What is Earth’s Carrying Capacity? “Ecofascism” At Least Alludes to this Question

Lorenzo Benitez - Culture and Philosophy

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How many human beings can the planet sustain at a given time? As the global population edges closer and closer to 10 billion in the coming years, the maximum human population that the Earth can sustain has become even more fiercely debated. Despite the wide disagreement on the value of this population threshold, also referred to as our planet’s carrying capacity, an excessive population would admittedly entail certain environmental consequences already being realized.  This is the likely intuition guiding those whose contributions to public discourse have been labeled as ecofascist

Dan, the pseudonym of self-described ecofascist interviewed by the New Statesman in 2018, claimed that ecofascists “put the wellbeing of our earth, nature and animal on the forefront of their ideology.” A less benign characterization is offered by the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature, which defines it as a political ideology that  subsumes the interests of some individuals to the “organic whole of nature.” In other words, some will have to suffer to either sustain or better cultivate a certain quality to the natural world.

When Western nations were first being shuttered in March, certain segments of the internet celebrated positive environmental externalities arising from the shutdown. Some were misled, such as those cheering the fake return of dolphins to Venice. The derision with which they were widely met pointed to how human suffering would disproportionately fall upon certain social classes more than others, which has unsurprisingly turned out to be the case. However, pretending for a moment that suffering were fairly distributed among social classes, could we still criticize them then? 

The world’s population is projected to top 11 billion people by 2100, yet data offered by the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank, suggests that the Earth can support at most 1.5 billion people at an American standard of living. Indeed, while alleged ecofascists may be wrong in light of present circumstances, they nonetheless express a sentiment that will inevitably have to be addressed assuming the continued expansion of our population.

The Repugnant Conclusion

The philosopher Derek Parfit argued, albeit reluctantly, on behalf of what he termed the “Repugnant Conclusion.” In his 1984 book Reasons and Persons, he argues: 

“For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.”

For so long as the average person’s life provides them with more net utility than their not being alive, then from a utilitarian framework, which seeks to maximize the net welfare of society as a whole, we ought to have more people alive So much more so that until we reach the limit where the average human life no longer holds this utilitarian advantage over not being alive, we ought to maximize the human population, allowing for more persons to experience the net utility of life over no life. 

This limit lies beyond our current population, but it does lie somewhere. Dystopic science fiction conjures worlds, such as the one in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, that utmost of us, if given the choice, would likely choose not to be born in, even if it entails never having been born at all. Such worlds evince the intuition that there must exist a point at which life is no longer worthwhile, or preferable to never having lived. But until then, assuming utilitarianism, there is still room for more on this planet. The question of how much room is central to population ethics.

Lying between a dystopian world and our actual one, is a world close to, but not yet past, this threshold of misery. What would this near-threshold world look like? We imagine it would be crowded, where people eek by just above a certain standard of misery. But by virtue of how many people exist who wouldn’t have otherwise, there is still more net utility to go around overall.

Parfit admitted himself he would not favor a world that actualizes the Repugnant Conclusion to our actual one and many philosophers agree with him. However, it has been difficult to avoid it without implying other counterintuitive conclusions, not to say anything of it moving away from the utilitarian ideal. Parfit believed that, in search of the utilitarian ideal, we must conclude our search at this repugnant point above a basic threshold of suffering.

Imagine for a moment that we did live in the near-threshold world. How would we then respond to the “ecofascist” Twitter user who celebrates the return of dolphins to Venice in a world where our lives are only just above a standard of misery -- a world like that imagined by Parfit? Wouldn’t the return of dolphins in a dreadful, almost-miserable but utility-maximizing world, be an even more profound and welcome sight? Especially if this world were to be halted by a pandemic such as ours?

Imagining this world seems to provoke a stronger intuition on behalf of the sentiment that guides the average online ecofascist. But even if this near-threshold world is “repugnant,” as Parfit describes it, it still is one that maximizes the net utility of society as a whole. The sense of wonder we’d conceivably feel upon seeing dolphins return to Venice in a near-threshold world would be irrational in the face of utilitarian reason. The utilitarian says that the planet, like a  life raft, ought to carry the highest number of people it can support, even if each person is less comfortable.

The Environmental Consequences of Maximizing Carrying Capacity

Confronting the possibility that we are near, at, or past our planet’s carrying capacity provokes some startling questions. How do we balance the interests of the human species against the rest of the natural world? For instance, pretend there exists a particular species of primitive insect totally useless to human society (maybe even harmful to human society, if helps) that could be expediently killed for the sake of expanding the planet’s  human carrying capacity by millions of people. Would we permit that insect’s extinction? For the  sake of argument, this insect isn’t completely extinct -- maybe it still exists in labs, zoos or controlled environments for scientific and historical purposes. Would you still permit this possibility, for the sake of actualizing millions of human lives? As we near this threshold, pretending will become less and less necessary to evaluate humanity’s environmental strain.

Indeed, this theorizing may seem removed from more immediate concerns, such as how developed nations consume a profoundly disproportionate amount of resources per capita. (The Earth has 1.9 hectares of land per person for growing food and textiles for clothing, supplying wood and absorbing waste. The average American uses about 9.7 hectares.) Or, it could all be unnecessary, considering continued technological evolution could outweigh the deleterious effects of climate change on the planet’s net carrying capacity. But the vast suffering that characterizes much of human existence, evident in the millions still living in poverty today, supports the argument that we may already be past our planet’s carrying capacity, especially if society aims to universalize developed-world standards of living. After all, if you believe that there exists a limit on population size pegged by a utilitarian-maximizing framework, then the only fundamental difference, between you and a supposed “ecofascist,” once you look past their callous rhetoric, is where this limit lies. Just because actual fascists were concerned with lebensraum doesn’t mean we can’t ask similar questions without avoiding their racist and nationalist motivations. 

Even though our trajectory toward “filling up” the Earth makes sense so long as we remain within our planet’s carrying capacity, we must begin to more thoroughly investigate what this carrying capacity is. After all, the ecofascist only warrants such a label so long as the brunt of climate change is unfairly distributed. Once this ceases to be the case, their concerns become fundamental to the size, quality, and longevity of human society. Even if such concerns seem merely philosophical at present, we must begin deliberating them. Only then can we hope to avoid surpassing the maximum population threshold, assuming we have not yet already.

Written by Lorenzo Benitez

Lorenzo Benitez is a Filipino-Australian documentary filmmaker and writer based in New York.

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