Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On carrying capacity

Some questions to the reader:
How many humans do you think the Earth can support? Can the current population size be supported forever, given our current resource demands? Can the current population size be supported forever, if all (or most) humans adopt an industrialized lifestyle? If the population must stop growing or shrink, whose responsibility is it to make sure that happens? Is anyone capable of wielding that authority over someone else? How should they ensure that it happens?

17 comments:

Progressive said...

I believe, with the technology available currently and theoretically that a sustainable society can be carried onwards at present rates. The key obviously is sustainable. To continue with "Business As Usual" our society will continue towards that tipping point that is closer than many laymen think. A revolution in how we go about or day, month, year, and life is needed. It must be across the board in developed countries so the same ways can be shown that are undeveloped. I lean towards the green revolution as the shortest distance between the problem and solution, but we shall see.

E. R. Dunhill said...

progressive,
Thanks for commenting. What changes (either broadly, or specific examples) in thought and action do people need to realize to achieve this "sustainable society"? How do you define "the green revolution"? Will the sustainable society look like like the one we know now?

Progressive said...

I first want to apologize for the horrid English in the first post...shows that you should not try to write in a hurry.

I think the first step society needs to take is to take a moment and think about their normal day. That 30 minute shower, the excess food thrown away, the recyclables thrown in the trash, the lights kept on all day, the countless trips to the corner store in your gas guzzler, and so on.

These everyday realizations would be a first, huge, step forward. I think a big problem is that most people do not realize what harm they are actually doing.

Second step would have to be in the corporate World. If individual people have taken this realization, the corporate World may have an easier time with it. Those parking lots constructed, dams built, strip mall after strip mall, forests cut down, and so on are causing great strain on water supply, biodiversity and extinction rates, as well drastically changing the climate.

The biggest question to those steps (which, yes, are general) would be how to spark a mass "revolution" out of it. Gore and company has done a good job of educating, but has not created the "spark". Currently, going green is isolated to a small group compared to the total population of the World. A vast majority group is needed to actually make society sustainable. It is also needed to force the political change that may be the only path to creating this spark.

As for the look of society. In my vision of it all, certain societal trends would end - city sprawl, vast suburbs, 10 malls on the same mile of road, and the like. Also, there would be more people outside (I wonder what this would do to crime?) because driving would be a second of third thought. More public transportation would also be a must. So, I think it would look differently, not futuristic science fiction different, but different none the less.

E. R. Dunhill said...

E. R. Dunhill said...
progressive,
Bad Inglish no problum. This blog. Glad 4 you comment.
Regarding "These everyday realizations": What motivates people to become aware? Upon whom does the onus of education fall?
Regarding "More public transportation would also be a must.": I live in a state that is about to spend $3 billion for an 18-mile stretch of highway, conceived half a century ago, that is intended to alleviate some commuter traffic, but will also impact greenways and open new land to developers. At the same time, a long-demanded addition to the commuter rail system, the so-called Purple Line, which would link several existing urban centers, languishes on the drawing board. How would you create a world in which public transport projects get public dollars over new roads? Who will lobby for trains?

Paul said...

I happened to post on just this a few posts back - but I see no solution on the horizon. It seems that there is little leadership in government these days on this and other important matters - the state of public education, healthcare, and the environment, to name just a few. The whole system has gotten involved with raising enough money to win the next election cycle, meaning politicians are beholden to special interests, meaning no interest/energy/resources spent planning on the big issues - which require far-sighted, long term planning.

Progressive said...

The motivation and education fall on the individual, which unfortunately leads me to believe that it will take some greater action to set them off.

It is within this greater action that I believe falls government. It has been shown to a lesser degree across Europe that a focus within government action will spark sustainability or a path to. Now, in Europe it seems individuals are more proactive and willing to educate. This may be too general of a statement, but for example, ask any waitress in Europe about Global Warming and they are able to have a full conversation about it in detail. The same cannot be said here.

Regardless though, there are smaller examples of this here - Portland, Oregon. Through government focus, an increasingly sustainable society is being developed. One of their main first pushes was in transportation. They axed any new highway development, destroyed some of the highways, used the money left over to revamp the public transportation system, and created a vast network of "green-ways". This led to a drastic cut in the use of personal automobiles.

The possibilities are there, we just need to get our heads out of the ground a little longer each day.

twotymer97 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
twotymer97 said...

"The motivation and education fall on the individual, which unfortunately leads me to believe that it will take some greater action to set them off."

I totally agree with that comment.

Here's an idea: What if public schools incorporated into their teaching "green living". Of course it would have to be taught simply, to avoid coming across as pretentious. This way we would be instilling a more sustainable way of thinking from a very young age. Think about how much fun it would be to teach a kindergartener "How to Make a Compost Pile". And often, when children come home eager to put what they learn at school into action at home, parents are supportive--As a parent myself I have done my fair share of "Mom, can we try this?" projects that the boys have brought home from school.

Wouldn't it be great if along with reading, writing, math, etc., we taught simple sustainability? Think of a generation taught from a young age how to be more environmentally efficient. Surely these children would grow to become owners of corporations that instilled green principles in their businesses and communities.

Maybe I'm just daydreaming...

E. R. Dunhill said...

Paul,
Thank you for reading and commenting. I think you’re right that the mainstream political enterprises don’t see the carrying capacity issue. There is some concern from both of the large parties about resources, but I don’t see sustainability as even a secondary platform. The specific issues you mention, public education, healthcare, and the environment are intrinsically linked to this idea.
Regarding education, I think we need to partially de-couple this from elected government, in the same manner that the Federal Reserve is disconnected. Unlike other Executive appointments, the chairman of the Fed isn’t turned-over every four years. This allows this position a little greater freedom to see long-term strategies through to their conclusions.
I think healthcare could be partially supported through a fund derived from public wealth. In much the same manner as the Alaska Permanent Fund pays out dividends to its “owners” (those owners being every citizen of the state of Alaska), a collection of permanent funds could leverage national sources of common wealth: National Forests, mineral reserves on public lands, carbon dioxide (and other air pollutant) markets, &c.
As far as the environment goes, I think we as consumers and voters need to braid environmental concerns into our purchasing and political choices. This is a power each of us has, though we are generally slow to use it.

E. R. Dunhill said...

progressive,
“It is within this greater action that I believe falls government.”: I think it’s important to keep in mind that theoretically, governments within the USA are a function of the people. Consider a hypothetical rural, Bible Belt school system in which the community rejects teachings about evolution and climate change. Acting as an agent of the people the school system may very well remove science from the curricula, and in its place leave something that looks superficially similar. Thus, the government can be as much the agent of the problem as the solution. (As an aside, this month’s National Geographic Magazine’s cover article on Pakistan containing some interesting insights on theological-political dogma and scriptural literalism in the classroom.)
As for the role of cities, you raise an excellent point. I think this is a very important place for most Americans to start. Local governments are increasingly interested in sustainability, perhaps because these institutions are small enough that they feel that they can achieve it. Moreover, owing both to their size and their relationship with peoples’ daily lives, local governments represent a very accessible place for the average person to begin making positive changes. Volunteering for city or county boards or commissions, or even simply participating in the PTA/PTSA can have a direct impact on the environment.
I realize that it is a hopeless cliché, but the solution to both of the issues you raise is for people to act. And, as you point out, we must first close the gap of understanding.

E. R. Dunhill said...

tt97,
It’s good to hear from you. I think schools are a great place to see this sort of change in thinking begin. Given the glacial pace with which many school systems adopt crazy “new” ideas like sustainability, it’s important for concerned parent to be heard, to be cooperative, and to be patient. Likewise, programs like Hands-on-Science and informal student groups and clubs are very important. While the school’s official curriculum may be slow to change, these other organizations can react and evolve comparatively quickly. And, since they are affiliated with the school, they can potentially make use of some valuable resources, like good teachers and concerned parents.
I would also raise the question: Is the neighborhood school the only place people in the community learn? Are there other institutions that parents and children (and people without children, for that matter) might learn green ethics?

Progressive said...

I have been thinking on and off for the last month about this...what if a manifesto was written.

A major issue with sustainability/going green/green revolution/enter other green title is that the general public has a warped view of it. Some get this hippie, tree hugging vision of sustainability, others get a sense that it is a liberal, east coast elite view of the World, and others still do not truly know what being sustainable entails.

What if a collaboration of "new age green movement" thinkers and hardened, longtime philosophers of sustainability was forged to create a document that could be the centerpiece of all that is green and the movement to solve this grand worldly issues.

There must be the beginnings of the differing parts of a document of this type. Regardless, it would be a good rallying and educational point for all and may bring together those groups I spoke of before.

Thoughts?

E. R. Dunhill said...

progressive,
It sounds like a good thesis topic.
I agree that environmentalism suffers from an image problem, though for my own part, I make a distinction between environmentalism in the traditional sense, and sustainability. I would suggest that much of the general public has no idea what sustainability is, nor that it is a philosophy (or an approach) that can be integrated with many other political and economic beliefs.
While there has been a great deal written on sustainability (including statements that might fit the bill of your “manifesto”), there may be merit in pursuing this further. Unlike what I will clumsily and hastily lump into the term “traditional environmentalism”, sustainability pursues a single understandable goal. Sustainability is not saving whales, nor stopping nuclear power, nor passing arcane laws to end [insert process here]. Instead sustainability focuses on a mindset and the realization of that way of thinking. In this sense, it may be easier to codify, though harder to realize.
Speaking for myself, I think there may be enough written on the subject to begin the hard part of the job: making it reality. There are numerous examples of social movements (including various environmental efforts) that fell short because of a disconnect between strategy and practice. Thus, I see the task at hand as that of engaging people in a meaningful dialog, working with them to understand and to be understood, educating, finding solutions to problems, and improving myself and my community continuously. I don’t see a lifestyle of sustainability becoming reality without the long process of building relationships. That said, I might find it very convenient to have a manual, a code, a statement, a strategic plan, a manifesto.
Have I confused the issue further? I wonder if a Wiki would be an appropriate venue for creating statement, or at least a central dialog on sustainability. In any event, I think this is worth further discussion. I’ll ruminate on this for a future post, and would be much obliged if you would do the same.

Progressive said...

I will definitely - we shall discuss this in the future.

one and only hypnos said...

To me it's simple. The earth cannot support so many people... We are just with far too many people and that number is growing every day. Especially in Asia. Take China for example, were the government has to take measures to keep the number of kids down...
I'm not saying that I agree with such measures though. But there are more people, than we can feed, house and so on. No matter how green we live or how hard we look after the environment (what's left of it anyway). And especially in the countries were the population is booming, such as China, environment is far from important. Except when it serves political interests, such as keeping the West somewhat satisfied...
And in countries with a large population, there is also great poverty and not always the means to live more 'sustainable' or the knowledge and awareness...or both. To me, the future looks pretty grim to be honest.

E. R. Dunhill said...

o&oh,
Thanks for reading and commenting. I’ll start with a few follow-up questions: How do we know what the maximum human population is? Does our lifestyle impact this number? Can we slow down the negative impacts of the population problem?
On the subject of China, there are clearly some serious environmental problems. However, in a nation of more than 1 billion, I believe it’s unfair to make a generalization like, “[the] environment is far from important.” There are environmental movements in China, but (as you suggest) they do face strong opposition from a government that is focused on an old model of industrial development.
I appreciate why you feel that the future looks grim- research seems to uncover more environmental problems all the time. But, many natural systems are resilient, and there are a lot of people thinking critically about how they live their lives. I believe we live in a defining era, one in which we can build a better way of life. Concerns about the future are a call to action, a call which anyone can begin to answer with such simple actions as picking up trash and recyclables on their street, planting a tree, or becoming an informed voter.

one and only hypnos said...

The maximum population of the planet can be measured in the available resources. We can't produce enough food as it is for everyone. Let alone if the population continues to increase. And surely not in an ethical and/or sustainable way I believe.