6 Important Things You Didn't Know We're Running Out Of
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?
The Mexican cactus booze has been in trouble for the last couple of years, and high demand and diseased crops have seriously threatened its supply in the past. But now, we might actually be looking at a possible eradication of tequila as a worldwide commodity.
In 2006, the Bush administration introduced new regulations to begin substituting gasoline with biofuels made from corn-based ethanol, the idea being to ease America's dependency on foreign oil. One side effect was that ethanol prices skyrocketed to the point that farmers in Mexico started abandoning their old crops in favor of corn to ship off to the U.S.
Unfortunately, this included destroying crops of agave cactus (from which tequila is made) by setting them on fire, because that's how they roll in Mexico.
"Yeah, fuck you, my previous livelihood!"
But whatever -- we can just plant more of that cacti, right? About that ... you see, the blue agave cactus is what you would call the Chinese panda of the plant world, in that it's insanely particular about how it reproduces. It's prone to diseases and will grow only in a very specific climate -- on very high altitudes and preferably in red volcanic soil. This pretty much confines it to the Mexican state of Jalisco and surrounding areas, the only places in the entire world where Mexican law allows for the production of "tequila," a name to which Mexico holds exclusive rights.
In 2007, Mexican farmers planted 35 percent less agave than in the previous year, and the remaining cacti were given the red-headed stepchild treatment: mistreated and generally ignored, causing global tequila production to drop significantly. Basically, when one region in Mexico goes sober, the entire world gets the tequila shakes.
Vomit may never taste the same again.
Here's the best part: Tequila is made by removing the fructose at the core of the plant in its 12th year. So basically, if they're replanted tomorrow, you might have enough for one very basic crop in 2023, assuming the plants aren't harmed by diseases, weird weather patterns or anything else in the next dozen or so years. In short, you might want to start developing a taste for wine coolers.
You might not even know what phosphorus is or what it does, but the life of every single person on Earth depends on it. Phosphorus is used to make fertilizer, and without it, there is virtually no way to produce enough food for the world's population. As you might have guessed, we are quickly approaching "peak phosphorus" and might run out of it in as little as 30 years.
Researchers from Australia, Europe and the United States agree that the worldwide focus on production of biofuels (jump-started by the U.S.) can in all reality use up all of the planet's phosphorus. And when guys from three continents can agree on anything other than their mutual hatred for one another, you know they have to be right. The situation is getting so desperate that Sweden has actually started designing toilets that will extract the precious phosphorus from our piss.
"Fifty bucks a vial."
China is already hoarding all the phosphorus it has, which hasn't exactly done anything to calm the global markets. From 2007 to 2008, phosphate rock prices went up 700 percent, and the demand might continue to rise 2.3 percent a year, seeing as the majority of nations aren't too keen on starving to death in the future. The remaining phosphorus is located chiefly in Russia and Africa, whose reserves might one day basically give them the keys to the planet.
The only alternative is extracting phosphorus from the seabed but the costs would be staggering, and we'd risk running into and pissing off Cthulhu.
Humanity's fight for scarce water is a staple of dystopian fiction (and the plot of one shitty Bond movie), but in the end, that's all it is: fiction. Because come on -- water? It's like ... right there, and plenty of it. There of course are Third World countries where clean water is a precious commodity, but you don't see Western multinational companies and businessmen actually investing millions of dollars in it. But that's only because they have been really quiet about it.
T. Boone Pickens is a Texan ex-oilman and currently the biggest private owner of water in the United States, with access to most of the Texan portion of the Ogallala Aquifer, which holds more than a quadrillion gallons of the liquid. Pickens has invested more than $100 million and eight years of work in acquiring the rights to this much "blue gold" and now plans to sell it to Dallas or some other major U.S. city desperately running out of water. There are plenty to choose from.
If you're hoping that Pickens is just some crazy rich guy, it's worth mentioning that he wasn't the first to have this idea. To become a water baron, Pickens had to fight for 15 years with the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, which tried to buy his reserves out from under him. Water drilling is serious business.
T. Boone Pickens
Furthermore, what the man is doing is pretty old-hat by American standards. For years, New York has been getting its water from the Catskill Mountains, while Southern California has to reach all the way to the Sierra Nevada range -- hundreds of miles in both cases. Then there is Russia diverting its Siberian water surplus to China, and Alaska selling its H2O to India of all places. Either these multi-million-dollar companies and huge governments are paranoid as hell, or they know something that we don't. Something horrifying.
But even if fresh water is running out, we can take comfort in the fact that, as rational people, we at least won't be going to war over it all Mad Max-style, right? How about we just leave you with these links about water supply-related conflicts between Pakistan and India, India and China or Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and let you answer that question yourselves. Sleep tight!
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a freelance online writer and Japanese-English-Polish translator. Contact him at email@example.com.
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