matter what happens, someone will always lay claim to this title.

    However there are other ways than war to solve the bad apple problems of the world, e.g. use trade sanctions. Unless directly threatened, war should be the last resort in all cases as war can potentially create more problems that it may solve, e.g. by martyrdom, escalated alliance support; increased race, cultural and religious xenophobic fears, etc.

    I believe a more passive stance is far preferable, e.g. lead by example, have sustainable population policies and practices in place, show others the benefits of a private enterprise lifestyle, show an interest in the welfare of other countries and encourage them too to adopt this way of life as they too may become a new trading partner and ally. However above all show that the optimum benefit for every person is achieved when the population is relatively small and sustainable.

    This is perhaps a slower tact to solving the bad apple problems of the world than by war. However there is a very good chance that the bad apples of the world will be overthrown by up and coming younger generations (at little expense to the taxpayer) who see that they are missing out on a better lifestyle. We are now viewing the outcome from this type of approach in North Africa, and the Middle East. Consequently, now is the time to ramp up the more passive tact scenario described above.

    I don’t like abortion either, however I take a more pragmatic view over its use. As with phosphorus and population targets, everything and everyone has to be accounted for and be looked after. So instead of dictating to others what they can and cannot do with their life, I recommend that the community at least de-stigmatises the use of adoption. If this is not enough, impose upon members of religious organisations who take a non abortion stance in the community to adopt the offspring of unwanted pregnancies, failing this adopt abortion as a last resort.

    With this option the pain and suffering experienced by real life flesh and blood people with unwanted pregnancies can be paid for and alleviated by those who cannot have children of their own, or by those who think that abortion is immoral. Of course also have sex education courses running concurrently with this program; and make contraception products easily available. I think this is a fair solution in countries where it is feasible, don’t you?

    Ark Angel

  17. I came to the party late, but it’s a worthy and complex topic and not well represented herein. The conservative position on peak commodities is unfortunately generally very uninformed and consequently very simplistic – that from an independent’s perspective. “So the next time someone suggests that peak phosphorus is a looming concern, you can take comfort that the data does not seem to support their case.” Nothing you presented in your argument alters or changed any of the current facts nor increases “the data” regarding peak phosphates. We can debate timelines until we realize how pointless it is. The fact is that we are depleting the economically useable rock phosphate reserves at an alarming rate without any backup plan or recognition of the consequences – and the consequences are not tolerable. Sean your argument that peak phosphates are a “long way off” and the force fitting of your phosphorus peak curves fail to include the following factors:

    1. The reverse economic relationship between peak oil and peak phosphorus – the higher fuel prices the lower the phosphate reserves that can be mined at any given phosphate price – and the higher the multiplier affect in food production cost to have both energy and fertilizer costs rising at the same time. Your curve assumptions include stable fuel prices and availability – not likely the case as diesel prices rise beyond $4/gal. – and that’s cheap on a global basis.

    2. The quality of the USGS estimates – which rely on source country/company estimates with little or no verifiable documentation. Not only does the USGS not do an adequate job in determining phosphate reserve resource concentration levels and whether they are economically feasible for mining, they also fail to consider that large portions of their global phosphate reserves counted are contaminated with uranium/radioactivity and or toxic heavy metals that often – or at least should make them unusable. Point in case – large sections of south eastern US have radioactively contaminated soils from tobacco farming that used radioactive phosphates up unto relatively recently – thanks to the bang up job the USGS did on NOT identifying those phosphate sources as radioactive. Furthermore large portions of the US phosphate reserves now set under developed areas, or are in association with critical drinking water sources and are not likely to ever be developable. Overall point being that if anyone takes a technically sophisticated hard look at actual usable and non-toxic phosphate reserves they are going to be far less than reported by the USGS and their reportees all who benefit from exaggerating their phosphate resources – just as Saudi Arabia exaggerates its oil reserves.

    3. While re-cycling and low run-off agriculture are good strategies for reducing phosphate demand, they only minimally delay end points, but the don’t prevent the ultimate dead end – rock phosphate depletion. Point of fact is that there has been intensive research for at least the past 80 years into ways of getting around the depletion of rock phosphates as our primary and absolutely critical commodity for food production – all to no avail at all – zero, nada – squat. Even the USGS phosphate summaries state “There are no substitutes for rock phosphate fertilizers with current technology.”

    Even if we could produce elemental phosphorus from nuclear manipulation – you have to understand we haven’t even mastered basic fusion after a similar 80 years of research – and it’s highly probable that this technical ability is centuries away – if ever. And sure – we know that the dark side of the moon contains large phosphate asteroid deposits and that their are phosphate nodules on the floor of the deep oceans – however, remember we are running our of petroleum while we are trying to develop a technology to economically obtain these resources which makes their discovery less probable with every gallon of cheap petroleum we use.

    Our great technology revolution just didn’t happen out of coincidence – it happened solely because of the timely confluence of cheap energy and cheap food (the Industrial Revolution and the Green Revolution) – which are in reality the same. To think that this technological revolution will continue unaltered without equivalent (to petroleum) cheap energy is more than simplistic – it’s ludicrous. You may have well noticed that along with peak oil in the US in the early 70s, we also had peak research funding in many areas (excluding IT) – also not a coincidence. We really don’t recognize just how dependent our way of life – much less our technological development depends on a source of cheap energy – and abundant and useable rock phosphates for cheap and abundant foods.

    Some uniformed groups argue that all we need to do is recycle our sewage and animal wastes and that solves our problem – “We’ll be fine.” Current studies show that if we could somehow collect all the phosphorus from global sewage supplies (an economic impossibility all things considered -especially that it take trillions of dollars and 50 years of sewage infrastructure development to achieve) – we might offset less than 2% of current global rock phosphate demand. Conservation and recycling are necessary, but they aren’t a solution.

    4. Our scientifically ignorant population and their elected/reflected equally scientifically ignorant leadership are doing their best to develop (at least in throwing money around) a biofuel industry that some scientist estimate would quadruple the current rock phosphate demand. Both the nitrogen (from natural gas/Haber Process and the phosphate of NPK are dependent on peak petroluem – and it isn’t a coincidence that the large petroleum companies are touting biofuels – they know it will make them even greater fortunes as agriculture fuel and fertilizer demand. their profits and prices increase.

    5. As one of your more informed commenters noted – China started taxing rock phosphate exports in 2002. It’s interesting to note that this was also the point where China had significantly begun developing their own rock phosphate reserves – and now the China rock phosphate demand is no longer a part of the global phosphate demand – and quite likely part of the phosphate demand decline dip that occurred in this same period. However, no one knows how long it will be until China’s agricultural/food demands exceed their own rock phosphate production limits. Now consider that for the past decade China and most of Asia have been frantically converting from a manure based agriculture technology to the far more productive and modern NPK technology that we in the west use. We haven’t begin to see the real rock phosphate demand for a global NPK based agricultural system that includes the Asian population demand – to feed their still growing populations. It is quite likely when that demand exceeds domestic production that there is going to be even serious consequences in global food price increases.

    6. Growth is a particular sacred part of the conservative mentality. Somehow the finiteness of the planet, the finiteness of any ecosystem limits’ to unending growth never seems to occur to them – though it’s a demonstrable scientific fact. More over they also don’t understand the basic economic tenants of the capitalist market based economy that they worship. Capitalist markets require one essential commodity – growth. Without growth capitalist economies die and whither not unlike a plant without phosphorus. We not only have a problem with not being able to provide food for the current population and the next 3 billion coming before 2050, we have a problem in not having any kind of workable economic theory of what we do when we reach a point that everyone can agree the world is “full up” with people. What kind of economy works in country, or a world with static and or declining populations. Sooner or later human population growth has to stop. What then?

    The natural phosphorus replenishment cycle in agriculture was reached the day before the Industrial Revolution – it was under 2 billion people. What does an economy look like that drops from 7-9 billion people down to 2 billion people – even if takes decades to do it. Talk about deflation. It’s been a long time since 2/3 to 3/4s of the entire human population on the planet were wiped out, and we have nothing in our recorded history that prepares us even remotely for this kind of event. The problem is no one ever mentions this little fact and one that is unavoidable under current population trends. It is ironic that the only thing that may save human civilization is a some what lesser, but more controlled collapse – before the otherwise inevitable coming big one from over population stresses. I have to imagine that in gov. think tanks around the world – especially in India and China – others have reached this conclusion as well.

    Sean your effort to understand the problem of phosphate depletion is laudable and as an independent – I wish this country’s politicians were competent enough to understand this issue, but clearly they aren’t and based on both parties candidate offerings – and or the public’s choice to be scientifically ignorant, I don’t see this situation changing. I think your analysis stopped way short in delving into the many complex details of the rock phosphate depletion problem and especially regardless of any time table – the consequences of being unprepared and what actually happens when we really begin to run out of rock phosphates. Based on the refs below, I have to think it’s significantly less than 30 years away. If you remember the food riots of recent years and their political instability implications – wait to you see what our world looks like while we run out of both oil and phosphates – at the same time. and no one – and I mean no one is really prepared. We need facts – and currently they just don’t exist at the levels needed other than to see the phosphate/food “wall” and Peak People are coming and relatively soon.

    We aren’t going to just wake up one morning and find that their are no rock phosphates in our agricultural cupboard. We will go through years and decades of price creeping in both fuel and phosphates – that will be transferred eventually to steadily increasing food prices. Then at some point the chaos created by the hungry impoverished masses will cause all or most of the entire global social system to unwind – perhaps in association with pandemics as well always associated with widespread malnourishment. How we as a species come back from that event, if we come back are all subject to specific circumstances associated with it – and presently only conjecture. We’ve never experienced a world with both starving populations with access to nuclear weapons.

    That old Chinese curse is upon the entire world now – “May you live in interesting times.” Related link refs as follows:














    • Durwood,

      Thank you for stopping by this site. You are correct in your assertion that my entire argument rests on the credibility of the USGS’s fourfold revision in rock phoshate reserves. My argument also assumed that most of this phosphate could be mined. If much of it is too difficult to extract and much of it is contaminated with radioactivity, then my conclusion would have been more measured. Based on the data, I still thought peak phosphate shortages were in our future, I just thought we’ve have more time. If what you say about the credibility of the USGS and the limited percentage of extractable/useable rock phosphate, is true, then I agree that things are much worse than I originally concluded.

      Thank you for added the additional color. It is much appreciated.

      Like you, I am also surprised that no government officials are planning for this.

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