Malthus Was Right

We are having a serious overshoot problem, and the fact that most of us don’t recognize it as our biggest issue won’t make it disappear or contract in size. In essence, we use more natural resources every year than what gets replenished by Nature and pollute more than what the living world can absorb. Freshwater. Wood. Fish. Wildlife. The signs are everywhere. Extinct species, dying at a rate hundred times above the normal (background) rate. Ecosystems collapsing, like the Amazon rainforest: failing to provide not only a habitat for many species but the very rainfall upon which local agriculture depends. How did we get here, and how do we get out? And who was this Malthus anyway?

Earth Overshoot Day gives a brutally honest picture about our sustainability (or in fact, lack of it), by showing us the date till when we have used up all natural resources for that given year and started live up the future. This year Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 28. This was the date when we have stopped living off the interest — the annual surplus which can be harvested every year without jeopardizing the future — and turned to live up the savings account instead.

As for a clue on how this manifests itself in the living world around us, you don’t have to look further than the Living Planet Index. You can see for yourself how eerily Overshoot Day correlates with the trend in declining wildlife population (including insects, mammals, birds etc.):

This is no autocorrelation or conspiracy. Humans use up Earth’s resources faster and faster than they could regenerate every year, thus — rather consequently — there is less and less left for our animal cousins. If you add climate change, pesticide use, agricultural runoff, industrial pollution (like ‘forever chemicals’ and falling male fertility as a result), you have a perfect trend pointing towards zero.

Now the question presents itself: How did we get here, and how do we get out? The story begins tens of thousands of years ago. Well before the age of widespread agriculture, humans had to live on what they could find and hunt down in the wilderness. Each area could feed and clothe only a certain amount of humans. In other words: each area had a different, but very much limited carrying capacity of humans, equaling the largest possible stable population of Homo sapiens the said ecosystem could support. Say, 1–10 person per square kilometer.

Should our ancestors had more babies, than what that given area could support, or the available food in that region has been reduced due to whatever reason, they had a problem to be solved. They could ‘choose’ from several options however:

  1. Walk away. This was the easiest method: look for food elsewhere. Expand the hunting territory. Move the entire group into new, previously ‘uninhabited’ lands. It is not hard to see how two-legged hominids walking on the face of the planet in search for new habitats and more food ended up even in the remotest of areas. There were two caveats though. One, Earth was (and still is) a sphere with a finite surface area, and two, our ancestors always found someone or something already living in the desired land, happily using all of the available biological productivity in that area already. Consequently, it was inevitable to apply option 2 as a next step upon arrival.
  2. Take it from others. This method (takeover as Catton calls it) involved taking food or habitat from other species. After earning the title of being the ‘fire apes’, humans have started to alter their environment by intentionally burning down entire forests to make good grazing (and hunting) grounds for large herds of tasty mammals. They took the land from forests, birds, insects and many other species, drove them out and turned more sunlight (the ultimate source of all biological productivity) to their favor. They’ve also planted fruit orchards, nut trees and shrubs, inventing agroforestry tens of thousands of years before the term was coined… and well before the ‘official’ advent of ‘real’ agriculture.
  3. Live up your heritage.Why bother with sustainability when we have an abundance of food and enough able bodied man and women to hunt it all down?’ — the question presented itself. There was, indeed, a much quicker way to ‘success’: the drawdown of rich resources. Mammoth hunting was a prime example: herds once counting thousands of animals were all hunted to extinction, as people took far more than what could be naturally regenerated. It is needless to say how this method quickly led to extinctions — and not only to our prey’s but many of our ancestors’ as well.

As you can see from the examples above, the question of inadvertently overshooting a given area’s carrying capacity (or taking more than what could be provided indefinitely) was always a risk we ran, but we have also developed coping mechanisms to deal with it. For at least temporarily.

Humans were never as sustainable as we would like to think. It increasingly looks like that we were the reason behind driving most large mammals and birds to extinction by simply overhunting them, but there is no way of telling how many other species we have sent to the pages of history books by burning their forests to the ground. Most of the tribes who experienced bottlenecks though had learnt it the hard way how to live within their limits — but they did so only after running into a dangerously intimate relationship with extinction. However, after a balance was struck, human life could be sustained within the limits of given area’s carrying capacity for a very-very long time — as the example of many indigenous people around the world shows.

Jumping a few thousand years ahead — into the once stable climate of the Holocene — we see people developing agricultural practices. No matter how instant we would like to see this ‘revolution’ happening, agriculture was in fact only a hobby for them: play farming as authors of The dawn of everything like to call it. Farming on the fertile riverbanks, were a sideline activity to fishing and hunting even after the appearance of the first permanent settlements. For several thousands of years, people maintained both methods, but the balance were slowly tipped in favor of farming: an increasingly sophisticated method for taking over habitats and turning them into lands feeding no one but us.

Beyond a certain population size and density, however, there was no other way to feed large crowds, and keep them under tight control. Empires, kingdoms and other civilizations have came about as result, and perhaps not always by popular demand.

After several cycles of rise and fall of various empires in the world, small kingdoms in Western-Asia (aka Europe) started to have serious problems. They have kept increasing their agricultural productivity (in other words: pushing their lands’ carrying capacity well beyond its original value), but this method too had its own limitations. After experiencing several population crashes (due to malnutrition, overcrowded cities and as a result: disease, like the Black Death) something had to be done. There were simply too many people and too little land left to feed them.

What could be done? Let’s see…

“Should we walk away then from these overcrowded lands?”

“There are unfriendly folks all over the place... Hm, why don’t we embark a ship instead and visit far away places on the other side of the world…?”

That looked like a good idea.

“Uh-oh. Someone is living there already and telling us it’s their land.”

Oops.

“Let us ‘encourage’ them then to leave their most fertile lands, then ask them and other nice folks, to kindly to work for us (for free of course). That should work!”

So did the biggest takeover in human history begin… The takeover of Turtle Island — as the indigenous people of America has referred to their land. The takeover of carefully managed ecosystems and their turning into monoculture crops. The takeover of human labor — enslaving large numbers of Africans to work on the newly established plantations.

Colonies grew like mushrooms, exploding into the newly discovered lands, crowding out indigenous people: destroying their culture and way of life in the process. The exodus from Europe, combined with the food imported from the colonies solved the population problem in the Old World, but only for a while. Slowly but steadily humans have occupied the entire planet and took lands not only from other nations, but from forests, swamps, marshes and other habitats — forcing the inhabitants to leave and look for a living elsewhere.

But it was not enough.

By the end of the 18th century people were still starving in many places. What to do? Global population hit 1 billion: we could not walk away anymore, the entire planet was full with humans. We were already super-busy taking over what we could from others, or other species, for centuries now.

It was the end of the takeover method.

“In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus observed that an increase in a nation’s food production improved the well-being of the population, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth, which in turn restored the original per capita production level. In other words, humans had a propensity to utilize abundance for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living […] Populations had a tendency to grow until the lower class suffered hardship, want and greater susceptibility to famine and disease…”

There was no evil logic behind this observation, just basic math, coming from the recognition — which should be rather obvious by now — that there is no infinite growth on a finite planet. Putting a sticker ‘Malthusian’ on such an observations, however, does not invalidate their simple truth.

By the beginning of the 20th century there were simply not enough nutrients in the soil to feed this many of us. Drawdown began at scale: mountains of guano (bird and bat manure) was mined away to improve soil fertility, and to prevent humanity as whole experiencing a bottleneck.

But it was still not enough.

Then came Normal Borlaug and the Haber-Bosch process to the rescue, starting the so called Green Revolution. Man-made fertilizers and crops selected to take up as much Nitrogen as possible, have boosted yields beyond imagination. Make no mistake though: this was not human ingenuity at its best. This was humanity’s good old friend in dire need again: drawdown.

Turbocharged by fossil fuels the green revolution has only bought us time. Nothing more. It was based on the one time drawdown of fossil fuels: via diesel powered machinery and natural gas derived fertilizer, boosted with one time minerals like potash. All turned into more food, and contrary to many prior warnings, more people.

“Humans have mistaken drawdown for takeover, and a temporary increase in carrying capacity for a permanent increase. This is why people speak of ‘producing’ fossil fuels, when ‘extracting’ fossil fuels is a more accurate description of what is happening.” (source)

Was it wise then to build an entire civilization on a knowingly finite reserve of mineral heritage — especially, knowing that it will heat up the planet when used…? Was it wise to let populations around the world grow in a run-away style, literally consuming all natural resources and eating up their own future…?

“OK, maybe not… But we will find out something.”

Sure. The thing we have failed to understand so far is that technology did not ever stop drawdown. It has only accelerated it and created progress traps. Instead of using a pickax to mine metal ores and coal for an occasional tool or sword, for example, we now use immense machinery — powered by finite reserves of coal and oil — to mine what seemed to be bare rock for our ancestors… To uphold the life support systems most of us depend upon.

We’ve missed the fact, that we are now walking up against a landslide, trying to work against a Ponzi-scheme of truly epic proportions.

We are forced to commit ever larger amounts of energy, materials and labor just to stay in place. As mineral deposits deplete however they require an exponential increase in energy, and material input — the very things we get from finite mineral deposits just as prone to depletion as anything else…

Yes, I know. We will switch to solar, nuclear, wind, hydrogen or fusion. Sure. All made from non-renewable, one time, finite mineral resources.

What could possibly go wrong…?

Happy overshoot day everyone.

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A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.