Saturday, May 18, 2013

Carrying Capacity

A version of this essay was published in the Tampa Bay Times on Sunday, May 19, 2013, P1-2. This essay may be reproduced, reprinted and republished.

Saving Our Planet:
Why Climate Change Has Not Inspired Action

Edward Renner
While Climate change has entered the national conversation, it has not received popular support nor resulted in a cooperative international approach. New measurements show that the climate-changing gas carbon dioxide is at the highest atmospheric concentrations -- 400 parts per million – in at least three million years. And yet a recent Gallup poll shows that only a minority believe that global warming will “pose a serious threat to them or to their way of life during their lifetime.” 

One possibility is that the focus on climate change has let us, as individuals off the hook because there is not, really, anything that each of us can do personally that will make a difference. Yet, we know that something very significant is happening to the environment about which something must be done. 

With such a disconnect, and so little political will, action seems impossible. But there is a way. If we would shift our focus from climate change to the concept of Carrying Capacity, then are there many necessary things we can do ourselves, over which we have direct control, including holding our elected officials and global corporations accountable for specific changes in public policy.  

What is Carrying Capacity? 

Carrying capacity is a well-established biological concept: It is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment. 

As a practical metaphor, a row boat can hold a limited number of people. Add one too many and the boat will sink and everyone drowns. Likewise, the planet can support a limited number of people. Add too many and its capacity to support life will collapse. 

Of course the planet is far more complex than a rowboat. But only in two very simple ways: 

First, the impact on the planet of adding one more person to the population of the US is the same as adding 10 people to the population of Mexico. This is because the average American uses more resources and makes more waste than the average Mexican. Similar to the row boat, it is not the number of people that is important, but their combined weight. For the planet, this is the Effective Population; it is the number of people multiplied by their average impact which is the total burden of the human footprint on the planet. 

Second, nature is not a static situation like a row boat floating in still water. Nature is a dynamic system in which all the elements influence each other over time: When a growing population cuts down trees to clear land to grow food, the result is soil erosion decreasing the amount of food to feed the increasing number of people who are cutting down the trees. In a similar way, the row boat, when exposed to stormy weather rocks and dips in ways it did not when in still water. 

In the past, individual societies have collapsed when they exceeded the biological capacity of their local geographic area. When an area and thus society collapsed, other areas and societies emerged. Today, however, human activity is damaging the carrying capacity of the entire planet, and there is no other place to go. On August 22 we will have used as much resources and created as much waste as the planet can replace and absorb in a year. At that rate, it takes 1.4 planets to support our current life style. 

We are depleting the planet of its resources to support human life. That is the issue.

Clearly, there is a theoretical limit to how long the effective population can continue to increase all the while reducing the biological capacity of the planet necessary for living. Growth is finite. 

The Tipping Point 

When collapse occurs in nature, there is a “tipping point” in which the accelerating demands produce a rapid decline in capacity. The process is similar to the over-crowded row boat which, with the addition of a small amount of extra weight, starts to take on water, which, the moment that happens, causes the boat to take on even more water, and it quickly sinks. Once the tipping point is crossed, neither the boat nor nature can continue to support life. For thousands of years this has not been an issue for the planet. However, it is an issue for those of us alive today. We are the ones who will be responsible for bringing our planet to the tipping point. 

In nature, the rapid collapse occurs due to “Forcings.” These are incremental changes of one element that forces additional depletions in all of the other elements, which in turn trigger even greater reductions in each of the other elements. This leads to an accelerating Titanic-like downward spiral toward total collapse.
Jared Diamond in his book Collapse has chronicled how past societies which existed and thrived for hundreds of years – some more than a thousand – have collapsed over the period of one lifetime when a single forcing -- such an extended drought --- pushed the society beyond its tipping point. Today, climate change is Nature’s mechanism for causing forcings – drought, desertification, famine, water shortages, and dead seas, to name a few. The social, political and economic consequences of forcings are the ingredients for societal collapse: migration, social unrest, war lords, starvation, economic recession and growing inequalities in which a very few are rich and powerful while the vast majority are poor and weak. Civic order cannot withstand large numbers of desperate people.

The failure of national governments, dysfunctional internal political process and regional and ethnic conflicts are early warning signs of impending collapse. 

Avoiding the Tipping Point 

Fortunately, unlike the ways of nature, carrying capacity is something we can do something about. We have knowledge and control over all of the elements responsible for staying within the carrying capacity of the planet. We can measure the biological capacity of the planet to provide the resources we use and to absorb the waste we create. We already know how the growth of the effective population is exploding at the same time as our resources are shrinking. Although we do not know exactly where the tipping is, we do know that it is within the lifetime of the majority of people alive today. Given a six thousand year human history on the planet, that is all we need to know. The choice is ours. 

If, between now and 2015, just 3% of the effective population would reduce their total footprint by 25%, and by 2020 the percent doing so doubled to 6%, and by 2030 double again to 12.5%, and by 2040 to 25%, and by 2050 to 50%, then the total footprint of the effective population would be reduced, and the danger of crossing the tipping point would be averted. The collective effective footprint of the human population on the earth would start to decrease at around 8 Billion, even though the actual population is projected to reach 9 Billion by 2050.

An Interactive Graphic
To see the effect of different levels of participation or different percent reductions enter alternative numbers from 0 to 100 without the % sign in the highlighted chart. A negative number in the "% Reduction" column will illustrate the effect of continuing to increase the size of our footprint.

Half the population eventually reducing their impact by 25% over the next 37 years is not an unreasonable possibility. The largest population growth is in underdeveloped countries with relatively small per capita footprints. The largest footprints are in developed countries which have the capacity to make the necessary adjustments.  

The impact of total distances traveled and the efficiency of transportation, the amount and sources of energy used, and what we eat and how it is produced can each be divided into sub-categories, which can be further broken down into the hundreds of specific everyday actions over which we have personal control, such as using fewer plastic water bottles, driving one less mile or eating less meat. 

A small percentage of people making regular small contributions, and encouraging progressively more people to join with them, can have a large cumulative effect.  

However, while these individual efforts are all necessary, they alone are insufficient. Rather, they must be our daily reminder that public policy issues, such as effective mass transit to replace personal automotive commuting, the infrastructure of alternative energy sources and national policies independent of the short-term self-interest of big agriculture, big oil and multi-national corporations are essential. 

This challenge is of particular relevance to those of us living in the US, because we are putting in jeopardy our way of life, far more so than China who is our major competitor. We are the biggest offender in the world of per capita over use of natural resources. We have more to lose than any other nation if, collectively, the human race exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet.

We have become distracted from the necessity for institutional and political accountability by the emphasis on the abstract threat of climate change over which we have little direct personal control. Climate change is simply the most important of Nature’s mechanisms for causing forcings. In contrast, carrying capacity can be documented down to the number of gallons of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel refined; the tons of fertilizer and pesticides used; the number of wind farms created; and, the BTUs of coal and oil that must be remain in the ground. These are all subject to public political control, and the policies required to regulate these events are known. 

What is absent is the social and political awareness to shift our focus away from the abstract event of climate change, and our necessary but insufficient personal responsibility for it, to the collective and essential government and corporate accountability for specific and measurable policies and practices of not using more resources and producing more waste than the planet can replace or absorb in a year. 

This, we know how to do.  

The political, economic and social discussions we need to have are not whether we need shift the burden from primarily a personal responsibility to one of greater government and corporate accountability, but rather the most feasible ways to do so. 


Edward Renner is a Professor in the Honors College of the University of South Florida. He may be reached at An introduction to his University level course, Forums for a Future, is available in pdf format from USF at, or free in iBook format from iTunes at environmental data is from the Global Footprint Network data base:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Can MOOCs Save Academic Freedom?

Can MOOCs Save Academic Freedom?

Edward Renner1 University of South Florida


The commercialization of higher education over the past 50 years has embraced MOOCs as the next big growth opportunity for venture capital. However, the realization that M00Cs are our last stand to protect the fundamental purpose of academic freedom has been lost in the current distraction of debating the relative value of online as opposed to traditional classroom teaching. Our academic challenge is to use MOOCs to elevate general public knowledge to be an effective civic moderator of wealth, power and belief. If we do not, commercial control of information will become the currency defining the human condition.

Historically, the three forces that have defined the human condition and human progress have been economic wealth, political power and social beliefs and values. Like the keeper of the fire, academia in the role of keeper of knowledge, has sought to preserve and protect the light of reason and wisdom against the excess of wealth, power and fanaticism. This is the ultimate modern purpose of academic freedom.

Although globalization is commonly treated primarily as an economic concept, its impact on political power and social beliefs and values has changed the frame of reference for how we must now think about academic freedom.

The digital communication revolution that has flattened the earth into a global playing field is disrupting higher education in the form of massive open online courses (MOOCs). However, the value of MOOCs as a powerful force to protect the fundamental purpose of academic freedom has been lost in the current distraction of debating the relative value of online as opposed to traditional classroom teaching.

Of far greater importance for human progress and the nature of the human condition is the essential prerequisite of independent critical thinking that can neither be bought nor suppressed.

This noble justification of academia is now more than theoretical, it is actually possible – but not without a struggle. The commercialization of learning that has overtaken higher education over the past 50 years has embraced MOOCs as the next big growth opportunity for venture capital. In this sense, MOOCs have become the last stand for the defense of academic freedom because ownership of knowledge and information is the key to controlling the political power and social beliefs and values determining the distribution of wealth in the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, academics are typically weak warriors, and our colleges and universities are deeply compromised fortresses for combating power and belief in the service of greed.  For example, at the University of Wyoming, the mining industry was successful in the early removal of a “Carbon Sink” sculpture which called attention to the dangers of climate change.2 At the University of Iowa, the appointment of a director for the Center for Sustainable Agriculture was blocked by agribusiness because the nominee’s research supported the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency.3 The student loan crisis provided a financial accounting of shifting the cost of a college degree from a public to a personal responsibility, to mention only a few illustrations of the commodification of education.4

On the one hand, MOOCs offer the opportunity to fully democratize knowledge and learning, by facilitating the flow of all information into the public domain. Finally, with open online courses there is an opportunity to make teaching and learning available to everyone. Now, the ultimate civic accomplishment of balancing the dynamic resultant of the three forces of wealth, power and belief in the service of human progress and the enhancement of human condition is possible.

But, our institutions, as owners of copyrights and patents, contribute to making knowledge and information a commodity by removing it from the public domain. Apple is attempting to control the K-12 academic market in which an iPad can replace many of the functions of a physical classroom. State legislators see the cost of education going down and control of content going up through online learning. AAUP is confronted with a dilemma that the instrumentality of job protection as the strategy of choice for defending academic freedom will be compromised by MOOCs. Colleges and universities are searching for a business model to survive in a competitive market in which a few winners supported by venture capital provide courses administered by others with a minimum of financial support from state governments.

The potential endpoint is an economic market which owns the political power and social beliefs which determines the preconditions for the distribution of wealth, globally and nationally.

MOOCs may well be the last stand in defense of academic freedom if knowledge is to increasingly belong in the public domain, and not increasingly become a commodity. This is our academic challenge. We must own and use MOOCs to elevate general public knowledge to be an effective civic moderator of wealth, power and belief. If we do not, control of information will replace resources, just as resources replaced land, as the currency defining the human condition.

Seeing knowledge as public domain, not as the newest commodity market, can secure our legitimate place in human progress as the keeper of the fire. We must now occupy learning. In the long term, MOCCs can provide a strategic and powerful defense of the ultimate purpose of academic freedom, not job security in the short term.
1 Professor Renner teaches an MOOC in the Honors College at the University of South Florida.

2 University of Wyoming officials sped up, touted removal of anti-coal sculpture.

3 Thomas Bartlett. Field of Discourse, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 2010.

4 The Making of Corporate U, Topical issue of The Chronicle Review, Oct 17, 2010.