Throughout my academic career, a common assignment has always been to ‘find an article or current event and, in a few paragraphs, discuss your thoughts on the subject.’ Now, this type of assignment poses several issues every single time it comes up. To begin with, finding a piece that is both interesting to me and relevant to the course at hand is usually an exercise in attrition spanning a dozen newspapers and tens of articles. After all, it would hardly be appropriate to discuss the Red Sox’ chances of making the playoffs in a biology course, and similarly the average political science class would not be interested in the new Corvette.
Thus, I began perusing the major newspapers for pertinent material for this piece, meaning of course that I was looking for some thought-provoking material at least tangentially related to the ideas of energy security and sustainability. However, it seemed that today was my lucky day, for I only had to view the New York Times’ front page before I saw a perfectly applicable OP-ED by Erle C. Ellis, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland.
The segment, titled “Overpopulation is Not the Problem” was published Friday, Sept. 13. Despite the ominous date of publication, the op-ed has a very positive tone, to the point of exemplifying a Cornucopian mentality (which holds that Human ingenuity and resourcefulness can conquer any environmental issues we might face as a species).
The argument that “disaster looms as humans exceed the Earth’s natural carrying capacity,” says Ellis, is “nonsense.” Such claims, which are based on the writings of famed demographer and economist Thomas Malthus, center around the belief that human population growth will exceed the food supply available on the planet.
Ellis quickly dismisses the concerns of Malthusians, asserting that “these claims demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of human ecosystems. The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been.” He reinforces this argument by noting the fact that human beings have found ways to adapt to our environment and our need for victuals since prehistory.
Ellis points out that the carrying capacity for our prehistoric ancestors could not have been more than 100 million. And yet, here we are, thousands of years later, with a population of 7.2 billion, still frolicking and thriving. Therefore, Ellis claims that the ingenuity of our species and our ability to learn has increased the carrying capacity of the Earth to a point where such limits no longer exist.
Now, I feel that I should preface my rebuttal with several qualifiers. I should first admit that I am no ecologist, nor do I have any particularly exhaustive knowledge of biology. I am simply an undergraduate student with an interest in energy, political science, and music. That said, I feel that Ellis’ argument is fundamentally lacking in several aspects.
While there is no question that technological and social advancements have raised the carrying capacity of the Earth, it strikes me as a bit near-sighted to say that we will never reach our carrying capacity as a species. There are, after all, a limited amount of resources on this Earth, and while the Earth has provided what we have needed thus far, I fail to see how we would overcome a critical shortage of something necessary to sustain life, such as water.
I understand that Ellis’s argument states that human ingenuity would solve the problem for us; perhaps advanced desalination plants would enable us to access the trillions of gallons of water in the oceans and purify water we have already used, or we would simply find a way to harvest water from a passing comet in a realization of thousands of science fictions novels.
However, I find myself asking a basic question in response to this Cornucopian belief: at what cost, both economically and socially, will these improvements come? How many must suffer before we, as a species, decide it is time to make a global effort to affect change?
According to the website worldhunger.org, the number of malnourished people living in this world is 870 million, most of whom live in developing countries. Ellis states that there is “no environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future”, yet here we are, with hundreds of millions starving and suffering. It might indeed be true that there is enough food to sustain all people across the globe, but this does not disprove the argument that we, as a species, will reach a global carrying capacity.
Malthus’s argument that population growth will outstrip our food supply has, without a doubt, not yet become a complete reality. However, for millions across the globe, the supply of food has been outstripped, and hunger, poverty, and starvation are all too prevalent.
Thus, it is my belief that there is a pragmatic element to the classic Malthusian argument: while ingenuity and social advancements have allowed us to increase our ability to survive as a species, there are limits to our growth. Food is more abundant now than it has ever been, but there is more hunger than ever before as well. To say that the environment is no obstacle in the continuation of our expanding race is to ignore one massive component: we are a part of the environment, too.
Until the resources are developed allowing us to feed those in need and fulfill our basic human needs in an economic and socially pragmatic way, the argument that “Overpopulation is Not The Issue” rings with all the alacrity of a heavy metal show. We have surpassed our ability as a species to ensure the survival on this planet, and, until the 870 million malnourished people on Earth are provided for, we have overstepped the Earth’s capacity.
Chris Harding, Guest Writer