Resource Geography Research Paper

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Resource geography is part of a broad tradition of geographical inquiry examining the reciprocal relationships between socioeconomic systems and physical environmental processes. Within this ‘nature society’ tradition, resource geography is defined by its focus on how economic, political, and social institutions and practices determine patterns of resource use over space and time. This research paper begins with an explanation of the term ‘resource,’ outlines the scope of resource geography, and identifies four principal approaches within the field.

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1. Resources Defined

Resources refer to those properties of the physical environment that can be exploited to meet the needs and desires of society. Resources can be understood, therefore, as culturally mediated appraisals of the physical environment. A resource does not exist a priori, but it produced from ‘neutral stuff ’ through its interaction with a set of prevailing cultural norms which collectively define its social utility and economic viability: thus ‘resources are not, they become’ (Zimmerman 1951, p. 15). The cultural milieu consists of economic variables (markets, prices, and technology); political institutions (property rights, legislation, and regulatory codes); social attributes (perception, behavior, and practices of decision-making); and cultural belief-systems (cosmologies of nature, society, and development). For example, just as sperm whales were regarded in the early nineteenth century as a valuable resource from which to obtain high quality lighting oil, so the recent appraisal of tropical forests as resources to be ‘mined’ for pharmaceutical benefits derives from the confluence of a specific set of economic, legal, technological, and cultural processes.

Resources are most commonly categorized based on their renewability. Renewable (or flow) resources are those depleted by use in the short term but which can replenish themselves over the longer term (e.g., forests, soils, and fisheries). Non-renewable (or stock) resources have a finite supply: consumption today comes at the expense of future use (e.g., minerals and fossil fuels). In practice, however, this distinction is more accurately represented as a continuum since the renewability of many resources depends on when, where, and how they are consumed. For example, the experience of many communities with fisheries, forests, and groundwater demonstrates that if the rate of use exceeds the rate of renewal, even a potentially renewable resource can be depleted. In this context it is possible to speak of the ‘mining’ of renewable resources like soil or groundwater.

The ‘resource question’ has deep and enduring roots within Western intellectual history and is characterized by two distinct questions (Rees 1990). The first is the role of resource availability resource scarcity in limiting opportunities for economic growth and development. Early explorations of this theme can be found in Malthus’s (1798) thesis on the differential rates of growth of population and food supply, and Marx’s (1967) account of the productive capacity of the labor process to liberate humankind from natural limits. More recently it appears in debates over the long-term availability of water, soil, and energy resources for a growing world population (Barnett and Morse 1963). The second is the sociopolitical implications of resource use and the impact of resource management on environmental quality, equity, and human welfare across a range of temporal and spatial scales. Examples of this can be found in conservationist writings of the late nineteenth century, in studies of social inequalities in exposure to environmental risk, and in current engagements with global environmental change and sustainable development.

Resource geography has tended to shun theoretical development in preference for a pragmatic engagement with concrete problems and a prescriptive approach to policy formation (see Wescoat 1987). Four principal lines of inquiry can be identified: resource inventory and evaluation; resource management institutions and decision-making; the political economy of resource use and the environment; and critiques of resource management and the question of ‘nature.’

2. Lines Of Inquiry Within Resource Geography

2.1 Resource Inventory And Evaluation

The stock-in-trade of resource geography has traditionally been the identification and analysis of resource distribution at spatial scales from local to global (e.g., Murphy 1954). For example, descriptions of natural resource distribution conventionally form a central component of regional geography, where they provide a logical segue between the description of a region’s geological, hydrological, pedological, and biological characteristics and discussion of the region’s socioeconomic geography. Using this spatial mapping approach, resource geographers have quantified natural resource endowments, evaluated the capacity of particular natural resource bases to support economic development, and determined the extent to which current strategies of resource acquisition, conservation, and environmental protection are adequate.

By providing assessments of the spatial extent, utility, and economic viability of mineral, biological, and hydrological resources, resource geography has often played the role of handmaiden to regional planning and economic development. Early examples from within US geography can be found in the watershed and irrigation survey work of geomorphologists such as Grove Karl Gilbert (1877) and John Wesley Powell (1879). Their evaluations of water resources in the arid western states in the second half of the nineteenth century helped promote the federal government’s involvement in dam construction, irrigation, and inter-regional water transfer systems. In the UK, the development of the national Land Utilization Survey by Dudley Stamp (1934) is indicative of how resource geography has historically contributed to land-use planning and, more generally, to the implementation of a conservationist utilitarianism towards natural resources. Professional affiliation between resource geographers and public resource agencies continues to generate empirical resource inventories and practical approaches for implementing integrated resource and environmental management (see Mitchell 1997).

The strategic and military value of mineral and energy resources has often provided an overtly political focus to the work of resource geographers, confirming MacKinder’s (1887) maxim that geography serve as an aid to statecraft. For example, resource geographers served as part of a multidisciplinary team of social scientists compiling a series of Area Handbooks commissioned by the US Department of the Army. These ‘compilations of basic facts’ describe economically and militarily significant aspects of selected countries including identification and inventory of natural resource endowments. Whether part of regional or applied geography, the primary objective of local, regional, and global resource appraisals is informational. As a consequence, this line of inquiry has produced maps of resource location, atlases, and descriptions of resource availability, but has contributed little in the way of theoretical or methodological development.

2.2 Resource Management Institutions And Decision-Making

A second major focus of resource geography is practically orientated research on the management of natural resources and the environment. The historical and intellectual foundations of this approach lie within welfare economics with its objective of utility maximization. Adopting this welfare framework as its core paradigm, resource geography has sought to maximize the social utility of resources such as coal, oil, water, and open space by assisting in their rational and efficient management. A central objective has been to understand the influence of institutional frameworks (e.g., the distribution of property rights, the nature of environmental legislation, and the structure of commodity markets), decision-making processes, and differences in resource perception on the allocation, exploitation, and conservation of natural resources over time.

Under this paradigm, resource shortages and environmental degradation are understood to result from market failure and pervasive externalities. As a consequence, research adopts a prescriptive stance, advocating public policy approaches to intervene in existing markets to address the causes of failure (e.g., via government regulation for environmental quality or resource taxation), create markets where none had previously existed (e.g., pollution permit trading), or re-design the institutions of property ownership to internalize external costs (e.g., resource privatization, see Anderson and Leal 1992).

Prescriptions for resource management drawn from neo-classical economic models came under criticism from behavioral studies during the 1960s. Work by Gilbert White (1964) on river basin development and floodplain management, for example, argued that existing public policies for resource and hazard management over-simplified the process by which management alternatives were selected. Arguing that flood control engineering was just one of several possible responses to flood risk (others include flood insurance, disaster warning systems, and comprehensive floodplain management), White’s work—and that of the Natural Hazards Research Group at the University of Chicago—focused attention on the range of choice in resource management decisions (Environmental Adaptation and Adjustments; Environmental Risk and Hazards).

In contrast to the neo-classical model which interpreted resource scarcity or deteriorating environmental quality in terms of market failure, the Chicago School argued that poor resource management decisions resulted from misperception or limited awareness of better alternatives. It rejected the assumptions of utility maximizing individuals operating in a field of perfect knowledge and instead adopted a behavioral approach in which resource managers operated under conditions of bounded rationality. Initially focused on water resources in USA, natural hazards research expanded to include other geophysical extremes in North America and in different cultural contexts. As an alternative to the unitary and utility maximizing assumptions of conventional resource management, the behavioral approach captures the role of perception and sociocultural rules in determining the relative success of strategies such as energy and water conservation or the construction of international regimes for environmental governance (e.g., marine pollution, migratory species, ozone depletion—see Young 1999).

In an effort to contextualize the process of decision-making and explore the opportunities for co-operation as well as competition in the management of natural resources, resource geography has looked to traditional societies for alternative to market-based resource regimes. Research has focused, for example, on management regimes for common property resources—those for which control of access is difficult and joint use affects the welfare of each resource user (e.g., fisheries, river systems, wildlife, pastures, and public parks). Interest in management regimes for the commons centers on Hardin’s (1968) provocative assessment that common property resources were inevitably prone to environmental degradation as a result of the cumulative decisions of economically rational individuals. Using the analogy of herders stocking a commonly held pasture, Hardin argued that the pursuit of individual self-interest will lead each herder to add to his or her stock; while the benefits of an additional animal (increased income) will be captured by the individual, the costs (declining grassland productivity) will be shared among all users. Describing this as the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ he concluded that either government ownership or privatization of the commons was necessary to forestall this degradation since ‘freedom of the commons brings ruin to all.’

However, subsequent work by resource geographers and anthropologists has revealed historical and contemporary examples of successful common property resource management (e.g., Feeny et al. 1990). This has generated a two-pronged critique of Hardin’s conclusions: first, Hardin failed to acknowledge that his herders could communicate with each other and, therefore, that they could undertake collective rather than individual action to maintain the environmental integrity of the commons; and second, Hardin conflated the nature of a common property resource with the type of property regime under which it was managed. He assumed, therefore, that his pasture—a classic common pool resource—would be managed as an open access resource regime. Historical experience illustrates that common property resources can exist under open access, communal, state, and private property regimes and that these need not be mutually exclusive but can coexist.

2.3 The Political Economy Of Resource Use And The Environment

A third line of inquiry within resource geography explicitly rejects the applied management orientation of earlier approaches for failing to capture the social stratification of economic and political power. In contrast, it engages the political and social dimensions of resource use, emphasizing the ecological and socioeconomic context in which resource managers and their decisions are embedded. By embracing a broadly defined political economy, resource geography has sought to understand the nested scales of activity— from the actions of local institutions, through national public policies, to the global strategies of corporations —which constrain and influence the choices of individual resource managers.

Three distinctive subfields have emerged from this critique of conventional resource management: political ecology (e.g., Blakie and Brookfield 1987, Feminist Political Ecology); radical hazards research (e.g., Hewitt 1983); and environmental justice (e.g., Pulido 1996, Environmental Justice). Common to all three subfields is a perspective that locates the origins of resource depletion and environmental degradation in the economic, political, and social institutions of production. As a result, recognition is given to the socioeconomic—as opposed to purely physical environmental—dynamics of vulnerability. For example, Watts’ (1983) analysis of vulnerability to drought among the Hausa peasantry of northern Nigeria locates the cause of this vulnerability in the articulation between pre-capitalist modes of production and a global capitalist system.

2.4 Critiques Of Resource Management And The Question Of ‘Nature’

Resource geography remains an evolving field influenced by both topical issues in society and theoretical trends within the academy. For example, recent public policy debates in North America and Europe have provided a topical context for research on: the effectiveness of conventional environmental policy approaches; the integration of different spatial scales in managing natural habitat; managing socioeconomic transition within natural resource communities (e.g., those based on coal mining, fishing, or timber harvesting); the environmental implications of industrialization and modernization in the developing world; and the challenges of operationalizing sustainable development.

Resource geography has traditionally shown theoretical restraint in favor of practical application (Wescoat 1987); however, the 1990s has seen an increased interest in praxis—the integration of theoretical perspectives with the day-to-day issues of producing, consuming, and managing natural resources. Indicative of this are recent engagements between resource geography and:

(a) theories of economic restructuring and rural sociology in seeking to understand the implications for communities of agricultural restructuring, resource privatization, and the links between local and global regimes of food production;

(b) the question of ‘nature’ and environmental ethics, and their implications for the welfare of nonhuman species;

(c) discussions within critical legal theory and discourse theory on the ideologies and institutions that sustain particular actions towards nature (Proctor 1998, Wolch and Emel 1998).

Collectively these new directions offer a broad critique of the instrumentalism inherent in the categorization of parts of nature as ‘resources.’ A central objective is to destabilize conventional views of nature as a collection of severable, tradable resource components valued solely for their commodity value. By recognizing such common-place notions as ‘resources,’ ‘wilderness’ and ‘nature’ as historically and geographically specific social constructions, new directions within resource geography contribute to an understanding of the roles gender, race, and class have played in domesticating the natural world.


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