How to manage and conserve resources
|introduction||Knowing what a resource is and how it behaves, is central to how it needs to be managed. Resource management lays the very basis of conservation. The properties of substance; quantities and reserves; resilience; historic depletion; resource collapse.|
|types of resource||Resources come in many varieties such as renewable and non-renewable. But there is more to it than meets the eye.|
|tragedy of the commons||A shared resource which is open to access by all, has tragic results, originating from our inability to act individually for the common good.|
|economics of exploitation||Our drive to overexploit comes from our ability to do so, and the imperatives of doing so economically and efficiently. By knowing the economics of natural exploitation, which govern the interaction between populations, sustainability can be understood and practised.|
|sustainability||The world has evolved with exploitation as a main mechanism controlling populations. Mankind is no exception, but because it has the technology to control nature, has escaped some laws of nature. Rules of resource sustainability. Rights are serious obstacles.|
|problems and solutions||Humans are the very cause of their problems. They have created the capability to exceed natural limitations. Beyond the stabilising influence of natural control, environmental problems emerge, which beg for solutions. By knowing the accelerating and mitigating factors, problems can be solved at several levels.|
|management||Some basic principles apply to the management of resources. Steering the ship.|
|management types||The management regime can be authoritarian or communal or any variation in between. Co-management, data-less management, integrated resources management INRM, ecosystem based management ESB, the influence of NGOs.|
on this web site
and human nature: on the nature of ourselves, and our institutions.
fishing: types of fishing, overfishing and fisheries management (planned)
ecology: principles of ecology (planned)
management: basic principles of management (planned)
problem solving: basic principles of solving problems. (planned)
on this web site
|Timetable of mankind:
a summary of the history of humans and their inventions. (22 pages)
Abundance of the elements: relative abundance of elements and mineral reserves. (5 pages)
back to the conservation index page <==> go to principles of conservation <==> go to biodiversity
This article covers the principles of substance and exploitation, and of finding solutions relating to resources. For a more in-depth treatment of management and problem solving, refer to the related pages on this web site. Also the section on ecology provides deeper insight in living organisms and their interactions.
|What is a resource?
The dictionary defines resource as:
resource (L: re=again/anew; surgere= to rise) the means available to fulfil an end; the means to fulfil a function; a stock or supply that can be drawn on; a country's collective wealth.
|For a substance to become a resource, we must be using it. In order to use it, we must be able to extract it. In order to extract it, it must be economical and worthwhile. For it to be worthwhile, it must have value. But first of all, we must know about it. Thus, not any substance becomes a resource. There may be gold on a distant planet, but not being able to get there, disqualifies it as a resource. Something we don't know exists, is not a resource. Something for which we do not have a use, is not a resource. Resources are thus cultural appraisals, rather than absolute natural items. Resources are defined entirely in terms of human values, which could obscure their value to the environment.|
|The properties of substance
Having defined a resource as the means to an end, we'll introduce the word substance as the stuff of which the means is made.
substance (L: sub=under/below/towards; stare=to stand; substantia) the essential material forming a thing; the real meaning or essence of a thing. We'll use the word substance in a wider context than just stuff or material, and it may include such abstract resources like: labour, workforce, opportunity, etc. (note how the word substance resembles understand)
Source: Floor Anthoni, 2001.
The typical path of a resource starts with extraction, followed by concentration. Then it is transported to where it is used, then sold, and finally it is discarded (wasted) to be dispersed in rubbish heaps. All along this path, energy is added and wastes are produced. Where resources are not recycled, it may indicate that it is more expensive to purify them from garbage than from the minerals found in nature.
attribute (L: ad=toward; tribut= tribe; tribuere= to assign (between tribes)) a quality ascribed to a person or thing; a characteristic quality.
intrinsic (L: intrinsecus=inward) inherent, essential, belonging naturally.
|Resource quantities and reserves
A further distinction must be made between reserves and resource quantity. Reserves are the known quantities at economical concentrations and locations. The resource quantity of a mineral may include uneconomic quantities. Resources are extracted and refined using energy (and other resources). Depending on how much society wishes to pay for the resource, a seemingly unlimited quantity of energy and other (cheaper) resources can be applied to mine those that once were considered uneconomic.
In the case of fossil fuel, however, its extraction is not limited by what one is willing to pay, but by how much energy it costs to discover, drill, pump and distribute. If more energy is needed to lift one unit of oil from a well, than the energy contained in that unit, then that well has become uneconomic, regardless of the amount of fuel still left behind.
Reserves are known about in the course of mineral exploration. Some exploration is done by governments, in order to assess the wealth of a nation; some is done by mining companies. If the demand is high, companies will be encouraged to step up their explorations, in order to find more reserves. Thus the quantity in known reserves, is not necessarily the maximum. As present stocks run out, more reserves will be discovered. Eventually, miners discover fewer and fewer reserves, which leads one to conclude that their maximum is close to being reached. It is believed that fossil oil has reached such a stage, known as "peak oil".
See also the table of resource
quantities and reserves.
In the course of the evolution of our biosphere, sudden changes have happened, testing the planet's resilience. Although punctuations of mass extinctions have occurred, the planet as a whole has survived. It is important to know how nature evolved resilience, because it affects the management of resources and would also be applicable to other situations like businesses.
An ecosystem consists of communities of organisms which somehow function together to cycle nutrients and energy. If an ecosystem did not function as one, it would fall apart completely. The resilience of functioning is called integrity.
resilience (L: re=again; salire=to jump; to rebound) the ability to resume its original shape after bending, stretching, compressing, etc. The ability of a resource to restore after exploitation.Nature has developed the following strategies to enhance resilience and thus stability:
integrity (L: in= not/without; tangere= to touch; integer=whole/ untouched) wholeness, soundness. Functioning of an ecosystem or resource as if untouched.
In this text box, we'll explore resilience from the perspective that made human knowledge great: the ability to remember (brain, book, library, internet) . Perhaps somehow memory is the storehouse of resilience. Nature knows many forms of memory: the genetic code stored in a creature's DNA serves as a memory of how to make or repair one. Our immune system remembers the many attacks it had to fend off, and how to go about them. The landscapes we see, are but memories of the forces that acted on the land, over eons of time. The shape of a tree memorises its entire lifetime; how it grew and fought the elements, and what lived in competition around it. Seed banks in the soil remember what once grew above, after a drought or forest fire. Flocks of birds have collective memory of when and how to migrate, where to feed, how to mate and so on, which is retained in the flock although individuals die. Fish schools behave similarly. For a memory to work, it must not only be able to store, but also to retrieve information. Thus the action of an immune system is influenced by what has been experienced before. But the erosive forces memorised by the shape of a coast or a landscape, are not necessarily influenced by that shape (but some do, like dunes and many sea coasts).
The most important memory of a terrestrial ecosystem is located in its soil, made over thousands of years, by thousands of species above and below, to arrive at the chemistry and composition it holds today. The memory of an ecosystem is also found in its composition and abundance of species. Should one link fail or die, it will be replaced with something from the library of the forest, and integrity is restored. Forms of memory may well hold the secret to resilience, and should be added to the list above. Biodiversity itself is perhaps no more than a library of its ecosystem.
The consequence of this reasoning is that we must leave the memory function of the environment around us unimpaired. To clear many small patches inside a forest is less damaging than clearing an equivalent contiguous part, because the forest still functions as a whole around those patches. If we wish the library of nature to be able to function, we must not alter more than one third. We must leave more fish in the sea for the library of the sea to function. We must farm our soils as if the forests were still there.
|The history of resource use
The history of human use of resources has always been dependent on what one could do with them. Early cave men's use of resources was probably no more than sticks, stone, flint (volcanic glass) and firewood. As technology advanced, humans needed more and more resources to satisfy their perceived needs.
The graph on right sketches the general history of human resource use over time. Horizontally the time axis from year 1500 to today, and vertically a logarithmic scale running over four decades. The red graticules divide the scale further, as in : 1,2,5,10,20,50,100,... etc. In the top left corner three straight lines corresponding with growth rates of 100x, 10x, 5x in a century. The advantage of this kind of 'log-lin' diagram is that growth rates can be compared, which would not be easy with a linear vertical scale. Please note that any line on an angle in such a graph, is one of exponential growth (like explosions). The ones curving upward are exponential growths with increasing growth rates, which should alarm anyone, since such growth rates are sure to reach some ceiling.
The black curve shows population growth, which increased gradually, roughly doubling every two centuries. This growth was made possible by the inventions of agriculture and trade. Suddenly from around 1950, this curve steepened to a rate of 4x per century. As we know, we expect the world population to double within the coming forty years. This growth was possible due to medical technology, hygiene and sanitation, which almost doubled life expectancy. At the same time, more food became available thanks to the green revolution with artificial fertilisers and improved crops.
Looking at the thick green curve, one can see GDP keeping up with this, but suddenly around 1850, it rose steeply, flattened slightly during the depression-war period, but then taking off again, much steeper than population, at a rate of close to 20x per century. At the same time, GDP per person increased (thin green line), which did not mean that everyone on the planet shared in the process, but that the growth of GDP vastly outran the growth in population. GDP is closely related to society's use and waste of resources, most important of which is energy.
The thick red curve shows overall energy use, which before 1800 consisted entirely of biomass, mainly firewood, and which followed the rate of population growth. However, suddenly in 1800, the use of coal increased at the rate of 20x per century, partly replacing firewood, but mainly powering a new economy, the industrial revolution. Then from 1900, oil took over, while coal tapered to a rate of 4x per century, still keeping up with population.
The drastic increase in the use of oil is caused by:
The history of fishing is different again. It took off after boats were equipped with motors, able to go further afield. After a most spectacular increase over less than a century, fishing levelled off around 1980, and after reaching its peak, went into decline again. After having overfished the most popular fish stocks, most of the catch now goes into the manufacture of poultry and pig food.
The reason these curves are discussed here, is to show that resource
use is closely linked to economic output. It follows then that nearly all
the planet's resources follow a similar pattern, and that their exploitation
is bound to grow at a rate of at least 20x per century. Another reason
is to show how important it is to know the historic demand and yield for
a resource, particularly when drawn on a logarithmic scale. Notice also
the concept of resource substitution, that of firewood by coal and then
coal by oil. In the diagram, all three are expressed in oil equivalents.
Here are the actual data of the graph above:
All resources are sensitive to the way they are exploited and at which rate. Even renewable ones are. In this chapter we'll look at the historical behaviour of a number of resources, in order to get a feel for their possible problems. Some of these problems are rather counter-intuitive.
this diagram, the extraction behaviour of oil, gas and soil are shown with
time as the horizontal axis. The flow of oil is mainly restricted by the
porosity of the rock (see drawing). Initially, the oil flows by itself,
pushed by gas pressure in or above the well. As the pressure reduces, the
oil flows more slowly until eventually it needs to be assisted by pumps.
Once the energy to pump oil starts to become equal to the energy value
in the oil obtained, pumping becomes uneconomical and the well is shut.
Deep wells are thus shut sooner than shallow ones.
For gas the situation is somewhat different, being over a thousand times more agile. The speed at which gas can be extracted is therefore limited by the network above the well. When gas flow begins to slow down, the end of its economic life is reached rapidly, also because it has to be pumped into a high pressure network.
For a whole oil or gas field, consisting of hundreds of wells, one drilled after another, the overall result follows that of a bell curve (red), depending on how fast it has been opened up. Notice that the bell curve is not shown to scale. It should be much taller and wider.
For cropland soil, the situation is entirely different. How soil degrades, depends entirely on the type of soil, the kind of irrigation, climate and slope. However, in all cases almost the same curve is followed. First the soil loses fertility rapidly after deforestation. The forest humus is consumed rapidly by bacteria and fungi, as the soil is ploughed. In order to keep fertility up, the soil is fertilissed artificially, but after some 10-200 years, the soil begins to degrade; first slowly but then faster . Eventually bare desert-like soil remains, without the fertile top soil. Irrigation in dry climates appears to accelerate the process; many soils being lost in only 10 years. Flat soils in temperate zones, where rainfall equals evaporation, keep longest. See our large chapter on soil.
This diagram shows the concept of overshoot of a natural population depending on a living resource like food. Curve A shows stable growth towards the limit imposed by the amount of food. Curves A, B and C show hypothetical behaviour of physical systems reaching equilibrium. It can be gradually, like A, or with a few small oscillations, or leading to permanent oscillations. Such physical systems never lead to an outcome like curve D, where the maximum is overshot, and the population crashes afterwards to a level from which it can not re-emerge. Yet this is the typical behaviour found when overexploitation changes the environment (like extraction '[poisoning' the wells), such that it suffers permanent loss of quality. Most collapsed human civilisations have been through this process, and our present civilisation faces a similar fate.
These examples serve to illustrate that resource management is not always self-evident, and that knowledge about physics and ecology, the nature of the resource, is essential.
Ostrom, E. 1990: Governing the Commons: the evolution
of institutions for collective action. Cambridge Univ Press.
NIWA, 1996. No51. Science for sustainable fisheries: an information paper prepared for the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology.
Munasinghe (eds), 1995: Defining and measuring sustainability: the biogeophysical foundations. UN University. World Bank Washington DC.
|The paradox of renewable
versus non renewable resources
We are finding more and more non-renewable resources (oil, gas, copper, gold, uranium) and their prices are still coming down, as if their quantities are limitless. But nearly all our renewable resources are severely depleted or threatened (soil, drinking water, irrigation water, lakes, rivers, forests, seas). Their prices are going up.
The prices for renewable resources are also going up: meat, fish, timber, produce, coffee, tea, rubber.
Note that the drop in price for non-renewable resources was not caused
by finding unlimited quantities, but by using modern technology and the
benefits of increased scale (through rapid demand). For the mining of minerals,
vast quantities of fossil fuel are used, and as its price went down, so
went the price of all other minerals.
That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. (Aristotle)The tragedy of the commons is overexploitation forced by greed. It happens from the perceived need to graze the commons beyond its carrying capacity, resulting in its degradation. It pays not to reduce stock numbers, because if you do, someone else will increase theirs. This freemarket, open access mechanism is often blamed for the tragic state of overfishing of our marine resources. By contrast, a single owner would be interested in maintaining the health of his grasslands, trading present profit for future profits. However, when placed under the stress of famine or poverty, single owners will also be forced to overexploit their means.
But in nature, predators have open access to their prey and grazers to their grass, yet no tragedy is occurring here. Obviously a better explanation must be found.