Volume 3, Number 2 - October 2014

Natural Resources in a Planetary Perspective

by Harald Sverdrup1 and K. Vala Ragnarsdóttir2
1 Faculty of Industrial Engineering, University of Iceland, VRII, Hjardarhagi 4-6, Reykjavik 107, Iceland 2 Institutes of Earth Sciences and Sustainable Development Studies, University of Iceland, Askja, Sturlugata 6, Reykjavik 101, Iceland

doi: 10.7185/geochempersp.3.2 | Volume 3, Number 2 (pages 129-341)


One of humankind’s biggest challenges over the next century is to provide adequate resources for civilisation. Geochemistry plays a central role, from the processes that accumulate elements into ore bodies, to developing exploration techniques that are used to find them. Geochemistry is also important for the processes that win the resources and redistribute them with the accompanying risks of environmental contamination and threats for human health. As geochemists, it is useful to take a step back and look at the big picture of resources from a global perspective, to consider their place in history and to contemplate their importance. The future of our civilisation depends on their wise use and geochemistry lies at the centre – for ensuring adequate supplies and for minimising the risk of poisoning ourselves. This Perspective summarises the current and future availability of many natural resources. But the main focus is on the most important metals and on phosphorus. The metals are grouped into the big six (iron, chromium, manganese, aluminium, copper and zinc), with some shorter discussion of precious (gold, silver and platinum group metals) and other metals. These other metals are those needed for steel (niobium, vanadium, nickel, molybdenum), for technology (tantalum, zircon, indium, gallium, germanium), for new technological developments in the renewable energy industry (europium, terbium, neodynium, lithium), and the chemical industry (platinum group metals, cobalt and rare earth elements).

The sobering common aspect for all of these resources is, that available data suggests that their production has either peaked already or will peak within the next 50 years. Throughout history, the major part of the economy of the world´s nations has been driven directly or indirectly by access to and use of natural resources, and this still remains so. Our main findings are that the world is heading towards a restricted access to the key resources that are used by humanity today and these restrictions will have a profound impact on the world economies and life styles of future generations. The challenge is to accept this knowledge, and to find the necessary solutions and adaptions for the future while we still have time and possibility to so. History will judge how well we responded to current resource challenges.