Ranking resources: resources are not equal…

As the Belgians built a polar station in the Antarctic, they wanted to do a good job and make it a 0-energy project, ZEB. The main item was to become more or less energy autarctic. wind-turbines and solar panels should provide the energy, even after a few days without wind or sun. Which required a protocol: When energy levels are low, for instance all entertainment will be switched of. Next the station switches off outer layers of the station until only the core of the station is heated, as well electricity supply for the scientific experiments going on.

In Biosphere , the autartic experiments end of last century, people tried to survive within a basic camp, isolated from the surroundings. Most important was the to keep the air clean, and to grow food. In the end the experiment stopped, since the air could not be controlled well enough. In ISS , the space station, water is a problem: its constant recycled, astronauts in fact drinking their own (cleaned ) urine again and again.

These examples show that whatever is can be seen as important, its resources that come first and are the essentials for life . If these are not secured, its rather obsolete to think of comfort, or well-being, or holidays, or barbecues.


Any society can only be built upon securing resources at its basis , not for one person, but for the system as a whole. Whether that system is a space- or polar-station, a small island , a city or country. Resources are the basis. [1] But not only that. All resources are important, but not equally important. What we can learn from the experiments, but also from pure logic thinking, is that there is an order of importance in resources, a ranking of which to secure first.

The most important, for human life, is air: Without proper Air, a human being dies within 3 minutes. Now air is not our most pressing problem, but nevertheless, in some cities its becoming a problem. And not to forget: We are currently binding oxygen to carbon in huge amounts, changing the atmosphere, In fact reversing the process of millions of years ago, that created the situation for human live to thrive ( freeing oxygen ). It might not be that urgent ( except for that air getting too hot) but its changing anyhow.

Next comes water: Without access to proper water, death follows in more or less 3 days . Now this is in fact our most urgent problem: not only for developing countries, but industrialised countries as well, depleting water stocks with increased speed, irrigating and spoiling with showers every day for instance. Flushing toilets with drinking water, how blasé can you get. [2,3]

Large rivers running dry, not reaching the ocean anymore since they have been emptied upstream .[4] China is building a 1500 km aqueduct, from the south to the north, to bring water from one river into the other… The Aral Lake is disappearing, drying out, the emirates are building large scale desalination installations, shifting the water problem to a (fossil) energy problem. There is drinking water enough for all, but not if we irrigate to grow oranges transported from one side of the world to the other, and so on and so on.

With Air and water secured (..) next resource is food . Without food, death comes in about three months. Think of the rugby team surviving in the Andes only by eating their dead fellow passengers from the plain crash. Air an water was not the problem, but food. And huge famines in history, like in China during the great leap forward, or regularly ( and currently) in African regions. And we all know what happens: people get on the run, to find other regions with food. They don’t worry about houses or comfort, or social structures, they leave all that for finding food ( and or water). It happens that population currently is growing faster as yields are increasing.

When air, water and food are secured, its all about materials. Materials for clothing or some form of shelter. Without materials people are dead in 3 years : they lack protection from weather events, or from wild animal attacks. This last one of course has been largely overcome, by killing all wild animals, or locking them up in reserves, and most people in cold or hot climates have some protection now, however 300 million live only in tents , mostly refugees, and the number is growing due to water and food constraints ( and fights over resources) , but as a general rule it still is the next important resource as basic for humanity.

resources order 1

And only next comes “energy” . if we exclude labour energy ( or better food based energy ), people can live more or less forever without “external” energy. Even the rugby-team in the cold Andes could do without “energy” : some protection could be provided from snow walls and from the crashed air plane materials, but food was their main concern, not energy. [5] And people in many countries still do without serious extra energy. For the whole or partly: like most people in Peru have no heated houses, they just wear a coat indoors in winters. 

In fact there is no other species that uses energy in the form of heat or electricity. Either they are adapted to local energy circumstances ( like the extremes as geyser bacteria or deep ocean creatures) or move around to the required temperature environment ( like birds migrating) . Lest the whole focus globally of the human species is on obtaining external energy, that is, in the industrialised world. In the least developed parts of the world focus is still on air water and food mainly. (And a little bit on cooking energy in the form of wood, as many in Africa still use.)

Its obvious that our first focus should be on water and food for all , in sufficient amounts, before start worrying about “external energy”…

Whether we still can adapt to a life without external energy is the question…we lost our hair on our bodies, and became a bald species, even shaving off some of the little remaining hair in specific body parts, while at the same time demanding heating and electricity, in all rooms, for 24 hours a day. (to shave and heat our now completely bald bodies…) . I am not sure if focussing on that can save us from large collapse in the system.

If you think this over, we should design or refurbish our houses in a compartmental way, enabling us to scale down and switch off functions and spaces until a minimal option is available: 1 room, well insulated, lets say with a minimal stove that can provide some heat for simple cooking, or melting some snow, ( and to warm your hands) and some provisions for a vegetarian diet supply . If we made an honest calculation over the world’s resources, keeping in mind the enormous task to stay below 2 degrees warming, we should already be doing this in daily life. In the western world, we have just a little time left before we are confronted with limits due to extensive depletion of stocks, despite denying th other half the world access to some stocks and resources. But this will change shortly. We should start preparing, and use principles and priorities in ranking resources to do so.

We are in fact already aware that choices affect each other and decisions addressing ranking have to be made. The best recent example is biofuels, which claim large areas of agricultural land and had an will have a large effect on food supplies ( and prices) . A major study already in 2003 showed that we can only supply ourselves with biofuels , the “external energy alternative for fossils, if agriculture productivity would be raised to Dutch levels all over the world (which is unlikely since it’s the highest and based on artificial fertilizers) and if we adapt our diet to a vegetarian diet. [6] And in that study, the need to change to biobased materials, which comes before external energy, was not even seriously incorporated.

We know it, but keep trying securing our comfort and stuff levels, in stead of securing our resource levels, in order of importance.


Some references

1 Resources are not equal: Exploring ranking not weighting , Rovers R. 2012 Journal: International Journal of Sustainable Building Technology and Urban Development Volume 3, Issue 4, December 2012, pages 270-276

2 Cadillac dessert, by Marc Reisner,1986 book Viking (ISBN -14-017824-4)

3 When the Rivers Run Dry: Water, the Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century Fred Pearce Beacon Press, 2006

4 link rivers National geographic: 8 major rivers running dry:


5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1972_Andes_flight_disaster

6 Exploration of the ranges of the global potential of biomass for energy,Hoogwijk M. et all, 2003, Biomass and Bioenergy 25 (2003) 119 – 133

Author: ronald rovers