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The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Natural Resources (November 2018): How Do Societies Define a Natural Resource?

By Brian Shmaefsky

How Do Societies Define a Natural Resource?

A natural resource can be defined as a raw material from the earth useful for human survival (or perhaps, for “meeting people’s needs”). Of course, many resources today are consumed for purposes well beyond the scope of human survival and meeting basic needs. Throughout history, a society’s wealth, growth, and political stability have been largely determined by its access to these resources. European exploration lengthened the list of items perceived as natural resources in economically wealthy nations. In The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan explains how land and water trade routes increased the availability of novel resources.

A preindustrial list of natural resources included just land and water; these provided food, territory, and transportation, and eventually commerce as settlements grew into cities. Bruce Johansen describes the perceptions of natural resources by preindustrial societies in Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Issues. According to H. W. F. Saggs in Civilization before Greece and Rome, ancient people first exploited land for the type of food that could be collected and eventually cultivated. Mineral resources were used to make tools for hunting and farming. Trade, Traders and the Ancient City, edited by Helen Parkins and Christopher Smith, demonstrates how as larger settlements were established, terrain and the presence of water were important factors in transport and trade, and were traditionally key predictors of these cities’ prosperity. Today, a list of natural resources might include air, energy resources, food, land, minerals, and water. 

Works Cited