limits to the use of resources

The resources provided by the Earth and its environments underpin our economy; without these resources the activities that make up our economy can't happen. The ability of the Earth to provide these resources for us to use in our economy is limited; the nature of this limitation depends on the type of resource.


There are three broad types of resources :

  • finite resources

and two types of renewable resources:

  • extrinsically renewed resources
  • intrinsically renewed resources.


Finite resources are resources that, once used, cannot be replaced, so their use is never sustainable. Some finite resources exist in very large quantities, which give us the false idea that we can use them endlessly.


Extrinsically renewed resources are renewed from a source outside of themselves. They are only ever available at a limited rate. Their use may be sustainable, as long as we don't rely on using them at more than their limited rate of generation.  In many cases, extrinsically renewed resources generate continuously and a reserve builds up.  Built-up reserves of an extrinsically renewed resource may give us a false idea that we can use it at a greater rate than we really can in the long term.


Intrinsically renewed resources regrow from within themselves, from their own stock.  We can take and use their growth but we can't take the stock resource. Their use may be sustainable, as long as we don't use the stock resource. The stock resource is identical to the usable growth, which may give us a false idea that we are not using the stock resource, because we can't tell them apart.


Renewable resources are like an investment account in a bank: if an investment account is drawn down slowly enough, it will last forever; if it is drawn down quickly, it will be gone almost straight away.


We are currently using the resources of the Earth at one-and-a-half times the sustainable rate. This is happening because, for finite resources, we are using them up too quickly, for extrinsically renewed resources we are using up built-up reserves, and for intrinsically renewed resources we are using up the stock resource. None of these uses can continue indefinitely; that is, none of these uses is sustainable, and they will not be sustained – the resources will be depleted.

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