The Limitations of 'Carrying Capacity' Part II

Author(s): Ben Wisner
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #5, Fall 1997

Oversimplification at the Cosmic Scale

So far I have criticized the notion of "carrying capacity" by looking at the way it oversimplifies reality at the local and global scales. These are not the only flaws in this view. At issue also are fundamental questions about how the cosmos is understood, the place of our planet in the universe, and the nature of human existence. Viewed from the point of view of economic history and political economy, what drove the siphoning off of "normal surplus" in Zambia in colonial times, and drives the global export of soya beans, shrimp, and cut flowers today, is greed. In addition, however, there is a mechanistic world-view that backs up the use of military and economic power to accumulate the natural wealth of peoples and places.

Various authors have criticized a world-view based on a separation of human beings from the rest of nature and the elevation of humans to a position of privilege as users and disposers of nature-as-resource. This split between people and nature is strikingly absent in the cultures of people as diverse as Tibetan, the Kayapo of Brazil, and the Kamba and Somali of East Africa and the Horn. Ultimately the split derives as a special (and disastrous) case of the Cartesian distinction between mind and matter (dualism). Nature is "matter" that can be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, reassembled, used and manipulated in a variety of ways, all through the will and design of the human mind (reductionism). Both the new physics and old spiritualities agree that this state of affairs is unlikely to be more than wishful thinking, again a product of greed and grasping, albeit viewed now philosophically and not historically. As Carolyn Merchant puts it, a "partnership ethic" that rejects human dominance of nature (and male dominance of woman) is one of the logical outcomes of a reflection upon the chaotic and complex nature of life. She writes: "... the domain of everyday occurrences, such as the weather, turbulence, the shapes of coastlines, and the arrhythmic fibrillations of the human heart" cannot be described in simple linear terms. She is making precisely the point about oversimplification that has been the theme of this essay.

People have non-material needs that are met by nature, by a place. This aspect of the relation between humans and the planet is not dealt with by the concept of "carrying capacity." An example of the non-material needs met by a place is provided by the Tibetan author Dagyab Rinpoche:

We say, for example, that an intact and powerful landscape is endowed with chu. If we surrender ourselves to its power, we can draw chu from it ourselves. Then we feel an influx of vitality, well-being, and clarity. (On the other hand, an atomic power station, with its particular field, may have plenty of energy -- but little chu.)

The Tibetan term chu refers to quality, to "essence-juice and vigor" (p. 6). This bears interesting similarity to the term, sabor, used by Mexicans to describe the quality of their locality, their hearth or heart place for which they feel querencia (a kind of love of place or topophilia).

Now this may seem a bit rich and academic for readers who are engaged in daily struggles to clean up pollution, protect their children from contaminated food, water, lead in the soil, and volatile hydrocarbons in the air. However, it is also important to recognize that "carrying capacity" as it is usually employed is a phrase that ignores the needs that human beings have for beauty, open space, wild nature, and other aesthetic and spiritual characteristics of "mere matter." The discussion brings us back to the metaphorical nature of the phrase, "carrying capacity." Having criticized the overly simple geometrical metaphor of "things-on-a-surface", what other possible ways are there to interpret these words? The metaphors imbedded in our thoughts are important. They bend our investigations, bias our perceptions, in subtle ways. Possibly we should think of being "carried" by a mother for nine months, or, "carried", as a child, across a stream by our father or grandmother? Perhaps we could use the term "carry" in that sense of nurture and support. We would then ask, what human needs are satisfied by places, by the act of dwelling in a place? Of course there are food, fiber, bio-energy, building material needed for shelter, etc. But is there nothing else that place provides? And if there is, can the conventional idea of "carrying capacity" contain this "other"?

The non-material or cosmic dimension of human existence confounds simple statements about "carrying capacity" in two ways. First, as we have seen, humans draw more of vital importance to their lives from the earth than food and other material things alone. Second, the world-view and understanding of the relationship between the earth and humans influence choices about how livelihoods are drawn from the earth. The coiners and proponents of the cluster of ideas about "carrying capacity" hold, unconsciously and uncritically, to the dominant Western idea of man [sic] the conqueror and manipulator of nature. Vandana Shiva sees the present as characterized by "... conflict between world views based on diversity and nonviolence and those based on monocultures and violence."

One does not have to look as far away as Tibet or Mexico for expressions of the world views based on diversity and nonviolence. Aldo Leopold, one of the fathers of the conservation movement in the U.S., writes in his Sand County Almanac about a web that unites all living things:

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate ... The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

Oversimplification of Life

As we have seen all along, the concept of "carrying capacity" does not refer to wholes, certainly not to the whole of an intact ecology, which is the greater whole in which humans participate. Rather in this concept humans are separated from nature. Secondly, nature is arbitrarily reduced to a limited numbers of "things" -- in particular, those "found in nature that are useful to man" [sic] in the classic Western definition of a "resource". It is a logical extension of this dualism (separating out humans) and reductionism (dividing up "things" into their simplest elements) that life itself has become seen this way. The current interest in DNA and bio-engineering is fueled by the same world view that sees soil, for example, as a medium for growth, to which humans add a variety of molecules as soil amendments. Western allopathic medicine divides the human body up into organs, systems, and ultimately into chemical molecules. What is common in these examples is the view of life as composed of chemical building blocks and nothing more.

At the geographical level of landscapes and places and at the ecological scale of whole communities, this reductionist view of life is oversimplified. It has led to bizarre and disturbing policies and initiatives under the rubrics of biodiversity and the Human Genome Project. In both these cases, the underlying idea seems to be that if scientists (mostly employed by powerful pharmaceutical and other corporations) are able to sample and store DNA from all manner of wild plants, animals, and -- indeed -- isolated groups of humans in the Andes, New Guinea, etc., then the intact habitats and human groups can disappear without tragic consequences. With the DNA in storage, bio-technology would eventually be able to give the consumer products that benefit from the disease resistance and other properties of the donor species and gene pools.

This point of view has been discussed by Calestous Juma and Vandana Shiva. What they both describe is a "scramble" for wild genes going on worldwide. The involvement of powerful transnational corporations and the court cases that have allowed the patenting of life forms suggest that the two pillars of mainstream society, corporations and the government, are in agreement that this is a good thing. Returning to the notion of an ecological footprint, we see that the footprint of Western pharmaceutical consumers grows longer as expeditions extract DNA and local knowledge from indigenous people in many parts of the world. While this extraction has so far proceeded with less "collateral damage" than, for example, drilling for oil in the Amazon or Ogoniland (Nigeria), the apparent consensus around its desirability points up yet again the oversimplification at the heart of the words, "carrying capacity."

Life supports life. What "carries" (in the sense of support or nurture) human beings are other living things in association with each other, not just an instant cup-o-soup of DNA. Habitat protection is still the key to species preservation. The biodiversity question from the Rio Summit (1992) onwards has been hijacked and focussed on the question of DNA, while attempts to preserve intact forests, coral reefs, wetlands have continued to lag behind the rhetoric. The ecological footprint of consumers caught up in run-away economies -- and these now include the growing middle classes of countries such as India -- grows and grows as mangrove wetlands are destroyed to produce marketable shrimp, forests are logged for paper pulp, rivers are contaminated with copper mine waste, etc. etc.

As if this were not bad enough, the greatest problem created by the oversimplified view of life is that the only relevant knowledge is that of the geneticist and molecular biologist. Thousands of cultural groups throughout the world are living repositories and laboratories within which knowledge of whole ecosystems, of companion plant interactions, of animal-plant associations, of medicinal preparations, etc. exists. This local knowledge is still hardly recognized as important. However in order to preserve and even enlarge biological diversity, cultural diversity is also required. The NAFTA trade agreement will soon flood Mexico with industrially produced maize (corn) from the U.S. Not only will this competition replace hundreds of varieties of maize grown for thousands of years in southern Mexico, but as they migrate to the cities to find alternatives to farming, the knowledge of indigenous Mexican maize farmers will be lost to humanity.

To go beyond the limits of "carrying capacity" we must include the cultural and knowledge base required to interact in non-destructive ways with ecosystems. Earlier the notion of ecological footprint was offered as a helpful alternative to the phrase "carrying capacity". In addition, perhaps the idea of "biomimicry" is also helpful. In her book with this title, Janine Benyus discusses technologies that do not simply try to "mine" DNA, but that take intact nature as model, measure, and mentor. She discusses attempts by widely differing groups of people to use this philosophical design approach in agriculture, renewable energy, materials science, communications, and even business organization. Likewise there are many attempts at ecological restoration in urban and rural areas that are giving the lie to cynical opinions that people cannot manage the commons for their mutual good.

Local knowledge is critical to gaining a livelihood from local forms of life and the liquid, solid, and gaseous minerals that, together with sunlight, "carry" or support that those life forms. However recent debates are oddly silent about local knowledge. Just as the conventional notion of "carrying capacity" neglects ecology -- the web of life, so has discussion of wild and cultivated genes neglected the diversity of knowledge and culture that allow humans to recognize and use genetic diversity. Vandana Shiva perceives, "... two conflicting paradigms of biodiversity. The first paradigm is held by local communities, whose survival and sustenance is linked to the utilization and conservation of biodiversity. The second is held by commercial interests, whose profits are linked to utilizing global biodiversity as inputs for large-scale, homogenous, centralized, and global production systems."

Oversimplification of Limits

The idea of "carrying capacity" also oversimplifies the idea of limits. Since the mid-1970s, for more than 20 years -- we have been hearing about "limits to growth". Down to the present day the mainstream authors that expound these views regard limits to be a function, primarily, of numbers of people and their material consumption. This essay does not argue against the existence of limits. As noted earlier in the discussion of the formula I = P x A x T, human do consume things! In accounting for consumption, however, the impact of military expenditures and activities and disparities in levels of consumption must be taken into account (overconsumption by Mobutu and Donald Trump for example!). Certainly limits exist in the ability of local, regional, and planetary systems to cycle energy and materials and to absorb waste. However, the conventional view of "limits" contained in the notion of "carrying capacity" is oversimplified in two ways: it lacks an ethical dimension, and it fixates on local limits rather than considering planetary systems.

The term "limits" must also be seen as an ethical category, not as merely a technical term. A vegetarian places limits on her or his behavior as a choice. There are limits others accept in their relations, for example, with sexual partners, or in what one says to another. These ethical limits can be motivated by a feeling of compassion for other living things, or by any one of many world views. The main point, however, is that conventional discussions of "carrying capacity" do not take into account the fact that people are capable of sharing with others and of foregoing possible consumption as a conscious act. Altruism and voluntary simplicity are not human behaviors imaginable within the world of "life boat ethics".

The notion of "carrying capacity" is tightly bound up with philosophical views expressed by Garrett Hardin in his essays, "Living on a Lifeboat" and "Tragedy of the Commons". According to this view individuals maximize their interests by sequestering as much of the plants, animals, water (in brief: land) held in common by a group of people. When, in densely populated places, this process inevitably leads to land degradation and poverty, other better stewards of the land will face the choice whether to share land and food with the impoverished. This is the life boat metaphor. These views reject all non-maximizing behaviors: cooperation in managing a common tract of land, abstention and voluntary simplicity, altruism and other kinds of sharing.

Oversimplification of Security

The fixation on local environments creates a final oversimplification when we rely on the conventional notion of "carrying capacity". This problem is seen most clearly in its application to questions of national security. Much of the recent writing about "environmental security" assumes a very conventional notion of "carrying capacity". Pressure of population on resources is seen as the cause of conflict, the genesis of the flow of people known as "environmental refugees." Because of its focus on highly local situations, the thrust of this kind of work obscures a wider and more important sense of the term security.

What ultimately "carries" or supports human life on this planet is the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere (soil and rocks). There are, indeed, specific locations on planet earth where, for very clear historical reasons, too many people have been concentrated at one place (Rwanda, Bangladesh, Los Angeles, for example). Even in these places things could be made a lot better rapidly if peace and social justice prevailed. Such specific cases can be argued, the balance of economic, political, and demographic causes sought, solutions put forth. However, the larger problem is that so much attention has been given to this very limited, localized, notion of "carrying capacity" that the viability of planetary systems has become a secondary debate. We need to shift the ground of debate.

From "life boat" we need to move back to "ark" as metaphor. An enlarged notion of security would embrace the planet and all of her children, including all people. We would acknowledge and mobilize all the great diversity of cultures and ways of knowing nature as part of an effort to live peacefully with diverse forms of life. J. Robert Hunter has recently reminded us yet again that planetary systems such as ozone in the atmosphere or fish stocks in the ocean could reach critical limits beyond which irreversible change occurs. The idea of "ecological footprint" is very much more useful in suggesting ways that we can simultaneously change the world into a more socially just and compassionate place while ensuring that homo sapiens doesn't accidently push planetary support systems beyond their critical limits.

See, for example, C. Clark arid M. Haswell, The Economics of Subsistence Cultivation, Oxford: Blackwell, 1970 or R. Mansell Prothero, ed., People and Land in Africa South of the Sahara, New York: Oxford, 1972.
"Sticking the label 'environment' on the natural world makes all concrete qualities fade away; even more, it makes nature appear passive and lifeless, merely waiting to be acted upon." W. Sachs, "Environment", in The Development Dictionary, London: Zed Press, 1992, p. 34.
"Amongst the Shona [of Zimbabwe] the right of ownership is demonstrated and proved by the ability of a particular set of ancestors to control its fertility. The people whose ancestors bring the rain own the land." D. Lan, Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe, Berkeley/London: University of California / James Currey, 1985, p.98.
For example, see the striking use of population density maps by L. Brown et al., Vital Signs 1993, New York: W.W. Norton, 1993; also see: L Brown and H. Kane, Full House: Reassessing the Earth's Population Carrying Capacity, New York: Norton, 1994.
M. Wackernagel and W. Rees, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, Gabriola Island, B.C. and Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1996.
C. Pye-Smith et al., eds., The Wealth of Communities, West Hartford: Kumarian Press,1994; A White et al. eds., Collaborative and Community-Based Management of Coral Reefs: Lessons from Experience, West Hartford: Kumarian Press, 1994; P. de Groot et al., Taking Root: Revegetation in Semi-Arid Kenya, Nairobi and Harare: ACTS Press and Biomass Users Network, 1992; R. Nilsen, ed., Helping Nature Heal: An Introduction to Environmental Restoration, Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1991; M. Gramser, Power from the People: Innovation, User
Participation, and Forest Energy Development, London: IT Publications, 1988; G. Leach and R. Mearns, Beyond the Woodfuel Crisis, London: Earthscan, 1988.
P. and A. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, New York: Simon and Schuster (Touchstone), 1990.
P. Hynes, Taking Population Out of the Equation, Amherst, MA: Institute for Women and Technology, 1993.
M. D'Antonio, Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America's Nuclear Arsenal, New York: Crown, 1994; H. Caldicott, Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do, Revised ed. New York: Norton, 1994.
K. Cahill, ed., Clearing the Fields: Solutions to the Global Land Mines Crisis., New York: Basic Books and the Council on Foreign Relations, 1995; W. Thomas, Scorched Earth: The Military's Assault on the Environment, chapter 13 ("Eco-War"), Philadelphia and Gabriolla
Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 1995; M. Cranna, ed., The True Cost of Conflict: Seven Recent Wars and Their Effects on Society, New York: The New Press, 1994.
My thanks to Mount Holyoke College honors student in Environmental Studies, Arundhati Das, for focusing my attention on the issue of cultured shrimp production during the Fall semester 1995 and to Jim Boyce for providing critical references.
M. Khor, "The Aquaculture Disaster." Third World Resurgence, No.59 (July), 1995, p.8.
Information gathered from three articles in Third World Resurgence, No.59 (July), 1995: P. Gain, "Bangladesh: Attack of the Shrimps," M. Khor, "The Aquaculture Disaster," V. Shiva, "The Damaging Social and Environmental Effects of Aquaculture."
Although not "lost" to posterity (as an extinct species might be), or inaccessible for millennia (as in the case of land contaminated by high level nuclear waste), coast shrimp farms would probably require time on the order of a human generation and considerable investment (because of the scale of excavations) to make the land useable for arable farming.