Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On "resources"

I come back to the use of words and how words shape our thoughts, and the meanings we prescribe to the world around us. I have had particular trouble with the use of the word "resource." When one mentions the word, anyone's gut would say that a resource is something that is drawn upon and used whenever wanted. I wanted to see how the authorities of English define the word, and so I did a basic search to see how different dictionaries define the word "resource." Here's what I found.

"A stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively" ~Google definition search

"A country's collective means of supporting itself or becoming wealthier, as represented by its reserves of minerals, land, and other assets" ~Google definition search

"Something that one uses to achieve an objective, e.g. raw materials or personnel; A person's capacity to deal with difficulty; To supply with resources" ~Wiktonary

"A resource is any physical or virtual entity of limited availability that needs to be consumed to obtain a benefit from it." - ~Wikipedia 

"Personal attributes and capabilities regarded as able to help or sustain one in adverse circumstances" ~Oxford English Dictionary

Such definitions say a lot about how we view our surroundings and people. When something is coined a "natural resource," we implicitly state that it is only in its use that that particular thing in the environment is valuable. Also such a definition draws dangerous boundaries between our actions and their effects. We fail at recognising the important role that something serves without its explicit use. Even when we conserve a resource, we imply that we are saving it for later use. Now, if someone's goal is to prolong the use of something, conservation makes sense. The concept of sustainability has been morphed into one of sustainable "development," with conservation being one of the key pillars of development. But this is only a stepping stone to where we need to be.

What conservation may result in is just a slower use of a resource, without leading us to question the behaviours that lead to consumption and degradation. We operate then with the same broken cycles of existence. The notion of a resource then is dangerous. The essential thing that the definition of "resource" connotes is that things are limited, because we live in a finite world.

Professor Larimore said last night at dinner that Native Americans don't have the notion of "resource." This is something Derrick Jensen would agree to. Rather than view something as solely for the benefit of humans, things have worth and importance in themselves, and have unique positions in ecology, each with their own energy, their own role. When something is "used" by humans, there is a responsibility in the end for that thing to end up back so that someone or something else can "use" it. The notion of a resource then, would be counter to Native American philosophy. Think of the things that you consider "resources" in your life. How would the way you interact with them change if you no longer called it a "resource?"

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