Natural elements become critical resources

August 19, 2019

Globally, land is an increasingly critical resource. A rising number of people is at high risk of running out of water and clean air is becoming a pressing issue for multiple countries. The natural elements that we’ve taken for granted in our modern, industrialized society are at risk. As the aerial, aquatic and terrestrial portions of earth’s biosphere are being exploited, the basic support for human and ecosystem life is threatened and demands a different approach than the one we took with critical natural resources such as oil or rare earth metals.  

Our observations

  • The term “critical” is added to natural resources increasingly often, resulting from growing awareness of global trends, such as population growth, increased consumption, and pollution.
  • Earth Overshoot Day marks the day that the planet’s annual “budget” for natural resources such as soil, water and clean air is used up. This year’s Overshoot Day, on 29 July, marked the earliest one to date since this day began to be recorded. This current trend means that humanity is consuming the resources of 1.7 Earths in one year.
  • New data from the World Resource Institute show that a quarter of the world’s population is at high risk of running out of water. The United Nations world water development report 2019 shows that, if the degradation of the natural environment and the unsustainable pressure on global water resources continues at current rates, 45% of global Gross Domestic Product and 40% of global grain production will be at risk by 2050. Poor and marginalized populations will be disproportionately affected, further exacerbating already rising inequalities. Furthermore, in an increasingly globalized world, the impact of water-related decisions crosses borders and affects everyone.
  • A recent IPCC report claims that land is a critical resource. The report defines land as the terrestrial portion of the biosphere providing the principal basis for human life, including the supply of food, fresh water and multiple other ecosystem services, as well as biodiversity. The report especially explores the interlinkages between climate change and land usage. Human use directly affects more than 70% of the global, ice-free land surface. Since the pre-industrial period, air temperature over landhas risen nearly twice as much as the global average temperature. Climate change has increased food insecurity and negatively affected ecosystems, and led to desertification and land degradation. When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon, thus exacerbating climate change.
  • Worldwide, air pollution is responsible for more deaths than many better-known risk factors such as malnutrition, alcohol use, and physical inactivity, according to the annual State of Global Air 2019 Report. Worldwide, air pollution reduced life expectancy by an average of 20 months in 2017. Lost life rises to over two years and six months for children born in South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan), where air pollution is worst. The analysis found that China and India together were responsible for over half of all total global attributable deaths, with both countries facing over 1.2 million early deaths from all air pollution in 2017.

Connecting the dots

Two decades ago, literature and media were replete with stories about peak oil, the daunting scenario of running out of a critical resource. Today, the topic is largely forgotten, in part due to shale oil, and we read more about “peak oil demand”. Currently, a lot of attention goes to rare earth metals. Amid the increasing trade war tensions between the U.S. and China, the Chinese government is considering restricting its export of rare-earth minerals: 17 metals that are difficult and expensive to extract. As China controls the major share of the planet’s rare-earth production capacity, which is integral to smart phones, satellites, etc., this has been given a lot of attention. Indeed, oil and rare earth metals are critical resources for our modern industrialized society. However, over the last months, many alarming reports have informed us about a new class of critical resources. Traditional natural elements such as land, water and air are now increasingly being framed as such. For instance, in its latest report the internationally accepted authority on climate change, the IPCC, calls land a “critical resource”. Nevertheless, land, water and air resources are of a different order than oil and other well-recognized critical resources. Four characteristics of these resources make the question of dealing with them more urgent and complex.

First is the substitutability of (most) natural resources. Oil, for instance, can be replaced by natural gas, electricity or hydrogen in cars. Fresh water, clean air or fertile soil are examples of non-substitutable resources. They support all human and ecosystem life. Although there is no global standard, the term “critical” often refers to threats to national economies, while “strategic” relates almost exclusively to military and defense needs. The increasing scarcity of natural resources such as land, water and air is thus not only threatening our national economies, but the very foundation to our living.

Second, and this ties in with the first point, while oil and rare earth metal resources are not directly related, there is an interconnectedness in land, water, air resources. These strong interdependencies between these resources are increasingly being explored. For instance, the “water-energy-food nexus” concept recognizes that water, energy, food and other land-based resources form a complex web in which resource use and availability rely heavily on one another. This makes the management of such resources even more urgent.

Third, while climate change does not affect oil and rare earth metal reserves, is a decisive factor in the availability of land, water and air. In the case of land, the recent IPCC report details how climate change is turning arable land to desert, degrading soil, increasing the risk of droughts and floods and the occurrence of extreme weather events that can damage crops, thus threatening food and water supplies for humans. In the case of water, as the effects of climate change intensify, stress levels will continue to rise. Air pollution and climate change are also closely related. As well as driving climate change, the main cause of CO2 emissions – the extraction and burning of fossil fuels – is also a major source of air pollutants. The impact of climate change will further put stress on the world’s natural resources.

Finally, while the direct consequences of mining for rare earth metals or drilling for oil are geographically limited, the exploitation of land and water and the pollution of air have cross-border effects. One currently often–debated topic is the plastic problem. Plastic pollution is affecting drinking water, as microplastics have been found in 90% of bottled water all over the world; plastic pollution knows no boundaries. Another currently hotly debated issue is the Amazon forest. Brazilian leader Bolsonaro has told the world that the forest belongs to Brazil. However, a disappearing rainforest would directly hurt the seven other countries with which Brazil shares the river basin and would risk extinction of 10-15% of the world’s terrestrial species. Moreover, the Amazon rainforest forms a buffer against climate change. It presents a clear case of a natural critical resource that has international value but of which “ownership” is disputed. Another example of the cross-border effects of climate change is that the depletion of water and other natural resources is increasingly recognized as a driver of displacement, triggering internal and international migration. As the complexity and urgency of the decrease of land, water and air show, these critical natural resources increasingly need global governance and cooperation in order to safeguard the basic foundation of living in all countries.


  • As land is becoming a critical resource, the restoration of degraded land, as done by Commonland, will see momentum.
  • The World Resource Institute recommends several steps to tackle the global risk of running out of water, including investing in more efficient infrastructure and reforming the agricultural system to prioritize more efficient use of water. Desalination of water is still an environmentally-unfriendly practice, but reuse of water is more promising.
  • China has made initial progress fighting air pollution and is beginning to achieve declines.
  • As agriculture is a big driver of land and water use and a major CO2 polluter, solutions for more sustainable and efficient resource use are crucial in this domain. Innovations include production of food based on sustainable intensification, biodiversity-based agriculture, new ways to tackle food waste, climate–smart agriculture, precision agriculture, etc.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
Read the article
2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
Read the article
3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
Read the article
4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
Read the article
5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
Read the article
6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
Read the article

About the author(s)

Researcher Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.

You may also like