Friday, October 8, 2010

Carrying Capacity Is the Metric of Sustainability

A word with as many meanings as there are problems to solve. To ask, “can this be done more sustainably?” barely stirs the imagination. But to ask “Can this be done completely sustainably?” begs the questions “How sustainable do you mean?”, and “What does ‘sustainable’ mean?”, “What does ‘sustainable’ look like?”, “How do we know when we are there?”, and “Is there a ‘there’ to get to?”. The argument is cogently made that with technology, culture, opportunities, and the relationships between nations and peoples, changing so quickly and so dramatically in our times, sustainability does not have a steady state. Sustainability must examined on-the-fly, almost opportunistically, because resources available today can’t be counted on for tomorrow. But without a steady state, can anything be marked as ‘sustainable’?

Whatever sustainability is or looks like, Carrying Capacity is its metric. How many people, with present cultural attitudes, resources, and economic constructs, can this human and natural habitat support? For how long can it support the number of people already living there? What changes in cultural, economic and resource use practices, will stretch out the time this community has, reduce resource consumption to replacement rate, and provide a living for the people who are already there?

It may be that carrying capacity cannot be calculated. It may be that the factors are too many and the interactions too complex to specify a number. If this is true, the endeavor delivers its value in asking the question. If we cannot speak of a number, we can speak of the variables, and describe the system in terms like the hydrologic cycle, or the flows of energy from the sun through the living community. We can identify specific economic practices in a community which promote stable long term development and its long term health, and those which make the community prone to instability, endanger the formation of an economic ecosystem, and make people insecure. We can identify cultural attitudes which are problematic, and those which support community survival in the long term. We can identify the resources which are in danger of exhaustion and how to reduce consumption rates to replacement rates. By introducing the concept of “carrying capacity” as a legitimate factor in decision making about economic development, we can introduce the ecologists language of resilience and redundancy, and bring to bear the eco-economists concerns about natural capital and the values of conservation. By introducing the concept of “carrying capacity” into decision making about economic development, we place economy and humanity’s survival unequivocally WITHIN the realm of nature and ecology. Carrying Capacity, as the metric of a vision, discards the paradigm of perpetual growth, and concretizes a vision of the human-landscape relationship which truly speaks to the seventh generation.

Perhaps most fundamentally and significantly, when we ask “How many people can this economic-cultural-resource landscape support?” We recast economy from the traditional man-over-nature paradigm, into a humanity-within-nature paradigm. Instead of proposing to watch a distant horizon where faith in an unknown future is based on perpetual growth and led by the consumption of goods by ever more people, and instead of suffering the cycles and destructions of unanticipated and unintended effects, the study of carrying capacity proposes to examine a given community for its potential as an ecologically robust, persistent, and sustainable place for people to live, in a just balance with each other and nature. The study of carrying capacity shifts our focus from the opportunist economics of today to an equilibrist economics of a long history for humanity on Earth.

Carrying Capacity is a neglected problem. Not a single course at UVM this semester has it in its title. Economists from the extreme right to the extreme left get away with talking about perpetual growth by ignoring the question of carrying capacity. People are misled to believe that the future can be “better” (ever more prosperous materially) because no one reminds them that as there are more and more of us, available resources must be spread more and more thinly and cost more and more while wages are forced down. People are not told that the global economy – and therefore the interconnected local economy – will become ever more vulnerable to natural disasters and disruption as population strains harder against the limits of carrying capacity, and that the loss of privilege by uninformed people will arouse enough anger in them to start a revolution. Americans do not realize that the loss of privilege is an inevitable consequence of sharing the planet with ever more people, and that the anger that drives them to violence is one of nature’s safety valves. Fragile systems are brought down by war and economic destruction, robust systems made fragile, and war lords and dictators take over in times of chaos, and the economies under these regimes are notoriously unproductive. Many people, when they have revolted against the loss of privilege, will lose the privilege of life, and the most of the rest will lose the privilege of regular meals. This is the inevitable consequence of ignoring the issue of carrying capacity and doing nothing to adjust to it.

By ignoring the limits of carrying capacity, fewer and fewer people have access to the natural world and the cleansing power of wilderness. And for more and more people the only ecology of significance will be the human ecology of the city block, where in the guise of homo sapiens, there are browsers, predators, degraders, and carrion-consumers, there is an upper canopy, a mid-canopy and a forest floor, each with it’s own cohort of healthy and strong survivors, and weak and decrepit, running the gauntlet of natural selection.

Here, on the city block, the human community has already been forced off of the land. It is stacked six, ten or forty layers deep, penetrating the sky, and penetrating the ground with people in tubes, densely packed people, moving “efficiently” from place to place, as if having so many people shoulder to shoulder, leg to pole, eye to ceiling, would increase the richness of the human experience on this Earth. Already, the people are packed in and satiated with the surrogate love of celebrity, the danger of criminal violence, with vicarious human love through the things they buy, by the hyperized reality of TV, with the sexualized street, by the drugs they consume to feel good or feel not at all, and the perpetual drama of anonymous human-to-human contact. Or not, for the homeless, the untouchables, who wander about in the detritus of loneliness, and trying live from the dregs of the excesses of the rest. Here, already, in the city, the carrying capacity of the land has been multiplied and manifolded by extending the regions of its dependence across vast expanses of country.

The city packs in its multitudes by concentrating food production in the hinterlands, efficiently distributed inwardly by networks of trucks and trains and planes These networks distribute our food, and the things we use, the waste we create, and the power we advantage for our comfort and survival. Oh yes, the city definitely uses less power, and probably fewer resources, per person, than for the people who live in the rural parts, but are these people who are connected and resolute in their humanity? Are these people who could cook their food if a black-out wrapped the city in darkness? Are these people who could grow their own food if the cost of fuel for the trucks and trains grew too high? Are these people who feel safe to walk barefoot? Are these people wrapped in the abundance and generosity of green pastures, running brooks and black night skies? Here, in the city, people do not grow into calm adulthood in the steady and predictable habitats of the country side. They grow into the kinetic adulthood of someone whose whole existence is defined by the human built environment and human built social ecologies. Here in the city carrying capacity hinges on the frail certainties that food produced hundreds and thousands of miles away will be healthy, that it can and will get to every different person, that jobs can be held for long enough to pay off a mortgage, paid every month for a period of 30 years. Yes, we need to speak of the carrying capacity of the city, because it draws on resources and produces waste, and depends for its stability on human culture and reliable economic institutions. But the human community that lives there has no awareness of its dependence on the 100 and 1000 mile distant forest biota to clean its piped-in water, knows nothing of its dependence on illegal farm labor, accounts not all for the destiny of its waste.

Here, on the city block, there is no nature to fall back on in dire times. The block that is paved from curb to curb, joined to the buildings facing the street by concrete, that may face a park with a few tufts of gnarly grass, plenty of packed dirt, and a cracked-blacktop basket ball court, the city block walled in by brick faced buildings laced with fire escapes, the city block served food from the occasional vegetable market and quick food store, the block, inundated with liquor stores and porno shops, where the revered jobs are dealing drugs or pimping, where taking money for sex is one of few career choices, barely meets the needs of its inhabitants. Every thing here is human built, squeezing out every last efficiency from the human-nature interface, making it highly efficient, of particularly high carrying capacity, and of particular danger to the mental and physical health of its residents. Like rats in a cage, the city has very little of the nature that gives life its context and people access to opportunities. The city is that ecosystem that we use to pack in more and more people, exchanging freedom and resiliency for efficiency. To live here, for those who lack education and employment, is to live in the trash heap of the economy, where the poor and disenfranchised, the unvalued, can be packed in and ignored, can suffer their humiliations without recourse to justice. For the underclass, the city is where the vaunted “efficiencies” take on the darkness of oppression.

Oddly, for the survivors, there is more freedom here than for the wealthy who are equally bound by the efficiencies of urban life. Those who live without privilege can critique and ironize the social and economic arrangements of the city without fear of disrupting any critical self-deceptions. By contrast, the wealthy must maintain a level of decorous self-deception that they are in control of their lives and that it is a good life. Even they must face the ugliness of grey and brown and black city landscapes, the smells of urine in doorways and the subways, the perpetual appeal of beggars, and lonely, anonymous nights. For those with money in the city, it can be a fun place to live, because consequent to its efficiencies, great concert halls and sports stadia, exciting arts scenes, unsurpassed educational opportunities, and wonderful places to eat, to share with friends, can be supported. But all of this depends on systems built by humans, subject to the quality of their own security and willingness to do an honest days work. Unlike nature, which persists as long as the sun shines and rain occasionally falls, the ecology of the city only persists as long as people cooperate to make it work. When human energy flags, then also the ecology and the actual carrying capacity declines.

Of those who have, few can stomach the knowledge that their life style, and the economic and social bonds which they have been built up over lifetimes of work, are endangered, by global warming, the end of the oil bubble, and pressing resource competition. Few can acknowledge that the pressures from increasing populations, declining wages, and increasing costs of power and goods, will inevitably erode, perhaps destroy, that assumed quality of life. There are many Americans today, so accustomed to the perquisites of the age of cheap carbon, who will not adopt low energy light bulbs, who will insist on driving large, high fuel consuming vehicles, who say “We are a high carbon society, and we ain’t gonna change.” If that’s how they want to enter the next phase of human history, who’s to challenge them? But it is a dangerous posture to take, since oil and even coal are finite in quantity, and with mushrooming human populations, there is no chance that plants will significantly replace them.

Change is already happening. Some communities, and many citizens, notably here in Vermont, know they and we need to kick the carbon addiction. But in the vast swaths of America where the idea of global warming and the importance of an ecologically healthy planet is denied, where the declines in incomes and the standard of living are being met with denial, where the idea that their lifestyle is the problem, is denied, that denial is the problem. They keep a faith in a prosperous future that could never materialize, because it is a future from the past, from a past when oil was cheap and America was still a resource frontier. Either in degrees or in some cataclysmic moment of revelation, the impossibility of this dream will be scorched into the minds of Americans as they realize that their hunger is not transitory, their poverty not caused by indolence, that crime wells up from within their own thoughts. Already Americans form “militias”, with real and deadly weaponry, to counter the “oppression” of government, and actually make violence an option!

The changes in America are not purely a function of carrying capacity violation. The economic collapse of 2008 was partly driven by the unsustainable pursuit of profit. But though greed is not strictly a response to the challenge of fitting more and more people into a finite physical and economic space, the keyword is “unsustainable”. In the study of carrying capacity, we examine sustainability. The question “What is our carrying capacity?” cannot be answered without a critique of such monumentally unsustainable practices as caused this crash. Carrying capacity cannot explain everything, any more than the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere explains all weather, but operating in the background, the thinning distribution of resources is felt in myriad ways, including the downward mobility of people who never before doubted their place in the middle economic bracket. In prior times, militias have served to counter the prevalence of political or economic oppression, even though far less populous, but we cannot say that they were not responding to their felt constraints, the limits set by the carrying capacities of their economic, social, cultural and resource regimes. And today we can certainly say that people whose forebears went to the frontier for freedom and opportunity are talking about literal gunfire and rebellion to hold onto their privilege.

Carrying capacity is neglected in popular economics and the culture broadly, precisely because it is not an academic question, to be played with in the ivory tower. It isn’t Drosophila genomics, art at the MET, or a video game. The problem of carrying capacity, taken personally, places the individual human being directly in the inquisitor’s chair: “Can the planet afford you?”. Nothing could be more scary, and no one, of any great authority, has had the courage to pose the question to the body politic or body cultural. But taken as a metric, objective, non-judgmental, candid, the question of carrying capacity holds up a gentle light to human behavior which allows thoughtful people to make changes and to push for new practices, to revision the purpose of a human life and of human community, and thereby to change history.

Ecological Economics, as posed by significant thinkers of the last and present century, provides the theoretical foundation of the carrying capacity of human communities. What makes carrying capacity stand as an important subject is its potential to consolidate this important body of work around a single and tangible, if hypothetical, number. It contains within it precisely those concepts of ecological economics which makes this an essential discipline, but additionally carrying capacity research demands a quantification that is scientifically neutral, and yet profound in its implications. Carrying capacity cannot be studied without a careful examination of landscape, biota, minerals, water, climate, the human-built environment, the politics at site, and the cultural attitudes toward the resource base, the major dimensions of a long and desirable human future. Hence, the study of carrying capacity, as a distinct and purposeful endeavor, brings to bear the most important questions facing the survival of life on Earth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully written and wondrously instructive...

Thanks kindly, Anonymous