The classification of natural resources shows us the diversity of materials and elements available in nature and that we can use to develop all kinds of technological solutions to our problems.

In this article we will see what the different types of natural resources are and several examples of these categories, which can serve to distinguish between renewable and non-renewable resources, potential and actual, biotic and abiotic, and in reserves or stocks.

Classification of natural resources

Let’s start with the most important thing: what are natural resources? We can define them as elements that exist in nature (that is to say, that do not exist thanks to the work of human beings) and that, after being introduced into a product production process, can be given an essential use for the way of life of human societies .

Thus, natural resources serve to maintain the basic biological processes of the members of our species, and also make possible a way of life that defines our communities, whether it is shaping their ways of socializing, or their way of inhabiting the environments and extracting other resources from nature.

As we shall see, technological development and the application of human intelligence to the management of environments have turned a wide variety of solid, liquid and gaseous elements into natural resources (although it has also had negative consequences on the environment).

Furthermore, natural resources are the material on which the activity of the extractive industry is based, an important part of the primary sector of the economy, and which is at the beginning of the production chain of products used by our species to satisfy the most diverse needs.

At the same time, it is necessary to keep a control and record of the way in which natural resources are extracted from the earth’s surface, because this process has a high environmental cost that must be tried to minimize in order to preserve the environment as much as possible and prevent the existing balance in ecosystems and biomes from being broken due to human interference.

Having seen a summary definition to understand this basic concept for human existence, let us now see how natural resources are classified according to different criteria.

Non-renewable resources

Non-renewable resources are those that either degrade at a much higher rate than they take to form, which means that in practice it is as if we had a finite amount of these materials .

On the other hand, extracting these materials from the earth in quantities that are profitable is now only within the reach of large mining corporations and the oil industry.

Examples of this category of natural resources are elements used to make fossil fuels, and certain minerals and metals used in industrial processes.

Usable minerals and metals

Among these materials useful for human society we find examples as common as copper or iron, which gave way to the first civilizations .

Fossil fuels

Coal, thanks to which the first Industrial Revolution took place , is an example of a material used as a fossil fuel, as well as oil (although the latter has many other uses and applications that go far beyond obtaining energy.

2. Renewable resources

Renewable resources are not degraded at a fast enough rate to be considered that a finite quantity of them is available, given that the natural dynamics of planet Earth already produce more resources of this type on its own .


Natural environments provide us, in most of their ecosystems, with food from which the human species can nourish itself . The direct use of these resources without going through agriculture or domestication was the way of life that hominids adopted for hundreds of thousands of years, starting with the adoption of the typical customs of hunter-gatherer peoples.

However, the overexploitation of certain plants, fungi and animals can lead some species to extinction , which impoverishes the ecosystems and makes them inert.


Water is one of the most representative examples that can be included in this category.

Although fresh water is present in large quantities in the earth’s crust, contaminating it can make it unfit for consumption.


Air is one of the most important natural resources for any animal, since without it we would die in a matter of minutes . As with fresh water, it is available in high quantities, but its mixture with certain gases can make it toxic and unfit for use by our bodies.


Sunlight can be used to obtain energy for direct use in our new technological systems based on solar panels that transform the sun’s rays into electricity, but also influences agriculture .

3. Resources in stock

These are sets of resources whose location we know, but whose exploitation is impossible at the moment , because we lack the technology to be able to do so. This is the case, for example, with freshwater deposits that are found at great depths under a layer of very thick rock.

4. Potential resources

This category is used to classify in it the natural resources whose location is known in an approximate way, although for different reasons it is not yet possible to extract them from nature and use them in a profitable way, something that could happen in the medium or long term depending on the plans we draw up and the priorities we have .

For example, if it is known that under a certain mountain there are copper deposits but the market situation makes capital investment in extracting this material not advisable, we will be talking about a potential natural resource.

5. Reservations

The reserves are fossil fuel deposits for which we know the basic information and whose exploitation is already possible with the technology available to us , and it would also be profitable to do so, but which are not being exploited at the moment.

6. Current resources

Unlike the previous concept, in this case we are talking about natural resource deposits of which we already know all the most important information precisely, we have already been able to access them, and they are already being exploited .

7. Biotic resources

In this category fall all natural resources that are of organic origin and can be cultivated or domesticated to have a more or less regular rate of extraction (not necessarily in large quantities).

Typically these are plants, animals and fungi , as well as certain bacteria, although in many western countries the debate is opening up as to whether sentient animals should be considered resources.

8. Abiotic resources

In this last part of the classification of natural resources we find materials that are not of living organic origin : minerals, water, sunlight, air, natural gas, etc.

Bibliographic references:

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  • Naredo, J.M. and Parra, F. (comp.) (1993) Hacia una ciencia de los recursos naturales. Siglo XXI de España Editores, Madrid.
  • Schilling, M. and Chiang, L. (2011). The effect of natural resources on sustainable development policy: The approach of non-sustainable externalities. Energy Policy 39: 990 – 998.
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