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Forests are examples of natural resources

Natural Resources Definition, Features, and Classification

By David Okul

Natural resources definition can be a simple or complex concept. The fact is that all products that we use are based on natural resources. For instance, plastic may be an obvious man-made product but it has its origins in natural resources including natural gas, oil, and plants. These natural resources are refined into ethane and propane to create different polymers.


A simple natural resources definition would define natural resources as ‘things that occur naturally and are of value to humans’. A more acceptable definition of natural resources comes from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that defines it as ‘assets occurring in nature that can be used for economic production or consumption.’


It is important for a resource to have value to humans.  Value means that human beings should be able to use the resources. 


But there is a problem with the definition. It would mean that since air is not used in economic production or consumption, it would not be a natural resource. Although the economic value of air is not obvious it is the basis of life on earth.

Technical natural resources definition

A more technical explanation defines natural resources by what they are not. It is common for environmentalists to define natural resources by what it is not. In this respect, a natural resource is not:

  • Goods subjected to some processing, e.g automobiles
  • Products not extracted from the natural environment. E.g., food from agriculture is cultivated rather than extracted.

Further, the technical definition would involve a look into the features/characteristics of natural resources. Five features are pertinent:

  • Exhaustibility
  • Uneven distribution in different countries: For instance over 80% of all known oil reserves are within 3 countries
  • Externalities such as pollution that arise from extraction
  • Volatility: variation in the pricing
  • Dominance: many countries rely on a narrow range of natural resources for their export

A more detailed explanation of the features of natural resources is explained in the World Trade Report


Natural resources are thought of as natural capital different from human and physical capital.


In natural resources definition, it is vital to distinguish between natural resources as factors of production and goods that can be traded. As factors of production, natural resources can form the basis for various economic sectors. For instance, unique natural scenery may spur tourism. In contrast, some natural resources such as minerals can be traded in the international market in their raw form.


The earth’s physical environment provides the life support system and all the resources we use. The physical environment has four spheres including the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere.

Classification of natural resources

Just like there are varied ways of defining natural resources, there are different ways to classify the resources including:

  • The origin categorizes resources into biotic and abiotic. Biotic resources would be obtained from living things while abiotic resources originate from non-organic materials.
  • Stage of development: This approach categorizes natural resources as potential, actual, reserve, and stock resources.
  • Renewability: is the most commonly used method of classification and is the focus of the subsequent discussion


The air we breathe and the light we get from the sun are available in unlimited quantity, at least in theory. In contrast, resources like coal, forest, and petroleum can be depleted. The stock of these resources is limited because they keep reducing day by day.


Based on renewability, resources can be classified into:

  1. Inexhaustible
  2. Exhaustible resources

Inexhaustible Resources

The resources which cannot be exhausted by human consumption and other uses are called inexhaustible resources or perpetual resources. Examples include energy sources like solar radiation, wind power, water power (flowing streams) and tidal power, and substances like sand, clay, air, water in oceans, etc.

They cannot be exhausted! For example, the sun will always be there even if everybody in the world puts up solar panels! The push for renewable energy, especially solar and the wind is based on the premise that these resources’ availability is unlimited.


Exhaustible Resources

On the other hand, there are some resources, which are available in limited quantities and are going to be exhausted (finished) as a result of continuous use. For instance, the stock of coal on the earth is limited and one day there will be no more coal available on earth. Petroleum is another important exhaustible resource. The exhaustible resources can be classified to:

  • Renewable
  • Non-renewable resources

Renewable Resources

Some of the exhaustible resources are naturally regenerated after consumption and are known as renewable resourcesE.g. living beings (both animals and plants) reproduce and can thus, replace the dying or killed individuals. It is important to note that if the use of these resources is a greater rate of regeneration, they may also get totally exhausted/ finished. Some examples of renewable resources are freshwater, fertile soils, forest (yielding wood and other products), vegetation, wildlife, etc.


Non-renewable Resources

The resources, which cannot be replaced after use, are known as non-renewable resources. These include minerals (copper, iron, etc.) fossil fuels (coal, oil, etc.).


Sometimes, unsustainable use of renewable resources may turn them into non-renewables. For instance, many conservationists categorize endangered wildlife species (rare plants and animals) as non-renewable.

Concluding Remarks

In essence, natural resources are found virtually everywhere on earth. However, scholars often include the concept of ‘value’ in defining natural resources. Resources exist independently of humans but can be defined as natural resources when they are of value to humans. Adjectives such as ‘critical’ or ‘keystone’ are increasingly being used to describe some natural resources or capital to show that some resources are more valuable than others.


All goods we use will either need natural resources (e.g foods that require minerals from soil) or will embody natural resources (e.g. a car will contain iron ore).  The problem is that with economic development and population growth, more and more natural resources are being extracted. This unsustainable resource use is the cause of some of the major environmental problems of today.


Read more about natural resources in this book

David Okul is an environmental management professional with over 10 years experience on donor projects, conservation, forestry, ecotourism, and community-based natural resources management. When not working on  environmental projects, I spend my time writing for Silvica on a variety of topics. The view in this blog are personal and do not represent the organizations that he is associated with.