Earth is exceeding its ability to replenish its own resources. Each year, human beings consume our natural stocks at about 160% of their sustainable yield. Obviously, we cannot continue to use resources faster than the planet can replenish them without serious ecological and socioeconomic consequences.
Economic Democracy Advocates recognizes that the next economy will have to balance the needs of Earth’s expanding population with the shrinking level of resources which are available to everyone. This dynamic equilibrium is called carrying capacity. It is a middle path between the faster, geometric growth rates of human population, individual consumption and economic production, and the slower, arithmetic replenishment rates of water, food and fossil fuels.
Why the ‘Market Myth’ is Ending in Ecological and Social Chaos
Historical records, from the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia to early civilizations in the North and South Americas, provide numerous examples of carrying capacity practiced successfully by people in local settings over long periods. Yet, as towns developed and began to control the raw materials and labor of their countrysides, profitable strategies for resource extraction, production and trade gradually displaced the agrarian customs of living sustainably within the cycles of nature.
During the past five centuries, these same methods for social control — enclosing the commons, devising unequal trade and enforcing those restrictions through the armed might of governments — were scaled up to the global level. Following the earlier pattern, imperial centers of capital controlled the resource- and labor-rich fringes of their rural empires through iron-handed colonialism.
The latest chapter in this saga — of enterprising groups claiming exclusive property rights over those who live and work amid nature’s capital — is harder to see, but still deeply inequitable. Everywhere now in the world, decentralized communities struggle to reclaim the social ownership and natural wealth of their commons from centralized corporations and their shareholders, who produce and trade these same commodities virtually unnoticed across vast distances.
There are no easy or familiar solutions for these non-regenerative, structural imbalances. Except for small groups of indigenous peoples, farmers and land planners from whom we still can learn, carrying capacity has never been a core part of our conventional economic system. Somehow, civilization neglected to measure the differences between the needs of an increasing population and the diminishing resources available for each person. Somewhere along the line, we forgot how to inventory and quantify our commons and plan for the long-term future.
We Are What We Measure
This is why EDA employs the metrics of carrying capacity to prevent renewable and non-renewable resources from being consumed beyond their maximum sustainable yield. The goal is for renewable resources to be harvested or used at the same rate at which they replenish themselves, and for non-renewable resources to be extracted and consumed by the present generation at a significantly slower rate to preserve these commons for future generations.
Many people today are reconsidering the self-sufficiency and sustainability of their own neighborhoods. There’s renewed interest in the re-localization of resources and avid curiosity about the democratic, cooperative management of local and regional commons. Particularly as climate change creates the possibility of extreme storms, wildfires, floods, rising sea levels, drought, crop failures and other economic uncertainties, people want to know how to make the living systems on which they depend more resilient in the face of such risks.
‘Supply and Demand’ is Not an Organic Cycle
Yet, unlike any previous era in history, when new ideas for resource management might be tested over long centuries or even millennia, humanity no longer has the luxury of time. What we know now — by comparing present water, food and energy yields with their availability for the world’s population — is stunning.
The next three or four generations represent our last chance to safeguard the Earth’s essential hydrological, nitrogen and carbon cycles from the destructive business cycles of production, trade and consumption. By the end of this century, it will be nearly impossible for the human race to transform this failed system of resource extraction and predatory exchange, and embark on an ecological path which is not plagued by economic scarcity and social unrest.
Need Measured is Need Met
This is why EDA is dedicated to both community-building and empirical research in the protection of declining resources. We’re measuring the sustainable yields of American counties and bioregions as a way to define, apportion and distribute what every person needs, and ensure that the commons are healthy and accessible for future generations.
At the same time, EDA is introducing this evidence-based framework to a broad constituency across the United States through research, education, training, advocacy and legislation. We want to see carrying capacity — the maximum number of people which can be supported by the resources available within an environment — become a practical and enduring foundation for social policy.
Please join Economic Democracy Advocates and assist us in this important work. We urge you to learn about the opportunities available and to engage according to your own level of interest. Contact the EDA Carrying Capacity Team:
Patti Ellis – [email protected]
James Quilligan – [email protected]