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August 13, 2013
By Shawn Dell Joyce 7:23 pm

Our population is hovering at 7 billion, leading some to wonder if we have already passed our planet’s carrying capacity. It took thousands of years for humans to first establish a firm presence on this earth. Then, our population began doubling very quickly. If you are a baby boomer, and were born in 1945, you have seen the population double with your birth to 2.3 billion. And then double again around 2003. You even have seen the population more than triple in the span of one single lifetime to 7 billion in 2012.

Looking at Earth as a whole, we have about 22 billion acres of usable land. This is contains about 3.3 billion acres of farmland, 8.4 billion acres of pastureland and 10.1 billion acres of forestland. Not all of the land is fertile, which will affect its ability to produce food. We also must share this land with other species already dependent upon that land for survival.

According to Dr. Sidney Liebes’ book “A Walk Through Time, “if the earth were the scale of a ball that you could hold in your hand, the amount of usable farmland would look like a tiny speck of dust by comparison. Additionally, all the drinkable water would look like a tiny water droplet, while the breathable atmosphere would be a thin coating of shellac.

Our current ecological footprint, which measures how much land it takes to feed, clothe and shelter a typical American, is about 9.6 global hectares, compared to the available 1.8 global hectares of usable land (according to Wikipedia). If everyone used resources and land the way we Americans do, we would need three more planet earths to sustain our population.

Estimates of the Earth’s carrying capacity vary according to which population you are measuring, since some populations live more sustainably than others. Some scientists say that not only are we living beyond earth’s carrying capacity, but we are also eating up future generation’s ability to live within earth’s means. We are literally emptying the earth’s bank account rather than living off the interest as our ancestors have done, and leaving a “balance due” for future generations.

British geographer, Ernst George Ravenstein is credited with first estimating the carrying capacity of the earth to around 6 billion. Presently, at 7.1 billion, more than a billion of our population does not receive enough food energy to carry out a day’s work. Even through Ravenstein was operating on statistics from last century, he hit fairly close to home.

Before Ravenstein, the English clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus argued that human population always increases more rapidly than food supplies and that humans are condemned to breed to the point of misery and starvation. The two hundred years since Malthus’ essay was first published have proven him wrong. We can artificially increase food production above birth rates and decline in numbers in the presence of plenty.

The World Hunger Program at Brown University estimated, based on 1992 levels of food production and an equal distribution of food, that “the world could sustain either 5.5 billion vegetarians, 3.7 billion people who get 15 percent of their calories from animal products (as in much of South America) or 2.8 billion people who derive 25 percent of their calories from animal products (as in the wealthiest countries).”

Clearly we have passed all sustainable estimates and are now entering the “borrowed time” area of the population chart. In order to provide the projected 9 billion people in 2050 with 2100 calories per day (what food aid agencies declare as the minimum caloric intake) we would have to double our global agricultural production. Humans have already plowed over most of the usable farmland on the planet, and there is a limit to any field’s fertility. Could Malthus be right after all?

This is not a new chapter in human history. We have faced starvation before, and triumphed. According to Lester Brown, “In the 15th century, Icelanders realized that overgrazing of their grasslands was leading to soil erosion. Farmers then calculated how many sheep the land could sustain and allocated quotas among themselves, thus preserving their grasslands and a wool industry that thrives today.”

Here are some steps you can take to reduce your ecological footprint.

  • Measure your ecological footprint at
  • Walk, bike or share a ride instead of driving or flying
  • Have a home energy audit and increase your home’s efficiency
  • Adopt energy-saving habits and use “low-tech” clotheslines and curtains
  • Eat local, in season and organic, and eat less meat
  • Invest in a greener home instead of a bigger home
  • Buy less, reuse more
  • Have smaller families and support zero population growth

Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning columnist and founder of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y. You can contact her at To find out more about Shawn Dell Joyce and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2013 CREATORS.COM