6 of the Most Exploited Natural Resources on Earth
As countries search for more resources to exploit, an enormous toll is being taken on the planet.
For a 10-hour flight, a commercial plane burns about 36,000 gallons of oil.
Over the course of a day, the average US office building uses 22,000 gallons of water.
To build a single mile of highway in the US, you need 38,000 tons of “aggregate” — a material derived mostly from sand.
And that’s just the US, which, although it consumes an outsized share of the world’s resources, accounts for less than 5% of the global population.
Globally, natural resources are becoming more strained each year as more people enter the global middle class and demand a higher standard of living.
And as countries search for more resources to exploit, an enormous toll is being taken on the planet.
Here are six of the world’s resources that are being overexploited in ways that are dangerous to both the planet and humanity.
Concrete mixing truck. Photo: Flickr / Nadir Hashmi
Sand is used to form beaches and places for recreation. It’s used to make windowpanes, cell phone screens, and sunglasses. Concrete and asphalt both come from sand. And the industrial uses of sand — to fill holes, make molds, and create traction — are seemingly endless.
It’s the second-most exploited resource after water, and the world is running out of it.
Facing a shortage of sand, many countries — from the US to the United Arab Emirates — are dredging ocean bottoms for sand, nearly destroying aquatic ecosystems in the process.
As The New Yorker reports, “Seafloor dredging creates the undersea equivalent of choking sandstorms, killing organisms, destroying coral reefs and other habitats, and altering patterns of water circulation.”
Young girl collecting water at an internally displaced persons camp in Wau, South Sudan. UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis
Lakes, aquifers, and underground sources of water are generally replenishable through rain and the gradual filtering of water through natural ecosystems.
All around the world, however, water sources are being overexploited and polluted, forcing people to dig and search for new sources of water, import water from elsewhere, or buy bottled water.
More than half of the world’s major aquifers are receding.
In China, more than 80% of the country’s rural water wells are polluted.
Mexico City is literally sinking because it’s located on top of aquifers that are being sucked dry to feed demand.
Throughout the Middle East, severe droughts in recent years have created extreme water stress.
Coal mines outside of Samaca, Colombia. Photo taken as part of Development 360 project. Photo: Scott Wallace / World Bank
Since the start of 2015, the world has harvested more than 99 billion barrels of oil, nearly 25 billion tons of coal, and more than 10.6 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, according to an interactive graphic by The Guardian.
Fossil fuels supply the vast majority of the world’s energy demands and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
But the problems associated with fossil fuels are many. Most immediately, burning fossil fuels warms the planet and acidifies the oceans by releasing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions into the environment.
Burning fossil fuels also leads to air pollution, which kills an estimated 6.5 million people each year.
Palm oil harvester in Indonesia. Photo by Lucy McHugh/CIFOR
But it’s also causing enormous ecological harm in the countries where it’s harvested.
In Indonesia and Malaysia — the top two palm oil producing countries — palm oil cultivation is largely unregulated and is depleting tropical forests, which are important carbon sinks and habitats for endangered species.
Indonesia’s forests are more carbon-rich than the Amazon rainforest, yet palm oil companies are rapidly eliminating them, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. This includes draining and burning peatlands, which can hold up to 28 times as much carbon as forests.
In 2012, the country lost 804,000 hectares of forest, or 3,250 square miles, primarily through palm oil and other industries.
This is threatening already endangered species such as orangutans and elephants.
Forest fires, meanwhile, are becoming more severe in the country because of decapitated forests that in the past provided natural buffers through their thick and water-rich roots. In five months of 2015, forest fires in the country emitted more greenhouse gases than either Japan or Germany do in an entire year.
Stack of cut lumber. Madagascar. Photo: Yosef Hadar / World Bank
Trees provide many essential roles — creating and regulating ecosystems, providing food, filtering water, absorbing carbon, protecting people from droughts and extreme weather, mitigating floods, and many more.
Yet trees are under siege around the world. In the last century, more than half of the world’s rainforests have been cut down. Roughly 48 football fields worth of trees are lost each minute. And it’s estimated that up to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from chopping down or otherwise destroying trees.
Deforestation is driven by industries ranging from agriculture and livestock to real estate development and palm oil production.
Woman herds donkeys to collect water in Tanzania. Photo: Flickr / USAID
It can take more than a millennium to produce 1 centimeter of soil, yet humanity has degraded roughly a third of all the world’s soil, according to the UN, and half of all topsoil has been lost in the past 150 years.
The primary drivers of this loss include industrial pollution, erosion, bad agricultural practices, real estate development, salt-water contamination, and others.
For example, farming a single crop (monoculture farming) on a piece of land with the help of pesticides — the primary mode of farming in the world — has caused widespread soil degradation throughout the world.
Since 95% of the food that humans eat comes from soil, the continued degradation of soil poses an existential risk.
Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals, which call for the the sustainable use of natural resources. You can take action on this issue here.