When we talk about a shortage of "resources," most people immediately think "oil." But the only reason oil is the most famous of the dwindling resources is because we feel the spike in prices, since we have to go buy the stuff ourselves on a weekly basis.
But other resources that are key to keeping our society operating are running out just as fast, but much more quietly. Pretty soon, you may turn on CNN to hear about wars being fought over something ridiculous, like ...
The world is running low on helium? Big freaking deal, right? Worst-case scenario, future kids won't ever experience the joy of shelling out $7 for an amusement park balloon, then immediately tripping and seeing it fly away.
If only it were ever actually this much fun.
Actually, if you have benefited from a piece of technology more complex than a sharp rock tied to a stick, it was probably made with the help of helium. Helium has the lowest boiling point of all materials on Earth, which means it's cooler than a ninja Fonzie in sunglasses. Basically every high-tech industry imaginable has uses for helium, from chilling MRI magnets to producing fiber optics and LCD screens.
Think of it as the Batman of gases -- known for its playful public persona as the stuff that makes you talk like Jennifer Tilly, but secretly a badass vigilante keeping the modern world in one piece. And just like Batman, the government completely doesn't understand it.
All metaphors work best with Batman.
After all, if the stuff is running out, the price should be going up, right? And we sure as hell shouldn't be putting it in party balloons.
But according to Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson, the problem is that the U.S. government is giving away helium like a discount VCR warehouse: as much as it can, as cheap as it can. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. government to sell off our helium stockpile by 2015. This has forced the price of the gas way, way lower than it should be, considering how little of the stuff is actually left in the world (Richardson says a balloon's worth would cost $100 if the market were allowed to set the price).
Above: The world's greatest helium baron plans her next acquisition.
The U.S. controls more than 80 percent of the world's helium supply, so Richardson says all this sell-off and waste means there's a very real chance we will run out of the gas in fewer than 25 years. If you're one of those people who buys into this whole "technology" fad, that's something to be concerned about.
Fortunately, there's a backup plan: If we run out of mined helium we can always recover it from the atmosphere. That will run us only 10,000 times the current costs.
"Next up for sale, an early 2011 red helium balloon. Starting price is $10 million."
Without even checking the actual stats, we're 100 percent sure that about half of all the commodities available on the free market include chocolate. With such an amazing demand for the product, surely there must be a sophisticated system in place to ensure that the world never runs out of the stuff. Because if, say, the whole chocolate industry was based entirely on Third World back-breaking manual labor, slave wages and actual child slavery that would be reason enough for a worldwide panic.
Oh shit ...
Actually, the majority of the world's cocoa supply comes from West Africa, where the plantations are often tended to by slave children, but there is such thing as fair trade cocoa beans, with guaranteed "No slave labor!" certificates and stuff. Problem solved, right? Nope. (And it's a little depressing when taking slavery out of the equation doesn't immediately fix something.) The fact of the matter is that, currently, cultivating cocoa beans just isn't worth it to the average West African farmer.
Not only is tending to cocoa trees insanely time-consuming (it takes up to five years to grow a new crop), but everything has to be done by hand in often unbearable heat. And at the end of the day, the average cocoa farmer can expect to earn about 80 cents a day for his trouble. That satisfying feeling that his product is contributing to America's obesity epidemic is just not enough anymore, so in fewer than 20 years, chocolate might become an expensive rarity, like caviar. When was the last time you had caviar?
"I ... once saw a picture of caviar."
Cocoa beans can be produced outside West Africa, but only within 10 degrees of the equator, an area that you might quickly recognize as including some of the most politically unstable regions on the planet. It would explain why chocolate prices have doubled in the last six years and will only continue to go up.
The only way to keep chocolate dirt-cheap is to remove cocoa butter from it (which, to us, is completely defeating the purpose), just like Hershey did a few years back. Now the FDA is telling Hershey that it can't even call those products "chocolate."
"How about we drop the pretense and go with 'Fat & Sugar'?"
Medical isotopes are substances that give off short bursts of radiation, after which they decay and become useless. They're used in medical scanners, and each day, more than 50,000 people in the U.S. go through procedures involving medical isotopes to detect bone cancer or diagnose kidney and brain disorders. So if we would ever start running low on those radioactive health thingies -- like right now, for example -- it could mean having to pay more for inferior hospital care in the future.
"Here you go. That will be a million dollars."
About 80 percent of medical isotope procedures make use of a substance called technetium-99m, which has a life span of about 12 hours, meaning it cannot be stockpiled and has to be produced fresh over and over. Naturally, because this is such a crucial part of nationwide healthcare, there's only one major company in North America that makes technetium-99m -- Chalk River Laboratories. And because it hasn't been operational since May 2009, we are now in year two of a massive medical isotopes shortage. As the old saying goes, "Don't have all of your eggs laid by the same radioactive chicken."
That's what grandma always used to say.
CRL actually produced one-third of all medical isotopes in the world, so all the other companies today simply cannot keep up with the demand. Both the U.S. and Canada are hurrying to build new nuclear reactors needed to safely produce technetium-99m, but they won't be ready for some time.
Meanwhile, because of this shortage, your doctor might be using radioactive isotopes that are what scientists call "less than ideal" for medical testing. "Less than ideal," depending on the type used, can mean anything from not as effective to more radioactive, more unstable and generally less predictable. This is great news if your highly radioactive isotope testing gives you mutant powers that turn you into Wolverine, but what if you become someone stupid, like Toad?