Life Under Homo Colossus

“Man has been too arrogant in exaggerating the difference between himself and other creatures, between humanity and natural history.”
Overshoot, William Catton

Under the reign of Homo Colossus there is a tendency to obscure key ecological relationships and their results. In an Orwellian fashion we refer to the extraction of non-renewable resources such as coal and oil as ‘production.’ Countries like the U.K. claim to be meeting carbon reduction targets when in fact all that they have done is move the polluting manufacturing industries on which they still rely to third world locations. Pundits rail against the raw population numbers in underdeveloped countries while ignoring the role of affluence and consumption patterns when discussing humanities ecological footprint.

Living in the time of giantism in technology, transportation, communication, information, and resource throughput is living under the reign of Homo Colossus. Homo Colossus consists of numerous complex networks. When they are all working well together they deliver bread to the store shelves and the trains run on time. When the slightest hiccup disrupts one of the networks, that oscillation can be multiplied until larger, seemingly unrelated networks also fail. We see this in a traffic jam started by a few distracted drivers gawking at a fender bender on the side of the highway. Before the waveform has completed its travels through that city’s membranes there could be a five mile backup on the highway, a five percent increase in traffic accidents, and an extra hundred pounds of carbon monoxide added to the atmosphere than there would have been during this morning commute had there not been a fender bender. This is a silly example but when the complex network of systems a city relies on for survival breaks down people die. Modernity is poised on the edge of the complexity knife with giant systems everywhere becoming more brittle and prone to disruption as the pressures of population and scarcity grow with each passing year.

The entropy attack on the American infrastructure is there for anyone to see who travels through the back roads of this country. The derelict factories, farms, abandoned suburbs and small towns are everywhere and when the traveler turns towards the mega city population centers, and if they stray into the inner city underbelly, there are all the signs of third world poverty and neglect. The systems that keep the food on the grocery store shelves, the potable water in the tap, the gasoline coming out of the pump and the rest of the essentials we all too easily take for granted are each baroque tapestries of interdependencies. Keeping the lights on involves a whole slew of engineering design, procedures, maintenance, oversight and cooperation all coordinated to a very high degree. These giant systems seem to be invulnerable until a hurricane Katrina comes slamming into them or the earth shakes and for weeks these critical systems suffer disruption. Individuals and families not blindsided by this country’s happy talk might want to minimize their dependency on these systems.

The Age of Exuberance brought high hopes that are now being dashed. If disappointment tests the mettle of a man, as a society the overdeveloped world is finding out just what it is really made of. Life in the time of human overshoot is characterized by particular social stresses. There is an increased competition for a slice of the pie as the population of the middle class shrinks and stalemate becomes more common in democracies as nations can no longer afford to pursue competing political goals. Along with the competition comes antagonisms and along with overcrowding comes a fear of being redundant. All these sociological forces have their roots in ecological changes. Understanding this promotes a compassionate response and inoculates against catching the fevers of the demagogues.

Lacking ecological insight it is all too easy to blame a sinister cabal, the one percent, a hostile government, incompetent bureaucracy or corrupt politicians for our troubles. As the coming century brings a population correction to the human race it will be all too easy to fall prey to the rhetoric of a Caesar selling us a story we want to hear; the American dream was stolen by evil forces, the promise of the enlightenment’s improvement of the human being was perverted by scheming cabals in corporate boardrooms, the nations are again soaking in blood because of greedy warmongers… So what are the key ecological insights by which we might retain some sanity through these troubled times?

First and foremost ecology teaches that everything is interrelated, that there is a universal interdependence among all that lives. We share the same chemical basis, the same DNA information replication mechanisms and many of the same biophysiological pathways that many of our most primitive ancestors used. Mankind can look to the causes and conditions of other life forms for lessons, recognizing there have been numerous precedents of biological communities undergoing succession, exuberance, overshoot and collapse. It is not that we are reaping the rewards of a fatal character flaw but are simply coming to the natural end of a natural process.

Perhaps the second critical insight ecology teaches is that everything is always changing. It always pays to ask ‘and then what?’ Biological communities change through the process of succession. As the population expands the community alters the very environment in which it evolved and paves the way for the next biological communities to succeed. Seeking to maximize GDP as our social goal we accelerate the process of succession whereby we undermine our own habitats capacity to support our species, or more accurately, Homo Colossus.

In my short list of key ecological concepts the third would be that ecosystems are open systems. All living things sustain themselves far from thermodynamic equilibrium by taking some substances from the environment and sending other substance back into it. These exchanges in turn influence other organisms, the outputs becoming inputs in a multitude of recyclings. If the chemical byproducts of one organism are toxic to another their relationship is antagonistic. Smog is antagonistic to trees. Note that ecological antagonism is impersonal; the drivers of the cars creating the smog do not hate the trees. Perhaps this is easier to see in a case where human concerns are not involved. Penicillin is antagonistic to a variety of disease causing bacteria; it is a ‘pollutant’ for the bacteria. Basically anytime the output of a life process seeking its sustenance becomes toxic to another life process the relationship is antagonistic. With this definition in mind it is not difficult to see how it applies to human situations. Animosity arises from interference of populations with one another, even when unintended. There can be valid reasons for antagonistic relationships between human groups without the need for villainy or human perversity. By not recognizing this, overcrowding can become cause for war. The frictions are exacerbated by not recognizing the actual causes and conditions.

As competition increases within an ecosystem there is a tendency towards what is called niche diversification; a sharper differentiation between communities occurs in how they use their habitats. When applying ecological principals to human society it helps to see the wide diversification of human endeavors as if it had created a set of sub-species. The jet setting one-percenter uses our planet very differently than an organic farmer. The butcher, baker and candle stick maker all have unique interactions with their respective habitats. Our modern societies host the result of centuries of social diversification that was built up during the Age of Exuberance. When there was plenty of cheap energy to go around the competition between Wall Street and Main Street remained friendly, the competition between the working class and the needy was colored by charitable ideals, and the competition between generations was a source of good natured pleading and prodding. Remove the abundance of cheap energy to sustain all these relationships and the competition grows more fierce. The ecological antagonism promotes the emotional antagonism.

In addition to increased competition, in Overshoot William Catton speculates that overcrowding also exacerbates a tendency to defend ourselves or our tribe from the fear of being redundant. Most lives in the overdeveloped world are dedicated to the purely anthropomorphic goal of maximizing money and protecting one’s own. There is a gnawing suspicion that one’s life is not contributing to any healthy trends nor is it made meaningful by being dedicated to working for what is greater than oneself or one’s family. As the sense of overcrowding spreads it dawns on each of us that any of us can be replaced by one of our competitors. He writes, italics added, we are “in danger of being considered superfluous … the plight of the unwanted child became potentially everyone’s plight.” In reaction we raise our voices in an anxious attempt to assure ourselves that redundancy applies only to other people. Much radical social activism is implicitly saying ‘it is you, not us, that is superfluous!’ with each group adding their favorite vindictive snarl words; “… You white racists… Black bastards… Fascists pigs…”

The holocaust could prove to be an ominous prelude to what happens when one group declares another to be superfluous, redundant.

Catton’s mention of the unwanted child is darkly prophetic. What do the tragic shootings in schools all across America indicate about the social health of the country? There was another one this week and it has been on my mind. Multiple causes are no doubt in play and any generalization is bound to be a simplification that cannot apply in every case but these caveats should not make us afraid to draw some conclusions. Why would children feel the need to eliminate one another? Might they sense that the future bearing down on them is one of fewer resources where increased crowding and competition shape their destiny? Murder is one way to assert that you are the one life can do without, not me. In a culture willing to burden future generations with unpayable levels of debt, depleted natural resources, and polluted water, air and land is it any surprise that the normal adolescent pain of rejection turns at times into the full tragedy of a violent outburst?

Life under Homo Colossus has perverted society, reshaping it all out of proportion to the human scale. The gigantism of our globalization assures its influence is felt planet wide. On a planet that is not growing larger increasing our numbers is bound to increase the level of antagonism, completion and conflict, all of which will be exacerbated by the desire of the overdeveloped to hang on to what they have and the underdeveloped to achieve full industrialization. A paper was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with the dismal news that, as the BBC headline had it, ‘Population controls will not solve environmental issues.’ A team of researchers investigated numerous fertility restriction scenarios to examine what impact they would have on total global population. This is an important question because if you understand the ecological forces in play, curbing fertility rates is the most humane way of bringing our societies back to some form of sustainability. What they found is sobering. The UN released population projections in July of this year based on data up to 2012 and a Bayesian analysis. It found there is an 80% probability that world population will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion in 2100. This new research found that restricting fertility is not sufficient to change these population projections substantially. Specifically if the whole world adopted China’s one child policy in 2100 the total would still be between five and ten billion. If there were a global catastrophe mid-century, a war or pandemic that killed two billion people, it would barely make a dent in the trajectory over the next 100 years. We could still expect eight and half billion by 2100.

The take away from this research is very, very pertinent to the message of this blog. While reducing population is the only long term relief from the pressure Homo Colossus is putting on the planet, there is such a large demographic momentum built up that nothing is likely to change the course of the next century.  Curbing our numbers will not help us deal with the environmental problems we are confronting in the short term. Most of the mainstream ecological pundits recommend a rapid transition to lower fertility rates as the best way of dealing with the increased impact of our rising affluence and consumption. This is said to be the way towards sustainability. It is a welcome solution in which the consumer paradise can continue, the economics of continual growth do not need to be fundamentally reworked and green corporations pursuing business as usual in the free markets are said to be sufficient for dealing with the ecological crises. This new research puts these dated ideas out to pasture. The only lever that remains for actually lessening the human impact on the environment on a timeline that will make a difference is to cut back on our consumption. This is not an easy sell since for most people a diminishing affluence brings with it a diminished sense of identity as well.

Twelve billion humans by 2100. Really? Ask yourself if you think this is the most probable outcome for the next few generations or does your gut tell you it is highly unlikely, that something will intervene between now and then? With the reappearance of Ebola Michael Greer raised the chilling thought that perhaps we are actually looking at the maximum human population this earth will ever know… right now. This would be an example of an ecological limit, a complex reaction from the living world that acts as a negative feedback on human population. Next week we will look at this, our next major ecological concept; limits to growth. They spell the end of Homo Colossus.

Homo Colossus

“Man does not live by detritus alone.”
Overshoot, William Catton

One of the unique capabilities that set Homo Sapiens apart from all the rest of the animal kingdom is our mastery of tools. As a species we are able to expand the carrying capacity of our environments through the use of technology. This has been going on for a very long time. The chart below, reproduced from Catton’s Overshoot, provides a fascinating glimpse into the major milestones of mankind’s technological developments and how those have had a direct effect on our population numbers. The chart starts at the dawn of pre-history and registers the first population increase 35,000 years ago when the same inheritable characteristics we recognize as human today was established. The first major technological breakthrough after that period is the dawn of agriculture where the cultivation of plants allowed the population to increase close to 1,000% in a mere 160 generations, counting each generation as 25 years. The next 160 generations saw the development of metallurgy and the plow, increasing human numbers another 250%. The chart ends in 1975 with a total world population of four billion human beings recording a 200% increase in population numbers over only four and half generations. Though the chart ends there from the perspective of when this is being written in 2014 we could add one more line; 1.6 generations later the total human population is over 7.2 billion, almost double what it was in 1975.

This is just one more indication that business as usual will not be continuing much longer. How many more doublings of the total population are even conceivable?

TechAndPopulationThe important take away from this analysis for our purposes is how historically technology performed the role of increasing the carrying capacity of our environments. The total carrying capacity could have been said to be the product of resources times technology. Too much of a good thing, victims of our success, today we find that the technology we are using is actually shrinking our carrying capacity. Today the relationship seems to be one of division so that total carrying capacity is equal to resources divided by technology. This is worth a moment of careful contemplation. Malthus was concerned with the problem of expanding human population butting its head against fixed limits but in the real world we are discovering the expanding human population is butting its head against shrinking limits.

Among those who think about the ecological crises it can be heard that there was roughly one billion humans on earth before the industrial revolution began and so we can expect there to again be one billion when the depletion of fossil fuel runs its course. While this is a horrifying picture if the die-off does not unfold gradually, it is scientifically wildly optimistic because it fails to take into account the damage done to the natural environments by the population blooming in our Age of Exuberance. The most probable total population some centuries hence just might be considerably smaller than one billion. Just how much smaller is a point of contention which need not concern us here. Even if it is three or four times as many, the point remains: a population bottleneck is a frighteningly real possibility.

Population combined with our technology has grown so large it is as if a whole new species has evolved, one which is very much capable of altering the biosphere as a whole. This new species was christened Homo Colossus by William Catton, capturing the essence of the challenge our ecological analysis of modern industrial civilization presents. To understand the powerful metaphor requires that we learn to look at man’s tool use from another perspective. Normally when we think of our use of tools we consider them as means of adapting the environment to our human needs; we plant a farm of crops to feed ourselves, we warm our houses to fend off the cold. It is equally valid to propose that human tool use adapts humans to diverse environments. Our tools are somewhat like prosthetic devices we add to our bodies; we don a coat and now survive in environments that were formally too cold, we strap on a plow and fertilizer spreaders and find we can grow crops where previously the soil was too poor.

Our tools act as prosthetic devices; the cup of a mining scoop acts as an extended hand. At some point these prosthetics crossed the line into gigantism where sheer size began affecting whole ecosystems – a mountain removed here, a river diverted there. Not many people appreciate the scale at which human aspirations are unfolding all across the earth, all day, every day. That mining scoop just mentioned is capable of lifting 325 tons of “overburden” with every bite it takes into the earth looking for coal. This is not just a multiplication of men with shovels but a qualitatively different event altogether. Consider a giant dump truck used in mining operations capable of hauling 380 tons of earth in a single load. They weigh 1,375,000 lbs. rolling on tires that are roughly 13 feet tall and the tires alone cost $50,000 to $60,000 each – everything about these modern machines is giant.

I have used the examples of mining operations in illustrating the gigantism of Homo Colossus deliberately. To feed their enormous appetites has required that we dig deep into finite stocks of minerals, extracting and using up resources that might otherwise have been left for prosperity. Of all the occult substances found deep in the nether regions of the earth none can hold a candle to the devil’s blood, oil. Here, in decaying carbon material, Homo Colossus found its preferred food. Ecologically we can classify it as a detritus ecosystem for these are the ecosystems that feed on decaying carbon materials. These are the ecosystems that feed off dead biomass, breaking down the complex arrangements of molecules and releasing their elements back into the cycles of material flow. These are also the ecosystems that are prone to the population overshoot and collapse we looked at last week.

It is time to take a step back and ask ourselves, what does all this mean? This blog is not a substitute for a university ecology class; this is an exploration of mindful ecology. What do these ecological concepts mean for a compassionate, caring individual, our families and our societies?

I think most people fundamentally want to know they are doing good by the world. They want what is best for their children and loved ones. A consensus has been built up that business as usual was leading all of us to a good place. Progress was hard work but the sacrifices were worth it; from the second job to help the first child of this family get through college, to cutting down old growth forest to build a new settlement. The difficult unequal social arrangements of the modern world have been easily accepted largely because the promise was implied that if we could just lift the standard of living for the rich high enough, the process would inevitably improve lives for the poorest of peoples as well. The justification for consumerism as culture is that only through development can the desperate suffering of the third world be improved. If they keep working at it, the almost unspoken justification for our consumer lifestyles runs,  they will someday be just like us.

In practice the third world is strapped with debt to first world banks for expensive first world infrastructure projects built by first world companies. Since the poorer country is able to borrow only so much, the rich governments of the world “give” them aid dollars with the stipulation that they can only be spent on “infrastructure improvement” projects. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins gives a small peak into what is going on. This is how the wealth pump of empire works, pumping wealth from the peripheries into the imperial core. The companies and banks of the overdeveloped world profit but the question remains, did the recipient country benefit as well? There is no simple answer. In some cases the graft runs rampant and the whole adventure is one of abuses to land, animals and people. In other cases things are properly constructed but because the rest of the supporting infrastructure is missing the benefits are much less than what had been promised. In other cases real benefit is given, improving the daily lives of the poor by creating hospitals, education, sanitation, and widespread literacy.

In Western culture with its roots in ideals of Christian charity, consumerism acted as the outer form of something more important; it funded the cornucopia of technological progress. There has been every reason to believe in this secular god, progress. The so-called Green Revolution did manage to feed many additional billions of people since it began a few decades ago. We set foot on the moon, scanned the brain, and shared it all with TV, radio, computers, the internet – it is all very real and impressive. We are grateful and expect it will continue. Ecology states unequivocally, ‘No, this pattern of consumption will not continue.’ It would take multiple earths to bring the underdeveloped world to the state of industrialization found in the overdeveloped world. The implied promise behind the whole consumer shtick is shown to be bust, an impossibility on a planet of seven billion people. Holding out hope that it will happen someday is now nothing more than cold cruelty.

There is a meaningfully sustainable degree of technology that we can all hope future generations may find. Today what we see are the deprivations of those suffering from not having enough infrastructure and technology to lead decent human lives at one end and those suffering total domination by the machine at the other. There must be a middle way of using appropriate technology sized to a human scale if our wisdom can find it, a way to avoid the extremes of underdevelopment and overdevelopment.

Looking around us today, this is not the future we ordered when we began this industrialized consumerism; collapsed fisheries and dead zones haunt our oceans, the land is scarred with cesspools of heavy metals and hot nuclear wastes, even the very air we breathe has become toxic to the stability of climate, all the while causing the sixth mass extinction; ghoulishly wiping out an estimated 200 species every day.

Looking around today many good people are questioning the formerly unquestioned foundation on which this whole thing depends: that human progress is technological progress. This vision was sold to us by those who profit from our entrapment. I drive a car, I contribute to global warming. I buy food from a chain grocery store, I contribute to topsoil loss. On and on it goes right through the litany of horrors that is a typical day in the overdeveloped world when seen through the eyes of critical ecological analysis.

What happens to a culture that loses its most fundamental belief? When the justification for the blood, sweat and tears of generations no longer works? I certainly do not know. We are seeing the process play out all around us. I do know that psychologically seeing through the norms of the overdeveloped world’s culture can be a most unpleasant waking up. To retain strength and to honor that which is decent in human beings is the challenge. It is important to distinguish between the bitterness needed for dismantling Homo Colossus from any dispersion we might be tempted to cast on Homo Sapiens. Given the chance I am pretty sure the mosquitoes and the lions, the elephants and the blue-footed booby would have used the energy bonanza in a way not all that different than we did. Perhaps, as the Native Americans teach, we are among the youngest of our animal brothers and sisters: still intoxicated with the enthusiasms of youth and with plenty left to learn.

Carrying Capacity

“Overshoot: (v.) to increase in numbers so much that the habitat’s carrying capacity is exceeded by the ecological load, which must in time decrease accordingly; (n.) the condition of having exceeded for the time being the permanent carrying capacity of the habitat.”
Overshoot, William Catton

This is a dense post. It gathers the core ecological concepts important to my position in a single source.

Energy flow through biological systems does not behave as a blind, dumb force. Last week we looked at how this energy supplies the herbivores and layers of carnivores, how it molds food webs with a roughly 10% efficiency between layers and we ended with a ratio of respiration to biomass which stood as a thermodynamic ordering function. The conclusion provides the jumping off point for today’s examination of carrying capacity:

‘We see there are finite quantities of material and a fixed flux of radiant energy on earth. Our planet is defined by these limitations. The thermodynamic energy laws give earth its characteristic dynamics, strictly delimiting what is and what is not possible.’

An ecosystem consists of a population of species and the changing environment they find themselves in. The environment is changed in large part by the very presence of the populations dwelling there. This progression through a series of stages is called succession. Each stage is termed a sere. Imagine a bare field and watch it evolve over a century or two. The bare field becomes grassland with weeds and other pioneering species, which in turn create the conditions for shrubs of all kinds to begin growing here and there. As the years go on the shrub density increases and the first trees of a pine forest find they have the conditions they need to survive. If the pine forest in turn gives way to an oak and hickory forest and the succession ends there then that last stage, last sere, is referred to as the climax community.

1280px-Forest_succession_depicted_over_timeIf the only major influences on the ecosystem remain those that come from the living populations, natures use of energy will keep the climax community running for centuries, even millennia. It is not a wholly static metric of energy flow to production but instead it pulses, which has been found to keep the populations fit. These climax communities are characterized by the strongest adaptability to shocks compared to any other possible configuration of living things and their environment. Life alters conditions such that they become more capable of hosting life; the Gaia hypothesis. This is due to the climax community containing the highest degree of species diversity of both plants and animals that this environment can indefinitely sustain. Energy has brought forth the maximization of use before being dissipated into entropy.

The climax community is a theoretical construct for an environment that has achieved a configuration that maximizes its carrying capacity indefinitely. It is 100% sustainable.

How the process works is educationally practical; our own species is caught in a number of circumstances related to these things. The energy path can be illustrated by comparing the ecosystem’s respiration to its overall production, P/R. Think of P as the rate of primary production (plants) or total photosynthesis. Respiration, R, as before is the ‘out-gassing’ of entropy. At first a rather scrappy set of plants and animals hit the scene, what we call the invasive species. Think weeds; aggressive and competitive. They have what it takes to survive in the harsher conditions of the early stages. The primary production greatly exceeds the respiration and the ratio P/R > 1. While P exceeds R organic matter will accumulate.

Too much accumulation of organic and inorganic matter can lead to a pollution problem. If the organic pollution overwhelms the ecosystem then respiration exceeds production and the ratio P/R < 1. The theory of succession states that an ecosystem tends towards a balance between the energy fixed in the biomass and the energy cost of maintenance in respiration, that is, tends towards P/R = 1. There is not an overall accumulation of organic material in the climax ecosystem, there is very little yield. What’s there instead is a flourishing of biodiversity where cooperation and symbiosis build complex systems with sophisticated feedback loops providing a resiliency the pioneering communities cannot achieve.

Odum_9.1_CIn the climax community the amount of standing biomass is maximized but interestingly this is not always what we humans want. Agriculture is a good example of deliberately holding back the process of succession to an earlier stage so that there continues to be larger yields of crops that we can use as food. Additionally, just as one characteristic of the climax community is that it has wide biodiversity, a characteristic of the pioneering, invasive community is that it is dominated by a monoculture. There is a tendency for a single plant to dominate just as we see on our farm fields with their acres of wheat and corn. It takes an enormous amount of energy to pause the process of succession on our farms. The petrochemical dependency of agribusiness, from tractor fuel to fertilizer, is well known. It is also well known that the right pest can wipe out an entire monoculture crop. Lacking the diversity of the climax community these critical ecosystems are vulnerable to shocks.

Still, even the climax community is not permanent. The larger change of sere ceases only until something from outside the system intervenes. In the real world everything changes; sooner or later a shock will come that is larger than what the environment can adapt to and it will regress or change completely. These shocks come from changes in either the inputs, the incoming energy, food and materials or the outputs such as we see in pollution where something produced in the system overwhelms the capacity of the larger environment to absorb it and break it down.

When considering the value of this theory that nature tends to balance P/R it is worth asking how the process behaves in extremus. One of the other characteristics of the pioneer, invasive species is that because they lack the feedback loops that would limit their population growth to sustainable levels their populations are prone to a phenomenon known as overshoot and die off. The (in)famous example is yeast introduced into a vat of wine. This simple ecosystem displays many of the most critical concepts necessary for understanding the current ecological predicament mankind finds itself in. In the diagram above it’s the ‘starting algal culture’ high in production and low in respiration.

The yeast consumes the nutrients from the sugary grapes producing a population explosion. The more yeast, the faster the sugars are consumed. It is party time in the wine vat, what ecologists refer to as the stage or age of exuberance. As we have learned, all ecosystems are defined by limits and this one is no different. There is a limited supply of the sugar nutrients and the expanding population is drawing down that resource; it is consuming it faster than it can be renewed. This ballooning population exceeds the carrying capacity of the vat with no way to replace what is being lost. We say the population of the yeast is in overshoot. Because this stage is unsustainable it will not be sustained; there will be a population crash until the resources can recover to a level adequate to sustain it. In the vat the pollution the yeast produce, the alcohol and carbon dioxide (our fermentation), fill the environment until the yeast is no longer able to survive. In that vat there is a die off to the point of extinction. There was a balance point in the vat between the number of yeast, their waste products and the ability of the mash to recycle them but this balance point was over shot. By exceeding the carrying capacity the yeast harmed the environment’s future carrying capacity, creating a downward spiral leading it, in this case, to zero. These words form the key take away: drawdown, overshoot, crash and die-off.

This ecological analysis highlights the difference between ecosystems that are sustainable and those that are not. To sustain the existing carrying capacity indefinitely the community populations can only be using renewable resources and those only at a rate that allows them to be renewed. This is an important point. Oil, for instance, is technically a renewable resource since new oil is being formed today, but the process takes millions of years. For all practical purposes oil is a non-renewable resource so with every barrel that we burn we draw down the total that remains in a usable form. Using any non-renewable resource is going to have the same characteristics. These are not methods of enlarging human carrying capacity, only exceeding it. Are there ways then that truly enlarge carrying capacity?

Another method is available. Humans are masters at this as well, the art of taking over other primary and secondary production for our own use. Every acre taken over for human settlement and raising our plant and animal foods increases the earth’s human carrying capacity at the expense of other species. This is simply the way it is, a necessary result of life unfolding on a finite planet. History is a tale full of examples of one kingdom usurping the lands and resources of another. These are other examples of leveraging the takeover method in human affairs. In these cases, all other things being equal, the addition to the carrying capacity can be a permanent one. For most of human history this has remained the case because the contextual environment in which human settlement occurred retained its integrity. The larger global environment was able to provide the inputs we required and process our outputs successfully. We were fairly successful at diverting a large percentage of the world’s life support capacity from supporting other life forms towards supporting ourselves.

Around 500 years ago something new came to be. It had taken all of pre-history and all of history up to the year 1500 for our species to multiply to 500 million; half a billion individuals scattered throughout the globe. At this time the European lands were full and population pressures kept the balance between the number of people and the carrying capacity of their environments more or less in balance. A famine or plague could eliminate large percentages of the population but in time the population would recover.

WorldPop_1970Then the Europeans discovered the new world, a whole hemisphere rich in natural resources. The largest takeover in human history commenced and an Age of Exuberance was begun which we are still living in today. An Age of Exuberance that is now coming to a close. Some nations seem to get away with supporting a population much greater than what could be provided for from their own lands. In these cases in order to form a complete analysis we need the idea of ghost acreage developed by George Borgstrom. Such nations were drawing upon invisible carrying capacity, which is capacity located elsewhere on the planet. “When Columbus set sail, there were roughly 24 acres of Europe per European. Life was a struggle to make the most of insufficient and unreliable resources. After Columbus… a total of 120 acres of land per person was available in the expanded European habitat – five times the pre-Columbian figure!” (Catton, 1980, pg. 24)

It took another three centuries for the human population to double. The globe sustained one billion of us around the year 1800. The operations of takeover had proven to be powerful, enough so that many ecologists who study these things think that perhaps about one billion people is the balance point of global, indefinite, carrying capacity for the human species in pre-industrial ecosystems.

The Age of Exuberance became the new normal; from now on, year after year, growth was expected. The renaissance and scientific revolutions, the war for independence and the drafting of the American Constitution all took place against this background. Fetters like the dead weight of superstitions which had haunted our ancestors were thrown off right and left. The new abundance supported widespread literacy for the first time as leisure hours spread among the peoples. Technological improvements became the definition of progress and all began to feel entitled to a “perpetually expansive life” as Catton had it. A belief in limitlessness began to become common currency in our cultures. With the western enlightenment came a humanism that dared to assert it would be possible by man’s own ingenuity to improve his fortunes, improve the ‘state of nature’ and improve his social relations. An Age of Exuberance indeed. It is not difficult to understand how, as again Catton had it, we have inherited the conviction that mankind is “largely exempt from nature’s constraints.”

The Age of Exuberance would have run its course as the benefits of takeover were again maximized but for another fortuitous discovery. James Young, a Scottish chemist, noticed petroleum seeping out of a coal mine in Alfreton, Derbyshire. In 1847 he managed to distil light thin oil that could be used in lamps along with thicker oil good for lubricating machinery. In 1848 he started a small business refining crude. Mankind began a draw down not from elsewhere but elsewhen. Now we were dealing with another kind of ghost acreage, call it phantom acreage. It was the combination of the New World and the fossil fuel based industrial age together that created the 500+ year Age of Exuberance and Abundance we have now learned to take as the normal state of affairs.

Next week will continue our look at how carrying capacity plays out in the real world where we will meet the strange denizen, Homo Colossus.

Coming to Terms

“In a future that is as unavoidable as it will be unwelcome, survival and sanity may depend upon our ability to cherish rather than to disparage the concept of human dignity. My purpose in writing this book has been to enhance that ability by providing a clear understanding of the ecological context of human life.”

Overshoot, William Catton


I fear our ignorance more than our evil. In my experience evil is self-defeating, ignorance on the other hand, seems to know no bounds.

Contemplation is the art of penetrating thought that reworks previous understanding, mulling over something until insight comes forth from its gestation period. In Eastern traditions there is a set of practices designed to train the attention and increase the length of time the contemplative state can be retained. In these traditions value is placed on the depth of an insight, on how deeply it can be “felt.” The meditative position we see in statues of the Buddha with legs crossed and body upright allows stillness to develop and it has been found a still mind follows a still body, eventually. This meditative position is also one of the most grounded a human being can take, meaning in it can you can weather shocks, you can let energy pass through your emotional body into the earth on which you sit. If an insight arises that is so new and penetrating that it rocks your world, as we say, you can just breathe through it, watch it arise and eventually dissolve. Insight after insight, ignorance is diminished.

Without developing wisdom, diminishing ignorance, we go round and round in circles. Doing the same thing over and over again even though it doesn’t work is part of our craziness. Why? It has been suggested that more often than not decisions are made in ignorance of the relevant context in which they are being made. Consideration of the whole environment in which events occur is studied in what is known as systems theory. It is the study of complex systems; how they behave, what makes them tick and how they react to changes. Basically, the way towards not just knowledge but wisdom lies along the route of increasingly incorporating the environments of events in one’s contemplations. With the introduction of the environment we have entered the field of ecology.

We are only able to think along pathways we have terms for; concepts must exist for at least the structural aspect of the act of thinking. Every subject of study has its own vocabulary, using labels to communicate the context of its understanding. In today’s post we are building up to an understanding of the key ecological concept of an environment’s carrying capacity. We will work our way towards this through a series of steps each illustrated by images worthy of our contemplation. Mass, energy and light are the fundamental steps that will lead us to this week’s larger view.

ecosystems_diagram_open-external-environment_01An ecosystem is a name for an organized unit, a logical level that is complete in that it includes all the components it needs to survive over the long term. Ecosystem models are created when a boundary is drawn around the functions of interest; a patch of garden, pond, forest or planet. As soon as boundaries are introduced a system is defined. Ecosystems are open systems which mean these models explicitly include interactions with their environment. There will be inputs, typically energy and outputs including waste heat and processed materials.

Since ecosystems model the earth’s biosphere it helps to have a clear internal reference of our planet’s position, to include the earth’s temporal and spatial environments when bringing it before the mind’s eye. In the early solar system orbiting dust grains collided and stuck together in a process of accretion that in approximately 10,000 years produced boulders and asteroids a kilometer wide. Over the next million years these objects continued to collide forming moon and mars sized objects. These baby planets crash into one another over tens of millions of years until there were just a few survivors, each in its own orbit. So far this is all standard stuff from a high school astronomy class but to begin to pierce the mist of time and absorb your ancestry in your bones it might help to contemplate two details of the process, seeing them as they might have unfolded; the formation of our moon and the arrival of water.

When the rocky inner planets form, the denser elements sink into their planetary cores. These iron and nickel cores support the less dense molten magma consisting of rocks rich in oxygen, silicon and such. Above the magma the planetary crust forms. Some 50 million years after the accretion began early earth collides with another baby planet with such titanic force that it melts the crust and sends vaporized rock orbiting our young planet. In this final major accretion event our moon was born. The vaporized rock collides and sticks until our companion is formed, roughly 25% as big as earth but huge on the horizon with an orbit only 10,000 miles away. The moon has been receding from the earth ever since. The moon, uniquely in our solar system, lacks an iron core since by the time its birth collision occurred these heavier elements had already sunk to the earth’s core. Only the magma rocks were ejected.

As the great gas giants of the outer solar system complete their formation they perturb the orbits of the meteors and asteroids. On earth the bombardment becomes extreme yet it also brings water, the essential element for life. Only objects far enough from the sun are able to contain water that is not boiled off, far enough away to form ice. Out between Mars and Jupiter today we can see one of these asteroids, 1-Ceres. At close to 1,000 kilometers across it is nearly round, a proper planetoid, but not very dense probably because it contains a large amount of water ice. The earth’s waters, covering 70% of the planet, could all have arrived here in collisions with just a few such asteroids. During contemplation picture in your mind’s eye the arrival of these bubbles of life giving water on our fiery, volcanic planet until a natural awe and gratitude arise. It is difficult to pierce the mist of time but we have a knowing, a type of intuition about what we are, as it were, built through a long chain of cause and effect. Our ancestors were titans.

the_blue_marble_nasaThe most famous photo of all time was taken December 7th, 1972 by the last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17. This picture of the earth as seen from the moon is profound on so many levels. Of interest right now is how absolutely self-contained our planet is materially. The mass of our planet was gathered ~4.5 billion years ago and aside from a few meteors here and there has not substantially changed its material content since. All life ever has had or will ever have to survive and thrive is here on the planet right now. Materials cycle. They are used over and over again without losing their ability to function. All materials have their circular paths like water as it moves from ocean to cloud to rain to river to ocean to cloud…

Materials cycle, energy does not. Energy is a one way flow which can be temporarily captured, diverted, used to build complexity and sustain life as anti-thermal dynamics yet inevitably, in total, will always drive towards an increase in entropy, towards a more dispersed, useless state. Energy cannot be reused. It can be transformed from one form to another, as we see in photosynthesis magically converting light into food, but every transformation will only proceed if there is a degradation from concentrated energy to more dispersed and dissipated.

Earth, our jewel in space, is continually bathed in the light of our sun, bathed by radiation about 10 percent ultraviolet, 45 percent visible and 45 percent infrared. This unceasing flow of energy provides the one way gradient on which the web of life weaves its majestic forms.

All the ecosystems on our planet depend on the energy received from the sun (aside from a few specialized ecosystems that use the energy of geothermal vents). These ecosystems structurally consist of the primary producers and the secondary consumers, the plants and the animals. The primary layer is able to fix sunlight for the manufacturing of food from inorganic materials; green plants, algae and water plants. This biotic component is called autotrophic, which means self-nourishing. The secondary layer is heterotrophic meaning other nourishing. Since heterotrophs are unable to create their own food they must acquire it by consuming the complex materials created by the autotrophs.

The secondary, consumer layer is usefully further divided into herbivores, carnivores, omnivores and saprovores. The herbivores eat only plants, carnivores feed on other animals, omnivores feed on both plants and animals and saprovores feed on decaying organic materials, detritus. Most people have encountered these terms before except perhaps the term saprovores, which is a touch ironic. Saprovores feed on decaying organic materials, petroleum is decaying organic material. When humanity started its dependency on non-renewable fossil fuel energy sources it entered into a detritus ecosystem. These ecosystems are characterized by exuberant growth followed by a die-off crash. More about this as these posts proceed.

Today it is worth pausing with the saprovores a moment to emphasize the role of the compost heap in the larger scheme of things. When the complex biotic materials break down they do not “die” in any ultimate sense. There is no place cut off from the rest of the whole of Gaia in which the damned are cast off. There is only the compost heap, the recycling of every element in making way for new life to flourish and in its turn decay. Christian mythology has at times been understood to teach that there is a second death, one of the soul in hell above and beyond the death of the body. There is no such second death, the sun at midnight is ever the sun, and the dark humus of the compost heap is the farthest reaches of the truly existing.

The recognition of autotrophs and heterotrophs provides more than just a classification scheme. By following energy relationships through food webs it also uncovers the fundamental structure of earth’s ecosystems.

The primary trophic layer of green plants supports the herbivore layer which is known as the primary consumers. The carnivores that eat the primary consumers are known as the secondary consumers and finally in some ecosystems there are tertiary consumers dining on the secondary consumers. Each layer is able to utilize only about 10% of the energy transferred to it; about 10% of the energy is converted into biomass. This creates what is known as the energy pyramid with a large base of primary producers supporting increasingly smaller layers above it. For example in a simplified model a patch of field with 1,000 grams of wheat could support 100 mice as primary consumers. In the field 10 foxes could survive as secondary consumers on that many mice and those foxes could support 1 eagle as a tertiary consumer. All terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are structured in this energy pyramid form.

Another way to track energy through an ecosystem is to look at the respiration rate in relation to the total production of biomass. Any complex structure above absolute zero temperature requires, as Schrodinger has shown, a continual pumping out of the disorder to maintain its order. In ecosystems the complex biomass structure is maintained by the total community respiration which, we could say, pumps out the disorder. The ratio of total community respiration to total community biomass (R/B) is the maintenance to structure ratio, the thermodynamic ordering function. Nature might seek to maximize this ratio, a subject we will return to when our discussion takes up the dynamics of ecological succession.

We see there are finite quantities of material and a fixed flux of radiant energy on earth. Our planet is defined by these limitations. The thermodynamic energy laws give earth its characteristic dynamics, strictly delimiting what is and what is not possible. With these tools on our cognitive tool belt we are now in a position to begin to appreciate the concept of an environment’s carrying capacity.

The carrying capacity is the maximum population size of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely. In population biology it is defined as the environment’s maximal load. Next week’s post will look at carrying capacity in more detail but I leave you with two ideas to ponder until then. For an environment to sustain a population indefinitely its material and energy needs must come from renewable sources and there cannot be significant damage to the organisms or their environment; negative impacts lower the carrying capacity. The second idea is that the carrying capacity of an environment can change over time due to changing conditions. Some of the many variables that directly affect an environment’s carrying capacity include; changes in the availability of food and water, or changes in the ability of the environment to process wastes, or changes in the availability of energy in a useable form. In today’s world all of these variables are changing in ways that are shrinking our planet’s carrying capacity. This is the larger, slower reality behind the ephemeral headlines.

Approaching Ecology

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses –
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three cows pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing flanks on the outcrop rock-heads –
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. – As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Robinson Jeffers


Today I want to talk about two factors I think are indispensable for an approach to the study of ecology that can bring not just knowledge but some desperately needed wisdom. One is a personal relationship with deep time. The other is the relationship between the biosphere and the planet and how that unfolds for us personally as the relationship between mind and body.

Ecology is the science that studies life in the context of the environments in which it is found. The combination has uncovered fascinating, paradigm changing insights into life, the universe and everything. Why did including the environment in our contemplations and investigations have such an outstanding impact on western thought? For that we will need to return to the roots of modern western ideas on a whirlwind tour.

The theology of the west has seen the natural world as little more than a stage scene, theatrical props supporting the real action and little more. The real action was seen as the human soul’s relationship with its transcendent creator, a creator beyond or outside the natural world. With the enlightenment the western mythology was further molded as we dared to dream of an unending ascent of man through the power of our science and technology. The enlightenment asserted that the human being reflected divine attributes in its ability to reason. Hence animals and women were accorded lesser status due to their weaker reasoning capacity than men. Mathematics was the queen of the sciences as we perceived ourselves to be ghosts in a clockwork universe governed by deterministic laws. Descartes drew the proper implications of this philosophy and asked just where exactly the invisible world of thought and emotion, vision and conjecture we immediately experience and the mindless, dumb, silent, mechanical universe touched one another. Charmingly, he suggested it was in the pineal gland that the immaterial and material universes interacted.

Soon after the scientific revolution of the enlightenment the earth was not the center of the universe, the ego was not the center of the psyche and Homo Sapiens were no longer the sole reason for the evolution of life. The worldview built on an unbridgeable gap between spirit and matter failed to provide meaningful understanding as the new data poured in. Everywhere we looked we encountered the need to take the environment in which the objects of our study existed into account; we needed to think in terms of systems instead of isolated abstractions.

Object + environment = system

The root of the evolutionary insight is that differential reproduction is a product of the ongoing interaction between the individual and the environment. All the bountiful diversity of life and the strength to endure through the deep time of billions of years comes directly through the interplay of the biosphere and the planet. Nothing exists apart from this interconnectedness. It is the relationship between life on the one hand, expressed as movement and awareness and the planet on the other in which mountains and oceans, forests and deserts provide the objects for life’s awareness and the landscapes for life’s movements.

This is fundamentally an expression of a pattern, of intelligence. The primary reality is the relationship. It is not possible to separate life and its environment. Mind and matter are abstractions which in the real world are not two things but one. The materialist cognitive science of our day confronts the uncanny proposition that physical nervous system tissue creates non-physical thoughts, what Francis Crick rightly called the Astonishing Hypothesis. The aspect of the so-called mind-body problem that strikes us as uncanny, from its first description by Descartes through to the Bayesian neural nets haunting the “thinking meat” of today, is an artifact of separating our abstractions in our own thinking and expecting reality to follow suit. It does not.

To see just how slippery the terms we often use unthinkingly can be, consider a simple amoeba. A single celled life form is about as simple of an example of life as can be found. Create a food gradient in a Petri dish with the food source at one end and allow time for the food molecules to disperse. Place that cell in an environment in which there is a food gradient and it will tend to move towards the food source. The seemingly random motion of the cell will form a tendency, a probability density, to move in one direction over the others. (I examine the amoeba and belief in more detail here)

There are mysteries here. We see a form of awareness of the environment, the data of the changing molecular concentrations of food being processed into actionable information and an exercising of choice, or will. Here in one of the simplest models of life conceivable a whole handful of terms are being used to expound our understanding but each term is a continuum; where is the exact demarcation of cell and environment in the “sensory” interface of molecular exchange happening at the surface membrane? Just when does the “sensory” data turn into information? Did the choice arise only for the cell or is it more of a programmed reaction to the environmental configuration so we would be more correct to say the will is in the environment?

With this last question we are approaching another way of understanding mind, awareness. By watching closely how information and data is actually formed and processed, the seemingly clear boundary we take for granted in western thought between mind and the environment gets fuzzy. This is part of what Gregory Bateson meant by an ‘ecology of mind.’ It might also be what Dogen is getting at in the quote at the top of this blog. What might have sounded like poetic eastern mysticism in this context takes on a type of scientific insight; one that values the unity found in the relationship between mind and its contents or life and planet more highly then the disunity an analysis into concepts provides.

While Descartes was able to doubt animals had any emotions or awareness worthy of the name, evolution and ecology as well as cognitive science discovers a single continuum of awareness running through all of life. It is a continuum that extends through, or somehow depends intimately on, the inanimate environment as well.

The basic, most fundamental insight of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else. There is no part you can point to and say ah, this is where thinking occurs and nowhere else.

“The extraordinary patience of things!”
To begin to apprehend reality as it is, outside the narrow concerns of an individual life, is a form of worship. Your knowledge about the early stages of planetary evolution will not win you a raise and will only put you firmly in the geek camp as cocktail party banter. It does however give you a way to spend some time with a larger view of the universe; one that includes the un-human Jeffers refers to. Just to find it interesting to know how oxygen was first a poison or how the Pangaea supercontinent broke up is to show respect for the earth and the ways of planets. True there is no human interest here; no way to manipulate circumstances to avoid pain or acquire pleasure but this relief from those narrow concerns is a balm to the modern soul.

I have said before, in a sense life lives us. You are a child of deep time, a fruition of a life process that has been ongoing for billions of years, so long as to be unimaginable. We are able to capture the magnitude of these time spans conceptually rather easily but wisdom comes from deepening contemplations about them until they are felt in the body. The flow of blood is like the flow of rivers, the flow of signals in the nervous system is like the chemical communications of forest fungi tying together all the forest trees, the hard bones that give your body it’s structure are similar to the mountains and rocks, every breath you take is a participation with the atmosphere of rain and clouds – mythic metaphors, poetic analogies, scientific facts.

Gaia is the goddess of ecology. Scientifically the Gaia concept teaches how life shapes the non-living environment to create a context in which life can thrive. It is an intimate inter-penetration of organic and inorganic material flows, a dynamic summation of the biosphere plus planet. Mythologically the Gaia concept is a personalization of spaceship earth, the mother of us all, jewel in the vast darkness and emptiness of space. In future posts we will have the chance to discuss egolessness, here in passing it is worth noting that Gaia knitted together your body and Gaia brought forth your mind. In the mansions of awareness there are numerous experiences in which you get in touch with this reality in a visceral way. In this family of experiences you are able to touch a profound rest, a snuggling into the breath body, or energy body, or heart body, or body-mind. This is the part of you that is a child of deep time and knows it.

Instead of a lonely outcast among the cold vacuums of space and blind, dumb planetary rocks we find ourselves at home on Gaia. We do not sense this if we are too caught up in the exclusively human concerns. The poet reminds us how to wake up from that dream:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Ecology teaches us what we are. It teaches what Jeffers tried to communicate with the term he coined, inhumanism. It is not pro-human or anti-human but outside this framework entirely. The Wikipedia entry for Jeffers puts it well, “the belief that mankind is too self-centered and too indifferent to the ‘astonishing beauty of things.’ Jeffers articulated that inhumanism symbolized humans’ inability to “uncenter” themselves… [a] recognition of the trans-human magnificence.” One perhaps non-intuitive result of inhumanism is that it encourages one to look on the wisdom and folly of the human race with a more kindly eye. The distance between the street urchin and the captain of industry does not seem so large nor the morality of our quickly passing societies quite so inflexible.

These are the ideas that provide what I think are the proper contexts to approach studying the sciences of ecology. We should approach them with a type of humility that is willing to see beyond our anthropomorphism.