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Stewards and Balancers

October 01, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Ecology, Guest Author

Respecting Nature’s Limits Is the Solution

by Aaron Guthrie Lehmer-Chang

Last 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. This article was provided courtesy of Culture Change.

1 Comments to “Stewards and Balancers”


  1. In addition to Diamond’s tome, Collapse, it seems that Professor Ellis also missed these books:

    The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul (1964) :

    Jacques Ellul convincingly demonstrates that technology, which we continue to conceptualize as the servant of man, will overthrow everything that prevents the internal logic of its development, including humanity itself – unless we take the necessary steps to move human society beyond the paradigm of technological “solutions” to human problems.

    The Entropy Law and the Economic Process by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1971):

    Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, born Nicolae Georgescu (1906 – 1994) was a Romanian American mathematician, statistician and economist, best known for his 1971 magnum opus The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, which stated the view that the second law of thermodynamics, i.e., that usable “free energy” tends to disperse or become lost, governs economic processes as well as physical ones.

    Entropy by Jeremy Rifkin (1980):

    Civilization creates “islands of order amidst seas of disorder”.

    Progress, science, and technology create crisis, chaos, pollution, and decay.

    Technological “solutions” exacerbate the problem (create more entropy).

    “It is imperative for us all to realize the dangers for our whole species created by a behavior based on individual self-interest and on maximizing personal utility instead of minimizing future regrets.”

    The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology) by Joseph A. Tainter (1988):

    Every complex civilization the world has ever seen has collapsed. As societies become more complex, the costs of meeting new challenges increase, until there comes a point where extra resources devoted to meeting new challenges produce diminishing and then negative returns. At this point, societies become less complex (they collapse into smaller societies). Social problems are always (ultimately) a problem of recruiting enough energy to fuel the increasing social complexity which is necessary to solve ever-newer problems.

    Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization by Spencer Wells (2010):

    Wells is a world-renowned geneticist and anthropologist, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, Professor at Cornell University, and director of The Genographic Project, with a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University, a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University and a research fellowship at Oxford University.

    Wells uses his historical genetic and paleo-anthropological research to describe a fatal mismatch between civilization and our biology. Struck by the profoundly negative effects of the agricultural lifestyle on humans living 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, while he researched his earlier book, A Journey of Man, Wells explains why most of what ails us today has it roots in that mismatch, and why we took this path.

    “When our ancestors created agriculture around 10,000 years ago, they were simply responding to an immediate need for more reliable sources of food during a time of climatic stress. They were unaware of what, by changing their fundamental relationship to nature, they were unleashing on the world. Instead of relying on nature’s plenty, they were creating it for themselves. By doing so, they divorced themselves – and us – from millions of years of evolutionary history, charting a new course into the future without a map.”

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