We’re running out of everything, from water to rare metals. Here are 10 shocking insights from a new report

March 1, 2022, 7:37 PM UTC

The world is not enough for us, or at least it won’t be if we keep using up so much of it.

While the global population doubled in the second half of the 20th century, food grain production tripled and energy consumption quadrupled. 

A new research report by Bank of America, which is not yet publicly available, has pinpointed the 10 biggest areas where resource scarcity is set to affect global markets over the next few decades. Some of them, like fresh water or livable air, are unsurprising. But others, like health care services, attention spans, and free time, paint a grim picture of the future. 

The resources that will be most scarce in the future, according to the report, are water, biodiversity and air, rare earth and metals, agriculture, waste disposal, processing power, youth, health and wellness, skills and education, and time.

Water, agriculture, and air

If conservation efforts are not ramped up significantly, the majority of global freshwater supplies might be exhausted by 2040, according to BofA. Phosphorus, which is used for fertilization in modern agriculture, also might see a dwindling supply by as early as 2030, affecting global food supplies.

Livable air and environmental quality is also expected to become a scarcer resource than it already is. The report estimates that air pollution already kills more people worldwide than AIDS, malaria, diabetes, or tuberculosis, while mismanaged waste disposal kills over 1 million people a year.

Metals, waste, and processing power

As demand rises to record highs for rare-earth metals used in technology from solar panels to smartphones, those supplies are getting used up as well, according to the research, mainly because recycling infrastructure for electronic devices is still not up to par.

“We generate about 50 million tons of e-waste every year,” the report reads. “[T]hat is the equivalent of throwing out 1,000 laptops every second.”  

Some of these metals, such as lithium and nickel, might see demand exceed supply by as early as 2024, but the demand for metals overall could increase sixfold by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental energy watchdog. These components are critical to a transition toward renewable energy. 

The BofA report predicts that we will need to power over 1 trillion electronic devices by 2035, which could create another shortage of semiconductor chips worldwide, a problem we have already become well-acquainted with.  

Youth and health

While issues related to water and mineral scarcity have been well-documented for a while, the new report highlights another important area of resource scarcity that has received substantially less attention: human capital. 

“We have already reached peak youth, with grandparents outnumbering grandkids worldwide,” the report reads, highlighting record-low birth rates in the U.S. and China. Older populations will place a strain on health care systems and make adequate health services more scarce on average.

The report found that in 2022, there were more grandparents than kids in North America, and more people age 65 and older than people ages 15 or younger. It predicts a population peak of 10 billion people in 2064 followed by a gradual decline.

Scarcity of health services will also be affected by a dearth of health care workers. The report estimates that there will be 18 million fewer health care workers in 2030 than there are now. Impoverished countries will be the most impacted by a scarcity of health care workers. 

Time and skills

And some of the most mind-bending parts of the research aren’t about physical commodities, but about how people’s time, attention spans, and efficiency might become scarcer as well. 

As our virtual lives become more immersive through emerging metaverse technologies, BofA predicts that our available time and efficiency might be hitting record-low levels.

The trend has already begun. 

“We spend 1/3 of our waking time staring at screens and swiping on apps—that is 11+ years in a lifetime including 3 years spent on social media,” the report reads. 

In addition to less time, lost efficiency will be compounded by scarcer valuable skills as educational institutions will not be able to keep up with the evolving demands of rapidly changing technologies. The report estimates that 1 billion people will need to be reskilled by 2030 because of technological disruption. Over the next several decades, it predicts that skill scarcity will cost the world $8.5 trillion, more than the current combined GDP of Germany and Japan.  

Transformative solutions

But even if humans are using up the world at record speed, there are things we can do to safeguard against resource scarcity.

The research identifies transitioning toward a more circular economy, where waste is minimized and restorative or regenerative economic processes are prioritized, as an essential step, as right now 99% of the items humans harvest, mine, process, and transport ends up in the trash in less than six months.

Innovative technologies to reduce waste and ensure the world lives within the means of what the planet can provide are what the report terms “scarcity tech.” These solutions, such as regenerative agriculture and more efficient and clean energy generation technology, can help balance supply and demand more sustainably.

“A transforming world needs transformative solutions,” the report reads. The report claims that scarcity tech would make sure that we do not live as exceedingly beyond our means as humans have done in the past.

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