Chapter summaries

Chapter 1 (The Importance of Natural Resources) provides the context for the rest of the book by discussing the role and importance of natural resources in the past and present development of modern economies and what we can learn from history. The concept of sustainability is explored, with examples of unsustainable resource use. The chapter explains why some resource-rich countries remain poor (the “resource curse”) and what measures countries can take to profit from their natural resource endowments. It concludes with a discussion of the often-debated notion that lack of resources and competition for resources are likely to lead to future resource wars.

The following chapters analyse the situation of individual resources. In Chapter 2 (The Sustainability of Mineral Resources), I explain how commodity markets operate and the reasons behind large fluctuations of metals and minerals prices. The chapter explores the present use and availability of metals and minerals, ranging from the common metals such as copper and iron ore to the less common ones such as rare earth minerals and lithium, now very important in the manufacture of some consumer electronics and electric cars. Mineral depletion and the sustainability of mining are discussed, and the environmental record of the mining industry is assessed as well as the problems of recycling, with particular emphasis on the recycling of ships and electronic wastes.

 Chapter 3 (How the World Came to Be Dependent on Fossil Fuels) is devoted to the availability and use of fossil fuels, which provide the foundation for the prosperity of industrial countries. This chapter examines energy use since the Industrial Revolution, including the early search for sources of lighting that resulted in the near extinction of whales because of the demand for whale oil. The chapter traces the development of OPEC and analyzes the reasons behind the large fluctuations in the price of oil and their repercussions on the world economy. The development of non-conventional oil, such as oil from the Alberta oil sands and shale oil, is discussed in some detail, as is the situation for coal and natural gas in view of newly discovered deposits of shale gas.

Any discussion of the sustainability of fossil fuels must include the extremely contentious and complicated topic of climate change. Chapter 4 (Fossil Fuels and Climate Change) includes a concise account of the known history of climate change, dating back thousands of years, as well as the history of the science. The current evidence for global warming is examined along with costs and benefits of mitigation and the various measures that can be employed such as carbon taxes, cap-and-trade policies, and geoengineering solutions.

Chapter 5 (The Alternatives to Fossil Fuels: Nuclear Power, Hydrogen, and Renewable Energy Resources) also discusses methods of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but this time by examining the prospects for developing carbon-free energy. It surveys the costs and benefits of a whole range of possible alternatives, including the prospects for nuclear energy following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. It also assesses whether renewable resources can replace fossil fuels.

Chapter 6 (The Importance of Natural Environments: Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) is the first in a series of chapters dealing with the state of renewable resources. Evidence shows that the earth’s biodiversity is in danger, and some biologists claim we are currently experiencing a sixth species extinction. In this chapter, I explain the meaning of biodiversity, how it is measured, what recent data indicate, and why we should be concerned. The chapter surveys estimates of the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystem services. It includes an examination of the effectiveness of international conventions such as the Biodiversity Convention, the International Whaling Commission, and CITES.

Chapter 7 (Forests—the Lungs of the Earth) continues the discussion of biodiversity by concentrating on the importance of forests. Apart from providing us with wood and habitats for wildlife, forests critically influence climate change by acting as carbon sinks. How do we balance the ecological need for intact forests with the commercial need for wood? The chapter examines the evolution of attitudes to forests and forestry and the state of the world’s forests with particular attention to the causes of deforestation. It also evaluates the debate about best logging practices, moves toward forest certification, and the implications of the REDD+ program.

The problem of growing food for a predicted 2050 population of over nine billion people is addressed in Chapter 8 (Agricultural Resources and the Challenge to Feed a Future World) in light of strong evidence that modern industrialized agriculture is not sustainable. The chapter discusses various proposals for making agriculture more environmentally friendly and the need for more agricultural research and investments, particularly in Africa. A section is devoted to the advantages and disadvantages of GMO foods. The problem of price instability of agricultural products is discussed, and the chapter concludes with an examination of food security and how it might be achieved.

Water is the focus of Chapter 9 (Are We Running out of Water?)—one of the most critical current global resource issues of today. In most of the world it is a critical issue because of massive failures in water management, ranging from the adverse environmental effects of irrigation and industrial contamination to the lack of water treatment facilities, leading to a scarcity of potable water. Economic approaches to water management are discussed as well as the likelihood of conflicts relating to water rights as water sources often straddle international borders.

Nowhere is the “tragedy of the commons” as obvious as in the mismanagement of the oceans, and Chapter 10 (Oceans and the Tragedy of the Commons) highlights the problems of maintaining the ecology of the oceans in the face of increased pollution, overharvesting of fish resources, increased exploitation of mineral and oil and gas resources, and the threat posed to oceans by climate change. Many of the world’s fisheries are near total collapse, and this chapter examines the reasons along with what can be done to save fish stocks and viable marine ecosystems. The development of aquaculture is discussed as one of many possible solutions to declining fish stocks. The chapter also examines the regulatory framework for ocean resources under the “the Law of the Sea” process.

The final chapter (Conclusion: The Earth in the Balance) focuses on how the current unsustainable situation of resource use arose, emphasizing the role of explosive population growth and the implications of humans transforming earth into a totally human-dominated planet—the Anthropocene. It examines the question whether a mechanism exists that guarantees the earth will heal itself, and if not, what measures can be taken to avert catastrophe. It emphasizes the need to decrease resource use in rich countries, enabling poor countries to increase their resource use in order to grow and prosper.