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

By Brian Shmaefsky

The Future of Earth’s Natural Resources

Based on the projected fate of mineral and fossil fuel resources alone, the next century is looking bleak. According Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill in Enough Is Enough, natural resource depletion primarily occurs in countries focused on economic growth; wealth tends to produce greater per capita resource usage, and prosperous countries have a history of exploiting resources. Their seemingly unhampered access to new natural resources from other regions fueled a general perception in these countries that natural resources were unlimited.

Starting in 2050, it is anticipated that every country’s mineral and fossil fuel resources will become more expensive and less available. A decrease in human quality of life will likely result: poorer nations will suffer disproportionately as they are compelled to export their resources as a major source of income. Developing countries are already experiencing the consequences of depleted access to resources. For example, the last forests in Bangladesh are rapidly shrinking as the country struggles to replace expensive fossil fuels with domestic fuel sources like wood charcoal. The deforestation has resulted in biodiversity loss and unprecedented flooding. Haiti has endured a similar scenario.

So why do we tend to deplete resources today? Resource overconsumption is partly attributed to the dynamics of supply and demand. If desirable resources are readily available, people will use those resources to the point of exhaustion. The British economist William Stanley Jevons observed this pattern in 1865, explaining in his treatise The Coal Question that resources made abundant through technological innovations tend to be overconsumed. His classic example was the improvement of coal steam engines. The advent of a new, more fuel efficient design in coal steam engines should have reduced the use of coal; instead, industries abandoned the older steam engines and then started using steam engines in many other applications. Thus efforts to reduce coal consumption actually dramatically increased it. Today, the same principle holds true: the creation of more fuel efficient cars has led to more driving and an increase in gasoline consumption.

 Some believe that human nature prevents us from overusing resources. In Why Governments Waste Natural Resources, William Ascher argues that policy makers often make decisions that willfully encourage profit making with little concern for resource depletion and environmental impacts. Ascher’s arguments are supported by William Hogan and Federico Sturzenegger in The Natural Resources Trap and by David Reed in In Pursuit of Prosperity. In The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard provides an anecdotal critique of the causes of overconsumption, discussing how societies have lost an awareness of how their consumption rates affect the planet.

Unfortunately, the impacts of urbanization on a country’s resource consumption were generally overlooked until recently. In The Routledge Handbook of Urbanization and Global Environmental Change, editors Karen Seto, William Solecki, and Corrie Griffith present discussions of how global urbanization places extra strain on Earth’s natural resources. This perspective is supported by data from the World Resources Forum (https://www.wrforum.org). The infrastructure needed for urbanization increases a country’s reliance on mineral and energy resources, and urbanization raises the per capita resource consumption within these urban areas.

Finally, human population growth is a key factor in resource consumption. In the late 1700s Thomas Malthus held a grim view of the outcomes of natural resource overconsumption. In his article An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus recognized that human population growth had to be calculated into supply and demand dynamics. During his time catastrophic events reduced the population when the demand for critical resources outstripped supply.

Many options have been proposed to curb our current degree of resource depletion. A detailed examination of these options requires a separate bibliographic essay. The following paragraphs provide a short overview of the major mainstream strategies for attacking the problem of dwindling minerals and fossil fuels.

In The Limits to Growth, Donatella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows describe an attempt to remediate resource depletion. In 1972, MIT researchers developed a computer program to analyze the aforementioned factors leading to overconsumption. Their analysis is the foundation of models for reducing further resource depletion and even remediating its past effects.

Human population control is a controversial strategy for reducing natural resource depletion. Paul Ehrlich, who popularized this idea in his 1972 book The Population Bomb, graphically describes what a resource-depleted world would look like if the rate of growth does not slow before 2050. As discussed in Steven Mosher’s Population Control, previous attempts at human population control penalized people in developing nations, unintentionally harmed women and particular ethnic groups, and squandered money on ineffective programs.

Adaptive strategies for resource conservation are discussed in Michael Conroy and James Peterson’s Decision Making in Natural Resource Management. It explains how realistic, long-term resource planning must be adjusted periodically using data evaluating short-term progress. This principle is also discussed in F. S. Chapin, G. P. Kofinas, and C. Folke’s Principles of Ecosystem Stewardship, which focuses on achieving environmental resiliency by maximizing the Earth’s capacity to recover from damage.

The environmental sustainability approach to resource management promotes the replacement of nonrenewable natural resources with renewable alternatives. In addition, this approach encourages the reduction, recycling, and reuse of all natural resources. As Douglas Farr describes in Sustainable Nation, the sustainability approach attempts to maintain a reasonable standard of living without jeopardizing the needs of future generations. According to the Post Carbon Institute, one shortcoming of the sustainability approach is the enactment of resource quotas and rationing.

The resource security approach is similar to the sustainability method of resource conservation. However, some of the resource security strategies promote the extended use of nonrenewable resources not yet exploited, as discussed in Elizabeth Chalecki’s Environmental Security. In effect, this simply delays resource depletion and does not resolve many environmental pollution issues. An example is the replacement of conventional oil with tar sand oils. Tar sand oils contain more pollutants than conventional oils and are difficult to extract and process.

The environmental education tactic assumes that greater public awareness of the threats to Earth’s natural resources will promote an environmental ethic that eventually infiltrates policy making. Benjamin Kline explains in First along the River how influencers and the public pressured policy makers to enact natural resource conservation regulations. The wealth of Earth Day environmental awareness programs produced for K-12 schools, particularly in urban areas, is explored in Urban Environmental Education Review, edited by Alex Russ and Marianne Krasny, as well as in The Failure of Environmental Education, by Charles Saylan and Daniel Blumenstein. The effectiveness of environmental education is still debated. Educational researchers are investigating ways of developing effective strategies, as discussed in the research study “Challenges and Opportunities for Evaluating Environmental Education Programs,” by Annelise Carlton-Hug and J. William Hug. 

Works Cited