Holy Cats, Mr. Science! Do you mean to say that population is made out of people?

Op ed in the NYT saying what I’ve  been saying since forever:  Gosheroodie, have you noticed that the history of man is, overall, the history of increasing productivity?  And who figured out how to increase productivity?  Individual people — you know, part of the population.

Someone’s gotta be having the babies.  We all need it.  Spend less time and effort sterilizing poor people, and spend more time and effort figuring out how to help everyone live well.

There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity. We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish.

Why is it that highly trained natural scientists don’t understand this? My experience is likely to be illustrative. Trained as a biologist, I learned the classic mathematics of population growth — that populations must have their limits and must ultimately reach a balance with their environments. Not to think so would be to misunderstand physics: there is only one earth, of course!

It was only after years of research into the ecology of agriculture in China that I reached the point where my observations forced me to see beyond my biologists’s blinders. Unable to explain how populations grew for millenniums while increasing the productivity of the same land, I discovered the agricultural economist Ester Boserup, the antidote to the demographer and economist Thomas Malthus and his theory that population growth tends to outrun the food supply. Her theories of population growth as a driver of land productivity explained the data I was gathering in ways that Malthus could never do. While remaining an ecologist, I became a fellow traveler with those who directly study long-term human-environment relationships — archaeologists, geographers, environmental historians and agricultural economists.

Very happy with that phrase “I became a fellow traveler.”  He means that he learned along with people who knew more than he did.  And that’s what’s called for here.  I am sick to death of rich white westerners leaning back in their sustainable bamboo chairs and telling everyone else to breathe less.  Treating humanity itself like the enemy — what could be sicker?

This guy gets it.  It’s not about numbers; it’s about people:

The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The 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. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.

Two hundred thousand years ago we started down this path. The planet will never be the same. It is time for all of us to wake up to the limits we really face: the social and technological systems that sustain us need improvement.

Read the whole op ed – it’s not long.

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  • richard

    Why not open up tracts of land for people to farm and raise animals to feed themselves and the rest of us. The infrastructure is already in place to even market their produce to any place in the world. Think of all the jobs that would eventually create.

  • LT

    Wow, someone is finally making sense (and saying something that lots of people have known for a long time). And this doesn’t even discuss the reality that population growth historically has followed a bell curve pattern — rapid growth, peak, followed by decline. The developing nations with rapid growth will likely experience decline once they become developed nations, as we have seen with every developed nation thus far. In a perfect world, population would be relatively stable with lots of vocations and Catholic families! But sadly our population trends have more to do with other factors…

  • KarenJo12

    What about the other creatures on Earth? Where are we going to put tigers and elephants if we turn everything into cities and farmland?

    • AnitaM

      The article is about the human capacity to increase the productivity of the “same land”. Please read the op-ed!!!!!!

      • KarenJo12

        I did read the article. Like very other population Pollyanna, the writer failed to address housing space, water, fish stock — those have declined by three-fourths and in the case of cod, 90% since 1950 — or what we do with human poop and litter. I don’t want to live in a world without honeybees, orchids, whales, or tigers but covered in garbage, cockroaches, and dirty diapers. How do you plan to avoid that happening?

        • simchafisher

          How do you explain the fact that it hasn’t happened already? We were supposed to reach our population limit millions and millions of people ago. How is it that people who notice the overall trend are pollyannas, but quacks who’ve been proven wrong over and over again are wise and prudent scientists whom we should all heed?

          The purpose of this very short op ed piece wasn’t to produce a grand plan for solving everything, including cod. It was to point out that population alarmists keep being wrong, for a whole variety of reasons; and that if you’re going to say something as serious as “certain people shouldn’t exist,” then you damn well better have some rigorous science to back it up.

          • KarenJo12

            Well, we’re not quite done with problems, and part of the way we survived was just dumb luck. Now that Asia has industrialized, that luck is running out. Look at a picture of Beijing for satellite and note the distance to the Gobi Desert. Look up information on declining fish stocks, on the Pacific Ocean Garbage Gyre, on desertification in Africa.

            One thing that averted catastrophe so far is the population in Europe and the US stabilized. If we still had the birth rate we did in the 1950’s, we would be in a world of pain.

          • AnitaM

            I find it pathetic that the Malthusian answer is always “Enough of me and for me but too much of you”. China is now beginning to feel the pain from having agreed with you. They now have 4 elderly for every 1 grandchild. I have been to Beijing many times. It is filled with wonderful human beings who are desperately worried about how they will survive the aftermath of the one-child-policy. This is what happens when we listen to the population control quacks. Would the world really be a more wonderful place with fewer Asians and Africans? I couldn’t disagree more. You imagine a better world being filled with honeybees, cod and you. No thanks! I prefer the real world with all its brokenness to your pasty white yuppy utopia.

          • Peggy Bowes

            I spent 5 years traveling all over the US in an RV. Not once did I see any part of our great nation covered in garbage, roaches or dirty diapers. Instead I saw vast amounts of unpopulated, open, (mostly) beautiful land. Major cities are very much the exception, rather than the rule. Check out this informative site for more on the overpopulation myth: http://overpopulationisamyth.com/overpopulation-the-making-of-a-myth

            God told us to “Go forth and multiply!” As far as I know, that hasn’t been rescinded…

        • moseynon

          You raise valid concerns, but I would point out that the NYT limits the amount of words which will be published. Since the author is a professor of geography, and his research focuses on human-managed ecosystems, he likely has taken your concerns into account. However, I admit that I am unfamiliar with his work.

          Theoretically, the planet could sustain an increased human population without hurting biodiversity. The problems arise from the practicality of managing human behavior and ensuring cooperation at a local and international scale. The catastrophe of over-fishing is an example of such problems. No one has the authority, or the power, to manage global ecology.

    • Zelda

      I know this is hard to comprehend after all the population control alarmism, but most of the earth is not populated. We could double the population and if we were very careless and generous we’d still occupy only 2% of the earth’s landmass. And if what this gentleman says is correct about not needing any more land for agriculture, we are actually sitting pretty.

    • Gary TheAlligator