Sociology Index



Carrying capacity in ecology refers to the level of land or resource use both by humans and animals that can be sustained by the natural regenerative power of the environment. Human population is above the long-term carrying capacity and is maintained by the exploitation of fertile soils, fossil fuels, and ground water. In population biology, carrying capacity is defined as the environment's maximal load, which is different from the concept of population equilibrium. Current growth and consumption patterns are placing increasing stress on ecosystems ignoring the carrying capacity. Environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, deforestation indicate that ecosystems are stressed and the carrying capacity is being compromised. Carrying capacity was originally used to determine the number of animals that could graze on a segment of land without destroying it. Later, the term carrying capacity was expanded to more complex populations, like humans. Some environmental scientists claim that we have already surpassed the Earth’s carrying capacity.

But this view is deeply flawed, assuming carrying capacity to be static. We have been engineering our environments to more productively serve human needs for tens of millennia. The palaeoarcheological record strongly suggests is that carrying capacity is not fixed. It is many orders of magnitude greater than it was when we began our journey on this planet. There is no particular reason to think that we won’t be able to continue to raise carrying capacity further.

Sustainable development is economic activity or growth with due consideration given to carrying capacity and which does not reduce or deplete the resources available to future generations. - "Carrying Capacity". The Sustainable Scale Project.

What Factors Govern Carrying Capacity?

Aspects of a system's carrying capacity may involve available supplies of food, water, raw materials, and similar resources. Other factors that govern carrying capacity increasing levels of wastes, and eradication of essential components.

Carrying capacity definitions that focus solely on resource limitations alone may neglect wider functional factors. Humans, with the need to enhance their reproductive success as described in The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins), understand that food supply can vary and also that other factors in the environment can alter humans' need for food.

According to the concept of carrying capacity a finite number of people can be supported without degrading the natural environment. The concept of carrying capacity of an ecosystem for natural populations is derived from the logistic growth curve in population ecology.

Land Reform, Range Ecology, and Carrying Capacities in Namaqualand, South Africa. Benjaminsen, Tor A.; Rohde, Rick; Sjaastad, Espen; Wisborg, Poul; Lebert, Tom. A contribution at the interface of human ecology and political ecology, linking environmental issues to economic constraints, land rights, social justice, and values.

Kessler, J.J. Usefulness of the human carrying capacity concept in assessing ecological sustainability of land-use in semi-arid regions. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 48(1994) : 273-284. 

Mwalyosi, R.B.B. "Population growth, carrying capacity and sustainable development in Southwest Masailand." Journal of Environmental Management 33, no. 2: 175-187.

Rees, William E. Ecological footprints and appropriated carrying capacity : what urban economics leaves out. Environment and urbanization 4(1992): 121-129.

Wackernagel, Mathis. How big is our ecological footprint? Using the concept of appropriated carrying capacity for measuring sustainability. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Task Force on Planning Healthy and Sustainable Communities, 1993. 8 p. 

Western, S. Carrying capacity, population growth, and sustainable development: a case study from the Philippines. Journal of Environmental Management 27, no. 4: 364-367.