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:
- Finite earth means finite carrying capacity for humans.
- A population reaches overshoot when it exceeds the carrying capacity.
- Symptoms of having exceeded our carrying capacity are all around us in global warming, depleted seas, deforestation, desertification, etc.
- Populations can temporarily exceed the theoretical carrying capacity.
- Populations living beyond the carrying capacity degrade that capacity.
- 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:
- Plain ignorance. We don’t realise what we’re doing.
- Plain selfishness. We don’t care what we’re doing.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- We put zero value on wilderness resources and sustainable use of them.
- We put zero cost on extracting finite resources, other than that involved in extracting them.
- We perpetually live in the here and now and forget about the medium to long term future.
- We are in denial. Witness the climate-change deniers, all the way up to presidential candidates in the US!
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.