Natural Resources

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Natural Resources


part of the natural conditions of human existence; the most important components of the natural environment, used in social production to satisfy the material and cultural needs of society.

As a result of the scientific and technological revolution, questions concerning natural resources are among the most pressing contemporary problems. Owing to the rapid development of the productive forces and, consequently, the consumption of vast quantities of natural raw materials, the question of the supply of the principal natural resources has become particularly urgent. The protection of natural resources is a global concern. Pollution of the soil, atmosphere, and hydrosphere, with its extremely adverse effects on the conservation of natural resources, cannot be successfully controlled without the coordinated efforts of a number of countries. The deep-seated causes of the energy crisis that emerged in the capitalist world in the 1970’s are more closely connected with political and social factors than with natural ones. The crisis was not confined to energy but had an effect of varying intensity on many branches of the economy of the capitalist world. The USSR and other socialist countries were not affected by the crisis, demonstrating that the planned socialist economy is vastly superior to the capitalist system.

Classification and importance. The principal types of natural resources are solar energy, tidal energy, geothermal energy, water, land, minerals (including fuels), plants, and animals. In addition to being classified under various components of nature, natural resources are categorized as virtually inexhaustible or exhaustible. Each of these categories includes renewable and nonrenewable resources. Natural resources are also classified according to their use in material production (in energy, industry, agriculture, and other branches of the economy) and in the nonproductive sphere (for example, the improvement of sanitation). Moreover, natural resources are classified as single-purpose and multipurpose resources.

Natural resources prepared for use and put into economic circulation become an important component of the social productive forces. Potential resources are natural resources that are not currently in use but that can be used when technological and economic conditions change.

Important stages in the development of natural resources include discovery (exploration and prospecting) and study. In addition, cadastres are prepared, according to the type of resource (for example, the land cadastre, the water cadastre, and forest valuation) and according to geography (for example, natural resources of the earth, the land, the oceans and parts of them, large natural regions, and particular countries).

According to current estimates, about 5 × 1020 kilocalories of solar energy reach the earth every year, the mass of the earth’s atmosphere is about 5.15 × 1015 tons (23 percent free oxygen), and the resources of the hydrosphere amount to approximately 1.5 billion cu km, including 1,200 cu km of fresh water in rivers. The annual primary production of the plant mass, calculated as dry organic matter, varies from 50 to 100 billion tons. (Estimates by some investigators are as high as 280 billion tons.) Geological reserves of coal amount to 10–12 trillion tons, and of iron ore, about 350 billion tons. The potential supply of natural gas is 130–140 trillion cu m.

The highly uneven geographic distribution of natural resources is the natural basis for the development of a territorial division of labor. Under the conditions of the capitalist economy, the uneven distribution of natural resources gives rise to deep-seated social contradictions between countries and regions. The uneven location of resources is exemplified by the distribution of petroleum reserves. Of the total prospected and analyzed petroleum supplies in the capitalist and developing countries at the beginning of 1974 (71.3 billion tons), 67 percent was located in the Middle East, 12.5 percent in Africa, 3 percent in Southeast Asia and the Far East, 9 percent in North America, 5.5 percent in Central America and South America, and 3 percent in Western Europe. However, an overwhelming proportion of the petroleum is consumed in North America (primarily in the USA), in the industrially developed capitalist countries of Western Europe, and in Japan.

Man’s knowledge of natural resources is increasing steadily, with the aid of the latest technology, including earth satellites and ultradeep drilling.

Scientifically sound, concrete historical estimates or forecasts of natural resources are important. The principal types of estimates are technological (industrial), economic (expressed in quantitatively defined economic categories), and social estimates. An accurate estimate is essential for the most efficient exploitation of natural resources.

History of use. In the early stages of the development of society, hunting and fishing were very important in satisfying the people’s needs. Mineral resources (stone) were used in insignificant quantities to make very simple tools. In the subsequent stages of the development of primitive society and later, of the precapitalist class formations, the rise and development of land cultivation and livestock raising led to the use of soil and climatic resources, natural forage, and water (for irrigation). Some metals and alloys (bronze, gold, and iron, for example) were used to make tools, weapons, objects of worship, and ornaments. New sources of energy came into use (wind, water, and the hauling power of domestic animals).

During the period of the development of capitalism and its undivided world domination, there was a rapid increase in the scale of utilization of natural resources in general and of mineral raw materials and fuel in particular. According to V. I. Vernad-skii’s calculations, in ancient times man used 19 chemical elements, and at the beginning of the 20th century, 59. Today, man uses virtually all of the known elements. The development of capitalism was accompanied by a tremendous increase in the mining of ferrous and nonferrous metals, petroleum, gas, various chemical raw materials, mineral building materials, and coal. (At the beginning of the 19th century, the world total of coal extracted was 12–13 million tons, and in 1900, more than 700 million tons, in terms of standard fuel.) Many forests were cut down to obtain lumber for industry and to clear extensive areas of arable land for agriculture.

The growth of the productive forces resulted in tremendous damage to natural resources, owing to irrational utilization, a consequence of the very character of capitalism. “Capitalist production … develops technology and combines various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the laborer” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 515). The natural resources of the colonial and semicolonial countries were rapaciously plundered by the capitalist monopolies. At the same time, the natural environment deteriorated, because man, in using natural resources, interacted directly or indirectly with the whole environment.

The victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia and the emergence and development of the world system of socialism created the prerequisites for a radical change in the direction of the rational use of natural resources. Although the governments of the capitalist countries have adopted measures to encourage the more economical use of natural resources, the practices of the capitalist monopolies continue to have an adverse effect on the interaction between society and nature.

The question of radically improving the exploitation, use, and supply of natural resources is very serious. About one-third of the total land area of the earth, or almost 45 million sq km, is already occupied by plowlands, hayfields, pastures, orchards, gardens, and plantations. Forests cover more than 40 million sq km, a considerable part of which is used for logging. (More than 2 billion cu m of timber are cut annually.) In 1970, world consumption of the major kinds of mineral fuels (in terms of standard fuel) amounted to 2.2 billion tons of coal, 2.9 billion tons of petroleum, and 1.4 billion tons of gas. Other mineral resources extracted in 1970 included about 750 million tons of commercial-grade iron ore and, in the capitalist and developing countries, about 30 million tons (by metal content) of all types of nonferrous and alloy metals. Consumption of mineral fertilizers amounted to 60 million tons.

About 35–40 billion tons of various natural materials and products are extracted every year. The combustion of fuel binds about 15–20 billion tons per year of free oxygen. According to estimates, more than 560 billion tons of water per year are collected from various sources. Part of the water is lost, and part is discharged as sewage.

The need for mineral resources is rapidly increasing. Estimates indicate that to bring the future consumption of primary materials and products by the entire population of the earth up to the present level of consumption in the more developed countries, it will be necessary to triple the total quantity of resources extracted and increase by a factor of ten or more the yield of the most important mineral products (fuel and metals). If one takes into account the steady population growth and the continuing rise in the level of per capita consumption of primary materials and products, the total need for natural resources is even greater. Therefore, to avoid the dangers of exhausting supplies of natural resources, it is extremely important to develop measures to ensure the acceleration of prospecting for reserves of nonrenewable resources and the intensification of the search for new sources of raw materials, fuel, and energy (the mastering of thermonuclear energy and the development of synthetic materials, for example). Furthermore, it is important to draw a variety of renewable resources more completely into economic circulation and to organize a more intensive, ecologically rational, and efficient utilization of these resources. It is also essential to prevent the irrational utilization of natural resources and to make more economical and better use of them. Important means of achieving these goals include extensive use of secondary raw materials and more comprehensive use of natural resources.

Expanding the use of natural resources entails accelerating the growth of interregional and intercontinental shipments of primary materials. In the capitalist world these problems are solved through a competitive struggle by monopolistic associations to gain control over the sources of raw materials, to take advantage of the ensuing difficulties in satisfying the demand for natural resources by artificially raising the prices on goods, and to endeavor to retain the developing countries as suppliers of various raw materials. Among the raw materials supplied by the developing countries are two-thirds of the petroleum and bauxite extracted by the nonsocialist world, three-fifths of the manganese ore, half of the copper, one-third of the iron ore and lead, one-fourth of the zinc, and two-fifths of the phosphate rock.

The USSR is distinguished for its abundant mineral resources.

Future use. It is extremely important to develop new technological processes to sharply reduce and subsequently eliminate the losses associated with extracting, processing, and using natural resources. There is an urgent need not only to make better use of resources and increase the supply of raw materials but also to protect the environment against pollution, which is to a considerable extent linked with poor organization and poor technology in the exploitation of resources. All of these goals require strict adherence to the ecological and economical approach to the exploitation of natural resources.

A fundamental solution to these problems is possible only in a planned, developed economy based on the socialization of the means of production. In socialist countries the rational use of natural resources and concern for preserving and extending the supply of natural resources are fundamental principles of management.

The Soviet Union and other socialist countries maintain a policy of cooperation on various aspects of the rational use of natural resources with international organizations and with interested governments, regardless of the social formation with which they are associated. The developing countries, which are establishing their national economies on new technological principles, are also working toward the goal of making better use of natural resources.

The scientific and technological revolution, together with the advantages of socialism, is opening broad opportunities for developing the most rational exploitation of natural resources and increasing the supply of resources for the present world population and for future generations. The use of renewable resources should be based on the turnover principle—that is, on a balance between consumption and renewal. In addition, the regeneration of renewable resources should be expanded.

In exploiting nonrenewable resources, it is necessary to sharply reduce losses of raw materials during extraction, processing, and transportation. (For example, in the capitalist and developing countries, 50 percent or more of the petroleum is lost during extraction alone.) Moreover, it is necessary to increase to the maximum the circulation or turnover of these resources within a society, by making maximum use of secondary raw materials. It is extremely important to increase the efficiency with which already extracted resources and products are used. Only one-fourth of the total energy in extracted fuel is used. There is considerable waste in logging, as well as in shipping timber. The durability of items made from nonrenewable resources must be improved.

Scientific and technological progress is opening new possibilities for replacing exhausted natural resources with other kinds of resources, including various synthetic materials. For example, plastics are substituted for scarce nonferrous metals. Advances in science and technology have opened previously inaccessible deposits of low-grade ores and have made it possible to cultivate tracts of poor, swampy, or arid soils. In addition, scientific and technological progress is contributing to the development of the vast and varied resources of the oceans.

Striving for social and economic progress and developing toward socialism and communism, mankind is creating a qualitatively new technology that will ensure the efficient exploitation of natural resources and the maintenance of the necessary ecological balance. By discovering and circulating new sources of raw materials and energy and controlling the use of natural resources in conformity with plans, man is able to establish a harmonious interaction between society and the environment in the exchange of substances, on the necessary scale and in the forms needed for the long-range satisfaction of the growing needs of the world’s population.


Mel’nikov, N. V. Problemy ispol’zovaniia prirodnykh resursov. Moscow, 1967.
Prirodnye resursy i ekonomicheskaia geografiia SSSR. Moscow, 1971.
Mints, A. A. Ekonomicheskaia otsenka estestvennykh resursov. Moscow, 1972.
Malin, K. M. Zhiznennye resursy chelovechestva. Moscow, 1967.
Mero, J. Mineralnye bogatstva okeana. Moscow, 1969. (Translated from English.)
Ananichev, K. A. Problemy okruzhaiushchei sredy, energii i prirodnykh resursov. Moscow, 1974.
Resources and Man: A Study and Recommendations of the Committee on the Resources and Man of the Division of Earth Sciences. San Francisco, 1969.
George, P. Géographie industrielle du monde. Paris, 1966.
Flawn, P. T. Mineral Resources. New York, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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