J500 Media and the Environment

Do the math. We can’t keep multiplying. by Lauren Keith

photo by Sean McNamar, flickr.com

Oh, baby. Too cute, right? The planet’s newest little bundle of greenhouse gas joy appears so innocent, but the weight of the world will soon fall on her shoulders.

In the midst of discovering everything we’ve been doing to keep Kansas on track for becoming beachfront property, we have forgotten the root of the problem: this graph.

Graph from Approaching the Limits

Researchers have long being trying to mathematically determine the carrying capacity of the planet, or how many members of a species an ecosystem can support before the system collapses, which is determined by available food and water and ecological footprint quizzes.

Just feeling guilty about “permanently borrowing” Mother Nature’s resources may not be an effective way to deal with the problem, but we need to start feeling something besides being in the mood to add to the population.

Researchers have found that Earth’s carrying capacity may be only 2-4 billion people. And whoops, we forgot to put our pants back on and got our numbers up to 6.7 billion.

Human population numbers are soaring off a cliff, driven by a pair of Wile E. Coyote’s ACME rocket-powered skates. Unfortunately, I think we are going to cause a little more damage when we land than he did with a puff of cartoon smoke.

Thomas Malthus, a British economist who lived in the 1700s, saw the future problems with the population growing at a geometric rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16) when food production only increased at an arithmetic rate (1, 2, 3, 4). He argued that population would be kept in check by natural causes (death from old age), misery (war, plagues, famine) and vice (murder, contraception).

He also may have just been sad that no one wanted to increase the population with him. Yikes, check that mug.


Neo-Malthusians think the population has passed the point where everyone can live with an iPod and a Hummer. Instead, people now and in future generations will be trapped in the misery caused by war and famine, as is now occurring in developing countries where people are dying from preventable diseases, malnutrition and political unrest.

However, humans keep outbidding Mother Nature. We build (or re-build) better levy systems. We progress through technological and medicinal advances. But can we keep growing and improving? How in the world can we even start to grow “sustainably”? And isn’t “sustainable growth” an oxymoron because we’ve exceeded carrying capacity?

Oh well, who needs Earth anyway if men are from Mars and women are from Venus? Let the countdown begin.

—Lauren Keith

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Apparently you didn’t get the memo while on spring break–we’re all going to die by 2040:

According to the climate change scientist James Lovelock, this is the beginning of the end of a peaceful phase in evolution.

By 2040, the world population of more than six billion will have been culled by floods, drought and famine.

The people of Southern Europe, as well as South-East Asia, will be fighting their way into countries such as Canada, Australia and Britain.

Me, personally, I just bought a condo on the Moon from the son of a Nigerian diplomat, so I’m going to be juussst fine.

Seriously, the story is worth reading…kind of funny, mostly scary. I don’t fully buy this guy (especially his point that any human action to counterbalance global warming is futile), but it is an interesting scenario to consider.

By the way, reading up on Malthus–the dude had THREE kids…doesn’t that make him some sort of hypocrite? On the bright side it disproves your theory that he wasn’t personally experienced in population growth. 😉


Comment by rarab

I am laughing and crying. This was a zinger that Bryan Welch ended class with when he visited us and I am so glad you have continued the conversation. Egads, we are still trying to get people to change their light bulbs (which seem to now be some badge of honor and is a tough change to make), how do we instill this kind of change? Please help me out here, so the next time someone asks me for tips on how to save the planet I can say: change your light bulbs, use reusable bags, eat less meat, vote, and stop f***ing like rabbits.

Comment by j500

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