Whenever you hear the term ‘natural resources’, the chances are a couple of things immediately spring to mind.
There’s a good chance your immediate thoughts will be around something like wood, oil, or coal – the kinds of things we hear about being extracted, cut down, or otherwise removed from the surface of the Earth or from underground.
But how about things like clean air and water? Or what about the variety of different types of life on the planet?
The truth is, if you were thinking of any of the above, you’d be right, as all are good examples of some of the many different kinds of natural resources that we as a species utilize on a regular basis.
Defining natural resources
So what’s the best definition for a natural resource that covers all of these things?
Well, one of the simplest ways to think about the term natural resources is that it refers to any natural asset (or raw material) that is found in nature and that can be used in some way by us humans – and other animals for that matter – for some kind of production or consumption.
Generally however, when we talk about natural resources, we’re referring to these assets from the anthropocentric point of view – that is, how we humans utilize these resources – and as such, it’s usually a case of how we’re using any extractable or removable part of our natural environment (land, water, wood, minerals, fish, gas etc) to promote our own wellbeing and welfare in some way.
Types of natural resources
When it comes to thinking about the types of natural resources on the planet, almost all of the options can effectively be broken down neatly into two categories (although there is a third exception that we’ll talk about shortly!), renewable and non-renewable natural resources.
Non-renewable natural resources
As the name suggests, non-renewable natural resources are those which are finite and can therefore be depleted.
Whether we’re talking about minerals or fossil fuels, the key characteristic of non-renewable natural resources is that once extracted or harvested, there are fewer of them left in or on the planet.
A key characteristic of non-renewable natural resources is that they all have to be mined or extracted from the Earth in some way, with many also requiring further processing in some way before being usable.
As a result of these industrial processes, such associated activities are often of significant economic value although exacting an incredibly heavy cost on the natural environment.
From emission of greenhouse gasses to loss of habitats and of course, air, water, and soil pollution, the removal of non-renewable natural resources takes an extremely heavy toll on nature.
Increasing efficiencies in extraction processes and encouraging reduction, reuse, and recycling of certain minerals are all helpful actions when it comes to mitigating the damage of exploiting non-renewable natural resources, however they can only ever aim to slow down the inevitable outcome given the intrinsically finite nature of these resources.
Non-renewable natural resources are effectively broken down into four broad categories:
1. Fossil fuels
This form of non-renewable natural resource is perhaps the most well known and covers commonly thought of natural resources such as coal, natural gas, and petroleum, as well as others such as tar sands, oil shales, and heavy oils.
While some non-renewable natural resources are considered recyclable, fossil fuels don’t make the cut here as they are predominantly extracted for energy uses and as such, are changed from their original state through burning meaning they can’t be recycled for reuse once exploited for this purpose.
2. Metallic minerals
This group of non-renewable resources includes minerals such as iron ores, gold, aluminum, and nickel which are mined from the ground for processing and deployment into other uses either in manufacturing or within other industrial applications.
3. Non-metallic minerals
In this category, minerals such as phosphates and nitrates are extracted from the Earth for use in agricultural and industrial applications.
Within this category of resources, it becomes trickier to recycle raw materials once utilized in some applications – for example in cosmetics or paints – as once in an end-product, the dispersed nature of the resource makes it effectively impossible to reclaim for reuse.
4. Other economically valuable rocks
The remaining group of non-renewable natural resources includes non-replenishable assets which have economic utility such as granite, limestone, sand, and salt.
Renewable natural resources
If a natural resource has the ability to return to previous levels or stocks after exploitation through natural replenishment processes or natural growth then it is considered to be natural.
Renewable natural resources include some more obvious examples such stocks of animals, biodiversity, and forests but also extend to cover things that you might not immediately think of as natural resources like fertile soil, clean water, and clean air.
The forest ecosystem is complex and provides an almost unimaginable number of important and beneficial services. From maintaining biodiversity, to cleansing and managing water, and preventing soil erosion, these tree-dominant ecosystems are of course, also an abundant source of wood as a resource if managed sustainably.
So long as good management practices are maintained, forests and woodlands can provide a sustainable supply of timber which can be used as a production and building material as well as for the production of energy.
A major issue here of course, is that forests are so often managed in a way which is unsustainable with increasing worldwide prevalence of deforestation in which huge areas of forest are removed either for raw material extraction or simply to clear the land for what are viewed as more economically attractive uses – such as raising animals or planting specific crops on the land.
Another area of concern in regard to forests is the loss of biodiversity which can occur from a number of causes ranging from deforestation to monoculture style management which prioritizes a single type of tree or plant over others, removing habitats and complex ecosystems in the process.
The term biodiversity refers to all the varieties of life with all of the subsequent the variations this entails such as differences in genes and species.
Biodiversity can therefore be thought of as a reference to the vast multitude of combinations of living organisms as well as the communities they make up and the ecosystems these populate are, by extension the sum total of the biodiversity that they are comprised of.
This means biodiversity is a fundamental foundation of ecosystem services that we all benefit from.
There are three ways to view biodiversity which conceptually work across three levels of diversity:
- The diversity of genes within a species (genetic diversity)
- The diversity of species within a region (species diversity)
- The diversity of communities and ecosystems
…and as we’ve already seen, healthy and well functioning ecosystems provide services which are hugely beneficial for everyone.
When viewed in this way, it is easy to see that a loss of biodiversity anywhere along the chain is really bad news as it always has repercussions on the functioning of ecosystems, sometimes collapsing them entirely.
There are many things which pose serious risks to genetic diversity, however two of the most prevalent and damaging are pollution and habitat loss. The result of these extreme pressures is often that only some organisms within a species will carry the genetic traits that are able to survive these new changes, causing others (with potentially beneficial qualities) to die out completely.
Balance is the key to a well-functioning ecosystem and when it comes to the damage resulting from a loss of species diversity within a region, it’s the shifting of this balance that’s the major concern. The extinction of one species will often leave a gap (again, in terms of the ecosystem services or ‘role’ performed by a species) that is unlikely to be filled by another, surviving species.
A changing climate, the invasion of alien species, and habitat conversion or loss are all major culprits when it comes to specific threats to individual species and, if things get bad enough (which they do at an increasingly worrying rate), then a species which may have adapted to a particular environment over countless generations faces extinction reducing the stability of the ecosystem it once inhabited.
It may not seem like an obvious thing to include on a list like this, but soil is actually one of the most important natural resources on the planet, required in everything from food production to energy generation from biofuels.
Fertile soil provides nutrients, water, oxygen, and even heat all of which make it vital in assisting in the effective function of ecosystems.
Global soil quality is under threat from many angles and this natural resource is degraded from both pollutants as well as physical effects resulting from activities such as intensive agriculture, mining, waste disposal, and transport activities.
Beyond these direct effects, the adverse results of things like nitrogen from fertilisers and air pollution can pass from the soil to groundwater supplies, contaminating them.
This is just one example of the interconnected nature of natural resources with another being the degradation of soil caused by deforestation with over-cultivation of cleared land then forming a negative feedback loop – a theme we’ll come across again and again.
I think we can probably all agree that clean air is pretty important. In fact, it’s essential to maintaining life on Earth.
The amazing thing here is that we have a pretty great natural arrangement in place on the planet between the atmosphere and the land it goes something like this:
Plants absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen in exchange for this. We humans and other animals in return absorb oxygen from the air and produce carbon dioxide. Win-win!
Clean air is not a given however, and one of the biggest issues in maintaining clean air comes about from burning fossil fuels and from things like agriculture and industrial activities, all of which create new pollutants in the air and which are harmful to everything from humans and animals to plants and the ecosystems we all depend on.
It’s estimated that 9 out of 10 people currently breathe polluted air worldwide with health issues caused by lack of clean air including respiratory and cardiovascular problems with many secondary pollutants in the air also representing known carcinogens.
The deposition of gases and aerosol particles can also contribute to the pollution of water bodies like lakes and streams which leads on to our next renewable natural resource – clean water.
Water is absolutely critical to life on Earth and it’s therefore unsurprising that an abundant supply of clean water is essential to animals, plants, and humans.
If properly managed and controlled, water is a renewable resource that can be sustained for the benefit of all however if usage of clean water supplies is badly handled, it can very quickly become a non-renewable resource in an area that is too polluted to be considered safe or is even depleted entirely.
Above ground, the role of plants and soil in maintaining clean water supplies come from their ability to filter out harmful pollutants as well as regulating flow making them an essential component in the relationship between ecosystems and clean water supplies.
Beneath the ground, the supplies of water held in naturally formed underground reservoirs can be depleted to an extent where the rocks that form these subterranean storage spaces compact once empty, impairing the ability to store water in the future.
Perpetual natural resources
Beyond the two ‘main’ forms of natural resources, a third category known as perpetual natural resources exists referring to those which are always available and aren’t affected by human or animal consumption – things like solar energy, wind energy, and tidal energy.
While these are often associated with each other under the umbrella of ‘renewable energy’, they’re typically classified outside of the remit of renewable natural resources as they are effectively limitless whereas renewable natural resources can still be depleted entirely if unsustainably managed.
The simple truth is that up to now, utilizing natural resources as we have done are what have allowed us to get where we are as a society today.
This of course, is very much a two-sided coin.
On the one hand, it’s clear that our current levels of technological development have been contingent on the very exploitation of these natural resources, allowing us (in the first instance) to obtain the things we need to support life and beyond this, to develop, grow, and sustain our current socio-economic reality.
On the other hand however, it’s now glaringly obvious that the way in which we have traditionally and (to a large extent) continue to extract, gather, and utilize the natural resources we depend on is incredibly inefficient, often exceptionally damaging, and ultimately, unsustainable if we’re going to continue to thrive and survive alongside each other on the planet and the animals we inhabit it with.
The current patterns of extraction, production, and consumption patterns paired with endless goals of economic growth inevitably put us on a very clear trajectory, terminating at a point where the natural resources we depend upon to survive become increasingly scarce, damaged, and even entirely depleted.
Combined with the wider environmental impacts that accompany the extraction and processing of resources and it becomes increasingly clear that we need to find a better way to meet out shared goals, aspirations, and potential.
Now this might all sound pretty daunting, but don’t worry – there are answers!
Finding a better way to manage and use the resources we have access to happens across multiple scales from the individual level, to the company level, to the national level and of ultimately, the planetary level.
With this in mind, supporting better brands, institutions, and organizations everyday, making better individual decisions, and working collectively with like-minded people with a shared collective purpose are cumulatively, incredibly powerful ways to finding a holistic strategy for reducing our resource use and the environmental effect along the whole resource management supply chain.
These kinds of scalable, actionable, and collaborative steps allow us to wield real power over the final outcome of this story and provide us with the opportunity and agency to shape the narrative for the ending we all want – ensuring better and more sustainable outcomes for people, animals, and the planet.