Natural Resources are Human Resources
Religion & Liberty Online

Natural Resources are Human Resources

oil-field-workerIf the PowerBlog has a favorite atheist libertarian economist, it’s probably George Mason professor Don Boudreaux. Although he isn’t a believer, he sometimes stumbles upon what I would consider to be Christian insights. Consider, for instance, his take on the term “natural resources”:

In nearly all contexts, words and phrases inevitably convey not only information (such as, as Deirdre would say, “telephone numbers”), but also ideas – notions – interpretations – perspectives – biases – prejudices – spins -approval or disapproval – informal theories – attitudes and judgments – unconscious conclusions. And much of all this that is conveyed by our words and phrases goes unnoticed. This fact is neither good nor bad; it’s simply part of the human condition.

Take the term “natural resources” … This phrase suggests that some things of value to human beings occur naturally – without any human effort or creativity. But that suggestion is wrong. Nothing is naturally a resource; nature alone invests nothing with resourcefulness; ultimately, resources – all resources – are created by human beings. Nature creates raw materials, but never creates resources. Raw materials and human artifacts are made into resources only if, and only when, and only insofar as, human creativity figures out a way (or ways) to employ those materials and artifacts in ways that satisfy genuine human desires.

The point, here, is that the term “natural resources” can be misleading about the role of nature in creating human bounty. Nature exists, to be sure; but human bounty is created by human creativity; nature in matters economic is not the prime mover. Nature’s role in determining who is and who isn’t materially wealthy is much smaller than we are sometimes led to believe when focusing on “natural resources.”

Here’s why I think this is a biblical insight.

Christians not only believe that God created the entire natural world, but that he gave mankind a role as overseer and caretaker of the Earth. As it says in Gen. 1:28:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (ESV)

In the Reformed tradition, this command is often referred to as the “cultural mandate.” As Nancy Pearcey explains in her book Total Truth:

In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations—nothing less.

It is this harnessing of the natural world that transforms natural materials into natural resources, that is, into an asset that can be used to produce goods and services that meets human needs and wants. That is not say, of course, that natural materials are only valuable because if they are used or valued by humans. The natural world has an intrinsic value that was imbued by its creator (Gen. 1:31). But such materials only have value as a resource because of human creativity.

As Boudreaux notes, misunderstanding this concept can lead to a misunderstanding of the role of nature in creating human bounty. Believing this mistaken idea can even impede human progress. Many nations, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, confuse their country’s ‘wealth’ with natural materials like oil or gas that is buried in their lands. What they fail to recognize is that the wealth created is due to the creativity of those who turned the material into a valuable resource for powering jet planes or heating skycrapers. Without the mixing of such material with human ingenuity, their “natural resources” are of almost no value at all to mankind.

Understanding this fact helps us to understand why the first part of the cultural mandate – be fruitful and multiply – is essential to flourishing. Humans, with their God-given abilities of creation and innovation, are the most important resource any country can develop. Human resources are not only the most valuable natural resource, they are the only real natural resources on the Earth.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).