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Sustainable resources are those resources that are replenished at a rate equal to, or greater than, the rate of consumption. This may be done either by natural processes, or by human-engineered methods, often mandated or at least promoted by a governmental body. It may also be considered a resource the use of which does not deplete its supply, such as is the case with wind energy.
Renewable and sustainable resources are not the same thing. Unlike a renewable resource, a sustainable one does not have to be replenished quickly, as long as it is consumed slowly. For example, if oil consumption dropped to a level that did not strain the world's supply, it would be considered sustainable, even though it is generally not considered to be a renewable resource. Such resources can be a product of consumption, replenishment, or a combination of both.
When it comes to the search for alternative sources of energy, sustainable sources have become a very important area of study. The world's preferred sources for energy are currently all based in fossil fuels: oil, coal and natural gas. These resources are typically not recharged at very fast rates and therefore are considered unsustainable. Once these are exhausted, supplies will take hundreds of thousands of years to rebuild, if they rebuild themselves at all.
In addition to the energy supply, sustainable resources also apply to many other facets of human life. Food production can be sustainable or non-sustainable, for example. Fisheries provide an illustration of this concept. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that of the 187 commercially valuable fish species it tracks, more than 40 were harvested beyond a point of sustainability. With the proper policies in place, however, fisheries can sustain themselves.
The same can hold true for other issues such as logging and deforestation. Trees can be replenished over time, but in order to ensure that, policies must be put into place regarding harvesting and replanting. Without those policies, it is possible that deforestation could quickly escalate to the point where wood, and other forest products, are no longer sustainable.
Consumers can also help promote practices that rely on sustainable resources by becoming informed about the products they purchase. While most have no choice as to where their energy comes from, they can make choices regarding the food they eat, the furniture they buy, and perhaps even the type of fuel their vehicles run on. For example, choosing ethanol, which comes from corn, sugar, or other agricultural products, promotes the use of renewable resources.
@ Babalaas - You make a good point about the sustainability of mineral resources, and you have an intriguing perspective on the role of sustainability in current events. This made me want to introduce a point to the discussion. The point that some of the most renewable resources we have are resources we have already mined. Almost all of the minerals that we take from the earth can be re-used, re-processed, and recycled. If humans are truly to be the world’s greatest species we have to outlive those great species that preceded us.
To do this we will have to manage all of our resources with impeccable precision. What good are our cities if we cannot build upon them in a
hundred years? What good is our technology if we cannot find the raw materials to make the components? What good is a civilization that cannot feed, protect, and coexist with itself? Maximizing the efficiency and output of all of our resources can mitigate many of our most pressing social issues to date.
In that sense sustainability is still a science of the theoretical. True sustainability is a work in progeress, and has not been achieved yet. For a resource to be sustainable it must be sourced from long-term reserves, used efficiently to its maximum potential, and discarded without causing more damage than can be repaired in the resources life cycle. This is why sustainability is becoming an interdisciplinary science that encompasses all of the most important aspects of the major sciences while trying to learn from the mistakes of society.
Other resources that people often forget to include as finite resources are mineral and metal resources. There is a limited amount of lead, bauxite, gold, silver, iron ore, and the likes buried in the ground for us to dig out. The Earth's geologic systems replenish these minerals over such a grand time period that they are non-renewable relative to the timeline of human development. Once these ores are mined out, they cannot be mined again.
Most new reserves of these resources are being found in areas where it is hard to mine, or there is regional instability. To find proof of this just look at a graph of the commodities prices for most goods over the past few decades. Prices
have risen as a product of supply and demand. Now when new reserves are found they make the news.
Take for example the news of mineral discoveries in Afghanistan. Nine years into the Afghanistan war a coalition of our nation's military and industrial forces have discovered almost a trillion dollars worth of minerals spread across the ravaged country. Our primary goal in Afghanistan was to show the world that the United States will not stand for terrorism; making the capture and/or killing of Osama Bin Laden priority number one. The primary discussion is the recovery of these valuable copper, iron, and lithium resources. Sadly the secondary topic of discussion is all of the troops that have died in the process of finding these deposits.
Ironically enough, we haven't found bin laden yet, and the blowback from the perceived shift of Afghanistan as a mission to secure Natural resources may create another 9/11. What can you do...it's the beauty, or curse, of the military industrial complex. I guess it just depends on your perspective. Ultimately the result will speak to the importance of examining the sustainability of all the resources we use.