SECTION THREE: RESOURCE PROBLEMS
One: The Depletion of Non-Renewable Resources
Many of Earth’s resources are renewable. Fresh water flows into the sea and evaporates into rainwater; animals feed on plants and inhale oxygen, while plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Nature maintains a cycle. Both water and plants can be regenerated. Animals can be regenerated as well, and so can wind energy, solar energy, hydroelectric energy, and other energies. Even though humans overuse these renewable resources, they can be restored after a period of recuperation. Even animals and plants can recover as long as we do not kill them all. That is the characteristic of renewable resources.
Not all resources function like this. Substances like coal, oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels—as well as natural materials like gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, graphite, mica, and crystal—cannot be regenerated. These resources are called non-renewable resources.
The fear of resource depletion has existed for a long time, but it used to be limited to individual or regional resources. The general sense of resource crisis has only hit human society in the past century.
Since the Industrial Revolution, skyrocketing industrial production and the rapid rise of cities has increased the demand on non-renewable resources. Iron and steel smelting requires the burning of wood or charcoal; the increased demand of steel after the Industrial Revolution caused many forests to be cut down until the growth of forests could no longer keep up with the demand of the steel industry. At that time, the mountains near British steel plants were razed bald, prompting the British government to encourage coal usage instead. As the Industrial Revolution spread from Britain to the Americas and other parts of Europe, coal consumption increased dramatically.
The large-scale use of oil came much later. Crude oil was first successfully drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, but it was not viewed as a serious resource. At that time, oil was mainly used to extract kerosene for lighting, and gasoline was discarded as a useless by-product. With the widespread use of petrol engines, diesel engines, and cars in the early twentieth century, oil underwent substantial change. Gasoline and diesel became the main products of oil. At the same time, the demand for oil increased dramatically, until it replaced coal as the most important fuel.
The crisis of oil resource depletion arose shortly after the widespread use of oil. Exploration of oil reserves indicated that it could not meet the rapid growth in oil demand. In the 1920s, it was estimated that the world’s total oil reserve would only last for another twenty years; however, it was later discovered that the actual oil reserve was more than people estimated, and oil did not dry up in the 1940s.
After World War II, large oil fields were discovered in the Middle East— enough to meet the needs of human use for a limited time. That time was estimated to be around thirty years. Although thirty years have passed without the exhaustion of oil, oil depletion and energy depletion in general have become major concerns around the world. Oil is particularly indispensable to our lives, and it has become a necessary guarantee for a country’s economic growth.
As the global economy continues to expand and the global population continues to grow, the rate of non-renewable resource consumption has also increased. The rational and controlled use of non-renewable resources has become an important global agenda. Resources like oil have become strategic materials to major powers and are regarded as a matter of national security.
How long can non-renewable resources last us? Many organizations around the world have dedicated in-depth and detailed study into this issue, and a variety of different research results have been produced. After consolidating these results, a relatively optimistic estimate assesses non-renewable resources in the following way:
Earth’s oil can only meet usage demands for less than 130 more years. Verified reserves of other resources show that: coal will last 210 years; natural gas 170 years; iron 154 years; aluminum 215 years; copper 41 years; lead 40 years; mercury 36 years; nickel 44 years; tin 30 years; phosphate 90 years; and salt 300 years.
The above assessment data is certainly not 100 percent accurate, but it reflects an accurate conclusion—if the current trend of development is maintained, the earth’s non-renewable resources will face general depletion in less than two hundred years.
My personal view is a bit more optimistic. Many metal and non-metallic materials can be recycled, and as recycling technology improves, the use of resources will undoubtedly be extended. On the subject of oil, natural asphalt can also be used for oil refining as an alternative to crude oil. In recent years, the United States has made major technological breakthroughs in oil shale mining and refining, and China has made breakthroughs in combustible ice mining as well. These will all extend the years of the use of oil. In addition, there are lots of untapped resources on Earth that may exceed our imagination. That is why I believe resources will not be exhausted for a long time, especially metal and non-metallic materials.
Nevertheless, even the most optimistic view is not long-term. Oil, coal, natural gas, and other fuels cannot last more than a few centuries (and most people think this is too optimistic of an estimate), according to current consumption rates. What will our descendants do in a few hundred years?
Coal was formed when ancient plants were buried underground and underwent ground pressure and geothermal reaction; oil and natural gas were generated similarly when ancient marine life was buried under the sea. The formation of all these resources took millions of years, and Earth’s current resource reserve was built up over a period of billions of years. It has been mere centuries since we have mastered the use and mining of such resources, yet we have depleted them considerably. How will we account to future generations?
People have only come up with two answers: First, scientific progress could come up with alternative products, like nuclear energy and synthetic materials. Second, new technology could enable mining and resource extraction from extraterrestrial planets.
It is argued here that the two above “solutions” are just excuses for the unregulated exploitation of non-renewable resources. Firstly, many resources cannot be completely replaced; some of their traits may be replaced by alter- natives, but it is impossible to replicate them entirely. Secondly, before technology reaches an ideal level, the use of alternative products will increase cost exponentially. Thirdly, it may take a long time before the mining of extraterrestrial resources is advanced enough to provide for humans. If we blindly used Earth’s resources based on a mere fantasy and deplete all of Earth’s reserves before accomplishing extraterrestrial extraction, human civilization will suffer critically. Moreover, if Earth’s resources can be depleted by industrialized humans in a matter of centuries, how long would the surrounding planets last us? The solar system only has four solid rock planets. Earth is the largest, and Mercury and Venus’ surface temperatures make landing impossible. The only planet that we could use is Mars, and it is only one-tenth the size of Earth. Our satellite moon is even smaller.
Two: Water Scarcity
Water is the source of life; life cannot exist without water. The earth has a huge amount of water—about 1.4 billion cubic kilometers. However, only 2.7 percent of this massive water reserve is fresh water—only about thirty- eight million cubic kilometers. Moreover, most of Earth’s fresh water exists in the form of ice in glaciers, which account for over 77.44 percent of all fresh water. The Antarctic continent and the Arctic Greenland account for 97 percent of all glacier water; the Antarctic continental ice shelf has an average thickness of 1,700 meters, with the thickest parts reaching 4,000 meters. After glacier storage, groundwater accounts for 22.01 percent of freshwater; the remaining 0.55 percent of fresh water exists in rivers, lakes, the soil, and the atmosphere.
Rivers, freshwater lakes, shallow groundwater, soil water, and small amounts of brackish water are the relatively easy to use water resources that humans depend on, but they are a very small portion of the global water reserve. Total global water evaporation is equal to total global precipitation, measuring about 500,000 cubic kilometers per year; 430,000 cubic kilo- meters of ocean water is evaporated every year, 390,000 cubic kilometers precipitates back into the ocean, and 40,000 cubic kilometers is transported to land. Land water evaporation is about 70,000 cubic kilometers, while the precipitation is 110,000 cubic kilometers. The net precipitation amount is provided by ocean water evaporation.
The annual net precipitation of land water is allocated as follows: 28,000 cubic kilometers flow into the ocean, 5,000 cubic kilometers flow through no man’s land, and only 7,000 cubic kilometers can be used by humans. Due to the large number of human water conservancy constructions in the past decades, reservoirs control 2,000 cubic kilometers of water, making the yearly amount of water available for human use 9,000 cubic kilometers. This figure is 0.00064 percent of the total water reserve of Earth, and 0.024 percent of global fresh water reserve.
According to the data, in a moderately developed country, every person requires 350–450 cubic meters of water annually; thus, it is estimated that Earth’s fresh water can support twenty to twenty-five billion people; however, that is not the case. The seven billion people on Earth today constantly feel the pressure of water shortage. According to data released by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), nearly nine hundred million people worldwide cannot obtain safe drinking water, and the deterioration of water quality has seriously affected the ecological environment and human health. More than 2.5 billion people live in environments without basic sanitation facilities. In addition, an estimated 1.5 million children under the age of five lose their lives annually due to unsafe drinking water, unsafe sanitation, or unsafe personal hygiene. The number of people who die from water pollution every year surpasses the total number of people who die from violent conflicts.
The reasons for water shortage can be summarized into the following aspects:
First, the distribution of water resources is uneven. Some countries and regions have abundant water resources, while others are severely lacking. For example, the per capita annual freshwater of Canada is 92,000 cubic meters. The Republic of Congo has a population of less than three million and an abundance of rivers—including the large-flow Congo River—allowing its inhabitants to enjoy an annual per capita freshwater amount of 291,000 cubic meters—first in the world. In contrast, the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East only has 71 cubic meters of per capita freshwater annually, making it the world’s most water-scarce country. Kuwait has basically no fresh water resource of its own.
The distribution of freshwater in the same country is often uneven as well. The annual per capita freshwater of China is 2,200 cubic meters, making it a rather water-poor country to begin with. However, the annual per capita freshwater of the northern regions is only 25 percent of the southern region. The capital, Beijing, has less than 300 cubic meters of freshwater per capita annually; that’s less than some of the dry countries in the Middle East and by the Sahara Desert.
Second, water pollution renders some water unusable. Water pollution can be caused by industrial pollution, agricultural pollution, and domestic pollution. Among them, industrial pollution is the most serious. At present, more than four hundred billion tons of sewage is discharged annually, resulting in more than five thousand billion tons of water being polluted.
Third, water resources are often managed poorly and unreasonably. The low utilization rate and poor management of agricultural irrigation have the most serious impact on water resources. Agricultural irrigation water accounts for about 85 percent of total global water use.
Fourth, the increase in global population is the leading cause of water scarcity. Since the Industrial Revolution, improvements in medical technology have increased population growth at an unprecedented rate. In the past century, the demand for food in China and India alone has increased five times, thoroughly overwhelming world water resources.
Fifth, global warming has led to changes in the global ecology. Global warming causes the world climate to be generally arid while melting glaciers; the El Niño and La Nina phenomena further reduce usable freshwater. Not only do seasonal rainstorms and floods not produce usable water, but they also lead to many disasters.
Water shortage has become a worldwide problem, and the UN has held many meetings to discuss the problem. On January 18, 1993, the 47th session of the UN General Assembly denoted March 22 as “World Water Day.” The United Nations and many countries around the world have taken numerous measures to solve the water scarcity problem, but no remarkable results have been achieved yet.
Desertification refers to land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and sub-humid arid areas due to climate variability and human activities, as well as other causes. Desertification renders land unsuitable for the growth of crops and other plants. Land desertification, salinization, and other land degradation phenomena are all part of desertification.
Desertification is a historic issue. We can see from satellite photos and spacecraft overviews of Earth that the ancient breeding grounds of human civilization are the most serious desertification areas. The Mesopotamian plain between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, the Nile River in Egypt, the Ganges River in India, and the Yellow River Basin in China are all such areas. However, desertification has never been as serious as it is today. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 35 percent of global land area has been, and is expected to be, affected by desertification. Desertification has claimed 55 percent of the land in Africa, 19 percent in North America and Central America, 10 percent in South America, 34 percent in Asia, 75 percent in Australia, and 2 percent in Europe. Desertification is a serious threat to the survival and development of mankind, especially in developing countries.
There are three main causes of desertification: First is wind erosion, or wind-driven soil erosion phenomenon. The second is water erosion, which happens when water drives soil erosion. In these circumstances, loose soil caused by reduced vegetation will be washed away by rain, thinning the soil layer and decreasing the fertility of the land. The third is soil salinization, which occurs when moisture evaporates in arid and semi-arid low-lying areas where groundwater is shallow, causing salt to precipitate until the soil achieves salinization.
Earth’s soil is formed over years of precipitation from rock weathering and organic matter. One centimeter of cultivatable land requires twenty to one thousand years of precipitation; however, about twenty-five billion tons of soil is washed away by rain every year, and the desertification and salinization of land upsets the balance between soil “production” and human and natural destruction of land; thus, global land acreage is increasingly unable to meet the needs of human survival.
The reasons for desertification can be traced to humanity’s unrestrained demand on the earth. Many forests were cut down to make room for agricultural farming, resulting in serious soil erosion. At present, about thirteen million hectares of forest are transferred to other uses or disappear from natural causes every year—larger than the land area of Ireland.
The destruction of grasslands is just as bad, mainly in two respects. First, many grasslands are converted to farmland; second, many existing grasslands are overgrazed and degraded. Analysis shows that the destruction of forests and grasslands and the extent of desertification in developing countries are much higher than those of developed countries.
Land salinization is most serious in India, China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. As a result of the surge in population and the reduction in per capita land area, these countries have had to over-cultivate existing land and use fertilizers and pesticides on land that is not suitable for cultivation. After two or three decades of this type of farming, the land inevitably reaches salinization and can no longer be used.
The rise in global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions is also an important cause of desertification. The rise of global temperatures will lead to two kinds of climate phenomena: global drought, and seasonal rains and floods. Global droughts increase the salinization and wind erosion of land, while seasonal rains and floods increase soil erosion. Both of these climate phenomena lead to land desertification.
Desertification is directly endangering more than 110 countries from all over the world. The threat it poses to the survival and happiness of mankind can be imagined. The seriousness of this problem has aroused the concern and attention of the international community. The United Nations has exerted considerable effort in this regard and has formed the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.
Regrettably, the issue of desertification has not been mitigated by the efforts of the international community so far. Since the signing of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the involved parties have been convening every two years to facilitate the implementation of the Convention. However, the Convention encounters much difficulty, especially in regard to the fulfillment of funds and establishment of corresponding mechanisms. In fact, global efforts on combating desertification have not made substantial progress to this day.