As we begin to address global challenges such as climate change, peak oil and over-population it is becoming apparent that we must re-orientate our society towards lower energy availability. This means that in the future, we will need to live in a world where our resources are produced and accounted for much closer to home. We will need to begin to live within the long term carrying capacity of our landscapes.

A prototype Carrying Capacity Dashboard has been developed to estimate the productive capacity of the Australian landscape at various scales: national, state and regional.

The Dashboard allows you to test how many people the resources of a certain area may support as well as determining how various lifestyle choices can influence land-use requirements. You can assess options such as a population’s diet, agricultural techniques, energy usage and recycling practices to gain real-time results. This form of modelling can help determine optimal placement, size and configuration of future human settlement as well as promoting societal behaviour consistent with the limits imposed by the natural environment.

The Carrying Capacity Dashboard is a prototype only and is currently being developed by Murray Lane as part of his PhD at Queensland University of Technology. We value your feedback on the Dashboard, and also your contribution to the Carrying Capacity Blog below.

A short history of the carrying capacity predicament

There is evidence to suggest that the struggle to subsist at or below the earth’s biophysical carrying capacity has dictated the behaviour and size of the global population since our very earliest beginnings. In fact, carrying capacity constraints are most likely the leading driver of societal systemic change from hunter-gathering to swidden agriculture; and from cultivation and pastoralism to modern industrialised agriculture. As each phase of human development reached its natural productive limits, pressure to ever-increase the local and global population has led to successive cultural and technological revolutions.

Despite a consistent expansion of human population, there have been periods of relative stability in which societies have managed to both assess the carrying capacity of their local environs, and also consciously maintain a population below its ecological limits. For example, the Australian aboriginal population of hunters and gatherers maintained a relatively stable population across the entire continent for millennia.[i] In a swidden agricultural system, the Maring people of Papua New Guinea developed an elegant and well documented[ii] system of carrying capacity assessment; and the agriculturally-orientated society of Tokugawan Japan[iii] also managed to maintain a reasonably stable population based on the carrying capacity of local regions. There are presumably many other historic precedents of populations intentionally living within carrying capacity-imposed limits but documented examples are few; and since global industrialisation has significantly expanded the resource-base, examples of self-sufficient societies living within their regional long term ecological capacity are arguably non-existent. The growth paradigm of the modern industrial era has meant that population expansion, along with its concomitant schema, economic expansion, has largely been viewed favourably, if not embraced wholeheartedly. is launched

Welcome to Australia’s leading carrying capacity website, featuring the Carrying Capacity Dashboard prototype and Carrying Capacity Blog.

Our aim is to raise awareness of the importance of carrying capacity assessment as a forward planning tool - to help establish a sustainable balance between people and their localised environment.

Given the dependence of societal systems on biophysical health, it is vital that land-use planning initiatives have the ability to more clearly define potential future demands on the environment. Carrying capacity assessment offers a way to assess our resource needs and also determine how best to meet these needs.

The Carrying Capacity Blog facilitates an ongoing public conversation around questions of population and sustainable land-use. It offers commentary on past, present and future trends in carrying capacity analysis; looking first at how carrying capacity can be assessed and then how it might be maintained. Topics include:
  • historical perspectives on the carrying capacity dilemma
  • insight into how the concept has developed
  • analysis of current global crises from a carrying capacity perspective and how these problems might be best faced
  • a survey of various existing carrying capacity models
  • a thorough description of the development of the Carrying Capacity Dashboard
  • an exploration of the wider societal implications for living within carrying capacity limits

The Carrying Capacity Dashboard marks an important initial step towards the widespread adoption of carrying capacity assessment linking people to place. It is hoped that carrying capacity estimation tools like the Dashboard can be of use in a number of ways:
  • influencing urban and rural planning policy at all levels of government
  • assisting researchers and educators in highlighting system boundaries and physical limits to design proposals.
  • helping individuals and local communities to more clearly define lifestyle changes necessary to ensure more resilient and sustainable societies in the future.

Why we need to assess our carrying capacity

There are clear signs that society is threatening the biophysical limits of our shared environment and that the size, distribution and behaviour of the population is to blame. The seven billion-strong global human throng is exerting such pressure on our existing societal and environmental systems as to suggest a re-evaluation of existing approaches to the way in which land and resources are managed and to the very structures that allow these problems to escalate. We need to fundamentally reshape our land-use planning practices to align with the biophysical constraints of the landscape. To this end, we need the tools to quantify these constraints, analyse them collectively, and then make predictions about their behaviour to inform planning decisions. This practice defines the process of carrying capacity assessment. 

The question of global overpopulation has challenged the world’s sociologists since Thomas Malthus raised the prospect over 200 years ago. Malthus [i] argued that while human population potentially grows exponentially, the resources required for human survival remain relatively finite. To date, society has largely managed to produce the resources necessary to feed, house and clothe the majority of the earth’s inhabitants, though in vastly differing degrees of comfort, and Malthusian sceptics[ii] argue that his predictions of over-population have not eventuated because advanced technology and the use of high-energy fossil fuels have allowed for a significantly expanded resource-base. However, this mode of industrialised production and consumption has proven costly, with world-wide environmental degradation, resource depletion and social inequities escalating, and an ever-increasing global population serving to magnify the problem.