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Resources are finite

by on January 13, 2010

Next challenge for “inconvenient truths”

Resources are finite. Our natural capital – rich agricultural soils, ice-age groundwater, population and species biodiversity, and the ability of the biosphere to absorb waste – is especially rapidly dwindling. We need to pay much more attention to its preservation, restoration, and rate of use.


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  1. Why do we have so few words to describe the place where humans and the rest of nature intersect. Human Habitat? not an easy phrase.

    i think the word ‘restoration’ rings deep for people, without much need for explanation.

    We need things like “fouled our nest” to reach people.

  2. Good thoughts, Carmichael! Sorry to be such a frequent poster, but here goes . . .

    Creation (noun) is a good word, except the meanings of words in our language become associated with ideologies or styles and lose their appeal. “Conservation” and “risk-adverse” are others.

    I think that “Earth” should mean “nature.” “Mother Earth” means the same thing. “Voluntary simplicity” is the practice of minimizing one’s ecological impact. “Seventh Generation” is the American Indian council tradition of rejecting changes that could lead to negative consequences to future generations. “Heirloom” plants refers to seeds whose genetic materials aren’t owned by ADM, Monsanto, etc

    Yet, do scientists abandon words like “creation” and “conservation” and “mother earth” — because they don’t sound “scientific”? Do we gravitate towards language that presents nature as an economic opportunity rather than our human heritage? Is this colored by subtle cultural influences that advise us to protect our careers even if that means sacrificing the common good? If a scientist uses conservationist language and attitudes, are they less likely to receive corporate grants or jobs in industry? Are they less likely to “fit in” in the corporate world we inhabit?

    Personally, I do not like the “natural capital” metaphor because it turns nature into something to be consumed for our benefit. This planet is not ours to consume, in my opinion. Remember the old adage that we have not inherited the earth from our ancestors, but rather we are borrowing it from our grandchildren. American Indians and other original peoples did not believe in land ownership and consumption, but rather in wise use of resources that allowed them to replenish and repair.

    The cultures of “original peoples” may not have been “technologically advanced,” but they did not have the tremendous burden of unintended consequences of our culture. These cultures valued voluntary simplicity over the consumptive exploitation of natural resources that could disrupt the natural order of things.

  3. Paul R. Ehrlich permalink

    There’s a lot to be said for what Mr. Davis says, but he should remember that, despite huge efforts, the more “ethical” approach to nature has had precious little impact on how humanity treats it. For a society (with corporate-owned media and politicians) that views everything in terms of money, consumption, and growth, the natural capital analog is very useful and instructive. Homo sapiens has inherited a vast amount of natural capital and could – with appropriate adjustments in population size, consumption patterns, and technologies — live on the income from that capital. But instead we’re spending the capital, writing a bigger check on it daily, and never bothering to check the balance. We’re the equivalent of the spendthrift son of a billionaire — ignorant of how the world works, and nuts.

    • I do agree that viewing natural resources as “natural capital” can bring some greater sense of responsibility into play. I note, with great relief, the UN sponsored meeting this week of the holders of trillions of dollars in capital willing to invest many billions in desperately needed alternative energy projects. So, on one level, I do accept that as part of the solution – but only a small part.

      While such potentially do-able top-down structural changes can buy us valuable time, I still believe that there is something creating a collective blindspot when viewing the consequences of our collective actions. The addiction model may thus be more appropriate to creating cultural solutions. When consumerism runs amok, on a multinational level, there may be no stopping it until it runs its course, which may mean utter destruction of the commons. I refer to Garret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.” In this case, the “commons” is our planet.

      We are not very effective at intervening in these destructive cycles of institutionalized collective behavior (whether ethinic/national conflicts or consumer/fashion fads), especially when there is a tremendous incentive for to incite, instigate and profit from these cycles of excess. This poses serious problems in a democratic system anchored in the notion that people should have the right to consume, own, reproduce and look like whatever they wish.

      There are some who believe that the evolution of the corporate form, as an artificial person imbued with many rights, could be a factor in instigating, reinforcing, institutionalizing and perpetuating collective cultural consumer behaviors. It is entirely possible, I believe, that the history of this era will be described less in terms of the thoughts and actions of human leaders and political movements, but of the conversion and incorporation of human culture and consciousness as an consumer/destroyer of planet earth – and of efforts to intervene in that process.

      I resonate with the comparison to the spendthrift child of a billionaire, but the collective cultural aspects of the situation make it rather more difficult to “cut off” the spendthrift from its bank account. In this case, the spendthrifts include billions of people and multinational corporations, if not our governments.

      That said, we have created enormously complex cultural, economic, theological, technological and legal institutions and systems. It may take a lifetime to understand them (which may be a large part of our problem) and we can not wait to gain a consensus definition of the sources of the problem. We do, however, need to develop a consensus regarding some solutions.

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