Discuss Cracked.com's list of 6 Important Things You Didn't Know We Were Running Out Of

-Medical isotopes

I knew we were running out of helium, and I think I’ve heard mumblings about chocolate and phosphorous, but the others were a surprise to me. I was expecting to see bananas on the list, and kind of glad I didn’t.

Anyone think we’ll run out of any of these in our lifetimes, and will it seriously impact the way we live?

(I’m pretty sure we can make a product nearly identical to tequila as long as we call it something else, so I’m not really fretting over that one.)

Well, obviously if we run out of water, umm game over.

Helium is a rather important gas for some industries, and I would like to see the balloon industry shrivel up (pun intended). Then again, I have no idea how much the balloon industry uses relative to the supply, but it sure seems wasteful for a commodity that is finite.

They missed one: maple syrup.

That article has a rather large dose of hyperbole. The issue is not running out of these commodities, but passing the peak production of cheap supplies.

In regards to phosphorus, the problem is not running out, but how fast are we going to hit peak production. I have seen estimated from 30 to 50 years out. A key to this I think will be better recycling tech to recapture the element. It is a major pollutant of water systems and recycling would alleviate that also. But hitting peak production will lead to a rise in food prices and other commodities that require it. Governments know the supply constraints and are looking to hoard the easily accessible supplies.

The problem with chocolate is that is has been grossly underpriced since it relies on child labor and other unfair labor practices, which in turn enables consumption above sustainable rates. The article’s comparison to caviar is not too far off from what a sustainable production level might be.

The current [episode of the long time] crisis in Cote D’Ivoire isn’t helping create a stable supply either.

I don’t have much specific info on the others.

The professor of an ecology class I took in college said the next world war would be over water. That was about 10 years ago.

As I’ve mentioned before, my physics lab in grad school had a helium reclamation system. It wasn’t being used. At one point people were serious about not losing helium. Not anymore.
But helium is a Big Deal. There really isn’t anything else you can use to get to the lowest temperatures – and there are still reasons to want to get there, such as superconductor research. And you need to use quite a bit, because helium has a low heat capacity.

Helium is made by radioactive decay and collects atop oil deposits in impermeable layers of rock. It’s produced as a byproduct of oil drilling (question – so why doesn’t Saudi Arabia have a big reserve of helium? I dunno. Maybe they have too much permeable rock). Helium doesn’t combine chemically with anything else, being the “noblest” of the noble gases. Being the lightest element, when released (from your experiment, or your balloon) it goes up. eventually it gets to the top of the atmosphere, and can easily pick up energy and go off into space (although it needs quite a kick to get out of our gravity well – but it’s pretty diffuse up there atop the rest of the atmosphere). So helium, unlike those other elements, doesn’t keep getting churned up through any sort of “cycle”, like the equally light hydrogen, which combines with damned near everything. It goes up and stays there. The other noble gases, being middlin’ heavy, tend to stay down here in the atmosphere. Helium’s a special case. So pulling it out of the air and pumping it into one-use-only balloons might not seem to be a good use of a Precious Natural Resource.

The bit about medical isotopes is nonsense. The reason why the only major manufacturer of them went out of business is that it doesn’t make sense to have a major manufacturer of them. How do you ship something cross-country that has a half-life of 12 hours? Rather, most hospitals that use the stuff have a facility that makes it on-site.

Helium is reclaimed as part of natural-gas collecting. In the US, we actually use natural gas, so we bother to collect it, and collect the helium as well in the process. Most of the Middle East, though, uses oil for everything, so they don’t bother to collect the natural gas and just vent and burn it. The helium by itself isn’t enough to make it worth collecting gas.

I only glanced through the article, but was surprised rare earth elements didn’t make the list. I’ve read a few references to concern over China being the principal practical supplier.

Does anyone know any details about the 1996 law that supposedly requires the United States do dump its helium reserves? Does it exist and what purpose is it supposedly serving?

Wikipedia Link

A billion cubic feet didn’t sound like much to me, so I googled it and saw this:


Anyone else think it’s @#$%ing retarded to sell off our strategic reserve of a non-renewable resource to private industry?

Just skimming through the article, I don’t think the authors are aware of the concept of supply and demand. It’s rather like the same assumptions that the Peak Oil (end of the world) crowd uses.

We are running out of chocolate because chocolate (according to the article) isn’t worth producing (yet it gets produced…they claim using ‘slave labor’, which I have no idea how accurate that is but sounds like hyperbole). So, we’ll run out because no one will want to produce it (or something). The same goes for helium…it’s dirt cheap, so we’ll run out and the it will cost 10k times more to produce because in fact we actually need the stuff.

I will say that water (they are talking about the drinking kind if you didn’t read the article) IS a potentially serious concern, especially in the desert regions like the US Southwest, where it seems everyone and their mother wants to move to. A lot of the cities in Arizona, California and Texas are ultimately unsustainable at the preset rate of consumption, and they are having to go further and further afield to find water. Eventually it’s going to drive the costs of water up to the point that growth will slow down, stop or even reverse (which is, again all about supply and demand). I don’t see us ‘Running Out Of’ water, however…like most of the other things on the list the reality is that as something becomes scarce and there is a demand, the price will simply rise, and a market will be born for figuring out a way to get the desired commodity to the folks who want it.


Here’s some information/support for claims regarding the use of child slave labor in cocoa production. (Wikipedia with links a-plenty.) There’s plenty of other stuff about it online; it doesn’t seem to be hyperbole to me.

Idiots have been saying this for 40 years.

It overlooks basic economics. The Iraq war is just a skirmish, and it costs ~10 billion dollars a month and has an economic drain of at least the same amount.

For the cost of running a serious war for 10 minutes the US can build a desalination plant capable of providing water for 2 million people. For the cost of running a war for one day the US can build delsalination plants to provide all of the water supply for Las Vegas and surrounds, the pipeline to move the water to the city and the nuclear power plants to power all of that.

Do you still really think anybody is going to fight a world war for water?

The fact is that the world has no shortage of water. The stuff covers 2/3 of the planet to a depth of 2 miles. Drinkable water falls form the sky and runs into the ocean in teralitres a second.

All the world has is a shortage of freshwater where people want it. Given that we know both how to cheaply produce fresh water and how to to move it, the idea of fighting major wars over water is a statement that could only be made by someone who doesn’t understand ecology, psychology or economics.

Minor skirmishes fought over where dams are sited? I can see that happening. Wars fought over water? Not a chance.

:dubious: Then how come no one has done it? Seems like a private company would do it at that price. Sounds like a guaranteed home run.

Um…how would a private company building desalination plants compete with the government who has used tax money to build canals and reroute water in from all over the place?? The government doesn’t have to worry about making a profit, or ROI.

I have no doubt that if water became scarce enough to drive the price up to make it worth while that someone would figure out a way to do it. It’s not rocket science after all…we already know how to take sea water and make it drinkable, and we already know how to build pipelines and aqueducts to transport water over large distances.


War @ $10Bn/mo = ~$333M/day (Blake’s figures).

Las Vegas metro area ~2M people + special considerations (very large number of tourists, mega-hotels that are fond of large pools and fountains).

Say the average water bill per resident is $10/mo. Sounds low but have to account for kids and such that don’t pay a water bill. That’s $20M/month / $140M/year. Drought worries, land issues, water rights issues, Lake Mead extinction fears = SOLVED with an ROI in under 2 years.

It would also free up a hell of a lot more water to run Hoover Dam and provide cheap, clean electricity.

Why on earth isn’t that being done if it’s so easy? It still sounds like a home run for a private company to me (sell it 1 penny cheaper than the city and you win; they’re doing it here with solar panels), or even the city itself. Seems like a temporary half-cent tax on gambling or alcohol would pay for it in about 5 seconds.

You did read my post, right?

And you are aware that Iraq is not a world war, right?

Then it sounds like a great business investment for you to get in on. Here is the thing…if it WAS a great investment that would be sure to make money, someone would be doing it right now. Or planning to do it. But, afaik, no one is. That says something right there about how real the numbers are.

Basically, the water situation in Las Vegas isn’t in crisis. They are still getting sufficient water from Lake Mead (over 90% IIRC), and the rest comes from still existing aquifers. If it ever gets short, then Nevada will do what places like California and Arizona do…use tax money to bring in water from further afield. So, a private company attempting to build a desalinization plant isn’t going to be economically effective in the current scheme of things.

That said, you have to know that the technology for such plants certainly exists. Other countries (Saudi I believe, and several others in the ME) use the things pretty extensively because they basically have no option…there aren’t other places for them to bring the water in from that they can access. If it comes down to it, we could and would do the same thing. But, at this time it hasn’t come down to it yet, so we haven’t done it…yet.