Saturday, December 3, 2011


So what do Paul Ehrlich and a delicious restaurant in Truckee, California called the Squeeze In have in common? They are both featured in this story of course!

The scientist who cried wolf, Paul Ehrlich, surely made a mistake predicting mass starvation and environmental disaster from overpopulation in the 1960s. However, his caution was well-founded, and we would be making a mistake at least as serious to ignore the impact of humanity on the environment today.

The world's population has more than doubled from 3 billion in 1960 to nearly 7 billion today. Add to that increase in raw numbers of people an increase in the average standard of living for each person and you have a prescription for significant planet-wide environmental degradation.

Questions about the global carrying capacity for humans justifiably bear more weight today than they should have in 1960, but yet many dismiss the concerns as more of the same environmental doomsaying. Unfortunately, the world is vastly different today than in 1960 - 7 billion better-living people take up more space and use more resources than 3 billion mostly poor did 50 years ago.

Can the world handle 7 billion people over the long run? How about 9 billion people, a number we could reach before the middle of this century?

Questions of carrying capacity and sustainability are difficult to answer, and for many different reasons. First is the obvious issue of scale, the planet is big and measurements of agricultural productivity, water availability, suitable climates for growing food dwarf our worldwide data collection capabilities. But even if we manage to grow our data collection abilities with aerial and satellite observations, there is another basic problem.

Carrying capacity depends on the quality of life we are willing to accept. If we all require a single-family home on a quarter-acre of land, well, we better find a couple more planets, because we've already exceeded the carrying capacity of this Earth with 7 billion people. If we are all willing to live in small high-rise apartments and eat mostly a vegetarian diet, 9 billion or so might squeeze in.

The Squeeze In featured little elbow room in its 1970s edition as I recall (but delicious omelettes!), and we will all have very little metaphorical elbow room soon. That is, little food, little spare space, little oil or gas, and fewer species of beautiful plants and animals with which to share our good fortune of having a planet we call home. Are you ready to squeeze in?