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.
Despite widespread awareness of worsening global environmental indicators such as species extinction and climate change, our current societal systems appear to conspire against taking meaningful corrective action. The dominant global economic paradigm is one of infinite growth, despite its implausibility on a finite planet with finite resources. At the heart of this problem is the widespread misapprehension of system divisibility; that our economy can act independently from the physical environment (figure 1a); despite the fact that all resources, all people and all of society is set within a physical system. The environment is thus the biophysical context that encapsulates and supports all other systems. Nested inside the physical sphere are society’s socio-cultural systems, of which the economy, being a subset of the society, is but one part amongst a number of other systems including education, health and governance (figure 1b).
Figure 1a. (left): Intersecting environmental-societal systems - an unrealistic representation of the whole. An example of its use is in the Australian Government’s recent population strategy. [iv]
Figure 1b (right): Nested systems - a more accurate illustration of the relationship between economic, societal and environmental systems. An example of this model can be found in the Sunshine Coast Regional Council’s Sustainability Advisory Panel report. [v]
Given the dependence of societal systems on biophysical health, it is incumbent on land-use planning practice to more clearly define the extent to which society is able to encroach into the biophysical sphere. However, at present, most local regions possess neither the tools nor the know-how to assess the productive capacity of their own precincts. To this end, carrying capacity assessment offers a way to assess our resource needs and also determine how best to meet these needs in the future. This process establishes direct causal relationships between a specific landscape, timeframe and people, and inherently links these aspects to systems of land usage and social function.
[i] MALTHUS, T. R. (1959) Population: The First Essay, Michigan, University of Michigan Press.
[ii] LOMBORG, B. (2001) The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
[iii] VAIL, J. (2006) Envisioning a Hamlet Economy: Topology of Sustainability and Fulfilled Ontogeny
[iv] This AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT (2011) Sustainable Australia - Sustainable Communities. A sustainable population strategy for Australia. Barton, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
[v] SUNSHINE COAST REGIONAL COUNCIL (2009) Sustainability Advisory Panel Minutes. Nambour.