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Carrying Capacity & Impending Doom: Profiling William Ryerson (Part 1)


Guest Blogger • Feb 07, 2012

by Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone

Michael Tobias, an advisory board member for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), recently interviewed Bill Ryerson, the president of the Population Media Center which is located in Shelburne Falls, Vermont.  Ryerson is also the CEO of the Population Institute in Washington DC.  Thus the stage is set for a self-congratulating conversation between two fearful white men, as they muse over the fate of humanity itself (I would say “mankind,” but these guys are all about the empowerment of women).

The article, “At the Crossroads of Sustainability: A Conversation with Bill Ryerson,” immediately frames the discussion of population as the only “rational” backbone to a conversation about the environment and/or climate change.  Tobias writes that “the human population explosion, multiplied by its cumulative consumption […] is an equation that forms the basis for most rational analysis of global environmental issues. It is a starting point.”

To use population as the only rational framework for understanding global issues is wildly dangerous.  Using this framework places the blame of environmental destruction, climate change, resource loss, pollution and over-consumption directly on the backs, and in the wombs, of women everywhere.

Ryerson moves on to discuss two ideas: carrying capacity and impending doom.  These two terms go hand-in-hand, and would not exist without each other.  The earth is reaching its carrying capacity, therefore we are experiencing impending doom.  Why?  Because there are too many people eating too much, driving too many cars, cutting down too many trees and dumping too much waste into the ocean.  When the carrying capacity is exceeded doom will commence, as if it isn’t already a way of life for the world’s poorest.

Ryerson claims we are not “moving in a sustainable direction […] and the combination of oil price spikes and diminishing water supplies is threatening the 1.2 billion people who live on less than $1.00 per day. Having that contingent of people starving at once is something human societies have never had to confront.”  Ryerson gracefully transforms a compassionate sentiment, that we must do something to help starving people, into a fear-mongering statement: unless we don’t do something they might all rise up at once and, I don’t know, eat us!

However, those 1.2 billion people consume a fraction of what the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population manages to consume.  In fact, the very website that Tobias uses to verify Ryerson’s claim about the 1.2 billion people shows a graph detailing income inequality among the world’s quintiles.      Though the graph is rather out of date, the relationships among the world’s rich and poor have grown worse in many cases.  Most questions regarding environmental degradation and climate change boil down not to population, but to inequalities and disparities ranging from race, class and gender to location and infrastructure.  To his credit, Ryerson does mention a vague and problematic practice called “modern industrial agriculture” and it’s dependence on oil, but he does not go so far as to pinpoint how it might be tied up with our value-judgments surrounding consumption and production.

Ryerson allows that the Global North consumes much, much more than does the Global South, but then claims it is the total impact we have on the earth that is important, not where the impact is coming from (nor in what way the impact is applied).  Ryerson’s statement cuts to the heart of how organizations like CAPS and the Population Media Center are both using a similar framework around population that touches on inequality, but also where  placing blame on brown,  black people and  poor is all too familiar.

Not once during his interview does Ryerson mention the impact of multi-car families.  Not once does he mention the impact of the American military behemoth.  Not once does he hint that the blame of strained resources might lie on shoulders of those who have consumed so much for so long, rather than on those whose numbers happen to be growing.

(Check back, as Part 2 will run tomorrow, February 8, 2012.)

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