Earth’s Carrying Capacity. That’s a myth

Theology at the end of this blog. First, some environmental talk. I have an occupational background in environmental biology (not to mention a Master’s degree in International Development), so I understand the idea of carrying capacity. And I don’t believe in the idea that Earth has a “carrying capacity” of humans. Drawn over from environmental studies of animals in an ecosystem, the reason this is a non-starter for me in regards to human population, is that history has shown, time and time again, that people are capable of creatively adapting and developing ways to live in an ecosystem far beyond what its “previous” carrying capacity was thought to be prior to the innovation.

Estimates of the carrying capacity of the Earth (for human population) since van Leeuwenhoek in 1679, have been laughably incorrect over and over again, not to mention ranging from 1 billion to 1000 billion! The low end estimates were based on the agricultural technology of the day (tillable acres and output divided by human consumption per capita) and those estimates of carrying capacity have been repeatedly increased due to the increase in agricultural output per acre enabled by new advances in farming practices. I’m typing this on Point Loma, a very densely populated part of San Diego. The carrying capacity of this area is a million fold what it would have been for the Diegan Indios 500 years ago, but then we aren’t hunter-gatherers. I’ve lived on one of the most densely populated pieces of land in the world: Java, Indonesia. Rice terracing and fish farming have increased the food-producing capabilities of that land far beyond its natural contours. As a 2012 UN study put it, “technological advances in efficiency can be a divisor of per capita impact.” 1 When the interdependent variables in dynamic systems modeling today are applied to carrying capacity, there are so many estimates regarding future variables, the range of estimates becomes so huge as to be meaningless. A 1995 article in Science called for “extreme skepticism” regarding carrying capacity estimates for the reasons I’ve just cited. 2

A meme I saw said “God makes a world for humans – 70 % saltwater ocean.” It was witty on the surface, but it really doesn’t make the point it attempts. Humans figure out how to live in ecosystems as we go. Our ancestors walking out of Africa could not have survived near the Arctic Circle with the savannah lifestyle they knew – but the Inuit and Eskimo have learned how to thrive there for thousands of years – with only Neolithic technology! 70% of our world is indeed oceanic – but we have only scratched the surface on learning how to live there. We can learn to live in oceanic environments just as surely as we did in Arctic ones. Aquatic farming is just in its earliest stages. Not only is there plenty more for us to learn about farming Earth’s various biomes, but we haven’t even hardly started with urban farming and stackable skyscraper farms. Figures for carrying capacity are always and utterly tied to current technology and practices. Any talk of carrying capacity should start by saying “If we never, ever do a single thing different than we do today…” And that’s just silly.

But there’s a strong theological reason to question the idea of carrying capacity. For those Christians who believe we are past the carrying capacity of the Earth, we need to ask “Which of the people currently alive would the Creator God prefer had never been born?” It is theologically repugnant, from a Christian point of view, to imagine there are any. We don’t need less people created in the imago dei. We simply need what every group of people have needed (and worked out) since the digging stick was invented and there were more babies born in the tribe: new ways to find, (or in our case) increase, harvestable output.

And by the way, there is no shortage of food in the world per capita. There are local scarcities we haven’t transported to effectively. It’s not a quantity issue, it’s a transportation issue and a governance issue. Next time let’s talk about carrying capacity and pollutants in a closed system.


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‘Our Modern Ailment’

For over a hundred years, Western writers have bemoaned a condition they have called various things, perhaps most often ‘our modern ailment.’ As we export modern, Western life to the rest of the world,  people working in international development have been wrestling with this for the last 50 years, as well. Simply put, ‘our modern ailment’ is the idea that alongside the good things that technology and the modern life have brought us, we have lost something of our humanity, community and soul. Important parts of our former ways of life have faded away, and people are the worse for it. Hundreds, if not thousands, of serious writers and thinkers have looked at society and remarked about this in the last 100-150 years.

The last couple of years reading agrarian philosophers Henry Beston and Wendell Berry have stirred up my thoughts on this issue, although I always noticed it. My shorthand definition of agrarianism is the idea that people are better off more in touch with the earth in small farming communities where human relationships are close and there is a connection to the rhythms of life connected to the land. An addendum would include saying that many modern conveniences have stolen away the formative benefits of many tasks, including the relational and creational aspects of them.

Example: Four people raking leaves together talking, is better than one person alone with a leafblower and earbuds. Five people in a kitchen canning peaches, laughing and enjoying one another is better than one person buying a can of peaches at a store. The growing interest I have observed among 20 and 30-something year olds today in doing things the old way, from making apple cider together to gardening antique varieties of produce to cooking parties or learning to woodwork, blacksmith, hunt, raise chickens, you name it – all indicate people are yearning for a more tactile and Creation-connected life than the hyper-modern world has delivered. Mother Earth News and its ilk remain for a reason.

There are a variety of ways in which “modern conveniences” have backfired sociologically and  in the human psyche. Can we learn to live a life of joy, connectedness, and wholeness? Can we recover some of the things our great-grandparents knew brought meaning to life? And does Christian faith have a valuable contribution to bring to the table in being connected to one another and the natural world God made? If it does, we will have to rediscover the broader world of the Bible in place of the narrow, modern consumer version of  evangelicalism so common in the West.

Wesley on our life

I’ve been reading a great book about Wesley and came across a great quote.  Not Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts, but John Wesley, founder of the Methodists (1703-1791). The book is Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by William C. Guerrant, Jr and published by Seedbed, 2015. It’s very Wendell Berry-ish, and absolutely jam-packed with Wesley’s many thoughts on food justice. Wesley, who believed the Gospel to be about EVERYTHING (not just individual spiritual salvation) spoke quite a bit about food justice issues (distribution, animal treatment, industrialization, obesity, health, you name it) that are in the headlines all the time today.

So, the quote is in two parts, the first a statement he made in 1747 and the second he made in 1790. It’s a great image of God’s care for creation, our place in the scheme of things, and the implicit insight that God, Who has always been about relationship, is therefore all about synergism between Himself and humanity in the care of His world, and in, well everything. It summarizes our task very simply. Here it is:

“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment….  Do good. Do all the good thou canst.”

Humanity in an alliance with nature

More than a few of you who read this, work in International Development. Poverty alleviation. The following words penned by American naturalist and farmer Henry Beston back in 1948 will not be a new idea to you:

“…man’s relation to Nature must never be anything else but an alliance.  ….When we begin to consider Nature as something to be robbed greedily like an unguarded treasure, or used as an enemy, we put ourselves, in thought, outside of Nature – of which we are inescapably a part. Be it storm and flood, hail and fire, or the yielding furrow and the fruitful plain, an alliance it is, and that alliance is a cornerstone of our true humanity.” (Northern Farm, Ballantine Books, pg. 29)

It goes without saying that humanity’s footprint on this planet was considerably smaller 400 years ago, when much of our current culture’s matrix was taking philosophical shape. So much smaller that most people did not think of Earth as a closed system. The resources of the planet seemed limitless (outside of concentrated population centers) and our ability to significantly harm our environment seemed miniscule in that vast land and seascape.

However, it turns out we’ve come to realize Earth is itself a closed system, as surely as the Apollo 13 moonshot. The same issues faced by Apollo -oxygen, CO2, and toxins – are precisely the issues we now realize our footprint is big enough to impact in dangerous ways.

One of the central, perennial conundrums for engineers who develop vehicles for space travel is the fact that a spaceship, (or space station, for that matter, even if it were the size of the Halo ring!), is a closed system – and how to keep humans alive in a closed system? A space capsule is utterly sealed: nothing gets in or out. So how do you not run out of enough good stuff (oxygen, water, food) and not build up far too much bad stuff (toxins like CO2 and human waste products)? The Apollo 13 crew nearly died because their CO2 scrubber broke.

Earth itself, we now see, is a spaceship, a closed system. We are absolutely capable of running out of resources. As I’ve observed before, you can monetize wood in your economy – but when there are no more cuttable forests, money is no longer exchangeable or translatable into wood. For us to continue to act as we did in the 1700s in regards to how we manage the planet, is insanity.

I was sitting some months ago at a wedding with a U.S. senator’s chief aide. We began to talk about this, and why environmental policy in Washington currently looks the way it does. I’ll tell that story next time.

If Climate Change is Natural, Does that Change Anything?

It never ceases to amaze me that two radio entertainers have convinced a majority of Americans that Global Warming is a hoax, although it happens to be a hoax that nearly every government on planet Earth believes is true, and is working to address. The immense confidence my fellow citizens have in these two entertainers is astounding. For sure, they are talented.

However, there is now another tagline alongside the hoax argument, and that is that climate change is a purely natural phenomenon and so our use of fossil fuels (57% of the carbon dioxide released currently) shouldn’t matter. (What we do and don’t know about climate change is summarized pretty handily in this BBC article: ).

So let’s consider the “it’s only natural” argument for a moment. First, certainly that is in part true. We know, from analyzing a variety of materials, that Earth’s climate has been both hotter and colder in the past. The polar caps on Mars were melting/shrinking/subliming the last few years, and of course my Chevy Silverado’s engine didn’t cause that.

However, it is also certain that we are releasing unprecedented amounts of CO2 in the last hundred years, and it’s a powerful greenhouse gas. No one wanting to be serious should argue that increased greenhouse gas doesn’t contribute to the rise in temperature.

But if the temperature is climbing anyway (increased sun output, etc), should we bother trimming back on our contribution? Let’s think about that.

When it gets colder outside, I put additional wood on the fire. I mulch the flower beds deeper, wear an additional layer, and maybe add a layer of insulation to the attic. When there’s a drought in the summer I don’t water the lawn, and pay extra attention to when I water the garden. When the average frost line dips south, farmers look to more cold-resistant strains of grain. (At the moment, world governments are looking at heat resistant strains, and planting further north). In short, we make adjustments to our life due to climate all the time. Even when the changes are natural.

So, if climate changes are largely natural, should we do anything with our lifestyles? Several questions arise for North Americans, even if you leave out moral questions about how our decisions affect Fiji, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. First, do you like Florida? Because if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet goes off the landmass and into the water, Florida will no longer be above water. Goodbye. And one of our problems is that we simply don’t know when the tipping point in that slide is reached, so it’s hard to know if we are very close to danger in that area, or not. How about East Coast cities? Have you watched the news on this? The numbers of East Coast cities dealing with tidal flooding and writing up emergency plans for such is growing monthly. These are cities that never dealt with tidal floods in the past. Or consider the wheat belt in Kansas, et al. There is extreme concern of catastrophic crop failure due to a spike in temperatures. Your croissants are going to get very expensive. So expensive, that Bill Gates has already funded the 30 kilometer high balloon-lifted hose that would spray silicates into the high atmosphere to shield us from sunlight. It’s the most popular of the ‘geo-engineering’ projects being debated by world governments as we speak. Sound like science fiction? The money has already been spent. Governments have been discussing it in deadly earnest for some time now. Do you like coral reefs and seafood? Because industrial acidification is killing off the coral reefs, and we know this for a fact.

As a Christian who believes in the stewardship God placed us in over His world, I believe we should be a serious and thoughtful voice at the table these days as we try to figure out an appropriate response to climate change. My brother-in-law in Kentucky, a very wise follower of Jesus, said to me not long ago when I asked his opinion on all this, “I’ve always believed you should clean up any mess you’ve made, and avoid making a mess when you do something, if you don’t need to make one.” Good common sense.

So, in a word, here’s what I suggest is worth talking about: even if climate change is purely natural, it is very worth our time thinking together about how to adjust our contribution to it, because our contribution is exacerbating a situation that is already going to make life here more difficult. If I knew fire-danger was at an all-time high one summer, everything dry as a bone, and we had 25 mile an hour winds, I’m not going to burn a brush pile that day.

Chopping down Louisiana’s forests to meet Europe’s energy goals

Humanity’s original vocation in Scripture (never rescinded) is to steward God’s property, the planet. As a can’t-get-enough hunter and fisher, backpacker, gardener and all around nature lover, I’ve always been interested in our world’s biomes and their health. It’s one of the reasons I did an MA in International Development.

Western Europe wants green energy. Good so far. They’ve decided wood pellets are green. They call it “biomass energy.” Problem: Western Europe doesn’t have jack for forests. So they’re getting their wood pellets from the southeast USA. 2.5 million tons in 2008, which jumped to 9 million tons in 2012. They want 20 million tons annually by 2020. That 20 million tons annually is planned to come primarily from the US and Canada.

That’s a lot of clearcutting.

And as far as following established limits, in 2008 activist Dean Wilson traced bags of cypress mulch at Walmart and Home Depot labeled “sustainably harvested” back to the Atchafalaya Basin. The Basin’s cypress swamps serve as a hurricane-absorber for the coast, and are a refuge for all manner of wildlife. Due to the past, when Big Business says cypress aren’t being cut down, environmentalists are leery to believe it again. Plus, clear –cut areas can rejuvenate, but the biome for wildlife is catastrophically altered overnight, and the hurricane-mitigating abilities are wiped out until it grows back.

One questions is, how “carbon neutral” are wood pellets when used on this kind of scale?

Well, eventually, when the trees grow back, but it’s the next 50 to 100 years environmentalists are VERY worried about in terms of carbon in the atmosphere. It’s the tipping-point effects of the carbon affecting the planet’s temperature that we are concerned about now, not when the trees are sucking carbon at the rate they are now, 60 to 80 years from now.  For example, get the Ross Ice Shelf sliding faster off the Antarctic land mass than it already is… well, if that baby hits the water in one big slide, expect sea levels to go up at least 3 meters immediately. Result? Among other things, several billion people as refugees around the world, and US Senators will lose their beachfront homes.

To a large number of  American evangelicals, many of whom expect the Second Coming any minute since President Obama won a second term and their kids listen to rock music, the whole global warming/climate change discussion is a conspiracy for communists, the UN, or the Anti-Christ (or all 3) to take over the world. As a result, they’ve opted out of any serious engagement in the climate change issue, citing that they still love nature “I like going to the lake as much as the next guy…”

But for those of us Christians concerned about environmental issues, as for the wood pellets in Europe:  Is this an example of what we want to call ‘green’?

You can read the story here:

There are no unholy things, only unholy actions

I don’t believe anything in the cosmos is unholy. It’s all sacred, by virtue of being created by God. (Which might lead us to why hell can’t be what modern evangelicals imagine it is, but that’s a talk for another time). {And Ken Ham’s assertion that any extraterrestrial beings from other planets would have been contaminated by Adam’s fall, yet outside the chance for redemption since Jesus was a man, is so utterly ignorant and idiotic I don’t even want to talk about it.} So: there are no unholy things, only unholy actions.

I believe the entire separation of ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ or profane things in the Temple/Tabernacle/Levitical codes are one big object lesson. One bowl is not more holy than another. We cannot treat that as literal, intrinsic composition. Set apart or not, it’s not the point. In fact, “set apart” theology ultimately leads to screwed up, hideaway behavior by the community of faith when we pull back from the world in order to imagine we are holy and they are not. Contamination. Yes, it’s often been the story of 20th century Christianity, and we can see where that’s gotten us.

I don’t know too many evangelicals who think mixing meat and milk or wool and flax are inherently evil. Or that one shouldn’t trim the edges of their beard. These are object lessons. The rule had a telos, not a rule for the sake of a rule. It was a lesson, not an ontology.

Matter is not evil.  Irenaeus settled that well. By definition, anything made by God must be holy. God cannot make evil. There are unholy actions. Things we can do that are evil. There are not evil objects. When we apply ‘unholy’ to objects, we end up calling people evil or unholy: children conceived out of wedlock, people who haven’t heard certain things about Jesus, neighbors we know who are loving and kind but don’t know the Messiah consciously. To call them evil or unholy is a category mistake, an insult on the doctrines of creation and imago dei, a variety of Gnosticism, and very poor, unworthy theology.  People have used that kind of theology to justify killing others, including non-combatants,  for a long, long time.