Overshoot in A Nutshell
By David M. Delaney
Thomas Robert Malthus, 1766-1834, famously observed that human population, if unchecked, would grow faster than its food supply. He argued that education in “moral restraint” might prevent starvation from being the operative check on population growth. It is implicit in his writings that uncontrolled population growth, failing “moral restraint”, would stall near the natural limits of the food supply. The population would remain stable thereafter, with many people living on the edge of starvation. But general undernourishment of a stable population is not a likely result of the current fantastic expansion of the human population. Like many who have commented on population growth, Malthus did not understand overshoot.
A species may greatly overshoot the long term carrying capacity of its environment. (Its population may become greatly larger than its environment can sustain.) Overshoot becomes possible when a species encounters a rich and previously unexploited stock of resources that promotes its reproduction.
The creation of stocks is due to ongoing geological and biological activity. A resource stock forms when a part of the daily production of a resource, a flow, accumulates slowly without being exploited, perhaps over millions of years. An enormous stock of a resource may accumulate before it encounters a species that can exploit it easily. After such an encounter, only predation and disease limit reproduction of the species.
Without significant predation or disease, and while large amounts of the stock remain easily available, the population of a species can grow to a size hundreds of times that which can be supported by the flows that created the stock. The daily production of a resource is a mere trickle compared to the flood available from a stored accumulation.
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