Ted Nordhaus Is Wrong: We Are Exceeding Earth’s Carrying Capacity
In his article, “The Earth’s Carrying Capacity for Human Life is Not Fixed,” Ted Nordhaus, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based energy and environment think tank, seeks to enlist readers in his optimistic vision of the future. It’s a future in which there are many more people on the planet and each enjoys a high standard of living, while environmental impacts are reduced. It’s a cheery vision.
If only it were plausible.
Nordhaus’s argument hinges on dismissing the longstanding biological concept of “carrying capacity” — the number of organisms an environment can support without becoming degraded. “Applied to ecology, the concept [of carrying capacity] is problematic,” Nordhaus writes, arguing in a nutshell that the planet’s ability to support human civilization can be, one presumes, infinitely tweaked through a combination of social and physical engineering.
Few actual ecologists, however, would agree. Indeed, the concept of carrying capacity is useful in instance after instance — including modeling the population dynamics of nonhuman species, and in gauging the health of virtually any ecosystem, be it ocean, river, prairie, desert, or forest. While exact population numbers are sometimes difficult to predict on the basis of the carrying capacity concept, it is nevertheless clear that, wherever habitat is degraded, creatures suffer and their numbers decline.
The controversy deepens in applying the carrying capacity concept to humans. Nordhaus seems to think we are exceptions to the rules. Still, as archaeologists have affirmed, many past human societies consumed resources or polluted environments to the point of collapse. Granted, societies have failed for other reasons as well, including invasion, over-extension of empire, or natural climate change. Yet in cases where societies depleted forests, fisheries, freshwater, or topsoil, the consequences were dire.
But that was then. The core of Nordhaus’ case is that we are now living in a magical society that is immune to the ecological law of gravity. Yes, it is beyond dispute that the modern industrial world has been able to temporarily expand Earth’s carrying capacity for our species. As Nordhaus points out, population has grown dramatically (from less than a billion in 1800 to 7.6 billion today), and so has per capita consumption. No previous society was able to support so many people at such a high level of amenity. If we’ve managed to stretch carrying capacity this much already, why can’t we do so ad infinitum?
To answer the question, it’s first important to understand the basis of our success so far. Science and technology usually glean most of the credit, and they deserve their share. But sheer energy — the bulk of it from fossil fuels — has been at least as important a factor.
With lots of cheap energy, we were able to extract raw materials faster and in greater quantities, transport them further, and transform them through industrial processes into a breathtaking array of goods — including fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, all of which tended to reduce human death rates.
But there was still another essential factor in our success: nature itself. Using science, technology, and cheap energy, we expanded farmlands, chain-sawed forests, exploited fisheries, mined minerals, pumped oil, and flattened mountains for their buried coal. And we did these things in a way that was not remotely sustainable. By harvesting renewable resources faster than they could regrow, by using non-renewable resources that could not be recycled, and by choking environments with industrial wastes, we were borrowing from future generations and from other species.
Nordhaus writes: “For decades, each increment of economic growth in developed economies has brought lower resource and energy use than the last.” This trend of severing the tie between GDP and energy/materials throughput is called “decoupling.” Many economists make big claims for past decoupling and promise much more of it in the future. But careful analysis of decoupling to date shows that most is attributable to accounting error. And to get the developing world up to the level of an average American’s energy usage would require nearly quadrupling global energy consumption, even assuming advances in efficiency. So, unless we find ways to make decoupling actually happen in the future more reliably and at higher rates, growing the global economy will require us to use more of the Earth’s depleted resources.
It is true that some past warnings about the consequences of overpopulation and overconsumption, framed as forecasts, proved wrong. Thomas Malthus famously thought famine would engulf humanity within decades; it didn’t. He failed to foresee industrial agriculture. Paul Ehrlich thought rapid population growth would lead to catastrophe in the 1980s, but he failed to anticipate the impacts of globalization and debt — which enables us to consume now and pay later. Peak oil analysts didn’t foresee the fracking frenzy. Yet cornucopian economists who perceive no problem in the expectation of endless growth on a finite planet likewise failed to foresee climate change, the exponential increase in extinction rates primarily as a result of human-caused habitat degradation, the collapse of fisheries from overfishing, and much, much more.
How can we judge whether cornucopians, or so-called Malthusians, will be right in the long run? One way would be to keep a running account of key biophysical factors on which the prospering of our species depends. If an alarm bell sounds for any of those key factors, we should sit up and pay attention. After all, Liebig’s Law (another foundation of ecology) tells us that growth limits are set not by total resources available, but by the single scarcest necessary resource.
Fortunately, somebody is keeping those accounts. Indeed, a cottage industry of environmental scientists, led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Center and Will Steffen of the Australian National University, has identified nine planetary boundaries that we transgress at our peril: climate change, ocean acidification, biosphere integrity, biochemical flows, land-system change, freshwater use, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, and the introduction of novel entities into environments.
We are currently exceeding the “safe” marks for four of these boundaries:
Another way of keeping track is the ecological footprint, which measures human demand on nature in terms of the quantity of land and water it takes to support an economy sustainably. The Global Footprint Network calculates that humanity is currently exceeding Earth’s sustainable productivity by 60 percent. We do this, again, by drawing down resources that future generations and other species would otherwise use. So, as a result of our actions, Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans is actually declining. Nordhaus is right that it’s not a fixed quantity; the problem is that we’re reducing it rather than adding to it in a way that can be maintained.
Devise your own scorecard. What warning signs would you expect to see if we humans were pressing at the limits of global carrying capacity? Resource depletion? Check. Pollution? Check. Dying oceans? Check. Human populations subjected to increasing stress? Double check.
Here’s one more that we probably should be paying more attention to: Wild terrestrial mammals now represent just 4.2 percent of terrestrial mammalian biomass, the balance — 95.8 percent — being livestock and humans. Maybe we could make some inroads on that remaining 4.2 percent, but it’s pretty clear from this single statistic that we humans have already commandeered most of the biosphere.
Optimism is essential; it draws us toward the best possible futures. But when it turns into wishful thinking, it can blind us to the consequences of our present actions. In the worst potential case, the results could be collectively suicidal.
Richard Heinberg is the author of 13 books and a Senior Fellow with the Post Carbon Institute. His essays and articles have appeared in print or online at Nature, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The American Prospect, Public Policy Research, the Quarterly Review, Resilience, The Oil Drum, and Pacific Standard, among other publications.
Although my concerns, interest and research is strictly non academic, I have noted that many evidence based statistical studies and conclusions are drawn from studies funded by and designed for large corporations and institutions seeking government approval for products that are known or suspected of having a detrimental effects on the environment and biological life within its areas of use. Even a novice, such as myself, can spot the gaping holes in these studies which are intentionally designed to eliminate or hide other glaring facts and figures that these studies exclude which would alternatively clearly demonstrate the tremendous levels of damage their products use has on the environment, habitats and life upon which their products have a direct negative impact. Our governments continued reliance on statistical data provided by the corporations that benefit financially from their wide spread use and sales is essentially putting the Fox in charge of the hen house.
I sympathize with every one. But as a PSA, update your entitlement status as those expire when no one’s around.
I don’t see how this article proves Ted Nordhaus is wrong.
Ted didn’t argue that we are not exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity with out current lifestyle. He simply explained that though technological advance, social management, and engineering we can actually help the planet have a larger carrying capacity, which is true. Far more people could fit rather than just 7 billion.
This “tweaking” actually implies stopping the “current excess of the “safe” marks discussed in this article.
No one would even try to argue that our current lifestyle is sustainable and that no change is required. I don’t understand why this article implies Ted Nordhaus did.
I am someone with severe depression.
I am 15 years old, and in my short years on this earth I have learnt to hate past generations for their selfish actions. However because of human nature I am positive my generation wouldn’t have thought twice about doing the same. Even though this may be a distressing thought I have personally come to grips with death and the inevitable heat death of the universe and it have given me a nealism of do whatever because nothing matters, but tread lightly with the innocent environment.
Hi Madeline – I’m so sorry to hear that you’re depressed, but you should know that you are far from alone in your concern for the environment. There are millions of other young people, just like yourself, who care deeply about the planet and about managing it sustainably so that we and future generations can live healthy, happy lives. You might consider looking at and even becoming a part of organizations like the Earth Youth Environment Society (EYES), which connects young people around the world to foster “a direct, positive impact on our beautiful planet.” Their website is http://www.earthyes.org/. There’s also an active Facebook group called Youth for the Environment (https://www.facebook.com/youthfortheenvironment) where you might find other young people who feel strongly about the environment just like you. Making those connections can easily lead to new relationships and activities that might help you feel less depressed — and also provide a way for you to make positive change in the world.
I hope these thoughts help, but if you ever find yourself feeling hopeless, please know that there are people you can talk to right now. They’re just a phone call away, and they really can help. Just dial 1-800-273-8255.
We all get depressed and it sucks, Madeleine, I know. But I promise you: It gets better. -Tom
“We all suffer and try to make sense of our individual significance”
But honestly how many people ride the coattails of this convenient illusion, and never lift their heads for anyone, anything, just to laugh. Vain smiles celebrating inner and outer decay. How many people smile and make obscene dramas out of their pissant dissatisfied consumer experiences.// If not for never-ending addiction to keeping entitled sheltered smiles on their faces, then for what?// Because I see those everywhere here. Refusing to look at anything realistically. I think a person should fucking prove their intentions genuinely. Its starting to look like walking around in a shamelessly demented state, like you’re a fucking hair away from being transparent and as ugly as someone who eats 600 donuts a day. I don’t believe the inner turmoil of the suburbs. Even with things blowing up on every political front, worldwide, red flags. I’ve seen misery. I’ve also seen people who live to live mildly and tune out every conceivable, inconvenient thing. I have no sympathy none. What can I say. I don’t believe the vast majority of these types are “trying to make sense of their individual significance”. They don’t give a shit to make sense of anything, acknowledge anything, that would make living significant to begin with. Not if they go around believing these deluded things. These people walk around seeing double rainbows, in the plush isles of HEB grocery in my state, like its all some fucking universal constant. People will be at each other throats. Dead to the last drop. Get with the program, or get the hell out.
I guess in the end it will be fun to watch the denialists coming apart at the seams when it all goes to hell? Sure will be nice to see something finally wipe the smirks off their faces.
Well, the “world problematique” has remained unsolvable. Back in 1975, I attended the Limits to Growth Conference held at the Woodlands near Houston, Texas from October 19th-21st.. The list of conference speakers included Jay W. Forrester, Dennis Meadows, Lester Brown, Amory Lovins, E.F. Schumacher, William Ophuls and a number of US Senators. Herman Khan was the only outrageously “growth is good” analyst at the event and of course the oil industry executives in attendance thought he had it right. This was about the time the M. King Hubbert predicted that peak oil production would peak in the lower 48 states. We have had over 40 years to address the “world problematique,” but the addition to economic growth has not been kicked by the economic elites who control its overall development and reap its rewards. I recall back around 2009 Dennis Meadows commented that events were rapidly overtaking the timeline to collapse their model had generated in 1972. He remarked that policymakers had only a decade or two left in which to do anything to prepare a “soft landing” for industrial civilization. It rather looks like industrial civilization will “hit the wall” at full speed sometime after 2030 but probably before 2050. We are in more trouble than we can imagine.
Quick…where is Thanos when you need him? Just kidding…couldn’t resist after reading this though.
Actually, Malthus would have been right but for the invention of the Haber-Bosch process of making nitrogen fertilizer a century later, which was directly motivated by the fear of global food shortages. This, plus cheap energy, enabled industrial food production. But that has been attended by massive nitrogen pollution leading to eutrophication of waterways and coasts, along with the steady loss of topsoil. These things can be avoided by being a lot more careful, but that means less productivity per acre, more manual labor, and hence lower profits. And of course less to go around …
Humans collectively suffer from an eventually fatal condition that we call humanism. We have biologically no choice, but to pursue self interest to the best of our ability. We are the apex predator. The only check on our success as a species is the collective us. There are 5 billion adult human beings all engaged in overlapping selfish pursuits. Civilization focuses that collective effort in an all against all contest of monument and empire building to achieve meaning and a semblance of importance and immortality in the enormacy of the vast universe. We do what we do both biologically and psychologically like an automaton. Life is part of the creative urge of matter and energy. Our emotional life and cultural life stories is just our meager attempt to make sense of the unimaginable reality of our existence. The best guess of the number of our kind of animal that has had this experience is about 100 billion. We are just the elements of the periodic table working out their evolutionary mandate. If we have free will to check our collective urge to be fruitful and multiply it has not been seen yet at the collective level. I suspect at the level of the collective we are not self aware enough to check ourselves and eventually the overarching wisdom of matter and energy will have it’s way. Our emotions have us trapped in a self fulfilling prophesy of acting out a cultural story that we tell each other that evolution was always leading to intelligent self aware life. We are evolutions end game. We appear to be tragically acting out that story with tremendous energy. We are obviously pushing the evolutionary reset button on this particular planet. Stress appears to be the most important factor in the evolutionary drama. We are stressors and stresses. Every living thing is. Can it be any other way? Do we really have free will? We know deep down the complete insignifacance of our short and emotional drama that we act out for a brief moment in a massively unimaginable cosmic drama. The human predicament is to become collectively and individually extremely self aware and/or die trying. All our efforts at creating art, toys, and creature comforts are just busywork diversions of an immature perspective of reality. Monkey business. Our attempt at individual signifacance. The universe builds at the macro level and we live at the micro level. If we cause our own extinction it is difficult to imagine the universe noticing the loss. We are on our own to choose to overcome that immaturity or not. It appears we may not be able to fast enough! We will collectively and individually suffer stress and death as part of the immortal and eternal wisdom of matter and energy’s drama.
An an archaeologist who has researched and taught how and why past civilizations collapse, whenever a society has extended its limits either economically, socio-politically, or ecologically (or a combination of all three), then collapse occurs, and often within a single generation. Based on the excellent work of Joseph Tainter, whenever these stressors occur, this creates “decreasing marginal returns” or when costs of running a society start exceeding its benefits.
Unknown to most people, collapse is a natural occurrence and it happens to all civilizations, often many times throughout their histories, until newer systems emerge and the cycle starts again. In modern day societies, we are no different, and like it or not, collapse will occur; it’s just a matter of when. But this time, it will be global because all nations are so interconnected. Thus, as Heinberg noted, we need to change our behaviours to prepare for this transition, which means living well within the earth’s carrying capacity. And most importantly, we also need a change in human consciousness where we learn to value all life on this planet and its interconnectedness. This is called “Neohumansim” and you can learn more about it at http://www.anandaseva.org and http://www.proutinstitute.org.
I’m not sure there’s too much “discussion” to be had. It’s clear that the IPCC WGI (economist-driven) and WGIII (science-driven) are giving opposing messages. Nordhaus (and others) most likely have ideological and/or funding reasons to give a “rosy” message with regard to climate change. Most of the scientists I’ve worked with for the last 36 years at the USAF/SMC only actually care about increasing their carbon footprints (more funding, more house/vehicle/lifestyle, more income). I suspect they may be in a repressed panic and hope they will be among the elite few who are somehow saved from a >2C world. It’s amazing that such highly-educated people can think this way. It may represent a fundamental failure in our education process.
And what have we done with all the cheap energy we have had and used over thelast 3 centuries? We have lmost completely despoiled the planet for the benefit of future human generations forever, killed of many millions if not billions of other innocent wildlife and made thousands of other species extinct in the process of our own aggrandisement.
So, based on that track record, what can we expect to achieve with more cheap energy?-
IMHO, a close approximation to armnaggedon or the 6th mass extinction of all life on earth isthe most likely outcome – certainly not Nordhaus’s wild dream world.
ZK, your post and many others talk about improvements that would increase carrying capacity, like reducing food waste or farming more sustainably, but still, those approaches only buy one time in the face of CONTINUED population growth.
No matter how efficient humanity becomes, those gains are ultimately wiped out by sheer numbers if population growth is allowed to continue unchecked.
There is a great deal of plasticity in Earth’s carrying capacity for human numbers – what level of consumption/affluence, how much of the planet’s biodiversity are we willing to plow under to grow our horde – but make no mistake, there are limits, and everything is a tradeoff.
Yair: “Birth rates decline with development. This is true of all nations except Israel.
It is something you can count on.”
Huh, guess so. Of course, birth rates are high all over the arab world, even among richer nations.
“The birth rate is even higher among Israel’s Arab community…”
If you want environmental peace, work for environmental justice….. The disparities in the global economy are incredible. Wealthy Americans waste enormous amounts of food, water, energy, etc., while the homeless beg for blankets and hot meals. Income inequality is increasing. Nations will fight with nations to control scarce natural resources and the rich will reap most of the benefits…. Solution? It involves things like human rights, social justice, and economic sacrifices in the wealthy neighborhoods. Unfortunately, these concerns have received little attention in the current discussion.
Response to Mark Mcandrew and Malthus:
Earth’s resources are limited in 3 ways: physically (nearly half of Earth mass is iron, but it is placed mainly in Earth’s core and for long would be inaccessible to mining), economically (there are plenty of iron in soil, badrock, etc, but iron content in these formation is much lower than profitable to mining) and conceptually (there is plenty of water under Sahara, but freshwater is strongly limited and the most important in exploiting is not to mix it with salted underground ocean, full of toxins). From the history of Soviet Union: perfectly planned and realized freshwater exploitation in Middle East “stan” republics leads to spontaneous hightening of salted water levels and covers earth with salt layer, ending trials to agriculture expansion. To save nomadic life in desert, they build atomic de-salting plant close to the Caspian Sea (Fort Shevtchenko). Lowering of Caspian level was counteracted by damming Kara Bogaz Gol gulf, the main place of evaporation. After first trials, project was rejected because of unplanned consequences far from it. Collapse of Soviet Union and its industry results in slow rebuilding of sea.
In general, there is much to do for carrying capacity enlargement on Earth, but it doesn’t work in modern “market” economy, profit-steered. Of course, we can reject capitalism, try to do only right thinks, etc., but modern history teach us it is not sustainable. The main problem is in human minds. It is possible to revolutionize agriculture: small fields devoted to optimal use without large machinery and all this energy-consuming accompanying functions needs only massive enlargement in farming workforce. But modern farmers loves large areas, toxic pesicides, hormone stimulated animal growing and gas-consuming large machinery. Without ready for action tens or even hundreds of millions volunteers I strongly suggest to not change anything.
Human factor is most important, as classic said.
As the risk of a summary of the obvious conclusions
1. There is little point in 10 billion humans @ 10KW (a minimum for a civilised urban environment.)
2. ‘Conservation’ while morally gratifying for some, is no realistic response, given the scale of the problem.
3. 100 Terra Watts is not going to be supplied by ‘renewable energy’ which is a thermodynamic oxymoron. The environmental effects of any such solution on the scale required are as bad or worse than fossil fuel use.
4. While in the long term, nuclear energy, albeit not based on current (light water reactors partially enriched Uranium) technology could address the energy requirement, this is only the most obvious of a long list of effects produced by a 10 billion population.
5. A far better solution is contraception and that requires little more than the education of women.
6. THE real urgent problem is “What to do with the CO2”.
Have to laugh at Noel Wauchope, flailing as if thinks making the link to nuclear energy is sufficient to discredit Nordhaus, when it actually does precisely the opposite, being the most conspicuous exemplar against Heinberg’s line of argument (which is presumably why the latter didn’t mention it).
I am not certain Malthus thought famine “would engulf humanity within decades”. If he did I would appreciate a reference to his writing, not to an interpreter of them. And I think Ehrlich underestimated the power of the Green Revolution, rather than “globalization and debt”. But basically I agree, there is such a concept as human carrying capacity (eg see http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0010055).
The depletion of natural capital is not, of itself, convincing evidence of overshoot (from an anthropocentric perspective). Techno-optimists can argue that human ingenuity is converting the planet into human beings (and their companion species) .. and that this may continue for some generations; hence natural capital depletion is not a problem (and is inevitable). However, I argue, there is now strong evidence of overshoot at the global level, including the record number of refugees and displaced people, the re-emergence of famine (eg see http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/13/7/665). But for Nordhaus and his supporters it would seem (a) the rape and demise of nature is not a problem; (b) the suffering and “entrapment” of the global poor is also not a problem. I guess, for slave-trading elites in 18th century Europe the suffering of slaves etc was also not problematic, at least for a while. So it’s perhaps analogous to today.
But ultimately elites cannot be insulated from the harm they do; slave trading was eventually banned in Europe. The decimation of nature may also be. Until it is we are likely to see an intensification of the fortress world, a process already well advanced.
The so called uncivilised masses have learned to survive over Millenia. They live in a brutal balance with nature and will probably survive the events us civilised people are bringing upon ourselves. It is arrogant to think we should educate them. They are migrating enmasse because news of our lifestyle has reached them and they falsely believe it is a better, easier life. If humanity survives it will not be rich Silicon Valley nerds with bunkers full of tech….it will be these tribes who escaped the lure of civilisation.
We only need a tiny fraction of the Sahara turned into greenhouses and/or solar panels, to sustain billions of humans. How small do you think it is? And are humans not also an ecosystem and species worth preserving?
Mining and pollution: Nope. Clean free energy means it costs nothing to obtain any raw material and nothing to clean up afterwards. It literally solves everything. You’re not thinking it through.
Mark Andrew: Once we have clean cheap energy, be it from thorium or fusion reactors, or renewable plus massive batteries, then all our problems are solved.
Okay, so techno magic silver bullet solves all our problems of carrying capacity, got it.
Q: As we’re turning deserts into greenhouses as you suggest, what becomes of those former desert ecosystems and the biodiversity they support? Are those just sacrificial lambs to the glorious goal of maximizing human numbers to the detriment of all other life forms save rats and cockroaches?
And once we’ve irrigated all these deserts you seem to deem expendable, as population continues to grow unabated, I suppose we move on to convert whatever other biones are left to human food production. That should have an interesting impact on the extinction crisis. Please do tell, where does this all end, and what is your plan for halting the current anthropogenic extinction event in the face of this unending human population growth and its concomitant resource demands you find so sustainable.
Perhaps you should STOP your dreaming and join the rest of us here in reality-land.
@ Ken Carmen.
Nope. Accepting that there are gross inefficiencies in our food, energy, etc production, and addressing these to whatever extent possible, only addresses the efficiency of the system – it does nothing to negate the reality that infinite growth is not possible in a finite system.
Take food production for example. We waste approximately 40% of the food produced in this country. Acknowledging that waste is an inherent part of all production systems and that 100% efficiency is not possible, let’s pretend we could halve the waste to 20%, providing food for an additional 20% over current population levels. How long before that additional 20% in population is reached? Idk, do the math, doesn’t really matter, because eventually growth will get you right back where you were in terms of food production capacity – just able to provide for the population. And as growth continues, you’re soon left with the same stark choices, but with the least difficult paths to upping production already taken.
Point being, increasing efficiencies can buy you some time, but ultimately without stabilizing population growth, you’ll eventually find yourself right back where you started.
Heinberg is correct. We do have a serious problem. But this is because we’re not doing the very real, simple and cost-effective things we CAN do, to mitigate our impacts.
Put differently, this is not really a debate. Heinberg is showing us the most LIKELY future, if we DON’T change how we choose to live. Nordhaus is showing us one POSSIBLE future, if we DO change how we choose to live.
Neither are meant to be predictions, in any real sense. One is a dire warning we should heed. The other a beacon, IF we make choices differently.
Why don’t we look at all the species on this planet not just the human kind? Just because we can use our hands and “think” doesn’t make us the superior species. If it weren’t for derranged religious practices that went way too far to the heads of our ancient forefather leaders of any particular group, who is to say we would have the right to just destroy/murder everything that is in our greedy little minds?
Why not choose K* (K star), an optimum population level well below maximum carrying capacity so that we can all be prosperous, uncrowded and live in a beautiful world shared with other species and sustainable for the long term? It would take a couple of hundred years if the whole world had European or Japanese fertility rates (averaging about 1.5 children/woman) to get back to the population of 200 years ago (a billion). That’s the earth I would choose to live on. J.S. Mill said this all in 1848 in his “Of the stationary state” essay. A feasible utopia. We have contraceptives and they are cheap. Scarcity caused by growth won’t be cured by more growth. Growth is the problem, not the solution. Yes, humans have increased carrying capacity with technology, but they’ve also wrecked ecosystems and collapsed in more than 2 dozen societies. So the niche can contract through the kind of obliviousness now ruling policy.
I would tend to agree with Nordhaus, and disagree with the author based entirely on this reason: we live in a world society of extreme waste and inefficiency. When we finally learn to live truly radically resourcefully, the capacity will increase exponentially. We waste so much energy (needlessly) on heating, cooling, and transportation, not to mention how much space and resources we waste on housing. Did I mention wasted food? Fix our wastefullness, become radically resourceful, utilize the full potential of the sun’s energy, and the temperature moderation of the earth, and capacity will go way up.
Reply to Mark McAndrew: You are correct, energy is everything. You are incorrect however, if you think that “massive batteries” will allow your dreams to grow unabated. Batteries require mining and other resource extraction and refining processes that are just as toxic as petroleum, involve much use of legacy fuels (oil) for transportation, often include slave labor and mountaintop removal, feed the military-industrial complex craving for war to secure access to these resources, and have yet to be shown to be able to be built to scale for the need required in order to fulfill your dreams. You don’t address issues of maintenance and replacement of renewable power sources to charge those batteries, which also include mining and other resource extraction and refining processes that are just as toxic as petroleum, involve much use of legacy fuels (oil) for transportation, often include slave labor and mountaintop removal, feed the military-industrial complex craving for war to secure access to these resources, and have yet to be shown to be able to be built to scale for the need required in order to fulfill your dreams.
Your dream is a nightmare to many life forms on this planet. Wake up please.
Your excellent article did not however, even mention nuclear power. It’s a great article – but in addressing Norhaus and the Breakthrough Institute, this article completely misses the point. The whole aim of the Breakthrough Institute, Ecomodernism, Environmental Progress, and the Australian wannabe-famous Bright New World – is promoting “New Generation” nuclear power.
All their lovely stuff about the lovely environmental world to come inevitably leads to this promotion. Clothed in touchy feely sweet environmental bullshit is the Norhaus and Shellenger central message – they are nothing more than shills for the “new nukes” industry.
It all depends on energy. Once we have clean cheap energy, be it from thorium or fusion reactors, or renewable plus massive batteries, then all our problems are solved. Scarcity no longer applies.
With enough energy, we can irrigate deserts and turn them into greenhouses, desalinate sea water and pump it uphill to anywhere, mine asteroids for limitless minerals, create artificial islands if we want more land, you name it. We can literally move mountains AND clean up after ourselves as well.
“Dont be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling…”
It wasn’t necessary to complete an Academic Study for publication to FIGURE THIS OUT.
@ the age of 60+ years during children since the 1940’s have been told “FINISH your >meal (breakfast, lunch,
dinner) Don’t WASTE FOOD when children are starving in AFRICA — INDIA — ASIA!”
That was Before the world population was 6,000,000,000!. Back when the U.S. was the primary Superpower and GREATEST Economic power it was capable of FEEDING the global population (probably still can — EXPORT Groceries not GUNS!)
NOW the International Conventional Wisdom goal is SUSTAINED Tolerant DIVERSITY.
SCREW THAT! Nations and societies that can’t even SUSTAIN their own populace simply Propagate and SUSTAIN misery around the world.
Birth rates decline with development. This is true of all nations except Israel.
It is something you can count on.
There is another way of looking at this. Why would we want more people on the planet? Aren’t we better off with fewer? Life was pretty good and less stressful between the end of WWII and 1980. We should reduce our population.
Wolves and some other creatures are able to check population growth. They do this by only letting the alpha male and female mate in a pack. Couldn’t we be as smart as wolves?
Sadly for millions of human beings down the road, Nature has powerful and cruel ways of hitting the reset button when sufficiently annoyed. One massive volcanic eruption will kill entire societies by blocking sunshine for a year or more. Global pandemics that wipe out tens or hundreds of millions–influenza just the most common. We’ve already experienced five mass extinctions–slate-wipers–and are in the early stages of No. 6. And ice ages come and go with regularity, cutting in half (or more) places where people can live.
That does not include manmade disasters such as the radioactive poisoning of vast ecosystems by Soviet nuclear production in the Cold War, or the United States dumping thousands of tons of chemical weapons, including VX nerve gas, into the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf just miles off our coastlines. Another toxic legacy of the Cold War. Limited nuclear war will kill millions, total nuclear war will be first manmade slate-wiper.
Finally, the author of this article is dead-on: We’ve long extracted all the “easy energy” in oil and gas. Fracking is “harder energy,” and while plentiful at the moment, we will exhaust that resource at some point. Then what?
I don’t know what the “dead nuts right on” carrying capacity of Earth is. No one does. But we can sustain the current growth pace only by sucking everything out of the Earth. When that’s gone …
Slate-wiper. If the next Ice Age doesn’t get us first.
Everything you said is correct … 2050 is the exertion date
I enjoyed this article for what it conveyed but found myself left wanting for what remained absent. This is a great piece on counter-point but the author fails to extend his reach to the end of the branch. So what is the carrying capacity of the planet in round numbers? 25 Billion. 40 Billion. At what population will the average occupant of the Earth have the same resources as a Somali refugee who is dying of starvation and thirst now? From the standpoint of humanity, if that’s point of no return, what’s the tipping point that precedes it? At what population number do we reach a point where recovery will require extraordinary planetary measures? At what point will recovery will impossible?
Response to Paul Coney: While what you say is true, it leaves out some critical facts. You suggest that our problems are all due to the failures of the third world people whose populations are still growing and whose economies are insufficiently efficient and clean, and who therefore will be immigrating to the US and EU in BILLIONS. True, but–the problem of climate change, and most of the other environmental crises are brought on almost entirely by the overconsumption and waste of the First World. And, current immigration to Europe is largely due to US-led wars, many abetted by EU countries. In the US, it is dirty wars and oppression, and unequal trade agreements that drive northward immigration. And we could solve these problems and avert these crises if we didn’t spend absurd, enormous resources on wars, and on making the obscenely wealthy even richer. And we could avert the crisis if we could cooperatively work to lower our numbers and to limit ourselves to sustainable consumption patterns, which few in any country will countenance. Many of these problems are the fault of rich countries’ GOVERNMENTS, which are controlled nowhere by the people–corporations and the very rich dictate policy. But the last bit, that’s ordinary people everywhere, collectively deciding to solve these problems the old-fashioned way, by inviting the Horsemen in to chop our numbers via famine, war and plague. That’s the only alternative to lowering our population by voluntarily reducing births, and reducing our impact by transitioning quickly away from fossil fuels and toward regenerative agriculture.
Having lived over 60 years and seen how humans, including myself, live in this place we call earth, I have little expectation for a transition to “sustainability”.
My expectation is for a reset. Taintor’s work on collapse is more in line with what our future holds. Our current cultures and civilization are being “sustained” by the earth at present. Based on past deeply entrenched behaviors of the human species we should expect a few to change their behavior voluntarily, but most will continue to consume until resource exhaustion and its consequences result in collapse and reset.
Educating our progeny and others who will listen to be aware of this scenario may help them be among those who are around to help create the “reset”.
This site does a good job of explaining our predicament. My point with this post is to say that even if only a small number get the message it is a worthwhile effort.
Thank you all for your work.
Great essay. Thank you! I was aghast when I read Nordhaus’s essay on July 6th.
In his comment David Stein writes that “desperate people rarely make decisions based on common welfare, and instead, their collective actions only make the situation worse.”
As if non-desperate people do better! In fact, it is conspicuous consumption by the better-off that has led the world to the precipice. This exposes his “blame the victim” mindset.
There is no thing such a decoupling of the information industry. They are only hiding their increasing energy usage under some solar panels: for example i calculated on PV4.eu how many small powered trucks equivalent a 1 GWp PV array substitute and only 2000 PCs with 200kW, because they drive the whole day to deliver the goods you ordered on amazon. Or the Internet of Things or Industrie 4.0 a Critique the AC/DC losses are 1:1(50% depends how you see it) of all these information technology devices that store your kitty pictures in the cloud.
WOW! The Inter- has finally netted something useful! The piece, the comments, all a gold mine of the intellect!
I, a nobody, will stick my neck out a little at first, and if I don’t have to suck it back into my shell to avoid certain decapitation, maybe I’ll continue. I have annotated the whole piece and the comments, but as I can’t handle too much convolution, I’ll limit myself to the one comment most likely to elicit excommunication (if past experience is any guide).
We neglect the nature of the human cultural psyche at our peril. Egocentrism is at the root of Hardin’s thesis on theology—a much more virulent psychopathology than mere religion. This condition arose more or less concurrently with the rise of civilization (the enslavement of plants and animals) about, say, ten or fifteen thousand years ago, when social (cooperative) organization was suppressed by cultural (competitive) organization.
As to carrying capacity, it is not fixed, but it has limits and is dynamic. It is a ballet carried on by the energy cycle—a sine wave consisting of infinite sine waves. The earth’s carrying capacity has been degraded with respect to the survival and welfare of a number of species, and the root of that degradation is egocentrism, an artifact of culture’s unlimited domination of social impulses. The social impulses remain, and are even taken advantage of by culture–the picture, as it were, of a “Dorian Gray” civilization that knows no limits and profits on (and from) waste.
Sorry for going on so long . . .
I agree that humans are pushing the ecological niche we have found beyond long term limits. The third world is beset by overpopulation, poor education and health care, almost no family planning, no support for human and women’s rights, and a desire to abandon the sinking ship (Titanic) hoping to gain access to the few lifeboats (US and EU). The lifeboats are finite and less than the 2-3 BILLION desperate people wanting hope and a better life. Allowing 2-3 BILLION to jump on the few lifeboats will sink them and all aboard will drown. Do gooders think that we should save those that appear on our doorstep // at our lifeboat BUT refuse to look at the sea of desperate BILLIONS, close to doom.
The common sense of many is that neither the US or EU can allow so many desperate people on board. I agree. We need to do much more to help them live ecologically in their own countries. They must fight their fight, with our support, to establish a viable, ecological human platform in their country. Many who want to help the few at the doorstep cannot or will not look at the BILLIONS treading water. And those who want to help do not themselves want to carry the burden of their compassion. We live in dangerous times, with govts lead by fools, dictators, charlatans. Our risk is great but the greater risk is for the future and our children. We cannot be naive or simple in the struggle since that will allow crazed common sense to do bizarre things. To paraphrase Stalin, “each man’s death is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic” . We cannot let our compassion for the few lead us to abandon the course of hope for the millions.
And the scariest thing is: This already very steep 814% increase since 1850 shown in the graph is PER CAPITA. So, imagine you graphed the total, then it would be about 5x steeper because since 1850 the world population has increased more than 5-fold. I wished the total consumption would also be shown, because that is what is indicative of the total human foot print on our finite planet. And it is not only CO2, but just as high is the effect of deforestation, in large part to make way for agriculture, and the effect of overfishing. And since I eat as much as Bill Gates, the need for agriculture and fishing scales much more closely to the human population than other kinds of consumption (where the wealthier consume quite a bit more).
If you live in the developed world and have a steady salary with good benefits or derive much of your income from investments, it is much easier to ignore change happening all around you. For the moment, you can still buy your way out of trouble. Climate change, resource depletion, and the negative economic effects of borrowing from the future do not affect you in the same way as they do a poor person without these advantages. And then of course there are those who are paid to dissuade and distract. I do not know which category Mr. Nordhaus belongs to, but his analysis lacks scientific rigor.
Identifying climate change as one of the nine planetary boundaries that we transgress at our peril and devoting any of our efforts toward stage managing natuiral global climate serves only to detract from efforts necessary to deal with real causes and consequences of carrying capacity overshoot.
The very modest climate warming ( ~1* C) we have experienced since the end of the Little Ice Age in the late 1800s, orchestrated mainly by solar variability, has been well within the range of natural historic climate change – and this modest climate warming has almost nothing to do with human activity. Climate models projecting serious future climate warming based on the consequences of continuing carbon containing greenhouse gas emissions increases have been shown to run much too hot. This is because, although carbon containing greenhouse gases do influence the global climate at low atmospheric concentrations, their influence diminishes logarithmically with increasing concentrations so that CURRENT increases in their concentrations have little or no effect on the global climate.
Carrying capacity is not fixed, but nor can it made infinite with human ingenuity. As I found when devising a carying capacity assessment approach to land-use planning over a decade ago, the greatest variable is human diet. Shifting from a carnivorous diet to vegetarian in the warmer regions will increase their carrying capacity substantially.
Stimulated by my efforts, a student of mine Murray Lane, now friend and colleague, devised a carrying capacity dashboard for his PhD – a most useful carrying capacity asessment tool – for land-use planning and education. It is now accessible online at http://www.carryingcapacity.com.au As his website explains:
‘The Dashboard allows you to test how many people the resources of a certain area may support as well as determining how various lifestyle choices can influence land-use requirements. You can assess options such as a population’s diet, agricultural techniques, energy usage and recycling practices to gain real-time results. This form of modelling can help determine optimal placement, size and configuration of future human settlement as well as promoting societal behaviour consistent with the limits imposed by the natural environment.’
The dashboard warrants greater attention!
While it is true that carrying capacity is not absolutely fixed, it is also true that a number exists greater than the greatest number of human beings that could live for a given number of years under a well-defined austerity budget, even if no consideration whatever be given to the needs or even the existence of future generations. I am too old and too busy to repeat computations such as those I carried out years ago in “On the Conservation-within-Capitalism Scenario” and “Energy in a Mark II Economy” , which, by the way, despite claims of a sincere desire to mitigate the coming Malthusian catastrophe, no one in any of the Peak Oil forums read; therefore, I believe I am justified in leaving to others to compute separately (1) the minimum quantity of fresh water per capita required directly (drinking) and indirectly, e. g., agricultural water associated with minimal dietary requirements, (2) minimum eMergy per capita , as defined by Wayburn following and amending Odum, (3) the smallest fraction of the Earth’s surface needed to provide living space and (1) and (2), and (4) human effort which we discount completely, since we seek a maximum for carrying capacity and we shall divide by consumption. One can use techniques such as I used in https://dematerialism.net/CwC.html to find maximum world production of eMergy and maximum totals for fresh water and useful space on Earth’s surface and under the Earth etc. a la Coruscant. Finally, one can find the critical factor (that which runs out earliest or most often) and, in turn, the maximum carrying capacity as a quotient of maximum supply over minimum demand. I expect that whoever reads this will content himself (or herself to further complicate a note rendered as simply as I am able, that is, too complicated for most) with a thought experiment.
Excuse me for my English, I am Dutch.
I fully agree with Richards view. However I don’t believe this is a problem the Homo Sapiens as a advanced primate can solve. The mindset of the Homo Sapiens forbid clear logic thinking. We are equipped with emotional protection tools/systems who are named as “Cognitive Dissonance”.
This is not a problem of not wanting to know the ecological consequences of our deeds, we can’t “see” them. We can’t see them because we could’t cope with the emotional stress related to this view.
Infinite growth on a finite planet, what could possibly go wrong?
I lost some of my prior confidence on the work of Rockstrom and Steffen on planetary boundaries after finding out that Rockstrom himself is a population denier who thinks the late Hans Rosling (“we will consume our way of overpopulation”) had the right idea on the appropriate response to unsustainable population growth (i.e. do nothing). Their boundaries concept also lends itself to misleading readings. It would seem to tell us, for example, that we should worry much more about the problem of biogeochemical flows than climate change.
Way to tackle a difficult, complex topic with ease and grace. A small handful will continue to publicly speak common sense truth to modern twisted rationalization, and we can only hope that some in the next generation will have the courage to speak that truth as well. Only time will prove that humans are animals subject to the laws of nature.
All the more reason to join the growing movement for 4More Planets! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOuuXtP_DZI
Although there is no firm scientific evidence, one of the more severe consequences of climate change and global resource depletion is the increased violence at both the national and individual level among human populations believing themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be resource deprived. The Syrian (un)civil war is a result, in part of extended draught exacerbated by climate change. The lack of jobs, much of this induced by climate change has led to the vast numbers of climate refugees which has led in turn to the increasingly ugly efforts world-wide to prevent. And all of this is closely linked to the fact that we have more people demanding more food and other resouces than the planet can sustainably produced. Saddest of all is that desperate people rarely make decisions based on common welfare, and instead, their collective actions only make the situation worse as clearly stated years ago by Garrett Hardin and only to a very limited degree refuted or modified by Elinor Ostrom.
We have not changed mentally in my own 68 year timeline. I thought a decade ago there was a small spark of interest, but when oil prices plummeted, all the common sense disappeared again in Architecture.
I see no real attempt from any direction to use our ability to do with 95% less energy despite the face that it would save out nation One Trillion dollars each year.
We have pitiful discussions at the Capitol Hill about few dollars for schools, art and supporting meaningful development for less well off. The energy loss is not only twice the military budget but one of the most direct climatic destroyers.
We understand performance in TV’s and Cars, but in Buildings and such – NO COMMON REASONING APPEARS.
The 95% is killed by the 5 year payback for the developers…which means that we pay the rest out of our own pocket. Roughly 1/4 to 1/2 million per 1500 sf of space.
Pretty stupid indeed – one of the reasons we cannot have a military conflict either without destroying our food and mobility chain. When power is out we have but few days to go.
Money market measure by itself drives this. Market competition can be, and is, won by ignoring conservation. You can bring more to the market for less cost by ignoring conservation. It costs less to simply dump industrial waste, to ignore the need to recycle soil nutrients, for example. Externalities, people talk about. Paying employees less than the competition is another way to win market competition. It is a similar thing to ignoring the environment with dumping waste, or exploiting the soil with agriculture. And people who win market competitions and pile up lots of money, get more influence on laws and law enforcement.
With markets measuring abundant resources as cheap this way, people also have reproduced freely, making themselves abundant and cheap, while resources become scarce and expensive.
This way of measuring value is a trap.
In contrast, it can be observed that humans are a highly social species and we live by teamwork, die without it. We all have the naked body to experiment with about this observation if there is doubt. Teamwork can be efficient or inefficient, can have rational expectations of the future, or irrational ones. It has always been scientifically irrational to expect to find imaginary new resources, imaginary new technology, to keep growth going. What was found in the past to allow growth to continue, has no observable relationship to what might be found in the future. Saying that we found things in the past, therefore we will find more ways in the future, is confusing correlation with causation. It is a superstitious expectation, has no rational basis.
People need to have a food energy returned over food energy ingested ratio, or food EROEI that is high enough to go on living, reproducing adequately. Reproduction is resource expensive and requires a higher food EROEI. Obtaining shelter that slows down excessive energy loss or gain, can be a vital use of food energy ingested, as well as getting more food.
If vital resources are used up, obviously this food EROEI ratio can fall to the point where death occurs.
Groups working together efficiently both internally and with other groups, to deal with these physics based rules, should survive better than those who ignore them and count on superstition or have other magical thinking behind their expectations.