Natural resources are materials that come from the Earth that we use to meet our needs.
Examples of natural resources include sunlight, air, water, land, minerals, fossil fuels, plant life, and animal life.
But what makes a natural resource sustainable?
Just because a resource is natural, doesn’t mean it’s sustainable, does it?
In today’s post, we’ll answer these questions as well as other FAQs related to natural resources and sustainability.
What Makes a Natural Resource Sustainable?
For a natural resource to be sustainable, it must meet two criteria:
- It’s renewable.
- It’s managed responsibly.
There are two types of natural resources: renewable resources and nonrenewable resources.
Sustainable natural resources are renewable.
What are Renewable Resources?
They’re natural resources that can be replenished and used over, and over again.
Sustainable natural resources may also produce less pollution, less greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore contribute less to climate change.
But there’s a caveat. For renewable resources to be sustainable, they must be used and managed sustainably.
Sustainable Resource Management
For example, wood is a renewable resource because even though we cut down trees, more trees will grow.
However, wood is not inherently a sustainable resource because many people and companies obtain wood in an irresponsible and non-sustainable way.
Trees are important for biodiversity, regulating oxygen/carbon levels in the atmosphere, and preventing erosion.
If you cut down too many trees faster than they can grow, then you are not procuring wood in a sustainable way.
If your production plant wastes materials, pollutes the air, and contaminates water – the wood produced ceases to be sustainable.
Aren’t All Natural Resources Sustainable?
No, not all natural resources are sustainable. Like in our example above with wood.
Even though wood is natural and renewable, it has to be managed responsibly to be sustainable.
We also have non-renewable resources to consider.
Non-renewable resources are natural, too, because they are produced by the Earth’s natural processes.
But they are not sustainable because once they have all been used, we can’t replenish the supply.
Let’s use coal as an example. Coal is a fossil fuel found in fossilized swamps under layers of sediment.
The problem is that coal takes millions of years to form. Once the supply is gone, it’s gone.
Unfortunately, our society currently depends on nonrenewable fossil fuels as our primary sources of energy: oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy.
We use fossil fuels to power our vehicles, manufacture plastics, cook, and heat our homes.
Despite being natural, fossil fuels have an extra negative side effect that keeps them from being sustainable.
When they’re used for energy, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
This carbon dioxide gets trapped in the atmosphere and causes global warming.
Are All Sustainable Natural Resources Renewable?
Yes, all sustainable natural resources are renewable.
Sustainable, by definition means that the resource in question will be available for future generations.
But not all renewable resources are sustainable.
For a renewable resource to be sustainable, it must be managed responsibly.
What Are Unsustainable Natural Resources?
Unsustainable natural resources fall into two categories:
- Nonrenewable resources
- Renewable resources that are managed non-sustainably
Nonrenewable resources are only available to us in limited amounts.
Once we’ve used them up, future generations will not have access to them.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that non-renewable resources are bad for the environment.
Take mica as an example. Mica is the sparkly mineral used in makeup.
If you buy mica makeup that has been responsibly and ethically-sourced, free from synthetic ingredients and dyes, it isn’t harmful for the environment.
Mica can be an excellent, non-toxic, and eco-conscious alternative to glitter.
But mica isn’t considered a sustainable resource because it’s nonrenewable.
Non-Sustainable Resource Management
In many cases, humans take a naturally sustainable resource, and through poor management, they make it non-sustainable.
In our previous example, we used wood. But this also applies to wildlife.
Picture you live on the coast in an area known for lobster fishing.
Lobster is naturally a sustainable resource because lobsters reproduce.
But imagine the demand for lobster grows and fishermen begin to trap lobster more often and in larger quantities.
Now they’re fishing faster than lobsters can reproduce and replenish the population.
This non-sustainable management of a sustainable resource can lead to totally wiping out the lobster population.
Why Is The Sustainability Of Natural Resources Important?
Using renewable natural resources in a sustainable way is important when thinking long-term.
It’s important for anyone with a family and anyone concerned with cross-generational human welfare.
On the surface, sustainable natural resources may seem like a point of concern for environmental conservation, but it encompasses much more than that.
It’s an issue that relates directly to public health and economic development.
Handling our resources well now is imperative for future generations to have access to energy, transportation, production, food, and clean water.
Look at transportation as an example. Imagine we continue to use the limited fossil fuels that power our cars and other means of transportation.
Imagine that we don’t research or invest in alternative energy sources to power transportation.
When the day comes that our fossil fuels run out, what will future generations use?
Let’s also go back to wood and lobster.
Imagine all the businesses that would shut down and all the jobs that would be lost if we depleted these resources.
What Are The Benefits Of Using Sustainable Natural Resources?
Let’s answer this question in terms of sustainable energy.
Sustainable energy sources like solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower are cleaner and better for public health than non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels.
Researchers predict that we will run out of natural gas and oil in the next 30 to 50 years.
Whereas sustainable energy sources are virtually infinite.
Why Aren’t We Using Only Sustainable Natural Resources?
Unfortunately, fossil fuels are cheaper to use than sustainable energy sources.
Making the transition from fossil fuel energy to sustainable energy is no easy undertaking.
Currently, 80% of the world’s energy is powered by fossil fuels.
And changing 80% of the world’s means of transportation, infrastructure, and production is a complex and expensive task.
There are also doubts about sustainable energy sources and their ability to meet large-scale demand.
Many believe that sustainable energy isn’t capable of creating the large amounts of energy that fossil fuels can.
Renewable energy also has its more obvious disadvantages, mainly that its ability to produce energy depends on uncontrollable conditions.
Hydropower requires enough rainfall to work and solar panels need clear skies.
4 Examples Of Sustainable Natural Resources
Sunlight is a renewable natural resource that can be used as a clean source of energy.
Solar panels may have an expensive installation rate, but they reduce energy bills in the long-term or even generate income.
Another downside is that they are weather dependent and use a lot of space.
But we can use solar panels to power many different things.
Maintenance cost is low and they’re versatile location-wise.
We can use them anywhere the sun shines.
The wind is a clean source of renewable energy, too.
Wind turbines take less space than solar panels and operation costs are low.
But the amount of energy produced relies on one uncontrollable factor – the wind.
Air is also a natural resource that requires responsible management if we’re going to categorize it as sustainable.
According to the World Health Organization, Air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year.
Water can be used for hydroelectric energy. This renewable energy source is totally emission-free!
Hydropower tends to be more reliable than solar and wind energy.
However, the big disadvantage is that a dam must be built to utilize the power of a river.
The building of a dam has an undeniable impact on the river and its riverside habitat.
Fish cannot reach their mating ground. And entire freshwater ecosystems can disappear.
Other disadvantages include the fact that a hydroelectric dam can’t be placed just anywhere.
Not to mention that building a dam is a large and expensive undertaking.
Apart from water as a source of energy, water is also a renewable resource that we need to survive.
It’s absolutely pertinent that we manage this resource in a sustainable way.
Our freshwater sources are currently filled with chemicals, plastic, and other pollutants.
The U.S. environmental protection agency states that nearly half of the rivers and streams in the U.S. are unsafe for fishing, swimming, and drinking.
4. Vegetation and Animal life
The continuation of life on this planet also depends on the responsible use of our plant life and animal life.
Agriculture has the ability to positively impact the environment.
But it also has the ability to pollute the soil, water, and air when practiced carelessly.
Unchecked clearing of natural habitats, like deforestation, can develop drought and cause flooding.
It also leads to the loss of other valuable resources.
- Sustainability means that future generations will have access to the resource.
- Not all natural resources are sustainable.
- Natural resources are only sustainable when they are 1) renewable, and 2) managed in sustainable ways.
- Not all nonrenewable resources are bad for the environment.
- Using sustainable natural resources can be complex and expensive. But it’s important for public health, economic development, and the continuation of life on Earth.