The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Tunnel Vision Problem. How Mineral Depletion Became Completely Incomprehensible to the Public and Decision Makers Alike


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A few days ago, I sent a comment to a blog where the author had cited the "abiotic oil" hypothesis by Thomas Gold. He had read Gold's book "The Deep, Hot Biosphere" and, not being an expert in the matter, had believed that Gold's ideas were correct and that the author had been unjustly ignored by the scientific community and by the oil industry. 

In my comment, I briefly discussed the matter and cited an article that I had written together with other authors where we discussed Gold's ideas, showing that they are incompatible with what we know about the geosphere and the processes of formation of fossil hydrocarbons. 

Some of the commenters seemed to be completely clueless about the matter, and that was already worrisome. But the surprising thing was that one of the answers I received was that I should avoid discussing political issues such as "peak oil" in a scientific discussion. 

So, after 20 years of scientific studies on the concept of oil depletion -- in itself a necessary consequence of the fact that oil resources are finite -- the idea of "peak oil" has been transmogrified into a political slogan that has no place in a serious discussion. 

And that's not just the case of peak oil. Try to mention "mineral depletion" in any discussion about the current economic situation, and you'll be treated like a slightly feebleminded person who is completely out of touch with reality. Our problems, right now, are completely different as everyone sane in his/her mind knows.

It seems that we humans can't balance several problems at once. We tend to focus on one, at most two, but then the other problems are forgotten or ignored. An often-cited example is the crash of the United Airlines Flight 173 in 1978, when the crew focused so much on a problem with the landing gear that nobody remembered to check the fuel level. It happens more often in politics, where it is typical that slogans and media campaigns lead the public to concentrate on a single problem and forget all others. A good example is when the Bush administration became focused on invading Iraq, in 2003.

We could call this phenomenon the "tunnel vision problem." Maybe we can find the best description in a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, "Slaughterhouse Five" (1969) where one of the Tralfamadorian aliens describes how Earthlings perceive the world

The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

"This was only the beginning of Billy's miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn't know he was on a flatcar, didn't even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
And so it goes (another citation from Slaughterhouse Five). We are condemned to look at the world through a narrow pipe while we are hurled onward on a flatcar on rails and we don't know where we are going. 


About depletion, however, not everybody is strapped to that flatcar. Here is a message I received from Dr. M.L.C.M. Henckens, Senior Research Fellow at the Utrecht University, who has correctly identified the depletion problem. Too bad that the problem is by now completely incomprehensible to the Public and Decision Makers Alike

Dear Madam, Sir,

Hereby I send you, as a senior scientist in the field of the sustainable use of raw materials, a recent publication with my main findings on the scarcity of raw materials. The article was published in Resources, Conservation & Recycling in February 2021 and is entitled “Scarce mineral resources: extraction, consumption and limits of sustainability”.

The main conclusions are:

- That immediate implementation of the most stringent resource-saving measures could extend the estimated exhaustion periods of raw materials by a factor four, even while simultaneously increasing the global service level of these resources by a factor four as well.

- That, without sufficient resource saving measures, it will be difficult or impossible for a substantial part of the future world population to attain the servicelevel of mineral resources prevailing in developed countries at this moment.

- That the period of time that future citizens of rich countries can continue enjoying the current servicelevel of some of the scarcest mineral resources in their countries, will be severely limited, if no stringent saving measures will be taken.

I am also the author of a book entitled “Governance of the world’s mineral resources. Beyond the foreseeable future”. This book will be published later in 2021 by Elsevier (ISBN 9780128238868). In the book, detailed attention will be paid to the following 13 relatively scarce resources: antimony, bismuth, boron, chromium, copper, gold, indium, molybdenum, nickel, silver, tin, tungsten, zinc.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please let me know

Yours sincerely,

Dr. M.L.C.M. Henckens (Theo)

Senior Research Fellow at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development of Utrecht University, The Netherlands




  1. The Blood of the Devil - are humans still primitive more than they were thousands of years ago?

    It seems that the destruction of British coal reserves has been so swift, it traumatised Europe psychologically so deeply, it unconsciously decided in the mid 1800s to destroy all fossil fuels reserves worldwide, too.

    Americas' reserves then destroyed for nothing, and then the destruction of Chinese reserves started, Indian, Australian, South Asian, Russian, African and Middle Eastern - for nothing, too.

    In 1913, Europe needed help convincing its powers not to listen to themselves only, or the sacrifice of a long lasting opportunity for the whole world with fossil fuels - will be unfathomable.

    Instead, in 1905 Europe has invented for the world E=mc^2 and invaded Iraq in 1914 for oil - ignoring all the common sense Laws of Physics.

    Or, could it be that Europe has been dead right all along and all fossil fuel reserves indeed need to be destroyed as soon as possible - being evil more than the Blood of the Devil - as they help unbearable Centralisation?

    Philosophers will be busy working out why humans have dealt with fossil fuel reserves worse than if they intellectually were the lowest members in their animal kingdom - until the end of time.


    How Coal-Powered Britain Started the Arab-Israeli Conflict [to destroy ME oil reserves] - Youtube video

  2. This is actually a student-level question, but it seems to me that dismissing abiotic oil completely may be premature. Could you possibly discuss whether abiotic oil may be a (MINOR) componenet of oil formation. I have a sneaking hunch that digging down may well be more complex than first thought.

    I read gold's thesis long ago...I found it oddly enough discussed in the Atlantic magazine and as I was still at University I got the book ordered at the library. I wasn't convinced by the argument, but I do remember going "hmmmm" more than a couple of times.

    I still wonder if there is something there.....(but then again Marty Fleischmann was my P-Chem prof and I say that he and Stan weren't all wrong).

    1. Our paper examines this question. Hydrocarbons are stable molecules, so it is perfectly possible to generate them by means of inorganic reactions. It is just that the abundance of hydrocarbons postulated by the "strong" version of the abiotic theory is incompatible with the presence of oxygen in Earth's atmosphere

    2. Spent some time writing this morning. Since you were mentioned

  3. ["Some of the commenters seemed to be completely clueless about the matter, and that was already worrisome. But the surprising thing was that one of the answers I received was that I should avoid discussing political issues such as "peak oil" in a scientific discussion. "]


    Good; so you realize now how indoctrination sponsored by vested interest perverted the accomplishments of Human knowledge's progression and insidiously contaminated countless minds with a really nasty kind of rot that will make things much more difficult than they're already forecast to become.

    You can't allude to resource depletion without dipping into politics because you risk bringing in the inconvenience of the idea of planning; and you can't introduce the idea of planning without being against freedom.
    Being against freedom is a sure way to flag yourself as a proponent of a tyrannical Orwellian state. (!?!)

    Despite all these grade & high school history class, even despite college level ones (!), the most devastating cause of the collapse of Western Civilization is to have institutionalized the forgetting of what exactly made us circumvent (for a little while) Malthus's observation.
    It's one thing to have succumbed to maximum energy dissipation as it freed us from a lot of drudgery ... and one can argue that opulence and land rent funneled fertility rates into negative pretty much everywhere; so much so that they had to resort to immigration to keep the machine going; but to have lost [and prevented from reacquiring] that essential common knowledge is what will most likely do us in.

  4. I am curious why you omitted a link to the blog in question. I am not trying to insinuate anything with this comment.

    1. Not sure myself! See, this is a post I wrote "on the fly" and I think I reasoned I didn't want to put too many things in it. But if you are curious, you can find my comment and the answers here:

    2. BTW, your question was perfectly legitimate!

  5. The "tunnel vision problem" sounds very much like Plato's cave.

  6. Resource depletion and overpopulation are a marriage made in Limits to Growth. A predicament without a solution, a bottleneck without an escape route. Prepare for the collapse that has already begun.

  7. Back when peak oil was a bigger discussion, I was interested to note that most of the prominent ones were climate change denialists. Then I went to an AGW modelling forum and raised the question: in your models, have you limited the amount of fossil fuels to the acknowledged reserves? They had not, fossil fuels were assumed to be infinite, and to have an extraction rate limited only by our demand. I pointed out this did not reflect reality, and this was not well-received.

    A while back, ripping off Pauli, I called this the Problem Exclusion Principle - once one problem is acknowledged as serious, the person is unable to accept the existence of any other problems except perhaps as derivatives of that primary problem.

    1. "The Problem Exclusion Principle" -- I love that!!