Does the world have a “carrying capacity”?

Throughout human history the growth of the overall population has been significantly small however in more recent times this has changed. The population has grown from around three billion to over 6.4 billion in the last 40 years.

When examining the statement “Does the work have a carrying capacity” there are three view points: The optimist, the pessimist and the realist.

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The main realist’s view came from Malthus who stated:

“…the population is increasing at an exponential rate…while the limited amount of land available will mean that food supply can only increase at an arithmetic rate… ”

Therefore we can deduce that there will eventually be a point where population growth will outstrip food supply and we will be unable to grow enough food to feed the population. However at this point famine will set in and the population should drop significantly. This is the idea that Malthus suggested would eventually stop the population from significantly outstripping food supply: natural checks. Events such as wars, famine and disease as well as people’s moral restraint (later marriages and abstinence from sex) would all work toward reducing the population.

However relying on such events to occur and people to avoid having sex is too risqu� and is obviously not totally true as, especially in LEDC’s, wars and disease are likely to encourage couples to have more children to increase the likelihood of one surviving hence a greater crude birth rate.

A rather more gloomy theory was put forward by the Club of Rome who released a report entitled ‘Limits to Growth’. In it they stated:

“If present day trends continue…the limits to growth…will be reached in the next one hundred years”.

They came to this conclusion as they realised that the population growth is outstripping food supply meaning less food per capita plus there is also greater resource depletion. This means that growth, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion can not continue at the present rate otherwise there will be mass famine of unbelievable proportions. This ‘doomsday’ prediction has not proved accurate, fortunately, as they failed to take into account the technological advances in food growth techniques and the subsequent rise in output and well as the ability to replace fossil energy source with renewable energy sources.

Opponents of these less-than-pleasing views suggested that resources are not a fixed quantity but are infact discovered, invented and created by humans. The best known of these is (Ester) Boserup who published ‘The Conditions of Agricultural Growth’ which stated:

“…population pressure is a stimulus for an improvement in agricultural techniques leading to more food being produced.”

This theory lies predominately with the assumption that human ingenuity will lead to finding new and/or improved ways to produce a greater yield of food coupled with an increased ability to distribute this food. How ever the latter point leads to problems of whether countries can afford to import food and/or, in the case of LEDC’s, be able to economically survive without exporting more food than is required to feed the population.

However, none of these theories encompass the whole range of possibilities. There may be more (or less) natural disasters in the future. Present data suggests a continual rise over time however the data does consider whether this rise is due to the occurrence of more disasters or just improvements in our abilities to report and record these disasters. Either way natural disasters can have devastating effects on the population growth.

Also we may find cures for diseases meaning that eventually diseases such as Aids maybe wiped out for good meaning there will be a decrease in the crude death rate. Plus with the advent of contraception and the education of the consequences of unprotected sex the birth rate may eventually go down leading to an overall levelling out of the crude birth and deaths rates to a similar amount.

Religion can also play a major role. Most war’s fought are usually about or connected to religion – people dying for what they believe in – and should this continue there will always be such natural population checks which will push the crude death rate up. And this shall always continue as everyone has beliefs and will always go about trying to get people to believe their point of view over others; even if they have to use force.

Resources also play a part in the capacity of the world. Things such as coal, oil and gas have formed over millions of years and as these run out, hence recycling efforts, they become more valuable and sought after; subsequently wars are fought over resources. However, even though these resources are running out it is in our nature to be ‘iron fist’ consumerists, we will continue to use these resources in a progressively greater manner pushing the demand for certain ‘base’ products higher and higher leading to conflict. The fact that they are also unevenly distributed means people are willing to fight each other for access to these resources leading to a increase in crude death rate.

In hindsight there is no right or real answer however one thing is certain. The population is rising exponentially and the there is only so much land that we can inhabit and so many resources we can use so unless something is done soon the world’s capacity will be continue to be put at an even greater strain.

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