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Dot Earth Blog: An Ecologist Explains His Contested View of Planetary Limits (September 16, 2013)
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This is nonsense. Even today, I hear some of my scientific colleagues repeat these and similar claims — often unchallenged. And once, I too believed them. Yet these claims demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the ecology of human systems. The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistory, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.
The evidence from archaeology is clear. Our predecessors in the genus Homo used social hunting strategies and tools of stone and fire to extract more sustenance from landscapes than would otherwise be possible. And, of course, Homo sapiens went much further, learning over generations, once their preferred big game became rare or extinct, to make use of a far broader spectrum of species. They did this by extracting more nutrients from these species by cooking and grinding them, by propagating the most useful species and by burning woodlands to enhance hunting and foraging success.
Even before the last ice age had ended, thousands of years before agriculture, hunter-gatherer societies were well established across the earth and depended increasingly on sophisticated technological strategies to sustain growing populations in landscapes long ago transformed by their ancestors.
The planet’s carrying capacity for prehistoric human hunter-gatherers was probably no more than 100 million. But without their Paleolithic technologies and ways of life, the number would be far less — perhaps a few tens of millions. The rise of agriculture enabled even greater population growth requiring ever more intensive land-use practices to gain more sustenance from the same old land. At their peak, those agricultural systems might have sustained as many as three billion people in poverty on near-vegetarian diets.
The world population is now estimated at 7.2 billion. But with current industrial technologies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that the more than nine billion people expected by 2050 as the population nears its peak could be supported as long as necessary investments in infrastructure and conducive trade, anti-poverty and food security policies are in place. Who knows what will be possible with the technologies of the future? The important message from these rough numbers should be clear. There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity. We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish.
Why is it that highly trained natural scientists don’t understand this? My experience is likely to be illustrative. Trained as a biologist, I