The Evolution of Natural Resource Management Paradigms

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What are natural resource management paradigms? How did natural resource management paradigms affect human-nature relations through time?

The primary aim of environmental management is to make sure that there is a balance between natural resource integrity and economic development as human society progresses. Natural resource must be managed in such a way that man derives benefit from natural resources without unnecessarily harming it. Natural resources should be used, not just protected, to supply man’s needs. Environmental management is there to regulate, not curtail, the use of natural resources.

All through the years, environmental management took many forms. Early forms of natural resource use favor more of the economic considerations until the harmful effects of pollution prompted governments to undertake measures to prevent it. These approaches are not perfect such that different approaches were employed in an effort to efficiently and effectively manage the increasingly dwindling natural resource base in many natural resource-rich countries.

The way people view their relationship with nature is one of the most important aspects of any strategy for human development. These are called paradigms of natural resource management. Paradigms serve as the guiding framework by which development projects were pursued.

Five paradigms became dominant in the course of management of natural resources through time. These are frontier economics, deep ecology, environmental protection, resource management, and eco-development. These paradigms are not mutually exclusive but may in fact overlap with each other or evolve from the previous one.

The Five Paradigms Natural Resource Management

1. Frontier Economics. This paradigm prevailed in industrial countries until the 1960s. Frontier economics thinking treats nature as an infinite supply of physical resources including raw materials, energy, water, soil, and air. Nature is there primarily to serve human needs. Nature is treated as an infinite sink for the by-products of development and consumption in the form of pollution and environmental degradation. There is no biophysical environment to manage because it is irrelevant to the economy. Nature is there to be explored, manipulated, exploited, modified, and even cheated in any way possible so that the material needs of human society will be satisfied.


Mining illustrates frontier economic thinking.

2. Deep Ecology. Deep ecology thinking puts man under nature. It is the direct opposite of frontier economics. It advocates major reductions in human population, promotes biological and cultural diversity, advocates decentralized planning and non-growth oriented economics. Unlike frontier economics where technology plays a dominant role in natural resource use, deep ecology favors use of simple or crude technologies. Indigenous natural resource management approaches are promoted. Human society should adopt a simple lifestyle which will require minimal raw natural resources as input. Recycling of materials is encouraged.


Photo by Keith Bacongco

3. Environmental Protection. Many countries adopted the environmental protection approach as the answer to pollution as an offshoot of economic development. Environmental impact statements were institutionalized to prevent possible negative effects of development projects. This approach focused more on repairing and setting limits to harmful activities associated with the production of goods and services needed by a growing economy. The environmental protection approach is also referred to as the “end of pipe”, “business as usual” or “clean-up” approach because there are no solid attempts to prevent pollution. Rather, technology is relied upon as the reliable solution to mitigate pollution arising from human economic activities (albeit with difficulty; see the Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill on Wildlife). Adherents of the environmental protection approach believe that technology can always find ways to emulate the ecological functions of nature.

oil spill

Technology can address the oil spill (Image Source).

4. Resource Management. The resource management approach is viewed as a mature paradigm owing to the apparent wisdom of its precepts. It advocates wise use of natural resources through regulation of human behavior and activities. Resource management focuses on the manner by which people use and combine resources in order to attain their goals according to their interests and values as individuals and as a community. Natural resources are not used indiscriminately but in an organized manner. It views natural resources as limited, therefore should be used with utmost care and efficiency. Efficiency of natural resource use can be achieved through agreements and policies that guide communities on how they should sustainably use their natural resources. This means that the people should be familiar with their natural resources and how these should be used wisely such that these are not depleted. There is greater emphasis on the long-term prospects of the natural resource base.

5. Eco-Development. The approach of eco-development is preemptive. This means that natural resource management should be employed in such a way that pollution is prevented before it even occurs. It restructures the relationship between society and nature in such a way that the overall outcome will always be positive. A perfect relationship between nature and society is envisioned. This may involve the integration of all the other paradigms.

biogas powered train

Bio-gas powered train in Sweden (Image Source)

As human society becomes more complex due to the increasing population and work specialization as well as technological advances associated with this development, natural resource management also evolves. In due time, new paradigms may evolve but the paradigm of eco-development appears to be the most desirable approach that will guide environmental policy makers and decision makers of the future for a long time.


Colby, Michael E. 1989. The evolution of paradigms of environmental management in development. Strategic Planning Division, Strategic Planning and Review Department, World Bank. 34 pp.

©Patrick Regoniel 9 August 2010


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