Carrying Capacity And Overshoot

There once was a time when I was a very active homebrewer, making upwards of 14 batches of beer a year. Things have slowed down on that front quite a bit since having our son (not to mention my increased activity blogging and working on post-growth projects). Nowadays I make mead, wine and the occasional beer. The mead and wine are much easier to make in terms of labor hours, but require much more patience.

I bring this up because recently I have been thinking about the magical thing that drives that hobby of mine: yeast. They are amazing little creatures, and some even consider them to be proof of a higher power (that old Ben Franklin quote “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”) More to the point, I’ve been thinking about how much we seem to have in common with yeast:

  • They consume feverishly, producing wastes that slowly build up in their environment.
  • They produce CO2 in amazing quantity.
  • Their population reaches in the billions, each one is bent on consuming over everything else.
  • Eventually their waste (in the case of yeast, alcohol) spreads so far and wide into their environment it turns an otherwise supporting system into a killing system – they die in their own waste, poisoned by it.

We’ve definitely started to edge into the last one, but we already have hit the first three. Our economy and society, most especially here in the United States, relies and exists solely to consume (and produce things to consume). We’ve released so much CO2 into the atmosphere that we’re altering our beautiful ecosystem’s ability to support life. Our consumption continues to rise, but so does our population – both adding to the problem.

The pity is that we can’t bottle up our waste and toast it over a good meal with friends, like we can with the “waste” yeast cells produce. Maybe instead, we can learn from their experience – if we consume too much, produce too much waste, we will have a massive drop in production capacity and population. We can choose a different path. We can choose to stabilize our consumption, work to remove the CO2 from our system and try to restore a lot of the ecosystem we’ve destroyed so far.

This month is all about the Global Population Speak-Out. I’ve signed up to write some posts, and the GrowthBusters have decided to write a few more on our Post Growth blog. Let’s start talking about population and consumption – they’re getting out of control and we’re starting to look like we have the collective intelligence of single-celled organisms, so let’s start acting like we’ve actually got the intelligence of an evolved, sentient spices, huh?

Endangered Species Condoms?

Next month is the Global Population Speak Out Month – a whole month focused on raising awareness of a large (and growing) issue – population growth. We live on a finite planet, with only so many resources. Yet our population (and consumption, as I mentioned earlier) continues to grow. We’re over-stretching our carrying capacity, and it isn’t good for our species or other life on Earth either. What can we do?

The project I have been working on recently is involved with the coming documentary Hooked On Growth, which will be releasing later this year. Here’s a great video on the subject of population growth… and contraceptives.

The Real Population Question

7 Billion People

This year will be a monumental one. 2011 is the year our spaceship Earth will have 7 billion people on board. A large majority of the developed countries’ populations are entering the elderly years, when they become less able to work and need more care. This means a lowered workforce all around and an increased need for a workforce to care for our elders. In the developing world, where a large majority of this population growth is occurring, there are more malnourished children, more uneducated mothers and more people living with inadequate shelter, food, health care, water, et cetera, et cetera.

I’ve written before about population. This is a dodgy issue surrounded by misconceptions, fear and contention. It is an easy topic to bring up if you are looking to start a heated argument, loose friends or out any Nazis in a group. However, the topic of population is an important one and it simply needs to be framed properly with the other root cause of “the problem” – consumption. The two go hand-in-hand and we like to avoid talking about either in respect to natural limits.

Jeremy, over at Make Wealth History, brought it up last month in a great post, “How many people can the Earth support?” and I want to echo his thoughts. I also want to make it clear to everyone that this debate must be had! We must have debate over these serious issues. We must be willing to potentially change our minds or, at the very least, be able to open them to solutions we might not have thought of ourselves or might not have be completely confident in their success. Either way we have to do something.

Next month is Global Population Speak Out Month, and I think we should all open up this topic for discussion. It is important for us to recognize that there is a limit to the number of people the world can support, as well as the amount of consumption that can be supported. The real question is what is the desired level of consumption that we want for everyone? We must be fair and grant enough room for all to equally share the Earth, so what is an appropriate stable population and consumption level? Our generation must answer these questions, so we should start by at least asking them.

Check out this infographic on the subject (my thanks to Grist for showing it to me) or this National Geographic video:

How Much Is Left?

How Long Will The Bounty Last?

I’m taking the week off to head out of town with the family. I’ve got some drafts in the works, but it won’t be until I get back before I finish them. Expect some posts next week sometime. Until then, enjoy this great interactive inforgraphic…

I’ve been discussing limits in the last few posts. Here is a great interactive infographic put together by Scientific America that shows the limits of what our planet can provide. If we keep growing our economy, producing (mostly) useless junk and waste, how long can we expect to keep it up?

It reminds me of peak oil. Of all the wasteful things we use oil for (fuel is the biggest one – so many other things we are capable of using as fuel and energy that are renewable and sustainable), we are running out of oil incredibly quickly. But there are much more important things that we use from oil, like plastics and rubber for medical supplies, for instance. we would be able to keep these more important (and less destructive) uses of oil longer if we gave up the heavily destructive and wasteful uses like fuel. It’s all about sustainable scale and efficient allocation. We’ve got to make the non-renewable resources last and focus on transitioning to using only renewable resources within their ecological limits.

Have a good week, I’ll be back…

Decoupling Demystified

Vinyl Ready Art - Road Signs
Can We Separate GDP Growth And Ecological Limits?

Next time you run into a classically trained economist (happens all the time, right?) start talking with him/her about ecological limits. They might squirm a little, but probably respond as trained: with some zombie-like responses about “decoupling.” What is decoupling? Basically, it’s a concept of being able to continue growing economic output without a corresponding increase in environmental impact.

The overall idea is that improvements in production efficiency allow you to make more with less. Theoretically we can increase our efficiency and make more stuff using the same amount of resources and/or generating the same amount of pollution.

Applying this concept to renewable resources would be incredibly beneficial. We could use wood, for instance, in a more sustainable fashion if we decoupled the economic growth from resource use and did so under the ecological limits of forest regeneration.

As you might have already guessed, there are quite a few flaws with this concept. You might have also noticed that it seems at first glance to have a broad definition. In general, however, there are two types of economic decoupling: relative and absolute. The first type appears to have a cursory chance of working, the latter is fundamentally impossible.

Continue reading “Decoupling Demystified”

Making The Right Kind of Impact This Season

The holidays are a sacred time of year for many over this small blue world. We each have our own traditions, songs, celebrations and gatherings. One thing we all share is a connection with one another during the end of the year and the start of a new one. In the last 50-plus years this community-gathering, family-focused yule-time has been distorted by conspicuous consumption and environmental destruction.

Less and less a season of humanity, the final few months of the year are a season of consumption. But why complain about it when you can actually do something? By taking individual action to simplify your holiday season you are leading by example and often influence those around you more than you know. This season focusing on creating no environmental impact can actually result in focusing more of your time and energy on family, community, health, happiness and simplicity.

The Happy, Simple Holiday

In our neck of the woods we celebrate Christmas. Traditionally my family has done the big tree, wrapped gifts, and taken a flight to visit distant relatives. Since college I have significantly reduced my holiday-impact and now with my own family we are trying something different as well. We’re starting our son’s first holiday by creating meaningful, positive-impact traditions.

This year instead of buying a dying tree that will be thrown in the trash, we are buying a living tree to plant after the holiday. This year we are staying home and sleeping in. This year we are giving the gift of experiences to each other (us parents are going in on a gym membership to improve our health and well-being). This holiday season we are simplifying our expenses to reduce waste: wasted money, wasted time, wasted gifts. This year we’re really excited for the holiday because of it all!

The No Impact Man Screening

Why don’t you do something to make a more meaningful, environmentally and socially responsible holiday season? Find a community screening of the No Impact Man documentary near you. If you live in the Seattle area, please come join our screening! We’re hosting a special viewing of the film at the Greenwood Senior Center this Friday, December 18th at 7pm. Following the film there will be discussion on simplifying the holiday season.

For more information visit the eventbrite site for more information. I also wrote a post about this earlier. If you come to the Seattle screening (admission is free) be sure to bring $5 or 3 cans of food to be entered in the raffle for one of the pre-release DVDs or books!