At some point in the coming months, the confrontation between the West and Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program may reach a breaking point. Even assuming the two sides manage to avoid full-fledged military conflict, the crisis could still cause significant disruption to the world economy. An embargo against Iranian oil exports, or a move by Iran’s leaders to close the Straits of Hormuz—or both—could send the price of oil soaring and jeopardize the re-election hopes of leaders from Paris to Washington. And as happens with every oil crisis, pundits will insist that the pain we’re feeling is nothing compared to what it will be like when the world finally runs out of black gold.
We’ve been warned before. Four decades ago this year, five scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published an influential set of predictions regarding the sustainability of human progress. Titled Limits to Growth, their report suggested the world was heading toward economic collapse as it exhausted the natural resources, such as oil and copper, required for economic production. The report forecast that the world would run out of new gold in 2001 and petroleum by 2022, at the latest.
Over the intervening years, the threat of “peak oil” has stayed with us—the date when global petroleum production was to reach its supposed maximum, afterward and evermore to decline as dwindling reserves were tapped out. And the exhaustion of the world’s oil reserves was just the start. A host of other critical natural resources, from phosphorus to uranium, have been declared peaking or already peaked.
Forty years later, however, rereading Limits to Growth invokes a growing sense of irony. Far from being depleted, worldwide reserves of minerals continue to climb. New technologies suggest the dawn of U.S. energy independence. The biggest concern isn’t that the planet is running out of resources—it’s having too many for the planet’s own good.
Start with oil. In 1971, the Limits to Growth team forecast that the world’s supply would run out 10 years from today. And yet according to renowned oil analyst Daniel Yergin, technology advances and new discoveries have allowed oil reserves worldwide to keep growing. For every barrel of oil produced in the world from 2007 to 2009, 1.6 barrels of new reserves were added. The World Energy Council reports that global proven recoverable reserves of natural gas liquids and crude oil amounted to 1.2 trillion barrels in 2010. That’s enough to last another 38 years at current usage. Add in shale oil, and that’s an additional 4.8 trillion barrels, or a century and a half’s worth of supply at present usage rates. Tar sands, including some huge Canadian deposits, add perhaps 6 trillion barrels more.