Common section

Chapter 16

An Appetite for Resources

In This Chapter

bulletChanging tastes and preferences

bulletMaking a culture — resource connection

bulletDeciphering the geography of supply and demand

bulletLooking at the advantages and disadvantages of different resources

P eople have an appetite for resources; and as their numbers grow, so does the cumulative thirst for Earth’s bounty. The global cornucopia is varied, however. Resources differ in their abundance and longevity — meaning that some exist in finite supply while others are eternal. Geographical considerations further complicate the picture. People in different parts of the world have different appetites for different resources that typically are available in some regions but not others.

Supply and demand for Earth’s resources is a geographically complex and fascinating story. The goal of this chapter is to touch upon and familiarize you with some of the key concepts of resource geography.

Energy resources serve as the focus of this chapter. This somewhat narrow perspective is certainly not intended to denigrate the importance of other kinds of resources, all of which lend character to different parts of the planet. Indeed, discussions of soil, fisheries, and forests appear in Chapters 7, 8, and 10 respectively. Likewise, much of Chapter 18 is devoted to consequences of resource utilization. For now, the key thing to remember is that resource entails a great many things that range from specific environmental items to the land itself. Energy resources, however, are of critical importance the world over, and embody the key concepts and challenges common to most resources.

Defining Resources and Assessing Their Importance


A natural resource is any physical environmental item that people perceive to be useful for their well-being. That’s a pretty broad definition, but an appropriate one. All kinds of environmental items are useful. Geographically, resources may be everywhere (air), pretty widespread (water), limited to relatively few areas (petroleum), or downright rare (diamonds). As the following sections will demonstrate, however, the geography of resources, as well as the wealth and power they provide, may have more to do with culture than the environmental items themselves.

The central role of culture

An energy crisis is currently underway. Fuel resources are becoming scarce, and demand for them is growing faster than new sources are becoming available. Prices are going up. People wish for self-sufficiency, but that is no longer possible. Increasingly, they must rely on fuel sources that are far away, under the control of somebody else, and require increasing amounts of time and money to procure. No immediate solution is in sight.

No, this is not about petroleum or the United States, but instead the firewood crisis in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries on that continent more than 75 percent of all energy consumption involves burning firewood, mainly for cooking and boiling water. Population is growing and with it the demand for firewood. But practically nowhere in the steppe and savanna realms, where scarcity of firewood is most acute, are there effective programs that plant or replant trees faster than they are cut. Woodlands that used to surround a village are gone, and therefore people must walk farther and farther to get what they need.

Resources are culturally determined. That is, whether or not a particular environmental item is useful depends on culture. Many Americans could care less about access to firewood, but they certainly do care about access to gasoline. Lots of Africans feel the exact opposite. Cultural difference, particularly as it relates to technology, is the principal explanation. American culture is inseparable from a wide range of machinery that runs on gasoline or oil — cars for transportation, tractors to help produce food, furnaces that heat buildings and homes, and so forth. Over large parts of Africa, however, none of these matter very much, but firewood sure does. The bottom line is that American culture is different than African culture, which are different than Asian culture, different than Eastern European culture, and so on and so on. What this means is that people from different cultures use and evaluate the environment differently.

Culture change, resource change

All cultures change over time. As they do, certain items of everyday use (horse-drawn buggies) may gradually disappear, while previously unknown items rise in importance (automobiles). Because resources are culturally defined, it stands to reason that culture change may result in resource change. Consider, for example, changes in energy resource consumption that have occurred in the United States (see Figure 16-1).

In 1850, 90 percent of the United States’ energy supply consisted of firewood. Virtually all of the remaining 10 percent came from coal. By 1910, however, those numbers were virtually reversed. About 78 percent of the country’s energy consumption was based on coal and about 7 percent on firewood. The remaining 15 percent came from formerly untapped or unused sources: oil (6 percent), natural gas (6 percent), and hydropower (3 percent).

By 1990, the picture had completely changed once again. Oil was now the most important commodity, accounting for about 39 percent of all energy consumption. The percent contribution of coal had shrunk to about 24 percent, while that of natural gas had risen to about 25 percent. The contribution of hydroelectric remained a fairly steady 4 percent. Finally, nuclear energy had come on the scene and was contributing about 8 percent to the national total while an old stalwart, firewood, had virtually dropped off the charts (though it remains important in home heating in a few states.)

These changes had nothing to do with depletion and discovery of resources, but a great deal to do with culture change. Thus, decreased use of wood over time is not explained by depletion of forests. In fact, more forest cover exists today in the contiguous 48 states than there has been for some time. Likewise, lack of reliance on oil and natural gas 150 years ago was not due to lack of these items or knowledge of their existence. Instead, there were limited means of putting them to productive use, and, therefore, they were in very limited demand.

But times change. Which is to say culture changed. And with it came a change in energy resource consumption as machinery was developed that made use of oil and gas instead of wood.

Resources and power


Fuel resources generate two kinds of power. On the one hand, they can be used to make heat that can be transformed into physical energy. In addition, resources may generate significant political and economic power for the countries that possess them.

Petroleum, for example, comes as close as any substance today to being the economic lifeblood of the global economy. Its geography is highly concentrated, however (as seen in Figure 16-2). The countries that border the Persian Gulf possess about half of all the world’s known petroleum reserves. Saudi Arabia alone possesses nearly 23 percent. Elsewhere, major reserves exist in Russia (13 percent of the world’s total), Venezuela (6 percent), and Mexico (4 percent). The United States possesses thousands of producing oil fields. Most are small, however, so overall it isn’t a leading center of reserves.

The essential fact is that few countries possess petroleum in great quantity. That virtually guarantees that those countries will enjoy substantial political and economic clout for as long as petroleum maintains its status as the most important energy source. This was vividly demonstrated in 1973 when, in the wake of an Arab-Israeli war, oil-producing nations in that region curtailed shipments to western countries. About 60 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves then came from countries that border the Persian Gulf. Much of it was exported to developed nations whose economies depended on it to different degrees. When the tap suddenly was turned off, everybody got a quick and unmistakable lesson in political petrol-power.

But that kind of power is obtained only when a particular resource is sorely needed by countries that either have none or not enough. We have seen that resources are culturally determined, and that culture change brings resource change. Accordingly, as resources rise and fall in importance, so do the economic and political power of the places that possess them. One hundred years ago, the countries that border the Persian Gulf were of little economic importance to the outside world. Times have changed. Today, virtually every country consumes petroleum, and the vast majority of them cannot satisfy their thirst by domestic production. So they rely for their economic lifeblood on foreign sources — the Persian Gulf nations in particular — who accordingly assume great power.

Resources and wealth

You may expect countries that possess lots of natural resources to be better off than those that don’t. For better or worse, however, it doesn’t always turn out that way by a long shot. In fact, some poor countries are rich in natural resources while some rich countries are poor in natural resources. This difference may occur for a number of reasons, perhaps the most important of which concerns the locations of people and facilities involved in the acquisition and processing of raw materials.


Turning to another resource for a moment, consider the geographical differences in employment and income that may occur when trees in “Country A” are cut down and sent to “Country B” for processing. Several people may be involved in harvesting the forest, from which timber is sent to a sawmill in “Country B.” Many more people may be employed at a sawmill, where raw logs are cut into pieces of lumber, than were employed back in the forest of “Country A” to cut the trees. Also, because the factory employees are skilled workers, they are likely to command higher salaries as well. Later, skilled craftspersons might take pieces of that lumber and make high-priced furniture. Finally, company executives negotiate sales and contracts with transportation firms, wholesalers and retailers concerning the final disposition of finished products.

Thus, a single log can generate income for several people. But the amount of income and the location of the beneficiaries varies. Generally, the person who cuts down the tree probably earns less than the sawmill worker, and so forth. Therefore, in this example, the exported log generates much more wealth where it is processed and made into finished products than where it was harvested.

Under these hypothetical conditions, therefore, “Country A” would realize comparatively little income or wealth from its natural resources, while “Country B” (which perhaps is resource-poor) would realize a great deal. Incidentally, a law in Indonesia prohibits exportation of raw logs. What may sound like a silly edict is in fact an effective means of helping that country to realize the full income potential of its forest resources.

Though this example concerns trees, other natural resources — mineral ores and crude oil, for example — may exhibit similar outcomes. Formerly, Persian Gulf oil was drilled by foreign-owned companies that set the prices, employed relatively few locals, and sent crude oil home for processing and refining, resulting in a finished product worth substantially more than what came out of the ground in the first place. Now, however, the producing countries have a much greater stake (if not outright ownership) in production and processing, and are realizing close to the full economic potential of their resource base.

Differing Life Spans: Which Resources Are Here Today or Gone Tomorrow

Resources have different life spans. Some exist in finite quantity; so when they are used up, they’re gone forever. Others can be replenished, as when seedlings are planted to replace a forest that was cut down. And some are virtually eternal (the sun, for example), meaning they’ll always be with us regardless of how humans use the environment. Consideration of energy resources that fall into the following categories provides insight into resource geography, the crux of the current energy situation, and the need for future planning.

Non-renewable resources

Non-renewable resources exist in finite (or fixed) quantity. You can think of them as coins in a global piggy bank from which money can only be extracted, not added. Once they have been used up, they are gone and cannot be renewed.


Perhaps the most important energy-related fact of life is that the United States and other developed countries are overwhelmingly dependent on non-renewable fuel sources. That includes petroleum, coal, and natural gas. These are sometimes called fossil fuels inasmuch as scientists believe that they are the result of long-term decay and metamorphosis of organic matter. Thus, even as I write this, nature is at work doing whatever it does to turn, say, today’s ocean bed into tomorrow’s oil field.

But that process takes millions of years, in contrast to humanity’s needs, which are exhausting the world’s oil inventory in a figurative blink of the eye. The world’s first commercial oil was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. Now, a mere century-and-a-half later, people are contemplating the end of the “petroleum era.” But I’m getting a little ahead of the story.


Next to air and water, petroleum is perhaps the most essential resource of the moment, at least as far as developed countries are concerned. Arguably it can be considered the lifeblood of the American economy, if not the American way of life. Skeptics need only imagine waking up one morning to discover that every car, truck, motorcycle, and internal combustion engine no longer functions for lack of gasoline.

Presently, global petroleum reserves stand at about 158 billion barrels (see Figure 16-2 for a look at the geography of petroleum), and are being consumed at a rate of 3.1 billion barrels per year. That means we currently have about a (158 ÷ 3.1 =) 51-year supply of oil.

In the years ahead, new petroleum deposits are likely to be discovered, but global demand for oil is also likely to rise. How this math will play out can’t be accurately determined at present, but clearly the days of the “petroleum era” are numbered. Obviously, if a replacement for petroleum is not found, its price will rise even further as reserves decline. As that occurs, the economic and political power of countries that possess it will continue to increase. On the other hand, growing scarcity is also likely to increase development of alternative sources of energy.


The world’s coal supply greatly surpasses petroleum in quantity and longevity. The estimated global coal reserve is in excess of 1 trillion metric tons while annual production is about 4.6 billion metric tons. That works out to nearly a 220-year global coal supply at the current rate of consumption. The United States possesses nearly 25 percent of all of the world’s known deposits, and at the current rate of production (mining) that will last for approximately 250 years.

If you’re thinking, “Gee, that’s terrific,” then you need to temper your optimism for two reasons. First, most coal burns dirty, so its use comes at the expense of air quality (see the “Grades of coal” sidebar later in the chapter). As a result, substantial research dollars are being spent to find ways to burn coal without polluting the air — such as by removing impurities before being burned or by developing smokestacks that are akin to giant filter cigarettes.

Second, coal is bulky and unwieldy. Although it can be crushed, mixed with water, and transported short distances by pipeline as slurry, you can’t send coal down a pipeline a long distance or pour it into a gas tank — although it would be a much more convenient and widely applicable if you could. Thus, considerable research has focused on coal liquefaction.

In any event, coal, like petroleum, is very unevenly spread across the planet (as shown in Figure 16-3). While substantial reserves are found in North America, Europe, and Asia, South America and Africa are largely without any. Thus it has limited geographic prospects. In addition, and as discussed in the sidebar, some coal reserves are much more valuable and useful than others.

Natural gas

Natural gas exists in abundance and, as far as fossil fuels go, has attractive qualities. It burns very cleanly (producing only the most modest air pollution), requires little or no processing before use, and can be transported cheaply and efficiently overland by pipeline. Its versatility is also a point in its favor. In addition to heating a majority of the homes in the United States, natural gas is used to generate electricity, provide energy for some kinds of light manufacturing, and power an increasing number of motor vehicles.

On the downside, natural gas is not well-suited for transoceanic trade. Pipelines of that length are not feasible. Shipping is possible when liquefied natural gas is involved, but that is not cost effective. Also, natural gas is, after all, a non-renewable resource, so someday supplies will be exhausted.

That is not going to happen anytime soon, however. Given current data on reserves and annual production, the world has about a 70-year supply of natural gas. But people who know the pertinent geology all suggest that vast quantities are waiting to be tapped in various parts of the world. The potential reserves of Alaska alone, for example, are thought to be double that of the rest of the United States.


Grades of coal

Coal exists in several varieties, or grades, the difference being determined by the degree of carbon content. Anthracite, the highest grade, is almost pure carbon and therefore burns very hot and gives off little smoke or soot. Bituminous, the next highest grade, has somewhat less carbon content and a higher percentage of waste materials. As a result, it burns less hot (but still hot enough for most industrial purposes) but dirtier, generating more pollution. Lignite and peat are progressively lower grades, burning even less hotly, while generating more air pollution.

In nature, sadly, the most pure form of any substance tends to occur in the smallest quantity. Thus, all global coal reserves considered, anthracite accounts for the smallest portion. Being so pure and burning so hot, it is also the most sought after variety. The end result is that that particular kind of coal is mostly depleted. Thus, the vast majority of the world’s remaining supply consists of “dirty varieties” whose consumption poses challenges to environmental quality.

A global map of natural gas reserves, therefore, must be presented with the warning that significant changes will be seen in a matter of decades (see Figure 16-4). For now, Russia is home to about 34 percent of all global natural gas reserves. Iran possesses another 15 percent. The United States possesses only about 3 percent of global reserves, but accounts for about 23 percent of annual worldwide production. Thus, the U.S. consumes its reserves at a rapid rate. As noted, however, the prospects for new discoveries are good.

However the map may change, the benefits of natural gas — like fossil fuels in general — will be unevenly distributed. Some areas are certain to have lots of it and others none. But as far as non-renewable resources are concerned, the future of natural gas probably burns brightest.

Applied Geography: The nuclear dilemma

The “dilemma” concerns three questions. Should more nuclear power plants be built? If so, then where? And where should we store the nuclear waste that we need to deal with in any event?

Nuclear power is a technologically sophisticated means of producing electricity. Specifically, a nuclear reaction induces rods of enriched uranium to produce high heat but also toxic radiation. This occurs in a heavily leaded nuclear reactor chamber that captures and contains the radiation even as it becomes very hot. To keep the chamber at a tolerable temperature, water must continually swirl around it. Steam is a by-product; and under pressure it may be used to turn a turbine (propeller) that operates a generator that produces electricity.

The United States is basically self-sufficient in uranium. Thus, proponents of nuclear energy see it as an important and under-utilized alternative to fossil fuels, and a way of diminishing our reliance on foreign sources of energy. The general public, however, is deeply concerned about the safety of these facilities (due in good measure to the Chernobyl disaster), so future construction is far from certain.

Two factors have historically guided the location of nuclear power plants: immediate access to a reliable water supply and proximity to users. Continuous water input is needed to guarantee continuous cooling of reactor chambers and with it continuous production of steam. Facilities therefore have tended to be located in coastal environments or along large rivers and lakes that have a history of not flooding. Proximity to users helps keep down costs of delivery and also conserve the electricity that has been produced. Not surprising, however, most people are reluctant to live close to one of these facilities. The dilemma, therefore, is trying to find locations that satisfy both the necessary water and the economics of proximity to large numbers of users.

The waste dilemma is perhaps even more daunting. After a certain period of use, the uranium rods lose their capacity to produce heat, yet continue to generate radiation at levels that may remain deadly for centuries. Finding a location or locations where this waste can be safely stored for a prolonged period of time is key.

Renewable resources


Renewable resources are ones that can be replenished and, therefore, are theoretically inexhaustible. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, trees are an example because they can be replanted. Another is biomass conversion, which is the processing of organic matter into combustible liquids or gases. These forms of energy are “renewable” because the organic matter used to produce them can be grown (replenished) on a continuous basis.

In Brazil, a country that is poor in fossil fuels, sugar cane is used to make alcohol that is mixed with petroleum to form gasohol. Millions of vehicles in that country run on this substance, which is only about 20 percent gasoline. Else-where, organic wastes are locally collected and fermented in a low-tech way that produces a methane biogas (gas) used for heating, cooking, and lighting. China and India, for example, have extensive national biogas programs.

Of particular relevance to this book is the fact that biomass conversion may potentially break the bonds of location. Fossil fuels exist in limited, specific locales. In contrast, the number and extent of regions that can and could grow, say, sugar cane or corn, in abundance for purposes of biomass conversion is robust. The Corn Belt across the United States Midwest, for example, may one day conceivably become the Fuel Belt, helping to break the dependence of a fuel-hungry world on those relatively few locations where fossil fuels are found.

Perennial resources


Perennial resources are theoretically eternal. While they offer great promise, all have current limitations that relate directly to geography. Here are four examples.

Solar energy

Although astronomers tell us the sun will eventually burn out, for all intents and purposes, it is an eternal, perennial source of power. Energy from the sun can be absorbed directly by solar panels and put to use for heating. Even better, however, are photovoltaic cells, which convert sunshine to an electrical current. The sun is fickle, however. Some days it shines and some days it does not, so a major engineering problem is how to store solar electricity from sunny days to carry us through cloudy days. Also, knowledge of climates informs us that solar intensity varies around the world (see Chapter 9).

Unfortunately, areas of maximum energy need often occur where the sun is comparatively weak (or often obscured) and vice versa. Thus, solar and other energy sources that possess a measure of unreliability probably should not be looked to as complete solutions to future energy needs. Better perhaps that we view them as parts of a resource menu from which different resources can be called upon as conditions permit.

Wind energy

Wind is physical energy that can be harnessed to produce electricity. This is achieved by constructing rather specialized windmills that are tall poles (or stanchions) fitted with a propeller (actually a turbine) at the top. When the wind blows, the propeller turns. This rotating motion is linked to and operates a generator that produces an electrical current.

Wind is a by-product of sunshine (see Chapter 9); and because solar energy is a perennial source of energy, wind power is categorized as the same. But like the sun, wind is fickle. Some days it blows and some days it doesn’t. Accordingly, for wind to become a major contributor to energy production, means must be found to store surplus wind-energy from windy days for consumption on calm days. Also, some places are inherently windier than others. Coastal areas, for example, tend to be particularly breezy because water and land absorb sunshine at different rates. Mountain and foothills areas also are especially favorable.

Given present technology, a single windmill provides sufficient energy for only a limited number of consumers. Hundreds would be needed to provide for the needs of a small city. And indeed, in some locales substantial real estate has been devoted to wind farms that are testing and applying large-scale feasibility of this energy type. Regardless of their success, these “farms” clearly represent a new addition to the cultural landscape (Figure 16-5).

Geothermal energy

In the opinion of some, we are virtually standing on top of all the energy we will ever need. That is a reference to the very high temperatures that exist within the Earth’s crust (see Chapter 6). Because this heat literally radiates from the Earth, scientists refer to it as geothermal energy.

Theoretically, all that is needed is to drill down to the level of very hot rock, inject water, and extract the resulting steam. This may be used directly to provide home heating and hot water. Under pressure, steam is also a physical force (witness the tiny whistling steam jet on your tea kettle, only imagine a huge one) that can be used to turn a turbine (propeller) that operates an electrical generator.

Geothermal energy is free and non-polluting. But a major impediment stands in the way of its widespread use — cost. In most places suitably hot rock is encountered about 2 to 3 miles beneath Earth’s surface. Drilling and operating steam-producing wells that deep would not be cost competitive with standard coal-fired plants. Some locations are exceptions, however. In lands near plate boundaries, the attendant fissures make it possible for interior heat to come close enough to the surface to allow for economical human exploitation. In Iceland, for example, nearly all home heating and hot water comes from geothermal energy. In parts of Northern California (and a few other locations worldwide), electricity is produced in this manner. In the future, geothermal energy may become generally available as a result of technological progress and the changing economics of energy production. For now however, its viability is governed largely by the geography of plate boundaries.

Hydroelectric power

Hydroelectric power (HEP) utilizes the movement of water on Earth’s surface to produce electricity. It is most often associated with a dam that is built across a fairly narrow valley, causing a river that runs through it to back up on the upstream side. Eventually, a reservoir rises to nearly the height of the dam (see Figure 16-6). Intake vents near the lake’s surface admit water that falls within large conduits, ultimately to strike turbine blades, which causes them to rotate at high speed and operate an electrical generator. HEP may be considered perennial because as long as the sun shines (practically eternity), water will be evaporated, fall to Earth as precipitation, collect in rivers, and be available for power production.

HEP supplies about a quarter of the world’s electricity. Not only is it a non-polluting energy source (nothing is burned), but the reservoirs may provide recreational opportunity, flood control, and water for people and agriculture. In addition, HEP projects may have important symbolic value. For example, China is presently engaged in construction of the giant Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. While the finished project will provide all of the benefits noted previously, the dam is perhaps even more important (to the Chinese at least) as a symbol of the nation’s emergence as a major world power and of the government’s ability to accomplish great deeds.

On the negative side, construction of HEP projects is expensive. Many millions (even billions) of dollars may be required before the first bit of electricity is produced. Indeed, this is doubly bad because the areas of greatest hydroelectric power potential includes countries in Africa and Southeast Asia that do not have the financial wherewithal to fund such projects.

HEP development has additional geographical constraints. Obviously, you can’t build a dam just anywhere. You need a river valley, and especially a narrow one for the simple reason that building across a narrow valley is cheaper than building across a wide one. Also, the eventual reservoir-related flooding upstream may cause serious displacement of people, agriculture, and transportation systems, all of which may occur at great cost.

Trading-off Resources: The Consequences of Resource Use

Further complicating resource geography is the fact that production and consumption of one natural resource may occur at the expense of another. The result may be deterioration of environmental conditions over specific geographic areas. Here are three examples from a wide range of possibilities:

bulletFossil fuels and air quality: Americans desire low-cost access to gasoline, which they consume in massive quantities. Americans also desire clean air. The atmosphere, unfortunately, is the gathering place of pollutants that result from gasoline consumption. As a result, urban areas in particular, with their high concentrations of motor vehicles, often suffer high levels of atmospheric pollutants.

bulletFossil fuels and land subsidence: Louisiana has the dubious distinction of being the only state that is measurably shrinking. The culprit is extraction of oil and natural gas in coastal parts of the state, which is causing the land to subside. As a result, coastal habitat and the land itself is being lost. Similar topographic events are occurring in other areas, though not necessarily with the same dramatic results.

bulletStrip mining and soil loss: In some areas large and valuable coal deposits are found just below Earth’s surface. The safest and most economical way to extract these resources is to strip away the overburden (the soil and rock between the surface and resource) and then dig up the coal. This process is called strip mining, and its by-product is a deeply scarred surface (see Figure 16-7).

Formerly, strip-mining companies were allowed to do their thing and move on without devoting any effort to repair the damage. Now, however, laws require major land reclamation. But even the best repair job cannot fully restore some lands to their former status. In a rather cruel twist of geography, some of the country’s most valuable coal reserves lie underneath some of the best Midwestern farmland. Fortunately, land reclamation has been fairly successful in that region, but full repair may take several years, and does not always result in land that is as productive as it was before. Some people question whether the trade-off of coal for soil is worth it.


The global appetite for resources, and particularly energy resources, is very uneven. The United States alone accounts for about 26 percent of global energy consumption despite being home to only about 4 percent of the world’s population. All of the countries of South America combined, in contrast, account for only 3.6 percent of global energy consumption, while those of Africa account for 2.6 percent (see Figure 16-8). Its economy and standard of living, as opposed to sheer number of people, explain the high consumption figure for the United States. Thus, it consumes 8 times as much energy annually than does India, which has more than 3 times as many people.

Some people ponder the ethics of so few Americans consuming so much of the world’s energy. But perhaps the more critical consideration is all of the countries and peoples around the world who are striving to raise their economies and living standards, and in so doing emulate American-style resource consumption. Assuming they meet with at least modest success, and adding the virtual certainty of global population increase, the signs point to a growing appetite for resources in the years ahead and growing strain on the natural environment to provide them.

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