population resource imbalances

William M. Loker (wloker@RA.MSSTATE.EDU)
Mon, 3 Oct 1994 08:55:36 -0500

I have been following with interest the thread on ecologically noble
savages/ignoble savages/capitalism etc. I would recommend the latest
issue of the Culture and Agriculture Bulletin for a discussion of these

I want to comment on the issue of the relationship between population and
resources raised by Read, Lieber, Foss, etc. I think this issue of the
relationship between pop and resources is an essential one to
understanding this question. I wonder if data from Netsilik and !Kung
San are the best models for understanding the relationships between
people and resources? Read comments that the Netsilik suffered periodoic
population crashes when the caribou don't show. My limited
familiarity with the data on the Netsilik leads me to
believe this is true. But are such periodic crashes generally true of
populaitons over the long run? If they are, why does human populaiton
growth over the long run increase logistically rather than oscilating
around some level (carrying capacity??) in a kind of "unstable
equilibrium? The fact that human population has undergone a sustained
increase over the long run -- the last few thousands years or so -- leads
me to question whether most human groups suffer periodic demographic
collapses. Or are the textbook curves of human population wrong?

Having said that, there surely have been some controls acting on human
population growth. As Harris points out in his intro textbook, if there
were 2 people 10,000 yrs ago and population increased at the relatively
low rate of 0.5%/yr, the current human populaiton would be 600 billion
billion (ah! the miracle of compound interest!!). Therefore we must
conclude that some kind of population regulating mechanisms have been at
work. They may be periodic famine and diseases as have been discussed on
this list .... but again I am skeptical due to the sustained increase in
population over the long run. The alternative is some sort of cultural
control(s) ... either conscious (or unconscious) like infanticide,
abortion, sexual taboos, dietary restrictions, etc.

One alternative might be that some societies experience periodic
demographic collapses -- these would be small-scale societieies or those in
more marginal environments which did not have sufficient buffering or
risk managmeent strategies. Other societies that did incorporate such
mechanisms -- like centralized food stroage or other management
facilities -- suffered such demographic reversals less frequently and
therefore expanded at the expense of the smaller-scale societies. Since
the societies with more effective risk management were also probably
larger scale, their growth swamps the periodic collapses of smaller scale
societies in the long run demographic history of the human populaiton.

Bill Loker