previous ecostory 69/2008 next
Paradise for Sale - More Is Less
home | climate | energy | population | sustainability | water | back
More Is Less

Transcription from: Paradise for Sale (A Parable of Nature) - Chapter: The Chimera of Reality, page 168 - 171,
by Carl N. McDaniel and John M. Gowdy,
2000 Berkeley: University of California Press

The cherished beliefs that more people and more consumption are desirable are now untenable. Global civilizations will thrive over the long haul only when we citizens of the world come to terms with the myriad population problems that face us.
The population issue is technically and ethically complicated because the number of people that can live sustainably in an area is tightly correlated with lifestyle and the economic system that supports it. The global economy as constructed requires continual growth for optimal functioning, and this generates a substantial subculture that encourages, even dictates, an extravagant lifestyle that per capita uses an inordinate amount of resources.
In the long run, a lavish existence - whose attributes include big cars and vans for transportation; goods originating thousands of miles away; large homes, second homes, yachts, and recreational vehicles; and resort-style vacations in faraway places - has huge environmental effects that result in a much smaller carrying capacity for an area than a lifestyle with a quite different consumption pattern that includes travel by bicycle and mass transit; a diet of locally grown grains, fruits, vegetables, and other foods; simple but adequate homes; and local vacations.
In short, the area of ecologically productive land required to support a person living extravagantly on the global bounty is much larger than the area needed for a more modest lifestyle supported primarily by local resources. Thus, the population issue is not merely a numbers question because it embodies the environmental consequences of lifestyle, as well as other issues such as equity, that we have not considered.

Historical analyses of preindustrial human habitation indicate that functional boundaries are often associated with a biological or geological feature like a watershed. These natural boundaries divide the landscape into units that have significance for its inhabitants. Each region has a car-rying capacity connected to its resources and how they are employed. Trade and then industrialization have obscured boundaries and enlarged the apparent carrying capacity of most regions. Consequently, the entire planet's ecological and material wealth is capable in the present of sup-porting 6 billion people; over the long haul, though, it may be foolish for a region to depend heavily on outside resources.

An example from the Pacific islands warns us about the relation between trade and regional stability. In the remote southeastern region of Polynesia three islands - Henderson, Mangareva, and Pitcairn - initiated a trading network about 1,000 C. E. that lasted about 450 years.
Each island lacked items present on other islands. Mangareva was well endowed biologically but had no source of high-quality stone needed for adzes and other tools. Pitcairn had two quarries, one that yielded volcanic glass for sharp tools and another brimming with fine-grained basaIt that made excellent adzes. Pitcairn, in comparison, had poor soils and a reefless coastline that limited marine resources. While Mangareva and Pitcairn were volcanic islands, Henderson was a coral island with no sources of stone tools, no reliable freshwater supply, and trees too small to fashion into oceangoing canoes. It did have spectacular beaches for vacationing, birds with beautiful red feathers that were a luxury item, and an annual appearance of egg-laying green turtles that provided a consistent source of turtle meat, a prized delicacy. Trade among the islands became brisk.

This arrangement worked well for several hundred years and permitted the populations to grow to well over 1,000 on Mangareva, about 100 on Pitcairn, and perhaps two dozen on Henderson. By 1500 trade had ceased, and in 1606, when Henderson was found by Europeans, it was uninhabited, as was Pitcairn in 1790. In 1797 Europeans arrived at Mangareva and found a situation similar to Rapa Nui and Mangaia. The people of Mangareva had destroyed the biodiversity base that supported them and their trading partners; and all three island civilizations went down together.
This is a cautionary tale for the current global economy, which is accelerating interdependencies among its members and destroying local biodiversity to support large populations everywhere and high-consumption lifestyles in industrialized countries.

The Tikopians had stabilized their population and maintained enough biodiversity to provide for their needs, but their backs were against the wall. They had converted their entire island into a garden. Celibacy, contraception, abortion, infanticide, and the occasional putting to sea of members of the society indicate that the Tikopians had little margin for error in their system.
This was the price they had to pay for stability and for waiting so long to implement zero population growth. At the same time, the wisdom of ancient decisions can be seen in Tikopia's twentieth-century history. When a Christian mission came in the 19205, many population control measures were abandoned, and the population grew from 1,200 in 1929 to 2,000 in 1952. Cyclones in 1952 and 1953 ravaged half of the island's crops, and famine ensued. Only relief supplies prevented a worse disaster. The council of chiefs now allows just 1,100 people to live on Tikopia, and overflow moves to neighboring islands in the Solomons.

We may continue along our path of converting all arable areas into cities, suburbs, and industrial farms. Our current worldview supports the viability of these actions, yet these conversions will lead to the simplification and therefore the impoverishment of the remaining mature ecosystems on arable land, thereby accelerating the ongoing mass extinction. Such a choice is inconsistent with prudent thinking on a global scale and would result in an enormous reduction in much of the earth's remaining biodiversity. 0f equal importance, industrial agriculture is just not sustainable in the long run. Wisdom dictates we do as the Tikopians did: develop an ecosystem-based agriculture and achieve zero and then negative population growth as soon as possible.

If it is ill-advised to convert the whole planet into an industrial farm, how much of the earth need we preserve? The 3 percent of the earth's land area set aside in national parks is insufficient for preserving biodi-versity. While working to respect the requirements of local communities, Costa Rica has allocated about a quarter of its land as wildlife preserves, and it hopes to do more. If we were to mimic on a global scale what Costa Rica has done, we would be moving toward maintaining biodiversity. In the long run a goal of setting aside a third to a half of the landmass, free of economic exploitation, would be consistent with the proportion many ecologists consider necessary to curb biodiversity loss. In addition, because numerous aquatic habitats - estuaries, intertidal areas, coastal waters, coral reefs - have been severely disrupted and impoverished by people, it would be wise to preserve and restore expanses of the aquatic environment so they perform the functions necessary to sustain our activities.

Compare: Threading the Needle: The Balance Between Ecology and Economics
Carl N. McDaniel is Professor of Biology and Director of Undergraduate Environmental Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY). John M. Gowdy is Professor of Economics and Director of the Ph.D. program in Ecological Economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

About the book: The autors tell the sad tale of Nauru and highlight the dire consequences of a free-market economy, a system in direct conflict with sustaining the environment. In presenting evidence for the current mass extinction, the authors argue that we cannot expect to preserve biodiversity or support sustainable habitation, because our economic operating principles are incompatible with these activities.
The authors' web pages: McDaniel | Gowdy
Copyright: reproduced to non-commercial, scientific discussion purposes only.
home | a-z site map | write to writing for change... halt  | ecostory | feedback
zurück - retour - backback ecoglobe since 1997 top