Resource stewardship

With the ever increasing population growth, there is the need to sustainably manage resources so that future generations can benefit from them. This has not been easy in the past, with the increasing rate at which humans are consuming non-renewable resources, coupled with the rate at which population is growing. Nevertheless, technological advances in food … Continue reading “Resource stewardship”

With the ever increasing population growth, there is the need to sustainably manage resources so that future generations can benefit from them. This has not been easy in the past, with the increasing rate at which humans are consuming non-renewable resources, coupled with the rate at which population is growing. Nevertheless, technological advances in food production have led others to believe that irrespective of the increasing number of people, there will be enough food to feed the growing population.

Some views have been expressed in the past (and even presently) on the relationship between population and resources and whether or not an increase in population would positively or negatively affect resource consumption. This leads us to the pessimistic and optimistic views on this relationship, including the balanced approach to managing our natural resources. The balanced approach stresses the need to for us to adopt resource stewardship principles at both local ad global levels. ‘

To understand these concepts in detail, let’s start with the divergent views on the relationship between population and food supply.

Divergent thinking about population and resource consumption trends:
1. Thomas Malthus (Pessimistic views)
  • 1766-1834. Born near Guildford, in England.
  • Occupation: Priest, Demographer, Economist
  • Wrote ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ first published in 1798.
  • It is debatable whether the principles of Malthus 200 years ago have any relevance to the modern world.
  • At the time of writing his essay, the population of the United Kingdom was approximately 10 million.

The Core Principles of Malthus:

  • Food is necessary for human existence and population growth
  • The effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal
  • Since humans tend not to limit their population size voluntarily – “preventive checks” must be used to control population growth.

Malthus noted that human population tends to grow at a geometric rate: 1, 2, 4 8, 16, 32, 64… However, he noted that food only increases at an arithmetic rate, 1 2 3 4 5 6… Thus, whilst food production was likely to increase in the arithmetic progression, population tends to grow at an exponential rate in a series of 25 years interval. This means that in the future there would arise a situation where humans would lack resources on which to survive, leading to a catastrophic situation characterized by severe food shortage and too many people.

To solve this problem, Malthus suggested that once this ceiling (catastrophe) had been reached, further growth in population would be prevented by negative and positive checks, which, to him, were methods of population control.

Negative checks: (decreased birth rate), are checks used to limit population growth. According to Malthus these checks include:

  • abstinence before marriage,
  • postponement of marriage,
  • abstinence within marriage which lowered the fertility rate.

Malthus favoured moral restraint (including late marriage and sexual abstinence) as a check on population growth. This was meant to reduce population growth with sustainable levels. He, however, opposed birth control measures such as the use of contraceptives, as he saw this as ungodly, hence he did not place any restriction on the number of children born to married couples. It is worth noting that Malthus proposed this only for the working and poor classes!

Positive checks: (increased death rate) were ways to reduce population growth by events such as famine, disease, war. The natural disasters will increase mortality rate or reduce life expectancy. He included poor sanitation in this category of checks, noting that this could give rise to the outbreak of diseases such as cholera, as well as reduce people’s immune system.

Strengths of his arguments:

  • There has been a population explosion in developing countries..
  • Africa –with repeated famines, wars, food crisis, environmental degradation, soil erosion, crop failure and disastrous floods; yet high population – so was he right?
  • However, his principles cannot hold true for HICs, where improvement in technology has led to an increase in food production.


  • Technological improvements which he could not have foreseen
  • The increased amount of crop land due to irrigation and larges scale mechanized farming
  • Reduced population growth, as countries move through the stages of the Demographic Transition Model

For details on his theory read: Malthusian Theory of Population: Explained with criticism


a. The Club of Rome
A group of industrialists, scientists, economists and statesmen from 10 countries published ‘The Limits to Growth’ in 1972. They examined five factors that determined and limit growth on the planet. These include Natural resources, Industrial production, Industrial pollution, Agricultural production and Population.

They argued that most of these factors grew exponentially. The Club of Rome’s basic conclusion was that:

If present growth trends in world population continue and if associated industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached by 2070. The most probable result will be sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

Limits to Growth model:

Club of Rome – Limits to Growth
Is the Club of Rome right?
They may not have taken human ingenuity into account. Humans are dynamic and creative; they are able to adapt to a given situation and find solutions to problems. Human responses have changed – e.g. alternative sources of fuel (to replace fossil fuels), HYVs seeds to prevent starvation in parts of Asia, etc. Thus, we are capable of finding possible solutions to the problems associated with the sustainability of natural resources.

Click the following link to read more on the Club on Rome.

b. Paul Ehrlich
Echoed in recent debates by Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, Ehrlich maintained that population growth would exceed agricultural production and the ability of the earth’s natural resources to regenerate. Ehrlich believes that the earth’s carrying capacity would quickly be exceeded, resulting in widespread famine and population reductions. He added that “the battle for humanity was over” and predicted a situation where millions of people would starve to death, despite attempts to provide food for the starving population. His main opponent was Julian Simon.

Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Paul’s argument:

2. Esther Boserup’s Views (Optimistic Approach)

In contrast to Malthus, instead of too many mouths to feed, Boserup emphasized the positive aspects of a large population. In simple terms, Boserup suggested that the more people there are, the more hands there are to work. She argued that as population increases, more pressure is placed on the existing agricultural system, which stimulates invention. The changes in technology allow for improved crop strains and increased yields. Demographic pressure (population density) promotes innovation and higher productivity in use of land (irrigation, weeding, crop intensification, better seeds) and labour (tools, better techniques). In short, Boserup saw an increase in population as an impetus for intensive agriculture.


Today, there have been many ways by which food production has increased, including draining marshlands, cross-breeding of cattle, sophisticated irrigation methods, use of artificial fertilizers, GM crops, Green revolution


However, Boserup admits that overpopulation can lead to unsuitable farming practices which may degrade the land. e.g. population pressure as one of the reasons for desertification in the Sahel region (so fragile environments are at risk). Boserup’s theory is based on the assumption of a ‘closed’ society – which is not the case in reality (migration).

Anti-Malthusian: school of thought that disagrees with Malthus’s pessimism and is more aligned to Boserup’s optimism i.e. that humans will always find solutions to shortages.

Julian Simon

Julian Simon opposed Ehrlich’s theory by using economic theories to justify his argument. According to him resources needed to support population are becoming more abundant, not scarcer. Simon’s main idea was that there is no limit to the number of people the resources available can support; rather a large population size was necessary as humans are capable of using their imagination to find solutions to their problems.

Ehrlich published two books: The Economics of Population Growth (1977) and The Ultimate Resource (1981). He strongly opposed the views expressed by Julian Simon and noted that the relationship that exists between population and food supply was more complicated than Simon thought, adding that Simon overestimated the effects of an increasing population of resource supply.


3. The Balanced Approach

Balanced views have been suggested as strategies for sustainably managing natural resources, including conservation and preservation of resources and government policies aimed at protecting the consumption of natural resources..

Currently, the world focuses on the consumption of non-renewable resources which contributes greatly to global warming, through the production greenhouse gases. These resources do not have the ability to renew themselves for future generations. The world’s economic dev’t, however, is strongly tied to the consumption of non-renewable resources, especially those used for transportation and electricity. This calls for the need to rethink the use of non- renewable natural resources and probably focus on renewable natural resources.

The benefits of renewable natural resources include: 1) Environmentally friendly  2) Can be replenished. It is this rethinking that has led to some car manufacturing companies like Tesla, to shift from the production of fuel consumption cars to electric cars. The only obstacle in the use of renewable resources is that they must be used sustainably in order to guarantee their regenerative capacity.

Resource stewardship, therefore, focuses on the sustainable use of renewable resources so that future generations can benefit from them: This can be done in 3 ways: conservation, preservation, government policies.

Additionally, improved governance of natural resources could lead to sustainable resources management. This may involve international organizations, governments as well as financial institutions (World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), to ensure that individuals, businesses and non-governmental organizations do more, as stewards of natural resources, to promote the principles of conservation and preservation.

The balanced approach, therefore, is a combination of resource conservation and preservation strategies (Oakes, 2018).

  • Conservation: refers to the process of protecting and managing a resource in such a way that it will not be degraded or damaged. This can be done through a. Reducing the use of the resource e.g forest resources can be protected against irresponsible lumbering or by encouraging afforestation. For energy conservation, existing energy resources can be used such that future generations can benefit from it, thereby resulting in little or no damage environmental.
  • Preservation: this refers to maintaining resources in their present condition, in areas not encroached by humans. Humans are encroaching on the natural environment in an unprecedented rate; at which many unprotected landscapes are being exploited for agriculture, industry, housing, tourism and other human developments (
  • Government policies that ensure fairness and equity in the distribution of resources at the global scale. Food, for instance, should be made available and affordable to people in developing countries, where population is rapidly increasing.

Resource stewardship strategies:

Resource  stewardship is “an approach to resource management which views humans as ‘caretakers’ of the natural world.” (Oakes, 2018).

The Circular Economy 

This is a new concept for sustainable resource management. It involves cutting down on the use of finite (or non-renewable) resources in order to reduce waste, whilst encouraging the use renewable energy sources. It models on the ‘cradle to cradle’ concept developed by William Mcdonough in 2002, which views everything as a resource that can be used for something else. It is based on the view that everything is designed to be dismantled and returned to the soil as biological materials or can be re-used for the making high quality materials as technical materials.

A circular economy is a regenerative economic system that works in closed loops to minimize resource inputs, waste, emissions and energy leakage. Its main purpose is to retain the value of a product, including its parts and materials. The result is a long lasting design of products, remanufacturing, redesigning, resuse, recycling, repair, refurbishing and upcycling.

The YouTube video below explains the concept:

The circular economy approach follows on the example of the natural ecosystem where waste is either eliminated or used as a resource in the ecosystem. In a circular economy, old products are not thrown away; rather they are sent back to the manufacturer for repair or re-manufacturing so the product can be reused several times.

This implies that there are no (product) consumers, but (product) users, as the manufacturer is responsible for the repair and recycling of the old product. This reduces the need for waste when a product is no longer needed. Invariably, the user rents the product from the manufacturer and returns it as and when it is no longer needed.

How does the circular economy operate?

The circular economy model adopts the systems thinking approach to achieve its objectives i.e.  businesses, people, and organisms are part of the network in which the actions of one actor impact other actors (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015a).

In a circular economy materials are circulated in material cycles as shown in the diagram below. There are two types of cycles – biological cycles (left side) and technical  cycles (right sides).


The Butterfly Diagram (Source: Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation)

The reuse process of organic materials differs from that of synthetic or technical materials. Therefore, it is important to ensure the separation of biological and technical materials after use, so they can each follow a separate reuse process (Figure 1).

  • Technical materials, such as fossil fuels, plastics and metals are finite and cannot be renewed.
  • Biological materials, such as cotton, food and water, can be absorbed into the ecosystem by biological processes.  Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015a

Within the techno-cycle, there are different levels of re-use ( Figure 1). The smallest, or most inner circle is preferred over larger cycles, because smaller cycles require less processing steps, labor, energy and new materials, which means that more value is retained Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015a.

The different reuse circles (on the right side of the diagram) include:

  • Repair and maintenance(maintain/prolong): Restoring products during use to extend their lifespan
  • Reuse and Redistribution: Direct reuse through product reuse or sales.
  • Refurbish & Remanufacture: The thorough renovation and repair of product by the manufacturer.
  • Recycle: Parts or materials are recovered from the product for reuse.

Within the bio-cycle (left side of the diagram), recycling takes place in cascades. Cascading means “the use of (a part of) a product for a different application. When a product is no longer in a position to fulfill its initial function, it is given a new function in which it can be reused. While materials are used in cascades, the quality of the material decreases and energy is consumed. Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2013a.

Cascading is different from direct reuse and recycling because of the change in functionality and the extent to which the product is processed. For example:

  • Recycling is the shredding old T-shirts into cotton fibers which are spun into new yarn,
  • Re-use is selling used clothes at a thrift store, and
  • Cascading is the use of old T-shirts as cushion filler. (Van der Have 2014)

For both the bio-cycle as the techno-cycle, the lifespan of a product should be prolonged as much as possible.

Differences between linear and circular systems

The circular systems approach is different from the linear systems approach, where  (eco-efficiency). Sustainability, in the circular systems approach, focuses on minimizing the negative impact of the system and maximizing the positive impact through innovations and systems change (eco-effectiveness).

Linear EconomyCircular Economy
Step planTake-make-disposeReduce-reuse-recycle
Focus Eco-EfficiencyEco-Effectivity
System boundariesShort term, from purchase to salesLong term, multiple life cycles
Quality of ReuseDowncyclingUpcycling, cascading and high grade recycling.

 Source: kenninstaar

What is the value of the circular economy for sustainable resource management?

  1. Economic growth

A study by McKinsey & Co. shows that GDP increases in the circular economy, hence economic growth increases. This is due to increased revenue from cheap labor, less resources and other circular activities that lead to a fall in the cost of production.

  • Substantial resource savings

Within the circular economy, research has shown that  there is over 70% material savings compared with the linear system. Even with increasing population and the growth in the new global middle class, resource consumption will increase but at a slower pace than without a circular system (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2014, pp. 17-23).  This is equivalent to about 630 billion dollar savings on raw materials in the production of long-lasting consumer goods and about 700 billion savings in the production of  goods with a short life-span (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016)

  • Employment growth

Jobs will be created through an increase in spending resulting from lower prices, an increase in labor-intensive high quality recycling and repair practices, an increase in jobs in the logistics sector by locally taking back products, an increase in new businesses through innovation, the service economy and new business models (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015a, p. 11)

  • Incentives for innovation

Circular economy asks for innovative solutions based on a new way of thinking. Reflecting on circular rather than linear value chains and aiming for optimization for the entire system where an organization is part of, results in new insights, and interdisciplinary collaboration between designers, manufacturers and recyclers and sustainable innovations (Kraaijenhagen, Van Oppen & Bocken. 2016).

What are the environmental benefits?

  • Fewer emissions

By following the principles of circular economy greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced:

  • By re-use, dematerialization, and service models, there are fewer (polluting) materials and production processes required to provide adequate service and functionality.
  • Energy-efficient and non-toxic materials, manufacturing and recycling processes will be selected.
  • The system makes use of renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
  • Residues (including water, gas and solid form) are seen as valuable and are absorbed as much as possible to reuse in the process. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015a, p. 12
  • Productivity and soil health

The application of the principles of circular economy on the farming system encourages to no longer exploit land and ecosystems but to ensure that important nutrients are returned into the soil. Waste is avoided without sacrificing the productivity of the soil. As a result, the value of the land is growing and the system is more balanced and more resilient. In Europe, a circular approach of  food systems can lead to a decrease of 80% of artificial fertilizer. This restores the natural balance in the soil. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016

  • Fewer negative side effects

By following the principles of circular economy, minimizing waste and emissions and separating products to pure residues, unsustainable externalities are managed, such as land use, water, air and soil pollution, emission of toxic substances and climate change. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016

Limitations of the Circular Economy Concept

Question: To what extent is the circular economy concept a viable option for sustainable development?

Further resources:

The UN Sustainable Development Goals

According to the Brundtline Report (1987), sustainable development is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It includes social, economic and environmental sustainability.


As part of the effort to achieve the broad goals of the the sustainable development, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and guarantee the global well-being of people by 2030. These goals follow on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were established in 2000. The MDGs ended in 2015 and as a way of maintaining and sustaining the gains made by the MDGs, the United Nations adopted the SDGs in 2013 to achieve this objective. The UNDP provides support to governments to integrate the SDGs into their national development plans and policies in the areas of poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice.

The SDGs are made up of 17 broad objectives and a number of indicators.


Several of these goals are relevant to the IB Geography syllabus. These include:

SDG1 icon

Goal 1 – No poverty

In 2017, economic losses attributed to disasters were estimated at over $300 billion. This is among the highest losses in recent years, owing to three major hurricanes affecting the United States of America and several countries across the Caribbean

SDG2 icon

Goal 2 – Zero hunger

In 2016, 26 countries experienced high or moderately high levels of general food prices, which may have negatively affected food security. In 2017, 151 million children under age 5 suffered from stunting (low height for their age), 51 million suffered from wasting (low weight for height), and 38 million were overweight

Goal 3 Good health and well-being

In 2018, the global adolescent birth rate is 44 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, compared to 56 in 2000. The highest rate (101) is found in sub-Saharan Africa.
SDG5 icon

Goal 5 – Gender inequality

Globally, around 2017, an estimated 21 per cent of women between 20 and 24 years of age reported that they were married or in an informal union before age 18. This means that an estimated 650 million girls and women today were married in childhood. Rates of child marriage have continued to decline around the world. In Southern Asia, a girl’s risk of marrying in childhood has dropped by over 40 per cent since around 2000

SDG6 icon

Goal 6 – Clean water and sanitation

Based on data from 62 out of 153 countries sharing transboundary waters, the average percentage of national transboundary basins covered by an operational arrangement was only 59 per cent in 2017.
SDG7 icon

Goal 7 – Affordable and clean energy

The share of renewables in final energy consumption increased modestly, from 17.3 per cent in 2014 to 17.5 per cent in 2015. Yet only 55 per cent of the renewable share was derived from modern forms of renewable energy.
SDG10 icon

Goal 10 – Reduce inequalities

Based on provisional data, among the $613 billion in total remittances recorded in 2017, $466 billion went to low- and middle-income countries. While the global average cost of
sending money has gradually declined in recent years, it was estimated at 7.2 per cent in 2017, more than double the target transaction cost of 3 percent
SDG12 icon

Goal 12 – Responsible production and consumption

The per capita “material footprint” of developing countries grew from 5 metric tons in 2000 to 9 metric tons in 2017, representing a significant improvement in the material standard of living. Most of the increase is attributed to a rise in the use of non-metallic minerals, pointing to growth in the areas of infrastructure and construction.
SDG13 icon

Goal 13 – Climate action

As of 9 April 2018, 175 Parties had ratified the Paris Agreement and 168 Parties (167 countries plus the European Commission) had communicated their first nationally determined contributions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat.
SDG14 icon

Goal 14 – Life below water

As of January 2018, 16 per cent (or over 22 million square kilometers) of marine waters under national jurisdiction—that is, 0 to 200 nautical miles from shore—were covered by protected areas. This is more than double the 2010 coverage level. The mean coverage of marine key biodiversity areas (KBAs) that are protected has also increased—from 30 per cent in 2000 to 44 per cent in 2018

Click on the link: detailed progress report for details on the SDG progress for 2018.