the World is
Running Low On
We’re typically pretty terrible to our world. We tear through resources like a hungry kid devouring a bag of M&Ms. It’s bad enough when we do it knowingly, like with oil shortages that tend to – no pun intended – fuel wars. We’ve helped multiple animal species trudge ahead toward extinction, because that patch of forest would make a great place for a Cheesecake Factory, condors be damned.
But there are some resources that we take for granted, and keep using even when places around the world are running low on supplies. Things like…
Helium makes our balloons float up, and can reduce even the mighty voice of Morgan Freeman to a ridiculous high-pitched squeak. We use this lighter-than air gas so indiscriminately that it’s hard to believe that the world is facing a helium shortage. The universe has a huge supply of Helium, but here on Earth the supply is quickly nearing its limits.
Helium is extracted from the ground, where it’s created from uranium and thorium decay. That’s right, the gas you just inhaled into your lungs because it’s funny is a byproduct of radioactive decay. The decay process of Uranium is incredibly slow – the Helium stockpile we’ve almost exhausted has taken the Earth’s entire lifespan to form.
The problem is so bad that two years ago, US Congress signed the snappily named “Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act.” This Act aims to keep the shortage of Helium in check so it can continue breaking new ground in medicine. What, did you think it’s only good for making your voice sound funny?
Your morning cup o’ joe may soon cost even more than Starbucks rates thanks to droughts and diseases plaguing Brazillian and Central American coffee beans. The impending coffee shortage has been looming over our heads since last year, when Brazil experienced a season of extreme drought and Central America saw an outbreak of the devastating “leaf rust” disease.
Luckily, a surplus from previous years carried suppliers through the tough season, but the demand is still exceeding the supply and rising prices reflect that.
And things may only get worse. Areas that produce a huge chunk of your coffee are continuing to experience erratic rainfall and record high temperatures, and if the climate change continues at the same rate, anywhere between 70% and 99.7% of our Arabica coffee – that’s the “good” stuff – might be gone by 2080. Less popular beans aren’t in quite as much danger, but they’re affected too. Better stock up now.
Another beloved every-day treat that’s experiencing ups and downs is chocolate, and you can chalk this one up to climate change as well. In 2014, global cocoa harvests plummeted thanks to dry spells and an assortment of diseases and pests that wipe out an annual average of 30-40% of the world’s cocoa production.
The thing is, even as the world’s chocolate supply dries up the demand is huge and still rising. Chocolate isn’t just a sweet treat that makes you fat, it’s also now thought to have health benefits, like strengthening your heart. This is especially true for dark chocolate, which needs the most cocoa to make.
For now, this doesn’t mean we’re running out of chocolate, but the shortages are leading to increased chocolate prices from major chocolate companies like Hershey. That means that one day in the future, chocolate might be an expensive luxury, so you’d better savor every bit of that dark chocolate bar you bought because you’re crossing your fingers it’s legitimately “healthy.”
While the previous shortages were caused by lack of resources, the shortages of medicine can be blamed instead on human nature. The global pharmaceutical industry is worth over $300 billion, a third of which is owned by just 10 giant companies who drive prices up, and smaller companies out of business. A disconnected industry means lack of communication among manufacturers, pharmacists, and physicians. As a result, medicine is in short supply all over the world. The problem got so bad in Venezuela that the government has introduced a fingerprinting requirement at pharmacies to essentially ration out medicine.
In the US, antibiotics are feeling the brunt of the shortage, which spells trouble for anyone who needs these medicines to treat pathogens resistant to other treatments. Between 2001 and 2013, 148 different kinds of antibiotics experienced shortages. The FDA is doing its best “within its legal authority” to keep doctors informed so you don’t get a prescription for something that, say, no longer exists.
The US is also taking a hint from Canada by imposing mandatory reporting of shortages by pharmaceuticals. This won’t stop the shortages, but it will at least alert doctors and prompt them to offer alternate treatments.
6. Lethal Injection Drugs
Texas isn’t shy about using the death penalty, putting 524 inmates to death since 1976, so it’s almost kind of poetic that the state is running out of the lethal injection drug. As of this spring, Texas only had enough penobarbital for two more executions, and was scrambling to get more for the four scheduled deaths in April.
The problem isn’t with the drug, but with the pharmarcists: one by one, leading pharmacists like Akron and Roche, and pharmacist associations like the IACP and APhA are adopting policies to stop providing lethal injection drugs.
Texas isn’t the only state affected by the issue, and without a steady supply, states are being forced to get more creative in their method of execution. Utah is bringing back the firing squad, while Oklahoma is turning to Nitrogen gas as an alternative. Meanwhile, Nebraska is going down the route the pharmaceuticals were probably hoping for, and considering completely eliminating the death penalty.
Up until the 1990s, the Chinese blood market was thriving and largely unregulated. Without the government’s intervention, donating blood meant subjecting yourself to poor bloodletting practices, often performed without clean needles. Thanks to this, China was facing a potential HIV epidemic.
With over 800,000 Chinese testing positive for HIV by 1997, the government finally intervened and cracked down on the sale of blood. The new regulations put down stricter policies for donating blood, and outlawed the sale of blood altogether. But the new rules also led to a different kind of problem: a blood shortage so bad it’s been dramatically labeled a “blood famine.”
To encourage people to donate blood instead of selling it illegally, many hospitals now require patients (or their friends or relatives) to have donated blood in the past. On the flip side, Chinese law limits blood donations to twice a year, and only if you’re even eligible to do so. This means that if you’re in need of blood transfusions but aren’t eligible to donate blood, you’re in trouble. The policy has led to the rise of a blood black market. Called “blood heads,” some people donate blood then offer the proof of donation to those who need it – for a price, of course.
4. Doctors / Surgeons
The United States is experiencing a doctor shortage, and you may already be feeling it if you live in the more rural areas of the US. A report written by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that by 2025 the US will be short 50,000 to 90,000 physicians.
If you think you can rely on WebMD self-diagnosis, you’d better be ready to operate on yourself, too, because the shortage covers just about every kind of doctor from your family physician or dentist, to surgeons and oncologists.
The shortage is being caused by a number of factors, including a growing population, and increasing rates of certain health problems like cancer. Training future doctors is also a problem due to a congressional cap on residency programs – although the government is working on increasing the number of residency slots by 15,000 over the next five years.
About five years ago as the world was facing an economic crisis, the United Kingdom housing market collapsed. This lead to a huge surplus of unsold bricks – about 1.2 billion, to be exact – and the eventual shutting down of brick factories across the country. To put it simply: the UK is running low on bricks.
British builders currently have to delay productions by nearly four months as they wait to get their hands on the kiln-fired clay bricks that they need to build new houses. Some have turned to imported bricks, which is only exacerbating the housing problem by adding cost and delays to production.
This shortage comes at a time when the British government has promised to build over 500,000 new homes per year in an effort to bring down sky-rocketing house prices. It’s proving difficult to build houses without house-building materials, and as a couple little pigs taught us, straw and sticks just won’t do the trick.
How can we be running out of something that covers over 71% of the earth? When you consider that 96% of the earth’s water is of the salt variety, it’s not too surprising that we’re drowning in water but still have nothing to drink. As you’ve probably figured out from the chocolate and coffee shortage, dry spells are also getting increasingly common – drying up the tiny percentage of freshwater supply we have. Just take a look at what’s happening in California right now.
And the Golden State isn’t alone. According to the Government Accountability Office, even if we have “average” conditions in the next decade practically every state in the US will experience local, regional, or even statewide water shortages.
This isn’t a problem limited to the US, either. The UN says that water shortages are already affecting every single continent, and nearly 1.2 billion people around the world don’t have access to water. Another 1.6 billion – that’s a quarter of the world’s population – live in places too poor to afford water supply systems. By 2025, about two thirds of the world may be living with little to no water.
1. High Quality Bourbon
If the last entry made you want to reach for some good old bourbon, you’re out of luck.
Straight Bourbon takes about two to four years to mature. Good bourbon takes closer to 20. That involves a whole lot of foresight on behalf of distilleries, and unfortunately, 20 years ago bourbon just wasn’t very popular. According to the president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, “In the ’70s and ’80s bourbon was your father’s drink, or worse, your grandfather’s drink.” Fearing a shortage, most of the best bourbon was bought up by people who could afford it, ironically causing that shortage.
Suddenly in recent years, bourbon became cool to drink again, thanks at least in part to shows like Mad Men. Demand for whiskey and bourbon has increased almost 70% in the last decade, making the best of the spirit pretty scarce.
Don’t worry though – you can still get plenty of the younger, cheaper stuff, and distilleries are constantly coming up with ways to speed up the process from years to days. But if you want the really good stuff, you’d better have deep pockets, or maybe a time machine.