Home » Economics » Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXV–Exponential Growth, Natural Carrying Capacity, and Ecological Overshoot

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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXV–Exponential Growth, Natural Carrying Capacity, and Ecological Overshoot

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXV

December 8, 2021

Pompeii, Italy (1984) Photo by author

Exponential Growth, Natural Carrying Capacity, and Ecological Overshoot

The following very short contemplation was in response to some comments on an Andrew Nikiforuk article in The Tyee.

As an Apex predator, humans were on a path from the outset to likely overshoot the natural carrying capacity of their environment. As the late Dr. Albert Bartlett opines in a must-watch presentation on our inability to understand the exponential function: “…here we can see the human dilemma — everything we regard as good makes the population problem worse, everything we regard as bad helps solve the problem. There is a dilemma if ever there was one.”

As William Catton argues in Overshoot, we humans have had two approaches to overcoming carrying capacity limits and continuing our exponential population explosion and global reach/impact: the takeover and drawdown methods.

For millennia we relied upon taking over unexploited regions by migrating. The biggest boost came about with the European ‘discovery’ of a second hemisphere.

Then, a couple of centuries ago, we began exploiting the drawdown method that relies upon extraction of fossil energy to inflate the human carrying capacity.

Given that the drawdown method relies upon a finite resource, that avenue of extending the limits to our expansion could only ever be temporary. And, it would appear, we encountered diminishing returns on the drawdown method some decades ago but are only now really beginning to experience the limits imposed upon us by a finite planet.

Population biology shows us what happens to a species that comes to rely upon finite resources (or renewables ones that are over-harvested faster than can be replenished): population collapse.

We have this knowledge and awareness but for many reasons we tend to refuse to accept it. Instead we craft comforting narratives in our denial or bargaining to avoid thinking too deeply about it.

There is no solving this via our technology or ‘ingenuity’ (in fact, there’s a good argument to be made that our attempts to do this are actually expediting and adding to our overshoot by increasing our drawdown of finite resources, further overloading our planetary sinks, and further reducing our carrying capacity). Our refusal (for whatever reason) to degrow/downsize/power-down/etc. ensures we lose our chance to mitigate the consequences of our overshoot.

After posting this comment, Alice Friedemann (see her Energy Skeptic website) posted the following on Facebook. I encourage everyone to read this and consider signing it.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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