Resource Management 2

The nature of resource problems: exploitation, sustainability, solutions

By Dr J Floor Anthoni (2001)

 economics of exploitation Our drive to overexploit comes from our ability to do so, and the imperatives of doing so economically and efficiently. By knowing the economics of natural exploitation, which governs the interaction between populations, sustainability can be understood and practised.
sustainability The world has evolved with exploitation as a main mechanism controlling populations. Mankind is no exception, but because it has the technology to control nature, has escaped some laws of nature. Rules of resource sustainability. Rights are serious obstacles.
problems and solutions Humans are the very cause of their problems. They have created the capability to exceed natural limitations. Beyond the stabilising influence of natural control, environmental problems emerge, which beg for solutions. By knowing the accelerating and mitigating factors, problems can be solved at several levels.

go to contents index  <==> go to part3
back to the conservation index page <==> go to principles of conservation <==> go to biodiversity

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Economics of exploitation

When applying economic principles to exploitation, a clear picture emerges of what happens between populations, feeding from each other. The findings are so universal that they apply to substances as far apart as soil, grass, sheep, dolphin, human, and business. Take some time to completely understand what is discussed here. Read the ecology section for more detail.

economies of exploitation

The six graphs shown above, are perhaps the most important ones on this web site, so it pays to take time to understand what they say. Graph A shows the growth of a population, which is not unlike that of a single individual. Horizontally the time in years; vertically the population biomass. The red curve shows a population growing, first slowly but accelerating at an explosive rate (exponential growth), which turns into decreasing growth as the population reaches its maximum, limited by the carrying capacity of its environment. By example, also a slow growing population (green) and a fast growing one (purple) are shown. The staircase graph shows growth as if it happened stepwise, from year to year. Where the curve is steepest (in the middle), biomass increases most rapidly. Please note at this point, that these are idealised theoretical curves. In practice they are influenced by the vagaries of climate, natural disasters and disease. The top of the curve, reaching saturation, is particularly idealised.

Graph B shows the same process, only now growth in biomass is plotted horizontally, showing again, that around the middle (half biomass), replenishment is fastest. The important conclusion is now, that if the amount of biomass harvested stays within the red curve (to the left of it), a state of balance will be reached, which is called sustainability. That balance can only just be achieved all along the red line; at the bottom with a minimum biomass and catch; at the top with a maximum of biomass and minimum catch; or in the middle with half the biomass and maximum catch. Fisheries managers refer to this point as Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), because that is exactly what it is, in the idealised situation.

However, the curve in the middle is rather flat, such that above and below it, MSY is not much less. Yet, by limiting the biomass to no less than 70% of maximum, one can have both MSY and an amount of precaution. The reason fisheries do not do this, is partly greed, and partly because fish stocks (biomass) are very difficult to assess, and because fishermen move from one stock to the next.

Since biomass, when eaten, converts to energy, which is spent to eat more food, the amount of effort to catch food, can be plotted in the same diagram (blue line, graph B). What the line says, is that more food can be obtained if more effort to catch it, is spent. It also says that in order to survive, one must catch more energy than one expends, which is the area between the blue line and the red curve. Shown in graph C, it has a profit side (blue) which turns into a loss side (red), because the prey becomes harder to catch as their numbers dwindle. Natural predators (in general any exploiter) have evolved to function in the survival blue area, before its peak, in such a way that spending extra effort is rewarded generously. Now don't forget that the blue line is not that of one predator, but that of a population of predators. So it includes both their population size and their cumulative effort. It can now be seen, that predation stabilises both the prey population and the predator population.

First it must be noted that each predator has specialised in its kind of prey, not because of preference, but because it has evolved to do so, for economic reasons. A predator able to live off a fast growing prey population, would be ill equipped to live off a slow growing population. Watch how the blue line won't intersect the green dotted curve. A large predator would waste too much energy catching small prey, but apparent exceptions exist (whales have the 'technology' to fish small prey efficiently).

Graph D takes graph C and turns it around, but remember that the left side of the diagram corresponds to maximum biomass (full), and the right side to minimum biomass (empty). We can now compare various kinds of predator, and their effects. A shark is a cold blooded animal, and a very efficient swimmer. Because of its energy efficiency, a shark can live off a large range of prey, including slow growing species. Watch how the shark line intersects both the red and the purple curves economically.

By comparison, graph E shows that of a dolphin. It is warm blooded, and spends an enormous amount of energy when it doesn't hunt. Its energy expenditure curve therefore, starts way up the vertical axis. If it had the same catching efficiency as the shark (dotted blue line), it would not be able to feed on the red population, requiring faster growing stock instead (purple population). Fortunately, it has developed the technology of sonar, which gives it an advantage over the shark, pulling its energy curve flatter. Because of this advantage, the dolphin can now feed on the red stock.

When it comes to humans, the situation is totally out of proportion. Instead of energy along the vertical axis, we now have money. People are silly enough to pay many times the energy value of their food. It allows fishermen to spend massive amounts of fossil fuel to chase the last fish. Their fishing technology is so superb that it lays the blue effort line almost flat, and although their boats are expensive, the line does not start high up the vertical axis like it does for dolphins. Subsidies lower it too. So people are able to fish a stock down, without any natural stabilisation occurring. To make matters worse, as the fish becomes rare, their price goes up, which lifts the red curve up towards the right. So, for the fisherman, fishing has become 'economic' until the fish stock is depleted so much, that recovery becomes doubtful. Herein lies the tragedy of present-day overfishing.

snapper depetion and priceThe diagram on right illustrates typically what happens to a fishery, in this case the snapper fishery in Franklin County (USA). The blue line shows how, after a period of fluctuating returns (possibly caused by extinguishing several fish stocks) around 1968, the stock was suddenly fished down. But as the catches declined, the price went up. In the end, fishermen made more money out of the depleted stock than before. The green dotted line shows how price soared ten-fold in 30 years.

It can now also be understood that subsidies have the effect of drawing the blue effort line further down, thereby making the situation worse. Many other problems can be understood from the economics of populations, as discussed here: growing crops, grazing, disease epidemics, disease control, etc. Use this as a tool to further your understanding of a resource and its problems.

Fisheries management world-wide has failed, because:

Other environmental problems manifest themselves from our peculiar way of fishing: See also the section on fishing on this web site.



The word sustainability has been abused in too many conflicting ways, both by greenies and capitalists. In this chapter we'll carefully explore its many aspects.
sustainability: (L: sub=before/ under; tenere= to hold) the ability to support for a long time period; endurance; the ability to keep going continuously. Resource sustainability  means to be able to use the resource forever, without depletion, or causing harmful effects.
When environmentalists speak about sustainability, they envisage a world unchanged by our actions.
When politicians talk about sustainability, they mean staying in power.
When fishermen or businessmen talk about sustainability, they imply the ability to continue their business, by making profits. They talk about the sustainability of extraction.
When the United Nations talks about sustainability, they mean sustainable development, which means how to exploit more for more people, while causing less damage. Development and growth are by themselves unsustainable concepts.
So whenever one discusses sustainability, one should first of all ask: sustainability of what?
resource sustainability
Society has never really asked whether extraction of a resource is sustainable. Take for instance fossil fuel. We know that it is not self-renewing, and thus unsustainable. Not only does it run out at some time soon (40-50 years for oil?), but the mining and use of it have proved to cause serious environmental problems as well.
Yet, is society prepared to halt it? Would society have chosen not to mine it, had these problems been known in advance? Not likely. The benefits from fossil fuel are just too large. It would thus be fair to say that the mining of any resource balances on these factors:
What is not measured is not managed - conservation principle
Serious obstacles to conservation
The summary above shows that resources need careful consideration, something the general public should have a say in. However, in the course of human history we have placed some serious obstacles in its way, discussed in more detail below:
  • human rights: human rights demand compensation for confiscated property.
  • business rights: businesses have been given human rights.
  • traditional rights: if humans or businesses have been doing something for some time, it becomes a right.
  • mining rights: owners and communities have no rights over the minerals below their properties (in some countries).
  • open access rights: nations have taken tribal rights away, so that people cannot control their local resources.
  • fishing rights: if a nation does not fish its resource to the maximum, other nations can come in (law of the sea).
  • trading rights: free trade cannot be obstructed by resource or environmental protection (WTO).
  • armed services: army, navy and airforce often remain exempt from environmental laws or resource controls.
In order to protect the dignity of people, human rights have been enshrined in nations' constitutions, the superior law that stands above all others. One of the human rights is that nothing that belongs to him, can be taken away without due process or compensation. It gives people the reassurance that they and their belongings are safe within their homes. However, the right is also exercised in rather unhealthy ways. People who (often illegally and stupidly) built houses on the edge of the sea, want to be compensated for damage caused by the sea. When their actions are shown to be harmful to the environment, and such actions are limited by law, they seek compensation.

Businesses (corporations) or Limited Liability Companies were once created to limit the undertakings of a business in such a way that its owners or offspring could not be held responsible (for bankruptcy and debt, e.g.). In doing so, businesses were given human rights as well, in all practical sense being the same as a person in legal matters. As a result, human rights have become business rights, resulting in claims for compensation for loss of property of opportunity by laws, even if those laws limited their wrongdoings! As businesses grew into global corporations, they became powerful enough to ignore or bend conservation laws and human rights.

Because people have been doing something for some time, they feel it their traditional right to keep doing so. Many native peoples (Indians, Maori, etc.) insist that they should be allowed to continue their ways, even if those ways are detrimental to the environment or to others. Curtailment of traditional rights often requires society to compensate generously.

In order to encourage prospecting for minerals and mining for them, governments have given miners draconian mining rights to do whatever they like, to the detriment of local land owners and communities.

Part of the path to nationhood took the right of tribes away to manage their resources themselves. In its place came a system of open access, giving everyone the right to exploit what once belonged to a community. The tragedy of open access to fisheries is now too well known. The open oceans are still a free-for-all, including their minerals. Who gets there first, obtains the right. Where open access was managed with quotas, a new form of rights crept in, inviting for compensation claims, when such rights are being curtailed to save the fishery.

As nations wanted to have a say about their fishing resources, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) were created along the borders of all sea nations. In these zones, fishing is restricted so that nations have exclusive fishing rights. This gave them a better chance to manage their fish stocks. However, a clause in the UNCLOS agreement remains that if a nation does not fish its resources to the (sustainable?) maximum, other nations have the right to do so for them. Fishermen now use this clause to get their way, to obstruct conservation measures and to claim compensation for such.

Trading agreements such as the WTO (World Trade Organisation), and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) aim to encourage free trade 'for the benefit of nations', but such trade agreements can cynically be regarded as a (rich country's) means of securing access to (poor countries') resources, at rock-bottom prices. Any measure for environmental or resource conservation can now be interpreted as unlawful obstruction of 'free trade', and can be challenged in a secret trade tribunal whose decision is binding. We've created an overruling regulatory authority which is not accountable, non-democratic, and whose officers  are not elected!

The above-mentioned obstacles to resource and environmental conservation cannot be underestimated, as judged by the many lawsuits and the huge claims awarded. Here are some recent examples:


SACRAMENTO, California, September 7, 2001 (ENS) - Corporations are using new rights and privileges granted under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to challenge a variety of national, state and local policies and decisions, a new report has found.  The report, "NAFTA Investor to State Cases: Bankrupting Democracy," documents the track record of cases brought under NAFTA's investment chapter, which granted expansive new rights and privileges to foreign investors operating in the three NAFTA signatory nations: Mexico, Canada and the United States. State lawmakers joined Public Citizen in releasing the report in Sacramento on Tuesday. 

Since NAFTA was implemented in 1994, corporate investors in all three countries have used these new investor rights to challenge a variety of national, state and local policies and decisions. Corporations claim that these governmental regulatory policies are "tantamount to" an expropriation of private property and therefore they deserve compensation from the taxpayers of the country in which they are investing. 

Of the 15 cases reviewed in the report, companies have claimed more than $13 billion in compensation for actions that many consider to be normal regulatory activity.  "U.S. law does not allow companies to seek compensation for the cost of complying with government health and environmental regulations," said Mike Dolan, deputy director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. "U.S. companies can't appeal jury verdicts, state or U.S. Supreme Court decisions to a secret trade tribunal to escape liability. There is no U.S. law providing corporations with legal powers to attack public services to garner a larger share of the market, but that is what foreign corporations are doing under NAFTA." 

One of the best known NAFTA cases involves the state of California. Methanex Corporation of Canada has filed a NAFTA case for $1 billion over California's decision to phase out the gasoline additive MTBE (Methyl tertiary-butyl ether used in high octane gasoline), which has contaminated drinking water supplies across the nation.  "Methanex company is attempting to hold taxpayers hostage to the tune of nearly $1 billion, or 1.2 percent of our state budget, because we had the nerve to ban a product that was contaminating water supplies all over the state," said Martin Wagner of Earthjustice, who has attempted to intervene in this NAFTA suit on behalf of California environmentalists. "This is not what California was promised when NAFTA passed." 
From Environmental News Service:

A widespread sense of frustration with the present status of fisheries and fishery management is causing fishery stakeholders on all sides of the table to turn to the courts to settle their differences. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Regulatory Flexibility Act and other statutes provide for judicial review of agency decisions and  include citizen suits as a tool. Litigation can be a powerful motivator for problem solving and an effective tool in protecting the public trust. But is it being overused? The National Marine Fisheries Service is now faced with an unprecedented number of lawsuits. What are the costs and benefits of resolving fishery conflicts through federal courts? 

The use of litigation as a tool of fishery interest group politics is increasing. It is used to challenge the completeness of analysis, the quality of analysis, or the legitimacy of management decisions. Litigation moves the decision arena from the regional fishery management council system to the courts. It benefits those who prevail in the courts and may sometimes lead to improvements in the management system. But litigation also produces an array of costs that are borne by the fishery management system.

Litigation challenging NMFS' fishery management actions has increased steadily the past few years, to the point that members of the public, and even some agency employees, complain that lawyers, courts, and judges are now the fishery managers. While it is true that there are benefits to litigation, it is also true that the costs of litigation are great. 

National Fisheries Conservation Centre, USA:

As resource management and environmental protection are cast in law, the courts take over, and discretion, common sense and fairness are lost. The huge costs of litigation is eventually borne by the public in the form of higher prices, while at the same time, conservation takes a back seat. Let's nonetheless look at problems and how we solve them. for the metals and minerals markets, but you have to pay a LOT for access. Information is money.

Problems and their solutions

Resources all have their peculiar problems, but underlying them all is that they are caused by humans. In this chapter, we'll investigate how this happens and where solutions can be found.

Acknowledging a problem is half the way to its solution.
Problems cannot be solved without being strictly honest.

world of plenty and scarcityEnvironmental problems are not entirely new, but whenever they occur, one can be sure that they have in one way or another, been caused by people. But why is it that they have become pressing only recently? The answer is quite simple. Look at the diagram. It shows two situations, that of a world of plenty, less than a century ago, and that of a world of scarcity today. In the distant past, the amount of the biosphere used by people, was negligible to the total amount available. There seemed to be so much remaining. But nowadays, many scientists agree that we have already overstepped the halfway point. So doubling our use of the biosphere will no longer be possible. And as the remaining part of it (used by 10 million other species) becomes smaller, the ecoservices they provide, such as cleaning up after us, become less, and thus our problems worse. The mathematics of scarcity are scary, predicting an infinity of problems at infinite cost (like run-away global warming).

problems getting worseIn the near future (and perhaps forever), we can expect our problems to get worse in the following ways:

The reasons we will experience these problems as more complicated, can be explained as follows: To make matters worse, our main tool, science is reaching some limits too. It takes longer to acquire, becomes more expensive, more complicated, less certain, survives for a shorter period, and is more difficult to pass on. See science&technology for more detail. Environmental problems have their origin in the inventions we collectively call progress.

stable and unstable resource extractionThis drawing shows how resource extraction has changed from our distant past to that of today. The lefthand diagram shows a family or tribe going fishing to feed themselves. It was a stable form of extraction, involving negative feedback: by eating the fish, the motivation to fish (hunger) disappeared. However, a slight positive feedback induced the population to grow. Eventually such growth led to overpopulation and natural population crashes. Their cycle is about 500-1000 years.

In modern times, however, families and tribes are fishing for money. All feedback loops have become strongly positive, leading to explosive exploitation. Success in fishing brought in money, which motivated more fishing for more money. In the process, many others joined in. Collapse happens in a matter of years or decades, rather than centuries. So what caused the transition from the stable form into the unstable one?

Listed in the middle of the diagram are all the human-invented strong accelerators (red), and a few remaining inherited (natural) weak moderators (blue).

Counteracting the accelerators to resource extraction and depletion, some moderators (decelerators) remained: Ambulances at the bottom of the cliff
The picture here shows people falling off the cliff as a result of wanting a better view. So what is the problem here and how can we solve it? human nature is reactive rather than proactive/preventive. We see wounded people at the bottom of the cliff, so we focus on sending more and faster first aid. But the real problem exists at the top of the cliff where we can put a warning sign and a fence instead. This may seem a silly example, yet most of our problem solving is similar.
path from need to problemWe tend to look at a problem as if it appeared out of the blue, and then we set out to fix it, usually with technology and cheap energy (or money). Seldom do we fix the real causes of our problems, so let's have a closer look at them. In this diagram the path of a problem and its traditional solution is shown.
When we ask scientists to solve a problem, we expect them to work at their level only, often specified by terms of reference or by a limited scope. The scientists then observe the problem, collect data, analyse it and come up with a solution, which is supposed to reduce the problem (green steps in the diagram).
However, each problem originates from people who have a perceived need, and then do something to fill that need (action). Without much scientific knowledge, society can bring alleviating influence to bear on these three preceding stages. We can change the way we do things, even why we need to. Education appears to be the best tool for this, but laws can be established to achieve the same. What is important to remember, is that to every problem these three preceding stages exist, which can be altered to prevent problems, without recourse to additional knowledge. So they can work more quickly while costing less money. They are also more lasting.

Note! Eventually, a section on problem solving will appear on this web site. The above are some of the important points, relating to resource management.

continued in part 3