Maxing Out Planet Earth

As of 2017, 7.5 billion people inhabit the planet Earth. This is more than double the population of just 50 years ago when Paul Ehrlich published his dire warning (The Population Bomb) of famines and societal collapse due to population growth outstripping agricultural production. Despite this alarmism and the very real and continual pressure that population growth exerts on the environment, the Earth continues to support a population growing at a nearly exponential rate. Technological advances in agricultural production have largely been responsible for the planet’s increased carrying capacity. Large scale projects relating to water storage and energy production have allowed people to take residence in seemingly inhospitable areas such as the United States’ arid west. Urban growth has increased efficiencies associated with infrastructure and energy. These resource and planning innovations have manifested in the form of large scale, human modifications of the Earth’s surface including industrial farms, giant dams, oil derricks, mines, and, of course, cities. While these projects are heralded for supporting basic human needs, improving quality of life, and for driving the global economic engine, they also come at a high environmental cost. In this course, we will explore the dynamics of human population growth, associated degradation of the natural environment, and implications for the Earth’s carrying capacity, including regional variability. A large portion of course time will be dedicated to the controversial ways in which humans used or propose to use technology and policy to support increased or improved human life. Discussion in our weekly meetings will draw from readings including selections from The Population Bomb, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, McKay Jenkins’ Food Fight and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert. Other media will include screenings of Chinatown, TED talks on energy and land use policy, and other relevant documentaries. This course will rely on perspectives from multiple academic disciplines including environmental science, geography, political science, economics, and psychology.