Natural resources must be used for many reasons. When you wake up in the morning, you benefit from natural resources that power the alarm clock, lights, refrigerator and water heater. Getting to school, you use natural resources in the fuel used for the train, bus, car, or if you walk, the manufacturing of your shoes! Natural resources were used to make the streets, buildings, stoplights, telephone poles and sewer systems. More resources are used within the school to keep the heat on (or the air conditioner) and to provide students with pens, pencils and paper.
The most important natural resources are the ones that give us usable energy. At every step along the way of anything we do, energy is used. Even if it’s energy that we provide, we still need food in order to provide that energy; food needs to be grown, transported and prepared, which all requires energy. Energy is produced at power plants that can use a variety of fuels: diesel, wood, natural gas, oil, coal, nuclear fuel, the sun (solar), naturally running water (hydroelectric), wind, or even heated water from inside the Earth. That energy is transformed into electricity, which is then often transformed into other forms of energy. Sometimes, the energy is used directly, such as on cars and buses; the engine of a car is actually a small power plant!
All natural energy resources can be grouped as either renewable or non-renewable. Renewable resources are resources like solar power, hydroelectric power or wind power, because they are constantly being produced. These resources only run out when the sun runs out of fuel – not for another few billion years. Non-renewable resources take longer to make more of than they take to use: for example, it takes just minutes to use up a gallon of gasoline, but it takes the Earth millions of years to turn fossils into oil which is transformed into gasoline. The most famous of the non-renewable resources are fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas.
Once we use up fossil fuels, nuclear fuels and other forms of energy, we have to do something with the waste that is left behind. There are more natural resources than the ones that produce energy; the water that we and other organisms drink, the land that all living things live in and on, and the air that we all breathe are considered natural resources (or natural capital). When we use anything up, there is always waste involved. Sometimes that waste is heat, sometimes it’s carbon dioxide, but more often than not, it’s simply known as “trash.” It’s very convenient to think that when you are done drinking a soda pop, you can just throw the bottle away and it’s gone. The truth is very different. If you recycle the empty bottle, it gets trucked to a recycling center where it gets chopped up into very small pieces that are used to make new plastic items.
On the other hand, if you just throw it into the trash, then it usually gets trucked to a landfill. A landfill is a big, plastic-lined hole in the ground where trash is stored. When it gets full, a plastic cover is placed on the top, and the garbage is sealed up. Soil is usually placed on top of that landfill in order to hide the trash, but it’s still there. Sometimes, the plastic doesn’t even make it into the landfill, and instead gets carried out to a river, lake or stream. Eventually, all water leads to an ocean, so the plastic bottle could end up in the ocean, where it gets broken down into small pieces. Fish and other animals (like birds) eat the small pieces of plastic (that are often too small to see).
As our population grows, more and more trash is being thrown away, polluting our water, air and land. But pollution isn’t the only problem: when there are more people, then more resources are needed. More people need more land, more energy and more clean water. Urban growth refers to patterns that cities follow when they get bigger. Cities interrupt ecosystems because they are bright, noisy and big. Even an average-sized city like Cleveland is visible at night for dozens of miles around because of light pollution. Streetlights, highways, and tall buildings all contribute to a glow that changes the behavior of birds, insects and even some mammals.
Urban centers (cities) are the center of our highest growing populations of humans. In fact, human population is growing so quickly, it is considered to be at an exponential growth rate. This means that human population isn’t just growing; this means that every year, the population grows faster. There are about 6 billion people on Earth, and if current growth rates continue, we will have 9 billion people on Earth by 2050, or by the time that you are in your 50’s! Imagine if all of our problems, including global warming, were multiplied by one and a half times. There is already evidence that the average temperature of Earth is increasing due to an increase in carbon dioxide and other gases that we put into the atmosphere. What would happen if that not only kept happening, but happened at a much faster rate?