Problematizing Resiliency and Carrying Capacity


This week’s discussion centered on two major themes: resiliency and carrying capacity.  Several issues were brought up as we compared the two concepts.  For some, the concept of resilience has attractive qualities that provide hope in our ability and that of the environment to adapt to the eminent impacts of climate change and other environmental hazards; however, several questions were raised:

  • What does resiliency mean within sustainable development and how can it be applied in practice?
  • How does it relate to the concept of justice? Things can be resilient in ways it doesn’t promote justice, so is resilience a distraction?

Another area of discussion we centered on was about our capacity to model societies and predict their ability to adapt or not adapt to climate change and its environmental impacts.  Our ecosystems are very complex, making any modeling questionable in its ability to predict how resiliency of species and plants will carry out.  Moreover, it raises the question about our role as humans within the ecosystem and our ability to mitigate and/or control environmental issues that can arise.  Folks raised the issue of how much can human actions even be modeled, given our societal dynamics and political complexities.  Questions were further raised about humans’ capacity to learn and adapt and how their socioeconomic condition impacts their ability to do so.  As one student pointed out:  If we are unable to predict or model the complex processes and responses of living things and humans within our ecosystems, how does that impact sustainable planning or planning in general?

The discussion of carrying capacity brought up other questions about:

  • How do we talk about sustainability and economy? Are there limitations to this framework?
  • Can people just live regionally?  Can they be sustainable within their area?

Eder centered the discussion about carrying capacity at a very human scale when he shared about his father’s fishing business in Chile.  He asked, “We have a carrying capacity, but someone is taking more. How much fish corresponds to me as a small fisherman, compared to industries that take more?”  The issue of global and social equity complicates the notion of carrying capacity, challenging us to rethink how this concept is applied and what it overlooks.

The last key point we reflected upon in relation to carrying capacity was the issue of further development to raise the standard of living for people.  Increasing the standard of living within our capitalist system ultimately means higher consumption and depletion of environmental resources.  So how do we tackle this conundrum? Do we follow Reese’s recommendation that development only be advanced in the developing world and halted for the developed countries?  Can a higher quality of life go hand in hand with sustainability? Why or why not?


4 thoughts on “Problematizing Resiliency and Carrying Capacity

  1. skonala254

    I really like the last question that you bring up about if a higher quality of life can go hand in hand with sustainability. I believe the answer to this question is yes, however, we as a society need to redefine how we define a higher quality of life. Currently, our definition is consumption based. Many people believe that a higher quality of life is having a bigger house, a fancier car, or a closet full of shoes. However, the law of diminishing marginal utility states that if a person increases his/her consumption of a product (while consuming the same amount of other goods), the marginal utility that a person gains from consuming one additional unit decreases.

    Clearly, there is a baseline, that every person needs to meet in terms of getting their basic needs met. But once that baseline is met, additional consumption is unnecessary and does necessarily provide for a higher quality of life.

    This leads to the question of how we actually define a higher quality of life that is not consumption based? I’m not really sure what the answer to this is, but I believe it has something to do with the environments we live in and if we continue to degrade the environment around us, our quality of life as a society will decline.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with you that the answer to the question can be yes, but only if we redefine what it means to attain a “higher quality of life”. In an international/global context, the question becomes even more complicated, because redefining “high” and “low” qualities of life is dependent upon also transforming (or re-imagining) the current global order. I say this because those nations at the top of the international hierarchy are generally also those whose cultures & lifestyles become the new norm of highest-quality life. Is it possible to de-couple these two so that the most powerful nations aren’t automatically looked to for models of high-quality life? Or, is cultural emulation a key part of maintaining the international hierarchy?

      • teowickland

        I agree too!

        Regarding the law of diminishing marginal utility, not only does each incremental object we “consume” increase our happiness less than the last, that increase in happiness is more ephemeral: the new car loses its shine, I get used to it and take it for granted, and anyway I’m still stuck in the same traffic on the same commute as before. By contrast, what makes us really happy (and sustainably and endurably so) are positive experiences, and in particular positive experiences deriving from interactions with other people. Of course, these experiences are not quantitatively valued by our current capitalist system; they don’t factor into GDP or most other measures of one-upsmanship among jurisdictions. So the race to maximize consumption not only undermines sustainability, it also undermines happiness (whereas promoting happiness and well-being was supposedly the point of the whole capitalist experiment).

        Most of the above ideas follow from Charles Montgomery’s “Happy City”, a book I got halfway through reading before the semester took over. I plan to finish it in the summer, perhaps some of you will be interested to read it as well.

  2. ewolfson2014

    Thanks for the summary and the reflection. The question you raised about whether or not a higher quality of life can go hand in hand with sustainability is an interesting question and cannot easily be answered. I am drawn back to the idea of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. The theory states that as country expands it uses more pollution, but eventually the pollution decreases due to improved technology. Before understanding the profound implications of this model, I believed it was a good representation of environmental economics.

    Easily convinced by simplistic models as an undergraduate-I defended this theory in several papers. The old me believed it would make sense for a country who is more advanced to have the technology to solve their “pollution” problem. I know now that this is not entirely true. As we saw in the ecological footprint quiz, living in an industrialized country produces a much larger footprint even if we as individuals make changes to limit our personal footprint. Unfortunately, I believe the answer to your initial question is no. A higher quality life can not always go hand in hand with sustainability because we are a product of our countries output.

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