To what extent are natural resources being depleted for the benefit of the population’s demands rather than for the benefit of the environment?

Introduction

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(Saison, 2013)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report last October stating that in 12 years, if emissions or global temperatures continue to rise, catastrophic disasters will become more than a reality on a global scale. Hundreds of millions of people will be at greater risk of poverty, nonetheless, the environment will face detrimental changes that have the potential to transform the fundamentals of society. Ecosystems are barely replenishing the resources that are being exploited and consumed leading to their depletion which further harms the societies surrounding these ecosystems. Lower concentrations of minerals found in soil have proven to be a strain on agricultural sectors, declining fish populations have greatly impacted the welfare of fishing communities, demand for fossil fuels is continuing to rise paired with its emissions that continue to damage the atmosphere, and waste from these consumed products continue to pollute the water, soil, and the air. On top of all this, overpopulation and pollution raise the risks of the population’s health. With a growing population inhabiting a planet with a finite amount of resources, it is simple to predict that if resources are not managed sustain-ably, these materials that provide humans with energy, food, and electricity, will become scarce in a short amount of time.

All things have a deeper connection with one another. The depletion of resources are caused by multiple factors which produces a list of consequences. Even with newer technologies, resources are getting more and more difficult to extract because some minerals are buried deep within the crust. The world is now facing a challenge greater than ever: to keep global warming between 1.5०C and 2.0०C “beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people” reported by Jonathan Watts, the Global environment editor for The Guardian. A continuously growing demand for energy and natural resources places developing and underdeveloped countries at higher risk because industrialization and urbanization in these nations come at the cost of greater environmental degradation, not to mention the apparent corruption that keeps the same legislators in charge of managing the degree and rate of exploitation. Not only does this raise concern for the increase in depleting resources, but also the increase in the amount of waste that further pollutes the land, air, and water, seriously affecting the delivery of ecosystem services. If no action is taken to improve policies of resource allocation and environmental preservation, then all of humanity’s achievements and pursuits of development are thrown out the window.

Subtopic 1: Effects of Resource Depletion on the Environment

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(Mahalder, 2010)

One of the main causes of the environment’s degradation is the management of resources, or the lack thereof. The exploitation of resources calls for the destruction of natural habitats and countless ecosystems that used to thrive. While global population continues to increase, and the demand for a finite amount of natural resources calls for newer forms of technology and efficient strategies. The materials’ extraction and consumption harms the environment in various forms including shortages, pollution, and a decrease in global biodiversity.

Recent and continuous rise in global population calls for an increase in demand for raw materials for energy which leads to rapid depletion of resources, producing a variety of environmental consequences including water shortages due to the production of food and other amenities. Richard Anderson, a reporter for BBC focusing on Energy and Business wrote an article Resource Depletion: Opportunity or looming catastrophe, where he claims that “…there could be up to three billion new middle-class consumers, mainly in China and India…They will drive demand for meat, consumer goods and urban infrastructure, not to mention the energy needed to produce them…” (2012). With never ending rise in demand for goods, there will come a time when these resources become scarce, resulting in dire consequences for some countries dealing with overpopulation.

(WWF, 2016)

With this growing demand, the manufacturing of products requires more natural resources resulting in shortages. Including the demand for water as it is “…projected to rise by almost a half at a time when groundwater table in many regions of the world is falling…” (Anderson, 2012). The decrease in availability of groundwater is detrimental to the health of communities because even if the earth is mostly covered in water, only 2.5% is drinkable. Improper irrigation systems, irresponsible waste management, and dams produce shortages that have affected the health of communities as well as the political and social climates in these areas, even leading to wars in pursuit of clean water. Another problem is deforestation for the purpose of expanding crop yields for food, and with the growing population, “…we will need 70% more by 2050…” (Anderson, 2012). Anderson suggests that a circular economy should be in place “…where one company’s waste is another’s raw material, and where obsession with the ownership of material goods is moderated.” (2012). It sounds simple, but it’s more complex because some governments would not participate with other countries that they have conflict with. However, a circular economy will be beneficial for all because the waste accumulated may be used to produce new products that not only reduces waste, but also limits the amount of resources that are extracted for manufacturing.

Rising consumption levels are in line with the increased amounts of waste and how these concepts lead to the degradation of the environment in various forms including air, soil, and water. Dr. Steffen Lehmann, a sustainable urban designer and architect, argues in his journal Resource Recovery and Materials Flow in the City: Zero Waste and Sustainable Consumption as Paradigms in Urban Development that climate change is “…a consequence of over-consumption and unsustainable production processes” (2010, p.28). These phenomena are continuously affecting the environment as well the communities where biodiversity is shrinking, more pollution present in the air, water, and soil, shortages of materials, and deforestation.

https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2016
The Living Planet Report
(WWF, 2016)

More prominent in developed nations, especially in urban areas, over consumption is a real problem – people consuming more than what they need. As a result, waste management has become more complicated because industrialization and urbanization produce waste that “…contains large amounts of toxic chemicals, or is contaminated with organic waste and food waste, making it impossible to recover and recycle.” (Lehmann, 2010, p.30). If waste cannot be recycled or recovered, then it will continue to pile up and pollute the oceans where they are commonly dumped. As a result, populations of birds and sea creatures are decreasing because they mistake plastic waste as food, suffocating them and killing them in the process. Not only is waste a threat to island communities, it also pollutes the atmosphere and the soil. Thus, “Landfill runoff and leachate are a threat to soil and groundwater, and methane gas discharges—mainly from organic waste in landfills…” (Lehmann, 2010, pp.28-29). Soil pollution disrupts crop yields, therefore, produces shortages in food and if groundwater was polluted by chemical waste, then countless lives will be in danger because dehydration will be accompanied by health risks and diseases especially in overpopulated areas common in underdeveloped countries.

Anthropogenic climate change (human activities’ effects on the environment) and fossil fuel depletion are problems that are interwoven and must be assessed simultaneously because its extraction and emission produce dangerous environmental effects that are rapidly increasing. Mikael Hook, the Senior Lecturer at Department of Earth Sciences, Natural Resources, and Sustainable Development at Uppsala University, wrote a review on the Depletion of fossil fuels and anthropogenic climate change, where he argues that “…anthropogenic GHG emissions and human-induced global warming are fundamentally linked to future energy production. Projections of how the global energy system will develop over the next century are cornerstones in the assessment of future climate change caused by mankind” (2013). Fossil fuel extraction and emissions are both too familiar in the degradation of the environment. The warming planet continues to produce consequences that affect multiple ecosystems placing families that are dependent on producing crops, fishing, etc. in economic downfall. He continues to argue that these emissions are “…linked to fossil energy production and utilization” (Hook, 2013). However, changes in behavior towards energy consumption is almost unachievable on a global scale because finding substitutes “…can lead to a broad range of effects on natural ecosystems” (Hook, 2013). Using substitutes may be more costly and highly inefficient that it may lead to greater consequences if not handled properly and ethically. Due to this, Hook points out that “…climate models that largely rely on emission scenarios detached from the reality of supply and its inherent problems is problematic” (2013). If these models continue to ignore the problem of scarcity, then legislators may even mistakenly make the problem worse.

Resources are being depleted at a 30% faster rate than the Earth can replenish each year. Their depletion leads to deforestation, soil pollution, and a decline in fish populations as well as other species. In her article, World is facing a natural resources crisis worse than financial crunch, Juliette Jowit, a writer for the Guardian, presents “…figures from 2005, the index indicates global biodiversity has declined by nearly a third since 1970. Breakdowns of the overall figure show the tropical species index fell by half and the temperate index remained stable but at historically low levels” (2008). The problem does not end at a decrease in biodiversity, it is consequential because species that used to live in these environments were active participants in keeping these environments healthy and productive, and with the depletion of resources, their habitats are exploited and destroyed for purposes of industrialization. The longer this problem stays, the higher the risk for multiple ecosystems to deteriorate. This leads to “…permanent losses of productivity” (Jowitt, 2008). If the ecosystem is unproductive, then the urbanization will continue its pattern of over consumption of energy and produces waste that harms these places that used to be oases for multiple plant and animal species to thrive. As of 2008, “50 countries are already experiencing ‘moderate to severe water stress on a year-round basis” (Jowitt, 2008). 10 years later, the number of countries has increased meaning that more and more ecosystems are in danger each day.

LPR: Living Planet Report (WWF, 2016)

Subtopic 2: Sustainable Development

Kailas is a village of 300+ households and over 3000 people situated several thousand meters up in the mountains from the city of Chainpur. Access is only by a steep trail traversing the hillsides. Kailas, Bajhang District, Nepal. Photograph by Jason Houston for USAID (Houston, 2017).

Sustainable development is the increase in economic welfare with careful regard to the limited amount of available resources. Hence, for a global economy to continue to prosper, resource depletion must be addressed to avoid scarcity and radical increase in prices of consumed products. Economies have been experiencing growth over time, however, this growth is unsustainable and is only effective in the short run. With mismanaged resource allocation, all this growth may mean nothing if resources run out in the near future. In addition, if production and agriculture continue to destroy habitats for other species to live in, then displacing them only creates less productive ecosystems. Ensuring the replenishment of resources for consumption is only one of the goals of sustainable development, other goals include: ending poverty, hunger, illness, while increasing overall well-being of society.

For a global economy to be environmentally sustainable, the management of its resources must be highly regarded. Even with new technology and processes of extraction, the problem of scarcity remains which further raises economic concerns. In an article written by Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, Investigative journalist and International Security scholar, Exhaustion of Cheap Mineral Resources is Terraforming Earth, he claims that “The last decade has seen the world shift to more expensive and difficult to extract fossil fuel resources, in the form of unconventional forms of oil and gas…” (2014). With developing nations, rising population and an increase number of the middle class, consumption and demand for energy has increased. In the form of fuel for cars as well as oil for food, the increasing demands of the population calls for more expensive ways of extraction as fossil fuels become more and more scarce. He further argues that even with increased production, “…the grade of the minerals mined is steadily declining, lifting mining costs…” (Ahmed, 2014). Soon enough, it will be impossible to mine fossil fuels and gas prices will skyrocket, the lower the supply, the higher the price and demand for the commodity.

https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2016
The Living Planet Report
(WWF, 2016)

The problem is not only a declining amount of fossil fuels but also the process of extraction getting more difficult, as well as soil degradation along the areas of extraction. Dr. Ahmed continues to connect mining and agriculture through the problem of “… global phosphorus supplies potentially becoming insufficient to meet agricultural demand within 30-40 years…” (Ahmed, 2014). Unsustainable agricultural methods only serve to have greater crop yield but does not consider the degradation of the soil as it is constantly replanted over, without allowing for the soil to replenish nutrients in a natural way. Instead, widespread use of pesticides have damaged the soil as well as other chemically-altered nutrients are added to increase crop growth. He explains that “…an accelerating decline in land productivity due to industrial agricultural methods, which are degrading the soil by as much as 50% in some areas…” (Ahmed, 2014). Industrialization erases habitats that were once productive ecosystems with thriving biodiversity. With agriculture’s continuous production of food for the population, more and more land is degraded.

Scientists are testing substitutions due to the consequences that come with the continuous consumption and depletion of fossil fuels. These substitutions are tested with a consideration of their environmental impacts if scarcity of fossil fuels becomes a reality. Chemical engineers at Monash University in Australia, namely Shaun Rimos, Andrew F.A. Hoadley, and David J. Brennan published a scientific study called Environmental Consequence Analysis for Resource Depletion. In their study, they examined “The varying impacts on emissions to air and water, together with solid waste generation and water depletion…” based on their substitutions to emulate the problems that come with decreasing fossil fuels (Rimos et al., 2014). Their study is a mere example of how finding substitutes for fossil fuels may help the environment and the economy. However, substitutions require a lot of work that the general population might not have the time to consider. They aim to contribute to “…existing resource depletion approaches and indicators in the context of natural gas depletion, and their limitations in modelling the wider environmental consequences of resource consumption…” (Rimos et al., 2014). Natural gas is a nonrenewable resource, like fossil fuels, its depletion is also at risk if consumption is not managed carefully. Natural gas shows its flexibility through its properties as a form of fuel and feedstock. The scientists examined “…the substitution of natural gas with black coal has been considered for electricity generation and hydrogen production…” (Rimos et al., 2014). Even with their successful substitution, it still seems impossible for the entire population to follow through and completely change their attitudes towards consuming fossil fuels. They considered that “Exploiting less accessible or lower quality reserves, or substituting the resource with an alternative resource, may cause a range of undesirable environmental, economic and social impacts.” (Rimos et al., 2014). This reiterates the feasibility of substituting fossil fuels in a global scale – it just seems impossible to persuade the entire population to change their attitudes towards consumption, even with the planet’s health at hand.

Certain technologies and strategies exist to convert energy and improve efficiency through capture and sequestration while promoting renewable resources. However, shifting to an energy resource on a global scale seems almost impossible. Ahmed F Ghoniem, Ph.D, Director of the Center for Energy and Propulsion Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote a journal: Need, Resources, and Climate Change: Clean and Efficient Conversion Technologies, in which he claims that “There is strong evidence that atmospheric CO2 concentration is well correlated with the average global temperature” (2011). The problem with Global warming has been increasing with rising population as well as the consumed fossil fuel increase; emissions from the production and consumption of goods has been accumulating in the atmosphere. Ghoniem suggests solutions to this problem, including “…a substantial improvement in energy conversion and utilization efficiencies, carbon capture and sequestration, and expanding the use of nuclear energy and renewable sources…” (2011). Although these technologies exist, they are not widely known or applied to common practices. On the bright side, technologies and practices like these exist to help the planet one step at a time, however, it would be more efficient if they were generated in a larger scale. He adds, that “…the rate of such conversion has been rising as standards of living have improved…” (Ghoniem, 2011). Different types of energy conversion technologies have been invented and because of this, energy has been harvested from different sources. With all this in mind, Ghoniem makes a point that conservation remains as “…the highest priority…” because it “…preserves energy resources and reduces the environmental impact” (2011). Not to say that technology or industrialization is all for the cause of destroying nature, but rather to help it. That’s what the hope of modern day scientists and ecologists have – using technology as a tool to conserve and preserve resources rather than deplete them for the purpose of human development.

The Earth is Full – Paul Gliding (2012)

 

Consumed products and the waste produced can be regarded as a resource to promote sustainability. It also begins with the manufacturing of the good that waste can be managed much easier in terms of separating and recovering. Resource Recovery and Materials Flow in the City: Zero Waste and Sustainable Consumption as Paradigms in Urban Development is a journal written by Dr. Steffen Lehmann, an Architect and Sustainable Urban Designer. In his writing, he discusses “…resource-efficiency and resource-recovery…” including “…waste minimization strategies and the concept of “designing waste out of processes and product[s]…” (Lehmann, 2010). Dr. Lehmann suggests that there be no waste after a product is consumed, meaning that its manufacturing and packaging leave no trail of waste. It may be as simple as eliminating plastic as a material for packaging, but most packages have relied on plastics’ elastic abilities and its cheap value. He lists out the objectives: “… the first aim of a sustainable future is to avoid the creation of waste and to select materials and products based on their embodied energy, their life-cycle assessment, and supply chain analysis…” (Lehmann, 2010).

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Manila, Philippines (Judgefloro, 2017)

Plastic has been the number one pollutant present in landfills and bodies of water because it does not decompose once it is discarded. Most plastics are not recycled properly as well, leaving most of the waste to indirectly displace species out of their habitats. Part of waste accumulation is the “…transportation of input materials…” and “…the transportation of the final product to consumers…” taking the form of greenhouse gas emissions (Lehmann, 2010). Not only do the physical materials for production contribute to the accumulated waste but its transportation to different destinations as well. Lehmann’s journal suggests a number of ways, in forms of case studies of different regions of the world, to reduce waste and how to reach a level of sustainability with production and consumption. He explains that “…unsustainable waste management systems have forced governments, industry, and individuals to put into practice new measures to achieve responsible, closed loop solutions in waste management and resource recovery” (Lehmann, 2010). Waste has and will always be a part of consumption and production of demanded goods. It is the responsibility of both consumers and producers to carefully recognize the consequences of the manufacturing and disposal of their goods.

Facing the problem of climate change can root from socio-political changes such as adaptation through social reform of economic inequalities as well as unequal development. Karen O’Brien, an Internationally-recognized expert on climate change, Professor at Department of Sociology and Human Geography at University of Oslo, Norway, wrote Climate Change and Development: Adaptation through Transformation. In her writing, she suggests that the inherent methods for “‘development as usual’ often ignores the real factors that drive vulnerability – like the interests, power relations and structural factors that systemically perpetuate uneven development, environmental degradation, resource depletion and growing global emissions of greenhouse gases…” (O’Brien, 2015).

https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2016
The Living Planet Report
(WWF, 2016)

Simply, development and industrialization aim for the growth of economies without focusing on the fundamental aspects of what drives these communities. She explains that “…adaptation becomes part of a larger process that includes transforming development paradigms and practices alike to achieve global sustainability” (O’Brien, 2015). This becomes a perfect moment to examine inequalities that thrive in development as well as the “…unsustainable relationship with the environment” (O’Brien, 2015). These adaptation projects take form in the preservation, not to challenge the systems that exist now. Lastly, O’Brien makes a point that “…climate change calls for questioning our collective assumptions about the continuity of energy-intensive economic growth, about availability and access to adequate water and food resources, about the permanence of coastlines, the security of livelihoods, the predictability of ‘extreme’ climate events…” (2015). It is very ambitious to be able to persuade the entire population to collectively question their morals in terms of consumption and to weigh in the consequences of their demands in terms of the destruction of the environment. When these extreme phenomena take place, does the population blame its leaders for lack of paying attention or really reflect on themselves for the collective destruction that they have brought upon themselves?

Conclusion

Deforestation of the Amazon (Ibama, 2016)

It will take more than an attitude change towards consumption and looking for substitutions for fossil fuels to preserve natural resources and conserve the environment. Reconsidering the methods of development and industrial agriculture in ways that does not bring further destruction towards ecosystems. The growing global population, with its increased demands for goods and energy consumption is now facing a challenge: to maintain the global temperature rise within 1.5०C and 2.0०C before extreme phenomena take place. The destruction of the environment and the depletion of its natural resources will soon be the downfall of human industrialization if the problem is not handled seriously. 

Various models and technologies have been invented to aid in the explanation of environmental systems, finding out ways to extract energy from different sources, as well as substitutes for fossil fuels. Reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions are held at high regard to achieve the conservation of the environment. Even with these in mind, the problem remains that there is a finite amount of resources coupled against the infinite demands of the ever-growing population. This calls for the social reformation and individual reflection on consumption, waste management, and environmental-awareness. Change always begins with the self.

 

References

Ahmed, N. (2014, June 04). Exhaustion of cheap mineral resources is terraforming Earth – scientific report | Nafeez Ahmed. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/jun/04/mineral-resource-fossil-fuel-depletion-terraform-earth-collapse-civilisation

Anderson, Richard. “Resource Depletion: Opportunity or Looming Catastrophe?” BBC News, BBC, 12 June 2012, www.bbc.com/news/business-16391040.

Ghoniem, Ahmed F. “Needs, Resources and Climate Change: Clean and Efficient Conversion Technologies.” ScienceDirect, Feb. 2011, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360128510000341.

Hook, Mikael. “Depletion of Fossil Fuels and Anthropogenic Climate Change—A Review.” ScienceDirect, Jan. 2013, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421512009275#!

Jowit, J. (2008, October 29). World is facing a natural resources crisis worse than financial crunch. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/oct/29/climatechange-endangeredhabitats

Lehmann, S. (2010). Resource Recovery and Materials Flow in the City: Zero Waste and Sustainable Consumption as Paradigms in Urban Development. Sustainable Development Law & Policy, 11(1), 28–68. Retrieved from http://proxy.library.vcu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,cookie,uid&db=a9h&AN=73942794&site=ehost-live&scope=site

O’Brien, Karen. “Climate Change and Development Adaptation through Transformation.” Nordic Development Fund, 2015, Climate change and development Adaptation through transformation.

Rimos, S., Hoadley, A. F., & Brennan, D. J. (2014, November). Environmental consequence analysis for resource depletion[Scholarly project]. In Science Direct. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0957582013000438