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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Technocratic Environmentalist or a Technocrat?

Dr. Erle C. Ellis is an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where he teaches environmental science, landscape ecology and biogeochemistry.  He would remain anonymous to most of us, had he not written a New York Times editorial, "Overpopulation is not the problem."  Later, Dr. Ellis attempted to explain himself in more detail as a guest blogger for Andrew C. Revkin.

Upon reading this rare gem of technobabble, I asked the students in my class, E4: Earth, Environment, Energy, and Economics, to read it and express their own thoughts in up to 740-word essays.  I never commented on Ellis' editorial, so as not to influence opinions of my class.  Just like Revkin, I have encouraged some of the students to publish in my blog.

The New York Times, September 14, 2013. The image is by Katherine Streeter.

What follows is a sample of the students' essays. Not all is lost yet...

Brien Allen is from Kerrville, Texas. He is a student at the University of Texas of Austin, and he likes math and music.

Our Fundamental Flaw
When I look at the night sky, I see a grand cosmic symphony. I see a frontier of unexplored beauty, unknown phenomena, and undefined boundaries. The true complexity of this reality is far beyond human understanding. Our current knowledge of the earth and life itself is limited to what we can observe, and in turn, theorize based upon these observations. Who are we to claim that we know how this world really works when we have experienced only an infinitesimal fraction of reality? Science studies what can be seen, quantified, and categorized. What of the unseen, the unpredictable, the undiscovered, the unquantified, and the untheorized? Ignoring what we cannot see and claiming that what we know is all that exists is essentially a ruling that our perception of how the world works reigns superior to how the world actually works. If we believe this, we have committed deicide.

I believe that the article, “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem”, is riddled with logical fallacy. The author is correct, in the sense that technology has greatly expanded our natural carrying capacity on this planet. The author’s greatest blunder, however, is within the assumption that technology is the only factor affecting the human carrying capacity of earth. Other factors affect our carrying capacity. Unforeseen global disasters could potentially result in the widespread failure of technology. Natural features of the planet itself, such as the amount of food and water or the advent of a superbacterium that could adapt faster than our current state of medical technology also are factors that greatly affect our survival. The author also makes the grand claim that the whole of humanity is somehow separate from the biosphere and thus the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics. We cannot transmute the fundamental laws that govern our existence. Granted, our technological ingenuity separates us from the biosphere in a sense, but we are inherently flawed and limited as a species and thus so are the things that we create. There will come a point in time where the rate of technological growth will not be able to meet the challenge of sustaining a population with an utterly ridiculous rate of exponential growth. It is a matter of when, not if.

The fall of mankind’s deity, technology, is inevitable. We live under the delusion that technology can save us from anything and from ourselves. We live under the impression that we have a privileged place in this universe. We live by myths of immortality that are not safe in the face of nature’s raw power. We lean upon our scientific methods as if they are a religion. Our fatal flaw is our God complex: hubris. This complex in our collective psychology manifests itself via our over-reliance upon and over-confidence in our imperfect technological systems. We deify ourselves and our creations, and thus, are blind to the truth. In my honest opinion, this article is a hopeful, yet delusional piece of work. Who are we to play God with such frail bodies and such limited understanding? The forces of nature are blind and unforgiving and will not compromise with us, and are far beyond our technology in strength and in scope. Matters such as these are matters of scale. We must first learn our place in this universe if we are to make any lasting progress as a species. All we are, in the grand scope of things, is a small blue spec of light in the night sky.

Dan Ehrenfried returned to engineering school from a successful career in software engineering with the hope of participating in carbon sequestration and utilization for enhanced oil recovery.

Erle C. Ellis’ New York Times essay “Overpopulation is not the Problem” asserts that there is essentially no ecological limit to the number of people that this earth can sustain. In his view, human ingenuity will always find ways to engineer more productivity from the resources that the earth provides. He cites that humans have historically overcome many seeming obstacles to growth and continued to provide expanded sources of food, energy, and materials to an ever increasing population. And to this point in earth’s history, he’s right. Humans, with minor setbacks, have clearly thrived.

Paul Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb” in 1968 predicting imminent mass starvation and social upheaval. Mark Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert” is less alarmist but still predicts dire consequences from the desaturation of our aquifers and salinization of our irrigated soils. And yet, life is still good in the developed world with food, water, and energy still fairly plentiful for all, if often rationed for the underclasses. But there has always been a spectrum of those with plenty and those with less in every society throughout history.

Jared Diamond, however, has documented several smaller examples of societal collapse. Notable examples were the Mayans of the 9th century, the Greenland Norse of the 15th century, and Easter Island in the 18th. Each collapse was the result of population-driven ecological damage to their habitat that eventually removed the basic sustenance on which the masses survived. Diamond also points out that in each case, communities did not have a neighboring friendly society to bail them out of their predicament as their support chain failed. In contrast, the WW II Axis societies were in total collapse at the end of the war, but in this case, the occupying powers worked actively to sustain and rebuild them. One final observation is that, in each case, the fall of each society happened quite soon after the peak in their prosperity.

Petroleum and natural gas are infused into every aspect of our current lives. They are in the food that we eat through mechanization, fertilizers, processing, preservation, and transport. They pump and clean the water that we drink and heat the water that we use for sanitation. They are an essential material in the shelters that we build and the energy we use to heat and cool them. I cannot think of a product that is not partially derived from or indirectly supported by the power stored in their chemistry. And its percentage of our sustenance is grows every day. I won’t argue that we are running out of oil and gas. It clear now that we will continue to find new deposits and develop the technology to exploit previously discovered plays that are newly accessible. And Enhanced Oil Recovery will eventually allow us to recover the remaining 50% in our depleted reservoirs.

Although the earth’s petroleum is logically finite, near term scarcity is unlikely. The difficulties I see are economic and multifold. One, the amount of energy we expend to recover a new barrel of petroleum continues to increase, so our net productivity is going down. Two, the amount of money required to recover each barrel continues to increase in real dollars. The easy, low cost plays have been found and are well along their depletion curves. New sources are much more expensive even in relative terms. The compounding of more population demand, less productivity, and ever higher costs will gradually price a majority of humans out of life’s sustenance. And when enough of the working pyramid erodes, our economic fabric may falter and there may not be any friendlies for a rescue.

Click on the picture to see the full-size image.

Thor N. is from Magnolia, Texas. He is studying petroleum engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.

“What is true for E. coli is also true for the elephant.” This phrase was coined by renowned microbiologist Jacques Monod. It has since been revered as a widely accepted axiom of microbiology. The biologic laws that apply to the smallest microbes are the same that govern even the largest, most complex species. Thus the argument made by Erle C. Ellis in,” Overpopulation Is Not the Problem,’ that, “We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish,” undermines the basic study of development, genetics and biology. Much of what we know to be true was learned and modeled from observations of smaller biologic structures and populations.

Like the petri dish, the earth has a finite space. Therefore, like the bacteria, humans have a finite population capacity. What exactly this capacity is will change with time but it is limited by the flux of energy into the system. For the bacteria, the rate at which nutrients are fed into the system will be the limiting population factor. The higher the rate, the larger the sustainable population. This energy flux limitation holds true for humans as well.

To liken the earth to a petri dish let us assume the bacteria have not yet been introduced to the petri dish but there is a constant, positive flux of a nutrient rich solution dripping into the petri dish. Over time the dish will accumulate sizable stores of this energy source. Now we introduce our bacteria to the environment, I.E, welcome to earth Homo sapiens. Initially our bacteria are being fed a nutrient solution of which only half is of any use to them. But there is plenty stored up and the flux into the dish is more than enough for this small population so the bacteria flourish and begin to populate the dish. At a later date our bacteria adapt and can now eat the other half of the nutrient solution they previously could not. Good job humans, innovation is our adaptation, and we have unlocked the green revolution and the ability to farm more efficiently. This newfound food source coupled with the huge reserves from the initial nutrient drip prior to the bacteria’s existence allows them to grow exponentially and temporarily support a massive population. However, sustainability is the key word, and once their pre-endowed energy stores are used up the rate of energy flux from the nutrient drip will govern the sustainable population of our bacteria. The massive population that could exist under the large free energy conditions will be hit a brick wall as this energy store is exhausted. The population will then quickly revert to the limit set by the finite flux into our dish.

While there is no arguing human ingenuity has changed the human environment for the better and allowed larger populations to live longer and more prolifically, it has done so at the expense of large free energy reserves. The problem is a biologic and mathematical one, not one of imagination or social structures as Ellis argues. The energy flux into our system is finite, therefore there is some underlying sustainable, finite population. Efficiency can increase this population cap but even if 100% efficiency could be achieved there must be a cap as the energy flux is finite. Also, our “petri dish” is a finite space. Therefore, short of us adapting (innovating), to live beyond the dish, we are bounded by the thin membrane we consider the human experience. Again, this provides a mathematical limitation in which a population cap is introduced.

Ellis’s idea that overpopulation is not a problem is based on the unfounded idea that humans are not governed by the same biologic laws that apply to all other life simply because we can artificially adapt at a much faster rate than other organisms. However this logic is flawed in that these adaptations require constant energy to maintain and the rate at which energy is input into the human system is not something we can simply dial up at will.

Stephanie Redfern is a second year Master of Global Policy candidate specializing in Energy, Technology, and the Environment.  She holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

There has been expected discord with the New York Times article “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem,” published September 13, 2013 and penned by UMBC ecology professor Erle C. Ellis.  In the piece, Ellis makes the bold claim that “there is no environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future.”  Instead, the real issues that we as a race face are the limits of “our imaginations and our social systems,” which, as he points out, have been tested and overcome in the past. 

Making such statements has sparked a slight outcry.  In fact, there have been so many responses to this controversial op-ed that the NYT has dedicated a Letters page to affronted readers, and several days later Ellis himself followed up with an extended defense of his views.  While I personally found his points worth consideration, I believe they are ultimately invalid as well as overly anthropocentric.   I will expand on some areas of my reasoning below.

First, it is incorrect to present environmental status as independent of social structures.  The two are inherently intertwined.  In fact, social structures are arguably rooted in environmental concerns.  Countries fight wars over land.  And, at the most basic level, nations need adequate levels of natural resource endowments in order to support their populations.  Without reasonable temperature gradients, water sources, and cultivatable land, it is difficult for nations to turn their foci to cultivating the social framework and technologies necessary to improve their qualities of life.  Therefore, there very much is a correlation between the environment and poverty.

Second, Ellis is failing to consider the fact that the earth is essentially a closed system; it has finite matter and it will tend toward exergetic equilibrium.  Eventually, despite our human ingenuity, we will simply reach physical limitations bounding what we can achieve.  There is only so much the same land can give, despite our past ability to eke more and more from it.   No matter how much we “transform ecosystems,” eventually those changes are going to reach reaping capacity.   

Additionally, Ellis ignores the dichotomous stage of evolution humans are in.  He really is giving us too much credit.  Humans, though evolved further than any other animal intellectually, retain roots in selfish instincts.  This is why we currently don’t have a harmonious world full of agreement, collective action, and sharing.   We have problems cooperating; we remain animals at heart.  Emotions trump logic.  And, this problem of cooperation will be exacerbated with a growing population.  After all, there is a reason why the world doesn’t have an international governing system; there simply are too many, varied needs.  Adding more people to the puzzle will only make honing our social systems—Ellis’s proposed solution—more difficult.  Simply put, overpopulation is the problem.   

Finally, I found it rather distasteful that there was no mention of Earth’s other species, all of which share the same land, water, and air with us.  An increasing human population may not be a problem for us (as he asserts), but it certainly will be a problem for a number of other innocent beings whose only wrong move was to populate the same planet as us.  We may, over time, be able to geoengineer the earth and its changing climate and environment to fit our own needs, but what about the other plants, animals, and organisms that will be adversely affected?  Although this issue is commonly overlooked, it’s certainly worth thinking about.  As the creators of this problem, with awareness of its potential consequences, and as an overall moral species, it’s our responsibility to consider them.


  1. An impressive fact I read somewhere :
    Today there are more humans born each day that the entire remaining population of other great apes (gorillas , chimpanzees, bonobos, Orangutans)

  2. I think it is more impressive the fact that there are more ships (by mass) in the ocean than fish