Overpopulation Is Not the Problem? Really?

Last week, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled, "Overpopulation is Not the Problem." Written by Erle C. Ellis, an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, the column dismisses as "nonsense" concerns that, "... by transforming the earth's natural landscapes, we are undermining the very life support systems that sustain us."

Wow. That's a relief. When scientists around the world are warning that humanity is in danger of exceeding "planetary boundaries" and causing irreparable harm to the environment and its ability to sustain existing life forms, including human life, it is refreshing -- in the extreme -- to hear that we have nothing to worry about.

While acknowledging that we live on a finite planet with finite resources, Ellis insists that there "is no such thing as a human carrying capacity." Other species on this planet suffer massive die-offs when their numbers exceed what nature can sustainably provide, but modern humans, according to Ellis, are an exception to that rule. Humans, in his words, do not have to "live within the natural environmental limits of our planet."

In support of that bold proposition, he notes that at numerous times in the past 200,000 years humans have altered the natural environment so as to increase the carrying capacity for our species. When we hunted large animals to near extinction, we found ways to hunt and consume smaller species. When our hunter-gather lifestyles did not produce enough food, we domesticated animals and began growing crops. When traditional farming was not producing enough, we manufactured fertilizer and began irrigating our crops. And because we expanded our carrying capacity in the past, we can do so again in the future.

However, as anyone on Wall Street will tell you, past performance does not guarantee future results. The fact that a value of a stock has doubled or tripled in the past does not mean that it can go on doubling or tripling on into the future. In nature, as in the financial world, there are limits to exponential growth on a finite planet. Sooner or later, what goes up ultimately comes down. And many times it comes down with a crash or a bang. Bubbles burst.

So is there any danger that the human 'bubble' will burst? Ellis says, in effect, don't worry. "There is no environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future."

In Ellis's worldview, we are gods who can shape the world to fit us, no matter how great the size of our population. He says, "The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations... " Such a view, of course, is not just silly, it is dangerous folly. The ancient Greeks had a term for it: hubris.

The idea that our "imagination" gives us license to stop worrying about pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or too much nitrogen into our oceans is ludicrous. Scientific advances may yet serve to limit greenhouse gas emissions or protect the oceans, but so far science has moved us in the wrong direction. Human ingenuity is, at best, a two-edged sword.

Ellis insists that "The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science." More hubris. The idea that the "social sciences" will enable us to feed another 3 billion more people without inflicting further harm to the soil and water that we depend upon for our long-term survival is, sadly, laughable. Soil degradation and erosion, deforestation, desertification, and the depletion of underground aquifers are clear and present dangers to our ability to feed ourselves. We ignore them at our peril.

Ellis concludes his opinion piece by saying that the "... the environment will be what we make it." Well, he is correct on that account: the environment is what we make of it... and so far we are making an enormous mess of it.

Ellis, of course, is not the only person currently 'debunking' concerns about population and the ongoing destruction of the environment. Jonathan V. Last, who writes for the Weekly Standard, recently wrote a book ["What to Expect When No One's Expecting"] that urges Americans to produce more babies in effort to avoid a "demographic disaster." Just as there is a cluster of "climate-deniers," there are perfectly intelligent people who absolutely refuse to recognize the obvious: we are taking more from the Earth than the Earth can sustainably regenerate. Sooner or later, we will face a day of environmental reckoning that no amount of human imagination will manage to stave off.