As a rejoinder to my piece a couple weeks ago (not really), the New York Times published an article on population growth, and why we need not worry. The problem—and solution—is all in our head. The bottom line was that we have always transformed our ecosystem to provide what we need, and in so doing have pushed the carrying capacity along with our growing population. In fact, the author says, “there really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity.” And he goes on to ask, “why is it that highly trained natural scientists don’t understand this?”
Clearly there is a misunderstanding, but I’ll side with the natural scientists, naturally. The succinct answer is that natural scientists are not comfortable with ruthless extrapolation of past trends.
I think the fundamental fallacy is the seductive trap that looking at our glorious past provides a template for how our glorious future must look—at least in overall flavor. Stepping back, this is a fantastic perspective if one imagines a priori that the human experience will be essentially monotonic: onward and upward. But as soon as one admits the possibility of dynamics like overshoot, peaking, downturn, etc., the principle that history is our best judge suddenly seems silly and naïve. Just because we’ve managed to carry on so far is in itself no guarantee that this will always hold true on a finite planet. It may be a decent short-term model, but not a backstop offering indefinite comfort.
Glaringly absent in the article is any reference to energy, or fossil fuels, or why the unbelievable explosion of population in the last few hundred years coincides with our rapid exploitation of these finite resources. Indeed, the history of population growth prior to fossil fuels was itself no good predictor of how we would skyrocket after that. And this works both ways: the history of how we have expanded into an empty world is not a good predictor of what happens when we increasingly run into resource limits in a filling ecosphere. Game changers happen, and while they may have been biased toward the positive in the past (during humanity’s growth spurt), they can just as easily smack us the other way.
The author concludes that: “The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems.”
The only limits, huh? I will not be sticking this one in the box labeled “wisdom.” In this conflict of ideas, we pit nature against our imaginations. I believe I know the ultimate winner.
As a highly trained natural scientist (although not in the fields of biology, ecology, etc.), the reason I fail to subscribe to historical precedent as our most prescient guide is that nature doesn’t respect our dreams, or our historical trends. Maybe this cold, hard fact is overwhelming, so we make up stories about how it will all be okay in the end: in much the same way that religious traditions give us stories to cope with the inevitable death we all must face. Sure, it’s a downer, but nature doesn’t care. And me, the sucker: I still love her all the same.
A few days after the original article, the author had a chance to clarify a few points. The statement of “no carrying capacity” is qualified, but on the whole the main problems I expressed above still stand.
I thank Eric Michelsen and Josh Spodek for bringing my attention to this article.