carrying capacity


There is widespread concern about an ‘overpopulation problem’. Let us be clear about what is meant by ‘overpopulation’. It is not a problem for a lot of people to be alive. It is a problem if there are too many people for given resources to go around. So the important question is, “Is the human population likely to outstrip available resources?”

According to the US Census Bureau[2], the world population as of September 14th 2010 is 6,868,683,892. This number is growing; the UN’s upper prediction is 10.6 billion for 2050[3]. After that, the UN expects the population to begin to fall.

Let us assume population continues to rise beyond 2050 and reaches 40 billion, well beyond any UN estimate. Would we be overpopulated then, in relation to available resources? —

  • Food. Without expanding farmland, we could grow enough food for 80 billion people using low-tech permaculture techniques only.
  • Water. Our planet has about 1260 quintillion liters of water. This means that 40 billion people using 200 liters a day each would use, over the course of a year, less than 0.00025% of the world’s water.
  • Energy. The world used 15 terawatts of energy in 2008. If rising population and increasing technology increased this 100-fold to 1500 terawatts, we would still only need to convert less than 0.9% of the sunlight that falls on Earth. It is highly likely that we will have fusion reactors and space-based solar panels before our energy needs come anywhere near this level.
  • Land. The planet’s surface (including oceans) is about 510 million square kilometers. According to Wikipedia, one-eighth of this, 63,750,000km2, is habitable land. For a population of 40 billion people, this is 1593.75m2 habitable land per person, equivalent to a average population density of 628 people per km2. This is comparable to a fairly densely populated country like Taiwan.
Doing more with less

100 years ago, 8000 square meters of land was needed to grow food for a person. It can now be done on a few hundred square meters. Why? Because human intelligence has figured out how to extract more resources from a fixed amount of material. The effect of human intelligence is always to enable us to do more with less 

: better solar cells can make more electricity from less sunlight, we can make a more powerful computer chip using less material than a few years ago, and more efficient vehicles can travel the same journeys with much less petrol.

Human intelligence is the key that unlocks all other resources. As Robert Anton Wilson has said, “You can starve in the middle of a field of wheat if your mind hasn’t identified wheat as edible.” The greater the population, the greater the store of human intelligence. A large population that is well networked and educated will concoct and communicate all kinds of technological solutions that enable us to do more with the resources we have. And so, paradoxically, an increased population can mean that we have more resources to go around.

Space colonisation

There is ultimately an upper limit on the amount of people this planet can accomodate (though, as we have shown, the limit is not very limiting). Colonising space can be thought of as the ultimate solution to any question of overpopulation. Gerard K. O’Neill wrote a classic essay called The Colonization of Space in 1974. In it, he considers the ability of a series of space habitats orbiting the Earth and the Sun to absorb population increase. These colonies could be built from materials available in the asteroid belt and the Moon using the technology available in 1974. O’Neill’s calculations show that they could house 20,000 times the world population at the time he wrote the essay - no less than 80 trillion people!

James Watt is one of the most important names in the history of enslavement, a first vote inductee into the Enslavers Hall of Fame, which is quartered neither in Cooperstown nor Cleveland, but in every city on the planet, and increasingly, in every head.


[He] invented an effective means to enslave the dead. The bodies of the dead are burned in a confined space, heating the air around them and causing it to expand. Because the space is confined, pressure goes up, pushing out a piston which is attached to, and turns, a crankshaft. This enslavement device is called the steam engine, and has evolved now into the internal combustion engine.

At first the burned dead were trees, and later the longer dead, in the form of coal and oil. The energy released in this burning originally struck the earth when these plants and animals were alive, and had been stored in their bodies. Of course using energy stored in the bodies of others is old news: everybody’s been doing that since they learned how to metabolize. And everybody who has ever used fire to keep themselves warm has used energy stored in trees, or coal, for that matter. The big change was in the conversion of these dead into mechanical energy, into what Catton and others call “ghost slaves.”

A ghost slave would be the equivalent to how much energy one human would spend in one day (that 2,000 to 3,000 kilocalories Catton mentioned). Yesterday, for example, I went to a traditional Yurok (Indian) brush dance pit, where they hold their annual brush dances. The pit is perhaps four feet deep, and about ten by ten. A narrow ramp leads into it. The walls are lined with weathered wooden planks, and a pole stands one per side. There is effectively no roof. I was told that the design is similar to that of a traditional Yurok home, except, of course, that the houses have roofs. The point as it relates to ghost slaves is this: this home could be constructed by hand by a few people in a day with materials close by. I pictured how the Yurok traditionally lived, there on the banks of the Klamath River. Fishing for salmon. Hunting for elk and deer. Gathering greens and berries. Performing rituals. Building their homes. Playing. Sustainably. Using their own energy, energy gained from eating, metabolizing.

No more.

We have come to base our way of living on these ghost slaves, and our use of them has turned us into slavers on a degree unimaginable to the most megalomaniacal of our forebears. More energy was used in a few minutes to propel a Saturn V rocket toward the moon—and perhaps to an even less life-serving purpose—than was used by two decades of Egyptians stacking 2.3 million blocks of stone (each stone weighing 2.5 tons) to form the Great Pyramid of Cheops. A little closer to the experience of most of us is the truth that, as Catton points out, “Within two eventful centuries of the time when James Watt started us substituting fossil energy for muscle power, per capita energy use in the United States reached a level equivalent to eighty or so ghost slaves for each citizen. The ratio remained much lower than that in many other parts of the world. But, dividing the energy content of total annual world fuel consumption by the annual rate of food-energy consumption in an active adult human body, the world average still worked out to the equivalent of about ten ghost slaves per person….More than nine-tenths of the energy used by Homo sapiens was now derived from sources other than each year’s crop of vegetation.”

Because the amount of energy that struck the earth a very long time ago and ended up stored in coal, oil, natural gas, and so on is merely tremendous, and not infinite, its use is not sustainable. To base one’s way of life on this energy is to live unsustainably. “To become completely free from dependence on prehistoric energy (without reducing population or per capita energy consumption),” wrote Catton, and remember this was more than twenty years ago, meaning that things have become far more extreme, “modern man would require an increase in contemporary carrying capacity equivalent to ten earths—each of whose surfaces was forested, tilled, fished, and harvested to the current extent of our planet. Without ten new earths, it followed that man’s exuberant way of life would be cut back drastically sometime in the future, or else that there would someday be many fewer people.” Or maybe both.

"I wanted to be something else: I’d look out the door and see a plastic bag in the street, imagining the bag was the spirit of a great horned owl. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? Why couldn’t we be like birds, laying eggs and taking our turns incubating them, all the pain long gone before the first of our children emerges? Why couldn’t we be like birds, short lived and compelled by instinct?” - from Farthing Street, Chapter One in Carrying Capacity

gaijinhikikomori asked:

Seriously, the articles you post on your page have dispelled more "facts" than I'd comfortably like to admit haha.. Thank you and please, keep up the good work.

We wrote you a whole book just to further de-bullshit your brain, and if you buy it our children/pets/Pathfinder characters can have new shoes/booties/bags of holding.

Talk to people who care about the environment and you’ll hear plenty about pollution, deforestation, sustainability and climate change. What you won’t hear is the word “population,” unless it refers to populations of endangered species. But if you think about it, the Earth’s booming human population is at the root of… 

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Carrying Capacity & Overshoot | A quick lesson in sustainability

Life can exist on a piece of land only insofar as it can produce enough vegetation, or rather replenish itself from whatever the life living on it has taken to sustain themselves. 

Carrying capacity refers to the maximum life a piece of land can sustain indefinitely; that means, hypothetically, for as long as that land may exist (thousands of years, even millions). 

Overshoot is exceeding that maximum life, or carrying capacity. 

“A classic example of overshoot occurred on St. Mathew Island when the US Coast Guard released 29 Reindeer – 24 females and 5 males—in 1944. By the summer of 1963, the population had exploded to over 6,000 animals. By the end of that year, the population plummeted to fewer than 50 starving animals.

In an ecologic sense, our global economy is very much like the Reindeers at 6,000. We are poised at the top of a dizzying growth jag, but we are seeing the first signs of trouble.”— 

Basically, it if isn’t obvious, the landbase was pushed beyond its threshold to support life and the deer multiplied and consumed until it was beyond its capability to replenish itself. Detriment to the population resulted.

It is worth a reminder that cities go far beyond exceeding the land from which they exist. Indeed, most cities overshoot is so horrendous that they effectively rape lands from far around them and push those lands into overshoot as well.

Feel free to add to this as I am sure others have something to say and/or I missed something in my rush. 

"When my brother jumped from the roof, he wasn’t reflecting on how the uncertainty principle states that we cannot know, at the same instant, both where in space a particle exists and how fast it is moving. He wasn’t thinking that shooting stars are not stars at all, just terminally ill satellites entering and disintegrating within the atmosphere. He wasn’t questioning which axiom was more important: Euclid’s Axiom of Parallels or the more modern Axiom of Choice. Rather, he was full up with methamphetamine and thinking that no one loved him."

— From the chapter Maltby Road from Carrying Capacity

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) will be the most powerful rocket in history for deep-space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. The first flight test of the SLS will feature a configuration for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit to test the performance of the integrated system. As the SLS evolves, it will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to enable missions even farther into our solar system.

"The case is strong that growth in the affluent U.S. is now doing more harm than good.

Let’s first take up the limits of growth. Despite the constant claims that we need more growth, there are limits on what growth can do for us. The ecological economist Herman Daly has reminded us that if neo-classical economists were true to their trade, they would recognize that there are diminishing returns to growth. Most obviously, the value of income growth declines as one gets richer and richer. Similarly, growth at some point has increasing marginal costs. For example, workers have to put in too many hours, or the climate goes haywire. It follows that for the economy as a whole, we can reach a point where the extra costs of more growth exceed the extra benefits. One should stop growing at that point. Otherwise the country enters the realm of “uneconomic growth,” to use Daly’s delightful phrase, where the costs of growth exceed the benefits it produces.

There are some, myself included, who believe that the U.S. is now experiencing uneconomic growth. If one could measure and add up all the environmental, security, social and psychological costs that U.S. economic growth generates at this point in our history, they would exceed the benefits of further ramping up what is already the highest GDP per capita of any major economy.

The case that there are limits to growth — not that we shouldn’t grow but that we can’t grow — is based on the reality that we are entering a new age of scarcity and rising prices that will constrain growth. The world economy, having doubled in size three times since 1950, is now phenomenally large — large even in comparison with the planetary base that is the setting for economic activity. Today’s huge world economy is consuming the planet’s available resources on a scale that rivals their supply, and it is releasing almost all of those resources, often transformed and toxic, back to the environment on a scale that is beyond the environment’s assimilation capacities, thus greatly affecting the major biogeophysical cycles of the planet. Natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, and the planet’s sinks for absorbing waste products are already exhausted in many contexts. According to the Ecological Footprint analysis, Earth would have to be 50 percent larger than it is for today’s economy to be environmentally sustainable.

So there we have it: the traditional solution that America has invoked for nearly every problem — more growth — is in big trouble. If we are going to move beyond growth, we will need to build a different kind of economy. We Americans need to reinvent our economy, not merely restore it. We will have to shift to a new economy, a sustaining economy based on new economic thinking and driven forward by a new politics. Sustaining people, communities and nature must henceforth be seen as the core goals of economic activity, not hoped for by-products of market success, growth for its own sake, and modest regulation. That is the paradigm shift we must now begin to pursue and promote. “

[Off the Pedestal: Creating a
New Vision of Economic Growth
, by James Gustave Speth]
Death by Dollar$ and Suicide by CO2

Death by Dollar$ and Suicide by CO2

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