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Resources are those things we use to achieve our objectives – regardless of scale at which we are working: they may be classified in many ways.

With social organization as our historical driving principle, and the scale of investigation being the world and nation, a simple division may be made between material and cultural resources.

Material resources

There is a reciprocal supporting connection between resource availability and social organization as material resources feed economic and social growth.

Classification of resources

Physical resources are almost infinite in number. From the point of view of sustainability, we need categories that can be easily understood and quantified in relation to the environment, economy, and society. These will be categories that can be understood in terms of economic production, consumption, along with their social and environmental impact.

At the individual scale, per capita consumption is a useful statistic and is a reflection of social organization since

Environmental sustainability is clearly strongly correlated with human consumption of biophysical resources so what are some major factors of social organization that might be considered here? Once again the world of biophysical resources is a complex one that includes raw materials and the complex products of their processing by manufacturing industries. For simplicity we can consider the economy in terms of its basic ingredients: population, materials, energy, food, water, technology, and biodiversity. With increase in population numbers and complexity of social organization comes greater integration and efficiency of resource extraction. But a key aspect of social organization is the integration of communities with the parallel development of transport and communication systems. These have transformed the world through their influence on social organization – by facilitating the exchange of goods, ideas, and general know-how: they are the arteries of the human economy. If we are to create a sustainable future then we need to understand the general ways in which transport and communication systems have impacted on society, the economy, and the environment.


Energy is an elemental force in the universe that takes many forms. The social transition to agriculture in the Neolithic Revolution marked a stage of human energy capture when increasing numbers of people could be supported by nearby energy farms (food plants of one kind concentrated together into fields that can be managed efficiently isolated from other plants). The large settled communities made possible by this way of harnessing energy created a division of labour as a hierarchy of rulers, administrators, and officials as well as workers and religiosi. This was loosely the form of society that we know today. Urban societies also developed spatial distinctions familiar to us today – domestic housing, administrative buildings, markets and meeting places, entertainment areas, parks and gardens. There arose a host of mental distinctions that we are also familiar with today: wild and cultivated land, urban and rural regions, house and garden and so on. This marked a transition, based on the ready supply of plant food energy) from life in direct contact with the forces of nature (that had forged the human body in evolutionary time) to artificial human-constructed environments. It was the origins of the familiar distinction between nature and culture. From this time on biological evolution would be supercharged by cultural evolution based on the written word and more efficient energy sources.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution the numbers of agricultural workers rapidly decreased as people moved into the cities, mines, and manufacturing industries. Europe was developing its global empires as many of the mills and factories of Europe processed products supplied by labourers in colonial plantations.



Life has existed on Earth for more than 3.5 billion years with species extinctions a normal part of the evolutionary process. However, when the loss of species rapidly exceeds the emergence of new species we enter a ‘mass extinction’ event generally defined as a loss of about 75% of all species over a short geological time period (<2.8 million years). Around the Cambrian period about 540 million years ago there was a sudden proliferation of life forms and since that time there have been five extinction events that meet this criterion and which help determine whether human beings have today created the conditions for a sixth mass extinction.

Five mass extinctions

The world’s five mass extinctions have occurred on average every 100 million years since the Cambrian (although there is no clear pattern to their timing) and each extinction event lasted between 50,000 and 2.76 million years.

First mass extinction

At the end of the Ordovician period c. 443 million years ago obliterating 85 per cent of all species. Probably a consequence of two climatic events: a planetary-scale period of glaciation (a global-scale “ice age”); followed by a rapid warming period.

Second mass extinction

In the Late Devonian period c, 374 million years ago the second mass extinction killed around 75 per cent of all species, most being bottom-dwelling invertebrates in tropical seas. This period had high variation in sea levels and rapid global cooling and warming when plants (Pteridophytes) were starting to cover dry land with a drop in global CO2 concentration with soil transformation and periods of low oxygen.

Third mass extinction

The most destructive of all extinction events this occurred at the end of the Permian period around 250 million years ago, wiping out more than 95 per cent of all species. Probably the result of an asteroid impact that filled the air with toxic particulate matter and altering the climate, concealing the sun and generating acid rain. Other theories suggest volcanic activity in today’s Siberia, increasing ocean toxicity with an increase in atmospheric CO2 – or the spread of oxygen-poor water in the deep ocean.

Fourth mass extinction

Fifty million years after the great Permian extinction, about 80 per cent of the world’s species were again obliterated in a Triassic event, probably the result of geological activity in today’s Atlantic Ocean, raising atmospheric CO2 levels, increasing global temperatures, and acidifying the oceans.

Fifth mass extinction

In the Cretaceous about 145 million years ago dinosaurs were struggling until wiped out by an asteroid impact when about 76% of all species became extinct. This was an impact in the Yucatán of modern-day Mexico, a massive volcanic eruption in the Deccan Province of modern-day west-central India, or both in combination. This gave mammals an opportunity to diversify and occupy new habitats, from which human beings eventually evolved.
The most likely cause of the Cretaceous mass extinction was an extraterrestrial

Sixth extinction event

The Earth is currently experiencing an extinction crisis resulting from planetary exploitation of resources by human beings although whether this constitutes a sixth mass extinction depends on whether today’s extinction rate is greater than the ‘background’ rate that occurs between mass extinctions which indicates how rapidly species would die out in the absence of human activity using mostly fossil evidence. The generally accepted figure suggests an average lifespan of about 1 million years for a species, or one species extinction per million species-years. But this estimated rate is highly uncertain, ranging between 0.1 and 2.0 extinctions per million species-years and depends an accurate figure.
Extinction has many direct and indirect human causes: the destruction and fragmentation of habitats; exploitation by fishing and hunting; chemical pollution; swamping by invasive species; global warming and more. The rate of extinction appears to be between 10 and 10,000 times higher than the background rate.
Among land vertebrates (species with an internal skeleton), 322 species have been recorded going extinct since the year 1500, or about 1.2 species going extinction every two years.
If this doesn’t sound like much, it’s important to remember extinction is always preceded by a loss in population abundance and shrinking distributions.
Based on the number of decreasing vertebrate species listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, 32 per cent of all known species across all ecosystems and groups are decreasing in abundance and range. In fact, the Earth has lost about 60 per cent of all vertebrate individuals since 1970.
How does Australia fit into the pattern?
Australia has one of the worst recent extinction records of any continent, with more than 100 species of vertebrates going extinct since the first people arrived over 50,000 years ago. And more than 300 animal and 1,000 plant species are now considered threatened with imminent extinction.

Although biologists are still debating how much the current extinction rate exceeds the background rate, even the most conservative estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity typical of a mass extinction event.
In fact, some studies show that the interacting conditions experienced today, such as accelerated climate change, changing atmospheric composition caused by human industry, and abnormal ecological stresses arising from human consumption of resources, define a perfect storm for extinctions.
All these conditions together indicate that a sixth mass extinction is already well underway.

Adapted from an article in The Conversation by Frederik Saltre and Corey J A Bradshaw.

Key points

• Climate, forests and global biogeochemical cycles are all linked to the global water cycle.

• Current levels of human water use and diversion threaten food security and
Ecosystem Services.

• Water and environmental impacts are all embodied in commercial products and world trade.

• We must plan for increased urbanisation and climate change.

• Water efficiencies come from managing lilac, blue and green water.

In urban space this means water-sensitive design that includes:

• Improving rainwater harvesting and storage linked into buildings.

• More recycling of greywater and stormwater.

• Improved management of overall water flows including water storage in the soil.

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