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  Ishmael Community: The Science, Carrying Capacity

A True Story Illustrating What It Means To Exceed Carrying Capacity

    In 1944, 29 reindeer were imported onto St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea. Specialists had calculated (quite correctly) that the island could support between 1600 and 2300 reindeer, and by 1957 the population had grown to 1350. But by 1963, with no natural controls or predators, the population had soared to 6000, and in the next three years, this population exhausted the island's food resources and crashed, leaving only 42 specimens clinging precariously to life.

    It sometimes happens that a person in the midst of an LSD trip becomes convinced that human flight can be willed by one who knows how. More than one tripper has stepped off a roof top to prove that he or she has discovered the secret. The rest of us (or at least most of the rest of us) tend to assume that we're subject to the same laws as all other creatures. We can't by an act of will defy the law of gravity or the laws of aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, or thermodynamics. If we fire a gun at our head, an act of will won't keep the bullet out. If we drink a glass of cyanide, an act of will won't neutralize its lethal effects. If we hold our hand in a flame, an act of will won't keep it from burning. If we sink beneath the surface of the sea, an act of will won't let us breathe like a fish. If we step off the roof of a tall building, an act of will won't keep us afloat.

    To most of us, this seems obvious to the point of banality. Nonetheless, the vast majority of people of our culture are firmly convinced that acts of will enable us to defy certain laws. There's nothing doubtful about these laws. They're well known—at least as well known as the laws I mentioned above. There's no doubt of their universality; they apply to every species of life on this planet...except our own (or so we tell ourselves). We know without doubt that every other species is subject to these laws, but we're sure we can defeat them...by acts of will. We have a collective name for these acts of will: they come under the heading of birth control.

    The laws in question are laws governing the growth and decline of biological populations. The fact that these laws are about populations is what leads people to imagine that they can be evaded. After all, you're not a population, are you? Of course not. You are absolutely not subject to these laws. No one can look at you and say, for example, that you're exceeding the carrying capacity of your range. It would be nonsense to say such a thing. In the same way, no one can look at you and say that, even though you're already exceeding the carrying capacity of your range, living as you are, you will almost inevitably double in size in the next forty years, in obedience to well known biological laws. Utterly meaningless.

    But it's not meaningless to say that the collective to which you belong—the human species—IS exceeding the carrying capacity of its range and even so, living as we are, this species will almost inevitably double in size in the next forty years, in obedience to well known biological laws.

    The key phrase here is "living as we are." It's the key phrase because it leads to this fact: ANY SPECIES that lives the way we're living will grow exactly the way we're growing. As I say, the laws are universal. Any species that lives the way we're living will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of its range. Mice that live the way we're living will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of their range—no matter how big that range is. Elephants that live the way we're living will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of their range—no matter how big that range is. Reindeer that live the way we're living will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of their range—no matter how big that range is. (St. Matthew is about five times the size of Manhattan.)

    Mice, elephants, reindeer, and any other species that lives the way we're living will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of their range, and this will NOT be because they don't practice birth control.

    We too will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of our range, if we haven't already done so. (The reindeer of St. Matthew Island expanded to three times the carrying capacity of their range before the system collapsed.) And this will NOT be because we don't practice birth control.

    What exactly do I mean by "living the way we're living"? What exactly in our lifestyle causes our population to increase so disastrously? This should not be mysterious to any ecologist or environmental biologist, but I'll certainly spell it out in plain detail on November 4th (1997). Those who want a further hint can read the selection from Ishmael below; this was added in the most recent edition to the end of section 6, Chapter 8.

    The news I'll be bringing on November 4th (1997, in The Story of B) is that we don't have to go on "living the way we're living." Nothing compels us to do so. The important thing to note, however, is that birth control is not the issue. This isn't to say that it serves no purpose. Birth control is like recycling. Both are relevant and commendable, but neither one will save us. They're like pain-killers; they reduce the effects of the disease and give us a feeling of well being...while the disease itself continues unchecked.

    Daniel Quinn
    Summer, 1996

    Epilogue

    "You need to take a step back from the problem in order to see it in global perspective. At present there are five and a half billion of you here, and, though millions of you are starving, you're producing enough food to feed six billion. And because you're producing enough food for six billion, it's a biological certainty that in three or four years there will be six billion of you. By that time, however (even though millions of you will still be starving), you'll be producing enough food for six and a half billion -- which means that in another three or four years there will be six and a half billion. But by that time you'll be producing enough food for seven billion (even though millions of you will still be starving), which again means that in another three or four years there will be seven billion of you. In order to halt this process, you must face the fact that increasing food production doesn't feed your hungry, it only fuels your population explosion."

    "I see that. But how do we stop increasing food production?"

    "You do it the same way you stop destroying the ozone layer, the same way you stop cutting down the rain forests. If the will is there, the method will be found."

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