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:

Carrying Capacity Reached: The Need for Population Stability

Too Many People Harms Us All
Too Many People Harms Us All

We all want to have long, peaceful, and prosperous lives – to do this we need fresh water, healthy cropland for food, and materials for shelter and security. However, being that we live in a finite world, there are limits on everything needed for a long, healthy human life.

There is a limit to size of the pie. If more people eat from this proverbial pie, each piece must shrink to accommodate the growing number of people at the table. Historically the Earth’s resources have provided amply for the population. We always had more then enough pie to feed new people at the table, and more people were a welcomed sign of continued prosperity (generally).

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