1.1.1 Harald-Growing up in Norway

The reason why I am writing about natural resources has to do with my background and goes back to Norway, where I grew up. The subjects of sustainability and the environment were early amongst my interests. I spent many summers as a child with my grandfather, Torleiv Rasmussen (1895–1991), in the Norwegian Rondane mountains, Norway’s first National Park. We would walk the mountains and talk about how nature worked and how everything was interdependent. My grandfather was an eager sports fisherman, and he was an excellent bird hunter. He also had a keen interest in the environmental impacts of industry on nature. In 1948–50, he moved the family company out of Oslo, Norway, to the city of Hamar, 110 km north of Oslo, to be able to expand the business. The family company is a precious metal refining and processing plant that uses many mechanical and chemical processes. As part of the design, the facility was fitted with a sewage treatment plant and a metal recovery plant for taking precious metals out of sewage, so that every dust particle of precious metal that ended up on the floor or in the plant wastewater could be recovered. It was the first sewage treatment plant in Norway (1948), based on American know-how and design, and there was no other of its kind in Norway for many years.

My grandfather, Torleiv Rasmussen was educated as a Goldsmith Master in Schwäbisch Gemünd in the province of Baden-Würtemberg in Germany, but he had a sense for engineering. He would often tell me “Nothing is too difficult to learn! ….just try harder if it is difficult”. To learn how to design the precious metal recovery unit for wastewater from the plant, he ordered books from the United States and Germany on the subject, and taught himself how to design it. And, then he built it…

Precious metals like gold, silver and platinum play a prominent role in this text as examples. These metals are very valuable, and society keeps very good track of them. Much data is available on these metals. My family’s company, K.A. Rasmussen is a precious metal company, and thus, I grew up learning about how to work, refine, and never lose these metals. Precious metals are very valuable, and thus, great care in their handling is taken. Therefore the sewage treatment plant I mentioned earlier, through the recovery of precious metals, more than paid for itself.

I started school when I was 7 years old, and I remember that my mother, Elise (1928–1996), gave me a book she had from her father (1888–1932, the chief engineer at Norsk Hydro), who died when she was quite young. It was about the oil fields of Texas, issued by Texaco in 1927. I think it was called “Texaco, a pictorial story.” It was full of black and white photographs, and not much text, like Figure 1.1. I read the book before I knew English (I read it anyway), fascinated with the pictures of drilling towers, refineries, petrol stations and office buildings. My father, Rolv (1928–1995) had a subscription to Scientific American from 1963 onward, and it came every month to our home in Norway. I avidly read everything in each issue. I still do, it is a wonderful way to stay updated.

Another defining moment for me personally was when the book Limits to Growth (Fig 1.2) by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers and Wilhelm Behrens, came out in 1972. I was in my second year of gymnasium in Hamar, and I remember that I read the book twice just to be sure that I understood it and I experienced a great Ah-ha moment. I realised how everything is connected – what I learned in secondary school (I was in the natural sciences division) and from my grandfather, and how nothing should ever be lost in the precious metal business – everything resonated with the message of Limits to Growth. I realised there are limits to everything and that these limits are built into the fundamental foundations of our world. I have come back to that book and its follow-up books many times since (Meadows et al., 1972, 1992, 2004; Randers 2012). What was outlined in there has become a part of my own research. The book received some scientific critique, but also detrimental political lobbying (Nørgård et al., 2010). That is how slander and outright propaganda buried the important message in the book. Limits to Growth has, despite all the efforts to the contrary, stood the test of time and current data shows how the concept was spot on (Turner, 2012). As it now turns out, climate change is perhaps a small problem – the real challenge of today is the combination of conscious thought, human population and planetary limits. I am now a member of the Balaton Group, and get the pleasure of discussions with Dennis Meadows’ aspects of Limits to Growth and on how we develop the next generation of models.

1.1.2 Harald-Becoming a researcher

I went abroad to study Chemical Engineering at the ETH in Zürich, Switzerland and later for a PhD at Lund University in Southern Sweden. I ended up staying in Lund for 27 years. After completing my graduate education and starting my career in research, the environment, and sustainability of society came to be the pervasive themes of everything I worked on. Thus I came to spend time on subjects like: liming acid lakes, modelling acidification effects on soils and water, aquatic population dynamics in polluted lakes, sustainable forestry, predator-prey relationships, sustainable agriculture, chemical weathering components of silicate minerals as nutrients for trees and crops, business and economics systems dynamics, and modelling of large integrated and complex systems. Enginering and geochemistry was at the base of it all, but nothing is isolated. Other disciplines overlap but biogeochemistry is an important part of the bigger picture.

For engineers, the most important pathway to understanding a system’s behaviour properly is to model it. This cannot be done without having a mental model as the basis for understanding. With a mental model, I mean a conceptual understanding in the mind. For this, systems analysis and systems dynamics are essential. Richard Feynmann, the brilliant American nuclear physicist, once wrote a book entitled “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” (Feynman, 1999). I found the book very inspiring when I read it. Doing systems analysis on complex situations and problems and modelling them to create solutions, to me always becomes “the pleasure of finding things out.” Thank you, Mr. Feynman! I have been asked several times about whether there are any limitations to this way of working, and after using it for 30 years, I have not found any yet.

In 1981, when I was travelling to the United States of America for the first time, I met two young Americans, Douglas Britt (Fig. 1.3) and Jimmy Fraser, working in a private consultancy in Reston, Virginia. I started to cooperate with them and in the process they became very good friends. They opened my eyes to a new world of thinking. I experienced together with them how to initiate a company the American way, starting with nothing but an idea and working your way up. I learned how we would search for clients with problems, and sell proposals on how to solve them. And we would win the proposals and do what we promised. I loved the American attitude of “everything is possible.” We started many different companies, and we succeded in many endeavours, in environmental science, mainframe computer services, ecological restoration, geographical information services, environmental modelling, and restoration technologies. Finally the company moved on to space science and built systems for NASA for the life support for long distance space travel. On almost every Space Shuttle launched in the late 1980s and 1990s we had our cargo on the shuttle. We had a fantastic time, full of optimism working for the future. In the mid 1990s the American companies were sold and we moved on. My friends stayed there to pursue successfully their careers as businessmen, I went back into academia in Europe to continue work on biogeochemistry of terrestrial ecosystems, critical loads, modelling of biodiversity and sustainable societies, from sustainable food supply to the role of resources in the global economy, and as we will see, later also to business.

In 1988, I was called in by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency’s research department, to participate in an effort referred to as “Critical loads for sulphur and nitrogen to mitigate acid rain.” The effort resulted in the first research-based (actually evidence based) environmental policy in Europe. The Agency knew from earlier projects, which I had done with them that I was building environmental effects models, and that I was willing to develop new types of models. The kick-off event that mattered was the 1988 Skokloster Critical Loads Workshop (Nilsson, 1988), where we went from traditional environmental problem-descriptions to formulate action plans for how to solve the air pollution problems. Scientists from all major countries in Europe participated, including Eastern Europe. We had no defined acid rain mitigation plans before that meeting in Sweden, but then a strategy was drawn up internationally (and nationally for Sweden) and scientists enlisted to work on it.

The research director at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency at the time, Dr. Jan Nilsson, had the idea that Sweden would be one of the lead countries in the fight against acid rain and associated air pollution and that we needed to tackle the problem at the root cause, to reduce or eliminate the sulphur and nitrogen emissions. Liming lakes as I had done in the past was unsatisfactory as it was an “end-of-pipe” solution. In his work for the environment, Jan Nilsson always had a clear vision, a strategy and a plan. He told me:

“We have three arenas we have to win to prevail in this battle! The battle is for the future environmental quality of Europe. We need to win the scientific arena, we need to win the media arena, and we need to win on the political arena. If we can make sure to win the scientific arena soundly, and overwhelm in the media arena, I am certain we will win the political arena as well.”

He had developed a vision, a strategy and a plan for how to do this work. We were up against a substantial British and Central European industrial lobby, and the struggle was long and difficult. But as we now know, we (Swedish Ministry of the Environment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, The Norwegian Environmental Authority, the Nordic Council, the Swedish Universities and research institutes) prevailed, we won and it worked! I was a student in Zürich, Switzerland, when the “Alpenblick” disappeared in smog in 1978, and experienced in a visit in 1998 how the Alps had re-emerged, again to become visible.

I was an ecosystems effects modeller and a systems analyst, and Jan Nilsson determined that I was to be one of the scientists in the team that should win the science arena. I just loved the work, the challenges, and what appeared to be unsolvable problems that we set about to solve. I had to work very hard and built up a large scientific network in those years to be able to win that arena. I was sometimes alone on the road, but most of the time with my PhD students and my European colleagues. Jan Nilsson urged me on, and funded my activity, the research, the travels, and the meetings. On behalf of Sweden, we formed unofficial coalitions with other European smaller countries, and this greatly helped the effort of creating a common understanding in Europe on these issues. The science coalitions I was able to build, were matched by Jan Nilsson and his colleagues on the project officer level throughout many European Environmental Agencies in the same countries as we were working in. My research group developed the computer modelling tools for determining the critical loads for Europe. We did it as an open source code and gave our biogeochemical models (SMB, PROFILE, SAFE) to everyone that wanted to use them (Sverdrup and Warfvinge, 1988a,b, 1995b; Sverdrup et al., 1998, 2006; Sverdrup, 1990). The scientific tool development was coordinated with the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, so that we targeted the models at the relevant issues, and provided assessments connected with the relevant policy proposals. Eventually the models, methods and policy development processes were adopted in 27 different European countries. I travelled to all 27 of them, established critical loads mapping teams and ecosystem modelling teams when they were not already in place, made sure they had the models running, taught them how to use them, and ensured that they delivered their results on time. My team reported progress and results back to Jan Nilsson in Sweden at the Environmental Protection Agency in Stockholm, keeping them well informed on the situation in every country. It meant visiting Parliamentary Committees, Environmental Agencies and Ministries to explain what critical loads mean, how they related to science and geosciences in particular, and why they were very good for both the national environment, the economy and industry in Europe.

The scientific teams, that Jan Nilsson had working for him, had frequent strategy meetings with his policy development team and the Swedish Ministerial team (Dr. Lars Lindau and Lars Björkbom to mention some). They did the actual international environmental negotiations, with people from the Swedish Environmental Agency and the Ministry of the Environment, relying on the scientists in the background, sometimes in the back room. The Nordic Council of Ministers was also brought in on the arena, to give more Nordic science attention, feed facts to the media and build political clout backed by science. A solid interface between policy development and science was built especially in Sweden, but also in the other Nordic countries. The major Swedish Universities were heavily involved (Lund, Uppsala, Gøteborg and the main environmental institutes (IVL1, NIVA2). Different policy options were discussed, we tried out the ramifications in chains of models linking the source (combustion of fossil fuels and smelting sulphide ores), through the skies with the air down to lakes and forests in the Swiss Alps, the German Black Forest, Norwegian rivers and lakes or Swedish lakes, streams and forests. The models were tested out at home to pre-assess which policy option would work. Jan Nilsson and his negotiating team would take everything with them into the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe negotiations at Geneva. A special cooperation was started with Swiss Ministry of the Environment (Beat Achermann, Beat Rihm, Daniel Kurz). Since I spoke Swiss German fluently, that work flowed smoothly, leading also to a collaboration that lasted 20 years on the policy development level and coordinated work with European and National media. The Critical Loads UN/ECE-LRTAP3 protocols of Oslo 1990, 1994, Århus 1998 and Gøteborg 1999 were the first examples of goal-oriented sustainability legislation4,5,6,7. The protocols were signed in the indicated years, and then ratified and implemented by the signatory countries in the years that followed; this often took 3–7 years or more.

For the first years, 1987–1990, it was only my colleague Per Warfvinge and I in my research group, but after 1990, the work expanded and we needed to have a larger workforce to do all the tasks we were given. The international work on environmental science support to the authorities also was the beginning of building a whole research group that would grow to be around 12 people for many years. In my group I had started with systems analysis and systems dynamics as a tool for bridging science domain boundaries. We invented what we called “causal link charts”, only to later discover that we did not invent it, the systems dynamics group at MIT in Boston had done it before us! The natural continuity of that was to broaden the competences of my research group from only two engineers in a chemical engineering department. I realised that if we wanted to solve problems, we needed to pick the required knowledge from wherever it was found, ignoring that some of the knowledge would come from scientific arenas other reserachers would think they “owned.” Problems know no boundaries and most academic boundaries set up in research are social constructs. In many scientific arenas we succeeded in finding very good trans-disciplinary cooperations (Sverdrup, 1999, 2002; Sverdrup and Svensson, 2003; Sverdrup and Guardans, 2008).

I enjoyed the company of many devoted and clever PhD students and assistants from many disciplines such as geology (Anna-Karin Modin-Edman, Hördur Haraldsson), geochemistry (Johan Holmqvist), theoretical ecology (Mats Svensson), chemical engineering (Mattias Alveteg, Charlotta Walse, Liisa Martinsson, Per Warfvinge, Anja Danielsson, Andreas Barkman), geography (Cecilia Akselsson), computer science (Salim Belyazid), plant ecology (Gunnar Thelin, Ingrid Stjernquist), chemistry, health and nutrition (Ingegerd Rosborg), environmental engineering and climate change (Deniz Koca). I worked closely with a very good friend, Prof. Bengt Nihlgård, also at Lund University, the best plant ecologist I know of on any continent, and his excellent research team (Ingrid Stjernquist, Ulrika Rosengren among many others). In addition came visiting scholars and people we cooperated very closely with from soil science, geology, geochemistry, agronomy, plant ecology, limnology, economics, social science, historical linguists, political science, forestry (Prof. Kaj Rosen, at the Agricultural University at Uppsala paved the way into the best soils and forestry databases) and policy development. Our group (then the Biogeochemistry Group at Chemical Engineering in Lund University) realised that trans-disciplinary research is great fun to do, and it is always full of surprises. Where others thought from a monodisciplinary point of view that no solution would be possible, we could find them with systems thinking and trans-disciplinarity! I think we could safely say that this also applies to geochemists that operate in trans-disciplinary settings, the geochemistry they do is often relevant to society and definitely fun to do.

In 1990–1992, I made some pilot studies on critical loads for acidic pollution in the United States of America, notably in Maryland. We mapped the whole state and made critical loads mapping and policy strategy development and effects assessments for both streams and soils (Sverdrup et al., 1992, 1996). In the estimation process for critical loads, the weathering rate is needed. Then we made the first soil weathering and catchment weathering map for the Maryland state, based on calculations using the PROFILE model. The work with air pollution mitigation and the importance of robust weathering rates for critical loads and for forest sustainability, caused Sweden to fund the development of the mechanistic soil weathering rate model PROFILE. It was applied to map the weathering rate of soils across Europe; it does a priori soil weathering rates and does not require model calibration. It is field verified. It is a good example of how a transdiscipinary challenge outside of geochemistry created a major scientific development in geochemistry. The Maryland weathering map we published went under the radar of most American geoscientists at the time, and they only discovered that weathering map decades later (see Sverdrup et al., 1992, 1996). However, we were far before our time, and the American government agencies were not ready for dealing with acid rain the European way using critical loads at that time. Since 2012, the interest and the need is there in America, the European success is obvious, and we are now participating in applying critical loads as an environmental method for the United States (McDonnel et al., 2014; Phelan et al., 2014). Critical loads and optimised reductions in sulphur and nitrogen emissions will be undertaken in the United States in the near future, with great benefit to industry and the environment.

The European air pollution work, “the sulphur wars” as we referred to it, was a life-changing experience for us who were deeply involved, and it gave me very many very good contacts and friends throughout Europe, among researchers and among policy makers. The working relationship was very close with people in Switzerland (Beat Achermann, Dani Kurz), Germany (Heinz Gregor) and the Netherlands (Jean Paul Hettelingh at the RIVM, Wim de Vries, Hans Kros and Gerdt Jan Reinds at ALTERRA), and former research competitors became allies in the struggle for the European environment. I became known for being willing to solve problems of any kind that could be modelled, to use models for science-based policy analysis, and that I never said anything was impossible.

I met the Rector (Vice Chancellor or President), Prof. Boel Flodgren, of Lund University on the plane to Stockholm in 1995. In our discussions on the plane I painted up a vision to create a trans-disciplinary master’s programme focused on Environmental Science at Lund University, and what it would entail if I was given a free hand to design something different. I would shape it around systems thinking and solutions for creating sustainable world, using teacher-teams from many different sciences. The next morning I was called to the Rector’s office, and she told me to start at once, with programme start-up in 1996. I gathered up clever colleagues such as Ingegerd Ehn, Marianne Sillen, Karin Bäckstrand, Mats Svensson and many more at Lund University in the initial core team. It became LUMES8 (Lund University Master of Environmental Science), and the first thing we did was to run a test version of the programme on ourselves. It had environment in the name, even if it at once was clear to us that environmental science is just a special case of sustainability, which is what it it becomes once we apply it to the whole world and generalise it. Mats and I designed up the first systems analysis and systems dynamics courses for the programme, the first in Lund University. We admitted students for the programme from all continents, from many ethnic, cultural and academic backgrounds, and welded them into effective student teams. We learned that if you make trans-disciplinary teacher-teams, selecting very good university teachers, who are good at cooperating and trust them to do a good job, creative dynamics is set in motion. That was for me a major eyeopener to see how creativity and teaching innovation could take off. How systems thinking can bridge cultural differences and unify thinking towards solving problems and finding solutions. Sustainability is the world’s largest puzzle, and all must contribute for us to succeed. The world of finite resources and the feedback between the social sphere and natural world became important, when we looked at all the issues coming up. The LUMES programme was focused on understanding problems of sustainability, ability to analyse them and develop solutions. The students were encouraged to go home to their countries and be sustainability change makers. They understood that we could send no solutions back with them, but that they would be able to develop what would be needed after graduating from LUMES. What is described in this Perspective, goes ideologically back to that moment when what we had learned was put into a masters degree programme of how to teach young people to to understand, conceptualise and solve problems. We shaped the future of those students, and in turn they changed the way we were thinking as teachers and researchers.

Throughout my carreer, I have been open to changing direction by absorbing information from neighbouring disciplines into my engineering basis and using it to find things out. I started early with geochemistry and limnology working with lake liming and calcite dissolution kinetics (1981–1990) and moved on to build fish population and phophorus dynamics models (1986–1995), for lake management as well as what are considered to be the best awailable soil and water acidification models (1987-present). We pioneered the modelling of soil acidification and how to undertake mitigation on many levels (1988–2014), building all the key models used for critical loads and and for adaptive policy development. As a natural evolution, it moved on to sustainability in a much more integrated way. Over time, I found myself working in forestry science (1996–2010) based on biogeochemistry and biology, and we developed a long-term-plan for sustainable forestry management in Sweden, ranging from physical forest management, integrated soils management, strategic planning, and economics of sustainability to proposals for policy changes in Sweden.

I worked for a long time on geochemical laboratory experimentation and geochemical modelling (1985–1995), and created mechanistic weathering rate models that are built on fundamental chemistry and physics under field conditions (1983–1992, 1996–2014). Their performance remains without parallel to the present day. Some of the first versions of the geochemistry models were made 1988, and were refined in several steps in the years after. They continue to pass rigorous field tests and are the only available generic tools for calculating weathering rates for soils based on site properties, without calibration against an already known result.

In retrospect, I have changed my scientific emphasis about every 5 years, then moving into a new field, where I work my way to the frontier, building up a research team, each time bringing a steadily broadened experience with us. More recently, I moved into full sustainability science (2000-present), linking social systems, economic systems, human behaviour and the physical world of resources in human society. Sustainability is the focus of this Perspective, and the prehistory was necessary to get here. Not only as a description of my involvement in geochemistry, but also my recent intimate involvement with metallurgy, and metal industry, and becoming an industrial leader of large companies. All these experiences were an important part of being able to analyse and propose how to solve resource-related problems and issues.

1.1.3 Harald – On to business

In 2007, time had come to move over to industry. The family precious metal business had struggled for years and needed somebody new to take its lead and give it a new start. I moved back to Hamar, Norway, taking up the challenges of the precious metals factory. Studying chemical engineering and my academic research in all those different topics had prepared me for this challenge. I redirected the company towards metal recycling and refining, and the business soon started to boom. It was noticed that the company grew substantially and I was named Norwegian Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012 and also awarded the title of “Best business leader in Norway” the same year.

During my time in the industry, I kept up with current research, continued to publish scientific papers and remained active in several research fields. I started the work on modelling supply of metals, first with the core metals for the business; gold and silver. This was not only academic research, it was applied systems thinking science and very beneficial for the business also. As I was leading a precious metal business, I was in a prime location for having access to information on gold and silver, way beyond what any researcher in academia would ever have. At the end of 2013 I left my leadership position in the family business, but have continued to, from time to time, to start new innovative companies9.

1.1.4 Harald – Back to the grand cause

In 2014, I returned to academia and research, this time to the University of Iceland, as a professor of Industrial Engineering. Once back in the university world, my renewed focus is on the challenges of resource depletion and sustainability, how these things are coupled to the economy and the prosperity of nations. Also in focus for me is the fact that in spite of the imminent problems, almost no policy makers in any country are willing to lead the societal changes needed. I started working on this with my colleagues Deniz Koca and Vala, and we got up to speed fast. When we got awarded a new project in 2013 by the German Environmental Protection Agency at Berlin (SIMRESS), resource sustainability assessment modelling could take off. And, there is a lot to do…

1.1.5 Vala – the formative years

Sciences were always my favourite subjects at school, starting with maths in primary school, physics in middle school and chemistry in gymnasium. After spending a summer as a tour guide in the highlands of Iceland my chosen subject at University was geology with emphasis on geochemistry and petrology. I loved the challenges of these varied subjects, particularly the thermodynamics. After consulting with Stefán Arnórsson, my mentor from my undergraduate years in Iceland, the geochemistry of geothermal systems was what I chose for my PhD research at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA. A part of my thesis was field based on the geothermal system at Svartsengi SW Iceland (the current location of the well known Blue Lagoon) relating the composition of the fluid with that of the altered rock using thermodynamics. This was the first study that demonstrated that fluids in modern geothermal systems are at equilibrium with their host fluids. But most of my PhD research was spent on dissolving minerals at high temperature and pressure in the laboratory. Solubility studies included that of corundum (Al2O3) and quartz (SiO2), and how aluminium and silica moved in hydrothermal solutions (Ragnarsdottir and Walther, 1983, 1985; Ragnarsdottir et al., 1984). The experimental work I learned from my supervisor John Walther at Northwestern, ended up being the focus of my work until the late 1990s.

1.1.6 Vala’s early career in industry

After finishing graduate school I had a short stint working for a consulting firm in Chicago in the mid 1980s. The focus of our work was evaluating the fate and transport of contaminants from industrial sites, generally referred to as Superfund Sites, due to priority funding given by the US Congress to clean up the environment. Again using thermodynamics we puzzled with the aqueous mobility of, for example, chromium from a logging operation, where chromium had been used as a wood preservative. During this time I not only learnt about detrimental environmental pollution, I also worked closely with toxicologists to evaluate the impact on health of the local population. But project management did not excite me; I wanted to do research and was lucky to be invited to the laboratory of Claude Allègre in Paris for a year, where I learned isotope geochemistry.

When back at Northwestern I obtained a grant from the Department of Energy in the US to investigate the dissolution kinetics of zeolites. I was lucky to learn how to set up fluidised bed reactors from John Walther and Susan Carroll and set forth to solve the puzzle of zeolite stability in a future possible nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. When I moved to the University of Bristol in the late 1980s my first PhD student, Liz Bailey, worked on the solubility of uraninite (UO2) and thorianite (ThO2). I had fun with my post-doc Eva Valsami-Jones studying the sorption of rare earth elements (REE) to apatite, only to discover in collaboration with Andrew Putnis in Münster that what was really happening was precipitation of REE phosphate, causing the dissolution of the calcium apatite (Valsami-Jones et al., 1998). The REE thus acted as an apatite dissolution pump! In the years that followed I started working with Eric Oelkers and David Sherman on the structure and coordination of metals in high temperature aqueous solutions – including yttrium, antimony, tin and gold. To solve that puzzle we spent many a day and night at the Daresbury Synchrotron experimental facility in NW England, the armpit of the UK, as Eric “lovingly” called it. With PhD students we established the structure and behaviour of various sorbed metal complexes to mineral surfaces. The metals included uranium, cadmium, mercury, and gold. I also dipped into issues related to backfill materials for radioactive waste disposal, cement chemistry and stability, the link between soil trace elements and disease development (medical geology) with my friends Jane Plant at Imperial College, and the stability of pesticides in the natural environment. These studies were interdisciplinary involving amongst others biochemists, vets, medical doctors in addition to geochemists, of course. All these experiences were a firm foundation for the sustainability assessment focused on resources presented here, because sustainability science is truly trans-disciplinary.

1.1.7 A wakeup call

In the year 2000 I met the late Richard St George who was then the Director of the Schumacher Society. The society was founded in the memory of E.F. Schumacher, a German Economist, who lived in the UK. He is best known for writing Small is Beautiful (Schumacher, 1973) – a book that is hailed as the foundation of sustainability thinking in the 1970s. Richard and I discovered that we were both working on environmentally related issues, but I was working on environmental pollutants at the atomic scale whereas he was working on sustainability at the planetary scale. I felt that I had missed the big picture. Through our discussions I concluded that what I was doing was pretty worthless for the future of both mankind and the Earth. In retrospect I know that this was somewhat an overreaction. But I decided to switch my focus and start to work at a scale that included the whole Earth for the good of humanity and nature. It helped that around this time, I was invited by the United Nations Environment Programme on a Scientific Mission to Kosovo, to investigate the health and environmental risk due to the use of depleted uranium ammunition during the Balkan conflict. I was the only geochemist on the mission, chosen due to a book chapter that I had just completed with Laurent Charlet, Grenoble, on uranium biogeochemical behaviour in the environment. I then saw that I could contribute to the good of humans and nature. But the issue for me was, what could a geochemist really contribute to sustainability science, given that we know most of the problems, but have not found a way to change policies or our behaviour?

I found my sustainability niche first within societal sustainability action science, working with the people of Bristol through “sustainability café” discussions with colleagues, students and the public. These cafes became a lively part of city life and ended up having city government officers and politicians taking part. We discussed how a sustainable city might look like. We used visioning and back-casting to find steps from the sustainable future to the present. I went from being an unknown geochemistry professor in the city to being well-known by the public and policymakers alike. We started an internet discussion group which later was developed by one of my researchers, Matt Fortnam, into Ecojam (ecojambristol.org) that to this day links green thinkers in the city. It was both exciting and interesting to go from being a professor in geochemistry to being a facilitator and change maker in the sustainability realm. The City of Bristol applied to become the Green Capital of Europe in 2008, based largely on the vision from the cafes. After being short-listed a few times, the city is the Green Capital of Europe in 2015. This was the beginning of me thinking of science and science-based policy development.

1.1.8 The importance of resources

When working on city sustainability, several types of natural resources important for society caught my attention: water, soil, fossil fuels, metals and phosphorus. I decided to put my geochemistry expertise into soil science. Inspired by the definition of the Earth’s Critical Zone (the zone from treetop to the bottom of groundwater) by US colleagues in 2001, the Science special issue on soils in June 2004, and the call for Critical Zone research by my friend Susan Brantley at Penn State, I first joined forces with Steve Banwart at Sheffield and Liane G. Benning in Leeds to study the impact of fungi in weathering minerals. I then pulled together the disparate soil research community in the EU and colleagues from China and the US to develop research needs for soils as a system within the Critical Zone. This lead to a large EU funded project lead by Steven Banwart, where soil observatories were set up to integrate Critical Zone biogeochemical processes from plot scale to regional scale through modelling and up-scaling (www.soiltrec.eu). We also developed soil sustainability indicators and a framework for soil ecosystem services. Our work thus set a new vision for soil as an important resource and the results are being used by the European Commission to promote soil protection policies.

The year 2008 was important for furthering my development as a sustainability scientist. Then I was given the opportunity to introduce the subject of natural resource availability both orally and in writing. At the Goldschmidt Conference in Vancouver Dominique Weis invited me give a plenary lecture on The role of geochemists in the era of peak everything – and subsequently I was asked to write a Commentary for Nature Geoscience on Rare metals getting rarer, based on Business As Usual calculations (BAU).

In 2009, I started working with Harald Sverdrup on resources, because I realised that Business-As-Usual resource burn-off calculations were not sophisticated enough and systems dynamics modelling was needed, so that recycling of resources and population influence could be included in the analysis. We had known each other long before that, but now serious cooperation started. Sustainability moved to become the main theme through everything we did together. We first tackled phosphorus and presented our findings using systems dynamics models for phosphorus production at the Geochemistry of the Earth’s Surface conference in Boulder in 2011 (Ragnarsdottir et al., 2011; Sverdrup and Ragnarsdottir, 2011). I was then invited to write a book chapter, which I wrote with Harald and his colleague Dr. Deniz Koca and there we presented various scenarios for over 40 natural resources (Ragnarsdottir et al., 2012) and came to the conclusion that unless recycling increased dramatically and population growth was curbed, most of these resources would become scarce this century. The natural resource work has since continued, with detailed systems analysis and systems dynamics modelling, and some of the results are presented in this Perspective. On a more personal front, Harald’s frequent visits to Iceland lead to us learning to know each other more personally and we married on New Years Eve in 2011.

1.1.9 A new community

Many of my colleagues have told me that they miss me coming only seldomly to geochemistry conferences. It is not that I would not like to go. My students and co-workers do, but there are only so many conferences and workshops each year where you can attend. Instead I have chosen to further my sustainability thinking through sustainability related groups that include the Schumacher Society, mentioned above, in addition to the Balaton Group and more recently the Club of Rome, all important sustainability think-tanks. The Schumacher Society lead environmental thinking in the UK from the 1970s and I was fortunate to work closely with them from 2000–2008, and their knowledge and leadership was very important in developing my thinking. The Balaton Group was founded by Dennis Meadows and Donella Meadows in 1982, the very authors of Limits to Growth. I came to meet Dennis for the first time in September 2008 and this meeting was an important inspiration to continue to work on resources. Our scientific contributions in this field lead to me being invited to become a member the Club of Rome in 2014, the club that commissioned the Limits to Growth study in the early 1970s.

1.1.10 Science policy interface

My sustainability science work has lead to me being invited to be involved in policy work at various levels. In Iceland I have advised government ministers, parliamentarians and the city mayor of Reykjavik on issues relating to sustainability and the environment. From 2012–2014 I advised the government of Bhutan on how to integrate their Gross National Happiness (GNH) indicator into the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs – United Nations, 2014) being set for 2015–2030 (NDP Steering Committee, 2013; Ragnarsdottir et al., 2014b). This work lead me and others to thinking about new development indicators beyond GDP (Gross Domestic Product) (Costanza et al., 2013, 2014; Ragnarsdottir et al., 2014a) and the establishment of Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity. I have also been involved in policy work relating to the new economy in the UK (Green Econonomy Calition) and Germany (Federal Environment Ministry of Germany – UBA), for a research council in Sweden (MISTRA), and a green investment group in China (DeTao Institute of Green Investment). Currently I am working with the European Academies Science Advisory Council on developing advice for the EU on the Circular economy and with the Club of Rome on a Strategy for economic system change. And the latest research grant that I have been awarded with Harald by the EU is to train 12 PhD students in Adaptation to a new economic reality with colleagues in Stockholm and Clermont-Ferrand, France.

When I started working as a geochemist in the 1970s I never dreamt of having an influence on world development policies, or the green new economy! My journey from geochemistry to world development has been very exciting. Not only that. I am now considered an expert in sustainability science, a field that did not exist when I was a student. I am never happier than when I learn something new and all my life I have striven to learn something new every day.

1.1.11 A new story is needed

Our current development story has lead to environmental destruction, resource depletion and inequality. Inequality is on the rise within nations (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2011) and between nations (de Vogli, 2013). Eighty people own as much wealth as the poorer half of humanity, or 3.6 billion people (Oxfam, 2014). Now sustainability scientists of all genres must link together with governments and the world’s population to develop a new story that works both for the Earth and 100 % of humanity. I am proud to be a part of that new story.

1.2.1 Introduction

The ecological footprint10 is a measure of human demand on the Earth’s ecosystems. The footprint is a standardised measure of demand for natural capital that is contrasted with Earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996). It represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources the human population consumes and to assimilate associated waste. Globally we are now having an impact corresponding to an ecological footprint that would require more than one and a half Earths to sustain (WWF, 2014). The consequence of careless exploitation and consumption of our Earth’s resources has lead to global warming that is likely to result in 2 m sealevel rise this century (Jevrejeva et al., 2014) – putting most coastal cities on Earth under water. We have come to understand that the world is not only running into environmental limits but also into resource and energy limits. In this world the wealth is very unevenly distributed within and between nations (Kennedy, 1987; Wilkinson and Pickett, 2011; de Vogli, 2013; Piketty, 2014). This has lead to a plethora of societal problems and a poor quality of life for people across the world. These are very important sustainability issues. But in this Perspective we focus on natural resources and their imminent availability to society. Geochemistry is central to where we find resources and reserves, how we find them, how we extract them and why they are there. At the same time, to be socially relevant, these essential parts of geochemistry and geology must be assimilated with other knowledge such as that found in economics, engineering, sociology, political science and policy development. Geochemistry in integration with other sciences is thus very important for society for participating in solving sustainability problems. Natural scientists and engineers have one thing in common; they do know that you cannot negotiate with mass balance or thermodynamic principles, and if you try, huge trouble will follow.

The importance of resources is close to our hearts, and forms a part of the grand puzzle of Earth’s sustainability. Geosciences offer an important expertise to this field; geological knowledge is needed to understand that on one Earth with a large population and with slow biogeochemical processes relative to a human life- span, there are resource limits.

1.2.2 Scope

In this Perspective we focus on resources that are related to geological processes and deposits including:

  1. Resources required for food production; notably phosphorus from rocks and soils. These come from geological endowments with insignificant to zero regeneration rates.

  2. Energy resources; oil, gas, coal, peat, low grade carbon fuel sources, nuclear fuels including thorium and uranium; these come from geological sources with insignificant to no regeneration rates.

  3. Materials required for infrastructure, such as metals, sand, gravel, and stone, these come from geological sources with insignificant to no regeneration rates. Cement relies on carbonate and clay containing rocks, as well as energy from oil and coal.

  4. Soils have a very slow regeneration rate; they are sensitive to human management that leads to degradation of its quality and to physical erosion. At present Business As Usual, the soil erosion rates are from 10–1,000 times greater than the regeneration rate (Brantley et al., 2007), leading to a steady net loss of soils. Soil degradation is closely linked to food security.

We have not included renewable resources such as fish, biodiversity, and forests for the sake of space. However, these resources are only renewable as long as they are carefully managed – if not, they will be finite resources. Many forests and fish supplies are currently being consumed with limited understanding for the long-term outlook (Marchak, 1995), and thus every day the recovery potential from these resources decreases, for example:

  1. Forests can yield energy from burning wood, and structural materials such as building materials and paper products. Forest have a large regeneration capacity, but are easily destroyed by overexploitation and incompetent management. Forests live off dissolved solids from soils and nutrients provided by the biogeochemical process of the weathering of the underlying rocks and soil minerals. Thus, sustainable forestry has a strong geochemical perspective. Sustainable forestry is well researched, and understood. It can easily fill a book on its own; Harald has written forestry books, and interested readers are asked to consult these (e.g., Sverdrup and Stjernquist, 2002; Sverdrup et al., 2005). Sustainable forestry is partly or fully practised in some parts of the world (for example Sweden), however, in many regions forestry is poorly managed (for example Brazil or Indonesia) to the extent that we are perhaps irreversibly destroying our landscapes (Marchak, 1995). The shortcomings in forest management are not lack of knowledge, money or tehnology, but derive from lack of will because greed and profits come first. This field is outside the scope of this study, and is not further addressed here.

  2. Fishing in the global oceans has lead to the decline of over 80 % of all fish species (FAO, 2010,, 2011): 17 % are overexploited, 52 % are fully exploited and 7 % are depleted. Only 3 % are underexploited and only 1 % are recovering from depletion (Lövin, 2007). There is a huge need for sustainable fishery policies, but is not the scope of this Prespective.

  3. Renewable energy has several components:

    • Hydropower is a long-term sustainable energy source when designed and managed properly. The amount of energy that can be produced this way is large, and the need for finite resources like metals are minimal. However, the supply of water in many mountaineous areas of the world, depends on glacial melting. Global warming is likely to change this supply in many places, including the Himalayas.

    • Harvesting of solar heat is important, but has a narrow geochemical perspective so is not discussed here in detail. It can use passive systems, and needs very little resources if designed for that objective.

    • Harvesting of solar energy with photovoltaic technology is dependent on certain metals and elements being available and will be discussed from this perspective. The energy collected is renewable, but the materials in the technology are not. Thus, we refer to this as semi-renewable energy.

    • Biofuels are important and may be seen as an output from ecosystems like forests. Forests are in many aspects the best source of wood bioenergy, which when used reasonably, is sustainable in the long-term and has a reasonable energy return on investment (EROI). This is considered below when discussing fossil enegy dependence. Biofuel production may even net sequester CO2 if it is done correctly (Sverdrup and Stjernquist, 2002).

These resources are under certain conditions renewable, even if many are unsustainably exploited today. A re-newable resource that is mined implies that the extraction rate widely exeeds the regeneration rate.

Systems thinking and systems analysis, a short primer

One of the basic methods used to bind knowledge from any field into whole connected systems is called systems analysis. Since this is central to the topics discussed here we will take some time to explain how causal loop diagrams, the basis for systems analysis, work. Using systems analysis, we create the construction drawings for computer simulations models, which are referred to as systems dynamics models. As the reader will soon see, we use causal loop diagrams as defined by Senge (1990), Senge et al. (2008), Sterman (2000), Sverdrup and Svensson (2002, 2004), and Haraldsson and Sverdrup (2004) throughout this Perspective when we want to explain and show complex systems. The problem is analysed using systems analysis methods, and clarified using causal loop diagrams. The main tool is called the causal loop diagram. Imagine we have a CAUSE that gives an EFFECT. It makes a basic causal loop diagram (Fig. 1.5):

The diagram in Figure 1.5 shows that the CAUSE creates the EFFECT. The plus (+) on the arrow says that the more cause we have, the more effect we get. It is not sufficient that CAUSE and EFFECT are correlated, there must be a real casualisation. After drawing an arrow from CAUSE to EFFECT we ask: does EFFECT have any feedback on CAUSE? If it does, we need to draw another arrow, from EFFECT to CAUSE. If more EFFECT gives more CAUSE, we mark the line with (+), if it is less it will be a (−).

When this is done, we ask again, is there something else that is affected? Normally there is an effect on something else. And then we draw an arrow from CAUSE to SOMETHING ELSE, naming it what it really is (Fig. 1.6a) and is an extension of Figure 1.5 shown above.

And then we ask more or less and put the (+) or (−) signs on the arrow. And if SOMETHING ELSE has any effect on the EFFECT parameter, it could be as shown in the figure above. In the Causal Loop Diagram (CLD) we have two closed loops, one marked with B and one other marked with R.

If we follow the B loop (Fig. 1.6b), starting at CAUSE, then if it has an uneven number of (−) signs, an increase in CAUSE will come back and cause less increase in CAUSE (CAUSE gives more EFFECT, more EFFECT gives more CAUSE). We call this a Balancing Loop (B). For the other loop, an increase in CAUSE will cause an increase in EFFECT, but and increase in EFFECT will cause a decrease in CAUSE.

We may follow the R loop in similar fashion (Fig. 1.6c). More CAUSE gives more SOMETHING ELSE, more SOMETHING ELSE gives less EFFECT, and less EFFECT gives more CAUSE. An increase comes back as an increase, and is a Reinforcing Loop (R). You can find this explained in detail for larger systems in books like Senge (1990), Sterman (2000), Haraldsson and Sverdrup (2004), Sverdrup et al. (2013a).

We also use flow charts as a complementary tool to causal loop diagrams. Flow charts are what one could call “plumbing diagrams” of a system. They show how things flow, from where to where. Thus, a simple flowchart for iron would look like this:

Iron is stored in each box in Figure 1.7, thus, everywhere we only count iron in and out of boxes. The arrows are the fluxes (flows) between the boxes (stocks), how iron goes from one box to the other. Preferably, the flows/arrows are expressed with verbs, and those verbs should appear in the causal loop diagrams. We should be able to name what is kept in a box with a noun. For every commodity or countable entity we handle in our system, we make a flowchart. Together, the flow chart and the causal loop diagram uniquely define the computer simulation model we build afterwards, independent of which software or programming language we use. The systems diagrams are the graphical pictures we use to describe our mental model.

1.2.3 Cassandra’s prophecies – All the early warnings not heeded

Humans are by constitution opportunistic, and thus also optimistic when it comes to problems. History has shown that humans are not likely to take predictions seriously, but rather improvise as they go and hope for the best – hence easily ignoring warnings and only listening to what confirms their wishes. This human trait is epitomised in the ancient legend of Cassandra. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hekuba of Troy, the city of the Illiad by Homer. That would place her life around 1260–1210 BC. A version of her story is that Apollo gave her the power of prophecy to seduce her, but when she refused him, he gave her the curse of never being believed. In an alternative version, she fell asleep in a temple, and snakes licked her ears so that she was able to hear the future, a divine gift. Snakes as a source of knowledge are a recurring theme in Mycaenean or Minoan mythology (Fig. 1.4), although sometimes the snake brings understanding of the language of animals rather than an ability to know the future. Below we will explore some of the historical early warnings of resource depletion, that have been ignored by society and have lead us to the resource exhaustion crisis we face today.

1.2.4 Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) was an English scholar, influential in the fields of political economy and demography. He thought that the dangers of population growth precluded progress towards an utopian society and that sooner or later population would be checked by famine and disease – leading to what is referred to as a Malthusian catastrophe (also referred to as the Malthusian check). This catastrophe was his prediction of forced return to subsistence-level conditions once population growth had outpaced agricultural production. In Malthus’ own words “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man” (Malthus, 1798). Malthus argued that two types of checks hold population within resource limits: positive checks, which raise the death rate (e.g., hunger, disease, war); and preventative ones (e.g., later marriages), which lower the birth rate (Malthus, 1798). Malthus argued against the possibility that agricultural improvement could expand without limits as he realised that the world was finite. Malthus was a very controversial figure in his lifetime and certainly few were listening to his warnings against resource limits and population growth. He was way before his time. During our education as geologist and engineer, Malthus’ insights were never discussed.

1.2.5 Hubbert’s Peak Oil

Marion King Hubbert (1903–1989) was a resource geologist at the multinational oil company Shell. In 1956, he published an oil production curve which came to be known as Hubbert’s model. It was a simple procedure for estimating the total volume of oil in a well to predict the rise in production, peak production rate and decline in production as the reservoir was emptied. The Hubbert curve and Hubbert peak theory laid the foundation for his prediction that is known today as peak oil production or Peak Oil. Hubbert first produced a bell shaped oil production curve in 1956. He went on to use it regularly for reliable production estimates for oil, and later also for uranium and coal. At first his model became appreciated for its reliable service in resource production estimates, but as time went by, and talk of resource limitations became politically less opportune, attempts were made to discredit Hubbert’s method. However, the method is easy to use and it is very easy to prove that it works on field data, and oil companies continue to use it internally (Al-Husseini, 2009; Aleklett et al., 2012; Bardi, 2013; Campbell, 2013).

Vala became first aware of Peak Oil when she was introduced to the work of oil geologist Colin Campbell (Campbell and Laherrere, 1998; Campbell, 2004, 2013). Campbell founded the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) in the year 2001. ASPO has organised annual conferences since 2002 and has gained recognition over the past decade. Campbell is given the credit for convincing the International Energy Agency in 2004 of the coming Peak Oil. He went on to publish an atlas of oil reserves, providing all his knowledge of oil reserves collected over 40 years into the public domain for all to see. It is now accepted from production data published by the major oil companies, that the production peak for conventional oil occurred in 2005–2007, and unconvential and exotic reserves are now keeping the production up (Al-Husseini, 2009; Aleklett et al., 2012; Campell, 2013; Bardi, 2013; Ragnarsdottir et al., 2014a). Dr. Ugo Bardi of University of Firenze, Italy, verified the peak behaviour of other types of oil and for other natural resources such as metals (Bardi, 2011). The Peak Oil phenomena is not something anyone has the liberty to believe in or not, it is a physical fact of extraction from any finite source and mass balance, and does not lend itself to belief. As will become evident as you read further, we have in this volume used Hubbert peak curves to represent observed and predicted resource extraction for oil, coal, metals, phosphorus and other resources.

1.2.6 Limits to Growth – We have followed the standard run

The systems dynamics pioneer Jay Wright Forrester (1918–), Professor of Systems Engineering at MIT in Cambridge, USA, wrote a book entitled World Dynamics in 1971 where he used systems analysis and systems dynamics computer models to investigate the interaction of population growth with resource use. The Club of Rome11 noted his work and commissioned the research that lead to the Limits to Growth Report in 1972. The Club of Rome funded Dennis Meadows, who was then a PhD student with Jay Forrester, to develop the principles, to programme the model and run detailed world scenarios. Dennis assembled a team of scientists to work with him, including Donella Meadows, Jörgen Randers and William Behrens III. Their report was published in 1972 (Meadows et al., 1972) and presented at a meeting of the Club of Rome. Their main message was that a limited planet will run into resource depletion, which in turn will lead to economic decline, and if unchecked, the depletion would occur soon after the year 2000 with economic decline following early in the 21st century. The report was followed up with a full documentation (Meadows et al., 1974) and subsequent updates (Meadows et al., 1992, 2004). At first it received a lot of attention (e.g., Kanninen, 2013) but soon the doubters from the school of infinite resources won the debate, leading to the study being largely ingored (e.g., Nørgård et al., 2010). We argue, that the major reason why the Limits to Growth report was not taken as a warning was, that very few people understand systems analysis, let alone can build system dynamics programmes. The report was heeded as the report without numbers, but what people did not realise was that systems analysis maps out causes and effects and every component is linked with mathematical equations that are limited by laws of physics. Therefore the Limits to Growth scenarios were based on fundamental science. Through time, observations have shown that the “standard run” scenario of Limits to Growth, that was built on Business As Usual behaviour, has been followed (Meadows et al., 1992, 2004; Turner, 2008, 2012, 2014; Bardi, 2011, 2013; Sverdrup et al., 2013a). Field tests thus have shown that humans were wrong in ignoring the major recommendations of the Limits to Growth report: curb population growth, limit resource use and halt environmental degradation (Fig. 1.8).

Through participation with Dennis Meadows in the Balaton Group, we learned what an immense undertaking the Limits to Growth study actually was. Huge amounts of scientific work were put into the basis for the model, and this is documented in one of their least read books, that is 800 pages long (Meadows et al., 1974). The Limits-to-Growth team got access to the MIT large mainframe computer at night where they carried with them a huge number of boxes of punch cards, and scenarios in their World3 programme took weeks to run. Computational resources in the 1970s were not as they are today. Dennis Meadows once told us that he very much regrets that the World3 model lumped together natural resources and fossil fuels, making it difficult for people to see the looming energy crisis that we have reached today, even if the Limits to Growth team was very aware of it in 1972. But they had to limit complexity to have a model that would be executable in a reasonable timeframe with the computers available.

We can contrast World3 (Meadows et al., 1972) with our WORLD (beta version) model (Sverdrup et al., 2013c), which is much more detailed and can be run on a laptop in minutes. This is due to the enormous advances in computing power in 40 years. WORLD has much in common with the World3 model and takes a lot of inspiration and actual parts from the earlier work. As in World3 the work presented here is built on systems dynamics submodules that are linked together in WORLD, and different scenarios are made to investigate possible outcomes. In the new WORLD model, every resource is taken individually as a sub-module and therefore it is possible to see the interaction of every one of them with rising population, the economy and the interplay between resource prices, supply and demand.

As outlined above, the Meadows team encountered fierce resistance soon after publishing the Limits to Growth report. It was evident that they had stirred up strong forces that felt threatened by the concepts of a world that was not endless. Their work was attacked and significant efforts were made to discredit it, using largely rhetorical and political arguments. Afterwards, when we scrutinise the criticism, it stands out how scientifically weak the arguments used were and how political and ideological the argumentation was (Turner, 2008, 2014; Bardi, 2013). Further support for their 1972 outcomes is that World3 outputs compare well to data gathered over the 40 years since the study was completed (Fig. 1.8; see Turner, 2014 for more information). To understand the fierceness of the criticism, it is important to understand how limitless resource extraction has bestowed privileges and power on certain groups and people, and that a world of limits also implies limits to those privileges and power. No wonder there was a lot of noise.

In 40 years, however, the world has not changed in many respects when it comes to acceptance of limits. Many economic activities are based on the concept that the world is endless and limitless. Even if many engineers, geochemists and geologists know that this is wrong, there are many others in banking, finance, law or policy that do not. Therefore raising awareness is important, and in this Perspective we show how we may come to notice the limits of our finite resource in our life-times. We believe that we, as geochemists and engineers, must be ready to stand up for the foundation of science and defend that mass balance and the laws thermodynamics cannot be negotiated.

1.2.7 New Scientist and Nature Geoscience

In 2007, the New Scientist brought the looming resource depletion to the forefront in an article entitled Earth’s natural wealth: an audit. This article caught Vala’s attention, and she followed up with an invited commentary in Nature Geoscience (Ragnarsdottir, 2008). In writing her article, she wanted to bring Earth scientists to think about resources as the fundamental basis for our society. This quest was also at the centre of Vala’s Geoscientist article (Ragnarsdottir et al., 2014a). But the issue of sustainable resource supply to society has been a serious concern long before Vala’s papers and before and after the Meadows and co-workers (Meadows et al., 1972, 1992, 2004) studies. Studies before Limits to Growth include Malthus (1798), Hubbert (1956), Pogue and Hill (1956), and Forrester (1971) and studies after include Tainter (1988), Costanza and Daly (1992), Daily and Ehrlich (1992), Daily et al. (1994), Cohen (1995), Campell and Laherrere (1998), Heinberg (2001, 2005, 2011), Bardi (2005, 2007, 2008, 2009a,b, 2013), Costanza et al. (2005), Diamond (2005), Hirsch et al. (2005), Aleklett (2007), Cohen (2007), Ehrlich and Goulder (2007), Bardi and Pagani (2008), Brown (2009b), Jackson (2009), Rockström et al. (2009), Morrigan (2010), Nashawi et al. (2010), Ragnarsdottir et al. (2011), Sverdrup and Ragnarsdottir (2011), Graedel et al. (2011), Graedel and Erdmann (2012), Randers (2012), Sverdrup et al. (2013a,b,c, 2014a,b), Nuss et al. (2014), and Stanway (2014). These studies have hitherto unfortunately shared the fate of Cassandra. The studies are well documented and researched, and are supported by data, strongly telling us that there is reason for collective concern, and that natural resource limitations should receive wide attention and be further studied. Hence this Perspective.

1.3.1 The beginning of metals

When humans started to use metals for making tools, everything changed, eventually leading to modern society (Champion et al., 1984; Rostoker and Bronson, 1990; Reardon, 2011; Murr, 2014). Two metals started it off; gold and copper. Metals were known as rarities earlier, but about 6,000 BC, these began to be mined in volume. The age of metals had begun. From the very beginning, gold was used as a measure of value and copper was used for tools that could not be made from stone or anything else.

The first metal man discovered and learned to use was probably gold. In caves from the Palaeolithic with habitation traces in France and Spain (some of them have the famous cave paintings from this age and later), small lumps of gold have been found, obviously brought there in or around 40,000 BC (Vronsky, 1997). It was, however, not handled in any amounts until about 7,000–6,000 BC when gold objects of status emerge in significant amounts. Gold was discovered early because it occurs as a native metal in nature. Gold occurs in the oldest city developments in Europe – Varna in Bulgaria is a good example as well as Sitagroi and Lerna in Greece (Champion et al., 1984). There gold is found that originated maybe as early as 8,000 BC, and gold is associated with the growth of the first cities in Europe, which were seats of centralised power. In South America gold was known since 2,100 BC, always as ceremonial objects and jewellery – in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. Gold was from the very beginning considered to be a bearer of value (Keatinge, 1988; Hosler, 1999; Horz, 2000). It was found to be indestructable, rare and to have the same colour as the sun. It became a symbol of wealth of kings and nobles, and the first money of the world was cast in gold.

Copper, was discovered around 6,000 BC. The technology to extract copper was developed somewhere in the Balkans-Anatolian area, but the metal was named after the island of Cyprus. Copper was the first metal to be used for tools, for which it is quite suitable. From around 6,000 BC pure copper was used; hammering of copper rendered it harder because mechanical changes occurred in the crystal structure and tools were made of it. By 4,000 BC copper sheet was produced, by 2,500 BC it was sometimes naturally alloyed with arsenic, tin or lead to make bronze. By 2,000 BC, tin ore deposits were discovered and tin was smelted and used to make standard bronze alloy. By 4,000–3,600 BC copper was smelted in Levant and Anatolia and worked on an industrial scale. The copper-bronze age started in the Nile Valley in North Africa, in southern Spain and in Anatolia (the modern territory of Turkey), marking the beginning of a metal-based economy. By 2,500 BC, copper tools were available throughout society (Champion et al., 1984; Renfrew, 1994). Bronze working appears about 1,900–1,850 BC in China as a fully developed technology, from where it probably arrived by cultural diffusion. Copper started about 1,400 BC in the Andes in South America, based on smelting and hot working of the metal. Arsenic bronze makes especially good weapons, and occurred naturally from some of the ores that were mined. Copper extraction reached industrial scale with the Moche civilisation in Peru (200 BC–600 AD). Tumbaga was a commonly used alloy (80 % copper, 15 % silver and gold 5 %). It was leached with acid to create a golden surface, by first removing the copper, and then the silver. The Tumbaga alloy technology spread slowly north, reaching Costa Rica by 800 BC. Copper, silver and gold metallurgy spread to all of South America by 1,000 BC (Keatinge, 1988; Bruhns, 1994; Horz, 2000). Tin was first discovered around 2,000 BC, in Mesopotamia and the Zagros mountains. Tin is a rare metal and it was always in short supply, and expensive. It was necessary for making bronze out of copper, bronze being harder than pure copper and easier to work, and with a slightly lower melting point, making it easier to cast. Zinc was discovered around 600 BC in India. Brass became an important substitute for bronze because it did not need tin, which was scarce. Brasses are based on zinc (copper-zinc alloy, brass) and lead (copper-lead alloy, billion). Brass occurs in Judea (1,000 BC) and Greece (700 BC), implying that zinc was used in alloys before being aware of it as a metal on its own.

Silver was discovered not long after gold (6,000–5,000 BC); it also occurs as native metal in nature, and this was how it was first found. The old production method was to extract it from lead, and the oldest dated silver-lead slag heaps in the Aegean are from about 4,000 BC. Silver like gold became a measure of value, and served as a medium for payment long before the first coin was made. Copper, silver and gold are unique in the sense that they represent the first kind of money, even before it was minted. Silver mining on a limited scale started at the same time as copper in South America (1,400 BC).

Lead was discovered around 3,500 BC in Egypt. It is easily reduced from sulphide ore with charcoal and melts and settles in the bottom of a fire. It contains silver in small amounts, and was among the first silver ores to be exploited (Laurion in Attica, Greece, archaeological finds suggest that lead mining here may go back to this time). The Romans used lead pipes for water supply, in cups and storing vessels and it has been suggested that lead poisoning was a contribution to the decline of the Romans. In the 20th century, it was found to be very toxic, and in Europe and the United States, legislation has been passed to phase it out of industrial use. One day in the future, we will probably no longer use it.

Iron was known in small amounts from meteorites (from about 3,500 BC in Egypt). Where the first meteorite was found is not known, but the etymology of the word for it is derived from an ancient word for star. Meteorites are the only source of iron in metallic form. Smelting of iron from oxide ore was first discovered in Anatolia and produced in some amounts through smelting by the Hittites from about 1,500–1,200 BC. From then on it became a bulk commodity and replaced other metals for weapons used in warfare. With the coming of the iron-age (1,300 BC to 700 BC), iron became the metal for making tools and was produced in large amounts (Champion et al., 1984; Rostoker and Bronson, 1990).

Mercury was probably discovered in Italy around 1,600 BC, but it took until about 800 BC for it to be produced in significant amounts. It was used in gold and silver mining, as these metals dissolve in mercury. In 400 BC, mercury distillation was discovered. It is very toxic and is to be completely banned for all use by 2020 in Europe (UN/ECE-LRTAP; Nilsson, 1988).

1.3.2 The beginning of fossil fuels

Peat was the first fossil fuel to be widely used, starting in early prehistoric times. The first people to use coal were the Chinese, but the British were the first to use it on an industrial scale. Coal has been known since 200 AD in China. Marco Polo, the Italian traveller, tells how the Chinese burn black stones to get intense heat and use it for steel production (da Pisa about 1300, reprinted 1958). From about 1680, the use of coal for steel making and to power machines picked up as the British industrial revolution started. Three things made the fossil fuel age take off. Firstly it was the spread of the shareholder company in a secular free market, subject to rule of impartial law and abolishment of guilds and monopolies. Secondly it was the invention of steam and combustion engines, converting heat to motion, greatly increasing military power, transportation mobility and increasing human workforce efficiency (Kennedy, 1987; Diamond, 1997; Acemoglu and Robinson, 2013). Thirdly was the development of efficient state institution, including an impartial stystem of justice protecting ownership and intellectual rights (Fukuyama, 2011, 2014). This became the foundation of the British Industrial Empire, where the primary energy source was coal. From 1840, the industrial revolution started throughout Europe.

The use of oil goes all the way back to before antiquity. Oil has been known since 3,000 BC in Mesopotamia. The Greek historian Herodotos relates how the city walls of Babylon were glued together with tar instead of cement, and how the streets had asphalt surfaces at the time of the great Persian kings (650 BC). This oil originated from local sources where oil came to the surface. In China, oil was also used industrially very early, and the first oil wells were drilled down to a depth of 240 metres as early as in 347 AD. The oil was transported in bamboo pipelines to nearby salt refineries (Shen Kuo, 1088; Bodde, 1991; Al-Hassani, 2008).

The industrial oil age started in 1870s. It was not until oil was discovered in the United States in the 1860s that it became a major global source of energy for industry and propulsion of ships, trains, cars, and most recently aircraft. It provided the driving force of the American industrialisation and buildup of the American Empire. Cheap energy is a must for building up Empires, and once that is no longer available, then empires tend to contract or dissolve (Kennedy, 1987; Diamond 1997). After the British Empire experienced peak coal in 1890, the decline of the British Empire came gradually. The British Empire was dismantled in 1945, or about 50–60 years after the peak production of coal. The American Empire went through peak energy in 1970–1980, and therefore by analogy we could expect the American Empire to contract around 2020–2030, unless new, long-term sustainable energy sources are developed.

1.3.3 The issue of what is long-term and what is sustainable

In this Perspective, we will relate metals to what they are needed for, what the planetary capacity for delivering them would be, and discuss possibilities of what could happen if those planetary capacities are challenged. Alternatively, considering how important metals are for human civilisation, what would it take to make them last? History goes both ways. We learn about the past when we go to elementary school, and read about it as adults, and what we learn from history can inform us about the future. Humans have the ability to plan for the future but we are not good at planning for the long-term future. Sustainability demands very long-term planning because it concerns the present as well as the future that belongs to future generations. Any assessment must go beyond all delays in the system to be scientifically serious. Thus, we must discuss what those delays are and how long they are.

1.3.4 Future generations, time aspects and what constitutes a proper time horizon

By over consuming the Earth’s resources we are robbing future generations of possibilities for a good life. Closing our eyes will not make the issue go away. In what follows we will use the term “doomsday” for the point after which society will not have, or will not want to have access to any metals, and thus will be in deep trouble. It is a troubling concept for many, as it has complicated and challenging ethical implications and large ramifications for generations to come. We have experienced that many people get upset or angry when such issues are brought up, but in our view being angry is not a very scientific argument. We have personally experienced that this discussion is willingly avoided by many colleagues (discussed by Carter and McCrea, 1983; Gott III, 1993, 1994; Boetteke, 1997; Leslie, 1998; Hall et al., 2001; Ainsworth and Sumaila, 2003; Greer, 2008; Hall, 2008; Morrigan, 2010; Heinberg, 2011 among others; see also Sverdrup and Svensson (2002, 2004) for a discussion of time and sustainability). Discussing future metal, materials or energy shortages raises questions many colleagues often find disturbing or unpleasant to discuss.

Sustainability should thus be determined by first thinking over how long it is envisioned that we intend society to last with access to resources and intact supporting ecosystems. Do we want our society to exist and prosper for the next 3, 10, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 years? For whatever we choose, the planning horizon must be long. If shorter periods are chosen, for example 200 years, then that implies that we do not care about the consequences after those 200 years have passed (“doomsday” might arrive, but we do not care). The most usual justification given is “…we cannot make predictions with any accuracy for more than 100 years, and who knows, by the way, what kind of political system will rule then….”. Just taking for granted that in 200 years “someone smart” will have come up with a solution to fix all problems arising from what we do now, is a bad excuse for not taking full responsibility for our own actions.

When it comes to the time perspective, we may take reflections from several authors on what is long-term (Renfrew, 1989, 1994; Daily and Ehrlich, 1992; Daily et al., 1994; van Andel, 1994; Sverdrup, 1999; Gibbard and van Kolfschoten, 2004; MacDougall, 2004; Kukla, 2005; Raynaud, et al., 2005; Fagan, 2008). Their main take on long-term is that it must, from a systemic perspective, include 3 times the length of the longest significant delay in the system. History shows us that these are on the order of magnitude of centuries. This includes time to build a city or grow a forest, length of a human life, time to turn over carbon in the soil, or deplete the local copper mine. Denmark has existed as an identifiable country for 1,600 years, and a good house will last 300 years. Thus long-term is never shorter than 300 years, but normally very much longer.

1.3.5 On technology

Experience (common sense we could say) shows that sustainability must be planned on the basis of what we do, and not what we know today, and without basing our continued existence on wonders that we hope will occur in the future and without ruining the resources for those that come after us. This is what the history lessons in school really were about. Possibilities about getting metals from asteroids, natural gas from Jupiter or Saturn, nickel from the Earth’s core or copper from the oceans are only excuses for inaction, basing our hopes on naïve dreams. These proposals are made by people that lack the understanding of geochemistry and geology. They lack understanding about how ores are formed and how long the processes take that concentrate them, and they lack the ability to realistically assess the energy balance of such proposals.

1.4.1 Environmental limits and sustainability

Many talk about sustainability, but very few know what it stands for. Harald started thinking about it early in the 1990s and tried to publish articles on how sustainability was to be defined and how to make quantitative estimates for it. However, it soon became apparent that the academic community was not ready for it. Harald remembers how in his youth, his father Rolv would throw trash out of the car window while driving and replying to him when he protested: “Son, get it, the world is endless!” In elementary school in Norway in the mid 1960s, we were taught about environmental pollution and protecting the environment, but to our parent’s generation this was something they never had received any teaching in. They were probably taught that the world was endless, and in many ways it was endless at that time.

Until very recently, this was also the mindset of scientific journal editors and many of our colleagues, and the whole sustainability discussion was seen as being “new age”, “unscientific speculations” and “far out.” As one editor of a well-known Swedish scientific journal asked: “Why should a chemical engineer worry about sustainability, and is it at all necessary?” The attitude was surprising to us then, but it occurred so many times after that, that it would be dishonest to deny that it happened. Vala, similarly was told by uneasy colleagues in the UK at the beginning of this millennium: “It is not in my job contract to save the world.” In this context it is interesting to note that many of the advances in sustainability science have not come from academia, but from mavericks and NGO’s. This becomes evident when we investigate when sustainability academic journals were founded. Sustainability Science was launched in 2006, Journal of Sustainable Development in 2008, Sustainability in 2009 and Journal of Sustainability Science and Management in 2009. Therefore it has been difficult for researchers to get established in this new scientific field.

In Scandinavia, two issues were important in raising the awareness of environmental issues by the middle of the sixties. The first issue was the pollution of waterways and lakes with sewage from cities and farms, leading to eutrophication. This included nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from sewage piped to the nearest stream or lake, the use of detergents containing phosphates, and the practice of spreading cow manure on fields in the spring. These activities collectively polluted lakes and rivers so badly that eutrophication was widespread. The affected lakes turned into something that looked like yellow soup, and they smelled bad. The bathing season was ruined by the stink of the polluted waters. The yellow stuff was algal blooms, fish died and this made the public aware that humans had large-scale effect on the environment. In Harald’s home town Hamar, on Norway’s largest lake Mjøsa, the authorities were very reluctant to undertake an investigation and carry through needed remedies, such as building sewage treatment plants and pass necessary regulations on farming. Spontaneously, a majority of the housewives all around Lake Mjøsa created the “Mjøsaksjonen” informal network through telephoning (this was before the internet). They boycotted the use of phosphate detergents to the degree that their sales in the shops collapsed, and the companies making them had a major surprise when they could no longer sell their product. The “Mjøsaksjøen” made it to the national news headlines. This woke up the regional community, shocked the local politicians that now worried about the next election, and then things started to happen fast. Harald’s mother was on the “Mjøsaksjonen” informal organising committee, and there was a lot of talk about it at the dinner table home in Hamar (1970–1973). It affected Harald – he could see the pollution in the lake, and that his mom acted as an activist to fight against it. Harald’s father was flabberghasted, but Harald was proud of her. The Lake Mjøsa pollution made environmental damage real to normal people. It showed him the need for action, and that when people unite, necessary change can happen in spite of politicians initially wanting to hush everything up.

The second issue was acid rain that caused the fish in upland lakes in Sweden and in salmon rivers in Norway to disappear, and it was discovered that the acid rain came from far away, from polluting industries of Great Britain, Netherlands, France and Germany. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the damage to lakes and sport fishing was so widespread that the issue got scientific attention in Oslo, Gøteborg and Uppsala. Many of the famous Norwegian salmon rivers no longer had any fish due to acid rain. Scandinavians are outdoor people, fishing in lakes and rivers and outdoor hiking is serious business to us. This helped to put the environment on the National political agendas, and it was significantly helped by the fact that we, people in Sweden and Norway suffered, whereas the perpetrators were abroad (in Great Britain, France, Germany etc.). It is therefore no coincidence that the first UN Conference on the environment was held in Stockholm in 1972 – with a follow up of the foundation of the United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP).

Harald encountered the pollution issue when he worked one summer during his gymnasium time (1971–1973) in Hamar for the Norsk Institutt for Vannforskning (NIVA) assisting in a follow up project for the rescue of Lake Mjøsa. At NIVA Harald also heard about lake and stream acidification problems. In Scandinavia, research programmes started to describe the issues, but only much later they attempted to try to find solutions. There were TV and newspaper coverages and the environment as a concept made its way into both researcher’s and layman’s minds. As with the discussion of health effects and tobacco smoking, there were always “skeptics” among the scientists that protested against humans having anything to do with environmental damage. But they isolated themselves with their closed minds from the new issues. With time environmental problems and sustainability issues have become so globally pervasive, that these attitudes have largely vanished and are no longer socially or academically accepted.

Large amounts of money were used for acid rain research, and the necessity of solving the problem lead to considerable geochemical innovations in soil chemistry modelling. Acid rain research, that Harald was actively involved with, helped frame new problems for geochemistry. The field was much advanced through the development of new models for soil chemistry, soil ion exchange processes, and soil water complexation reactions. Harald built a new type of system dynamics model for silicate weathering and the interaction of geochemical processes with biological processes of trees, plants, micro-organisms, fish and/or animals. Traditional geochemists were not always involved in this, but the field was moved significantly and quickly forward by occurring environmental problems being tackled by new types of trans-disciplinary research teams such as at the University of Lund.

There are different ways to define sustainability, and some even make a point of saying it is not definable. We think there are basically two definitions; the detailed one given in one of the first textbooks on Sustainability Science by Bert de Vries (2013) and the simple one. A simple definition was given by the Emperor Augustus of the Roman Empire in relationship to the engineering of the future Imperial Roman road network as we have related earlier. He defined a sustainable plan to be “A plan that could be followed forever, without ruining the functions of the Roman Empire.” Our friend and sustainability trainer Alan Atkinson (Atkinson, 2008) defines sustainability as “A set of conditions and trends in the given system that can continue indefinitely.” As a follow up, sustainable development is defined by Atkinson as “A directed process of continuous innovation and systemic change in the direction of sustainability.” We have adopted the definition of Atkinson for both sustainability and sustainable development.

There are several terms for sustainability that are being used, and we need to consider which of those are adequate, inadequate, sufficient or necessary. Below we discuss the following five central concepts: sustainable society, sustainable growth, sustainable development, growth and de-growth, overshoot and contraction.

  1. Sustainable society. This is a society that can go on for as long as we can reasonably foresee. It is not dependent on growth, but may persist and prevail at a steady level. It is achievable under certain conditions. There would be growth within the sustainability limits, accompanied by de-growth of what is in excess of the sustainability limits. Growth and de-growth would balance each other over the long-term, like waves that rise and fall (Fig. 1.9). Overall, the resource use stays within the sustainability limits (at or below the dotted line in Fig. 1.9). There are sustainability limits for the biophysical system, the social system and their interface, and correspondingly the economic system. For a sustainable system overall sustainability in all aspects of this complex system is required.

  2. Sustainable growth. There is no real consensus on how this concept is to be uniquely understood. Sustainable growth was a focus from the Brundtland Commission (United Nations, 1987), and is useful in starting the discussions about the unsustainability of the present civilisation. The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable growth as “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It sounds great, but on closer inspection of the contents of the actual report text, how the definition was interpreted has some problematic features. It appears from the text that the authors of the report allow for continued growth in a finite world. It does not address the conflicts built into the definition. Perpetual growth is not possible in a finite world (Fig. 1.10). Such a system can readily overshoot. We would have problems covering the needs of the present, and we could not manage the transition to sustainability and we are likely to ruin the possibilities of future generations. The Brundtland definition was useful because it made the necessity of sustainability evident and pointed towards the need to come up with solutions. But the definition itself is no more than a starting point. It is flavoured by political correctness, and implies unlimited growth. If it is interpreted to imply that we could have sustainable growth within sustainability limits, and de-growth of what is not sustainable, then it matches the definition under item 1 or 3. The physcicist Arthur Allan Bartlett is known for stating: “The greatest imperfection of mankind is that it does not understand the consequences of exponential growth.”

  3. Sustainable development is about developing within the sustainability frames that exist for society – or steps towards sustainability as defined by Atkinson (2008). It implies that there are quantifiable limits to physical consumption and to materials use losses, limits to natural system acceptable damage, and that development must be understood under such conditions. Sustainable development implies development within the sustainability boundaries (the dotted line in both Figs. 1.9 or 1.11). It can mean material and energy consumption contraction and convergence (as suggested for carbon; Meyer, 2000), and for societies in resource overshoot, contraction for all. It means that for some situations, we may be wise to be considering supplying sufficiency for many before affluency for a few. Sustainable development does not only have physical aspects, but also involves development of the social sphere and of society’s structures (Costanza and Daly 1992; Costanza and Daily, 1992; Sverdrup and Svensson, 2003). In our CONVERGE project we also tackled the issue of equality in economic terms.

  4. Growth and de-growth. The world has had economic growth almost without interruption for almost 120 years. Many think this is the normal state of the world and think about decline, contraction or de-growth as a disaster. However, this is a misconception. Growth and de-growth are continuously present in society, as some business areas grow and some contract, as some countries have growth years and some have decline years because of population changes, their underlying resource is exhausted or other factors that can cause a local economy to temporarily decline. In a finite world, we can have periods of net total growth for a while, or total de-growth, or it can be intermixed, but both will always be there. In the pre-fossil fuel world this used to be the normal state. Net total growth means that there is more growth than de-growth. Growth or de-growth have no direct value in themselves, they represent only ways for positioning society relative to the sustainability limits of society. When we jump out of the envelope into overshoot, we would need some net system de-growth to come back into the sustainability envelope; when we have extra carrying capacity, we can allow growth to get to full potential (Fig. 1.9). In the very long-term, net growth will always be compensated by more de-growth if the system has moved above the carrying capacity of the system.

  5. Overshoot and contraction or overshoot and collapse, implies that we are far above the long-term carrying capacity. Overshoot means depleting reserves and the system’s capacity for sustainability. In a world that realises this in time, the development will be as in Figure 1.12, a controlled contraction to within the limits. Staying in overshoot-mode erodes the sustainability potential in such a way that the longer we wait, the larger the long-term global contraction must be. If the overshoot is too large and the contraction too slow as compared to the resulting contraction of the sustainability potential, then a situation may arise where the sustainability potential approaches zero faster than the overshoot (Fig. 1.13). Most in-depth studies suggest that the world is in some type of overshoot with respect to environmental degradation, consumption of materials of all kinds, fossil energy and for population size. The world can at the moment produce sufficient volumes of food, but this is probably not sustainable in the long-term with respect to nutrients for crops, soil conservation and possibly water availability, unless something is changed.

  6. Convergence is a concept that originates from Aubrey Meyer’s Contraction and Convergence (2000) concept for CO2 emissions. This concept has been further developed by us in collaboration with the Schumacher Institute, which is built on the ideology of F. Schumacher, a German economist and sustainability visionary who lived in Britain and is best know for writing the seminal book Small is Beautiful (Schumacher, 1973). It involves reducing large economic differences in society and improving equality in the world. The convergence concept has been applied by us to resources, suggesting that those that consume the most, reduce their consumption and those that consume the least are given room to consume more to close the equality gap in terms of standard and quality of living. Convergence is a concept still under development, and will be modified when resource limitations come into play. Many countries of the world are in resource use overshoot today, because of high per capita resource use combined with large numbers of consumers. All developed nations will have to contract their resource use in the coming century, and very few countries have resource consumption below the sustainability capacity. The sustainability limitation is for total amounts of global resources, and for countries with very many people, this inevitably leads to fewer resources per person. Since many of the resources are without regeneration mechanisms within generational life-times, the longer we want to have those resources, the more years we must make last what we have left.

Our work on resources caught the attention of the German government and the WORLD model is now being redeveloped, extended and applied to Germany inside a global context (Bleischwitz et al., 2012; Meyer et al., 2012). Germany is a large country, large enough to have a feedback and an influence on the whole world. The German economy is at present 5 % of the global economy approximately. The German resource policy must have several linked legs:

  1. A domestic policy for:

    • A financially sustainable economy, with respect to nature protection and in compliance with a long-term sustainable society.

    • Using cutting edge knowledge to make German businesses more competitive and in a position to benefit from the challenges of sustainability.

  2. A foreign policy for a sustainable society:

    • To influence the world to create sustainable conditions, in which Germany can create a long-term society for itself.

    • For taking care of Germany’s share in the responsibility for the world, making sure that German activities do not affect the world in a way that makes it less sustainable.

    • For Germany to take a leading role and teach others how to become sustainable.

The German government is working on this at present, but most other governments also need to have such goals and act on them. The countries that take a leading role will face many difficulties, but also have the advantage of being innovative and being involved in creating solutions. Germany is known for taking the initiative on developing solutions to pervasive problems, producing a business and financial advantage for the country. A good example is the development and building of coal plant air pollution technology that most European countries invested in to reduce sulphurous air pollution, when the opportunity arose to enter the EU in the early 1990s. For policy development, we have several options of how to improve resource efficiency. An increase in resource efficiency will allow us to:

  1. Make more growth with a smaller growth in resource use (more growth-increase use – often referred to as Factor X – pioneered by German researchers)

  2. Make slow growth with the same resource use (some growth-same resource use)

  3. Make zero growth with less resource use (no growth-reduction in resource use)

  4. Contract society with far less resource use (de-growth-large reduction in resource use)

Essential in this context, is that the amount of resources used must be at or below the long-term sustainable resource availablity – the carrying capacity – for society to be sustainable. We can do items 1 or 2 when we still have room inside the sustainability limits. We can do items 2, 3 or 4 when we are at the sustainability limit, and we must do 3 or 4 if we have an overshoot with respect to our sustainability limits (Fig. 1.9). So far, all gains in resource efficiency achieved went into consuming even more, thus little total resource use was saved.

Another important point is that the sustainable resource use rate is normally far below the maximum possible production rate. Just like the optimal speed for car driving in a city is normally far below the maximum speed the car can do. Not everybody grasps the difference conceptually (neither do some car drivers and many businessmen and politicians), but we need to be able to explain this clearly. In a finite world, there is a finite and quantifiable amount of resources. This sets a frame that the world will be forced to acknowledge and accept. An essential concept in this context is the Energy Return On Investment (EROI) or Resource Return On Investment (RROI). How much do we get back for each unit of resource value invested? As ore grades get lower and lower, or oil gets more and more expensive to extract because it is deeper in more difficult terrain or requires more expensive production technology, we will reach a point where we have to spend more in value than we get out. That is the case when we talk about mining in space, or digging ultra low-grade coal or copper ore, or mining the deep ocean, or tunnelling 6 km down to mine nickel. Then more effort may be spent than the usefulness we will gain by doing so. When energy (EROI) or resource (RROI) return is less than the resource investment, then extraction is at a loss that can never be covered.

The challenge of continuous and exponential growth is evident in a classic story from India (Fig. 1.14). Once upon a time, about 1,400 years ago, the Maharadja Sharim had a visitor to his court. King Sharim was a great enthusiast of games and challenged his visitor to a game of his choice. The visitor told him he had a new game to show, and asked the king to try it with him. To encourage the visitor to play seriously, King Sharim offered the visitor any reward he wished. The visitor answered with a modest request, to place one grain of rice in the first square, two on the next, four on the third and doubling until the board, which contained 64 squares, was filled. They played, and to King Sharim’s surprise, the visitor won. But King Sharim was very pleased with the game, and wanted to reward the visitor generously. When King Sharim ordered his servants to pay the visitor, he realised that the amount added up to far more grain than the he ever would possess, namely 264, i.e. 1.8 * 1019, grains of rice, corresponding to 210 billion tonnes, which is more rice than was produced in the whole history of the Earth until 1990 (Fig. 1.15). In one version of the story, the visitor then revealed himself to the king as the Lord Krishna himself and forgave the king’s debt, provided he realised what he had just learned. Pilgrims feasting on Pall Paysam remember the king’s debt by sacrificing rice at the temple. Constant growth and especially exponential growth eventually exceeds capacity. Yet, the world is consuming resources at exponential growth rates.

When we plot the production of different metals (and materials) in a logarithmic diagram over time, such as in Figure 1.16, we can see that they form straight lines. They show exponential growth in the time from 1900 to at least 2010, with doubling times in production from 10–20 years on the average. This means 3.5–7 % growth in resource extraction per year. Each doubling in production represents more metal than all the previous doublings added up.

If this resource extraction increase goes on much longer, the extraction will at some time in the near future exceed the total reserves, because the reserves are limited. It means that resource extraction growth is soon over. Whether it takes 10, 20, or 40 years is of minor importance, because it cannot continue much longer. Harald’s father told him it would not happen in his time, it was not his problem. But it will happen in our time, thus it is our problem and all of our contemporaries. Another important factor to note is that as we extract metals, the ore grade that we extract is decreasing with time (Fig. 1.17b), while the necessary effort for extraction is increasing, slowy also showing in the metal prices12 (Fig. 1.17a). Therefore, the effort and cost that we are expending to obtain these resources is rising, eventually increasing to a level that the extraction of additional resources will become prohibitive. Of note is that price fluctions occur when political decisions interfere with the market, as appears to be occurring today where prices of fossil fuels are concerned.

When ore grades go down, production costs go up. When production costs go up, metal prices must go up, or production will go down. Why this is so, is explained by the causal loop diagram in Figure 1.18. When prices go up, the market may react with reducing demand, leaving more in the market and sending the price (and profits) down, and later, reducing mining. Reduced mining will imply less metal in the market, sending prices up at sustained demand. It is a dynamic system. The figure shows the dynamics of this interaction. R is the reinforcing loop of the mining business, which is profit driven. B are balancing or limiting loops, where an increase comes back as a decrease. More mining leads to less reserve. Less reserve leads to less ore grade since they move in the same direction (more reserve, more ore grade). Lower ore grade leads to higher mining costs, and higher costs to lower profit. Lower profit leads to less mining, and more profit leads to more mining.

The rise in metal price is more than inflation, and in general, prices have gone up more than Figure 1.17a appears to show. Over time the inflation-adjusted curve has a U-shape, with high price before 1900, low prices 1930–1990, and increasing prices after 2000. Over the years the increased amount of work input required, caused by declining ore grades (silver, copper, nickel; see Mudd, 2007, 2009, 2010 for further discussion), and the increasing energy need has been to a large extent compensated for by increased technical efficiency and by moving the work to low wage countries with limited if any environmental regulations. We are at the end of that road now; technical efficiencies start to meet material balance limits and the extraction work has largely shifted from the industrialised, high wage countries to the lowest of the low-wage developing countries. As we have started to run out of room for further technical efficiency gains, and we lack even poorer people to be paid less for more mining, extraction cost increases will to a larger degree transfer straight to the metal price. As with gold and platinum (see below), the price will shoot up once the production peak has been passed.

Swedish Institute of Environmental Research, Gøteborg, Sweden. A key actor was their research director Peringe Grennfelt. He operated closely with research director Jan Nilsson at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency on the International arena.
Norsk Institutt for Vannforskning, Oslo, Norway, where Drs. Arne Henriksen, Richard Wright and Harald Dovland played major roles.
United Nations Economic Comission for Europe – Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution
Norse Metal Industries, a aluminium-bronze and specialty alloy company located at Elverum, Norway, or Sagatoon Films in Hamar, Norway, a company for full length computer animated films for youth and children.
Take note that our discussion of metal and material prices, stocks and fluxes are generic discussions in a scientific context and do not in any way whatsoever constitute any form of investment or trading advice or warning. Our predictions may serve as parts of the inputs to long-term policy development, but they serve this in the same way as weather predictions do. Predictions do not tell what the future will be, they tell what could be possible, sometimes with estimates of probability. Any one who acts based on our information, does so fully on their own responsibility.