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Use versus sustainability: the misuse of our natural resources

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In this chapter:

  • The current levels of human consumption of natural resources are unsustainable for the future
  • The Earth's resources are often damaged by pollution
  • Although farming is necessary, it has played a massive role in the pollution of the air, water and soil
  • Humans are beginning to turn to organic farming as a way to ensure the protection of the environment


Many people do not realise how much they consume natural resources in their everyday life. Oil, for example, is a non-renewable resource (cannot be replenished in a short period of time). Oil is used not only in the fuel which people need to drive their cars but also in synthetic clothing fibres, cosmetics, fertilisers and in the production of electricity. Humans need to consume natural resources to live. Consumption only becomes a problem when people use more resources than the Earth has to offer and do not give it the time or the opportunity to replenish itself.

The current state

The use of the Earth's natural resources has increased substantially in the last 50 years. As the population grows and there are more people to consume more resources, the environment is being put under extreme pressure. Current levels of global consumption are unsustainable, that is, they will not be able to continue to provide for today's population and  future generations. People are using more resources than the Earth can provide and are not giving the planet the chance to renew itself. This is particularly evident in the case of oil. For every four barrels of oil which are consumed, only one barrel of oil is being discovered. At this rate, it is expected that oil reserves will be exhausted in 80 years.

The Earth's natural resources are often damaged by pollution. Pollution is caused by harmful waste being released into the environment. While the environment can be polluted through natural events such as volcanic eruptions, humans are creating more waste than ever before. In factories, for every one kilogram of goods which are produced, five kilograms of waste are created.

Pollution can occur in a number of ways and affect the environment differently. Pollution which has been caused by humans include smog, acid rain, litter and oil spills. Oil spills, for example, are usually caused by oil rig and tanker accidents. These spills are not only dangerous for humans, but are responsible for the death of  marine animals every year.

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Effects of farming on our natural resources

The overuse and exploitation of the world's natural resources is having a devastating effect on all aspects of the environment and also on the population. This is especially the case for people in poor countries who cannot afford to improve their circumstances. Many people are not aware that farming can have a negative impact on the environment, but there are many ways in which agriculture places demands on natural resources.

In the last century, a large proportion of land was put under increasing strain due to agricultural practices. While crops provide food staples, farming can lead to the poisoning of soil through the increasing trend of monoculture (farming one crop over a large area) which requires the use of chemical products such as fertilisers and pesticides. Soil usually takes between 100 and 2500 years to replace, so once it has been poisoned it is unable to be utilised to its full potential for a long period of time. The same chemical products can also run off into lakes and rivers, polluting the waterways.

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Farming requires large amounts of fresh water. Many parts of the world do not receive enough natural rainfall to water their crops and so they have to rely on irrigation (large-scale watering using equipment such as sprinklers). Irrigation of land over time leads to salinity, which is the existence of salt in soil, rocks, or water. An excess of salinity can result in degradation of soil and vegetation. At the moment, salinity affects around 12 percent of irrigated land worldwide and this percentage is increasing.

Crop farming is the cause of almost 35 percent of the world's forests being destroyed. Deforestation can result in excessive erosion and the loss of biodiversity (the variety of living things and their habitats).

While plants absorb carbon when they are alive, farming can in fact contribute to the greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) in the atmosphere. About 50 percent of global methane gas emissions in Asia come from rotting plants in irrigated rice fields. Excessive ploughing also causes oxygen to be stirred into the soil and carbon to be released from the soil, which releases carbon dioxide into the air.

All of these factors play a role in damaging the delicate balance of the ecosystem (interactions of humans, plants and animals with the physical environment). Fortunately, more people are realising this and there is  now a move towards organic farming. Organic farming does not use any poisonous chemicals as it places an emphasis on sustaining the environment by maintaining rich soil and assisting natural biodiversity. In countries such as Australia, the government is also encouraging organic farming by providing these farmers with a certificate to authenticate their produce as 'organic.'

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1. For every one barrel of oil which is discovered, how many barrel/s are consumed?






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