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The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Natural Resources (November 2018): Home

By Brian Shmaefsky


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Choice (volume 56 | number 3). 


The future of Earth’s supply of natural resources is a particularly acute concern today considering that the human population is growing by 80 million people each year; most of that growth is occurring in swiftly urbanizing nations. Population scientists project that in 2100, the human population will reach its environmental carrying capacity—the maximum population that can be supported by the available natural resources. In effect, the Earth’s natural resources may not meet the demands of the 11 billion people estimated to be living in 2100.

It is projected that 86 percent of that 11 billion will be living in urban areas, requiring a higher per capita use of natural resources. Further population growth after the year 2100 will lead to deficits of resource reserves. The consequences of these deficits will either create a desperate search for new types of resources or force the extraction of resources that are not economically feasible. 

This bibliographic essay will consider the trends in natural resource use from early human history to the present day, focusing specifically on mineral and fossil fuel resources. These two are often considered the greatest limiting factors for societies’ economic growth; they are also nonrenewable, making them particularly vulnerable to depletion if their uses are not properly managed. Resource depletion is best defined as the point where a resource becomes so scarce that there is not enough left to meet existing demands. It is difficult to imagine human civilization without mineral and fossil fuel resources. Mineral resources are a significant component of today’s infrastructure, while fossil fuels are necessary to create and run even the simplest modern technology.

This essay will also investigate sustainable options for reducing per capita natural resource consumption. The essay begins with a description of natural resources, followed by a history of mineral and fossil usage. Issues associated with natural resource management make up later sections of essay. Selected books include readings on human population growth trends, the impacts of urbanization, alternatives to current natural resources, and the principles of environmental sustainability. 

Brian Shmaefsky is a professor of environmental science at Lone Star College - Kingwood in Texas. Shmaefsky is the author of several books and numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, and serves in various local, national, and international environmental policy organizations.