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.

1 http://na.unep.net/geas/archive/pdfs/geas_jun_12_carrying_capacity.pdf

2  ttp://www.montana.edu/screel/Webpages/conservation%20biology/cohen.pdf

Environmental Systems Calculus*

When we talk about the human habitation of Earth today, we want quantitative understandings of the planet’s carrying capacity. Materials and energy balances are key tools in achieving a quantitative understanding of the behavior of environmental systems.  They serve as a method of accounting for the flow of energy and materials into and out of a system.  Mass balances provide us with a tool for modeling the production, transport, and fate of things like pollutants or resources in an environment… examples of mass balances include prediction of rainwater runoff, oxygen balance in a stream, the temperature change in a river from the discharge of cooling water from a power plant, or the temperature rise due to global warming.

In its simplest form a materials or mass balance may be viewed as an accounting balance. For an environmental process the equation would be

Accumulation = input – output.

There are both known and unknown inputs, outputs, and accumulations in system modeling, but the mass balance should account for and solve the amount of unknown inputs and outputs.

Time is also a factor: For many environmental problems time is an important factor in establishing the degree of severity of the problem or in designing a solution. Another simple equation from environmental engineering:

Mass rate of accumulation = mass rate of input – mass rate of output

In plug-flow systems, a calculus equation can tell you how many km of pipe is needed to decontaminate a certain amount of polluted water as it flows through the pipe with a catalyst inserted. This kind of rate-of-flow-and-conversion is another calculation we need in order to understand our carrying capacity as a planet.

So, our situation is this. As human civilization has grown and continues to, we are increasing the inputs of some things in the system at a rate that outpaces the output. At the same time, we have a hard time calculating the availability and sustainability of some of the key resources – estimates have been wrong time and again. Likewise, we don’t know the tipping point of some processes, since we’ve never been to this spot before. More on what this means for our future as humans on this planet, and how theology affects our calculations, next time.

* Intro to Environmental Engineering Fourth edition (Davis & Cornwell). My family includes an environmental engineer.

Environmental Policy

With our new life on the shore of Lake Erie, I seem to have a hard time getting back to the blog. But, to continue from last time, here’s how it went down:

It had been a beautiful wedding in a mansion that had once been owned by Andrew Carnegie, overlooking one of his favorite trout streams. I was sitting at the reception across the table from a Pennsylvania Senator’s chief aide. Our conversation was wild and wide-ranging, and since we liked many of the same things, very enjoyable. Somewhere in there, I laughingly said, concerning his Republican boss, “How can a political party jam-packed with hunters, fishermen and other passionate outdoorsmen, constantly find themselves on the wrong end of every environmental issue, every time you turn around?” Suddenly my companion turned dead serious. “They get it,” he said. “But it’s the money. They accept so much money from Big Oil and Big Business and Big Energy companies, they end up voting against the environment all the time. And it is killing us with young people.” I don’t remember the exact words of what all else he said, but he clearly expressed his frustration at knowing that money was buying votes that were clearly against the common good.

Now, we say this kind of thing all the time, “follow the money,” but here was the highest aide of a prominent Senator telling me that it was exactly the case. I don’t know really what to do to solve that problem, except to say that it may very well be that the answers to many of our pressing problems are not going to come from Washington D.C. It’s dis-heartening, because, as great organizations like Bread for the World have found, it’s a powerful venue.

But I wonder if the way things get turned around are more through cultural grass-roots movements in regular neighborhoods and regular high schools and regular towns, so that there is a growing crescendo in the culture that some things are simply not acceptable, and that vibe or perspective percolates upwards to the extent that finally enough representatives believe something to be generally true in the culture that their voting simply reflects the new milieu. I don’t know, but it worked for the environmental movement, who were considered whack-jobs in the 1960s and yet now, in 2016, every single one of their major talking points is considered normative in our culture; (Of course you recycle, of course you conserve energy, of course you don’t litter, etc etc). The fact that very powerful money now works against that enlightened awareness, remains a conundrum. In the meantime, maybe teach a kid to garden and fish.

Henry Beston, writing from his farm in Maine, said this in 1948:

It often strikes me that in our modern Babylons you never see anything begin. Everything comes to you, even thought, at a certain stage in its development, like an iceberg lettuce. Now life is more a matter of beginnings than of endings, and without some sense of the beginning of things, there is no proper perspective on the whole mystery of living. This is only one detail, but it will serve as one of the marks of the whole incomplete urban perspective in which we live. For the city governs us now as never before; it tells us what to love and what to hate, what to believe and what not to believe, and even what to make of human nature.” (Northern Farm, by Henry Beston; Ballantine: 1948).

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.

Fritz Schumacher’s 1973 ‘Small is Beautiful’

I’ve been reading an interesting book lately: E.F. “Fritz” Schumacher’s 1973 Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. Schumacher was a British economist for England’s coal industry. His book argues that economics, and institutions in general, should be built upon a “human scale.” Schumacher observed that our modern human institutions tend to grow to such a scale that they are like frankenstein monsters which grow so large that they come back upon their masters and devour them (my image, not his). Another way you could put it is that our economies/institutions/etc cease being our servants and instead become our masters. Sudddenly the humans don’t matter in the decision-making, it’s the self-perpetuation of the larger structures we’ve created. Our creations come to lord it over us and be too big for us to control or direct in a way to promote human thriving.

It’s a very interesting book, and one that drew quite a bit of interest in the world of economists and international development policy makers back when it was written.

Schumacher argues for things like:

De-centralized, local decision making that takes the long-term good of the community as its goal, not short-term profits for a select few in some faraway metropolis.

A critique of systems that grow too gigantic or destructive of human and ecological well-being.

The need for some limiting principle, to enable a society at some point to legitimately say “enough!”

The recognition that economic profit is not the grounding, priniciple manner to gauge human well-being and the failure of modern economic thought to calculate non-economic factors into policy-makers’ decisions

The concept of intermediate technology – simple, nonviolent and controllable – (or, simple, cheap, small, safe): useful in the local situation and not forcing us to develop giant schemes

A changed view of labor and production where work is elevated to a vocation and labor and ownership aren’t mutually contradictory antagonists

The contention that Third World poverty is a question of “two million villages,” as Gandhi argued, and thus that concentrated endeavors in urban settings merely concentrated the benefits into the hands of a very select few, and the villages stayed in abject poverty

The contention that humanity should adapt within Earth’s ecosystems instead of trying to dominate (and typically destroy) them

The need to return to the Four Cardinal virtues:  prudential, justitia, fortitudo, and temperantia

As I said, it’s a very interesting read, and I’ll include some excerpts in the next few blogs.

Evangelicals resisting environmental concern

In Genesis, man’s first vocation and directive is to be a steward of the Earth. It’s his job description – tend the garden and take care of it. Manage God’s creatures. It seems ironic that evangelicals, a group with a large number of people clamoring to take the whole Bible literally, (and especially Genesis 1 & 2), have a vocal and popular set of leaders who distance themselves from, and denigrate the idea, of deep concern for climate change or the environment. This is likely in part due to the fact that American evangelicals (and especially their leaders) wedded themselves to the Republican Party machine, and that platform is concerned that overly restrictive environmental regulations would crush American businesses and the economy, jobs, etc.

Genesis tells us humankind was made from the dirt of the ground. Science agrees. My Huron friend has said to me, ‘Calling the Earth our Mother, as my people do, is biblically sound.’ But modern American Christianity seems to have lost our sense of connectedness to the Earth, and acts as if, aside from utilitarian value, Earth is a place that doesn’t matter overmuch because our goal is to leave. (When actually the story that the Bible tells ends here on earth – with God living here with us – not us leaving to live somewhere else with God. Pay attention.)

Today I find it very common among evangelicals to downplay concern over the planet as a waste of time, since our main job should be converting people to Christianity. Considering this is the same group of people who often clamor for us to take Genesis 1 and 2 literally, I find it ironic that they don’t have much to say about  –literally – the only job description for humanity found in those two chapters: caring for the Earth, tending the garden. How in the world did we get to this point?

More, modern evangelicalism has actually spoken quite directly against environmental activism, calling it nature worship. I recently read a comment on a website where someone said ‘I will never send my kid to that Nazarene college because they have embraced environmentalism.’ Fascinating.  Being evangelical has been correlating to thinking human-caused Global Warming is a hoax – which I suspect means a healthy dose of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.  Evangelicals, of course, are people who often appreciate and enjoy the natural world in various ways, but have lost the sense that there is something theological and central regarding humanity and earth. They need to read the Christian farmer-poet-philosopher Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to help them regain the Biblical sense of living in Creation. Thankfully, the tide seems to be turning.  I don’t doubt that a few generations from now, Christians will look back on evangelicalism’s distancing itself from concern for the planet and view us as something strange and immoral like Holocaust deniers or Southern slave owners.

In 1928 Henry Beston spent a year living in solitude in a small one room cottage on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. Reflecting on his experience, he said this:

“It is the meditative perception of the relation of ‘Nature’ (and I include the whole cosmic picture in this term) to the human spirit. Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man. When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of very flesh and bone, man becomes, as it were, a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity. As I once said elsewhere, Man can either be less than man or more than man, and both are monsters, the last the more dread” (The Outermost House, 1928; pg. x).

Earth is Not Detention Hall, Part Two

Part One can be read here  https://toddrisser.com/2013/11/12/earth-is-not-detention-hall-part-one/

The tikkun olam (repairment of the world) is a doctrine so lost in American evangelicalism, most modern Christians have never even heard of it. In fact, it is very common for life-long church-goers to say to me at funerals “I get the heaven thing, but what’s this about the resurrection of the body?” Resurrection and repairment of the world are two doctrines that go inseparably hand in hand in the Scriptures. Somehow we’ve lost track of some major parts of the Bible’s story.

I find it difficult to enumerate in a small space the vast, profound difference between believing earth is a short rehearsal before we leave forever, and believing that earth is the locus of God’s redemption, now and forever. This has profound effects on how we view the Creation, the scope of salvation, environmental and foreign policy, and a host of issues in our lives here and now, and tomorrow.

Seeing the world as God’s beloved creation, emerging/postmodern Christian faith has a stake in the state of this world. They realize atheist Sam Harris asks a good question when he asks “Can people who believe in the imminent end of the world really be expected to work toward building a durable civilization?” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, xii).

Rapture theology and end of the world despair is a two hundred year old rabbit trail that gained lots of traction in American folk theology, but that earlier Christians never believed. Getting back to a biblical eschatology is in itself a good thing, and of course affects our soteriology and morality here and now. Postmodern Christians, not longing to jet away to some ethereal heaven, have theologically compelling reasons to engage this world’s problems and conundrums with the Way of Jesus, and thus bring about more of the justice,  reconciliation and shalom God desires for His creation, which longs for the Day (Romans 8: 19-22).