Category Archives: Environmental issues

Dry Humour: Washing down the bitter pill of water security

Water, water every where

Nor any drop to drink

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Have you ever drunk fresh water? I mean truly pristine – untouched by the biological footprint of others.

Perhaps. I guess you could do it if you are a technophile with a hydrogen fuel cell in the back garden that you tap to make your morning coffee. The rest of us live in a gloriously messy organic world where water is continually cycled and recycled through biological processes.

The reservoirs and dams that supply our cities are not hermetically sealed plastic tanks – but lakes and rivers with living, functioning ecosystems of microbes, invertebrates, fish, birds – and all that goes along with that.

And more.

When you press flush, I know it’s good to imagine that the contents of the bowl are vaporized or spirited away – lord knows I’ve experienced plumbing emergencies where I’ve wished I could have magically made the returning materials vanish by clicking my heels and saying ‘there’s no place like home’. No such luck – our effluvia may vanish from sight, but they remain an issue to be dealt with – and ultimately return to the environment. And the waterways.

“Because it went into a river,” says Australian National Water Commissioner Chris Davis speaking in the Sydney Morning Herald “people conveniently forget where it started and no one really seems to mind”

This mental dissociation of our water supplies from nature is not a new phenomenon – the brilliantly witty, if alcoholically challenged, W. C. Fields knew he was mining a rich vein of societal insecurity when he quipped: “I never drink water; fish fuck in it”

Mmmm...cool refreshing water. Wait a minute, has this had fish in it?

Mmmm…cool refreshing water. Wait a minute, has this had fish in it?

When I was growing up, the idea of buying a bottle with nothing in it but water would have been laughable – to be written off as a modernistic retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes, or an undergraduate performance art project attempting a subversively ironic comment on consumer society. Today, PET bottles of cool clear water are a ubiquitous element of our cultural landscape – from the supermarket to the multiplex, and all stops in between.

In 2008, Australians consumed approximately 600 million litres of bottled water, spending over $500 million for the privilege, and accounting for the use of an even million barrels of oil in the manufacture, storage, transport, and refrigeration of all those – for the most part disposable – bottles.

This displays something of a curious disconnection with circumstance in a country where clean healthy water supplies piped to the home are a government mandated right. Indeed, a substantial proportion of the bottled water industry in this country consists of multinational corporations bottling our municipal water supply and selling it back to us at a massive premium. Seriously, stand up and take a bow, Coke and Pepsi – your marketing genius at the very least should be applauded.

At least we aren’t alone in this fixation. Zong Qinghou, one of the richest men in the economic powerhouse that is modern China owes his fortune to bottled water. His brand name – ‘Wahaha’ – even sounds like the maniacal laugh of a Bond villain. In light of the debated environmental footprint of the industry, either the man has an admirable appreciation of dramatic irony, or he needs to seriously look at whoever handles his global brand management.

Even out of a heat sealed plastic bottle though, to pretend that what you are drinking is untouched by the complexities of leaking, pumping, squelching biology would be laughable were it not so pervasive a force.

The recycling of water has been brought close to home in public debate recently with the news that Western Australia will soon become the first state in the country to put post-human recycled water into our drinking water supplies, not haphazardly by gradual percolation and leakage, or indirectly through release into the oceans and rivers, but directly, deliberately, and after comprehensive physical and chemical processing to render it safe and potable.

Journalistically, the Murdoch-dominated national press has largely taken a negative editorial stance on this issue. Whenever recycled potable water stories come up in The Australian or The Sunday Times, the term consistently used to describe the water is ‘recycled sewage’ conjuring images of turbid brown water and sulfurous odours. The ‘yuck factor’.

Learning from recent public policy failures in this area in the eastern states, however, the Liberal government are short-circuiting the ability of the popular press to agitate against the policy (and, not coincidentally, engender debate and boost newspaper sales), ruling out public consultation and pushing ahead on the basis of drought-proofing the state. After the success of a three-year trial in which waste water was treated to Australian drinking water standards and injected into an isolated suburban aquifer without incident, the government is signing off on a plan to recharge Perth’s groundwater systems with up to 35 billion litres of treated sewage per year – enough to supply the current needs of around 140,000 households.

Such initiatives look set to become a core element of future water security plans around the nation in coming years, with the Australian Federal Government providing $20 million of funding to prime the pumps, as it were, of the Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence.

Underlying such strategies and the massive engineering feats they entail at the State level are the findings of the Western Australian Government’s ‘Water Forever’ report into long term sustainability of potable water. In the face of a trinity of declining rainfall, decreasing groundwater yields, and increasing population, this study forecast an annual deficit of 120 Gigalitres by 2030, blowing out to a massive 265 Gigalitres by 2060.

Looking at those figures, you either bury your head in the sand (and hope it’s the free-flowing, well sorted, highly permeable sand of a previously untapped aquifer), or you face up to the reality that the water we use so liberally actually has to come from somewhere – and if Premier Colin Barnett’s earlier and much slated vision (to call it a pipe dream is really too cheap a metaphorical shot to even bother with) of a canal to carry water down from the Kimberley region in the more hydraulically endowed north of the state is a non-starter, there are only so many other options.

Desalination? Highly energy intensive unfortunately – and what do we do with all the extremely saline brines produced? All that salt still has to go somewhere, after all. What’s that you say? The Perth Desalination plant uses green energy? Hmmm…only if you believe accounting can save the world. Although the Western Australia Water Corporation proudly trumpets electricity for the plant being generated by the Emu Downs Wind Farm in the state’s Midwest, the relationship is really only an indirect one of power use offsetting – with the Kwinana plant actually plugged directly into the State grid to guarantee base load supply. Kind of what you’d want for a critical piece of infrastructure, to be fair – but not the clean green closed circuit you might expect from Water Corporation press kits. More desalination would inevitably mean an increased load on the power infrastructure of the state already stressed by industrial and population growth forecasts.

What about the old standby of co-opting natural systems to supply our cities? Again, regrettably that well is already dry – with the state Economic Regulation Authority recognising that all divertable surface water resources in the Perth region had been tapped by 2004, and groundwater production by some estimates already exceeds long term recharge capacity.

So what are our options outside the planned water recycling scheme?

Curiously, the simplest solution – to my mind the obvious one – of reducing water use and increasing efficiency struggles to gain traction in this debate. This principle of moderation is, to give the Water Corporation their due, one of the planks in their vision of water security, but seems to resonate with no-one…possibly because it touches the hot button issue of asking us to as a society exert some self control and pull our heads in, instead of catering to rapacious consumer desire like an insecure step-parent trying to buy our affection ahead of a family court hearing.

Fundamentally Australia is not actually that short of water.

We just do stupid things with it.

The worrying shortfalls forecast in the ‘Water Forever’ report assume business as usual…with Australians using an average of 70,000 litres of water per person annually – the highest consumption of any nation on Earth. Hang on to that idea for a second and swirl it around the bowl one more time – we Australians, with a national psyche rooted in sunburnt desert landscapes and an inveterate fondness for trumpeting our credentials as occupants of the driest inhabited continent on Earth, piss away (literally and figuratively) more of this precious resource than anybody else on the planet.

It’s not too hard to see where a lot of that water goes. For anyone not familiar with the lovely city of Perth (for which, I should add, that annual consumption figure climbs to a jaw-dropping 106 kilolitres per person), the metropolitan area includes a lot more verdant green lawn and swimming pools than you might expect for a dry Mediterranean climate.

In essence, we still suffer the cultural hangover of trying to recreate an English idyll in a landscape singularly unsuited to it – and it would be career suicide for a politician of any stripe to suggest cutting back on any of the well watered sports fields that dot the suburbs.

Lawn sprinklers keeping Perth's verdant green municipal carpet healthy all year round - really the best use of our limited resources?

Lawn sprinklers keeping Perth’s verdant green municipal carpet healthy all year round – really the best use of our limited resources?

If we reduce this over-consumption to a more moderate level though – say the Dutch average of 55,000 litres per person – or better yet the French 40,000 – the problem goes away for the forseeable future. Okay, for anyone who’s ever been in the Paris metro when the wind is blowing the wrong direction, there are still some potential downsides to that scenario – but we’re not talking about converting to the lifestyle of Bedouin nomads here.

At the end of the day, there really is no such thing as a free lunch – even if, like a catwalk model going through a period of low self esteem, all you order is water. With a Malthusian resource ceiling looming, current trends of water consumption in Australia – profligate Western Australia in particular – clearly cannot continue into the future. All that remains is for us to decide which version of our medicine is the least bitter.

At a fundamental level the range of solutions to this resource ‘crisis’ are probably no different to those of any of the other maladies of over consumption afflicting our society in the 21st century. We can take the engineering pathway – working more overtime to pay for the diet pills and exercise machines we know we’ll never really use properly…or we can just collectively put down the cake fork and get off the couch.

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Old Men and the Sea – the curious persistence of willful disbelief in Anthropogenic Climate Change

Imagine yourself, for a moment, adrift in a storm-tossed wooden lifeboat. Yours is the only vessel in sight – the only refuge in the heaving sea stretching to the horizon all around you. With a sinking heart – rightly concerned by the potential consequences – you realise the water level in the bottom of the boat is rising. You have nowhere else to go.

Now, the environment in which you find yourself may well be the source of this water – the persistent rain, the sea spray washing over the sides, perhaps even marine bivalve Teredo navalis – shipworms, as they were known in the days of grand wooden ships plying the seven seas – chewing their way through the hull of your fragile boat. That doesn’t mean that the signal fire you lit in the stern might not also be causing a leak. It’s not like you have a leakage budget to work within – “it’s okay, I’m going to take on a gallon of water an hour, so I can shave some more wood out of the sides and stoke the fire, and the rain will ease up to compensate”. Aware that fire is known to consume wood, and that, as my boat is made of wood, I could reasonably infer that my cheery blaze might be a factor – and one over which I had control, the prudent thing to do until I was pretty darned sure of things would be to douse it.

Of course, despite my obvious and melodramatic allegory here, we’re not really talking about drifting lifeboats. Rather, in a summer in which the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has found it necessary to add new colours to the temperature scale on their national synoptic charts, changing climate is probably a fair topic for engaged conversation.

Although I’m a professional scientist, and try to keep myself pretty well informed, I’m under no illusion that I can offer a fair and valid critique of understanding in this area. If that’s what you’re after, I heartily suggest you check out the US Global Change Research Program (www.global change.gov). Me? I’ll put my hand up right now and tell you I don’t fully understand the physics of greenhouse warming, the consequences of changing landscape albedo to a solar energy budget, the details of orbital precession, or the design and function of supercomputer models of climate sensitivity. Unlike a number of (usually self nominated) commentators on climate science though, my philosophy in these circumstances is not to go ahead and shoot my mouth off anyway – at least not without a few glasses of good wine inside me – so this is not principally an essay about the rights and wrongs of understanding on anthropogenic climate change.

Instead I want to talk about the (to me, anyway) curious fact that vested interests and enthusiastic amateurs from all walks of life – politicians, newspaper columnists, school teachers, Jeremy Clarkson – seem possessed of an unshakeable belief that their understanding of climate change and its causes should be given equal weight to, say, Roger Revelle, or the IPCC.

I’m not talking here about debate over how we, individually and as a society, should respond to climate change – what steps we should take, how the cost should be borne. Here opinion and debate clearly should be entertained as we move towards a social contract. But the facts of the matter, the understanding of physical phenomena, does not submit to willpower or popularity. You don’t get to vote by SMS on whether anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are a driver of dangerous levels of climatic warming or just a combination of snuggly global duvet and healthy plant food.

By way of analogy to the problem here – diesel has a greater energy content than unleaded petrol. I know that’s true because I read it on the internet. Logically then, if I start putting diesel into my car, it will be more powerful and go further on a tank. Right?

The fact that I used the word logically probably tells you everything you need to know about why it’s important that I listen to my mechanic rather than trying to fix my car myself.

Let’s pursue that metaphor a little farther. Think about it – if this was your car we were talking about (and I might venture here that the climatic system of our entire planet might be a bit more important than that – even if you do wash yours more often than I manage and rotate the tires every 6 months) I doubt you’d be up for self diagnosis – or even taking the advice of Alan Jones – when your engine started knocking. No. I suspect that, like me, you would far rather trust the judgement and experience of auto mechanics who have trained for years and devoted themselves professionally to the diagnosis and correction of engine problems. Even if you did roll up to the workshop door with a worrying knot in your stomach over what they might find under the hood, and just how eye-wateringly expensive it might be to fix.

Yes, some mechanics are better than others, and there may even be shonky ones out there that don’t know what they’re doing, or worse, who are criminally intent on defrauding you by exaggerating or inventing problems. If you do your research though, and find out who other mechanics respect and what they think of each other’s work, I’m pretty confident you could probably do a good job of picking the right person to deal with any engine trouble you might have.

The problem, in its essence, is that ‘opinion’ is a complex and chimeric beast. It covers a spectrum from tastes or preferences, through views on issues of common concern – the ethical and political questions of the day, to views grounded in technical expertise – and here I’d include legal or scientific opinions. The common thread is that all these areas admit a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty – but not all are equal.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. It would be ludicrous for me to tell you that you were wrong to prefer sticky date pudding to cheesecake. Where this issue starts to go off the rails though is that we sometimes take opinions of the ethical and even the expertise-based sort to be unarguable in the same way such questions of taste are.

The silly – even embarrassing – thing here, at least for somebody coming from a Western philosophical tradition, is that Plato pretty much had this distinction sewn up 2400 years ago.

Today though all too often – whether by design or, I suspect usually more likely, ignorance, we seem to have forgotten this lesson.

Bob Brown, former leader of the Australian Greens and Federal Senator, argued long and vociferously against nuclear power throughout his career, despite not being a nuclear physicist. All well and good – but Meryl Dorey – leader of the Australian Vaccination Network (don’t be fooled by the name – this is a group vehemently opposed to childhood vaccination in all its forms) has used Brown’s record to argue that she should, in a similar vein, be listened to in regards to the healthcare of our children, despite having no medical qualifications of any stripe. The crucial difference between the two is that Dr Brown never represented himself as an authority on the physics of nuclear fission. He was always, entirely appropriately, commenting on policy responses to science, not the underlying scientific understanding. Dorey, in contrast, essentially tries to represent that her views should factor in debate regarding the biomechanics of vaccination and immune response itself – that her personal biases should be weighted equally to expert and scientifically validated opinion.

So – back to climate change – let’s take on board Plato’s distinction for a minute and ignore the opinions of the Nick Minchins and Lord Moncktons of the world. What do professional climate scientists – those experts who have devoted themselves to understanding the detailed interactions of climatic systems and earned the respect of their critical peers – understand to be happening to our climate?

First and foremost, our planet is warming up. Using any of a wide range of indicators (ocean heat content, sea surface temperatures, sea level, temperatures in the lower and middle troposphere, the rates at which glaciers and ice sheets are melting), the overall temperature of the Earth and the corresponding energy in our climate system are increasing.

According to a study recently published by a team of scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, there are now on average five times as many months with record-breaking high temperatures at measured locations worldwide than could be expected without significant and ongoing warming occurring. In parts of Europe, Africa and southern Asia, the figures are even worse – with instances of record-setting monthly temperatures exceeding statistical expectation by a factor of ten.

While there are a number of influences on the climate system, such as changing levels of solar radiation and abundance of atmospheric aerosols, independent climate researchers also almost universally conclude that this warming has been produced dominantly by increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with a significant proportion of this emitted by human activities.

Now remember, that’s not me saying this – these are the expert opinions of the big beasts at the climate science waterhole with the expertise and experience to give their opinions real weight. These are the people we should be listening to.

In a recent essay on Science Communication (‘Three Monkeys, Ten Minutes: Scientists and the Importance of Communication Skills’ – WordPress, 18 October, 2012), I used the metaphor of taking sides in a scientific debate you don’t understand being like weighing in to an argument in a language you don’t speak – a Frenchman and a German speaking in Spanish, let’s say – on the basis of liking one participant’s accent more than the other. In the field of climate change, the position of someone who would deny the reality of anthropogenic warming is even more tenuous, because as the debate stands its like 97% of the Spanish speakers in the room (everyone except Pierre’s mother and the crazy old guy whose brother was killed in the second world war and hates all Germans with an unquenchable rage, let’s say) agree that our French friend is wrong-headed and it’s Heidi we should listen to – but still there are non-linguists willing to back up the Frenchman with an unthinking “yeah, what he said” against all comers.

To come full circle to our fragile boat alone on the stormy seas – although the consequences of putting out my fire if it wasn’t reducing my vessel’s seaworthiness might be unpleasant (I’d be wet and cold – and frightened, alone in the vast empty expanse of the ocean), the consequences of not taking action if my hypothesis ultimately proved correct would be much, much worse.

More importantly, although I would really like to know exactly where the water was coming from and which source was the most important (sorry, scientific curiosity has me in its thrall), my first reaction wouldn’t be to set up an interim enquiry and design some experiments. No. Me? I’d start bailing.

A Rosy View from the Patisserie: Copper Resource Peaks and why they keep failing to materialize

Malleable, relatively stable, and second only to silver in its electrical conductivity, copper is used extensively in electronics, communications, machinery, and plumbing – the cornerstones of western society and industry. Given this significance, it is perhaps not surprising that this metal and its finite reserves often figure prominently in discussion of resource limitations on the horizon of the modern age.

In his April 2012 review of post-global financial crisis metal consumption around the world, Gary Gardner of environmental research organisation the Worldwatch Institute presented a cautionary tale on this score, suggesting:

“…a potential future global population of 10 billion people could consume 1.7 trillion kilograms of copper total, [which is] greater than the estimated global in-ground stocks of 1.6 trillion kilograms.”

While certainly arresting in its implications, warnings such as Gardner’s are hardly new. Environmental analyst Lester Brown suggested in 2007 that “Based on reasonable extrapolation of 2% growth in demand per year, copper might run out within 25 years”. While Brown’s prominence as an environmental advocate might leave him open to accusations of a biased perspective, the same cannot be argued of Megan Clark – who contributed a related headline of her own that same year: “Over the next 25 years, world consumption of copper will exceed all of the copper mined today”. Clark, as then Vice President for Technology at BHP Billiton, and later Chief Executive at the CSIRO – Australia’s peak government scientific research organisation, could certainly not be accused of standing as any sort of apologist for the anti-industrial lobby.

The logic of cautionary warnings on copper consumption is circumstantially compelling. Demand for copper globally is growing – driven in particular by rapid industrialisation in the developing world. Average copper consumption per year in developed countries is around 10 kg/person. In developing countries it is only one fifth of that level. The difference lies not in the extremes of consumerism, but the infrastructure underlying the key lifestyle differences between developed and developing nations. Forget cars and cappucinos – we’re talking washing machines, fridges, mains electricity, and indoor plumbing. For burgeoning urban populations in the developing world to meet these basic elements of a western middle class lifestyle (assuming – and it is an important assumption that we shall return to – that they do so by the same technological route), copper consumption must rise accordingly.

And yet, despite these well-reasoned foundations, predictions of the imminent exhaustion of global copper reserves and an inexorable decline in production have proven wide of the mark time and again. As early as 1924, US geologist and copper mining expert Ira Joralemon was predicting darkly that:

“… the age of electricity and of copper will be short. At the intense rate of production that must come, the copper supply of the world will last hardly a score of years….Our civilization based on electrical power will dwindle and die.”

World markets today though – for all the rising demand – are not decrying a shortage of this strategic metal. Prices over the opening years of the 21st century have not rocketed skyward as nations and industries compete for declining stocks. Quite the reverse.

In 1980, economist Julian Simon made a widely publicised wager with Paul Ehrlich, author of the influential environmental essay “Population Bomb”. In this bet, Ehrlich, perhaps channelling the catastrophist spirit of 18th century English scholar Thomas Malthus, backed the price of a package of industrially important metals – copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten – to rise over the following ten years because of increasing population pressures depleting resources. Simon, holding the other side of the wager, predicted that the price of the metals would instead decline, because any imminent resource scarcity would spur greater innovation, leading to the discovery of new sources and technologies to increase the efficiency of supply. Ehrlich famously lost the bet, with prices on all five metals falling in constant 1980 dollar terms – and indeed, for three of the five in absolute (unadjusted) dollar terms.

What’s going on? Global population increased over the ten years to 1990, as did urbanisation, and per capita consumption of these industrially sensitive metals. How were we able to swim against the tide of supply and demand like this?

We didn’t. Fundamentally, while metal demand has been increasing throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, supply has increased even more to tip the economic scales back the other way. As you can see here, even as global demand and production have ramped up over the past 50 or so years, estimated stocks of copper – measured as the number of years declared and proven reserves will last at current rates of use – have remained more or less constant.

Ratio of global declared copper reserves to rate of production over the years 1900-2010. This ratio provides a measure of the number of years of supply remaining at current rates of use. Figure produced by MinEx consulting from production data sourced from the United States Geological Survey, and reserve data calculated by MinEx.

Some of the additional reserves come down to increased exploration – deeper, further, by more efficient techniques, and in new regions – locating new ore bodies. A far greater source of additional resource however comes from changing commodity prices and more efficient mining and processing techniques quite literally inflating the size of existing deposits. Alchemy? No – to put it simply, what is ore? Ore is mineralised rock from which the resource content can be economically extracted. The key here is ‘economically’. If the value of the resource changes – the price goes up or the cost of producing it falls – so does the definition of what constitutes ore, which is effectively what someone will go to the trouble of digging up and processing to make it available to the market. And there is more low-grade material out there than high-grade. A lot more. As we see in this figure – again compiled by MinEx consulting – decrease your copper resource grade cut-off by a factor of 2 and you typically increase reserves of the metal on the order of 10-fold.

Variation in estimated resource tonnage (in millions of tonnes of contained metal) with cut-off grade for 48 copper deposits around the world. As the boundary of what is economically viable to extract falls, so the volume of rock qualifying as ore and the corresponding tonnage of the resource increase. Graph produced by MinEx consulting, March 2010.

So are we to be saved by the glories of economics? Will a virtuous circle of supply, demand, and value keep us in a red blush of coppery happiness indefinitely?

Well, in the words of US Economist Kenneth Boulding, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

When you dig a little bit deeper (metaphorically speaking), the primary limiting factor in this equation is not actually the availability of copper itself. If we chose to, we could go on extracting the stuff for centuries to come without pausing for breath, pulling ever lower grades from ever larger holes in the ground. Rather, the issue is externalities – a useful economic parameter describing costs incurred by someone who did not agree to the causative action, and not transmitted through prices.

Fundamentally, copper mining is of direct benefit to the miner – who makes money from the process – and to the purchaser of the metal, who gets a raw material supplied to meet their needs. A much wider segment of society though experience detrimental effects as a result of the mining that, while typically not formally costed in the economic transaction, are still very real and can accumulate to significant effect.

Copper for example – as with any mined resource – incurs a significant ecological footprint, amounting to some 35-45,000 litres of water and 15-30 GJ of energy used and 3-6 tonnes of CO2 emitted per tonne of metal produced at current grades. In Chile – admittedly a country with a mining-intensive economy – copper alone accounts for 11% of total national energy use – 32% of electricty use and 6% of all fuels – and the government was forced to call for water use efficiency pacts with copper mining companies during national shortages in 2009.

Increased scale or intensity of mining under such conditions imposes a cost on all of society, in the form of price rises and shortages of other key commodities. Societal tolerance of these costs is not infinite – miners cannot simply keep digging ever deeper (literally, this time) and expect the society in which they operate to accept the externalities arising as a consequence.

In his book ‘Collapse’, Jared Diamond writes eloquently of a host of civilisations throughout human history that have grown, prospered, and then hit a wall of resource limitation that has brought them crashing to the ground.

With this sort of history in mind, Paul Ehrlich – never one to go quietly, it must be said – wryly opined after losing his famous wager “The bet doesn’t mean anything. Julian Simon is like the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and says how great things are going so far as he passes the 10th floor.”

So yes, resource limitations may indeed yet come back to bite us as societal tolerance of mining is exhausted.

What would be the consequences then if this were to happen – if something like copper were to become a resource deficit for our society? For a resource limit to move from inconvenient to truly devastating, that resource must be more than desirable, it must be irreplaceable and core to social function. The critical question in our case thus becomes: if we do run out of copper, what are the implications of this for our society? As already discussed, we love this soft red metal for a host of reasons. Is it truly irreplaceable for any of these manifold uses though?

The stability and conductivity of copper make it ideal for use in electrical wiring – but not uniquely so. Even leaving aside the superior gold and silver on cost grounds, humble aluminium is an able, albeit slightly more brittle, substitute – and has proven eminently suitable for cabling and wiring applications. The malleability and low reactivity of copper make it ideal for use in pipes and plumbing – but again, not uniquely so – with plastic pipes every bit as effective – in some applications even more so. Indeed, in each and every one of the categories dominating our use of this metal, viable alternatives exist that could step up to the plate should an existential crisis arise that removed copper from our society tomorrow.

To put this in some kind of perspective – I like croissants. I can’t think of a nicer way to start the weekend than a couple of these delicious pastries and a freshly brewed coffee at my favourite beachside cafe. If they suddenly ran out though – if every French baker the world over were laid low, perchance by some virulent cheese-borne virus engineered by the militant wing of the UK Independence Party – robbing us of these wonderful buttery treats, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It might not be quite as nice, but I could always have toast with my morning coffee – or even move on to an entirely new resource family and try muesli.

So it is with copper. This metal has many fine properties that have allowed it to make an important and highly valued contribution to the fabric of our industrialised society – but even if a shortage were to develop, viable alternatives exist for all its major uses. They may not always be as effective as copper, and certainly no single resource stands out as able to fill all of the niches that copper is applied to, but nevertheless, there are no yawning gulfs that threaten to bring any of the pillars supporting western society crashing to the ground.