Why non-renewable resources are not as non-renewable as you think
Sometimes when scientific experts/researchers use English words/terms to express ideas in their field of study, they leave a lot of people (especially those who don’t have a science background) in a bit of confusion, because the meanings of their words/terms in scientific context are different from their original meanings in English language.
In many instances, the originators of certain scientific words/terms have used certain English words in ways that could make critical thinkers think that the originators didn’t take time to find more appropriate English words/terms that could express their ideas better and still carry both laypeople and scientific researchers/experts along.
Most laypeople, if not all, have an impression of what certain English words mean; however, they get surprised, confused, or even left in the dark when the same terms (or words) are presented with different meanings in science-related fields/subjects; one such term is “non-renewable resources”.
There are probably many other English language words that have different meanings, not only in science, but probably in arts or social sciences. We’ll appreciate if you can briefly highlight any for us in the comment section at the end of this article.
In order to carry everybody along, we’ll start by taking a look at the definitions of “renewable” and “non-renewable” from different sources. Thereafter, we’ll define “renewable resources” and “non-renewable resources”, and give examples of each.
Next, we will pick out the difference between the renewable and non-renewable resources, and highlight the parts of each that don’t seem to be precise. Finally, we’ll state 3 lessons learnt, and end the article by making 5 recommendations.
A look at the definitions of the word “renewable”
WordWeb offline dictionary defines “renewable” as “that which can be renewed or extended; has a perpetual supply; never runs out; or, continues forever, or for an indefinitely long time.
Merriam Webster offline dictionary defines “renewable” as “anything capable of being replaced by natural ecological cycles”. (Would this likely imply that “non-renewable” means the opposite? Would “non-renewable” mean “anything that can’t be replaced by ecological or geological cycles”?)
Cambridge online dictionary defines “renewable” as any substance that can be used and easily replaced;
The main point to pick from these 3 definitions is this: renewable resources can always be renewed. I prefer to use “reproduced”, because that’s the word that has a meaning which I think actually fits the process.
A look at the definitions of the word “non-renewable”
WordWeb defines “non-renewable” as substances that are incapable of renewal — or resources that can’t be renewed.
Merriam Webster gives 3 definitions of “non-renewable”:
- substances that are not renewable
- substances that can’t be replenished once they’ve been used up — at least in our lifetime
- substances that can’t be replaced after they’ve been used.
(Notice the slight difference between the second and third definitions.)
Cambridge online dictionary defines “non-renewable” as anything that exists in limited quantities, and can’t be replaced after been used up. (Notice this definition too.)
The main point that can be picked out from these definitions from Merriam Webster is that “non-renewable” are resources “that can’t be renewed or replaced.
Now, if we attach the word “non-renewable” to resources, we’ll get the term “non-renewable resources”, which means “resources that can’t be renewed”—and in my opinion, this is irrespective of time.
However, a lot of research has shown that non-renewable (opposite of renewable) resources can be renewed after tens of thousands, millions, or even billions of years.
A look at the definitions of “renewable resources”
Everyone would likely agree that renewable resources are resources that can be replenished naturally with the passage of time (according to WordWeb). In case you don’t know, renewable resources include forests, plants, grasslands, populations of fishes, freshwater, fresh air, fertile topsoil, etc.
Everyone who has elementary about science would agree that all these resources can be renewed. (Once again, I prefer to use the word “reproduced” because I believe it’s a more befitting word.)
Other definitions of renewable resources from other sources include: (They’ve been listed in order to give support to the definition of “renewable resources” as previously stated.)
- Merriam Webster defines “renewable resources” as “resources that are capable of being replaced by natural ecological cycles”.
- Wiktionary defines “renewable resources” as “natural resources that are replenished by natural processes at a rate comparable to its rate of consumption by humans or other users”.
- Miller & Spoolman (2012) defines renewable resources as “resources that take anywhere from several days to several hundred years to be replenished through natural processes … as long as we do not use it up faster than nature can renew it”.
These 3 definitions of renewable resource wouldn’t leave anyone confused because they are all-encompassing, and generally mean the same thing: time is required to renew renewable resources; however, the actual amount of time is not fixed or specific.
Now, if we take a look at the definitions of non-renewable resources from 2 points of view: dictionaries, and specialists (those with a scientific background), we’ll notice that non-renewable resources can be renewed just like renewable ones.
However, the meaning of the word “non-renewable”, as previously stated (and which is a part of the term “non-renewable resources” as we’ll see in the next paragraph) does not convey this fact; why?
A look at the definitions of “non-renewable resources”
Most people (if not all) who don’t have a background in science, but who understand the meaning of “non-renewable”, have, at least, a basic/dictionary-level understanding of it. I’ve confirmed this several times while teaching undergraduate students for 6 years.
Backed with evidence, I’ve personally concluded that most laypeople (people without a background in science) who understand the meaning of “non-renewable” tend to assume that “non-renewable resources” mean any resources that can’t be renewed, respective or irrespective of time.
However, those who don’t know any better should note that the definitions of “non-renewable” as given by some sources, is not applicable to “non-renewable resources” because science has shown that non-renewable resources can actually be renewed; the only difference is that renewal can only take place over a very long period of time; say tens of thousands, millions, or even billions of years.
In case you don’t know, examples of non-renewable resources (i.e., resources that can’t be replenished in our lifetimes, or in very many lifetimes) include fossil fuels: coal, petroleum, and natural gas; minerals and metals that lie deep in the Earth: iron, silver and gold, silver, and iron, fossil fuel, aluminium, etc.
All these resources can actually be renewed by geological processes after tens of thousands, millions or billions of years. (Note that nuclear materials (such as Uranium) are also non-renewable resources.)
At this point, let’s take a look at the definitions of non-renewable resources from experts/researchers points of view:
- Miller & Spoolman (2012, p. 14) defined non-renewable resources as “resources that exist in a fixed quantity/stock in the earth’s crust. On a time scale it generally takes tens of thousands, or even millions or billions of years for these resources to be renewed by geological processes”.
This definition shows that non-renewable resources are not non-renewable after all: they are renewable, but only after a very long time.
A layperson who knows the definition of “non-renewable” as we stated earlier, and looks critically at the definition of non-renewable resources as stated by Miller & Spoolman (2012), could be a little bit confused about their (Miller & Spoolman) definition because the Earth is about 3.5 billion years old, and by their definition (tens of thousands, or even millions or billions of years), renewal of non-renewable resources should be taking place right now: renewal should be an ongoing process.
Another thing to take note of is this: contrary to definitions in dictionaries, once a substance can be renewed, then irrespective of time, it can be renewed; period!
Ok, if we put that argument aside and look critically at geological cycles — then like myself — we would likely prefer to use the word “reproducible resources” rather than renewable resources, because geological cycles, like human beings and animals, actually reproduce both renewable and non-renewable resources, rather than renew. (Check definitions of renewable — related to renew — as previously stated.)
If we agree that resources are reproduced by nature, just like how human beings and animals reproduce, then we’d also agree that unlike a few months or years that are required to reproduce renewable resources, it would take millions or billions of years to reproduce non-renewable resources. Whatever we agree on, both renewable and non-renewable resources are renewable, or in my own word, “reproducible”.
Now, let’s look at another source that defined “non-renewable resources”:
- according Merriam-Webster.com, Sheldon Judson & Marvin E. Kaufman (writers of “Physical Geology”) defined non-renewable resources as “resources that can’t be replaced after they’ve been used …”.
This definition can be misleading because of a reason we stated earlier. Although Sheldon Judson & Marvin E. Kaufman are older writers who might have had a different perception of the definition at their time of writing, Merriam Webster would have done a better job by providing precise definitions from other science experts, probably experts of this era/age.
Once again, let’s look at another different source that defined “non-renewable resources”:
- based on literature from a publication, Jaiswal (2013, p. 3), defined non-renewable resources as resources that can be replenished at a rate much slower than the faster rate at which they are currently being exploited.
Good enough, this definition is fairly precise, but could still leave some readers confused because the words “slower” and “faster” are not precise enough when one looks at overall context of the definition given. Does slower mean 100,000, 1 million, or 1 billion years? Does faster mean 1, 10, or fifty years? What do both words actually mean?
If we take a look at the list of renewable resources mentioned before and compare them with the list of non-renewable resources, we would all agree that the major difference between renewable resources and non-renewable resources lies in the amount of time each category needs for renewal. It’s evident that one category (non-renewable resources) requires much more time than the other (renewable resources).
Another thing to take note of is that the word “non-renewable”, as understood by most laypeople, doesn’t convey any possibility of renewal — at all. On the other hand, experts/researchers have not stated precise durations of time that could clearly differentiate renewable resources from non-renewable ones.
- most sources (irrespective of whether they are laypeople, students, or specialists, etc.) don’t seem to provide definitions that have the same/similar meaning.
- all sources that have provided imprecise definitions would likely not be able to carry everybody along.
- most laypeople might be at the mercy of any definition that’s thrown out there — right or wrong — if those concerned (environmental scientists/specialists, experts/researchers, and dictionaries/grammarians, etc.) with disseminating information are not careful about what they publish.
- experts (or originators of scientific terms) who borrow words/terms from English language, should use them to convey meanings that are similar to their original meanings in English language. If they do so, people who don’t have a scientific background would be carried along without any difficulty.
- all sources that have provided imprecise definitions should review what they’ve published, and give fairly precise definitions/meanings for the benefit of anybody searching any source — online or offline. We agree that people should be at liberty to express themselves, but that shouldn’t be an avenue for carelessness.
- science experts could, if they agree, use other terms in place of “renewable” and “non-renewable” resources. Based on most of the definitions we’ve assessed, one would probably recommend that the words “slower” and “faster” be used as given in the definition by Jaiswal (2013, p. 3), which states: “non-renewable resources are resources that can be replenished at a rate much slower than the faster rate at which they are currently being exploited”. If I had my way, “renewable resources” would be called “fastly renewable resources” because they renew faster, while “non-renewable resources” would be called “slowly renewable resources” since their renewal is slow and takes longer time. (It’s even possible to break down each category into different grades because some renewable resources renew much faster than others within the same category; this same idea could be applied to non-renewable resources.)
- science experts should agree on a definite time period (years) that would clearly distinguish renewable resources from non-renewable resources, because existing literature from different sources are not precise about the amount of time. Should renewable resources be defined as resources that can be renewed between one day and 500,000 or 1 million years? What about non-renewable resources? Etc.? If we consider that each human life is valuable, and we agree that the average duration of each human life is between 80 and 100 years, or anything around that range, then renewable resources could be re-defined as resources that are capable of being renewed between one day and any period between or around 80 and 100 years; any other resources that are capable of being renewed beyond that range could be called non-renewable resources, or preferably, “slowly renewable resources”.
- people who carry out research/thesis, or search for information to produce literature reviews, should be careful when copying definitions, so that the end product of their work can be fairly understood by everyone — laypersons and experts/researchers alike.