RIO+20 Talks Need to Consider Physical Limits

RIO+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, is to be held this week on June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.

The term Sustainable Development seems to me to be almost a contradiction in terms. One dictionary gives the definition of “development” as “the act or process of developing; growth; progress”. In a finite world, how can growth be sustainable? Isn’t it possible that human population already passed the world’s carrying capacity, and world leaders should be talking about shrinking instead of growing?

The open access journal PLoS Biology is starting to raise questions in this area. According to a press release of the journal, “Coinciding with Rio+20, the open-access journal PLoS Biology is publishing three articles in the June 19 issue by leaders in ecology and conservation science who raise important concerns about physical limits on resource use that should be considered at the conference—but almost certainly won’t be, because sustainability has largely developed with little reference to the key ecological principles that govern life on Earth.”

I’d like to highlight one of these articles called, “The Macroecology of Sustainability“. The article is by Robbie Burger and Jim Brown at the University of New Mexico, plus several other authors. I mentioned this upcoming article in March in my post True Sustainability Solutions.

The “Macroecology of Sustainability” points out that the discipline of sustainability science, as it is usually practiced, tends to be a social science rather than a natural science.  Studies are often at a local scale, rather than a global scale, and focus on efforts to improve standards or living and reduce environmental impacts, without consideration as to whether these so-called solutions would be feasible on a global scale. According to the researchers, “Any efforts to develop a science of sustainability or implement policy solutions are necessarily incomplete and will ultimately fail without considering the core ecological principles that govern all of life.”

This is a link to the entire current issue of PLoS Biology, including the three articles.

What is macroecology? According to the article

A macroecological approach to sustainability aims to understand how humans are integrated into and constrained by the Earth’s systems. . . The capacity of the environment to support the requirements of contemporary human societies is not just a matter of political and economic concern. It is also a central aspect of ecology — the study of the interactions between organisms, including humans, and their environments. These relationships always involve exchanges of energy, matter, or information. The scientific principles that govern the flows and transformations of these commodities are fundamental to ecology and directly relevant to sustainability and to the maintenance of ecosystem services, especially in times of energy scarcity.

The article gives several examples of how limits can be reached in three different areas:

Principle 1: Thermodynamics and the Zero-Sum Game. The laws of thermodynamics imply that increased rates of energy use are required to fuel economic growth and development, leading to formidable challenges in a time of growing energy scarcity and insecurity. Furthermore, planetary quantities of chemical elements are effectively finite.

Principle 2: Scale and Embeddedness. Solutions that work on a local scale may not be feasible on a global scale. Each local solution depends on the surrounding area for many of its inputs, and these must be considered as well in analyses.

Principle 3: Global Constraints. The question of whether the world can support even today’s level of human resource use and waste production needs to be central to analyses. Global constraints ultimately limit flows at smaller scales.

According to the article:

The bottom line is that the growing human population and economy are being fed by unsustainable use of finite resources of fossil fuel energy, fertilizers, and arable land and by unsustainable harvests of ‘‘renewable resources’’ such as fish, wood, and fresh water. Furthermore, attaining sustainability is additionally complicated by inevitable yet unpredictable changes in both human socioeconomic conditions and the extrinsic global environment. Sustainability will always be a moving target and there cannot be a single long-term stable solution.

Most sustainability science focuses on efforts to improve standards of living and reduce environmental impacts at local to regional scales. These efforts will ultimately and inevitably fail unless the global system is sustainable. There is increasing evidence that modern humans have already exceeded global limits on population and socioeconomic development, because essential resources are being consumed at unsustainable rates. Attaining sustainability at the global scale will require some combination of two things: a decrease in population and/or a decrease in per capita resource consumption. Neither will be easy to achieve. Whether population and resource use can be reduced sufficiently and in time to avoid socioeconomic collapse and attendant human suffering is an open question.

Critics will point out that our examination of sustainability from a macroecological and natural science perspective conveys a message of ‘‘doom and gloom’’ and does not offer ‘‘a way forward’’. It is true that humanity is faced with difficult choices, and there are no easy solutions. But the role of science is to understand how the world works, not to tell us what we want to hear.[Emphasis added.]

I applaud PLoS Biology for publishing this important article. I wish that the delegates at RIO+20 were brave enough to deal with the real issues at hand.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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42 Responses to RIO+20 Talks Need to Consider Physical Limits

  1. robindatta says:

    Must watching for the Roi-20:

  2. Jerry McManus says:

    Another great post Gail! The word “sustainable” is so badly over-used and abused, often with little thought to the actual meaning of the word, it’s practically a running joke. All the more reason I was pleased to see the article put the emphasis on the ecological context of the word. Far too often the issue is confused by conflating the word with social justice issues, which is a mistake IMO.

    I think the best definition I’ve seen was the one I read in “Limits to Growth: 30 year update”:

    – Renewable resources should not be used at a rate greater than they can be replenished.
    – Non-renewable resources should only be used for creating renewable alternatives.
    – Wastes should not be produced at a rate greater than they can be absorbed.

    Beautiful in their simplicity, but how to apply at a global level? The solution is obvious, really, as stated in the article “Attaining sustainability at the global scale will require some combination of two things: a decrease in population and/or a decrease in per capita resource consumption. Neither will be easy to achieve. ”

    Exactly. I would go even further and suggest that both those things will be impossible to achieve, at least not voluntarily. Who will be first in line for either of those things? And what is to stop one or more countries from grabbing the resources not used by the “sustainable’ folks?

    A totalitarian world government might be able to achieve those goals, but it would of necessity be through fear and coercion. The “killing fields” of Cambodia writ large.

    What then is the answer? I think it’s quite simple, really. All complex systems self-organize to maximize available energy and resources, this “maximum power principle” is universal and we are clearly no exception. Our short-term carrying capacity was greatly enlarged by the use of fossil fuels and when those resources are depleted then so too will our numbers naturally die back to levels that can be supported by long term carrying capacity.

    Those of our species who can adapt to that new reality will survive, those who cannot will die. Just as it always has been for the last 3 or 4 billion years on this lovely little speck of a planet, and always will be long after we are gone.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    This will respond to both the Rentier question and also some of the issues raised in this post and various comments.

    Peter Bane, a well-known Permaculturist, has just published Garden Farming for Town and Country. It’s a wonderful book, endorsed by many famous people (famous, at least, among the serious).

    On page 58 he states that North American metropolitan regions contain 2 acres per person–more than enough to provide food and fuel. I would add ‘if the excellent suggestions in this book are followed for the production of the food and fuel’.

    He states on page 63 that ‘gardening produces 2 to 7 times the yield of conventional farming’. (So much for Monsanto’s claims that only they can save the world from starvation).

    FH King states on page 160 of the current paperback version of his book: each cultivated acre of food producing land (in 1905 Japan) is supporting more than 5 people (in a particular province).

    So…let’s do a little back of the envelope calculation. Assume that half the land in the metropolitan region is capable of producing food (such as golf courses and lawns and backyards and patios). That gives us one acre per person. Now assume that we are as smart as a 1905 Japanese gardener. We can support 5 people (food and fuel and other necessities) on each acre. So we can support 5 times the current population with 1905 technology.

    But there are a couple of subtractions we have to make. The first is the degradation of the soil. The second is the rent we have to pay. Soil degradation can be reversed in a decade with diligent and intelligent work. The rent is more complicated. We have reached, in the US and around the world, an intense concentration of money among the wealthy few. If the One Percent own all the land, they will, of course, extract the maximum amount of rent from it. Which will reduce the people growing the food and fiber to subsistence level. Bane notes that we urgently need to get rid of the Rentier Class to prevent this catastrophe.

    So…what are the major obstacles in our way? They are clearly in the realm of psychology and sociology and politics. So the Limits to Growth apply with a vengeance to Business as Usual, but do not necessarily apply if we consider the most intelligent use of our resources to support a pretty large population (at North American densities).

    I don’t know what the numbers would be like for a huge city such as Mexico City or Mumbai or Jakarta. I do know that Hong Kong, with the New Territories, was largely feeding itself at the time it was returned to China. A decade ago, Shanghai was largely feeding itself.

    The life style that Bane describes has many positives–but it sure ain’t Business As Usual.

    Don Stewart

    • I think the devil is in the details in this. There is some truth to it, but to see how well it really would work, we need to look at more particulars.

      If we can water local gardens, fertilize them properly, put fences around them, use pesticides that keep insects away, have proper top soil, not too much shade by trees, and live in a good climate, then no doubt what you say is true. But it is probably not true in general.

      The cities that are above the average of two acres a person could theoretically produce more food, but I suspect that they are like Atlanta–hilly and covered with trees. It is well established that hilly sites on which the trees are cut down, and cultivated without terracing, erode quickly (this may be 100 or 500 years, but is certainly quickly in the whole scheme of things). They very often do not have soil that is conducive to gardening–rocky clay).

      • Don Stewart says:

        I don’t know if Phoenix or Las Vegas could support their populations. They may just be a huge mistake. Same might be true of Atlanta…but clay has some advantages in terms of nutrient and water retention when it is well treated. As I say, allow a decade to rebuild the fertility which was there in 1750 and Atlanta might look quite different.

        Peter Bane lays out a good, omnivorous diet in his book Garden Farming in Town and Country. His notes:
        ‘Thus we have a 30-fold range of land efficiency between the industrial farm system (with its high inputs of energy and capital and high output per hour of labor) at the low end and the biointensive garden model (requiring high inputs of labor and yielding higher outputs of food per square foot) at the high end….Somewhere in between these two poles, I hope to describe a system that can become a net energy producer. It will also show greater ecological stability and diversity, while providing a modest, healthy, omnivorous diet and net gains in soil fertility from season to season. This is the hope of a regenerative or permanent agriculture and the imperative for our survival.’

        Then he discusses the 3 acres of land currently required to produce our food for every person. Under his system, we are talking more like a quarter of an acre. With half an acre, things get easier. So we have the ability to grow at least six times more food–just not with Business as Usual. And if we use urban garden farming, we can grow most all of the transportation critical things like fresh fruit and vegetables. Dry products such as beans and grains can be grown in rural areas.

        In short, we have a shortage of land and we are dependent on toxins and massive irrigation projects because we have taken the substitution of land, capital, fossil fuels, chemical inputs, and the mining of soil fertility in place of human labor and intelligence to an extreme which has led us to be quite inefficient in terms of land usage. Why not reverse the trend? Psychology, sociology, and politics is my answer. But to lean on the crutch of Limits To Growth is, I think, just a big mistake.

        Don Stewart

        • You are right: we could do better than what we are doing now, but it is hard to get the government behind making changes when our current system produces a lot of food cheaply, and the government is in poor financial shape to begin with.

  4. robindatta says:

    Plain and simple, the Rio delegates should all have their heads examined.

  5. “It seems like there are a lot of people with different agendas out there. Perhaps I need to find a quiet place to hide.”-Gail

    Hiding out right now is about the best strategy to undertake. If you are going to depend on a UN Commission to resolve Global issues of resource utilization, you are going to get seriously screwed here.

    On the local level you can make some plans which are reasonable and Human Scale, on the Global Level any plans made will have so much hellacious BLOWBACK it is not even funny, and if you are going to entrust such decisions to the Scum Sucking Bottom Feeders who run organizations like the UN, the IMF and the Wrold Bank, you are going to get the short end of the stick here for sure.

    The very FIRST thing we have to do is get RID of these Global Organizations and those in charge of them. Giving them creedence as arbiters of our fate on Our Finite World only insures our Extinction as a Species. The ROOT of the problem is the UN and organizations like it that attempt to make decisions for all mankind, but which in the end really only benefit those who run those organizations.

    I love your Blog Gail because you do a real nice tabular style analysis, but man you just pull your punches here too much. In Commentary on the blog you are a bit more forthright, but your articles are too often couched in puffery. JMHO.


    • If I want my articles to be read by an audience that is seeking the truth, I need to make a strong case why they organizations are causing problems before I criticize them. That probably is not very hard for the IMF — loans to “developing” countries have been a problem, according to many people. The UN does a variety of things, so looking at it is trickier. But unless I have done a careful analysis of benefits and drawbacks, and weighed the two, I don’t want to say such-and-such organization is bad, or even that such and such a program is bad.

      I think that as a practical matter international organizations are going to shrink, and international travel becomes more difficult and as economies contract. Countries that have to cut their budgets won’t budget much to try to bail out other countries or to help them “develop”. We are probably reaching peak international agency funding right about now–it would be interesting to track.

  6. Don Stewart says:

    I have a few comments about the study. Then I will offer my own suggestions:

    “Human economies extract energy and material resources from the environment and transform them into goods and services. In the process, they create waste products that are released back into the environment. ”

    A human economy CAN be thought of as husbanding the natural world in order to increase biological activity, and especially biological activity which is beneficial to humans. We frequently give the name Permaculture to such undertakings. At the opposite pole would be the efforts of Big Agriculture to make genetically engineered food grow in sterile environments by adding in every requirement the plant or animal needs.

    “The laws of conservation and thermodynamics mean that the embedded human systems are absolutely dependent on these flows: population growth and economic development require increased rates of consumption of energy and materials and increased production of wastes.”

    I don’t quarrel with the statement as it stands. However, there HAVE BEEN large civilizations which relied largely on solar power through the magic of photosynthesis. FH King studied such systems around 1905 in eastern Asia. While he was able to travel by coal powered ships and trains, the agriculture he observed and the cities he saw were largely built by the unaided hand (and foot). He saw the beginning of ‘super phosphate’ usage in Japan, but never mentioned its use in China. He saw intensive recycling of soil nutrients. It was true that those civilizations used ‘imported’ resources such as the deposits of fresh soil washed down the rivers from the central Asia plateau and the dust from storms in Mongolia. King even recommended that the US harness the Mississippi/Missouri river system to capture the soil eroded from the mountains and arid regions and use it from the Rio Grande to New Jersey.”

    “Large, complex human systems, such as corporations, cities, and countries, are even more dependent on exchanges with the broader environment and consequently pose formidable challenges for sustainability. Modern cities and nation states are embedded in the global economy, and supported by trade and communication networks that transport people, other organisms, energy, materials, and information. High densities of people and concentrations of socioeconomic activities require massive inputs of energy and materials and produce proportionately large amounts of wastes.”

    The statement is half true. It is true that Portland as it currently exists depends on all those flows. But what King saw in Asia was relatively self-sustaining. And, in China, it involved hundreds of millions of people.

    “the roughly constant area of land in cultivation since 1990 indicates that modern agriculture has fed the increasing human population by achieving higher yields per unit area. But such increased yields have required increased inputs of oil for powering machinery, fresh water for irrigation, and phosphate for fertilizer. Similarly, increased use of finite fossil fuels has been required to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers”

    King observed yields which were astonishing to his American sensibilities and experiences. The statement would be more accurate if it said that modern humans have substituted fossil fuels for human labor. (The fossil fuels taking the form of machinery, artificial fertilizers, irrigation, transportation to market, etc.) Human labor and intelligence are still the route to increased productivity per acre.

    Now for my suggestions:
    1. Demolishing hope that we can keep on with TechnoFixes is probably essential.
    2. And then we can get into the serious business of reconsidering the substitution of human and animal labor and intelligence applied to natural systems for all the technological solutions which are unsustainable.
    3. The technological solutions and the use of the remaining fossil fuels may be needed to soften the impact of the change. For example, we urgently need to regrow soil fertility and stop poisoning it with herbicides and pesticides. However, getting from here to there may require the use of ground rock to replace minerals which have been depleted and portable electric fencing to control the grazing animals which, in partnership with grasses, have the ability to restore grasslands and reverse desertification in semi-arid and seasonally dry regions. The alternative is a much larger die off as natural regenerative systems may take a very long time.
    4. We need to re-establish gardens as the primary source of perishable products such as vegetables and fruit.

    I realize that humans would have to behave quite differently in order to take these steps. There are huge barriers in terms of government regulations all the way down from the United Nations to neighborhood associations and just plain pressure from neighbors. Even if there were no government regulations, traditional human behavior would likely sink any efforts (the government regulations, after all, reflect what it is we humans have said we wanted). And the physical changes required run counter to the determination by all The Powers That Be that unrepayable debts will, nevertheless, govern policy. Still, I think that scientists would do us a service if they could define:

    A. What a stable environment looks like and how much surplus it can produce for human diversion and use
    B. What life would look like in that scenario (similar to King’s portrait of life in Asia)
    C. An estimate of how many humans could exist in such a scenario

    The best estimate I have heard on population was the Permaculturist Toby Hemenway’s guesstimate that the Earth will support half a million to 2 billion humans. He also pointed out that a One Child policy would get us there in a hundred years or so.

    Don Stewart

    • There is a big difference between half a million humans and two billion humans. A one child policy might get us to the two billion level in a hundred years (I haven’t worked out the numbers), but it would take a long time to get to half a million.

      Maybe you meant half a billion–but I wonder about a permaculture expert’s ability to take into account all of the obstacles we are already running into, that are outside of permaculture’s normal purview. For example, mercury levels in lakes and oceans are far too high, and there is much water pollution, especially in China and other places with heavy manufacturing. Such pollution may reduce population, even if enough food and water with high pollutant levels can be produced. Fish levels in oceans are sufficiently low that fish catches would drop dramatically without fossil fuels (which is good for the fish, but doesn’t help human food supply). Climate change may prove to be a major problem, in the very near future. It seems like these kinds of problems may make the world’s carrying capacity lower than most would expect.

      Another issue is that the Chinese did as well as they did with soil, by having a very organized society, figuring out what worked, and getting everyone (more of less) to follow those rules. At this point, even China is fairly far removed from those rules. China is a now big user of fossil fuels in farming (especially fertilizer made with coal), and irrigation helps raise food output. Getting things reorganized, and extrapolated to a world system, would be a monumental task.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Toby’s number was half a billion to 2 billion. Sorry for my mistake. Toby is very much a polymath who can talk equally about homesteading, gardening in the city, or organizing a neighborhood to maximize human flourishing. So while I am not going to defend his numbers, I think they are as good as any I have heard. He gave his talk at Duke and titled it ‘How to Save Humanity but not Civilization’. He is not a ‘doomer’, so thinks we have time to take corrective action. I hope he is right on that one.

        Let’s consider the issue of irrigation. What FH King found was an extraordinarily developed canal system in eastern China. The canals brought water and silt from the major rivers into all the agricultural areas. The fields could be irrigated from the canals with simple machinery operated by human power (e.g., by treading on a wheel or by animals or by levers and buckets). The silt which settled to the bottom of the canals was used layered with plant material to make compost on the levee of the canals. The Chinese understood the aerobic/anerobic cycle in compost long before Western scientists figured it out. So the Chinese were harvesting the soil erosion occurring in the central plateau and using it to enrich their fields.

        The canals, of course, provided a good way to get crops to market and served as long distance travel corridors.

        In addition, they leveled huge sections of land by hand or with animals to maximize the value of the irrigation and minimize erosion. The leveled areas were sometimes quite small as in terraces only a few feet wide. The small fields, of course, are quite unsuited to machinery and frequently even animals such as oxen.

        My point is not necessarily that we need to recreate what the Chinese had over a hundred years ago. But the problems they solved may be very salient to all of us as technologies crumble, as we have to deal with depleted soil, and as soil fertility becomes the first line of defence against disease (as opposed to chemicals). If we give no thought to the real problems, it is quite likely most of us will starve.

        Don Stewart

        • David F Collins says:

          Don — I appreciate your observation that «we» (humanity) need two visions: (1) what a sustainable future looks like, and (2) a path from «here» to «there».

          Expanding on this, I suggest that we bear in mind that there is a multiplicity of configurations of a sustainability, and for each of them, many ways to get there. (And not every route goes there! Non omnes viæ Romam perducunt!) There is not just room for, but need for, considerable winnowing. I would suggest that visions of heavily planned, top-down utopiæ, along with approach routes of that ilk, be the first to be winnowed OUT. Likewise, assuming it will all simply happen naturally, in accordance with the «laws» of Nature and The Market, should be uprooted before they have any chance of sinking their roots into the Earth. (This latter approach reminds me of a cartoon from the 1930’s my grandparents had pinned on a wall, showing a youngish scientist-type in a sciencey-looking but totally chaotic lab, telling some frowning sciencey-looking graybeards, “Oh, I am just messing around. So many great discoveries happen by chance!”)

          There has been some blathering about Gawd (misspelled, to make the word be a four letter word) here. Drawing on myths regarding Her, I remember my mother’s take on the Fall from Eden: we have eaten of the fruit of knowledge, and we must live with the consequences: this is neither a blessing nor a curse, really.

          Enough of winnowing and weeding. Enough of analogies: they are like poorly maintained cars that are low on gas, in that they can get you closer to your destination, but only so far, then you gotta hike.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear David
            I agree with much of what you say. Every solution will be intensely local. Look at this quote from the paper:
            “Principle 2: Scale and Embeddedness. Solutions that work on a local scale may not be feasible on a global scale. Each local solution depends on the surrounding area for many of its inputs, and these must be considered as well in analyses.”

            I wouldn’t make accusations against the authors because I don’t know them very well. But everyone who has ever managed a complex task knows that you have to divide it into ‘chunks’ in order to make any progress. Holding up some perfect ‘global solution’ as the goal is certain to only frustrate everyone. If you read King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries, you will see that he observed very local solutions. For example, hilly land not suitable for bed agriculture served as a graveyard and simultaneously as a grazing area for animals. These people might have been illiterate, but they were not stupid and didn’t need anyone to tell them what to do. And they certainly didn’t need government regulations or social pressure about the grazing of graveyards. Similarly, when they made compost, they were guided by advice from their parents who had learned it from their parents who had closely observed what happened in the making of compost. Western science didn’t get around to such a rounded conception of compost until half a century or more later.

            I work at a small farm. I can tell you that every solution has to work for the particular situation. Canned solutions from other places are likely to fail–which is one of the reasons the Chinese were so extraordinarily productive in terms of food per acre. Yet if you read Gene Logsdon’s post today on Energy Bulletin,
            you will find him talking with an intelligent younger farmer who is saying that farms are headed for 10,000 acres. On a 10,000 acre farm, you are simply not going to get the efficiency of food production that the Chinese got because you have spread your human capital extremely thin. And you won’t be anywhere close to sustainable.

            I would see it as a great intellectual advance if we could begin to see that there is a conflict between our desire for ever greater ‘efficiency’ in terms of labor costs and our desire for more food grown sustainably.

            Don Stewart

          • It may be that the right way for the world as a whole is truly unknowable. We may need to try multiple paths, each with some view of the right vision for the particular area of the world, and some respect for what has been tried before and found to work/not work.The whole is then the sum of different paths for different parts of the world.

  7. Steven Earl Salmony says:

    A question for the UN Secretary General to be asked during 21 June of the Global Town Hall in Rio de Janeiro.

    Our planetary home is filling up with many too many people and pollutants. Unbridled economic growth is a threat not a solution to the global challenges looming before humanity. If we continue to grow the global economy and increase the size of the human population as we are doing now, what chance do we have of making necessary changes to sustainable lifestyles, right-sized corporate enterprises and an eco-friendly balance with the natural world upon which life as we know it depends for existence?

    • I predict that any questions that get asked will be very carefully selected in advance, and questions such as your will not be among those selected.

      • sponia says:

        I agree. The questions, after all, are at least as important as the answers.
        Controlling context is better than controlling the message, most times.

        Thanks for this, Gail.

  8. Mitchell Covell says:

    Hello Gail. I was reading an article by James Galbraith a few days ago in which he suggested that a large increase in the minimum wage in the US might help the US to start climbing out of the hole that it is industriously digging for itself at present. Reflection upon this caused me to think about the need for short term solutions (perhaps Mr. Galbraith’s suggestion could be part of a short term solution), and long term solutions. Long term solutions can be thought of as a means of achieving longer term goals. Without these longer term goals our solutions (both short and long term) lack coherence. I think the transition movement is a good example of a solution that lacks meaning and coherence because most people in the movement seem unwilling to address the question “Transition to what?”
    I think that one possible method of framing long term goals is to determine a best possible outcome. We have the information necessary to define sustainable energy and resource use. In my opinion, the best possible outcome would assume a high technology to maximize production from sustainable resource flows that would have to be considerably smaller than at present. A level of consumption necessary for a reasonable quality of life, and levels of equality necessary to assure social stability can be arrived at from comparative studies of existing societies. From these values it would be possible to arrive at a sustainable global population.
    The best possible outcome would not be utopia, but it would be sustainable in the comprehensive sense (global, long term), and, most importantly, it would give us something to aim for now. Perhaps the best possible outcome is beyond the ability of the human race in this time of impending crisis. However, lack of a clear goal, and the willingness to strive for it, will ensure that we will arrive at some outcome far removed from the best possible.

    Respectfully yours,


    • Mitchell,

      What you suggest is an interesting idea. I think the place that it becomes difficult in practice is the high probability that the sustainable population (at any reasonable standard of living) would be less than today’s. Some locations might be able to support close to or even a bit above the current population, while others are already very overpopulated (for example, Las Vegas, London, and Beijing). The problem then becomes picking “winners” in the whole process. If some place (say Ohio) can support its current population, then there is likely to be a rapid influx of people from non-sustainable areas, so that that area too, has way too many people relative to resources.

      I don’t know a way to peacefully solve this problem. People would have to be persuaded to have very, very few children, immediately, and that seems very unlikely.

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  10. John B says:


    Excellent post and I found the Macroecology paper to be a comination of ‘old news’ as well as some enlightenment.

    Reading this post, as well as others my question is: Does anybody really care?

    In our me-first and money-first society, I believe that not very many do.

    We are more concerned with the economy and jobs and sales than we are about the only thing that we need to survive – the planet.

    Tis a shame that so many of the ‘elected ones’ think that a few extra dollars worth of GDP is worth destroying the future of our children. I wonder how they consider themselves to be leaders?

    • I am not sure that they do care about the issue. Everyone wants to be able to sell something that will “solve” our problem, or buy something that will “solve” our problem. I remember reading a “Green Book” a while back that talked about whether driving a huge motor home that you pull behind a truck was more sustainable than a self-contained motor home of similar size. The real answer is that neither of them is at all sustainable, but that is not what the book came up with as an answer. It seems like it is possible to come up with all kinds of supposedly helpful ideas, that make people feel like they are “doing something”. Nobody wants to talk about hard solutions–fewer children, or earning less, or doing without.

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  12. Paul says:

    Unfortunately, many scientists enjoy celebrity as much as many charismatic preachers. There is a strong personal motivation to tell people things that will keep them coming back for more.

    That said, there is a reason why work on local sustainability may be a good idea:
    Presuming there will be a collapse with a major decline in world population, there will be a need for the survivors to form local groups of a few hundred to a few thousand with large buffer zones of uninhabited wilderness between. These buffer zones save resources from being expended on inter-tribal warfare. The tribe that comes into the possession of an archive of a sustainability research institute will have a notable competitive advantage. Multiple such archives at widely separated places could result in a world of peaceful co-existence. But not a world like the one we have now. OTOH, maybe the archives will place the possessors at a major disadvantage as compared to a tribe that is ignorant of these wacko ideas.

    It is now 4:23pm in Colorado, and the article that you link to at plos biology has not yet appeared.

    • I agree that scientist enjoy celebrity. Also, a person needs to have one direction to write about things in in order to keep publishing papers. That way, each paper builds on the previous ones (and the ones of the authors friends, that are also following a similar path).

      Local sustainability is good, but it can be done wrong. Throwing lots of $$ at things that are not sustainable, and building gardens that grow food that is not appropriate for the climate/soil, is probably not the way to go.

      The article is now up, and I changed the reference. I was beginning to think the journal was based in Hawaii.

  13. Andrew of the Bay Area says:

    Gail, beware of the modern Hipster/”progressive” wrath if you challenge their agenda. They are monsters and will silence anyone who challenges them. California is a freaking mess thanks to them.

  14. “But the role of science is to understand how the world works, not to tell us what we want to hear”

    If we are going to start to point fingers, religion is a lot bigger problem than science. They call it blind faith.

    • There is plenty of blame to get passed around. We all need myths to believe in. It would be nice if the scientific community didn’t contribute to the myth-making.

      • donsailorman says:

        Myth has functions as well as dysfunctions. Myths are a cultural universal; unfortunately, the myths of the past five hundred years do not serve us well at this time of impending population and standard of living declines. Today we have myths little changed from the time of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment.

        New myths in the form of new religions are sure to emerge in response to an increase in death rates and drastic declines of standards of living.

        Both cultural anthropology and sociology have a great deal to say on the subject of myth. Unfortunately, two of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud, both believed that religion as a myth would be replaced by science. But science does not and cannot perform the functions of myth, a point made by Bronislaw Malinowski in his classic, “Magic, Science, and Religion.”


        “We all need myths to believe in.” I couldn’t disagree with you more. There might be a few humans out there that could not survive without the belief of let’s say “life after death”. But in most cases we don’t need myths as humans. I believe we choose to believe in myths (and also use denial (globle warming, peak oil) for our own personal comfort.

        With your acceptance and belief of humans needing myths to believe in. You have opened the debate to what I call the “gray area”. The gray area being who gets to express myths as truths and who doesn’t. Why should religion get to express myths but not acceptable for science?

        Your post deals with the topic of leaders getting their hands around population control. But isn’t it the religious right and their injection here into American politics( the leading and most powerful country in the world) the biggest obstacle of population control ? I mean here we are 50 years later debating the use of contraceptives again.

        The truth is no one really knows what is a sustainable number of humans on this plant. Hey, it could even be 20 billion under a lower level of standard of living. And who is to say that’s not acceptible? You, me, I don’t think so. Or maybe nothing is really sustainable. But one thing for sure, we are in a world of change (evolution) and that’s not a myth.

        The agnostic in me says there could even be a god but it has not been proven by science and I’m not a person of myth’s.

        • I would argue that one of the biggest myth-makers is advertisers. They pass along the myth that you will be happier if you have more toys, or more fancy clothing. “He who dies with the most toys wins,” and “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” are passed through our culture as if they had real meaning for our lives.

          Television shows are another great myth-maker. One myth is that the shows represent how real people act and look. Filling up your brain with endless “entertainment” shown to be a worthwhile thing to do, and is a suitable substitute for thinking.

          The medical profession promulgates the myth that they can “fix” your health. In fact, diet, exercise, and keeping sewage out of the drinking water are probably more important to your health.

          If we have to go back more to more people working in agriculture, we will need myths suitable to explaining the need for taking care of the soil for the long term. It is very easy to maximize today’s productivity, and at the same time, degrade the soil over the long term.

          The “religious right”‘s belief about abortion and even contraceptives is a problem, but I don’t know what can be done about it.

    • Andrew of the Bay Area says:

      I live in the Bay Area so I am surrounded by anti-religious atheists and “progressive” smugsters that profess your belief (generally unfriendly, nasty and hateful people who are incredibly intolerant and close minded). They blindly follow “science” that looks more like rhetoric, brainwashing and close mindedness to me. I view them as a religion. No, sorry, I’m no religious, I’m an agnostic. I view atheists as a religion and about 2x as hateful as the most right wing religious person on earth. So many of the hipster that came out of hippie thought are actually mean and hateful people to the core who are incredibly intolerant themselves.

      If you really want a proper analysis of this, watch the South Park episode “Go God Go”. There are two sides of this coin.

  15. Gidon Gerber says:

    The “Planet under Pressure” conference ( was an attempt to gather and communicate scientific knowledge in preparation of the Rio+20 conference. It was attended by 3000 delegates + 3500 by webstreaming.

    • It depends how the conference is done. When I look at the “Challenges to Progress” page of the website (since this is as close to a “limits” section as I could find), I find

      Social Equality and Global Sustainability

      Equity and development in the 21st century

      Adapting to Climate Change

      Organizers Press Conference

      Nowhere did I see anything that looked like hard limits being brought up as an issue.

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