Editor’s note: The aim of the Geology and Mining series is to introduce early career professionals and students to various aspects of mineral exploration, development, and mining in order to share the experiences and insight of each author on the myriad of topics involved with the mineral industry and the ways in which geoscientists contribute to each.

Abstract

The global demand for minerals has long been known to be characterized by periods of high demand followed by periods of low demand. These are often referred to as cycles. There are cycles of short (multiyear) duration and cycles of long (multidecade) duration. This paper seeks to explain the driving forces behind the long-duration cycles. There have been five such cycles since 1900. Four of them were in the 20th century, and the fifth was the China mining boom, which lasted from about 2000 to 2015. I interpret the main driver of these cycles to be the pace of urban, or suburban, construction. When this is proceeding at a rapid pace, global mineral demand is high. When construction activity slows, mineral demand slows with it.

In the 20th century it was the nations of Europe, North America, and, later in the century, the Soviet Union and Japan that were home to most of the world’s construction activity. Their economic fortunes drove the century’s four long-duration cycles. The century began with a 30-year period of high demand driven by the transformation of these economies from predominantly agriculture based to predominantly urban industrial. It ended with a nearly 30-year period of low demand as these same economies, having already urbanized, moved into being predominantly service-based economies, which have a lower per capita mineral demand. At the beginning of the 21st century, China took the lead with its remarkable transformation from an economy that was farm based to one that was urban industrial, which drove global mineral demand to a high level.

I argue that the world is now heading into a 30-year period of low urban construction-driven demand as China turns away from reform, India discovers that its economic success is built on weak foundations, and the “advanced countries” continue with their metals-lite transformation toward ever more sophisticated service activities. However, urban construction may be about to be displaced as the principal driver of global mineral demand. This new driver is the restructuring of global energy systems, or, to be more specific, the shift from hydrocarbon-based energy to solar and wind-based energy. Producing energy from solar and wind is far more materials-intensive than from hydrocarbons. Will this shift propel global mineral demand back to high?

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