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Denial of Nature’s Limits is the Problem PDF Print E-mail
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by Aaron G. Lehmer-Chang   
23 September 2013
ImagePublisher's note: This article from World Shift Vision is what the New York Times should run, instead of the nonsense it ran that is addressed so well here.

This month, The New York Times published a fantastical piece on human exceptionalism entitled “Overpopulation Is Not The Problem,” in which author Erle C. Ellis claimed that human societies have no limits to their growth. That’s right — limits are merely an illusion. Expansion über alles! That’s our species’ birthright, and rightful destiny.

“There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity,” writes Ellis, castigating those of us concerned with ecological limits as believers that humans are little different than “bacteria in a petri dish.” Perhaps even more outlandishly, Ellis goes on to state that “[t]he idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future.” Who’s history exactly?

As an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Ellis should know better. Unless he steered clear of the stacks of thoughtful volumes available to him on the rise and fall of past civilizations, he would surely have encountered chronicle after chronicle of societies that faced progressively daunting ecological challenges, and which plummeted in population as a result.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond’s recent treatise, Collapse, offers a sobering survey of past human overshoot: from the fall of the Anasazi of southwestern North America due to deforestation and warfare over depleting resources, to the collapse of the Maya due to overcultivation and prolonged drought, to the recent genocide in Rwanda, due in part to increasing numbers of people contending for land in a formerly sustainable subsistence economy. In each of these cases, people (quite unlike bacteria) deployed complex social and technological innovations under increasingly stressful circumstances. And yet, their societies collapsed.

The lesson we should draw from this is not that that we are immune from nature’s limits. Quite the contrary: we fail to moderate our environmental impact at our own peril.

In fairness to Ellis, he rightly points out that humans are “niche creators,” beings who have an impressive history of transforming ecosystems to sustain ourselves and often to facilitate our very survival. This recognition, however, does not magically exempt us from ecological processes, pressures, and limits. It simply means we must utilize our “niche creation” skills in ways that allow our planet’s life-support systems to persevere.

Unfortunately, many of our world’s vital ecosystems are already on the brink of collapse. Despite incredible leaps in resource-use efficiency, ecological understanding, and technological know-how, our planet’s forests and sensitive habitats are being devastated far faster than they’re regenerating, arable lands are turning into deserts and soils are being mined of their critical nutrients, our oceans are being overfished and polluted with more toxins than can safely be absorbed, our freshwater aquifers and waterways are being depleted at rates several times faster than they’re being replenished, and our atmosphere is being flooded with so much carbon that our global climate is warming to extreme degrees. Moreover, the fossil fuels we rely on for transportation, agriculture, housing, manufacturing, and so much more are becoming harder and harder to find and extract, posing severe challenges to the very foundation of industrial civilization.

All of these realities will pose severe constraints on economic activity, which in turn, will limit human numbers. Just because we’ve overcome ecological constraints in the past, expanding from smaller niches to ever-larger ones, doesn’t mean we can therefore transcend our entire planet’s very real ecological boundaries.

Yes, we humans are “niche creators,” as Ellis so colorfully calls us. But rather than cling to the tired and dangerous myth of human exceptionalism from nature, it’s time to embrace our proper role as stewards and balancers of Earth’s incredible bounty. Through the knowledge we’ve gained from ecology, permaculture, and anthropology, we have within our power the capacity to remake our societies to respect nature’s cycles, life-giving processes, and yes, even its limits — while simultaneously allowing us all to live life to its fullest. Constant expansion of our numbers isn’t necessary for that vision. Humility and belief in ourselves is.

* * * * *

Aaron Guthrie Lehmer-Chang is an activist, social entrepreneur, organizer, music addict, and lover of nature. He co-manages House Kombucha, a family-owned, local green business in the San Francisco Bay area. He is a co-founder of Bay Localize. The above Critical Comment appeared September 16, 2013, at His previous article in Culture Change was A Way Out of Iraq: Relocalize Economic Life, October 28, 2005.
Graphic at top courtesy Saviourmachine.
The original article at the Times is at


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Loony tunes at the Times: "The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been." And false: that hunter-gatherers for millennia had "strategies to sustain growing populations" -- when human numbers were actually rather constant or rising very slowly. Look at a graph. Crackpot advocacy of unlimited population growth are servants of the corporate state that depends on never-ending growth to generate more and more profits. Consume! -- the favorite and "harmless" freedom.
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I've just begun reading For the Love of Animals, The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement by Kathryn Shevelow. The chapter on Margaret Cavendish, 17th-century English aristocrat, a prolific writer, a scientist chronicled her ongoing disagreements with the scientific establishment, including Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Sir Francis Bacon, the intellectual father of the Royal Society. Indicative of the attitude prevalent at the time (and little changed in some quarters to this day), Bacon is quoted as follows: "Man, if we look to final causes, may be regarded as the centre of the world, insomuch that if man were taken away from teh world, the rest would seem to be all astray, without aim or purpose." All things in the world work to man's service so completely, he wrote, that they "seem to be going about man's business and not their own." The advancement of knowledge, Bacon thought, required men to force nature to reveal "her" secrets: nature was routinely represented as female, and Bacon characteristically used imagery of rape and torture to describe his scientific project. Once man had penetrated nature's secret places, he wrote, he would be able to master her, to break her to human service--to make her his slave. Echoing Bacon's idea that the progress of science necessitated the mastery of man over nature, Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle celebrated the ability of new technologies such as the microscope and the air pump to give humans greater knowledge of, and therefore power over, the natural world--if only they were not barred by ancient scruples and superstitions. "The venerations wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God," Boyle complained.
Not unlike these supposed intellectual giants of their time, Erle Ellis, representing at least a segment of what passes for our contemporary academic elite, demonstrates this same myopic arrogance and counter-intuitive anti-intellectualism.
Burying one's head in the sand or up their arses apparently has not gone out of fashion. So, it would seem, to paraphrase the old commercial, we've come a short way, baby. My two cents. -- submitted by Ron Landskroner
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[See my letter to Paul Krugman on my Blog at (hit "CURRENT BLOG" to open).]
With increasing demand for the earth’s natural resources arising from exponential population growth, Capital Markets have now grown to a size where they are energizing ecologically and socially destructive forces of a magnitude that has never before been seen during the 200,000 plus years of human history. Planetary resource allocation is being misappropriated on a massive scale. Irreparable planetary damage is being done. As a result, the original Capital Market supply/demand architecture is now shaking under its own weight. Left unchecked, this architecture could bring on the extinction of our species. - David Anderson
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