Colin Butler: Human carrying capacity and our need for a parachute

Return of the misanthropes. I’m not sure whether whole generations had their minds poisoned by the likes of Ehrlich and the Club of Rome or whether there is a natural subpopulation of the antisocial who simply hate humans. Whatever, here’s another “Eek! Egad! Humans!” piece:

The issue of human overpopulation has fallen out of favour among most contemporary demographers, economists, and epidemiologists. Discussing population control has become a taboo topic.

The silence around overpopulation prevents us from making the necessary link between the planet’s limited ability to support its people (its carrying capacity) and health and development crises.

Human carrying capacity is the maximum population that can be supported at a given living standard by the interaction of any given human-ecological system. This apparently simple concept has many nuances and is rarely used by population scientists. However, in rejecting this term, purists risk making a terrible conceptual flaw, that of thinking that environmental and human resources are largely irrelevant to human population size.

It is irrefutable that human ingenuity and cooperation can increase human carrying capacity. But even so, human welfare will continue to depend on the external world, including for resources such as food and water. Humans are neither computer ciphers nor caged mice.

That is to say, while a given area might tolerate a theoretically higher density of human population than it does, the reality of human evolution in distinct groups, separated by culture, religion, and language, means that this theoretical maximum will rarely be attained. A degree of underused carrying capacity can be viewed as a desirable buffer around disparate groups, vital for reducing tension and preventing conflict.

The Conversation


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