Natural Resource Depletion

The age of hunter-gatherers is long behind us now. We can go to the supermarket for food, buy comfort products, and live more luxuriously than most of our ancestors did. But it comes at a cost. The products that fuel our lifestyle are all sourced and produced from minerals and resources that come from the Earth. While the revolutionary process of extracting, producing, and creating products has advanced our lives, the ones truly paying the cost are the environment and future generations. We'll explore why this is a cost and how we can remedy this in the present -- before it's too late.     

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Table of contents

    Natural Resource Depletion Definition

    Natural resources are found on the Earth and used for an array of human needs. Renewable resources like air, water, and soil help us grow crops and keep us hydrated. Nonrenewable resources like fossil fuels and other extractable minerals are used to make products and commodities which contribute to our day-to-day life. While renewable resources can be replenished, there is a finite amount of nonrenewable resources.

    Due to a limited amount of nonrenewable resources, there is a growing concern for natural resource depletion. Because natural resources are essential for the world's economy and the functioning of society, the rapid depletion of natural resources is highly concerning. Natural resource depletion occurs when resources are taken from the environment quicker than they are replenished. This problem is further amplified by global population increases and consequent increasing resource needs.

    Causes of Natural Resource Depletion

    Causes of natural resource depletion include consumption habits, population growth, industrialization, climate change, and pollution.


    Consumption habits and population sizes differ by country, region, and city. The way people live, transport themselves, and shop affects which natural resources are used. The electronics we buy and cars we drive require minerals like lithium and iron which are primarily sourced from the environment.

    Higher-income countries such as the US have remarkably higher material and ecological footprints.1 This is due to the wide availability of many products in the US market, larger homes that require energy, and higher car dependency than in European countries. Coupled with population increases, more people are competing for the same materials.

    The material footprint refers to how much raw material is needed for consumption.

    The ecological footprint is the amount of biological resources (land and water) and generated waste a population produces.

    Natural Resource Depletion World Map by Ecological Footprint Causes of Natural Resource Depletion StudySmarterFig. 1 - World map by ecological footprint, calculated by the effect population has on land


    Industrialization requires large amounts of natural resource extraction and processing. For economic growth, many countries depend on industrialization, making it a key part of development. While Western countries experienced major industrial periods at the end of the 19th century, Southeast Asia only began industrializing after the 1960s.2 This means there has been ongoing intensive resource extraction for over a century.

    Currently, Southeast Asia has a large amount of industrial and manufacturing plants that create products for the global market. In combination with population increases, the region has experienced major economic developments. This means more people can buy homes, vehicles, and products than they could before. However, this has also rapidly increased natural resource use.1

    Climate Change

    Climate change is causing natural resource depletion through increased extreme weather events. These weather events include droughts, floods, and forest fires that deplete natural resources.


    Pollution contaminates air, water, and soil resources, making them unfit for human or animal use. This reduces the amount of resources that can be used, putting greater pressure on other resources.

    Natural Resource Depletion Effects

    As the supply of natural resources decreases while demand increases, several effects are felt at economic, social, and environmental levels.

    As the prices of resources increase, the cost of creating products or providing services could also increase. For instance, a decrease in fossil fuel supplies would lead to increases in fuel costs. This affects households, businesses, and the overall economy, increasing the cost of living. As resources become scarce, conflict between countries and regions could occur which could escalate globally.

    Natural Resource Depletion Climate Change Feedback Cycles Natural Resource Depletion Effects StudySmarterFig. 2 - Climate change feedback cycles

    Depleting resources damages the environment, disrupting ecosystem balance and functions. While climate change is a cause of natural resource depletion, it's also an effect. This is due to positive feedback loops that are created in the environment. For instance, introducing carbon into the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning can lead to further natural resource loss by triggering extreme weather trends which create droughts, wildfires, and floods.

    Positive feedback loops are one way of understanding the effects of natural resource depletion. In reality, there is still a lot of uncertainty about exactly how humans are affected. Through extinctions and habitat destruction, most of the burden has been put on ecosystems and wildlife.

    Examples of Natural Resource Depletion

    There are some notable examples of natural resource depletion in the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil and in the Florida Everglades.

    The Amazon

    The Amazon Rainforest has seen rapid deforestation in the last century. The Amazon contains the majority of tropical rainforest in the world. The forest contains high biodiversity and contributes to global water and carbon cycles.

    Brazil has set out to "conquer" the rainforest and contribute to the agricultural economy. In 1964, the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) was created by Brazil's government to accomplish this goal. Since then, farmers, ranchers, and laborers have poured into the Amazon to extract lumber, acquire cheap land, and grow crops. This has come at a great expense to the environment, with 27% of the Amazon deforested so far.4

    Natural Resource Depletion The Amazon Rainforest Examples of Natural Resource Depletion StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Amazon Rainforest

    Rapid deforestation is causing changes in the climate already. The growing absence of trees is linked to the frequency of droughts and floods. With no changes to the rate of deforestation, there is concern that losing the Amazon could trigger other climate events.

    Carbon sinks are environments that naturally absorb a lot of carbon from the atmosphere. The main carbon sinks in the world are oceans, soils, and forests. The ocean has algae that absorb around a quarter of the atmosphere's additional carbon. Trees and plants trap carbon to create oxygen. While carbon sinks are essential for balancing greater carbon emissions into the atmosphere, they are being compromised due to deforestation and pollution.


    The Everglades is a tropical wetland in Florida, with one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. After driving out Indigenous groups from the area in the 19th century, Florida settlers sought to drain the Everglades for agriculture and urban development. Within a century, half the original Everglades had been drained and converted to other uses. The effects of the drainage have heavily affected local ecosystems.

    It wasn't until the 1960s that conservation groups began to sound the alarms on the climate effects of losing the Everglades. A major portion of the Everglades is now a national park, as well as a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance.

    Natural Resource Depletion Solutions

    Humans have a wide range of tools to prevent further resource depletion and conserve what remains.

    Sustainable Development Policies

    Sustainable development aims to fulfill the needs of current populations without compromising the needs of future populations. Sustainable development policies are a collection of guidelines and principles that can guide sustainable development in resource use. This can include conservation efforts, technological advancements, and curbing consumption habits.

    The UN's Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 "ensures sustainable consumption and production patterns" and outlines which areas are using higher rates of resources.1 Despite high resource consumption worldwide, resource efficiency has progressed this SDG goal further than others.

    Resource Efficiency

    Resource efficiency can take many different forms. Some have proposed a circular economy where resources are shared, re-used, and recycled until they are unusable. This is in contrast to a linear economy, which takes resources that make products that end up as waste. Many of our cars and electronics are built to last a few years until they begin breaking down. In the circular economy, the focus is put on longevity and efficiency.

    Natural Resource Depletion - Key takeaways

    • Natural resource depletion occurs when resources are taken from the environment faster than they are replenished.
    • Causes of natural resource depletion include population growth, consumer habits, industrialization, climate change, and pollution.
    • The effects of natural resource depletion include increased costs, ecosystem dysfunction, and further climate change.
    • Some solutions to natural resource depletion include sustainable development policies and energy efficiency with a focus on a circular economy.


    1. United Nations. SDG 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
    2. Nawaz, M. A., Azam, A., Bhatti, M. A. Natural Resources Depletion and Economic Growth: Evidence from ASEAN Countries. Pakistan Journal of Economic Studies. 2019. 2(2), 155-172.
    3. Fig. 2, Climate Change Feedback Cycles (, by Luke Kemp, Chi Xu, Joanna Depledge, Kristie L. Ebi, Goodwin Gibbins, Timothy A. Kohler, Johan Rockström, Marten Scheffer, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Will Steffen, and Timothy M. Lenton (, licensed by CC-BY-4.0 (
    4. Sandy, M. "The Amazon Rainforest is Nearly Gone."
    5. Fig. 3, Amazon Rainforest (, by Aymatth2 (, licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Natural Resource Depletion

    What is natural resource depletion?

    Natural resource depletion occurs when resources are taken from the environment faster than they are replenished. 

    What causes Natural Resource Depletion?

    Causes of natural resource depletion include population growth, consumer habits, industrialization, climate change, and pollution. 

    How does Natural Resource Depletion affect us?

    Natural resource depletion affects us at economic, social, and environmental levels. Resource prices could increase which could lead to tensions between countries. Further, stripping natural resources disrupts ecosystems and jeopardizes the environmental balances that we depend on.

    How to prevent Natural Resource Depletion?

    We can prevent natural resource depletion through sustainable development policies and greater resource efficiency. 

    How can we stop Natural Resource Depletion?

    We can stop natural resource depletion by reconsidering our linear economy in favor of a circular one. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    While renewable resources can be replenished, there is a finite amount of nonrenewable resources.

    What is natural resource depletion?

    Higher-income countries such as the US have remarkably higher material and ecological footprints.


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