More nonfuel mineral resources have been consumed worldwide during the half century since the end of World War II than during all preceding human history (Wellmer & Kursten, 1992). Whether this should be considered overutilization can be debated because estimates of remaining reserves are crude and have tended to increase along with consumption (Hodges, 1995). However, it seems clear that a rapidly accelerating rate of consumption cannot continue indefinitely, although projected population growth and the industrialization of developing countries suggest that it is expected to do so.
The nonsustainable harvesting of forests and forest products is symptomatic of the more general problem of treating many natural resources as if the supply were unlimited and thereby risking depletion. Some natural resources, like fossil fuels, exist in finite, albeit unknown, quantity and do not replenish themselves on a time scale relevant to near-future generations. Others renew themselves at least under favorable conditions. Resources of the latter type presumably can be used indefinitely, provided the level of ongoing use is not so high as to disturb the renewal process.
A prime example of a renewable source of food is fish. Until fairly recently, this source was viewed as essentially inexhaustible; the worldwide catch was constrained only by the size of the global fishing fleet. We now know that the supply is exhaustible, and that some species currently are in danger of being fished to extinction (McGinn, 1998). In addition to overfishing, pollution, especially of coastal areas, contributes to dwindling populations of many species of fish. Roughly half of the species in American and European waters for which assessments have been made have been classified as overutilized. Although sustainable harvesting of fish and other marine resources is seen to be an attainable goal from a technological point of view, achieving it will require the resolution of nontrivial political issues (Rosenberg, Fogarty, Sissenwine, Beddington, & Shepherd, 1993).
MacNeill (1989) noted that most developing countries as well as parts of many industrialized countries have resource-based economies, which is to say economies are based on their stocks of environmental resources, and that the poorer countries have been depleting this capital over the recent past. The obstacles to sustainable economic development, MacNeill argued, are primarily social, institutional, and political. Many of the agricultural practices most destructive of the environment are direct consequences of governmental policies that provide incentives for such practices (e.g., clearing of forests, planting of marginal lands, excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, and of water in inefficient irrigation systems).
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