Are we more like cells or reindeer?

J curve=reindeer, S curve=cells

I’m taking a sustainability course, and we recently learned about the Malthusian theory based on Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principles of Population. Basically, Malthus theorized that an unchecked human population is exponential, and once it surpasses what is called the “carrying capacity” (when the food supply is no longer able to support the population), the population will take a sharp nose dive and ultimately kill itself off.

We were given an example of how this may occur: In 1944, 24 reindeer where introduced to a small island just off the coast of Alaska that had previously been inhabited by only foxes and small rodents. The reindeer population, having no natural predator and a large supply of fodder, boomed to over 6000. But by 1964, the population had dropped to 42 after the island experienced a harsh winter. By the 1980’s, the reindeer were gone. The island could simply not sustain their increased population with only a finite amount of fodder.

Cells, on the other hand, behave very differently than the poor reindeer did. When studied in a petri dish, scientists found that as the cells reached a population that neared the carrying capacity, it slowed down and stopped when it could not grow any further. This is the same situation with a patch of grass. The grass will grow to the areas where sunlight is provided (a finite resource), but it will slow growth to a stop once that area’s edge has been reached.

So the gazillion dollar question is: are we more like cells or reindeer?

We were told to read a story about the deforestation of the Amazon due to logging and agricultural clearing (to raise cattle for beef). Despite the fact that we know this is a finite resource giving us 25-30% of the world’s oxygen, we continue to burn and slash it. Trees also provide essential nutrients to the soil, which when removed cause widespread soil degradation, not to mention the elimination one of the world’s  richest ecosystems. Apparently there are increased efforts to preserve portions, particularly near native populations, and the rate of deforestation has declined by nearly 80% since 2004 (annual records were kept since the 1980’s).

The article above states that they originally thought the decline was due to economic conditions: as the economy slowed down, ranchers and farmers had less money to expand their land. But in the mid 2000’s the economy improved, so other theories have come up, and it’s likely a combination of factors.

I had a debate with my partner about whether or not human beings are intelligent enough to stop growing in numbers or stop unsustainably consuming finite resources. He argued that it would have to be a top-down approach; that only through government mandate would human beings stop consuming like a bunch of mad hatters. I argued that this won’t work alone because people have to change as individuals. We have to change our mentalities at the core. Until then, humanity seems to always find a way to consume more. Studies even show that when a technology is implemented to improve the efficiency of a resource, we just use it more.

We are unlike other species in that we’re super smart with tools. We build upon our learning experiences very quickly, and we know how to capitalize upon resources. The thing is, we seem to be a bit too smart for this fragile Earth lately, yet too stupid to realize when to just cut it out. We’re caught up in a raging river of consumerism, and it’s hard to damn it up with a few noble twigs.

So how do we not only act like cells, but also think like them as individuals? How do we slow down our own consumption? We seem to be playing with death with our carrying capacity, and it’s been suggested that we’ve already surpassed it. Yet we still skip through our days in our environment-controlled offices in our concrete cities, not really taking much notice of the devastation we’re causing around us.

I feel more and more that we need to do everything in our power to stop the madness. The things we worry about on a daily basis compared to what is happening on a macro scale is what makes us a bunch of termites, IMHO.

At this point, I’ll make a disclaimer: I’m not a hero of saving the planet just yet. I have a shameful list of ridiculous consumption habits like drinking coffee from paper cups and lighting my house up like a Christmas tree. I commute by bike and don’t eat meat, but I still look away when I see which country my new dress came from.

I just think we should all ask ourselves which we are. I also think we should “make like a cell” and save the planet.


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  2. John Pennington

    Up to very recently it was very obvious we were like reindeer. If we’re very lucky, the recent leveling off of population growth will turn into something more like cells.

    • I hope so, too. As a 36 year old woman without children, I allowed myself to suffer judgement for choosing not to have one. Now, I realize the planet could use more women like me, and I don’t give a fudge anymore about what others think. I love children. They don’t have to be “mine” for me to love them. Thanks for reading!

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