Sustainable Carrying Capacity for New Zealand

March 22, 2013 • Protection of Species, Daily Email Recap

Sustainable Carrying Capacity for New Zealand

Sustainable carrying capacity has a simple definition from an ecological perspective – it is the number of a species

that can be supported in a particular area indefinitely, given that area’s endowment of water, food, and other

necessities. However, for human beings in New Zealand, the expectations of being supported involves far more

than mere survival, and through our food exports, the majority of the people we support are overseas. What

then can be said about New Zealand’s carrying capacity given our reliance on our environment to achieve human

well-being? This paper explores the thinking around sustainability in a national context, and the implications

when looking to build this concept into policy making.


Defining well-being, sustainability and carrying capacity


Well-being includes not just our biological needs or our psychological desires, but the opportunities and freedoms

to address those desires in a secure and cohesive society.1 It can be measured by, for instance, the United Nations’

Human Development Index which includes income, life expectancy, and literacy.2 More detailed measures should

include environmental responsibility, economic efficiency, and social cohesion.3,4

For sustainability, the Brundtland Commission’s statement

“sustainable development is development that meets the

needs of the present without compromising the ability of

future generations to meet their own needs” is now

twenty-five years old and, as a definition, it appears to be

durable. A recent attempt to define sustainable carrying

capacity in a New Zealand local context resulted in: “The

Human Carrying Capacity (HCC) is the measure of a

specified area’s ability to sustainably support human

activity given aggregate lifestyle and development choices

and the means used to achieve these, and is expressed in

terms of number of people.”5 This statement does need

the caveat that the needs of future generations will be

different from our current needs so we should preserve

the opportunities and choices that future generations may

value more highly than us. Overall progress towards

sustainability has been insufficient with the Royal Society

of London, amongst others, calling for urgent action to

radically transform unsustainable consumption.6




Much of the discussion around sustainable carrying

capacity has come from dialogues between ecologists and

economists with the aim of jointly developing approaches

that deliver both economic and environmental goals. The

overall concept provides a framework for discussing

ecological resilience in the context of trade, economic

growth, and changes in human behaviour and

technologies. Its attractiveness may lie in the notion that a

population or activity can be sustained at a stable and

optimal level, avoiding crashes or over-exploitation.

However, human societies are always changing and our

current global wealth is characterised by ever-increasing

rates of change in behaviour, technologies, and resource

use. In this dynamic state, a quasi-equilibrium tool like

sustainable carrying capacity is flawed, but it remains a

useful conceptual tool for considering the scale and

intensity of our relationship with the environment.

To read the full paper, please click here:

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