What Are Natural Resources and How Do We Use Them?
Look below, we live on that tiny little bit of light inside the blue circle. This is a photo taken of Earth from 4 billion miles away by the spacecraft, Voyager 2.
Carl Sagan, the popular astronomer, once said “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” All the materials we use to build homes, cars, and furniture comes from our one and only planet. When it comes down to it, these materials don’t come from Home Depot or Target. They come from forests, mines, and oceans. Our food doesn’t come from Safeway or Walmart. It comes from farms, pastures, and fisheries. Our water doesn’t come from the tap. It comes from the beneath the ground or from the sky. These raw materials, such as lumber, metals, food, and water are “natural resources.”
Humans have built the world’s economy upon the use, and many times exploitation, of these resources. To understand natural resources, it is helpful to break them into categories. The two most broad categories are renewable and non-renewable resources.
Non-renewable resources are resources that nature doesn’t quickly remake. Natural resources that fall into this group include gasoline, coal, natural gas, gold, sand, and metals. Fossil fuels were made 360-300 million years ago, when the earth was covered in swamps. Dying plants and algae fell to the bottom of swamps. Over a long period of time, a thick layer of rocks and sediment settled on top of the plant material. The pressure from the rocks above squeezed the plants under high pressure. By some miracle of chemistry, this created high-energy fossil fuels. The conditions to remake these fossil fuels don’t exist on Earth today, so they are considered non-renewable. By contrast, biofuels, where humans use industrial processes to create fuels, are renewable.
Metals are a huge category of non-renewable resources. This group includes everything from uranium to gold to aluminum to iron. These metals were made during the formation of the Earth, under super-high pressures. These conditions don’t exist on Earth (we would be very dead if they did), so these metals can’t form today. All the metals in our cans, cars, and appliances come from a limited supply on our planet.
Economists Versus Environmentalists?
Traditional economists argue that humans will not run out of non-renewable resources like oil, because we will always create new technologies that will help us find more oil, or find a way to replace it. There are many examples throughout history that prove this type of thinking right. However, environmentalists argue that, while we haven’t run out of metals or sand or oil yet, we will at some point in the future.
These two types of thinking can lead to different ways of using these resources. The economists want to use them as quickly as possible to grow the economy faster. On the other hand, environmentalists want to conserve resources to avoid running out of them in the future.
Renewable resources are resources that nature can replenish year after year, even with humans using some of them. These resources include air, lumber, fish, crops, wind, and sun. The sun and wind are very clear renewable resources. The sun will burn for another five billion years, so it is certainly renewable. The wind is typically a product of the sun, therefore it will also be around forever.
Crops and trees are great renewable resources. Plants suck in sunlight to create more wood and food. Incredibly enough, plants don’t take any mass out of the soil they live in. They use water, which comes as rain, air, and sunlight (all renewable resources) to create all the wonderful materials we use to live.
Fish reproduce and make a surplus of eggs every year. For example, each salmon lays upwards of 5000 eggs. Enough of these eggs survive to become adult fish that humans can take some fish without decreasing their population. In fact, Alaskans caught 114 million salmon last year. Incredibly enough, this is a sustainable amount of salmon. The earth provides an incredible amount of renewable resources for us. However, it can be easy to take too many of them. A difficult question to answer is how much is enough? While renewable resources may seem endless, there is a limit to how many of them we can use.
Fish – A Diminished Renewable Resource
At least one-third of all fisheries in the world are over-fished. This means that humans take fish out of the ocean at a rate faster than the fish can replace. When this process happens for too long, the number of fish in the ocean is too low to replace itself, and the fishery will collapse.
This process happened in the Atlantic Cod fishery off the eastern coast of Canada. This fishery was one of the largest in the world. However, humans created better technologies to find cod in the 60’s. This technology allowed humans to find and kill more fish than the fish population could replace.
After decades of overfishing, the fishery completely disappeared 1992. The Canadian government has banned cod fishing from 1992 until now. The fish have not come back in many places and have come back very slowly in others. The government recently allowed fishing for a few years in areas that seemed to be recovering. However, after just two years of fishing, the population seemed to decrease, so Canada banned fishing again. We have lost three decades of fish because of that spike in the graph above, which lasted about ten years. We don’t know how long it will take for the Atlantic Cod to truly recover, so it’s possible we won’t because able to eat these fish for many more decades.
The lasting impact of poor fishery management is the loss of nearly 40,000 jobs and enough seafood to feed 135 million Americans. This food was free food provided by nature that no longer exists.
The Atlantic Cod fishery is an alarming example of how humans can overuse a renewable natural resource. In the coming decades, our changing climate will make it more difficult to predict how to manage resources, like the Atlantic Cod. As the climate changes, the habitat for each species of fish will change. This could pose challenges for fishing communities everywhere.
How Much Is Enough?
Currently, humans are overusing many of the Earth’s renewable resources. As a result, many resources could face a future like the Atlantic Cod. With 8 billion people living on the planet, there aren’t unlimited resources for everyone. Check out the Human Footprint Calculator to see how many Earth’s worth of resources we would need if everyone in the world lived your lifestyle. When living your life, consider asking yourself ‘how much is enough?’ when it comes to the things you buy and use!