Rubber - Critical and Vulnerable  

Posted by Big Gav

EnergyBulletin has an article up on the importance of rubber to the industrial world. Rubber can be obtained in its natural form from rubber trees, or produced synthetically from petrochemicals. As oil becomes scarce and more expensive, this means we become more dependent on natural rubber. Unfortunately relying on rubber trees has its own risks.

The world's rubber needs are met through both natural and synthetic sources, each supplying nearly equal amounts. Synthetic rubber requires petrochemicals as a feedstock for its manufacture, using roughly 3.5 times more oil than what is required for a rubber tree plantation. This dependence on oil has led to a dramatic price increase in synthetic rubber over the last few years. Not surprisingly, this has fuelled an increased demand for natural rubber.

Nearly 90% of the world’s natural rubber is supplied by plantations in South East Asia. The millions of rubber trees there are all clones coming from only a handful of seeds originating from the Amazon, and descendents are taken as cuttings from these trees. A huge population of species supporting an extremely small genetic base causes any weaknesses to be greatly amplified. These trees are all known to be very susceptible to the fungal disease known as leaf blight. If one were to become infected, the risk of it spreading is very high.

South America's rubber trees have encountered numerous problems with leaf blight during the history of the industry there. On the other hand, South East Asia has only encountered a few cases, all from different, less damaging, varieties of leaf blight. To date, no epidemics of the South American version have occurred in South East Asia. However, there is speculation that this could happen at any time and cause a major disruption in the world rubber supply.

From the book 'One River' author Wade Davis states "To this day a single act of biological terrorism, the systematic introduction of fungal spores so small as to be readily concealed in a shoe, could wipe out the plantations, shutting down production of natural rubber for at least a decade. It is difficult to think of any other raw material that is as vital and vulnerable."

I can just see the next neocon conspiracy theory being breathlessly announced in World Nut Daily - "The quest for rubber security - US must invade Malaysia to prevent islamic terrorists destroying critical rubber infrastructure using biological weapons supplied by Iran".

Moving back to the real world, the importance of rubber has been underscored in the two world wars, with Germany struggling to find substitutes in World War 1 (as the British denied them access to it) and the US putting a lot of effort into developing synthetic substitutes (as the Japanese denied them access to rubber from south east asia).

While non-oil based alternatives to rubber don't seem to exist, John Dobozy's rubber recycling technology has been getting a bit of attention lately - so if the rubber trees get wiped out by blight we can always mine the tire mountains that blight various regions.

Moving away from the subject of rubber, if you've never read anything by Wade Davis (referenced above) he's worth having a look at - ethnobotany is a lot more interesting than you might imagine. If you'd like to become proficient at raising the dead and commanding a zombie slave army, then I highly recommend "The Serpent and the Rainbow". His other books, including "Shadows in the Sun", "Light at the End of the World" and "Rainforest: Ancient realm of the Pacific Northwest" are excellent as well.

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