Who really needs gold?
What is the value of gold, when all it does is sit in a vault. A very high percentage of all gold ever mined is still available to humans, but most of it is in the form of ingots, which in that form has no function. Copper however, has been mined throughout history right along with gold, and a high percentage of it is still in use. But, coppers primary use these days is conducting electricity, and without electricity modern civilization would soon collapse. If half of all the copper were to vanish we would have an absolute disaster, but if half of all the gold were to vanish no one would notice for a while, except the vault guards.
A growing problem of more people.
As human population grows the demand for electricity also grows, and as the desire for a better life provided by electricity grows the existing population of the world will need more copper. Silver is also an excellent conductor, but it is too expensive for most uses; aluminum is a fairly good conductor for short distances but it converts too much of the passing electricity into heat, and thus is useless for most electrical purposes. Thus, if follows that humanity will need considerably more copper in the near future.
Where will we get more copper?
Unfortunately, the mines for copper are nearly exhausted. One obvious proof of this problem is the Chilean miners trapped for a month underground last year. They were in a very deep mine, and that is proof positive that copper is becoming very difficult to get, or the miners wouldn’t have dug that deep. If copper could be mined more economically elsewhere market forces would be forcing the mining of that cheaper source, but they aren’t. The reason is that copper only occurs in a few places, unlike aluminum which is quite commonly found but is expensive to refine The unsolvable problem is that the only known copper mines are nearly exhausted.
Most people think we need food to live.
The critical shortfall for humanity in the not too distant future is food, but our present massive supply of food is created by oil. It comes in the form of powering machinery, and making fertilizer, without which we would have far less food. Water is also a soon to be a critical problem, not for drinking, but for watering crops to create the food we need to live. We can not continue expanding human population forever, and it is unlikely that we can even continue for another 50 years, without hitting some unsolvable problem. People already living will consume all the bounty Earth can provide, and yet at current population trends there will be a doubling of our already huge population in about 40 years. Nature’s method is to maximize reproduction of a species population, within its predatory limitations, but humans have become too successful and have no longer have natural predators constraining them, and the only constraint on our population, now, is food and unfortunately homicide.
We need copper to live modern lives.
What will be the limits on humanities population growth? If food is the ultimate limitation, we would ask, why worry about copper? The reason is there is enough energy in the form of oil, gas, coal, solar and wind to last for fifty years, but we are already running out of copper, and there is no replacement. When copper is in short supply, it will become the great limiting factor pressing on humanity, and that will happen well within 40 years and certainly before the fuel or water run out. Below are some of my blog posts on the subject of human sustainability. There are many more.
Now is the time to invest in copper research and its alternatives.
UPDATE the day after this post 2011/09/27 New York subway copper stolen.