LAWS RELATING TO SUSTAINABILITY
Let us be specific and state that both "Carrying Capacity"
and "Sustainable" imply "for the period in which we hope humans will inhabit
the earth." This means "for many millenia."
Many prominent individuals have given postulates and
laws relating to population growth and sustainability.
THE TWO "POSTULATA" OF THOMAS MALTHUS
The reverend Thomas Malthus used these two assumptions
as the basis of his famous essay two hundred years ago.
First, That food is necessary to the existence
Secondly, That the passion between the sexes
is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state. ( Appleman,
GARRETT HARDIN'S THREE LAWS OF HUMAN ECOLOGY
These three laws of human ecology were given
by Garrett Hardin. ( Hardin 1993 ) These are fundamental, and need to
be known and recognized by all who would speak of sustainability.
First Law: "We can never do merely one thing."
This is a profound and eloquent observation of the
interconnectedness of nature.
Second Law: "There's no away to throw to."
This is a compact statement of one of the major
problems of the "effluent society."
Third Law: The impact ( I ) of any group
or nation on the environment is represented qualitatively by the
I = P A T
Here P is the size of the population, A is the per-capita
affluence, measured by per-capita annual consumption, and
T is a measure of the damage done by the technologies that are used in
supplying the consumption. Hardin attributes this law to Ehrlich and Holdren.
( Ehrlich and Holdren 1971 )
The suggestion may be made that Hardinís Third Law is
too conservative. The Third Law suggests that I varies as Pn where n =
1. There are situations where the impact of humans increases more rapidly
than linearly with the size P of the population. In these cases, n >
BOULDING'S THREE THEOREMS
These theorems are from the work of the eminent economist
Kenneth Boulding. ( Boulding 1971 )
First Theorem: "The Dismal Theorem" If
the only ultimate check on the growth of population is misery,
then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to
stop its growth.
Second Theorem: "The Utterly Dismal Theorem"
This theorem states that any technical improvement can
only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the
only check on population, the [ technical ] improvement will enable
population to grow, and will soon enable more people to
live in misery than before. The final result of [ technical ]
improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population
which is to increase the total sum of human misery.
Third Theorem: "The moderately cheerful form
of the Dismal Theorem" Fortunately, it is not too difficult
to restate the Dismal Theorem in a moderately cheerful form, which
states that if something else, other than misery and starvation,
can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check,
the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and
starves, and it can be stably prosperous.
Until we know more, the Cheerful Theorem remains
a question mark. Misery we know will do the trick. This
is the only sure-fire automatic method of bringing population
to an equilibrium. Other things may do it.
In another context, Boulding observed that:
The economic analysis I presented earlier indicates
that the major priority, and one in which the United Nations can
be of great utility, is a world campaign for the reduction of
birth rates. This, I suggest, is more important than any program
of foreign aid and investments. Indeed, if it is neglected, all
programs of aid and investment will, I believe, be ultimately
self-defeating and will simply increase the amount of human misery.
( Boulding 1971, p. 361 )
Motivation, rather than differential access to modern
contraception is a major determinant of fertility. Individuals frequently
respond to scarcity by having fewer children, and to perceived improved
economic opportunity by having more children. Contrary to the demographic
transition model, economic development does not cause family size to shrink;
rather, at every point where serious economic opportunity beckons, family
size preferences expand. ( Abernethy 1993b )
A) Foreign aid conveys to the recipients the perception
of improving economic wellbeing, which is followed by an increase
in the fertility of the recipients of the aid.
B) Migrations from regions of low economic opportunity
to places of higher economic opportunity result in an increase in
the fertility of the migrants that persists for a generation or two.
LAWS, HYPOTHESES, OBSERVATIONS AND PREDICTIONS RELATING
The Laws, Hypotheses, Observations, and Predictions
that follow are offered to define the term "sustainability." In some cases
these statements are accompanied by corollaries that are identified by
capital letters. They all apply for populations and rates of consumption
of goods and resources of the sizes and scales found in the world in 1998,
and may not be applicable for small numbers of people or to groups in
primitive tribal situations.
These Laws are believed to hold rigorously.
The Hypotheses are less rigorous than the laws. There
may be exceptions to some, and some may be proven to be wrong. Experience
may show that some of the hypotheses should be elevated to the status
The Observations may shed light on the problems and
on mechanisms for finding solutions to the problems.
The Predictions are those of a retired nuclear physicist
who has been watching these problems for several decades.
The lists are but a single compilation, and hence may
be incomplete. Readers are invited to communicate with the author in regard
to items that should or should not be in these lists.
In many cases, these laws and statements have been recognized,
set forth, and elaborated on by others.
LAWS RELATING TO SUSTAINABILITY
First Law: Population growth and / or growth in the
rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.
A) A population growth rate less than or equal to zero
and declining rates of consumption of resources are a necessary, but
not a sufficient, condition for a sustainable society.
B) Unsustainability will be the certain result of any
program of "development," that does not plan the achievement of zero
( or a period of negative ) growth of populations and of rates of
consumption of resources. This is true even if the program is said
to be "sustainable."
C) The research and regulation programs of governmental
agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and promoting
"sustainability" are, in the long run, irrelevant, unless these programs
address vigorously and quantitatively the concept of carrying capacities
and unless the programs study in depth the demographic causes and
consequences of environmental problems.
D) Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on
population growth or growth in their rates of consumption of resources,
E) Persons who advocate population growth and / or growth
in the rates of consumption of resources are advocating unsustainability.
F) Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved
without stopping population growth are misleading themselves and others.
G) Persons whose actions directly or indirectly cause
increases in population or in the rates of consumption of resources
are moving society away from sustainability. ( Advertising your city
or state as an ideal site in which to locate new factories, indicates
a desire to increase the population of your city or state. )
H) The term "Sustainable Growth" is an oxymoron.
Second Law: In a society with a growing population
and / or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population,
and / or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult
it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.
Third Law: The response time of populations to changes
in the human fertility rate is the average length of a human life, or
approximately 70 years. ( Bartlett and Lytwak 1995 ) [ This is called
"population momentum." ]
A) A nation can achieve zero population growth if:
a) the fertility rate is maintained at the replacement
level for 70 years, and
b) there is no net migration during the 70 years.
During the 70 years the population continues to
grow, but at declining rates until the growth finally stops.
B) If we want to make changes in the total fertility
rates so as to stabilize the population by the mid - to late 21st
century, we must make the necessary changes before the end of the
C) The time horizon of political leaders is of the order
of two to eight years.
D) It will be difficult to convince political leaders
to act now to change course, when the full results of the change may
not become apparent in the lifetimes of those leaders.
Fourth Law: The size of population that can be sustained
( the carrying capacity ) and the sustainable average standard of living
of the population are inversely related to one another. (This must be
true even though Cohen asserts that the numerical size of the carrying
capacity of the Earth cannot be determined, ( Cohen 1995 ))
A) The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain,
the more urgent it is to stop population growth.
B) Reductions in the rates of consumption of resources
and reductions in the rates of production of pollution can shift the
carrying capacity in the direction of sustaining a larger population.
Fifth Law: Sustainability requires that the size
of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the
ecosystem for the desired standard of living.
A) Sustainability requires an equilibrium between human
society and dynamic but stable ecosystems.
B) Destruction of ecosystems tends to reduce the carrying
capacity and / or the sustainable standard of living.
C) The rate of destruction of ecosystems increases as
the rate of growth of the population increases.
D) Population growth rates less than or equal to zero
are necessary, but are not sufficient, conditions for halting the
destruction of the environment. This is true locally and globally.
Sixth Law: ( The lesson of "The Tragedy of the Commons"
) ( Hardin 1968 ): The benefits of population growth and of growth
in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of
population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources
are borne by all of society.
A) Individuals who benefit from growth will continue
to exert strong pressures supporting and encouraging both population
growth and growth in rates of consumption of resources.
B) The individuals who promote growth are motivated
by the recognition that growth is good for them. In order to gain
public support for their goals, they must convince people that population
growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, are also
good for society. [ This is the Charles Wilson argument: if it is
good for General Motors, it is good for the United States.] ( Yates
Seventh Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of
a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease
in the life-expectancy of the resource.
A) In a world of growing rates of consumption of resources,
it is seriously misleading to state the life-expectancy of a non-renewable
resource "at present rates of consumption," i.e., with no growth.
More relevant than the life-expectancy of a resource is the expected
date of the peak production of the resource, i.e. the peak of the
Hubbert curve. ( Hubbert 1974 )
B) It is intellectually dishonest to advocate growth
in the rate of consumption of non-renewable resources while, at the
same time, reassuring people about how long the resources will last
"at present rates of consumption." ( zero growth )
Eighth Law: The time of expiration of non-renewable
resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by:
i ) technological improvements in the efficiency with
which the resources are recovered and used
ii ) using the resources in accord with a program of
"Sustained Availability," ( Bartlett 1986 )
iii ) recycling
iv ) the use of substitute resources.
Ninth Law: When large efforts are made to improve
the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are
easily and completely wiped out by the added resources consumed as a consequence
of modest increases in population.
A) When the efficiency of resource use is increased,
the consequence often is that the "saved" resources are not put aside
for the use of future generations, but instead are used immediately
to encourage and support larger populations.
B) Humans have an enormous compulsion to find an immediate
use for all available resources.
Tenth Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve
the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment
that result from small increases in human population.
Eleventh Law: ( Second Law of Thermodynamics )
When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the
environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.
Twelfth Law: ( Eric Sevareid's Law ); The chief cause
of problems is solutions. ( Sevareid 1970 )
A) This law should be a central part of higher education,
especially in engineering.
Thirteenth Law: Humans will always be dependent
( This is the first of Malthusí two postulata. )
A) Supermarkets alone are not sufficient.
B) The central task in sustainable agriculture is to
preserve agricultural land.
The agricultural land must be protected from losses
due to things such as:
i ) Urbanization and development
ii ) Erosion
iii ) Poisioning by chemicals
Fourteenth Law: If, for whatever reason, humans
fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption
of resources, Nature will stop these growths.
A) By contemporary western standards, Nature's method
of stopping growth is cruel and inhumane.
B) Glimpses of Nature's method of dealing with populations
that have exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen
each night on the television news reports from places where large
populations are experiencing starvation and misery.
Fifteenth Law: In every local situation, creating
jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work.
Sixteenth Law: Starving people don't care about
A) If sustainability is to be achieved, the necessary
leadership and resources must be supplied by people who are not
Seventeenth Law: The addition of the word "sustainable"
to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, to the names
of our academic institutes and research programs, and to our community
initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.
Eighteenth Law: Extinction is forever.
HYPOTHESES RELATING TO SUSTAINABILITY
1 ) For the 1998 average global standard of living, the
1998 population of the Earth exceeds the carrying capacity of the Earth.
( Pimentel 1994 ) [ Cohen ( 1995 ) would probably debate this. ]
2 ) For the 1998 average standard of living in the United
States, the 1998 population of the United States exceeds the carrying
capacity of the United States. ( Abernethy 1993a ),
( Giampietro and Pimentel 1993 )
3 ) The increasing sizes of populations that result from
population growth are the single greatest and most insidious threat to
4 ) The costs of programs to stop population growth are
small compared to the costs of population increases.
5 ) For society as a whole, population growth never pays
for itself. [ This is a consequence of the Tragedy of the Commons. ]
A ) In the U.S. in general, the larger the population
of a city, the higher are the municipal per-capita annual taxes.
B ) Sales taxes generated by a large shopping center
in a small town may make it appear that growth of the shopping center
has earned more than its public costs, but these earnings are at the
expense of the areas surrounding the town.
6 ) The time required for a society to make a planned transition
to sustainability on its own terms, so it can live within the carrying
capacity of its ecosystem, increases with increases in
i ) the size of its population
ii ) the rate of growth of its population
iii ) the society's average per-capita rate of
consumption of new resources.
7 ) The rate ( S ) at which a society can improve the average
standard of living of its people is directly related to the rate of application
of new technologies ( T ) and is inversely related to the rate of growth
( R ) of the size of the population ( the fractional increase per unit
time ), by a relation with the general properties of the equation,
S = T - A R + B
where A and B are positive constants.
A ) In places in the world in 1998, the value of R
( the rate of growth of population ) is so large that it is causing
S to be negative. Said in other words:
a ) Population growth competes with and slows down
the rate of improvement of the average standard of living and
may cause the average standard of living to decline. In other
b ) Population growth interferes with economic growth.
8 ) Social stability is a necessary, but not a sufficient,
condition for sustainability.
A ) Human freedoms depend on social stability.
B ) Armed conflict ( war ) cannot be a part of a sustainable
9 ) Social stability tends to be inversely related both
to population size and density.
10 ) The per-capita burden of the lowered standard
of living that generally results from population growth and from the decline
of resources, falls most heavily on the poor.
11 ) When populations are growing, the rate of growth of
the fraction of the population that is poor exceeds the rate of growth
of the fraction of the population that is wealthy.
12 ) Environmental problems cannot be solved or ameliorated
by increases in population or by increases in the rates of consumption
A ) All environmental problems would be easier to solve
if the population were smaller and / or if the rates of consumption
of resources were smaller.
13 ) Problems of shortages of non-renewable resources cannot
be solved or ameliorated by population growth.
14 ) Regional efforts to solve problems caused by population
growth will only enlarge the problems if population growth in the region
is not halted.
15 ) In general, neither the environment nor agriculture
can be enhanced or even preserved through compromises.
A ) Compromises and accommodations between the immediate
needs of people and the long-term needs of the environment will generally
be resolved in favor of people at the expense of the environment,
as though people can exist independent of the environment. For the
most part, compromises only reduce the rate of destruction of the
environment or they increase the elegance with which the environment
B) Compromises between the demands of urban / industrial
growth and agriculture will always result in the conversion of agricultural
land to urban and industrial uses. The reverse conversion never happens.
16 ) The fractional rate of destruction of the environment
that results from human activities will always exceed the fractional rate
of increase of our knowledge and understanding of the environment.
A ) Every decision affecting the environment will have
to be made with less than full knowledge of the risks and consequences
of the decision.
B ) Much of our knowledge of the environment has come
from the study of past mistakes.
C ) It will always be possible for persons to argue
for the delay of the implementation of corrective measures to save
or preserve the environment, by claiming that our information about
the problems is incomplete.
17 ) By the time overpopulation and shortages of resources
are obvious to most people, the carrying capacity has been exceeded. It
is then almost too late to think about sustainability.
A ) It is difficult to know what to do once one realizes
that the population of a society is too large.
B ) Long-range thinking, planning, and leadership, carried
out with a full recognition of the laws of nature, is most urgently
18 ) For countries with large populations, importing non-renewable
natural resources demonstrates unsustainability: exporting non-renewable
natural resources reduces the ultimate sustainable standard of living
and / or the carrying capacity of the exporting country.
19 ) When a society is living at the limit with regard to
renewable resources such as food or water, small fluctuations in the supply
can have large negative effects on the society.
20 ) Because of the growing universal nature of world trade,
the concept of "carrying capacity" is difficult to apply to a nation or
A ) Sustainability is a global problem.
B ) However, the approach to stainability must be sought
on the local and national levels.
C ) If a local official speaks of his / her community
being sustainable, it probably is not true.
21 ) Sustainable agriculture cannot be based on large annual
energy inputs from fossil fuels, particularly petroleum.
i ) "The food system consumes ten times more energy
than it provides to society in food energy." ( Giampietro and Pimentel
22 ) Irrigation of farmland, as it has been practiced throughout
history and up to the present time, cannot be sustained. ( Abernethy 1993a,
p. 136 )
i ) The lands become poisoned with salts.
23 ) Hydroelectric power generated from reservoirs created
by construction of large dams, cannot be sustained.
i ) The reservoirs fill with silt.
OBSERVATIONS RELATING TO SUSTAINABILITY
1 ) In order to moved toward a sustainable society, the
first and most important effort that must be made is to stop population
growth. This will require the initiation of major comprehensive educational,
technical, and outreach programs in the areas of social responsibility,
family planning, contraception, immigration, and resource use. To get
things right, these programs must focus on the goal of stopping population
growth and should not be diluted by omitting references to the numbers
involved in understanding population growth. The greater the degree to
which the carrying capacity has been exceeded, the more probable it is
that coercion will become a factor in these programs.
2 ) The food chain is nature's equilibrium mechanism. It
functions to prevent unlimited expansion of populations of flora
and fauna. Primitive human societies were able to maintain approximately
constant populations and to live within the carrying capacity of their
ecosystems. The methods they used to maintain approximately constant populations
were often cruel and inhumane. Technology has given many people the feeling
that, through our own efforts, we are exempt from the cruel constraints
of limited carrying capacities.
3 ) Ancient civilizations have vanished, in part
because they grew too large and their size exceeded the carrying capacity
of the ecosystems on which they depended for support.
a ) Education notwithstanding, civilizations today show
considerable tendency to repeat the mistakes of earlier civilizations,
but on a much larger scale.
b ) Growing international trade allows the developed
countries to draw on the carrying capacity of the entire earth, often
at the expense of underdeveloped countries.
4 ) The complete era of the use of fossil fuels by humans
will be a vanishingly short fraction of the span of human existence on
the Earth. ( Hubbert 1974 )
5 ) The supplies of all non-renewable resources will effectively
expire when the costs ( in cash, in energy, in ecological and societal
disruption ) of making available a quantity of the resource exceed the
value of the quantity of the resource.
6 ) Comprehensive educational, technical, and outreach programs
in the areas of efficient use of resources will be needed in order to
help achieve sustainability.
7 ) A major use of technology is, and has been, to accommodate
the growth of populations, and to remove the recognition of the importance
of living within the carrying capacity of the environment. ( See Boulding's
"Utterly Dismal Theorem" and Eric Sevareid's Law )
A ) This use of technology has had the effect of encouraging
B ) This use of technology inhibits an approach to sustainability.
C ) An essential condition for sustainability is that
technology be redirected toward the improvement of the quality of
life, especially for those whose quality of life is now low, and away
from its present use to increase the quantity of life.
TECHNICAL PREDICTIONS RELATING TO SUSTAINABILITY
1 ) Peak world production of petroleum will probably happen
before the year 2020. Peak production of coal and oil shale, may occur
in the 21st Century. Other fossil fuels probably will not be available
in globally significant quantities for more than a few decades into the
2 ) If replacements can be found for fossil fuels, especially
for petroleum, it will require major technological breakthroughs.
3 ) Technological progress in the future is much more likely
to be characterized by incremental advances than by breakthroughs, especially
in the field of sources of energy.
4 ) The probability is very small that technological developments
will produce new sources of energy in the next century, sources not already
known in 1998, that will have the potential of supplying a significant
fraction of the world's energy needs for any appreciable period of time.
5 ) The larger the global total daily demand for energy,
the smaller is the probability that a new energy source or technology
will be found that will have the potential of being developed sufficiently
to meet an appreciable fraction of the global daily energy demand for
any extended period of time.
6 ) The larger the global total daily demand for energy,
the longer is the period of time that will be required for a new energy
technology to be developed to the point where it will have the capacity
of meeting an appreciable fraction of the global daily energy demand.
7 ) In the event that science and technology find a new
source of large quantities of energy, the probability is high that the
new source will be technologically very complex, with the result that
it will be extremely costly to bring globally significant quantities of
the new energy to the marketplace.
8 ) Children born in 1990 will not live to see 10% of the
energy consumed in the U.S. generated by terrestrial nuclear fusion. (
Bartlett 1990 )
9 ) There will always be popular and persuasive technological
optimists who believe that population increases are good, and who believe
that the human mind has unlimited capacity to find technological solutions
to all problems of crowding, environmental destruction, and resource shortages.
A ) These technological optimists are usually not biological
or physical scientists.
B ) Politicians and business people tend to be eager
disciples of these technological optimists.
10 ) Because population growth is only one of the factors
that drives up the cost of living, the rate of increase of the cost of
living will probably be larger than the rate of increase of population.
11 ) The rate of increase of the cost of living will be
greater than the rate of increase of family income for a majority of families.
This is what is called a "healthy economy."
POLITICAL PREDICTIONS RELATING TO SUSTAINABILITY
1 ) Local and regional business and political leaders will
continue to spend much of their working time trying to attract new industries
and populations to their areas, and to spend a prominent few minutes a
week complaining and wondering what to do about the consequent increases
in taxes, pollution, congestion, crime, costs, etc.
2 ) Local and regional political and business leaders will
continue to use the circular arguments of self-fulfilling predictions
in order to generate local population growth. The circular argument proceeds
i ) Quantitative projections of the "inevitable"
future population growth in the area are made.
ii ) Plans are made to expand the municipal or regional
infrastructure to accomodate the predicted growth.
iii ) Bonds are issued to raise money to pay for the
planned expansions of the infrastructure, and the infrastructure is
iv ) The bonds must be paid off on a schedule that is
based on the projections of population growth.
v ) The political and business leaders will do everything
in their power to make certain that the projected population growth
takes place, so that the bonds can be paid off on schedule.
vi ) When this results in the needed population growth,
the leaders who predicted the population growth will speak loudly
of their foresight.
vii ) Go back to i ) and repeat.
3 ) Some political and business leaders will continue to
want to throw away all manner of toxic waste by dumping the waste on the
lands of low-income or underdeveloped people, in the U.S. or abroad.
4 ) Some business leaders will want to continue to manufacture
hazardous materials whose sale in the U.S. is prohibited, so that these
materials can be sold abroad.
5 ) Business and political leaders will continue to find
it more attractive to promote growth than to promote sustainability.
A ) It is easy to talk about sustainability.
B ) It is difficult to make realistic constructive progress
C ) Business and political leaders are not attracted
to the concept of limits as implied by the term "carrying capacity."
6 ) In the U.S., political "conservatives" will continue
to be liberal in their policy recommendations in regard to rapid exploitation
and use of the earth's renewable and non-renewable resources, with complete
confidence that technology will be able to solve all of the consequent
problems of shortages, pollution, and environmental degradation. Political
"liberals" will continue to urge people to conserve and to protect the
environment, to recycle, to use energy more efficiently, etc., i.e., to
7 ) Entrepreneurs and politicians will continue to use the
term "sustainable" for their own personal advantage in promotion of enterprises
and programs, whether or not these enterprises and programs are sustainable
or contribute to the creation of a sustainable society.
8 ) Many members of the academic research and education
programs that focus on sustainability issues such as air pollution, global
warming, etc. will continue their old ways of generating high per capita
levels of pollution.
9 ) Many Americans will continue to deny the seriousness
of the population problem in America and will focus their attention on
population problems elsewhere. They may be motivated in this by their
reluctance to accept the fact that immigration accounts for roughly half
of the present growth of the population of the United States.
10 ) Many Americans will continue to believe that the environment
in the U.S. can be preserved without the need of addressing the population
growth in the U.S.
11 ) Many people who are active in matters relating to population
problems will continue their efforts to ignore and to urge others to ignore
the quantitative aspects of the population problem. They will continue
to claim that the problems will be more effectively addressed if we focus
our efforts on such worthy causes as population growth in other countries,
foreign aid, human rights, justice, equity, education of women, the consumption
of resources, the distribution of food, etc. Some will even claim that
slow growth and sustainability are compatible.
12 ) Reports containing the word "sustainable"
in their titles will continue to be produced at all levels of government,
and these reports will continue to ignore population growth as the greatest
threat to sustainability.
13 ) There will always be those who reject all limits to