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2. Looming Tragedy  

Limits, Boundaries, Survival

Ecologists have applied the concept of “carrying capacity”, the population of a species that an ecosystem can support, to human populations. Ecological limits to growth in population and the economy dominated environmental concern in the 1970s and beyond. More recently they have been supplanted by the idea of planetary boundaries, based on the stresses that the earth system is capable of absorbing, several of which (including biosphere integrity and climate change) have already been transgressed, suggesting the system is in grave peril. This chapter also considers the points of critics of the idea that there can be limits, then analyzes the political implications of limits and boundaries, from the authoritarianism associated with some 1970s thinkers to the need for cooperative global action to the more democratic possibilities that could be associated with degrowth and planetary boundaries.


This chapter focuses on the environmental discourse of limits and survival and how it set the apocalyptic horizon of environmentalism. Population biologists and ecologists use the concept of ‘carrying capacity’ — the maximum population of a species that an ecosystem can support in perpetuity. When the population of a species grows to the point where carrying capacity is exceeded, the ecosystem is degraded and the population crashes, recovering only if and when natural processes restore the ecosystem to its previous capacity. One complicating factor when it comes to applying population biology to human societies is the possibility of economic growth. The chapter first considers the origins of survivalism before discussing the political philosophy of survival, discourse analysis of limits and survival, and limits and survival in practice. It also examines the challenges confronting the limits discourse, including the lack of international action on climate change.