The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change

The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change

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Yale University Press
Pub. Date:
Yale University Press
The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change

The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change

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An innovative anthology that offers a global perspective on how people think about predicting the future of life on Earth

This anthology provides an historical overview of the scientific ideas behind environmental prediction and how, as predictions about environmental change have been taken more seriously and widely, they have affected politics, policy, and public perception. Through an array of texts and commentaries that examine the themes of progress, population, environment, biodiversity and sustainability from a global perspective, it explores the meaning of the future in the twenty-first century. Providing access and reference points to the origins and development of key disciplines and methods, it will encourage policy makers, professionals, and students to reflect on the roots of their own theories and practices.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300184617
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/22/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 584
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Libby Robin is Professor of environmental history in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University and a senior research fellow at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Sverker Sörlin is Professor of environmental history at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, and co-founder of the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory. Paul Warde is Reader in environmental and economic history at the University of East Anglia, an associate lecturer at the University of Cambridge, and associate research fellow at the Centre for History and Economics at Cambridge.

Read an Excerpt

The Future of Nature

Documents of Global Change

By Libby Robin, Sverker Sörlin, Paul Warde


Copyright © 2013 Libby Robin, Sverker Sörlin, and Paul Warde
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18461-7



An Essay on the Principle of Population


Chapter 1


I think I may fairly make two postulata.

First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.

Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.

These two laws, ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature, and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are, without an immediate act of power in that Being who first arranged the system of the universe, and for the advantage of his creatures, still executes, according to fixed laws, all its various operations.

I do not know that any writer has supposed that on this earth man will ultimately be able to live without food. But Mr Godwin has conjectured that the passion between the sexes may in time be extinguished. As, however, he calls this part of his work a deviation into the land of conjecture, I will not dwell longer upon it at present than to say that the best arguments for the perfectibility of man are drawn from a contemplation of the great progress that he has already made from the savage state and the difficulty of saying where he is to stop. But towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto been made. It appears to exist in as much force at present as it did two thousand or four thousand years ago. There are individual exceptions now as there always have been. But, as these exceptions do not appear to increase in number, it would surely be a very unphilosophical mode of arguing to infer, merely from the existence of an exception, that the exception would, in time, become the rule, and the rule the exception.

Assuming then my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.

By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal.

This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.

Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it. Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice. The former, misery, is an absolutely necessary consequence of it. Vice is a highly probable consequence, and we therefore see it abundantly prevail, but it ought not, perhaps, to be called an absolutely necessary consequence. The ordeal of virtue is to resist all temptation to evil.

This natural inequality of the two powers of population and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society. All other arguments are of slight and subordinate consideration in comparison of this. I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of this law which pervades all animated nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families.

Consequently, if the premises are just, the argument is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind.

I have thus sketched the general outline of the argument, but I will examine it more particularly, and I think it will be found that experience, the true source and foundation of all knowledge, invariably confirms its truth.

Chapter 2

The different ratio in which population and food increase—The necessary effects of these different ratios of increase—Oscillation produced by them in the condition of the lower classes of society—Reasons why this oscillation has not been so much observed as might be expected—Three propositions on which the general argument of the Essay depends—The different states in which mankind have been known to exist proposed to be examined with reference to these three propositions.

I said that population, when unchecked, increased in a geometrical ratio, and subsistence for man in an arithmetical ratio. Let us examine whether this position be just. I think it will be allowed, that no state has hitherto existed (at least that we have any account of) where the manners were so pure and simple, and the means of subsistence so abundant, that no check whatever has existed to early marriages, among the lower classes, from a fear of not providing well for their families, or among the higher classes, from a fear of lowering their condition in life. Consequently in no state that we have yet known has the power of population been left to exert itself with perfect freedom.

Whether the law of marriage be instituted or not, the dictate of nature and virtue seems to be an early attachment to one woman. Supposing a liberty of changing in the case of an unfortunate choice, this liberty would not affect population till it arose to a height greatly vicious; and we are now supposing the existence of a society where vice is scarcely known.

In a state therefore of great equality and virtue, where pure and simple manners prevailed, and where the means of subsistence were so abundant that no part of the society could have any fears about providing amply for a family, the power of population being left to exert itself unchecked, the increase of the human species would evidently be much greater than any increase that has been hitherto known.

In the United States of America, where the means of subsistence have been more ample, the manners of the people more pure, and consequently the checks to early marriages fewer, than in any of the modern states of Europe, the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years.

This ratio of increase, though short of the utmost power of population, yet as the result of actual experience, we will take as our rule, and say, that population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years or increases in a geometrical ratio.

Let us now take any spot of earth, this Island for instance, and see in what ratio the subsistence it affords can be supposed to increase. We will begin with it under its present state of cultivation.

If I allow that by the best possible policy, by breaking up more land and by great encouragements to agriculture, the produce of this Island may be doubled in the first twenty-five years, I think it will be allowing as much as any person can well demand.

In the next twenty-five years, it is impossible to suppose that the produce could be quadrupled. It would be contrary to all our knowledge of the qualities of land. The very utmost that we can conceive, is, that the increase in the second twenty-five years might equal the present produce. Let us then take this for our rule, though certainly far beyond the truth, and allow that, by great exertion, the whole produce of the Island might be increased every twenty-five years, by a quantity of subsistence equal to what it at present produces. The most enthusiastic speculator cannot suppose a greater increase than this. In a few centuries it would make every acre of land in the Island like a garden. Yet this ratio of increase is evidently arithmetical.

It may be fairly said, therefore, that the means of subsistence increase in an arithmetical ratio. Let us now bring the effects of these two ratios together.

The population of the Island is computed to be about seven millions, and we will suppose the present produce equal to the support of such a number. In the first twenty-five years the population would be fourteen millions, and the food being also doubled, the means of subsistence would be equal to this increase. In the next twenty-five years the population would be twenty-eight millions, and the means of subsistence only equal to the support of twenty-one millions. In the next period, the population would be fifty-six millions, and the means of subsistence just sufficient for half that number. And at the conclusion of the first century the population would be one hundred and twelve millions and the means of subsistence only equal to the support of thirty-five millions, which would leave a population of seventy-seven millions totally unprovided for.

A great emigration necessarily implies unhappiness of some kind or other in the country that is deserted. For few persons will leave their families, connections, friends, and native land, to seek a settlement in untried foreign climes, without some strong subsisting causes of uneasiness where they are, or the hope of some great advantages in the place to which they are going.

But to make the argument more general and less interrupted by the partial views of emigration, let us take the whole earth, instead of one spot, and suppose that the restraints to population were universally removed. If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make it.

Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of -1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. and subsistence as -1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent.

No limits whatever are placed to the productions of the earth; they may increase for ever and be greater than any assignable quantity. Yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate to the increase of the means of subsistence by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting as a check upon the greater power.

The effects of this check remain now to be considered.

Among plants and animals the view of the subject is simple. They are all impelled by a powerful instinct to the increase of their species, and this instinct is interrupted by no reasoning or doubts about providing for their offspring. Wherever therefore there is liberty, the power of increase is exerted, and the superabundant effects are repressed afterwards by want of room and nourishment, which is common to animals and plants, and among animals by becoming the prey of others.

The effects of this check on man are more complicated. Impelled to the increase of his species by an equally powerful instinct, reason interrupts his career and asks him whether he may not bring beings into the world for whom he cannot provide the means of subsistence. In a state of equality, this would be the simple question. In the present state of society, other considerations occur. Will he not lower his rank in life? Will he not subject himself to greater difficulties than he at present feels? Will he not be obliged to labour harder? And if he has a large family, will his utmost exertions enable him to support them? May he not see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread that he cannot give them? And may he not be reduced to the grating necessity of forfeiting his independence, and of being obliged to the sparing hand of charity for support?

These considerations are calculated to prevent, and certainly do prevent, a very great number in all civilized nations from pursuing the dictate of nature in an early attachment to one woman. And this restraint almost necessarily, though not absolutely so, produces vice. Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition.

The way in which these effects are produced seems to be this. We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land, to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage, till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened, and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.

This sort of oscillation will not be remarked by superficial observers, and it may be difficult even for the most penetrating mind to calculate its periods. Yet that in all old states some such vibration does exist, though from various transverse causes, in a much less marked, and in a much more irregular manner than I have described it, no reflecting man who considers the subject deeply can well doubt.

Many reasons occur why this oscillation has been less obvious, and less decidedly confirmed by experience, than might naturally be expected.

One principal reason is that the histories of mankind that we possess are histories only of the higher classes. We have but few accounts that can be depended upon of the manners and customs of that part of mankind where these retrograde and progressive movements chiefly take place. A satisfactory history of this kind, on one people, and of one period, would require the constant and minute attention of an observing mind during a long life. Some of the objects of inquiry would be, in what proportion to the number of adults was the number of marriages, to what extent vicious customs prevailed in consequence of the restraints upon matrimony, what was the comparative mortality among the children of the most distressed part of the community and those who lived rather more at their ease, what were the variations in the real price of labour, and what were the observable differences in the state of the lower classes of society with respect to ease and happiness, at different times during a certain period.

Excerpted from The Future of Nature by Libby Robin, Sverker Sörlin, Paul Warde. Copyright © 2013 Libby Robin, Sverker Sörlin, and Paul Warde. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

How to Use This Book xv

Introduction: Documenting Global Change 1

Part 1 Population 15

Are We Too Many, or Are We Too Greedy?

An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) Thomas Malthus 19

Commentary: Björn-Ola Linnér

The Shadow of the World's Future (1928) George Knibbs 31

Commentary: Alison Bashford

"Ghost Acreage" (1962) Georg Borgström 40

Commentary: Sverker Sörlin

The Population Bomb (1968) Paul Ehrlich 54

Commentary: Michael Egan

Part 2 Sustainability 63

Are We Limited by Knowledge or Resources?

Sylvicultura oeconomica (1713) Hans Carl Von Carlowitz 67

Commentary: Paul Warde

The Coal Question (1865) William Stanley Jevons 78

Commentary: Paul Warde

"Possible Limits of Raw-Material Consumption" (1956) Samuel H. Ordway Jr. 89

Commentary: Paul Warde

The Limits to Growth (1972) Donella H. Meadows Forgen Randers Dennis L. Meadows For The Club of Rome 101

Commentary: Michael Egan

Part 3 Geographies 117

Are Human and Natural Futures Determined or Chosen?

The Pulse of Asia (1907) Ellsworth Huntington 121

Commentary: Carole Crumley

"Nature Versus The Australian" (1920) Griffith Taylor 134

Commentary: Carolyn Strange

The Northward Course of Empire (1922) Vilhjalmur Stefansson 145

Commentary: Sverker Sörlin

Part 4 "The Environment" 157

How Did the Idea Emerge?

The Biosphere (1926) Vladimir I. Vernadsky 161

Commentary: Pey-Yi Chu

Deserts on the March (1935) Paul Sears 174

Commentary: Libby Robin

Road to Survival (1948) William Vogt 187

Commentary: Sverker Sörlin

Silent Spring (1962) Rachel Carson 195

Commentary: Christof Mauch

Part 5 Ecology 205

How Do We Understand Natural Systems?

Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807) Alexander Von Humboldt Aimé Bonpland 209

Commentary: Stephen T. Jackson

"The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms" (1935) Arthur Tansley 220

Commentary: Libby Robin

Fundamentals of Ecology (1953) Eugene P. Odum 233

Commentary: Stephen Bocking

Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems (1973) C. S. Holling 245

Commentary: Libby Robin

Part 6 Technology 261

Does Technology Create More Problems Than It Solves?

The Tree of Science (1857) Eugène Huzar 264

Commentary: Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

To Choose a Future (1972) Alva Myrdal 273

Commentary: Arne Kaijser

"The Dynamics of Energy Systems and the Logistic Substitution Model" (1979) Cesare Marchetti Nebojsa Nakicenovic 282

Commentary: Paul Warde

Part 7 Climate 291

How Can We Predict Change?

"On the Transmission of Heat" (1859) John Tyndall 295

Commentary: Mike Hulme

"On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground" (1896) Svante Arrhenius 303

Commentary: Sverker Sörlin

"Seasonal Foreshadowing" (1930) Gilbert T. Walker 316

Commentary: Neville Nicholls

"The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and Its Influence on Temperature" (1938) G. S. Callendar 327

Commentary: James Rodger Fleming

"Unpleasant Surprises in the Greenhouse?" (1987) and Wallace S. Broecker

"Climate and Atmospheric History of the Past 420,000 Years from the Vostok Ice Core, Antarctica" (1999) J. R. Petit J. Jouzel D. Raynaud 337

Commentary: Tom Griffiths

Part 8 Diversity 363

Why Do We Need It, and Can We Conserve It?

The Invaders (1958) Charles S. Elton 367

Commentary: Libby Robin

The Forestry Projections and the Environment: Global-Scale Environmental Impacts (1980): Council on Environmental Quality 381

Commentary: Mark V. Barrow Jr.

"What Is Conservation Biology?" (1985) Michael E. Soulé 391

Commentary: Libby Robin

"Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique" (1997) Ramachandra Guha 409

Commentary: Rob Nixon

Part 9 Measuring 433

How Do We Turn the World into Data?

An Investigation of the Currents of the Atlantic Ocean (1832) James Rennell 437

Commentary: Sarah Cornell

"Current Problems in Meteorology" (1957) Carl-Gustaf Rossby 445

Commentary: Maria Bohn and Sverker Sörlin

Nature's Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems (1997) Gretchen C. Daily 454

Commentary: Richard B. Norgaard

The Economics of Climate Change (2006) Nicholas Stern 465

Commentary: Paul Warde

Part 10 The Anthropocene 479

How Can We Live in a World Where There Is No Nature Without People?

"The 'Anthropocene'" (2000) Paul J. Crutzen Eugene F. Stoermer 483

Commentary: Will Steffen

"A Safe Operating Space for Humanity" (2009) Johan Rockström Will Steffen Kevin Noone 491

Commentary: Susan Owens

"Reducing the Future to Climate: A Story of Climate Determinism and Reductionism" (2011) Mike Hulme 506

Commentary: Libby Robin, Sverker Sorlin, and Paul Warde

Select Bibliography 527

Acknowledgments 541

Commentators 543

Selection Credits 549

Index 553

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