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Carrying Capacity

January 15, 2010

I’m finally getting around to reading Endgame by Derrick Jensen (now Volume I: The Problem of Civilization, but I bought both volumes used, so I’ll be reading them back to back) even though I was already pretty thoroughly acquainted with the ideas of the book after watching/listening to Derrick discuss many of things talked about in the book in interviews and talks.  That’s unimportant.  Here are some excerpts from the chapter tenth chapter, “Carrying Capacity,” and a little bit of commentary.

I received additional acknowledgment of the necessary relationship between civilization and slavery today, when I received this note from a graduate student in engineering at Georgia Tech: “Here in the mechanical engineering department, we have a ‘distinguished lecturer’ each semester who comes to give an hour long talk.  These lecturers are usually CEOs of successful global companies, and we students fill the largest lecture hall on campus (about 400 seats!) to hear them speak.  This semester it was Roger L. McCarthy, chairman of ‘Exponent Inc.,’ giving a talk on the importance of innovation and engineering to society, with an emphasis on ‘learning’ from history’s disasters.  My heart pounded during the lecture, as I wanted to stand up like a magician and reveal to the tranquilized audience the well-disguised and tremendously destructive mythology that serves as the foundation for this culture.  Of course, I couldn’t do this this with the twenty to thirty seconds allotted to me in the Q&A session after the talk.  So at the risk of appearing combative in front of my professors, I settled for these simple questions: ‘Has technology done more harm or good for human life, or more to the point, for life in general?  And what metrics will you use in formulating your opinion?’

“I might as well have put the microphone to my ass and farted.  He was baffled at the question, and probably wondered how someone could even think of asking it.  His response was insulting, but typical: ‘You must not know anything about history!  You must not know what life was like two hundred years ago!  Do you even realized what life would be like without technology?  You  have the equivalent of three hundred slaves working for you every day due to the advanced made in technology over the last two hundred years.  You have the benefit of three hundred slaves but without actually having slaves.’  The implication was that I was ‘ungrateful’ even to ask such a question.

“I was even more interested in the questions he didn’t answer than the one he did.  First, he made no mention of whether technology was good for life itself.  He simply ignored the human and nonhuman slaves the world over, as well as the fact that we’re killing the planet.  Such topics are beneath consideration.  In fact, they do not exist.  And though he thought he didn’t answer my final question, about how we measure whether something is good or not, in fact he did: we can measure the success of technology with ‘an equivalent number of slaves’ approach.  If next year, my life is such that I have an equivalent of six hundred slaves as opposed to my meager three  hundred this year, well then, I have something to celebrate, don’t I?  Meanwhile, I’ve become fatter and more clinically depressed while I strap on my jogging shoes and run in a  circle for exercise (but not outside, of course, today is a red alert).  What this means is that if we as a culture have chosen to value ‘enslavement’ in the most general and inclusive way possible, then we have done a tremendously good job implementing our design.”

The rest of this post contains passages that aren’t really related to the last one, and my own commentary.

And you’ve heard the arguments.  The United States needs to close its borders to immigration from poor countries.  Having finally gotten our own birthrate down sufficiently to more or less stabilize our population, the last thing we need is a bunch of poor (brown) people moving in to crowd us out (we know, also, that once they’re here they’ll breed faster than we do, and soon enough will outnumber us).

I often respond to this argument by saying I’m all for closing the border to Mexico (and everywhere else, for that matter, all the way down to closing bioregional borders), so long as we close it not only to people but to resources as well.  No bananas from Mexico.  No coffee.  No oil.  No tomatoes in January.  Many of the people who leave their families in Mexico (or any other impoverished nation ) to come to the United States to work do so not because they hate their husbands or wives yet have not gotten to the point in their therapy where they feel comfortable expressing (much less acting on) this.  Nor is it generally because they’re bored with Cancun, Acapulco, and their other normal vacation spots and have decided this tourist season to take a Reality Tour™ of the bean fields of the San Joachin Valley.  They come, one way or another, because the integrity of their resource base and their community (insofar as there can meaningfully be said to be a difference) have already been compromised: the resources have been stolen, and the community is unraveling.  Of course this migration, too, is part of the unraveling.  From the beginning of history, this is why people have moved from country to city.

At first glance, and to someone not familiar with the author, it might seem like this is an example of him being facetious—him basically going, Fine: No Mexicans, no bananas! I don’t think you’d like that very much! But I’m pretty sure he means exactly what he’s saying.

Closing the border not only to people but also to food and other goods isn’t something I ever considered, but it makes perfect sense.  If a region can’t deal with the extra people, then we assume that this region is supporting itself.  If it is not, but is instead being supported from the outside, telling people “You can’t come in” is pretty much a lie.  But even with this new thought, I think Derrick and I would agree that putting a fence and guards at all borders is a rather radical (by that I mean ineffective; wanting to dismantle civilization is nothing if not radical) approach, and since that alone does nothing to change the culture, it won’t work.

The discussion about population that follows is a little confusing, because he says some different things that seem semi-conflicting, and different passages drew out different emotions.  But he doesn’t actually contradict himself, and the conclusion he comes to are pretty much inescapable (that is to say, they’re solid).

The whole population thing starts with sentences like “There are simply too many people” and “The earth can’t support these numbers.”  It gets confusing when he changes the emphasis, and then says something that (again at first glance) seems pretty typical of wussy environmentalists used to dodging the hard stuff: “Another way to talk about this is to notice the language: overpopulation, zero population growth.”  I was taken aback by this: Derrick Jensen being the wussy environmentalist he makes fun of?  By the end of the chapter though, and with some thought and examination of the context, I realized this isn’t the case.  If anything, Derrick is just refusing to separate population and consumption as they relate to carrying capacity overshoot, but he’s pointing out that a focus on population and only on population is silly.  He’s right.

Why he’s right doesn’t jump out at the reader, but it’s there.  It is rather simple, though: It’s the culture, stupid. Just like border patrols would be ineffective if the culture isn’t changed, a reduction in population alone, without a corresponding change in the culture, won’t do shit.  Living within carrying capacity is something civilized people must do, of course, but what are the options?  These are the ones I see:

  1. Forceful reduction of population/enforcement of a “birthrate cap.”  Could bring offending humans to within carrying capacity, yes, but implausible and comes with no fail-safes.  There aren’t enough guns to point at everyone, first of all, and then when the population is lowered, who’s to say consumption won’t skyrocket, bringing the offending humans, once again, into overshoot?
  2. Reduction of the food supply.  Could be forceful, could be due simply to a crash in agricultural production, or could be voluntary.  The forceful reduction in food supply sounds awful because—and Derrick makes this point in the book—who is going to do the reducing? the enforcing? the protection of lock and key?  (The rich—the ones already running the system, der.)  The other two ways to a smaller food supply don’t really need examination (for my purposes), but the effect of the reduction does.  Since population is a function of food supply, a reduction in food supply will result in a reduction in population.  Daniel Quinn examines this extensively in his books—”food race,” “growing more food to grow more people,” etc.
  3. Reduce the rate of consumption.  But since per capita consumption and population are inseparable when discussing carrying capacity, and this can be discussed again and again, a reduction in consumption while continuing on with the offending culture, simply will not work (see older posts for why—suggestions of which ones are on my About page).  This leads to the last way to live within carrying capacity…
  4. Change the culture.  This is really the only way to do it that will work.  How to do it? is a difficult question, and not one I can really answer, but it requires discussion.  Not really the point of this post, but a point I felt needed to be made nonetheless.

Maybe it seems like I’ve sidetracked myself, but it doesn’t matter.  I don’t do book reviews, anyway.  Still, this brings up a point I remembered a few days ago when talking with some friends: the current system is working exactly the way it is supposed to be working—the way it was intended to work by those who envisioned it.  People who know this often forget it, and not enough people even know it to begin with.  People who want to “change the world” (young liberals, basically) need to know it, though.  Wanting to change the system is, in effect, just wishing for it to achieve its goals less effectively.  And that’s why changing the system either (a) won’t happen or (b), if it does, won’t be effective in getting us to live within Earth’s carrying capacity for us.  Throw the whole fucking thing out, because it sucks.

The culture—civilization itself, remember—requires a state of overshoot to exist—”because from the beginning the very existence of city-states has required the importation of resources from ever-expanding regions of increasingly exploited countryside”—and a culture that requires that is, in a very real way, suicidal.

Derrick ends the chapter with this passage:

Well, [growth is] going to stop someday.  At some point, probably in the not-too-distant future, there will be far fewer people on this planet.  There will be far fewer than the planet could have supported—and did support—prior to us overshooting carrying capacity, because the great stocks of wild foods are gone (or poisoned), the top soil lost in the wind.

My saying this doesn’t mean I hate people.  Far from it.  A few weeks ago I received an email in response to my statement that the only sustainable level of technology is the Stone Age.  The person said, “I don’t think the stone-age will support anything near the current world population.  [Of course I agree.] [The previous set of brackets and the bracketed text is Derrick’s.  This is mine, which I’ve included for clarification, perhaps unnecessarily.]  So to return to this level implies either killing a lot of people or not having many children and waiting for the population to diminish.  Or do we allow war or other pestilence to do the job?  Is this what you are proposing?”

I responded that what I’m proposing, startlingly enough, is that we look honestly at our situation.  And our situation is that we have overshot carrying capacity.  The question becomes: What are we going to do about it?

(I originally felt like commenting on another passage, but I didn’t get to it in the first pass through all of this, and now I can’t find anywhere for it to fit in to what I’ve already written.  It’s not all that important, but since I feel like including it anyway, I’m tacking it on here at the end.

Derrick Jensen and I are two different people who have different methods and different feelings and different thoughts and a lot of other differences.  No duh.  Somewhere in the middle of the population stuff he brings up that these are people we’re talking about, and to forget that—that they’re living, breathing, real-live people—would be a mistake.

Derrick is a self-described animist who believes all things, living and non-living, have thoughts and something like a “soul” and value for their own sake.  I, being a nihilist, save the valuation for later.  Sometimes I have to see a tree just as a thing that grows, and wood from a tree can be useful.  I can see people as just other things that the Universe has endowed with life who will be here for a while, and then they won’t—that life will pass to something else, just as the very matter which made up their bodies will.  The nihilist can see that none of us are anything particularly great when he considers the whole of the Universe; the nihilist doesn’t have to value any of us, living or non-living, because at our core we don’t have any inherent value.

So I can see a person as just another person, and since the feelings and lives are just more feelings and more lives, I don’t have to value them as anything more than another thing.  Maybe that’s why I’m more OK with talking about human population.  I don’t know.

In the end, however, I have come to value these things for their own sakes.  I value trees.  I value wolves.  I value the people I like and care about.  I value an ecosystem not because it benefits me, but for its own sake.  But I know that I don’t have to.)

Edit, January 17: I’d like to add this.  I was looking through old comments of mine on reddit, and came across this.

The post to which I was responding:

The vast majority of developed countries have fertility rates that aren’t sustainable (ie, below 2 children per woman – most countries are around 1.5 [!!!!]). The US birthrate is close to the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. We don’t need any sort of fertility limitations like some have suggested. This would be completely ignoring the facts.

Here’s a fascinating graph of the strong negative correlation between wealth and fertility rates (this is a bit skewed because these undeveloped countries also have high infant/childhood mortality rates):

As you can see, the population problem lies almost entirely in undeveloped countries. It’s hard to say what developed countries should do about this (if anything) in the case that the undeveloped countries continue to grow. Also note how low the fertility rate in most developed countries is.

While I know that this view isn’t particularly popular on Reddit, I do think that human ingenuity is the most valuable resource we have. More engineers, scientists, and visionaries translates directly into technological improvements in efficiency and harvesting/recycling limited resources.

My response:

As far as “the population problem,” it’s actually a total human impact problem. Since in the First World people use stuff at thousands of times the rate of those in the Third, population is just as much, if not more, of a problem here as it is there. Population in the First World needs to drop just as it does in the Third. Birthrates of 1.5 don’t mean entire races will go extinct—by the time the population drops to a number that can be sustained it will stop falling, not just continue to zero.

My comment is directly related to what Derrick Jensen was trying to say in Endgame.

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