Resource Management 1

How to manage and conserve resources

By Dr J Floor Anthoni (2001)

Resources are the materials, energies, labour and information used to run and to enhance society. They have a habit of running out, degrading or becoming polluted by being used. By managing our resources, we hope to distribute them more equitably, prolong their use, and conserve them for future generations. This chapter deals with the rules and considerations applicable to managing any type of resource, renewable or nonrenewable. It forms the basis for all types of conservation. Renewable resources must be maintained sustainably but what problems can we expect?
In this large chapter you will learn about the various types of resource, how the tragedy of the commons tends to destroy, how exploitation really works in society and between populations, how to understand sustainability and our mind's limitations.
please note that this long document has been split into three: part1 (this page), part2, part3 as shown by their colours
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.
related pages
on this web site
Science, technology and human nature: on the nature of ourselves, and our institutions. (34 pages)
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)
important tables
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)
 go to part2 <==> go to part3

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A shared resource in the cityIntroduction

This article deals with the meaning of a resource, the many kinds of resource and their properties, and how to manage them. Rather than attempting to go into the details relating to each possible situation, we'll treat the basic laws that will guide you to make your own decisions relating to the resource you wish to manage. It is all about gaining understanding and giving you a general tool to deal with any resource situation.

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)
entity (L: ens=being; entitas) a thing with distinct existence, as opposed to a quality or relation. A thing's essential nature.
It is very important to extend our thinking about substance (entity), which is discussed in detail in the section ecology, and summarised here for good measure. When thinking of a substance, we are inclined to imagine it in its pure form, like gold or water. But any natural substance has a number of related properties (attributes), which are not immediately evident, but which characterise the substance in very important ways. When analysing relationships, the what-why-how-when questioning is a good beginning, but for entities the following factors make sense: Note that many of these factors are independent of one another, and the total value of the resource could be calculated from weights given to each factor, and then adding or multiplying them to give an overall conservation or exploitation value. However, caution is required. Some resources have no value to nature, but a high value to humans, like fossil energy, while using fossil fuel, pollutes nature, giving it a negative value to nature (threat). The values attached to these qualities may also differ when talking about different aspects of a resource, like coal from a mining perspective, and coal for fuel. But amazingly, these nine factors can be attached to all substances (entities) as dissimilar as uranium and fish stocks and labour force and my life. Here are three examples:


Examples of resources and their attributes
fossil oil for fuel drinking water from rain knowledge workers
Very high. Oil is a concentrated form of energy. It is liquid and can be piped, transported in vessels, and distributed easily. Very high where rainwater can be captured direct. People need high quality drinking water. In dry climates, shallow wells do not produce clear water. Water is piped easily. Very high. Knowledge workers are intelligent and have good education. These are not common qualities.
density Very high. Oil occurs in oil fields, created by a lucky coincidence of chance. It is not found generally everywhere, but where found, it usually has economic quantities. Rain falls erratically, but predictably by season or year. Reservoirs can be designed to even out fluctuations, but years of drought can cause problems. Low. Intelligent people are found everywhere a little, at a predetermined ratio. They may migrate to places where their skill is in demand, like knowledge centres or overseas.
quantity The overall quantity is small, particularly measured by the explosive growth in demand. All oil will have been used up within 50 years it is thought but new fields are still discovered. Per area, the quantity is fixed. Catchment areas and reservoirs are fixed, so a growing population can eventually run out of drinking water. The overall quantity of knowledge workers remains low, but a range of qualities is needed. Education can extend the range and the number trained. High salaries may attract more.
resilience Nil. An oil field is drilled by hundreds of wells. Each well lasts for a short while, and a major oil field may last from 10-200 years. Once exploited, oil will not bounce back, not even in a hundred million years. It was produced in an exceptional era in the history of the planet. Extremely high. Rain is free and is recycled and purified by the Earth's water cycle. No amount of use will preclude next year's rain. Humans cannot be tempted to use more than supplied. High. Knowledge workers like challenges and a certain amount of stress. However, exceeding this may cause them to 'burn out'. They also need time to stay uptodate and to upskill.
value to
Nil or negative. Oil was once carbondioxide, sequestered by oceanic organisms and laid down as they died and were covered by mud. Oil spills are harmful to nature, but their effect is short lasting. Very high. But rain captured in reservoirs has been superfluous to nature, and would have run back to sea. However, river flora and fauna depend on it. Dams damage the natural flow of water, and affect downstream river and ocean life. Nil. But scientists studying nature, may contribute to its conservation. Technologists may find ways to exploit nature more. In general, however, the more we know, the more responsibly we can act.
value to
Very very high. Oil powers the modern economy. Without oil, Western civilisation would effectively end if no replacement energy were found. People do not pay the value of oil but only the cost of exploitation and transport, which encourages waste. Very very high. Humans need water every day, for drinking, cooking, washing. It is also (ab)used for flushing toilets, watering the garden, washing the car. In countries where water is scarce, its value is high enough to wage wars for. Very high. However, an oversupply would diminish their value. Society needs skills of all kind. Computers can transfer knowledge to others in the form of encyclopedia, knowledge systems, management models, etc.
Very high, but humans do not appear capable of setting reserves aside for use in a distant future. It appears that all oil will be used up. Humanity is gambling on finding a substitution for oil, and realise little what would happen if oil was no longer available. Very high/ very low. Because water replenishes almost predictably with the next rain, people tend to undervalue it. However, life would be impossible without it. As populations grow, water becomes scarce. High. Today, as the world enters the knowledge economy, knowledge workers are in demand. They could make a decisive difference to the wealth of a nation. Knowledge workers are mobile and will be attracted by better opportunities elsewhere.
Low to large, but oil spills may occur, affecting beaches and particularly estuaries. By using oil, greenhouse gases are produced which may have profound effects on the biosphere. Medium to large. By catching water, less will flow downstream. Dams may prevent anadromous (upswimming) fish from reaching their spawning grounds. Countries downstream may be deprived of water. High. Society will be changed thoroughly. Jobs will be lost. A period of instability follows. Knowledge as a product may become proprietary. Society may become polarised into knows and know-nots, like it already has in the haves and have-nots. More people may feel disenfranchised.
These three examples show how beneficial it can be to think of any resource or substance in terms of the eight properties.

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.
Natural resilience
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.

integrity (L: in= not/without; tangere= to touch; integer=whole/ untouched) wholeness, soundness. Functioning of an ecosystem or resource as if untouched.

Nature has developed the following strategies to enhance resilience and thus stability: Later we'll appreciate that these strategies play an important role in designing conservation areas like marine reserves.It also appears to apply to social organisations and businesses.
Memory and resilience
Everywhere around us we see the environment deteriorating, unable to take the blows we give it. It may degrade gradually with fewer species and less of each, or it may change suddenly. If only we understood resilience better, then we might be able to let nature take our blows without changing for worse. Resilience has thus become the holy grail of environmental science, to which many scientists devote their lives [1].

In this text box, we'll explore resilience from the perspective that made human knowledge great: the ability to remember (brain, book, library, internet) [2]. 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.

[1] Visit web sites: the Resilience Alliance, Conservation Ecology, and more.
[2] Read Science, Technology and human nature/Introduction  on this web site.

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.

History of resource useThe 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 story of water is somewhat different. Water is used for drinking, cooking, washing (municipal water) but far more is used for industry and electricity generation, while irrigated agriculture needs even more. In 1700, people were using 170 litres of water per person per day, mostly used for irrigation (2% industry; 8% municipal). By 1800 this had increased to 270, by 1900 to 360 and by 2000 to 870 litre/day. Today's rate is about 30x per decade, of which 64% for irrigation, 25% for industry and 9% for municipal use. As one can see, municipal use of water has stayed practically constant at 8-9% over three centuries.

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:


Estimated resource use
Year Population
Mt oil
Water m3
1500 ±0.4 1.00 1.00 - - - - - - -
1700 - - - - - - - 110 0.17 -
1750 - - - - - - - - - -
1800 1.0
1.17 400 1000 10 0 243 0.27 ±1
1850 1.2 4.70
- - - - - - - ±1.5
1900 1.6 8.23 2.24 1900 1400 1000 20 580 0.36 ±2.0
1950 2.5 22.38 3.78 - - - - 1360 0.54 15
2000 6.0 116.64
9.42 30000 1800 5000 3000 5190 0.87 ±70
Source: J R McNeill (2000): Something New Under the Sun.

Resource collapse
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.

Exploitation of oil, gas and soilIn 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.

Overshoot of a natural resourceThis 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.


Types of resource

Depending on its type, and use, resources require to be managed differently. Here we attempt to classify them in such a way that every resource can be accommodated:
Note that the above summary is extensively grouped and that some overlap exists between the resource types.
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 world is reaching its limits in water use. Compare for instance the cost of water in various places: Canada: bottled water US$1/litre; water produced from seawater in Arabia US$3.50/m3; Water from rainwater reservoirs in New Zealand US$0.1 /m3.

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.


Tragedy of the commons

Commons are tracts of open land that people may use in common. They were necesary to allow travellers to graze their horses, but being open to access by all, locals also used commons for grazing their animals, cutting wood, and digging turf (peat).
These activities are called rights of common.  In the middle ages, the lord of a manor granted his tenants these rights on his land, because the tenants' own land was sufficient only for growing crops.  In 1967, registration of all common land and of town and village greens began. Today, most people use commons for recreation (United Kingdom).
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.

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