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13 September 2017

We've Been Here Before



This article was written by Trevor Tarring. All views and opinions are strictly his own.


Anthony Lipmann’s piece on the Trump Metals Act not only gave me great pleasure, it also induced a 65 year old flashback.

Back in 1952 the hot topic among materials economists was a document called the Paley Report. It was commissioned by President Harry S. Truman and headed by William S. Paley, chairman of Columbia Broadcasting Corp, not the most obvious qualification for examining a materials supply question. Its remit was to examine the likely future availability to the United States of its growing requirements of raw materials of all kinds, with metals prominently included.

As far as metals were concerned, Mr. Paley managed to produce a scare story that saw world resources – and therefore the resources available to the USA -  mostly running out by about 1975. Today we know  – and even long before 1975 we knew – that this was rubbish. But in the paranoid climate of the Cold War and the abnormal economics of a high level of defence spending, it was a prognosis that drew widespread and serious attention.

I will not deal here with the report’s thoughts on oil or energy, because these are irrelevant to the main point I wanted at the time to make about the metals forecasts. (Not that that stopped the forecasts on those resources being equally wrong!).

As we pointed out in Metal Bulletin at the time a glaring omission from the Paley forecasts was any mention of secondary materials – scrap to you and me. This might be excused in a metal like zinc, especially in the context of the greater importance to the total market than today of galvanising. But for metals like aluminium, lead or copper the absence of any reckoning of the place in the metal’s economy of recycled material is just plain ridiculous. Metal Bulletin said as much at the time.

Fast forward a decade or a bit more from the Paley Report and we come to an even odder piece of futurology. This was a report on broadly the same lines as the Paley Report and commissioned from a real metal man – James Boyd, President of Copper Range, a relatively small, but well-respected producer of Lake copper. Boyd inexplicably managed, with an appropriate time shift, to reproduce the nonsenses of the Paley Report, including totally omitting any mention of scrap and secondary material. Perhaps it’s as well for the sake of the copper industry’s reputation for professionalism that the Boyd report sank into oblivion in fairly short order. 

And today, if a few octogenarians gather to chew the fat and someone says “Do you remember that report in the fifties or sixties that said we were going to run out of metals in fairly short order?”  it is Paley’s name, rather than Boyd’s that is remembered. Lucky Jim.       

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