Mining is all around us, though invisible to urban dwellers, so itís easy to forget that we live in a world of finite resources. Unlike forestry or agriculture, whose crops are renewable, once ore comes out of the ground and is processed into metals, itís gone for good. Some industrial metals are recycled after mining, like copper, but this only extends the life of the resource; it doesnít renew it.

We know this intuitively, yet we continue to mine. The reason, of course, is because we need the materials, and companies with the expertise and money are eager to prospect and extract, especially high-value minerals like diamonds, battery metals and heavy rare earths.

We are facing a supply crunch for copper, zinc and lead - all crucial to the functioning of a modern economy. Imagine a world without copper? There would be no copper wiring, therefore no means of electrifying new buildings, no material for solder, no computers, TVs, circuit boards, semiconductors, microwaves, modems and routers.

The transportation industry is reliant on copper for components of airplanes, trains, cars, trucks and boats. A commercial airliner has up to 190 kilometers of copper wiring, while high-speed trains use up to 10 tonnes of copper per kilometer of track.

In electric vehicles (EVs), copper is a major component used in the electric motor, batteries, inverters, wiring and in charging stations. Without a copper substitute (there is none), the shift from gas-powered cars to EVs would abruptly stop.

For more read our The coming copper crunch

The counter-argument to peak metal is that a small percentage of the Earthís crust has been mined. Finding more metals is just a matter of looking harder, spending more money, and going further afield. Such is the impetus behind asteroid and undersea mining. The problem is, no company is going to mine at a loss. Itís simply a matter of inputs and outputs. If the inputs (resources needed to mine, like water, fuel, power, machinery, labor) cost more than the output (the realized metal price), it makes no sense to mine. Unless we get to the point where government are paying mining companies to absorb their losses, because the materials are essential to society. Subsidized mining paid for by every taxpayer. Weíre not there yet, but we are abruptly moving towards resource depletion in a number of areas. This article explains why.

Global material use

In our modern-day service economy, where old-school metal and wood mills are becoming a thing of the past or tucked away in remote corners of civilization, some like to disparage mining for its effects on the environment.

Itís true that mining cannot be done without disrupting the Earth. There have been leaks, spills, explosions, accidents, cave-ins. We could be doing more to improve safety and environmental controls. But overall, mining has been very good for society at large.

Letís look at some facts and figures from a recent report by UN Environment, called ĎThe Global Resources Outlook 2019í: