Shock NYTimes column: Sustainability is ‘nonsense’ — says college prof!

Erle Ellis writes in the NYTimes:

Many scientists believe that by transforming the earth’s natural landscapes, we are undermining the very life support systems that sustain us. Like bacteria in a petri dish, our exploding numbers are reaching the limits of a finite planet, with dire consequences. Disaster looms as humans exceed the earth’s natural carrying capacity. Clearly, this could not be sustainable.

This is nonsense.

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6 thoughts on “Shock NYTimes column: Sustainability is ‘nonsense’ — says college prof!”

  1. What is equally shocking is his conclusion, which is that there are no limits to population growth. He flipped from one extreme to the other, which says something about him as a scientist. While one does not know where the limits of population are, one does know there are limits. One knows with even greater certainty that there are limits to rapid population growth. Technological evolution takes time.
    The anti-Malthusian train of thought is equally irrational as the Malthusian one. Actually more so. If you look at the Middle East today, you see classic case of excessive population growth feeding societal disintegration. Anywhere where the population is still in the doubling/generation mode (half or more of the population under the age of 15 is a good proxy) you will see similar problems.

  2. Re MF: “What is equally shocking is his conclusion, which is that there are no limits to population growth.”
    It is interesting that you make this projection from Ellis’ article. He actually says population will not expand indefinitely for human social reasons, not that there are no potential physical limits to either the rate of rise or ultimate total population. In fact he says that we are already far beyond the carrying capacity of the planet for a hunter-gatherer level of technology.
    The concept of ‘sustainability’ must assume some level of technology as being appropriate. Which, therefore, would be a better approach: freeze technology at the current level or continue improving it? Improving technology has provided better living conditions with less environmental disruption, on a per capita basis.
    Next, you seem to assume that human population will inherently expand to the limits of available food supplies. That is the reason for Ellis’ comments about a petri dish of bacteria is not an appropriate biological model of human society. If it was, it would be the developed and well fed nations of the world that would have the greatest population growth rate. In fact, the opposite is true. High child birth rates are used a hedge against poor survival rates. For many parts of this world, the concept of a retirement plan is having enough children to feed you when you get to old to fend for yourself. So no, drop the Malthusian view of the human population. Remember the popular counter claim: “Humanity did not move out of the stone age because we ran out of rocks!” We invented our way out.

  3. Professor Ellis refers to anti-poverty and food security programs or policies. Liberty, especially economic liberty and its concurrent property rights, is the key anti-poverty food security program. When people can exchange freely — and, if capable, must do so to sustain themselves — societies achieve the most widespread affluence and the most widespread high standards of living.
    Command economies always reduce standards of living at the low end without really reducing the standard at the high end. They just have fewer people living at the high end.

  4. I can always tell someone who has never had a class in science. If they use the word ‘sustainability’ as if the concept has any credibility, they have never been introduced to the concept of Entropy.
    As they say about the Speed of Light: “It’s not just a good idea, it’s the Law!”

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