Natural Resource Depletion
In this article, we shall discuss the issue of natural resource depletion, or what is also referred to as environmental degradation. With so much needed attention to environmental issues in world affairs today, one of the pressing challenges of our time is the depletion of natural resources. In this article, we shall examine natural resource depletion, and the effects that environmental degradation has on the domestic and global society. We will discuss where any why natural resource depletion is taking place, the role of the individual, the state, and international organizations as it pertains to environmental degradation. We will also discuss ways in which human rights and environmental activists and members of the international community are working to stop natural resource depletion. In addition, we also have other pages devoted to related environmental natural resource depletion issues such as water degradation, and other environmental issues.
What is Natural Resource Depletion?
In order to understand natural resource depletion, it is necessary to distinguish between the types of natural resources that exist. There are two categories of natural resources: some natural resources are renewable, whereas others are non-renewable natural resources. For renewable natural resources, they “are consumed, but they can be restored; there are two types: continuous flow and short-term renewable. Continuous-flow resources approach inexhaustibility because they are direct products of the actions of the sun, the earth, or the moon. Tidal power, solar power, hydropower, and geothermal power are all examples of continuous flow resources” (Anderson, Peterson, Toops, & Hey, 2015: 47). This differs from what is termed “short-term renewable resources,” which can be “[sustained] in that they can be continued with careful management. These include the usage of timber, soil, crops, or water…” (47).
Now, there are also many sources which are nonrenewable natural resources, which “are materials or energy that have finite amounts. Their continued use leads to exhaustion” (Anderson, Peterson, Toops, & Hey, 2015: 47).
What Causes Natural Resource Depletion?
One of the central causes to natural resource depletion is human activity, particularly as it relates to economic growth. Given the rise of the world population, Humans are becoming more and more reliant on food production for daily nutritional needs, which in turn is causing serious stress to the land and the environment. As Viotti & Kauppi (2013) write, “The main driving force leading to pressure on land resources has been increasing food production. Today food is needed for two billion more people than lived on the Earth three decades ago. Inefficient irrigation schemes can cause salinization and alkalization of soil, resulting in an estimated ten million hectares (38,610 square miles) of irrigated land abandoned annually. Humans also contribute to land degradation through poor soil management practices, deforestation, removal of natural vegetation, use of heavy machinery, overgrazing of livestock, and improper crop rotation” (489). Humans have been cutting trees for agriculture at very high rates. In addition, the increased uses of wood has continued to reduce the size of forests.
As we are becoming more careless with our practices, as well as demanding more and more food, this in turn will continue to lead to natural resource depletion. As scholars point out, some of the underlying causes of natural resource depletion are the conditions facing humans. When humans need food, when they are in poverty (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013), when they need employment, or ways to bring in income, they may look towards these practices such as deforestation, or agriculture without correct crop rotation, which in turn can and will continue to deplete the earth.
When looking at the world’s forests, one finds a depletion of natural resources; “The net loss of the global forest area (deforestation plus reforestation) in the last decade of the 20th century was about 94 million hectares (363,000 square miles), the equivalent of 2.4 percent of total world forests. Deforestation of tropical forests is almost 1 percent annually” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 498). When looking at natural resource depletion in places such as Latin America, one will find that issues such as tropical deforestation is a very real and continued threat to natural resources and the environment as a whole (Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015)
In fact, tropical forests are among the most at risk areas of earth as it pertains to deforestation. Thus, not only are plant and animal life effected with this tropical deforestation, but these actions also lead to an increase of additional CO2s. According to scholars, “Current estimates suggest that fully 20 percent of all human-causes GHG emissions result from cutting and burning tropical forests” (Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015: 59). But, as people continue to harm the forests for wood, palm oil, or other resources, it is expected that the negative effects on natural resource depletion related to forests and tropical forests will continue.
And because of the human causes of natural resource depletion, many have asked whether current behaviors towards natural resources can continue the way that they are going, and if so, what the effects of this behavior will be.
What are the Effects of Natural Resource Depletion?
As Steer (2013) writes, “Current patterns of energy and natural resource use, agricultural practices, and urbanization appear to be largely unsustainable and require urgent remediation. Left unchecked, these patterns will lead to dangerous climate change and reduced economic growth, as a result of increased economic, social, and environmental costs and decreased productivity.”
Many of the world’s natural resources have been greatly reduced do to human economic development in recent decades. In fact,
The pace and scale of environmental damage has been well documented. More than one quarter of the world’s land surface has been degraded as a result of soil erosion, salinization, nutrient depletion, and desertification (Bai and others 2008). Water withdrawals tripled in the past 50 years, leading to water scarcity and groundwater depletion. In developing countries, withdrawals are projected to increase by another 50 percent by 2030, by which time more than 5 billion people—two-thirds of the world’s people—could be living in areas facing moderate to severe water stress (WRI forthcoming).
Growth has also strained ecosystems. Roughly 60 percent of the world’s ecosystem services are now of lower quality than they were 50 years ago (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005), the current rate of species extinction is 100–1,000 times higher than in prehuman days (IUCN 2004), and all of the planet’s 13 hottest years on record have occurred since 1997 (WMO 2013) (Steer, 2013).
There are also many economic effects as a result of current and historical natural resource depletion. For example, if one of the natural resources that are depleted is soil, then this will impact the agricultural output by those who are reliant on healthy soil for their income and economic livelihood. If individuals have depleted the soil, and the proper conditions no longer exist for efficient crop growth, then this will lead to lower output, and in turn will bring an individual, society, or state less income.
In addition, from an international relations perspective, one also has to think about the effects of natural resource depletion on conflict. As it has been argued, “Conflict over natural resources may increase and significantly endanger development efforts in contexts where increased competition over natural resources spills over into the political sphere and leads to political violence” (Inforesources, 2005).
How do you stop natural resource depletion?
Given the concern for natural resource depletion, and the documented effects that it has on the environment, on individuals, and on the health and long term sustainability of the world as a whole, it becomes imperative to ask what can be done to stop natural resource depletion. Given the attention to the environment, with attempts to write legally binding agreements–whether it is the Kyoto Protocol or the work through COP21, there should be a continued concentrated effort to work towards ensuring that natural resource depletion is reversed.
There are a number of ways that scholars and activists argue can help with reducing the natural resource depletion that is continuing to harm our environment. For example, having discussed the degraded soil issue above, one approach towards stopping natural resource depletion of soil is to establish a system that prevents over-use of the soil in a way that takes the land of its nutrients. One remedy is crop rotation. By establishing a system of crop rotation, this will allow the soil to be effectively utilized, but at the same time allow it to sustain its health.
Individuals in their respective societies are looking for ways to curb resource depletion. For example, taking the case of the North America, leaders are “providing increased support for green industries and technologies. The growing popularity of sustainable agriculture exemplifies the trend, where organic farming principles, a limited use of chemicals, and an integrated plan of crop and livestock management combine to offer both producers and consumers environmentally friendly alternatives” (Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015: 74). This movement to alternative energies is one way to fight against pollution and heavy reliance on natural resources. There are attempts to reduce the role of fossil fuels, and instead, increase the role of alternative energy sources (Rowntree, Lewis, Price, & Wyckoff, 2015).
In addition, the international community, through international organizations such as the United Nations, has been active in working on international law–and more specifically international environmental law–in order to reduce natural resource depletion. For example, international actors, through the UN, have held conferences on the importance of natural resources such as forests. In 1972, there was a United Nations conference on the importance of forests for the environment (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013). Again, as mentioned earlier, there have also been documents such as Kyoto Protocol, and more recent discussions about climate change at the COP21 conference, which would have effects on fighting climate change, and also other environmental issues such natural resource depletion.
Fighting natural resource depletion will take a worldwide effort, one that addresses issues such as climate change, poverty, water scarcity, as well as addressing other economic and political factors within countries and across borders.
Inforesources (2005). Depletion of Natural Resources–Implications for Development: An Assessment by Experts.Trends 2005. Available Online: http://www.inforesources.ch/pdf/trends_2005_e.pdf
Rowntree, L., Lewis, M., Price, M., & Wyckoff, W. (2015). Globalization and Diversity: Geography of a Changing World. Fourth Edition. New York, New York. Pearson.
Steer, A. (2013). Resource Depletion, Climate Change, and Economic Growth. The Global Citizen Foundation. Working Paper 5. June 2013. Available Online: http://www.gcf.ch/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/GCF_Steer-working-paper-5_6.20.13.pdf
Viotti, P.R., & Kauppi, M.V. (2013). International Relations and World Politics. Fifth Edition. New York, New York. Pearson.