Exploitation

Humankind has over many centuries been exploiting the Earth and its resources. It was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution some 200 years ago that the potential of the Earth's minerals began to be realised. Coal, the result of the decay of primaeval forests and laid down over many millions of years, was the main source of energy for the new industrial developments. Iron ore to make steel was mined in vastly increased quantities. The search for other metals such as zinc, copper and lead was intensified until today many millions of tonnes are mined each year. Around 1960, oil took over from coal as the dominant world source of energy; oil and gas between them now supply over twice the energy supplied by coal.

We have not only been exploiting the Earth's mineral resources. The Earth's biological resources have also been attacked. Forests have been cut down on a large scale to make room for agriculture and for human habitation. Tropical forests are a particularly valuable resource, important for maintaining the climate of tropical regions. They have also been estimated to contain perhaps half of all the Earth's biological species. Yet only about half of the mature tropical forests that existed a few hundred years ago still stand.4 At the present rate of destruction virtually all will be gone by the end of the twenty-first century.

Great benefits have come to humankind through the use of fossil fuels, minerals and other resources. Yet, much of this exploitation has been carried out with little or no thought as to whether this use of natural resources has been a responsible one. Early in the Industrial Revolution it seemed that resources were essentially limitless. Later on, as one source ran out others became available to more than take its place. Even now, for most minerals new sources are being found faster than present sources are being used. But the growth of use is such that this situation cannot continue. In many cases known reserves or even likely reserves will begin to run out during the next hundred or few hundred years. These resources have been laid down over many millions if not billions of years. Nature took about a million years to lay down the amount of fossil fuel that we now burn worldwide every year - and in doing so it seems that we are causing rapid change of the Earth's climate. Such a level of exploitation is clearly not in balance, not harmonious and not sustainable.

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