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The Twenty-First Century: The World at Carrying Capacity Author(s): Gary W. Barrett and Eugene P.

Odum Source: BioScience, Vol. 50, No. 4, Integrating Ecology and Economics (Apr., 2000), pp. 363-368 Published by: American Institute of Biological Sciences Stable URL: Accessed: 15/03/2010 19:01
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Twenty-First Century: The World at Carrying Capacity


yearsregarding Much need to live within a society that sustains its the
resources for the future, a goal that requires implementingplans for the futurebased on the concept of sustainable development (e.g., Lubchenco et al. 1991, Huntley et al. 1991, NCR 1991, Heinen 1994, Goodland on which 1995). A forum on "Perspectives Sustainability," in EcologicalApplications (November 1993), appeared attemptedto summarize many of the earlierperspectives surroundingthis topic. Unfortunately,considerableconfusion remains,especiallyamong the citizenry,as to what is meant by sustainabledevelopment. Dictionaries define "to "to sustain"as "to hold,""to keep in existence," supor yielding,""to mainport,""to endorse without failing tain,"or "to supplywith necessitiesor nourishmentto prevent from falling below a given threshold of health or Given these definitions,the businesspersonoften vitality." views sustainabilityas sustaining profits based on everincreasing consumption of limited natural resources or sustaining rapid economic growth forever!At the other extreme, the definition in the widely cited Brundtland developreport (WCED 1987)-namely, that "sustainable ment is development that meets the needs of the present without compromisingthe abilityof future generationsto meet their own needs"(p. 8)-is so vague as to be impossible to quantifyor implement. In terms of human affairsover the long term, sustainabilitymay more effectivelybe understood and dealt with in terms of a two-dimensional carryingcapacityconcept, which considers not only numbers but also per capita impact at the ecosystemand ecospherelevels (Ehrlichand is Holdren 1971, Catton 1987). "Carrying capacity" a conthat was originallydevelopedby ecologistswith refercept ence to the number of animals of a given species that can be supported without injury to the habitat (i.e., carried over long periods of time without reducingthe capacityof the habitatto support that many animalsin the future;for details, see Pulliam and Haddad 1994). When referringto humans, however,just considering numbers (density) is not enough because individuals can differ greatly in the intensity of their impact on the environment.An American citizen, for example,may consume 100 or more times
is Gary W. Barrett (e-mail: Odum Professorof Ecology,and Eugene P. Odum is Director at Athens, Emeritus, the Instituteof Ecology, of University Georgia, GA30602-2202.@2000 AmericanInstituteof BiologicalSciences.

has been writtenin recent

as much energy and resourcesas a citizen of a developing country.In other words, affluencereducesthe number of people that can be supported by a given resource base. Thus, ecologists have to be concerned not only with density but also with per capita demands. Fromanotherviewpoint, ecosystemdevelopmentparallels societal development in that both will inevitably end up in a non-equilibrium pulsing stable state (Odum et al. 1995) in which respiration (R; i.e., maintenance) on the average does not exceed production (P). If the energy, money, or technology availableto maintain a complex system are inadequate,then the system becomes disorderly and soon defaults or dies. From this functional or energetic viewpoint, carryingcapacityis reachedwhen P/R is approximately1. To use carryingcapacity as an index for sustainability, two major concerns must be addressed:the tendency for growth to overshoot carryingcapacity and the possibility that the optimum carryingcapacityis less than the maximum. Figure 1 depicts the two contrastinggrowth forms: the sigmoid, in which growth levels off as limits (K) are approached,and the exponential, in which the momentum resultsin overshootinglimits, creatinga "boom-andbust" pattern. As pointed out by Wiegert (1974), these forms representthe slowest and fastestgrowthforms,with many populations exhibiting intermediate patterns of growth. The overshoot patternoccurs in natureand, increasingly, in human affairs (Catton 1980). For example, Barkley and Seckler(1972) listed four factorsthat force or encourage urban development to overshoot the optimum: detrimental self-crowding effects (e.g., pollution, congestion, and rising costs of schools, taxes, and police protection) are not felt until sometime afterthe optimum density has been exceeded; money is seldom made available for growth management or land-use planning until congestion and trafficbecome majorproblems;political poweris concentratedwithin a few wealthy or "keystone"groups who benefit more from growth in size or quantitative growththan the average-incomecitizen;and the mystique of growth persists from the pioneer days, when rapid growth and developmentwere necessaryand desirable. Although the self-crowdingproblemsthat large,rapidly growing cities are experiencing are generally blamed on poor fiscal management, in reality such cities have overshot not only their economic support base but also their regional life support base. Wackernageland Rees (1996) present several regional examples of populations that
April2000 / Vol.50 No. 4 * BioScience 363

Figure 1. The contrastingsigmoid (S-shaped)and exponential (Ishaped)growthform models in relation to the maximum (KI) and optimum (Ko) carrying capacity concepts.In this case, growth refersto increasein numbersof humans.

Maximum Carrying Capacity(Km)

Optimum Carrying (Ko) Capacity



Growth (S-Shaped)

Growth Exponential (J-Shaped)


Time -


requirean areathat is much largerthan their home territory to support their present consumer lifestyles. For example,the "ecologicalfootprint"of Vancouverspans the LowerFraserValleyand is 19 times largerthan the areaof Vancouver itself. With rapid urbanization occurring throughout the world, these predicaments are becoming global in extent. Thus, land-use planners, policymakers, economists, and resource ecologists need to consider the merits of downsizing based on a carryingcapacitythat is more sustainableover the long term. In Figure1, we show the overshoot followedby a downsizing to a lower carrying capacity level (Ko), which we We term "optimumcarryingcapacity." presentthis pattern as an optimistic prediction for the future. In other words, after experiencing the trauma and disorder of many booms and busts, societal thinking and planning will reorient to emphasize qualitativeratherthan quantitative development (Odum 1975). Qualitative development would preventthe kind of living on the edge in which, for example,a 1-yearregional crop failurewould cause widespreadstarvation,as is now occurringin North Africa. comes out of A relatedconcept,"safecarryingcapacity," studies of animal populations. For example, long-term Paul Errington,who is well known for his lifelong studies of muskrat and mink populations in Iowa freshwater marshes,observedthat muskratsthat had securedens near feeding areas were much less vulnerable to predation by mink than muskratsthat did not have such high-quality housing (Errington 1963). The number of muskratswith safe dens represented the safe carrying capacity (Ko), which was almost alwaysless than the maximum number that could be supportedby the food supply in the absence of predators(i.e., the maximum carryingcapacity,Km).
364 BioScience o April2000 / Vol.50 No. 4

Such examples from natural populations could serve as models for human population growth as well. Indeed, not too long ago, politicians used to talk about "the greatestgood for the greatestnumbers"as a goal for society. But this slogan is rarelyheard now because society is finding out by experience that the greatestgood, in terms of quality of life for the individual, comes when the numbers are not as high as they can possibly be-and when the per capita impacts are not maximized,either. Fortunately, human population growth seems to be beginning to level off in sigmoid fashion,with a projected plateau at 9.4 billion by the year 2050 and 10.4 billion by the year 2100 (Bongaarts1998, UN 1998). Currentworld human population densitymay,in fact,be just beyond the point of inflection in the sigmoid growth model (see Figure 1). The earth can probablyfeed more than 10 billion people, even with increasingaffluence,although if such a density proves to exceed the optimum carrying capacity for a qualitylifestyle,as many ecologists believe will be the case (e.g., Smail 1999), then there will have to be a period of negative growth in population and per capita consumption. It seems likely that such a period of negative growth and per capita consumption will come soon. People in developedcountriesare increasinglybecoming concerned about overconsumption,waste, unwanted babies, and the increasinggap between rich and poor worldwide. However, the momentum of rapid population growth is such that downsizing is not likely to occur until after the overshoot. Of course, some "cornucopianoptimists"believe that developing technologies (hydrogen economy, wasteless industries,landlessagriculture)will enable 10 billion people to coexistwith enough naturalenvironmentto provide for the necessarylife support, preservationof endangered species, and enjoymentof nature (see Ausubel 1996). New technologies will certainly increase the carrying capacity of the earth for humans, but, as Paul Gray,former president of the MassachusettsInstitute of Technology,has said, "A paradox of our time is the mixed blessing of almost every technological development"(Gray 1989, p.

192). Many technologies, such as fission atomic energy or deep-sea drilling for oil, cost more than they are worth (i.e., they have provided little or no net energy). Even Donella Meadows and colleagues, whose 1972 book Limitsof Growthpredictedovershoots unless economic policies changed (Meadows et al. 1972), are now somewhat optimistic that the worst "booms and busts" can be avoided,even though they document cases where limits have been exceeded (Meadowset al. 1992). We contend, therefore, that there exist limits (e.g., net energy and feedback controls) to human population growth, especiallyas relatedto the qualityof human existence, and that these limits and regulatory processes are increasinglycoming into play. Rather than expecting continuing unregulated human population growth well into the new century, society should plan for a future based on a sustainableoptimum carrying capacity (Ko). Such planning would benefit from a better understandingof how to integrate economic capital with nature's capital.


Ecomonic Growth


110 o" o 100

Threshold (Carrying Capacity)

90 o
Economic Welfare (Quality of Life) 80


60 1945











Figure2. Recenttrendsin the gross national product (GNP) index and the Index of SustainableEconomicWelfare(ISEW)in the UnitedStates,with the thresholdsuggestedas the optimum carryingcapacity.Open circles,GNP index; solid boxes,ISEWindex. Figuremodifiedfrom Max-Neef (1995), with terms in parentheses(on the curves)added by the authors. Odum uct or service (a quantity now labeled "eMergy"; 1996). The Odums and economists LeonardShabmanand SandraBatie engaged in a point-counterpoint discussion of this differencein the pages of the CoastalZoneManagement Journal (Shabman and Batie 1978, Odum 1979a, Odum 1979b). Again, the time had not yet come for any kind of reconstruction of economics. A weak ecological economics infrastructureduring the 1970s most likely impeded the integrationof ecology and economics at that time. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, the time was right for a serious dialoguebetween ecologists and economists. Ecologist Robert Costanzaand economist Herman Daly collaboratedwith many others to establishthe International Societyfor EcologicalEconomics and a new jourFor example, economist Mannal, EcologicalEconomics. fred Max-Neef (1995) compared trends in the gross national product (GNP) index with the Daly-Cobb (1989) Index of SustainableEconomic Welfare (Figure 2). The two indexes trackone another and then separateat a time known as the economic welfarethreshold.Figure2 represents the United States' situation, but Max-Neef (1995) presented graphs depicting similar trends for all of the countries in westernEurope,although the thresholdpoint comes a bit later in time in some of these countries. We suggest that the economic welfare threshold is equivalentto optimum carryingcapacitybecauseit represents the point at which increasingreturnsof scale (bigger is better) changes to decreasingreturns of scale (biggeris 50 2000/ Vol. No.4 * BioScience365 April

The carrying capacity concept as related to economics

The urgent need to integrate nonmarket goods and services (naturalcapital) into mainstreameconomic systems (see Barrettet al. 1998) is the focus for this special issue of BioScience. This need has long been recognizedbut poorly implemented. For example,in the 1960s, economist Kenneth Boulding wrote about the need to move from quantitative (getting bigger) to qualitative(getting better) economics. Although his books (e.g., A Reconstructionof Economics; Boulding 1962) and papers (Boulding 1966a, 1966b) were admired and he was one of the first economists to be elected to the National Academyof Sciences, mainstreameconomists paid little attention.The time was not yet right to implement his ideas. In the 1970s, Howard and Eugene Odum suggested using energy as a common denominator to evaluate and combine both marketand nonmarketvalues (Odum 1971, 1973, Odum and Odum 1972, Gosselink et al. 1974). Becauseit takes energywithin an economy to make money, energeticvalues can be convertedto monetary values. Dollar values for wetlands calculated on this basis were impressiveenough to the citizenry to play a major role in coastal marsh protection legislation of Atlantic and Gulf Coastwetlandsin the early 1970s.However,economists of that time objectedstrenuouslyto the conversionof energy values to monetaryvalues.They contended that value and price were determinedby people's"willingnessto pay"and not by the amount of energy requiredto produce a prod-


..........? ' ...


....... z~~Ki . ? ............:~~:~:~:~::

. . . . . . 2+..?=?;

. . .2.?r

Figure3. Convertinga bifurcatedaesthetic perspectiveof nature'scapital and human market capital to an integrativelandscapeperspectivein which a coevolutionary(urban-rural)system emergesthat includesall goods and services necessaryto sustain a quality life for all of Earth's inhabitants.

.... . .. . . ..
E 0 C M 0 I N (:::?:a'O' S










COEVOLUTIONARY:~:~~??~:~?~ ?




no longer better). It would seem, therefore,that economic growth measuredby GNP is beginning to overshoot what might be called "qualityof life carrying capacity"in the developed countries. It is importantto distinguishbetween economic growth and economic development if society is to achieve a quality of life carryingcapacity.A 1991 report from the United Nations Educational,Scientificand CulturalOrganization (Goodland et al. 1991) makes a distinction between economic growth,which involvesgetting larger(quantitative growth), and economic development, which involves getting better (qualitativegrowth) without increasingthe total consumption of energy and materialsbeyond a level that is reasonablysustainable.The reportconcludesthat "a five-to-tenfold expansion of anything remotely resembling the presenteconomy [which some economists say is necessary to reduce poverty worldwide] would simply speed us from today'slong-run unsustainabilityto imminent collapse"(pp. 10-11). Therefore,the report goes on, the economic growth required for poverty reduction (especiallyin the less-developed countries) "must be bal366 BioScience * April2000 / Vol.50 No. 4

anced by negative throughput growth for the rich." A noteworthyroundtablediscussionof carrying capacityand ecological economics by Daly (1995) and Mark Sagoff (1995) has helped to continue this dialogue among ecologists and economists. Costanzaet al. (1997) have estimatedthat the value of the total biospheric natural ecosystem services in monetary terms is greaterthan the value of the total world market goods and services. Although mainstream economists were quick to challenge the Costanza et al. (1997) initial estimate, it is encouragingthat there now exists a serious discussion focusing on the quantitative(monetary) value of nature'sgoods and services. It is also encouraging that during the past 5 years there has been a flood of new books that might be classified under the heading of "the greening of business."A good example is Anderson (1998). RayAndersonis CEOof a carpetcompany named Interfacethat leases,ratherthan sells, carpets. Carpets taken back to the factory when they are worn out are completely recycled and reconstituted into new carpets with almost no waste and pollution. Anderson says that he was after inspiredto make his "mid-coursecorrection" A readingPaulHawken's Ecologyof Commerce: Declaration (Hawken 1994). of Sustainability

Human society is rapidly approaching, and in some aspects already overshooting, global carrying capacity, which we define as two dimensional (density and intensity of per capitause). We have made a case for the proposition that the optimum carryingcapacity (Ko) is less than the maximum (Km), and that carryingcapacityis reached when the P/R ratio approximates 1. Accordingly,there exists an urgent need to bring together essential proceduresand approachesthat in the past were consideredseparate and unrelated operations (the "one problem-one solution"mind set). Some of these needs or strategiesare as follows: A need to bring together market and nonmarketgoods and servicesas a basis for a more holistic economic and ecosystem/landscape management perspective. Odum

Overview:An integrated (ecologic/economic)capitalism

(1997a, 1998) suggests creating an integrated "dualcapitalism" (i.e., naturaland marketcapital;Figure as a way to capture the substantial benefits that, 3) as summarized by Daily et al. (1997), natural ecosystems supply to human societies. Cairns (1997) expresses this need in terms of promoting a coevolutionary, mutualistic relationship between human society and natural systems, rather than an individualistic, competitive view of ecology and economics. * A need to promote appreciationof the aesthetics,as well as the utility,of a diverselandscapethat includes natural areas, clean streams and lakes, well-managed farmland, and attractivevillages,towns, and cities all operating together to maintain a high quality of life (i.e., an integrativelandscapeperspective;Barrett1985, 1992, Barrett et al. 1998). Many people view heavily fertilized and watered gardens, mowed lawns or clipped grasses, and yards of carefully swept soil (i.e., something to be weeded, manicured, or managed for the short term in accordance with a traditional economic purpose or a cultivated taste) as and "beautiful" natural,self-sustainingmeadows,grasslands, or woodlands as "ugly." Figure 3 illustrateshow this previously bifurcated aesthetic perspective is now being integrated into a holistic, coevolutionary landscape perspective. An informed and educated society that understandsthe goods and servicesprovided by an integratedurban-rurallandscapewill likely conduct its business based on an educational incentive rather than a regulatorymandate (Barrett1989). * A need to bridge the communication gap between science and society,which requiresimprovingthe dialogue between decision-makers (politicians, corporate managers,economists, lawyers)-who are, by and large, not scientists-and researchscientists,who are increasingly more specialized (reductionist) and isolated from the realitiesof public policy. * Reorganizingcolleges and universitiesto promote more interdisciplinarycourses, including an integrative science approach (Barrett and Odum 1998), as is now under way in many colleges and universities,will help to develop C. P. Snow's "third culture," in which the communication gap between the humanities and the sciences would be closed (see Odum 1997b). For this concept to come to fruition, a closer liaison must be established between basic and applied disciplines (Barrett 1984, 1994), which are often segregated in separate schools in academia, with little communication among them. * A need to unite ruraland urbanplanning initiativesinto comprehensivelandscape-levelplanning (Barrettet al. 1998) that acknowledges the interdependence of the low-powered, rural, natural life-supporting ecosystems and the high-powered, urban, technoecosystems (term suggested by Naveh 1982). This task is difficult because political lines often separate city from country. Ian McHarg pioneered this approach to planning three decades ago (e.g., McHarg 1969), but society was not as ready for this approachas it is now. * Finally,society could learn from the study of the pioneer to mature naturalecosystem development (r to K selection). (Resourcesare diverted to high growth rate and fecundity,rather than persistence,in r-selected species; resources are directed to persistence, rather than high growth rate, in K-selectedspecies under carryingcapacity conditions.) Naturalselection favorsopportunistic, r-selected species in pioneer or early successional communities but K-selectedspecies in mature systems, where survival and quality of the individual are more important than the quantity of production. Society could find ways to make a similar transition. In addition to developingthese strategiesto bring together scholarsand practitionersof ecology and economics, it is important to do so quickly.Unfortunately,many of the ideas and concepts about sustainability and carrying capacitybeing espoused in recent reviewsand books have remained traditional and disciplinary in concept and implementation.The time has come to find ways to develop trulyintegrativeideas about sustainabilityand carrying capacity and to implement these as soon as possible, in view of the increasingthreatsto the health of the cohabitants of Earth. Indeed, Lester Brown recently noted that human society appears to be approaching a threshold regardingan environmentalawakening,including shifting views concerning energy,urban transportationand planning, materialuse, and human population growth (Brown 1999). We sense that human society is ready to usher in new integrative(transdisciplinary)and ecological definitions of carrying capacity and sustainable growth as we enter the twenty-firstcentury.


G. W. B. thanks Almo Farinafor inviting him to co-chair the plenary roundtable discussion entitled "Integrating Ecologyand Economics"at the VII InternationalCongress of Ecologyduring July1998 in Florence,Italy.This plenary session served as the catalystfor this special issue of BioWe Science. are indebted to TerryBarrettand three anonymous reviewersfor their criticalreview of the manuscript for and to RebeccaChasan, editor-in-chief of BioScience, her editorialskills in bringing this issue to fruition.
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