The following are edited remarks made by mining entrepreneur Ross Beaty during a panel session at the Resources for Future Generations conference in Vancouver in June.
When it comes to sustainability, there is both bad news and good news. I’m an optimistic person, so I always save good news for the end.
The bad news is that, for the past 50 to 70 years, we have lived on borrowed time. Global output has grown significantly, and mining output has grown even more. Copper production, for example, has grown from 2.8 million tonnes in 1950 to 20 million tonnes in 2015.
All global governments remain obsessed with gross domestic product (GDP) growth. This is a recipe for disaster — growth of anything in a finite system is impossible, and always ends in collapse. Always.
If we extrapolate from the average growth rate since 1950, the world economy in 2050 will be four times larger than it is today. If world population grows to 9 billion, as is the forecast, and everybody were to have the same per-capita consumption of Canada, the world economy would have to be 15 times bigger than it is today.
These numbers are just ridiculous. This is the very definition of unsustainable. We have neither the soil, groundwater, mineral resources, land, ocean or any other resource to support these kinds of numbers. It’s time to recognize that we cannot grow like we have to date. We need to build a new economy based on permanence.
The world is changing quickly. We simply cannot assume that the future will be like the past. Barriers to growth are everywhere. Cheap oil is probably gone. Cheap copper, aluminum, zinc and other metals are probably gone as well. Debt cannot continue to outpace economic growth.
Lands and oceans are degrading. Frontier land is gone, and oceans are becoming less productive. Nimbyism is on the rise as populations increase and people become wealthier and more entitled. This causes more protest and slower development.
Global warming is a fact. It is causing rising costs and these will accelerate, reducing GDP.
The loss of biodiversity is causing enormous and invisible repercussions that also reduce productivity.
So, the bad news is that every government is using economic models that don’t work anymore, and this is a recipe for chaos.
The good news is that millions of people are aware of this and are addressing these challenges. Moreover, technology and innovation are driving many changes that reduce per-capita resource consumption. I am very encouraged by the number of people who understand these issues and are doing something about them.
Given their metal-intensity, the energy and digital revolutions are good news for the metals industry. Renewable energy and electric transportation, for example, use far more metals than fossil fuel-based energy. The digital revolution would be dead in its tracks without the metals that enable it.
My idea of a sustainable future is one driven by a global economy that can run for hundreds of years that doesn’t degrade the earth — as humans are currently doing, with such terrible consequences for the tens of billions of other species that share the earth with us — that isn’t based on fundamental inequality between peoples, races and nations, and that doesn’t need to be protected by ignorant, belligerent, intolerant, bigoted leaders with big weapons and zero humanity.