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Giving Out Corn to the People, During a Season of Scarcity.”: Chinese officials engaged in famine relief. Detail of engraving by G. F. Sargent.

“Overpopulation is not the problem” goes a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by environmental geographer Erle Ellis. The core argument of the article seems to be that humans are unlikely to undermine ecosystems and ecosystem functions that sustain us. After reading the piece, however, I remain uncertain as to exactly which point the author wishes to prove. I question the article’s reasoning, (mis)representation of ecological concepts, and its historical interpretations.
Ellis launches his article by disputing any notions that disaster looms for humanity as our growing population threatens to exceed the Earth’s natural carrying capacity. His summary? “This is nonsense.” I agree, but only because the Earth’s natural carrying capacity is, in my opinion, a fuzzy and ill-conceived concept to begin with. I will point to a paper in Nature which I co-authored with a number of colleagues last year. There we argued that rapidly increasing human alteration of ecosystems, via species over-exploitation, landscape alteration, climate change and so on, threatens to push those ecosystems into a new functional state, most likely characterized by lower species richness and lessened ecosystem function. To the extent that humans depend on any of those species and functions, their loss will be felt. The notion of a finite carrying capacity for the planet is never emphasized in the article, however, because many of us involved do not believe that we have the necessary data to estimate that limit. Furthermore, arguments that ecosystems themselves represent an everlasting finite pie over which organisms must struggle are inconsistent with our record of the history of life on planet Earth. Geerat Vermeij and I make this very point in a recent article (see here). One view of life’s history reveals a stepwise increase in the quantity of energy fixed, transmitted and utilized by living organisms. So far not much to dispute with Ellis.
He immediately runs into trouble though as he wades into human prehistory, first pointing out, albeit correctly, that humans have a deep history of innovation, both social and technological, of exceeding the capacity of natural ecosystems to support human populations. The problem with this point is that it is only part of the story. Human societies have historically altered the environments around them to do things such as increase food production. Unfortunately, there are many examples in which either the alterations themselves initiated a slow and inexorable decline or change of environmental properties detrimental to the societies themselves, or the societies exhausted local natural resources on which they were dependent. Simplistic, blanket statements such as Ellis’ overlook too many of the intricacies and contingencies of human history. For example, the rapid rise of the Athenian Empire in the 5th century BCE was driven in part by the massive exploitation of natural resources to fuel Athens’ lucrative silver mines, and later the instrument of Athenian power, her super navy. As the trees ran out, the Athenians looked elsewhere for timber, coming to rely heavily on the kingdom of Macedonia to the north. Should I continue? There’s more than food at stake.
Ellis’ second point, and we’re still early in the article, is that humans learned over generations, as “their preferred big game became rare or extinct”, to increase the range of species on which they depended. And where is the evidence supporting the notion that the extinction of big game resulted in an increasingly diverse diet? In fact, if one wished to make the tenuous argument that it led to the domestication of cattle, wheat and so on, then one would have to concede that rather than increasing our repertoire of game, humans have in fact come to rely on a rather small and specialized subset of species. And in societies that did not do so, well, I believe that we refer to them today as hunter gatherers and nobody is too worried about their exploding populations.
The argument continues on to outline our ancestors’ triumphant climb to planetary dominance, claiming along the way that the Earth’s carrying capacity for prehistoric societies was probably no more than 100 million. As an ecologist, I have no idea what that claim is supposed to mean. Is the author claiming that if hunter gatherer societies had reached a total population of 100 million, that they would then have run into limits? Why? What would have limited them? Food production from natural ecosystems? Carrying capacity is far more than the amount of food out there. Species population sizes, humans included, are limited by more than just available food. There are other factors, driven by increasing population density, such as the more rapid spread of diseases, reduction of living space, good times for predators and parasites, and so on. And that brings me to the crux of what bothers me so much about this article, and that is the belief that we can continue to grow the human population without accumulating negative consequences, without risking the onset of additional and perhaps unseen negative consequences, without any reliance upon or concern for services provided by ecosystems, and with a blind belief that we will always innovate our way forward to address growing needs.
Thomas Malthus’ theory of exponential population growth does not claim that “population growth tends to outrun the food supply”. Malthus pointed out that without constraint, populations will indeed grow exponentially, but that growth is limited ultimately by the means and ability of the population to provide for itself. This is an important distinction. The idea that population growth is a driver of productivity, ascribed by Ellis to the economist Ester Boserup, should be interpreted carefully. Ellis interprets it positively, implying that population growth somehow facilitates productivity. Another interpretation of course is that population growth is a forcing agent of increased productivity because it applies constant pressure towards starvation. The fact is that the global human population has been growing approximately exponential since the 19th century, and certainly no earlier than that. The fact that some civilizations have supported substantial populations in the past, such as China and the Indian sub-continent, is indeed testament to the ability of human societies to organize and innovate to promote food production and security. But one should never lose sight of the dependence on the environment. Just ask the last members of the Tang Dynasty, whose final collapse was precipitated by the combined calamity of a breakdown of central authority and severe famine. Or the poor harvests during the final years of the Roman Empire. The margin for error is slim. In fact the history of China, trotted out as an example of population and productivity growth striding hand in hand, is punctuated by catastrophic famines and their socio-political consequences.
I suppose one could argue that technology will save us. This is indeed a possibility, and our global population, which has nearly doubled in my lifetime alone, is a fairly well-fed one. Many of the famines in the past century were caused as much by, or perhaps more by a lack of food security stemming from socio-political causes rather than environmental destruction. But predicting the future is a risky business, and simply saying that we can increase land productivity with existing technologies, and thereby never worry about rapid population growth, seems naive to me. I concede that I could be wrong, but I think that a far more likely scenario, given current trends and thinking, is increasing population size coupled with increasing per capita consumption, unrelenting domestication of natural spaces to support human consumption, degraded natural systems, and a globally declining quality of life. I stand with Ellis and others in the call for more sustainable means of production, but it is clear to me that sustainability cannot be achieved without proper protection and stewardship of Earth’s ecosystems. Perhaps there will be no starvation, but that will come at the cost of a world so transformed as to make the walls of the petri dish a wee bit more tangible.