Denial of Nature’s Limits is the Problem

The_World_in_His_hands_by_SaviourMachineLast week, The New York Times published a fantastical piece on human exceptionalism entitled “Overpopulation Is Not The Problem,” in which author Erle C. Ellis claimed that human societies have no limits to their growth. That’s right — limits are merely an illusion. Expansion über alles! That’s our species’ birthright, and rightful destiny.

“There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity,” writes Ellis, castigating those of us concerned with ecological limits as believers that humans are little different than “bacteria in a petri dish.” Perhaps even more outlandishly, Ellis goes on to state that “[t]he idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future.” Who’s history exactly?

As an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Ellis should know better. Unless he steered clear of the stacks of thoughtful volumes available to him on the rise and fall of past civilizations, he would surely have encountered chronicle after chronicle of societies that faced progressively daunting ecological challenges, and which plummeted in population as a result.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond’s recent treatise, Collapse, offers a sobering survey of past human overshoot: from the fall of the Anasazi of southwestern North America due to deforestation and warfare over depleting resources, to the collapse of the Maya due to overcultivation and prolonged drought, to the recent genocide in Rwanda, due in part to increasing numbers of people contending for land in a formerly sustainable subsistence economy. In each of these cases, people (quite unlike bacteria) deployed complex social and technological innovations under increasingly stressful circumstances. And yet, their societies collapsed.

The lesson we should draw from this is not that that we are immune from nature’s limits. Quite the contrary: we fail to moderate our environmental impact at our own peril.

In fairness to Ellis, he rightly points out that humans are “niche creators,” beings who have an impressive history of transforming ecosystems to sustain ourselves and often to facilitate our very survival. This recognition, however, does not magically exempt us from ecological processes, pressures, and limits. It simply means we must utilize our “niche creation” skills in ways that allow our planet’s life-support systems to persevere.

Unfortunately, many of our world’s vital ecosystems are already on the brink of collapse. Despite incredible leaps in resource-use efficiency, ecological understanding, and technological know-how, our planet’s forests and sensitive habitats are being devastated far faster than they’re regenerating, arable lands are turning into deserts and soils are being mined of their critical nutrients, our oceans are being overfished and polluted with more toxins than can safely be absorbed, our freshwater aquifers and waterways are being depleted at rates several times faster than they’re being replenished, and our atmosphere is being flooded with so much carbon that our global climate is warming to extreme degrees. Moreover, the fossil fuels we rely on for transportation, agriculture, housing, manufacturing, and so much more are becoming harder and harder to find and extract, posing severe challenges to the very foundation of industrial civilization.

All of these realities will pose severe constraints on economic activity, which in turn, will limit human numbers. Just because we’ve overcome ecological constraints in the past, expanding from smaller niches to ever-larger ones, doesn’t mean we can therefore transcend our entire planet’s very real ecological boundaries.

Yes, we humans are “niche creators,” as Ellis so colorfully calls us. But rather than cling to the tired and dangerous myth of human exceptionalism from nature, it’s time to embrace our proper role as stewards and balancers of Earth’s incredible bounty. Through the knowledge we’ve gained from ecology, permaculture, and anthropology, we have within our power the capacity to remake our societies to respect nature’s cycles, life-giving processes, and yes, even its limits — while simultaneously allowing us all to live life to its fullest. Constant expansion of our numbers isn’t necessary for that vision. Humility and belief in ourselves is.


One thought on “Denial of Nature’s Limits is the Problem

  1. This might not seem on topic but I sincerely believe it is. This spring a couple friends treated me to a week’s vacation in Santa Fe. One friend paid the airfare and another friend, housesitting, let me stay in her free house gig. The house sitting friend treated me to an amazing jeep tour of desert, on a 40,000 acre ranch ownec by wealthy Texans who have never been there. The tour owner is also the caretaker of the ranch. And this guy cares. It is beautiful to see that he knows every wild horse, every petroglyph, ever arroyo and to see that he loves it all. We should all be in such good hands.

    I never would have done this trip ($150 for 3 hours jeep ride? no way) but my friend really wanted to go and free is free. I wanted to go to the national Petroflyph Park and explore the desert myself. But I have to say, this private ranch revealed things no public land could have revealed.

    It doesn’t seem right that rich anybodies, much less Texans, should own 40,000 acres of land. Obviously it is an investment for them but the caretaker works to preserve the remnants of many past cultural inhabitations — going way way back. Sure there are leftover buildings and fireplaces when when the white man destroyed the indios when whites took over N. America but there are settlements that go much further back. They weren’t doing ancient petroglyphs when the white man came along — that shit is way way way older.

    The guide lovingly showed us how massive changes in the whole earth have affected this ranch. He pointed to a volcano in the distance — check it out, I didn’t make this up — that was so powerful when it erupted, guestimated in 1,300 A.d. that it changed the weather patterns of the entire earth. that wasn’t mankind — that was nature. And he showed us a black stone wall that looked manmade for it was so perfect and it went as far as the eye could see and he said an earthquake created it, throwing up that endless black wall in one little burp of the quake.

    When he finally showed us the oldest settlement on the land, by his estimates, a couple thousand years old and explained his theories on why he believed that culture died out (drought? overgrazing? not enough firewood? civilizations snuff out for a reason and the reasons in the ancient past had nothing to do with human damage to the earth. Human damage just accelerates what happens all on its own.

    I said “Man, what you are saying puts environmental destruction into perspective. Even if we weren’t fucking up the planet, which we are, it could still alll blow to hell if we ran out of water — which we could, or clean air, which we could and we could run out of this stuff for reasons having nothing to do with human greed — just nature.

    He just said “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?”

    I never felt smaller, or more humble. Or hopeless. Nothing I do will save the earth. Reduce water. N. CA and its inland farms only grow food now cause we take it from other states — we cant keep that up forever, it will run out. Pollution matters. Bees dying is like a canary in a coal mine but our president signs a federal bill protecting Montanto’s GMO food.

    It’s over. It doesn’t really matter is some moron professor is in denial about nature’s limits. Nature’s limits are real.

    and we humans might as well accept it: life on earth is going to get harder and harder and scrabbling for survival uglier and uglier. Justice, prosperrity, the commons — these will all seem like quaint outdated fantasies when you kids or grandkids can’t get clean water to live. And those days are coming.


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