Analysis Finds Troubling ‘Synchronicity’ In When Resources Reach Their Limits

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

For decades researchers have attempted to calculate whether humankind has reached a “peak” rate of extraction for many of our most critical natural resources, from fossil fuels to staple crops, and whether these peak-rate occurrences could portend future shortages of these vital materials. But seldom have these studies examined the peak rate for multiple resources at once — and how this potential interconnectedness might make it more difficult for society to adapt to future resource scarcity. 
In a new study, co-authored by Yale F&ES assistant professor Eli Fenichel, a team of researchers analyzed the production and extraction rates of 27 global renewable and nonrenewable resources — including coal, gas, oil, and crops such as cassava, maize, rice, soybeans, and wheat. For 21 of these resources, a “peak-rate” year occurred between 1960 and 2010. For 16, that peak occurred between 1988 and 2008, according to the study published in the journal Ecology & Society. Interestingly, for the high profile non-renewable resources of oil, coal, gas, and phosphate no peaks were found.
The study was led by Ralf Seppelt, a landscape ecologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Germany.
This study suggests that understanding resource substitution opportunities is more complicated than we had thought.
— Eli Fenichel
The study raises the concern that the synchronization of peak-rate years can be far more disruptive than a peak-rate year for one resource.
For many of these resources, this escalation in extraction reflected the growth in global populations and changes in human diets. But with a dwindling amount of land available for intensified farming, and the majority of resources becoming scarcer, it becomes increasingly difficult to replace one resource with another, they conclude.
“This paper presents a very challenging question that I don’t think we as a community have put enough thoughtful work into: The resources that might make good substitutes are being exploited, too,” said Fenichel. “You can’t look at one resource without looking at others. If we’re going to worry about resource extraction rates, we want to be thinking about how they are interrelated.”
“This study suggests that understanding resource substitution opportunities is more complicated than we had thought, because substitution opportunities are likely moving targets.”
He added, “I think this is a good first attempt to do a big, broad scale analysis of this challenge, but like all good research, it probably asks more big questions than it answers.”
Fenichel suggests that important follow up research will need to take into account resource prices.  
– Kevin Dennehy    203 436-4842