A major topic of focus in human geography is sustainability, which is not the least bit surprising with the increases in resource use and material output that have occurred in the last two centuries. The issue of population growth has magnified concerns about responsible use of the environment and meeting the needs and wants of ever larger numbers of people in the world. As globalization continues to march forward and countries reach for higher economic goals, new technology will be developed to improve quality of life for people the world over (to varying degrees). But what happens when new technology results in increases in population, challenging countries to meet the needs of more and more citizens?
Carrying Capacity and the Cornucopians
Carrying capacity is a term used by demographers to refer to the maximum population that can be sustained by the earth’s resources. One thing we know from historical study is that new technology can have a dramatic impact on the carrying capacity of the planet and there are conflicting theories that help show the great differences in perspective on this impact. In this post I will focus on the historical context of the Cornucopian Thesis as a conceptual model of technological development and sustainability.
Cornucopians believe that new technology and scientific advancement will make humans more efficient resource users; not only will we be better able to extract and use those natural materials we find in abundance now, but new developments in technology will allow us access to resources in the future that we currently cannot obtain (Clark & Wallace, p. 35). This is a positive view of sustainability in that as we become more technologically advanced, we will have access to new resources to meet our ever growing needs as a species.
There are any number of examples that help describe this theory, but the following is enough to help us get the idea: our economy is at present highly reliant on oil and petroleum products. Everything from transportation in the form of cars and aircraft, to the production of plastics, to fertilizers to increase food production involve the use of this non-renewable resource. Cornucopians argue that new sources of energy will be developed to replace petroleum, and we can already see this happening in the form of solar, wind, tidal, hydroelectric, geothermal, bioenergy and other alternative sources being funded in recent decades (About Renewable Energy). For example, the graph below shows the growing importance of wind energy, as the second fastest growing renewable energy source in Canada (still far behind hydroelectricity, however).
Installed Wind Power Capacity in Canada (in megawatts). Source: Natural Resources Canada.
While the cornucopian thesis may be controversial as a reliable predictor of future human success, as population continues to grow, there are historical precedents to support its use.
If we go back to the earliest period in the history of modern humans – the late Paleolithic Era – we see the earliest examples of technology increasing earth’s carrying capacity. Our prehistoric ancestors were nomadic peoples, meaning they travelled from place to place to take advantage of favourable climate and geography at various times of the year. As hunter-gatherers, they followed herds of animals and gathered fruits, berries, and other vegetation they could use as food supplies. Due to the relative difficulty in acquiring food this way, social groups tended to be roughly 25 members in size (Elshaikh, 2017), but could sometimes be as populous as 70 (Beck et al., 2007).
At first, the carrying capacity of the earth would be relatively low, as without sophisticated tools for hunting it would be exceedingly difficult to provide enough food to dramatically increase the population. As these early humans developed better use of stone tools for cutting, slashing, stabbing, and shooting their prey from a distance, the population size that could be supported would increase. Estimating the total population of Early Modern Humans is quite difficult, but by 10,000 BCE there may have been as many as 1-10 million (US Census Bureau, 2017), suggesting that this was the carrying capacity of the earth at the time.
One of the most significant changes in human life came with the first developments in agriculture between 10,000-12,000 years ago. This caused groups of humans to shift from a food-gathering economy to a food-producing economy, greatly increasing their chances of survival and improving food security. Early technologies would have included stone plows for cultivating the land, rudimentary irrigation systems consisting of ditches dug in the earth, and primitive granaries for storing cereals like wheat. These technologies were vital in allowing humans to generate food surpluses, as now they could produce more food than they ever had, while being able to store it for later use, thus providing conditions that would allow the population to grow considerably. Since people now had to settle more or less in one place in order to farm, we see establishment of the first settlements and towns. The people of these earliest towns likely used a combination of farming and hunter-gatherer activity to sustain themselves (Violatti, 2014).
It is estimated on the low end that the human population of the earth increased from 1 million in 10,000 BCE to nearly 14 million by 3,000 BCE, or the beginning of the Ancient Era (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). That’s a staggering increase in just seven thousand years, showing again how changes in technology and new innovations can directly impact carrying capacity.
The Industrial Revolution
While the development of agriculture, which spawned the Neolithic Revolution, is considered to be the more significant innovation in human history, the dramatic changes that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries are a very close second. Though this may be the case, the earth’s carrying capacity still changed considerably. A second agricultural revolution took place in the 1700s as new technologies (e.g., the seed drill, mechanized harvesters, selective breeding of livestock, enclosure farming, etc.) made it even easier to produce more food from the same land area that was available years before. This combined with new sources of energy, especially coal and steam power, would begin to replace man and animal power, resulting in far more efficient resource use and goods production (Clarke & Wallace, p. 63). People would begin to flock from rural areas, where fewer farm hands were needed, to Urban centres to find work in factories. These new production facilities would rely on greater resource extraction made possible by coal and steam energy.
To add to these farming developments, other technologies and techniques had important influences on human life during the 18th and 19th centuries and, in particular, medical advancements were crucial to human population growth. In the late 1700s, an English country doctor, Edward Jenner, discovered that farmers exposed to cowpox, a mild viral infection, would be protected against the far more deadly smallpox, thus paving the way for the use of vaccinations to protect against infectious disease. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor working in Austria, discovered that regular hand washing and rudimentary sanitation in medical procedures could greatly reduce mortality rates in hospitals, leading to an early understanding of germ theory. Such discoveries we now take for granted, but at the time these contributed to a greatly reduced death rate, which, combined with increases in food production, caused the population to double in just over 100 years (Clarke & Wallace, p. 57).
Carrying Capacity Today
The changes that have occurred in carrying capacity over the millennia no doubt provide support for the cornucopian conceptual model of earth and its resources. Even during the 20th century there were further advances in food production as industrialized nations tripled production, mostly due to synthetic fertilizers and new combine harvesters (Shariatmadari, 2009). We should not forget to mention the Green Revolution that saw new disease resistant varieties of crops and more efficient agricultural methods brought to countries like Mexico and India in the mid 1900s.
World Population Growth. Source: Barcelona Field Studies Centre.
The fact remains, however, that though technology has worked for us in the past and has done wonders for sustaining the human race, the rate of population growth over the last two centuries has been truly remarkable and threatens to push us to the limits of earth’s productive capacity. We have seen commercial fisheries collapse as a result of overexploitation, forests severely clearcut, and large bodies of fresh water drained to a fraction of their former size. Some believe our success as a species has brought the world and its resources to the brink. The question yet remains: how confident are we that going forward we will be able to improve innovation and create new technologies that adequately increase earth’s carrying capacity to meet the future needs of our growing population?
Barcelona Field Studies Centre (2017). Population Change. Retrieved from https://geographyfieldwork.com/PopulationChange.htm
Beck, Roger B., Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, and Dahia Ibo Shabaka (2007). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, Ill.: McDougal Littell.
Clark, B., & Wallace, J. (2009). Global Connections: Canadian and World Issues (2nd ed.). Don Mills, Ontario: Pearson.
Elshaikh, Eman M. (2017). Paleolithic Societies in KhanAcademy.org. Retrieved from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/world-history-beginnings/origin-humans-early-societies/a/what-were-paleolithic-societies-like.
Natural Resources Canada (2016). About Renewable Energy. Retrieved from http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/renewable-electricity/7295
Shariatmadari, H. (director). (2009). How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth. Documentary Film.
U.S. Census Bureau (2017). Historical Estimates of World Population. Retreived from https://www.census.gov/population/international/data/worldpop/table_history.php
Violatti, C. (2014, August 05). Neolithic. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Neolithic/