Ecological logic

Having just read through Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, I wanted to reflect on what I’ve understood from the book.

The basic premise is that the Earth has a finite “carrying capacity” – the ability to sustain a level of economic activity for the total human population. That activity is the product of population multiplied by average living standards. Hence, if either or both increase, we begin to test the limits of the carrying capacity of the planet.

Diamond points to Easter Island as the classic (unwitting) experiment, where the carrying capacity of the island was exceeded by the population multiplied by the living requirements of the people. They took advantage of a finite resource – the island’s trees – to temporarily boost the carrying capacity beyond the long-term sustainable trend. Hence, by the time they’d chopped down the last remaining tree, they suffered catastrophic ecological collapse, followed swiftly by horrendous war, famine, and population decline.

I came across this very clear and informative article which is focused on this very issue, but on a planet-wide perspective. He’s also written an article for the BBC.

The author – John Feeny – posits six axioms of population ecology. Here’s my summary of them:

  1. Finite earth means finite carrying capacity for humans.
  2. A population reaches overshoot when it exceeds the carrying capacity.
  3. Symptoms of having exceeded our carrying capacity are all around us in global warming, depleted seas, deforestation, desertification, etc.
  4. Populations can temporarily exceed the theoretical carrying capacity.
  5. Populations living beyond the carrying capacity degrade that capacity.
  6. Extracting finite and diminishing fossil fuels have allowed us to unsustainably exceed the carrying capacity of the planet.  

This is all well known, at least from the time of Malthus in the nineteenth century. During the 1970’s, a whole movement was centered around controlling population. Since then, the world’s population has doubled. But the other side of the equation – average living standards, or resource usage – has accelerated recently too. The key point is – even if the population remains static from here on (which is unlikely!), if developing countries, like China, India and Brazil, attain the average living standards of the first world, then we will totally exceed the carrying capacity of the planet, exhaust the supplies of finite fossil fuels that have sustained us on this path, and ultimately, force a catastrophic crash in the population and/or it’s average living standards.

This is grim.

Why are we doing this. Here are my thoughts on why this is happening:

  1. Plain ignorance. We don’t realise what we’re doing.
  2. Plain selfishness. We don’t care what we’re doing.
  3. Economic models of growth at all cost: the profit motive, greed, and capitalism all are unsustainable. They are built-in to the DNA of our dominant economic and political systems, but they’re ecologically a disaster.
  4. Individual perspectives – naturally – take precedence over a global perspective. So people only think about getting through the day and living as best they can, rather than worrying about the issues.
  5. An economic return for this generation is always preferable to us to an economic return for our children or grandchildren, no matter what we claim!
  6. First-world living standards are too high for everybody to aspire to. So either we lower them, or deliberately prevent the rest achieving what we have. Neither prospect looks good. 
  7. Our attempts to boost third world living standards are misguided and ultimately doomed to failure. Every time we prop up a famine-stricken country, we risk boosting the population further, so that the next disaster is worse.
  8. We put zero value on wilderness resources and sustainable use of them.
  9. We put zero cost on extracting finite resources, other than that involved in extracting them.
  10. We perpetually live in the here and now and forget about the medium to long term future.
  11. We are in denial. Witness the climate-change deniers, all the way up to presidential candidates in the US!
  12. etc…

I could go on. Are we in a headlong rush to self-destruction? Surely we are not that stupid? I will have to think about all these issues over the next few weeks and see if there is a more optimistic scenario. Perhaps technology will save the day, or the Internet, or mass protests, or enforced birth control (as in China’s one-child policy), or voluntary restrictions on living standards (how likely is that!!), or whatever.



  1. David Levine said,

    November 7, 2007 at 3:12 am

    It is grim indeed shazgood. Agree with Steven on your analysis. Doomed. We are doomed. And knowing that actually accelerates our earth-destroying efforts.

    “Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.”

    Pardon me, not a bible thumper, but these times are troubled as never before. Perhaps after a massive dieback of us homo sapiens and all of our fiery activities, earth can abide and recover, or perhaps the earth’s own response will unfold soon.

    Grim and sobering.

  2. November 7, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    Damn, I need a stiff drink after that!

    Actually, if I start to think of the carbon footprint of the drink, I may need another one, and another one and so on… It could be a long night.
    I suppose, eventually I’ll just pass out.

    Personally, I blame the internet. Life was so much easier when we were ignorant.

  3. shazgood said,

    November 7, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    You reminded me of one more reason we don’t do anything about it: drink!

    I can’t get these ecological axioms out of my head. If they are true, as stated above, then they look frightening all right. Any suggestions how we can stop the rot?
    Look at this scary article too, related:

  4. David Levine said,

    November 8, 2007 at 5:30 am

    Bless you shazgood, for caring enough to ask.

    We can stop driving our cars, stop working our pointless jobs, stay home and climb back into the trees … or maybe we can start carving those cute statues like the Easter Islanders did, all up and down our shorelines, looking to the sea for some glimmer of hope. In our modern, global self-extinction we would probably have those statues looking up into the heavens instead. Another form of anesthesia that would be …

    Sorry, it’s a reflex to answer utter despair with bitter comedy. We’ve known for a solid 3 decades that oil was a finite resource, but we still feel able to afford 8 cylinder SUVs … your points #1 and #2 are right on target. The remnant that survives the final scramble will have learned much, and after some time the earth will be as beautiful as ever.

    I hope.

  5. November 8, 2007 at 5:57 am

    What’s especially irritating to me is that a Western standard of living can be attained with fewer resources than we use now! We buy new instead of reuse; leave lights and water running, making unnecessary driving trips, don’t recycle, etc.

    It’s really a shame that change–yes, it’s there–is happening too slowly to make a difference. Most everyone’s aware of the problems, but few make changes to their everyday lives to make a difference.

  6. November 8, 2007 at 11:28 am

    Ok, my earlier comment looks quite flippant in regards to the subject matter but like David said, it’s a reflex action to the utter despair I felt having read your article.
    In fact, my response is probably the typical reaction of the general public to matters such as this. It’s the feeling of helplessness when faced with such a huge catastrophe. How can I, as an individual, have any effect on such a huge global issue. It’s too easy to point the finger at the USA, China and India and say that if they are not willing to sign up to principles such as Kyoto, then how is recycling my rubbish going to make a difference. I suppose we all have votes and can make our statement that way, but will politicians ever bring in policies that will force the changes that are required. No way. They will create token policies, such as the plastic bag charges in Ireland, which receive great publicity, but are just a way of deferring attention away from the real issues. Elections are won on popularity, which is not won by demanding extreme lifestyle changes of the electorate. For example, in Ireland, we voted in the Green Party to Government, who’s only policy for election revolved around the environment. In less than six months they have managed to do two fantastic u-turns on their pre-election manifesto (M3 and waste disposal). I don’t see any hope relying on political solutions, but what other alternatives do we have? I think all I can do is to continue looking at my own habits and practices and make the changes where I can. It won’t make any difference to the planet, but it’s all this simple soul can do to get a good nights sleep.

  7. shazgood said,

    November 8, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks for all your comments.
    I didn’t intend causing the mass suicide of all my readers, so sorry for being gloomy!!
    Brilliant comment Gunner, and you claimed to me before that you cannot write! It is very well-written account of all our human emotions and attempts to live through the issues, so my hats off to you.

  8. November 8, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    […] 8th, 2007 at 2:44 pm (ecology, global warming) After my Ecological Logic posting, I thought I’d lighten the mood with just a couple of YouTube videos that should make […]

  9. melissa jane said,

    November 14, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    something to add to your argument…you could add graphs that show what happens to populations that exceed their carrying capacity…quite scary

  10. shazgood said,

    November 15, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Hi Melissa
    Yeah, there is one at the article I mentioned above.
    The drop-off is spectacular, and the graph makes it obvious.
    I have been thinking of how to write something more optimistic than just the bald analysis I have been giving. I welcome any positive ideas!

  11. November 20, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    After years of careful and skillful research by the International Panel on Climate Change, it seems to me that the time has come to examine whether many too many government officials are behaving malevolently and acting in bad faith by continuing to disseminate disinformation that debunks the established evidence on global warming.

    With the establishment of the scientific consensus on climate change, is it reasonable and sensible to ask of government officials who remain obstructive and in denial of such overwhelming scientific data if they are perfidiously engaged in a violation of public trust and, therefore, malfeasant in office?

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population

  12. November 25, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Dear Friends,

    Perhaps an article with remarkable explanatory power from one of my colleagues in the field of psychology will prove helpful.



    Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A.
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

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