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Page added on September 25, 2013

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Denial Of Nature’s Limit Is The Problem


Publisher’s note: This article from World Shift Vision is what the New York Times should run, instead of the nonsense it ran that is addressed so well here.

This 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. The above Critical Comment appeared September 16, 2013, at His previous article in Culture Change was A Way Out of Iraq: Relocalize Economic Life, October 28, 2005.
Graphic at top courtesy Saviourmachine.
The original article at the Times is at

Culture Change

11 Comments on "Denial Of Nature’s Limit Is The Problem"

  1. action on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 8:30 pm 

    There’s no where for people who want to get out of the insanity to go, nature has been completely developed, ravaged really, and the once vibrant and diverse ecosystems that used to exist were replaced with development, mono-culture, and most importantly, human beings. The damage is done, it’s all gone. All gone.

  2. Kenz300 on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 8:42 pm 

    Around the world we can find a food crisis, a water crisis, a declining fish stocks crisis, a financial crisis a jobs crisis and an OVER POPULATION crisis.

    Every problem is harder to solve with the worlds ever growing population.

    Worst Environmental Problem?

  3. action on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 9:02 pm 

    Further more this is what I have to say to all the vegan permaculture enthusiasts – sitting around on your ass drinking wine looking at your garden will mean nothing in a world without oil, and that is what they’re trying to achieve, to live oil free. In a world without oil you need protein to sustain your muscles for doing comparatively difficult work. Where are you going to get that, the grocery store? There will be no wild animals left after the collapse because the millions of people fighting for their lives are going to eat them all.

  4. SilentRunning on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 2:21 am 

    It’s sad, but it probably takes putting somebody like Ellis onto a small island with 10 million other people – and no food deliveries. Let Ellis and his ilk try to “innovate” food and water out of nothing – after all “there are no limits”.

    Tell the Ellis’ of “Infinity Island” that they can always leave, just by signing a simple statement that yes – limits are real and are perilous if crossed.

    After a few days The Ellis’es of the world would be cured of their insanity – or would be dead of starvation, dehydration and waste inflicted diseases. In either case – good riddance.

  5. SilentRunning on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 2:38 am 

    I might add that if Ellis were correct, then the population of Easter Island would be about 100 billion people, and it would be the most prosperous place on planet Earth.

  6. WhoKnows on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 3:17 am 

    Regardless, US is the white elephant in the room. You have 300 million of overweight/ obese citizens who live in extremely unsustainable arrangement. I am certain that American oil consumption will collapse from 19 mbpd to under 9 mbpd bringing it closer to China.

    Nations in the third world are already seeing their population stabilise and with a limited safety net will adjust a lot more easier. US and other Western nations, on the other hand, are going to be in a dire situation.

  7. BillT on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 3:47 am 

    WhoKnows, you are spot on. Europe will not be exempt, much as a few on here believe. They are already dependent on Russia and the ME for winter heat. They have no forests to cut down and keep them alive for more than one winter. If the Gulf Stream changes, like it appears to be doing, Europe will become like the Arctic. Uninhabitable north of the Mediterranean. And it will happen quickly.

  8. GregT on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 5:34 am 


    “There will be no wild animals left after the collapse because the millions of people fighting for their lives are going to eat them all.”

    The millions of people fighting for their lives, will be those living in densely populated areas. People already living in small local sustainable communities, a couple of gas tanks of fuel away, will do fine.

    Most city people have absolutely zero clue, how to hunt, trap, or fish. It is far more likely that they will eat each other, before they will wander out into the ‘wilderness’, where all of the ‘scary’ wild animals are.

    You are giving people far too much credit.

  9. J-Gav on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 7:54 am 

    Overshoot, anyone? We’re there already and sinking deeper and deeper into it with every passing year. That’s not likely to end well, in spite of all the ‘extend and pretend’ games that people like Ellis invent …

  10. BillT on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 9:29 am 

    The comment on wild animals being eaten is interesting. When I came to Manila to live 5 years ago, I walked through the city and felt that something was missing. It took me a few months to realize that there are no pigeons. What big city do you know in the West where pigeons are not plentiful and a pest? I could not think of one. But … here there are many thousands of poor people living in the city who know how to trap and cook pigeon. lol.

  11. steveo on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 1:07 pm 

    Ellis’ piece was sophomoric propaganda at best. His assumptions were just like the ones presented on the MSM where they linearly extrapolate the last 2 years of US oil production out to 2030 and say that we will be producing more than Saudi does by then. Tentative basis in reality at best. We need more people willing to speak up when they publish tripe like Ellis’ article.

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