What are natural resources? They consist of all the things that humans cannot make, which include the universe, the sun, and the earth with everything on it and beneath its surface. Is there anything missing in this broad definition? A lot! We are missing all the wonders of the interconnecting dynamics of our living planet. For instance, the definition should include the less visible natural resources such as adaptability and ingenuity. This is a great capability existing in humans and other living things. For humans, this survival capability has a double edge, because it can damage other natural resources if no restraints are in place. Thus human resources should be viewed as all the constructive things that we can possibly do, to negate all the damages we have already inflicted on the world.
How should we manage natural resources? The goals can be summarized in just one word – sustainability. In view of population growth and development, how can we replenish the natural resources being consumed everyday if we cannot remake them? The answer comes in three parts. First is to conserve by consuming less and recycling more. Second is to create an optimal condition for those natural resources that can replenish on their owns. Third is to develop new resources hitherto unappreciated or unknown.
The first part of the answer covers all the materials that can be extracted from the ground. These include fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas), and minerals (iron, tin and aluminum). They are non-renewable resources because it took nature millions of years to make them. If we think they are limitless, we should continue to consume and waste until depletion. If not, we should be thinking about consuming less, recycling more, and replacing them for future generations. Fossil fuels are an exceptional case. Recycling is out of the question for fossil fuels because they are burned into carbon dioxide and other gases to release energy. So the practical answer lies in consuming less and finding other forms of alternative energy. This is the only path for the future if we need more energy and want to minimize the disasters of climate change.
The second part only comes to human consciousness in recent decades due to the increasing depletion of important resources such as fresh air, fresh water, fish, crops, forest, and wildlife. These resources are not difficult to replenish if we have the will rather than letting greed dictate. Overfishing is an example where fish in the ocean are being depleted before they have the time to reproduce more. This is due to greed and lack of vision. If we have a plan for reasonable and equitable fishing on the high seas, the fish will be there to serve as food for a long time to come. The same is true for forests. We keep on logging without thinking about planting more trees to replenish the wood. Forests take much longer to grow than fish. In addition, forests absorb carbon dioxide, thus reducing the risks of climate change that critically affects rainfall, fresh water supply, and wildlife.
The third part involves how to utilize the capability of human adaptation and ingenuity. So far, we adapt by seeking out frontier lands to exploit, or occupying other countries to grab their natural resources. How many frontier lands still exist today? For how long can a foreign country be occupied without resistance? Those ventures have proven unsustainable. The human attitude must change to a spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit rather than conquer and grab. We must move away from fighting for existing natural resources to expanding and creating new ones.
We should also employ human ingenuity through science and technology to improve the human condition. Technology can enlarge the pie to serve a growing world population and its rising consumption. At present, technology has enabled the following: wind and solar to substitute fossil fuels; composite materials to replace aluminum; emails and digital documentation to save paper; gene manipulation to yield better crops; and medical discoveries to save lives. Countless other advances are bound to happen in the future.
So, how should we manage the world’s natural resources for 21st century and beyond? The old-style method of reckless acquisition and exploitation practiced by powerful countries no longer works. As population and consumption keep on rising, managing natural resources requires a three-prong approach as described above: first, recycle and substitute non-renewable resources; second, replenish and equitable sharing of renewable ones; third, create and develop new resources hitherto unappreciated or unknown. The next century will depend less on how much we now have to exploit, but on what we can do in a positive and constructive way to preserve and expand our natural resources for the future.