What Would Happen If the World’s Natural Resources Ran Out?
It's easy to take things like oxygen, water, and fuel for granted, but many of these precious resources are not renewable—and losing them could be catastrophic.
Sometimes it feels like the world runs on autopilot. Food comes from the supermarket, hospitals are equipped with life-saving devices, and a new iPhone can be sent to your doorstep. None of this would exist, though, without the abundant natural resources we inherited from the planet itself. Some, like sun and wind, are renewable and will likely never run out. Others, like minerals, fossil fuels, and even the air we breathe, are non-renewable, so it’s actually possible to lose them forever. But could we ever really find ourselves living in a world depleted of essential life forces like oxygen and water? If so, what would that world look like? The answers might give you an existential crisis. Here’s what would happen if the Amazon rain forest disappeared.
Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe, according to Scientific American. While we take it for granted, Earth’s oxygen levels have been on the decline for about a million years, says Live Science. The main culprit is carbon emissions—and some researchers say we’ll soon run out of breathable air as a result—though most scientists agree we’re nowhere near an oxygen crisis. That said, if all the Earth’s oxygen disappeared for even five seconds, airplanes would crash, concrete buildings would turn to dust, among other dire consequences. Want to know what would happen to our bodies?
Water has been nourishing the Earth for 4.6 billion years, according to research published in Science. About 70 percent of the planet’s surface is made of this natural resource—that includes our oceans, seas, rivers, and lakes. Water is in our atmosphere, too, and even beneath the Earth’s surface. But more than 95 percent of it is undrinkable, according to the BBC, and we face an increasing shortage of freshwater compared to the demand for it. If we ever do run out of water, experts predict catastrophes like war, famine, and a global economic crash, according to Newsweek. Find out why you shouldn’t wash dishes by hand.
The Earth has more than 3 trillion trees, according to a 2015 tree census conducted by researchers at Yale University. Forests cover about 30 percent of the planet’s surface, reports The World Bank—but make no mistake; we’re running out of trees. The Earth lost more than 500,000 square miles of this resource to deforestation between 1990 and 2016—and we’re down about 46 percent since the start of human civilization. Without trees, our world would fall apart. Trees provide oxygen, conserve soil, regulate the water cycle, support our food systems, and give us a precious building material.
Here’s the dirt on soil: A U.N. official confirmed that it’s degrading so fast, we might run out of this natural resource in about 60 years, according to Scientific American. Global warming, deforestation, and chemical farming all contribute to the destruction of soil, and, essentially, we’re using soil faster than we can replenish it. We need healthy topsoil to grow about 95 percent of our food, and without fertile planting grounds for crops, entire civilizations can be wiped out.
Like trees, plants feed us and give us the oxygen we breathe—and if they were to run out, humans and animals would starve and suffocate. According to New Scientist, oxygen would remain in the atmosphere for quite a while, but we would run out of food long before we’d run out of air. How likely are we to lost our plant population? It all begins with the state of our soil and water, of course, but it’s also rooted in our seed supply. Fortunately, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway was created to safeguard against plant extinction.
Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas have existed for millions of years and were from the remnants of decaying plants and animals. We rely on them for things like heat, energy, fuel, and the manufacturing of everyday items like appliances, electronics, and cosmetics. In the United States, we derive 81 percent of our energy from fossil fuels, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. But our dependence on this non-renewable resource is diminishing our supply—and contributing to climate change. Some scientists predict we could run out of fossil fuels by 2060 if we don’t shift toward alternative energy. If you’re considering buying a new car, start with our list of cars with the best fuel economy.
There are 62 different metals, including zinc and copper, but also more obscure ones like indium and gallium, that we mine and currently use in manufacturing, construction, and many other industries, according to a study published in PNAS. These metals are non-renewable, meaning once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. If we ever ran out of metals—which, for the record, doesn’t seem to be in our foreseeable future—we’d have to live without products that have become crucial to our lives, like smartphones and computers, lifesaving medical equipment like MRI machines, automobiles, and modern buildings. Here’s how to recycle your cell phone and do your part.
Animals and fish
Though we might not often think of them as natural resources, animals and fish exist naturally, and since we live off of them, they’re one of our most crucial resources. If our animals were ever to run out of food, we, in turn, would run out of animals—but the more pressing concern is whether the oceans will ever run out of fish. The World Wildlife Fund warned back in 2012 that we were over-fishing, and more recent reports have confirmed it. Running out of marine life would compromise the health of both humans and the earth’s ecosystem—and some predict it will happen as soon as 2050. These 11 facts may change the way you think about seafood altogether.
The second most abundant natural resource in the world might shock you, but it shouldn’t. Helium is a natural, non-renewable gas that’s a crucial element in medical scanners, cryogenics, super magnets used in brain cell research, and even devices used by the military, according to NBC News (and you thought it was just used to fill balloons). We only just discovered helium 150 years ago, yet scientists believe we’re already approaching a crisis point, reports National Geographic. Running out would deliver a major blow to our wellbeing as a population, to say the least.
When it comes to minerals we mine and use to improve our lives, salt is undeniably the most recognizable. Salt, otherwise known as sodium chloride, is a non-renewable natural resource used not just for cooking and preserving foods, but also for manufacturing chlorine and sodium hydroxide used in common manmade materials like plastic, nylon, and bulletproof glass, according to Earth Magazine. While salt is currently not under threat, if it did run out, we’d have to figure out a way to replace the vast majority of household items it’s used to create—and our meals would be pretty bland. Here are 60 clever uses for salt that have nothing to do with cooking.
A rare yet essential mineral, phosphorus is found in just a few corners of the world, including China, Morocco, and the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The agriculture industry relies on phosphorous to keep fertilizer healthy enough to sustain crops, and without it, we’d be facing a major, global food shortage. The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative warns that a shortage is likely unless we discover more reserves of this life-giving natural resource. Phosphorous also promotes healthy aquatic ecosystems, controlling the growth of algae and underwater plants. Learn even more fascinating facts about the world’s oceans.
Wind and solar energy
Solar energy and wind power are considered renewable natural resources, meaning as long as there’s a sun in the sky (the sun fuels wind, too), we won’t run out of them. Perhaps the only way we could run out of their energy, though, is via a ripple of effect—if the materials we use to build things like solar panels and windmills were somehow depleted. If the sun were to one day disappear, so would gravity, the Earth’s entire orbit, and a livable climate, and life as we know it would cease to exist. The only hope for humans in this apocalyptic scenario would be to take refuge in submarines or geothermal habitats, according to Popular Science. Want to have your mind blown even further? Read on to learn the 10 biggest unsolved mysteries about planet Earth.