Geography Geography of Resources
Matthew Himley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0091


Human societies extract, harvest, or otherwise utilize an enormous quantity and impressive variety of materials from the Earth. This exploitation of nature qua resources takes diverse techno-social forms—from dipping a bucket into a stream to collect water for one’s daily activities to blasting off the top of a mountain to extract the coal contained within. Despite some sanguine reports that economic growth is being “decoupled” from the usage of raw materials, overall consumption levels for many important renewable and nonrenewable resources continue to rise. Given the centrality of resource appropriation to humans’ relationship to the nonhuman world, it is rather surprising that relatively few scholars currently identify as “resource geographers.” Nevertheless, the interrelated human and environmental dimensions of natural-resource use and conservation have long been important topics within the discipline of geography, especially for scholars working in fields such as cultural ecology, political ecology, and environmental history. Further, in the context of expanding interest in “the material” across human geography, scholars in subfields such as cultural geography, economic geography, and political geography have increasingly taken up resources as objects of study. This article offers an overview of the geographical literature on natural resources. Organized around a series of core themes present in this literature, the article puts on display the range of theoretical frameworks—among others, Marxist, post-structuralist, postcolonialist, and feminist—that geographers and allied scholars have deployed in recent decades in their efforts to understand patterns and trajectories of resource use and conservation as well as the complex socio-ecological ramifications of these activities.

General Overviews

Several book-length works provide valuable overviews of resource issues and are useful for teaching. For a broad historical perspective on changing patterns of resource use across the globe during the 20th century as well as the environmental consequences of these changes, McNeill 2000 is an excellent source. A textbook, Cutter and Renwick 2004 provides a good introduction to the study of natural resources from a geographical perspective. Also designed as a textbook for undergraduate courses, Robbins, et al. 2010 presents lucid explanations of influential analytical tools and perspectives for studying the nature-society nexus, and it includes case studies for a number of resources. Several chapters in Peet, et al. 2011 contribute valuable political-ecological analyses of natural-resource-based industries. For a more concise introduction to recent trends in resource use, as well as the analytical frameworks that geographers and others use to interpret them, Emel, et al. 2002 is a good choice. Meanwhile, Bakker and Bridge 2006 offers a theoretically engaged discussion of early-21st-century work on materiality in human geography and its relevance for the study of resource geographies. A special issue on energy geographies published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Zimmerer 2011, illustrates the breadth of scholarship being undertaken in geography on energy resources. Finally, three state-of-the-field review articles in Progress in Human Geography (Bridge 2011, Bridge 2014, and Huber 2016) deliver important overviews of geographical scholarship on resources.

  • Bakker, Karen, and Gavin Bridge. “Material Worlds? Resource Geographies and the ‘Matter of Nature.’” Progress in Human Geography 30.1 (2006): 5–27.

    DOI: 10.1191/0309132506ph588oa

    Reviews scholarship on materiality in human geography, assessing its implications for research on the geography of resources. Contends that recent conceptualizations of the material enable a fruitful rethinking of the agency of nature in the production of resource geographies.

  • Bridge, Gavin. “Resource Geographies I: Making Carbon Economies, Old and New.” Progress in Human Geography 35.6 (2011): 820–834.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132510385524

    Focuses on carbon as a lens through which to explore important themes present in early-21st-century work on resource geographies. These themes include enclosure and commodification in the making of resources, the forms of territorialization inherent to resource-making activities, and processes of subject formation occurring around resource production, consumption, and governance.

  • Bridge, Gavin. “Resource Geographies II: The Resource-State Nexus.” Progress in Human Geography 38.1 (2014): 118–130.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132513493379

    Reviews early-21st-century scholarship on the nature and role of the state in resource geographies. The first main section discusses work on the relation between state making and resource making, focusing on the nexus of resource science and state politics. The paper then considers work on the role of the state as a key actor in the appropriation and distribution of natural resources.

  • Cutter, Susan L., and William H. Renwick. Exploitation, Conservation, Preservation: A Geographic Perspective on Natural Resource Use. 4th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2004.

    An undergraduate-level textbook on resource management and conservation. Chapters 1–5 introduce students to the study of natural resources from interrelated economic, political, ecological, and demographic perspectives. Chapters 6–15 address specific themes, including agricultural and food production, forests, biodiversity, marine resources, water, air pollution, minerals, energy, and sustainability.

  • Emel, Jody, Gavin Bridge, and Rob Krueger. “The Earth as Input: Resources.” In Geographies of Global Change: Remapping the World. 2d ed. Edited by R. J. Johnston, Peter J. Taylor, and Michael J. Watts, 377–390. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

    Provides concise overviews of present-day trends in resource production and consumption, as well as analytical frameworks for interpreting them. Explains how geographical approaches to the study of resource dynamics differ from other prominent conceptual frameworks; for example, environmental economics and ecological modernization. Good for undergraduate teaching.

  • Huber, Matt. “Resource Geographies I: Valuing Nature (or Not).” Progress in Human Geography (5 October 2016).

    Evaluates critical geographical research on environmental valuation schemes, the flow of resources and value through global production networks, and the financialization of environmental goods and services. Asserts the utility of a unified value theory grounded in Marxian political economy for explaining resources-society relations and understanding the failure of capitalism to address ecological crises.

  • McNeill, J. R. Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

    Written by a prominent environmental historian, this book argues that the 20th century was unusual for the scale and intensity of human-induced environmental change occurring globally—much of which can be traced to changing patterns of resource use. A valuable resource for undergraduate-level teaching.

  • Peet, Richard, Paul Robbins, and Michael J. Watts, eds. Global Political Ecology. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    An edited collection of early-21st-century work in political ecology. Matters of resource use and conservation are investigated in chapters on food production (Julie Guthman, Jody Emel and Harvey Neo, Becky Mansfield, Joel Wainwright and Kristin Mercer), forestry (Nancy Lee Peluso and Peter Vandergeest), oil (Gavin Bridge, Mazen Labban), and water (Karen Bakker, Lyla Mehta). Suitable for use in upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses.

  • Robbins, Paul, John Hintz, and Sarah A. Moore. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. Critical Introductions to Geography. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    An effective textbook for introductory human-environment courses that is notable for its innovative structure: the first eight chapters provide explanations of important analytical frameworks for analyzing nature-society interactions; remaining chapters apply these frameworks to six “objects of concern,” including trees, tuna, and bottled water.

  • Zimmerer, Karl S., ed. Special Issue: Geographies of Energy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101.4 (2011).

    The articles included in this special issue address current energy dynamics and dilemmas from diverse analytical perspectives. Collectively, the contributions provide a valuable overview of work being undertaken on the changing geographies of energy production and consumption.

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