The problem of carrying capacity

McGill Tribune

In the face of growing fears concerning global climate change, and the possible repercussions we may experience, the idea that the human population has grown too large is one that is gaining acceptance.  Meanwhile, politicians are playing word games, relying on semantics to assure us that this is not the case.  Consider the term “carrying capacity.” The current definitions refer to how many people Earth’s resources can support, including future generations.  There is no mention of the allowance of other ecosystems and organisms to also be supported, and only a vague reference to the other strains the human population places on the planet, outside their use of the resources. These are imprecise and ambiguous definitions, meant to instill in us the impression that we are still well within carrying capacity and that there is nothing to worry about.

What the Earth can or cannot support is a complex issue and one that is not simply boiled down to resources, finite or not. An improved definition—one which drives a new comprehension of the human relationship with the environment—is needed so as to truly understand how we can live sustainably on the planet. This definition must include the carbon dioxide emitted, not only from industrial uses and technology, but from the breath of six billion people, their pets, and the livestock needed to sustain them.  It must include the other natural consequences of supporting these people, such as the waste and runoff from the livestock and agriculture. It must also include the ability of Earth to sustain not only the human population, but the populations of all other organisms in existence. It must make clear that humans have to coexist with all other species, and not continue to act as the dominant, subjugating power.

According to the existing definition, in all its infinite wisdom, scientists have been able to determine that Earth can support anywhere from two to forty billion people.  Some have realized how incredibly laughable that is and have kindly narrowed it down to ten to twenty billion people. All seem to be in agreement that we are still within carrying capacity. But what would the consensus be if we were to redefine carrying capacity, clarify its terms, and be realistic? The answer is that we would find that we, to understate it, are in a slight bit of trouble.

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