The long-term effects of resource exploitation

Our current standard of living depends almost exclusively on the availability of natural resources. In addition to abiotic and biotic raw materials, we use water, soil, air, biodiversity and soil as a living and resting place; and we use wind energy, solar energy and tidal currents to get energy.

These resources also act as emission sinks, landfills, and important inputs for agriculture and forestry. But unfortunately, and unavoidably, the overuse of resources throughout the supply chain pollutes the environment as it continues to increase worldwide.

Resource exploration has historically been associated with state-building practices (for example, the central role of oil drilling in the growth of the Venezuelan state since the 1930s) or the expansion of state control. That being said, natural resources are what the planet provides without human intervention. They are necessary for survival, but if we exhaust them faster than they’re naturally capable of renewing, as is happening now, they can run out. Thus, the future could look extremely different than how we know the world today.

What are natural resources?

There are two types of natural resources: renewable and non-renewable. The former are inexhaustible, such as solar radiation, or renew relatively quickly, as in the case of biomass. Non-renewable natural resources such as minerals and fossil fuels – oil, natural gas and coal – are naturally finite because they take many years to regenerate.

Humans are consuming Earth’s natural resources and our living standards will begin to decline by 2030 if nothing is done immediately. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) warns that the current overexploitation of natural resources is causing a huge deficit, with 20% more being consumed than can be replenished each year, and this rate is constantly increasing.

So if we continue at this rate, according to the WWF itself, by 2050 we will need 2.5 planets to supply us. In turn, studies have shown that the world’s fish, bird, mammal, amphibian and reptile populations declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012 due to human activities, and predicts that this percentage will increase to 67% after 2020

Environmental impacts throughout the supply chain

Our way of using resources often leads to irreversible ecological changes. The extraction and processing of non-renewable raw materials is often an energy-intensive activity that involves significant interventions in ecosystems and the water balance, and leads to air, soil and water pollution. 

Even the extraction and production of renewable natural resources almsot always involve intensive use of energy, materials, chemicals and, in some cases, water; and all this manifests as pollution. Pristine land is often converted to farmland, and in some cases, entire ecosystems are destroyed in the process.

In short, these processes are always going to impact the environment, and will oftentimes lead to land degradation, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, degradation of ecosystem functions and worsening of global warming. And that’s not all. 

The use of products made from raw materials almost always leads to greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, damage to ecosystems and/or a decrease in biodiversity. Products require energy, water and land to be delivered, marketed and used. Any misuse of the product will cause harmful emissions that can end up in water, soil and air. Even the infrastructures we take for granted, such as our homes, not to mention countless daily activities, are often resource-intensive and lead to hardening of green spaces, damaging ecosystems and destroying the natural beauty of the Earth.

The many social consequences of using natural resources are related to issues such as the distribution of raw materials, easy access to clean water, and global food security.

It is estimated that the world’s industrialized countries use four times more raw materials per capita per year than less developed countries. Most of the added value arising from the use of resources is created in industrialized countries, but less developed countries often experience the environmental and social effects of raw material production.

The main social consequences of the overexploitation of natural resources involve, as you might think, communities. Vulnerable communities are the ones that have to deal with the short-term and long-term effects of extracting and processing natural resources, such as ecological damage that can cause health problems – air pollution, water contamination or even food contamination. 

Oftentimes, these vulnerable communities are left with no other choice but to make the radical decision to be displaced from their land and forced to live elsewhere. This situation can arise because of ecological factors (as presented above) or the increase in poverty. In the affected areas, mining companies and their related activities do not invest much in starting sustainable development. In addition, profits from raw material production are used to finance armed conflicts in some countries. According to UN statistics, natural resources play a central role in 40 percent of all internal conflicts.

However, sustainable and efficient use of resources can often only be achieved if sustainable development standards are defined and applied. In this regard, certification measures are the most important means of increasing the transparency of raw material production. Unfortunately, one of the only ways to ensure that the Earth’s resources don’t cease to exist is by having the world’s most industrialized countries come to an agreement to protect the environment.