Do natural resources exist?

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Do natural resources exist? Some claim otherwise. Another way of framing this question is this: do the things conventionally called "natural resources" deserve the label "natural"? And a related question: are resources conventionally not called "natural resources" possibly in fact natural?

This debate explores certain kinds of pseudo-arguments made by people who hold non-trivial positions in certain human institutions. The method employed in this debate is to respond to arguments made as if they were worth a serious answer, no matter how clearly false they may appear.

Natural resources exist[edit | edit source]

Pro[edit | edit source]

  • Argument for The natural resources of land (arable, for game hunting, for timber, for construction, for solar panels), water resources (lakes, rivers, underground water), fisheries, mined resources (gold, silver, metal ores), etc. clearly exist. They are resources -- things that can be put to various uses by humans, sometimes used up -- and they are natural in that they exist or existed before or without human intervention. One can see the importance of natural resources in single economic facts: what makes Dubai rich is not the ingenuity of its inhabitants but the natural resource of oil. Russian economy depends greatly not on Russian ingenuity but on the mined natural resources. The largely absent inhabitants of the Antarctic are absent not because of lack of ingenuity (there is enough ingenuity globally, and the continent is reachable) but because of the lack of natural resource of favorable climate. The low population density of Tibet is not because of the lack of ingenuity of the Chinese state but because of the harsh environment. Wars are fought not to acquire ingenuous and creative inhabitants of lands but over natural resources of lands, often on false pretexts. It was the sudden scarcity of the natural resource of oil in 1973 that created recession, high inflation, reduced productivity, and reduced economic growth; no such crisis is known from a sudden restriction on availability of ingenuity.
    • Objection Some resources considered "natural" do occur with human intervention, e.g. timber in artificially planted forests.
      • Objection The existence of "some resources" created with human intervention does not retract the truth that there are natural resources not created by this intervention, as per the argument.
      • Objection That only means that there are degrees of naturalness. Thus, iron ore is more natural than an artificially planted forest with artificial tree species composition. The conclusion that natural resources exist stands, whether fully natural or partially natural.

Con[edit | edit source]

  • Argument against 'Take the term “natural resources”. This phrase suggests that some things of value to human beings occur naturally – without any human effort or creativity. But that suggestion is wrong. Nothing is naturally a resource; nature alone invests nothing with resourcefulness; ultimately, resources – all resources – are created by human beings.'[1]
    • Objection Some things of value to human beings do occur naturally, e.g. water in water resources such as underground water or river.
  • Argument against 'Raw materials and human artifacts are made into resources only if, and only when, and only insofar as, human creativity figures out a way (or ways) to employ those materials and artifacts in ways that satisfy genuine human desires.'[1]
    • Objection What you are describing is the quality of "resourcefulness," conducive to the transformation of a resource from one form into another; it was a resource before the process and remains as such afterwards.
    • Objection A water resource such as a well can satisfy genuine human desire to drink and no creativity is required at all for water from that resource to serve the purpose. Similarly, very little creativity is required for a human to catch a fish from a river in which fish is abundant. Non-human primates can access and use natural resources without human creativity.
  • Argument against 'The human mind is the ultimate resource because it, and only it, creates all of the other economically valuable inputs that we call “resources.”'[2].
    • Objection Water resources are economically valuable inputs for drinking, irrigation and industry, but these inputs are not created by human mind. Metal ores are naturally occurring economically valuable inputs. Land before cultivation is a naturally occurring economically valuable input.
    • Objection What the argument seems to be trying to say, using misleading phrasing, is that a thing does not get the status of a resource unless there is some demand for it by humans. Thus, iron ore does not become a resource unless humans find use for it. An alternative phrasing would be that a thing does not become desirable unless someone desires it. However, that does not mean it is humans who create the thing to which humans confer the status of a desirable or a resource. Moreover, humans are not the only entities creating demand on resources: animals and plants confer the status of a resource to a water resource as well. And even if we accept for the sake of the argument that it is a human desire that creates e.g. river as a water resource, that does not make the river any less naturally occurring and thus natural resource. Importantly, this word game of using "creates" produces the absurd impression that human demand, instead of putting strain on resources (e.g. water resources and hunting game), actually creates them. To aid clear thought, this word game should be abandoned and clear, non-misleading wording should be used instead: humans, and also animals and plants, confer the status of a resource to a thing via demand but do not thereby create the thing.
  • Argument against 'In short, a material’s character as a resource is instilled in it by human ingenuity.'[2]
    • Objection A water resource such as a well is a resource not by human ingenuity but by human need or demand; it is something capable of satisfying a human need and often no ingenuity is required for that satisfaction to happen.
    • Objection Even if human ingenuity were in fact required for each use of a resource, that would not make the thing any less of a resource, and for some resources, naturally occurring one. The need of ingenuity would not make the natural resource any less scarce either. Thus, let us image that each human who wants to use a well as a source of water first needs to solve a puzzle, using their ingenuity. Even so, the water resource is finite and at the risk of running out if too many humans use their puzzle-solving ingenuity to use the resource.
  • Argument against 'Not until about 10,000 years ago did some creative individuals figure out how to cultivate land for agricultural purposes. Only then did land become a resource.'[2]
    • Objection Land was a resource before agriculture, to walk on, sleep on, to hunt animals on, to gather fruits and nuts, etc. Before agriculture, land with water resources and huntable game (specific natural resources found in or on land) was a more valuable resource than desert.
  • Argument against 'For one, everything we need is mixed up with a lot of stuff that we don’t.'[3]
    • Objection Water in water resources is not mixed up with anything. The above applies e.g. to iron ores, not to everything we need.
    • Objection Even if we suppose that to be true for the sake of the argument (which it is not), that does not diminish the natural resource status. Thus, iron ore is a resource that is natural and exists.
  • Argument against 'There are no “natural” resources. Everything nature gives us is wrong somehow. Through effort and ingenuity we make natural materials and energy into what we need.'[3]
    • Objection Effort is required for use of any resource, whether natural or not. Thus, cooked food requires effort to bring it to the mouth, which does not diminish its being a resource. A tractor for agriculture requires a driver's effort to operate it but it is still a resource, even if not a natural one. A resource is fully natural if it was not made or shaped by humans, e.g. a water resource such as river or iron ore, and such resources do exist.
    • Objection As for "Everything nature gives us is wrong somehow": forest fruits to be picked and eaten are not "wrong somehow"; water from a spring of potable water to be drinked from hands is not "wrong somehow"; sunlight in a mild climate warming the body is not "wrong somehow"; etc.
  • Argument against "Natural resources do not exist independent of man and are not materials we simply find and then exploit like buried treasure. On the contrary, they are created by mankind."[4]
    • Objection Multiple objections from above apply. (The above is here for documentation of how widespread these ideas are rather than as a truly additional argument.)
  • Argument against "Actually, natural resources do not exist at all. All resources are manmade. Something is not a resource until it can accomplish a human purpose. Before Benjamin Silliman, Jr., a Yale University chemist, discovered in 1855 that kerosene (a better illuminant than whale oil) could be distilled from crude oil, oil was not a resource. It was black gunk that ruined farmland and had to be removed at great expense. [...] People don’t deplete resources. They create them.[5]
    • Objection Multiple objections from above apply. (The above is here for documentation of how widespread these ideas are rather than as a truly additional argument.)

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 There Are No ‘natural’ Resources, Only Raw Materials – ALL Resources Are Created Through Human Effort by Mark J. Perry, 2013, -- quoting Don Boudreaux
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 There Are No Natural Resources by Donald J. Boudreaux, 2018,
  3. 3.0 3.1 There are no natural resources by Jason Crawford, 2017,
  4. Sustainable Development: Common Sense or Nonsense on Stilts? by Jerry Taylor, 1998, Foundation for Economic Education,
  5. The International Population Stabilization and Reproductive Health Act (S. 1029) by Sheldon L. Richman, 1995,

Further reading[edit | edit source]