Re: reply to Mizrach

Wed, 28 Sep 1994 15:38:00 PDT

Walker writes:

"... tribes of the Columbia River Basin
of northwestern North America were able to maintain a sustained fishery
for at least ten thousand years, whereas that fishery has been virtually
destroyed in less than 100 years by Euroamerican ...
econoic sustainability of such environmental resources is a reflection of
basic population stability, or something else such as technological
advancement, capitalism, world view, etc. For me, this debate affects such
things as whether rebuilding the fish runs or attempting to restore other
endangered environmental resources makes sense in the long run."

In this recent thread it seems there are two issues comingled: (1) commentary
on the value/virtue of non-european societies with regard to their supposed
integration with nature, in contrast to western capitalist societies and (2)
the relationship between population growth and destruction/pollution of the
environment. The latter is more easily addressed as the dynamics are quite
simple. A continually growing population will eventually degrade its
resource base regardless of technology, economic system, degree of
integration with its environment, etc. The resource base (plants, animals,
fish, etc) for human populations is ultimately limited (regardless of the
degree of agricultural intensification, etc.) by earth having a finite amount
of land and a finite amount of energy arriving via the sun. I recall reading
somewhere (where I don't recall) that the upper bound for population on
planet earth is around 30-50 billion persons, based on the amount of land
mass and the amount of sunlight energy received by the earth. To be more
blunt: a growing population increases its size exponentially and outstrips
anything less than an exponentially increasing resource base.

ANY population (native, captitalist, etc.) that continually grows must
therefore degrade its environment through intensification OR have its growth
curtailed, whether voluntary or not. What western societies have achived (as
others have already commented) is the ability cause degradation on a planet
wide scale, hence degradataion that has far more serious consequences for the
future conditions of our species on this planet than the kind of degradation
caused locally.

The casue of degradation is simple: the rate of resource extraction exceeds
the replacement rate. As a species we can have much effect on the former,
and limited effect on the later. ANY society that has a stable population
size where the extraction rate is less than the realizable replenishment
rate can continue indefinitely (in terms of resource procurement)
REGARDLESS of the technological,economic,social or whatever system so long as
the consumption rater per person does not conntinue to increase. The later
is not a problem with food, but is a problem with material goods. As Foss
comments, the nature of capitalist systems tends to favor expanding markets;
i.e., increasing the amount of material resource exploitation even in the
face of stable population sizes.

What is of interest with the northwest coast example is not so much that they
failed to degrade their environment, but why was the population size stable?
One basic condition for a stable populaiton size is a negative feedback
between fertility and population size. Humans have an enormous potential for
growth: women can have upwards of 14 children over their reproductive period
and an average of 8 children per woman is not unreasonable. Even with a 50%
mortablity rate before adulthood, that leads to a doubling of the population
size every generation! Even a very small growth rate (e.g., 0.001) over long
periods (e.g. 15,000 years) leads to enormous populations (e.g., a base
populaiton of 6,000,000 persons at that growth rate for 15,000 yearrs leads
to over a trillion persons). So, to all intents and purposes, the northwest
coast growth rate was 0, which means that when populaiton increased there
must have been countervailing pressures to decrease population size.
Elsewhere I have given a model as to why a group such as the !Kung San would
have a stabilized population even when women act (or becuase!) in their
narrow, self interest. That model is not likely to apply to the northwest
coast with its massive amount of salmon. So unanswered is what led to a
decrease in population size when population size began to increase?

Curiously, even though many decry (and rightly so) capitalist systems for
their destructive effects on material resources, less often notices is that
it is those same societies where growth rates have dropped to zero or even
below zero--the preconditions for a stabilized relationship between people
and resources.

D. Read