Our discourse surrounding carrying capacity is generally as absurd as the rest of our discourse. Most often we simply ignore it. Failing that, talk of carrying capacity quite often falls into one of three camps, none of which are particularly helpful, all of which support the status quo.
The first begins and ends with population. There are simply too many people. You’ve seen the pictures. Crowded streets in Calcutta, impoverished babies with huge hungry eyes and bloated bellies in Mexico, refugee camps in Africa, masses of Chinese crammed into filthy cities. The earth can’t support these numbers. Something’s got to give.
And you’ve heard the arguments. The United States needs to close its borders to immigration from poor countries. Having finally gotten our own birthrate down sufficiently to more or less stabilize our population, the last thing we need is a bunch of poor (brown) people moving in to crowd us out (we know, also, that once they’re here they’ll breed faster than we do, and soon enough will outnumber us).
I often respond to this argument by saying I’m all for closing the border to Mexico (and everywhere else, for that matter, all the way down to closing bioregional borders), so long as we close it not only to people but to resources as well. No bananas from Mexico. No coffee. No oil. No tomatoes in January. Many of the people who leave their families in Mexico (or any other impoverished nation) to come to the United States to work do so not because they hate their husbands or wives yet have not gotten to the point in their therapy where they feel comfortable expressing (much less acting on) this. Nor is it generally because they’re bored with Cancun, Acapulco, and their other normal vacation spots and have decided this tourist season to take a Reality Tour™ of the bean fields of the San Joachin Valley. They come, one way or another, because the integrity of their resource base and their community (insofar as there can meaningfully be said to be a difference) have already been compromised: the resources have been stolen, and the community is unraveling. Of course this migration, too, is part of the unraveling. From the beginning of history, this is why people have moved from country to city.
To want, on the other hand, to close the border to people yet leave it open to the theft of their resources (importation is the preferred term in polite society), is to show that your alleged concern over population is nothing but a cover for continuing the same old bigotry and exploitation. I don’t want you, but I do want the coffee grown on land that used to be yours. Even those who don’t specifically want to close borders, but merely want to talk about population while conveniently forgetting to talk about resource consumption are, too, pushing us ever closer to the abyss. For the real bottom line of overshooting carrying capacity is resource consumption and other damage. It wouldn’t matter if there were a hundred billion deer on a tiny island if they didn’t consume, trample, or otherwise destroy anything, and didn’t pollute the place with their feces or anything else. Numbers by themselves are meaningless. It’s the damage that counts.
Another way to talk about this is to notice the language: overpopulation,zero population growth. How different would our discourse be if we spoke instead of overconsumption and zero consumption growth? This shift in discourse won’t happen, of course, because zero consumption growth would destroy the capitalist economy.
The United States constitutes less than 5 percent of the world’s population yet uses more than one-fourth of the world’s resources and produces one-fourth of the world’s pollution and waste. If you compare the average U.S. citizen to the average citizen of India, you find that the American uses fifty times more steel, fifty-six times more energy, one hundred and seventy times more synthetic rubber, two hundred and fifty times more motor fuel, and three hundred times more plastic.Yet our images of overpopulation generally consist not of those who do the most damage, the primary perpetrators (there can’t be too many [middle-class] Americans, can there?), but instead their primary (human) victims.
At least partially in response to the obvious arrogance and absurdity of those who want the poor to stop having babies but don’t mind the rich having SUVs (and nuclear weapons), there are those who claim—equally absurdly, and equally arrogantly—that all talk of carrying capacity is racist and classist. To even use the phrase carrying capacity in this crowd is to invite hisses and catcalls, as well as spat epithets of Neo-Malthusian. I suppose the argument is that because some of those who want to protect this exploitative way of living use carrying capacity as a means of social control against the poor—as an American Indian activist friend said to me, “The only problem I have with population control is that you and I both know who is going to do the controlling”—then the notion of carrying capacity itself must be racist and classist. This seems similar to me to suggesting that because Hitler claimed (falsely) that Germany was being attacked by Poland, and that therefore the Germans needed to attack, and that because this same argument has routinely been used (just as falsely) by the United States as well as other imperial powers, that anyone who claims self-defense is lying. These people seem to forget that the misuse of an argument does not invalidate the argument itself.
Worse, this argument, that the very concept of carrying capacity is a fabrication designed for social control, as opposed to a simple statement of limits, serves those in power as effectively as does ignoring or de-emphasizing resource consumption when speaking of overshooting carrying capacity, because it goes along with the refusal to acknowledge physical limits (and limits to exploitation) that characterize this culture. What would it take, I’ve heard peace and social justice activists ask, to bring the poor of the world to the fiscal standard of living of the rich? Well, another thirty planets, for one thing. It’s a dangerous—and stupid— question. Within this culture wealth is measured by one’s ability to consume and destroy. This means that attempts to industrialize the poor will further harm the planet. Because industrial production requires the exploitation of resources, the wealth of one group is always based on the impoverishment of another’s landbase, meaning that on a finite planet, the creation of one person’s (fiscal) wealth always comes at the cost of many others’ poverty. Those reasons are why the question is stupid. It’s dangerous because it serves as propaganda to keep both activists and the poor playing a game that doesn’t serve them well, and which they can never win, instead of quitting this game and working to take down the system.
For at least the past ten years, there has been a lot of talk, primarily among those whose alleged concern for sustainability is a cover for exploitation but also among those who should know better, of something called sustainable development. In this phrase, development is essentially a synonym for industrialization, for destruction, as in the development of natural resources. Under this rubric, sustainable development is an obvious oxymoron. Industrialized people consume more resources and cause more damage, than nonindustrialized people. The “development” of the industrialized nations has been and continues to be unsustainable for the industrialized nations and for the world at large, and the further “development” of the world will only make things worse.
Sometimes activists complain—sometimes I complain—that the United States spends boatloads of money on weapons, but gives comparatively little to the poor. I’ve grown to understand, however, that the best thing Americans could do for the poor is not to hand them crumbs, nor to give (or worse, loan) their government money for dams, factories, roads, and (of course) weapons, but instead to stop stealing their resources. I recently asked Anuradha Mittal, former co-director of Food First, if she thought the poor of her native India would be better off if the United States economy disappeared tomorrow. She laughed and said, “Of course. All the poor would be.” She told me that former granaries in India now export dog food and tulips to Europe.
There’s a third way to look at population, which is, I think, as useless and harmful as the others. Even when people do accept the existence of carrying capacity and aren’t trying to use their talk of overshoot to maintain the rich’s current stranglehold over the lives of the poor—and to extend this stranglehold into the most intimate aspects and decisions (sexuality and childrearing) of their lives—they more often than not talk of population in terms of mathematics, in terms of exponential increase, in terms of some “natural rate of population growth.” It’s very simple: turn on your computer, plug the appropriate numbers into your handy-dandy formula—X number of people on Y amount of land containing Z amount of resources, where W represents the industrial educational level of women—and watch the little black and brown dots representing people fill your screen. But this formulation carries with it many dangerous premises, including the essential premise of mathematics itself: those to be studied and described are not individuals who make choices, but instead are objects who—or rather which—act with no great measure of volition. It presumes people do not make rational short-, mid-, and long-term family-planning decisions based on their circumstances, experiences, and the social values into which they’ve been acculturated. Nor do they give any thought to the personal, social, or environmental consequences of their decisions. Heck, it presumes people—especially poor, brown, uneducated people—breed with no thought whatsoever: where does thought, or choice, fit into these or any equations? It presumes they breed like rabbits. But that’s nonsense. I’m not even sure rabbits breed like rabbits.
Sure, we can make probabilistic predictions of what certain percentages of people (or rabbits) will do under certain social and ecological conditions, but to talk of any “natural rate of population growth” without talking about the culture that causes—acculturates, inculcates, coerces, rewards—people to not only ignore environmental limits but to perceive, accurately, that their larger social fabric would collapse without incessant growth is to naturalize—make normal, make invisible, make seem as inevitable as gravity—something that is not natural but cultural.
Non-linear—cyclical—cultures, those not predicated on growth but on dynamic equilibrium, maintain stable populations. Having reached the limits of what their landbase willingly supports, indeed—and this is well-nigh inconceivable to those of us raised in a culture where we are taught to perceive all life as horrific competition and humans as the bloody victors—having reached a population level that best serves the needs not only of their human community but of their nonhuman neighbors, they, believe it or not, reduce the number of children. They do this by breastfeeding their existing children for many years, by abstinence, by taboos, by the use of herbal contraceptives and abortions. Prior to conquest, American Indian women, for example, used more than two hundred plants, roots, and other medicines as means of birth control, making the decisions themselves as to whether to use them. When all else fails, some cultures, and I’m not promoting this, practice infanticide. This infanticide is often not gender-based.
Beneath these techniques is the real point, which is an intimate and mutually beneficial relationship with their landbase.
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“What nonsense!” I can hear you say, “Humans exploit their surroundings! Human needs are in opposition to the natural world, otherwise why would politicians say we need to balance the economy versus the environment? Balance implies opposition. Whether it’s a God-given right or an evolutionarily ordained mandate, humans chop down trees, deprive all others of their habitat. It’s what we do.” But to believe this is to mistake civilization for humanity, an unforgivable and fatal, if flattering, error.
One of the central myths of this culture concerns the desirability of growth, a parasitic expansion to fill and consume its host. This was manifest from the beginning, as we were told in Genesis, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.” Of course we see the same absurd mythology of growth and exploitation today. Just last night I read, in language less theological yet expressing the same damn thing, a sentence by Joseph Chilton Pearce, an author well-respected for his attempts to change this cul-ture’s destructive path: “The amount [of gray matter] we have is just what we need for certain goals nature has in mind, such as our dominion over the earth.” From its opening to its endgame, civilization has been nothing if not consistently narcissistic, domineering, and exploitative. And it is consistent in its attempts to make these attributes seem natural, to make them seem as though nature itself is to blame for our exploitation of it (“She was asking for it,” we can say with clean conscience as we pull up our pants and leave the darkened alley).
We can see the myth of growth at work in the Catholic church’s continued hostility toward birth control, attempting to get us to believe, as the ironic bumper sticker so eloquently puts it, that “every ejaculation deserves a name.” We can see it in the concern over falling birthrates in industrialized nations such as Greece and Russia. And we can see it in the commonplace acceptance of the very real fact that without constant economic expansion capitalism will collapse almost immediately.
This mythology is grounded in reality—cultural reality, that is—because from the beginning the very existence of city-states has required the importation of resources from ever-expanding regions of increasingly exploited countryside. It has required growth.
Well, that’s going to stop someday. At some point, probably in the not-too-distant future, there will be far fewer people on this planet. There will be far fewer than the planet could have supported—and did support—prior to us overshooting carrying capacity, because the great stocks of wild foods are gone (or poisoned), the top soil lost in the wind.
My saying this doesn’t mean I hate people. Far from it. A few weeks ago I received an email in response to my statement that the only sustainable level of technology is the Stone Age. The person said, “I don’t think the stone-age will support anything near the current world population. [Of course I agree.] So to return to this level implies either killing a lot of people or not having many children and waiting for the population to diminish. Or do we allow war or other pestilence to do the job? Is this what you are proposing?”
I responded that what I’m proposing, startlingly enough, is that we look honestly at our situation. And our situation is that we have overshot carrying capacity. The question becomes: What are we going to do about it?
An early, edited version of this appeared in The Ecologist, March 2004