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Copper is now being stolen from operating power lines, even in Washington DC, the capital of the United States. Does this mean it will soon be difficult to operate modern society because people are stealing the means of transmitting electricity from one place to another? If so, it is a grim warning for humanity, because we are more dependent upon functioning copper maintaining social stability than we are on a supply of gold buried in Fort Knox.

Copper is valuable now and will become increasingly valuable as more of the world’s seven billion people upgrade their lives and start using more electricity. Copper is essential for almost all electrical devices. Other conductors of electricity are silver, aluminum and carbon fibers. There are other super-conductors but they at present only function at temperatures near absolute zero, thus they are limited to applications where that very low temperature can be maintained. Aluminum is a fairly good conductor, and the element is readily available in the Earth’s crust, but it isn’t nearly as desirable as copper because it converts too much electricity to waste heat.

Telephone wires when it was point to point by Tina Modotti

When the people of the world achieve middle class incomes they will want, and soon demand access to the bounties which copper provides. Humanity was lucky that silicon fiber optical transmission of information became possible, because that invention eliminated the need for copper to transmit information. Look at photographs of telephone lines taken in the 1920s, showing a blizzard of wires, and imagine the modern world with thousands of times as much point to point wires. In third world countries which never had that copper wire infrastructure the cell phone technology gives instant and increasingly complete access to the electronic world, without much copper. Soon, copper will not be needed for the transmission of information, even in remote areas, except in the broadcast and receiving devices themselves, and in the recharging of those devices batteries.

It would appear that in the not distant future, say twenty years, that coppers primary function will be the transmission of local electrical power and in motors and devices. Long distance power may use other more exotic methods of power transmission, but maybe not. There is tremendous pressure to find replacements for copper, but that doesn’t mean replacements will be found, or if they are even naturally possible.

Copper production doesn’t appear to have the flexibility that oil does. If the price of oil doubles there are many new sources that become economically viable, and if it doubles again even more. But, copper seems more limited, there are relatively few known sources, and huge mines have been dug to exploit these, but each one seems to have specific quantities of attainable ore in them and when that ore is gone there is no more. That means that when these sources are mined out, humanity will be forced to make do with what they have and recycle as much as possible. But, recycling is never perfect and getting 90% back from a given use would seem optimistic. Over a period of time there would be a diminishing supply available, at any cost.

There is another problem facing copper usage, and that is that it is exposed to theft, and the more valuable the copper becomes the more at risk there is to wires strung across the world to being stolen. It can be taken as quickly as it can be rolled onto a large spool using high-tech power-driven machinery. Even in our present wonderful world of abundance copper is being stolen, but imagine a not too distant time when there happens to be a serious shortfall of human necessities, like food, what will starving people do to feed themselves. Morality goes out when hunger comes in. Stealing a mile of copper wire might feed a family for a year and the theft might be done in a remote area in an hour. Nowadays, people would feel sympathy for the starving thieves, but the havoc a theft of that type would wreak on those dependent upon the electricity would be enormous. Imagine the cost to the people of your presently healthy city not having electricity for a week, and consider how much worse it would be during a time of acute hardship.

When copper becomes so expensive it cannot be used in undefended places, society is in for some fundamental and very unpleasant changes. To understand this, imagine if our electric infrastructure was run on silver wires. It is technically possible, and it’s even better than copper for most uses, but it couldn’t be done because of the theft of the silver. It’s the same situation with copper, and when copper doubles in relative value and the price of food doubles in cost we may tumble over a tipping point into electrical chaos. Now just for speculation, imagine the copper mines running out or the farm land running short, or a crop killing disease striking a major crop or the population continuing to expand by 75 million hungry and copper using people per year – what will happen?

I don’t know what will happen, but it is safe to say the future will have some very unpleasant qualities.