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Population and Limits

Population and Limits

In about 1980 my father answered my concerns about human-caused changes to natural systems, which I argued endangered us with the comment, “They’ll find some technological fix.” Erle C. Ellis, an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, agrees with dad. In September 14, 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times, Ellis responds to environmental scientists who opine “Disaster looms as humans exceed the earth’s natural carrying capacity” with a dismissive “This is nonsense.”

Ellis correctly notes that human beings have been changing the planet since we evolved some 150,000 years ago. Early hunter-gatherer peoples changed the planet by deliberately burning woodlands to flush game and improve their own hunting and plant-gathering conditions. Agriculture appeared about 10,000 years ago and allowed a rapid increase in population and the rise of cities and more complex societies. As population continued to increase, people invented progressively more productive land-use and energy strategies, a process of innovation that continues today with earth’s population above seven billion people and growing every day.

Ellis argues that the “science of human sustenance is inherently a social science” and that there is “no such thing as human carrying capacity.” In summary, the only limits we really need to respect are the limits of “our imaginations and our social systems.” Truly we can safely become even more a spaceship earth dedicated to one species, us, as “we transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves.”

There is lots of science  out there which conflicts with Ellis’s view, but it’s comforting that a scientist is making the case that our futures and our children’s futures are not jeopardized by what I have characterized as “too many people consuming too much.”

Image by pnooomPnooom [CC-BY-2.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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