Population Growth: Malthus Rolls Over
Last week, Oxford Computer Science Professor Steven Emmott published an excerpt of his book, Ten Billion, in The Guardian. The tone of his excerpt breaks all of the rules about communication on environmental issues. It uniformly grim and offers no solutions-verboten on two counts if you actually want people to listen, hear the message, and take actions. However, the article, and presumably the book, deals head on with the foundation of environmental destruction-population growth-from which so many environmental groups and writers shy away. The article correctly points out that the constraints are not just climate, but water, waste, and concentrated populations combined with contaminated environments that lead to elevated risks of disease.
The Green Revolution caused the Malthusian crisis to go out of fashion. But Malthus was not wrong, but rather too narrow in his analysis; he identified food as a single, inflexible constraint. He didn’t allow for the expanding effects of technology and didn’t consider the ecosystem’s other limits. He should have identified multiple constraint that represent the ecosystem as a whole.
E.O. Wilson coined the term ‘technological prosthesis’ for pesticides, fertilizers, de-salinization, fossil fuels-anything that allows the population to continue to expand beyond what it would without technology. But these prostheses come at the cost of the complexity and resilience of the natural environment. Each prosthetic fix that allows us to go beyond natural carrying capacity also creates a point of weakness at which our built environment can fail.
The Earth has a carrying capacity. Technology and its continual advancement make that capacity hard to pinpoint, but it does not vitiate it all together. If the capacity is met, human population will inevitably be curtailed. The question now is merely whether the curtailment comes about humanely through policy and planning, or painfully, through ecosystem collapse.
Please click here to read the full essay: http://theenergycollective.com/sierenernst/246136/malthus-rolls-over
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