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What Is Carrying Capacity ?

If you need to create a project on the carrying capacity, at first you need to understand what is carrying capacity. The carrying capacity is the size of population that can live for an indefinite amount of time using the resources available in the area where the population lives. For example, imagine an island with a colony of rabbits. As long as there is enough supply of food and water, the rabbits will survive and reproduce and their colony will be getting only bigger. Their population will continue to grow as long as there is enough food and water on the island. However, if at some point there are more rabbits, than there is food on the island, the rabbit population will start to decline.

This limit is called carrying capacity. It is not a fixed number – it depends on such factors as how much each rabbit eats, how fast the food grows, and how well the natural system of the island can handle the waste made by the rabbits.

The origins of the carrying capacity term are uncertain. Some researchers state that it was used in the context of international shipping or that it was applied during the 19th century experiments with micro-organisms. The term was used as early as in 1845 report by the U.S. Secretary of State in the message to the Senate.

The earth is like an island for people. People have advantages over rabbits, such as technology to grow, process, and store food so that they can survive. There is also technology for handling waste. However, there is still a carrying capacity the earth can support. That carrying capacity is the function of the number of people, the amount of resources every person consumes, and the ability of the earth to process all the wastes produced. The main thing is to find the balance point among population, consumption, and waste assimilation.

Basic Biology

Biologists give their own answer to the question of what is carrying capacity defining it as the maximum population of a given species that can survive for an indefinite period of time in a certain environment. The notion was initially applied to relatively simple population-environments, like cattle or sheep that could be maintained on grazing land without ruining it so that it could no longer support the animals. It depends on resources available in the area and the consumption habits of the species. Carrying capacity always changes as both, what is available in the area and the consumption habits of the species change over time.

Many animals have been studied in relation to a certain area’s carrying capacity. Beginning from a low population level there are two different patterns that describe how various species reach carrying capacity:

  • Sigmoid pattern.
    Populations that show the sigmoid pattern increase very fast while the habitat and food are abundant, and then slow down as controlling factors (low birth rate or reduced food availability) occur. When population growth down to zero, its reaches a quite stable level. This pattern is referred to as K selected species.
  • Peak pattern.
    This pattern is similar in the early stages when the population is small. But in this situation the same controlling factors do not occur and the population increases fast to the point where it exhausts the resources it depends on. At this point, the main controlling factor is the mortality and the population collapses to a low level. When resources are replenished, the population rises again. This is referred to as the «r-selected» species.

Human Application of Carrying Capacity

Students are often asked to write short essays on the subject of carrying capacity applied to humans in order to better understand that the population can be supported for an indefinite period of time by its supporting systems.

To human populations the notion of what is carrying capacity was applied in the 1960’s.. It was noted that the consumption habits of humans are more variable that those of other animal species, making it more difficult to predict the carrying capacity of earth for people. This realization led to The IPAT Equation that stated that carrying capacity for people was a function not only of a size of population, but also of different consumption levels, which are affected by technology used in consumption and production.

There have been published a lot of case study topics estimating the carrying capacity of the earth. They range from as low as 1.5 billion people to as high as 800 billion. Most of these evaluations, however, are based on the ideological principles, rather than on the scientific. This shows the complexity of developing useful assessments of the human carrying capacity of the earth, and the limitations of applying the methodology that has been successful with no-human species.

Different assessments of human carrying capacity also show the relationships among some of the major factors involved. If consumptions levels per capita are higher, then a smaller population can be supported. If technology can decrease or increase overall consumption, then it also affects the carrying capacity. As the methodology and idea of carrying capacity was developed in the natural science of biology, they include the notion of limits established by the planet’s natural systems. Species can go beyond these limits (as r-selected species), and when this happens, they collapse and risk extinction.

The big question raised by this application of carrying capacity is whether people will be a K or r-selected species, whether they will reach the stable level, or whether people will reach the peak and collapse. This idea is a great subject for a science paper, which can cast light on such an important issue.

Biological studies of different species provide us with some basic lessons that can be applied to the human condition, but new ideas and methods are needed to include the added complexities of human technology and culture. Carrying capacity is the biophysical limits of our environment are the key in determining how many people can survive and at what consumption levels.

Factors Governing Carrying Capacity

In addition to water, food, raw materials, and other resources, there are less-instinctive and less-intuitive factors that can govern the carrying capacity. They include the ever-increasing and ever-accumulating levels of wastes, damage, and eradication of essential elements of any complex system.

For example, eradication of large portions of any complex system can interrupt the essential processes and dynamics in ways that influence system-failures or unexpected collapse. For example, the carrying capacity of an airplane is more than just a matter of available food, water, or seating – it is also about the total weight of passengers on the plane and the presumption that they do not damage, eradicate, or destroy some parts of the plane (doors, windows, engine parts, etc.). Thus, on a global level, food and other similar resources can affect the carrying capacity of the planet to some extent as long as people on the Earth do not eradicate, dismantle, or destroy important biospheric life-support capacities.

Interpretations of carrying capacity that focus only on resource-limitations (food or water) may neglect broader functional factors. If in the long run people do not lose nor gain weight then the calculations can be pretty accurate. If the amount of food is always equal to the «Y» amount then the carrying capacity has been reached. People who need to improve their reproductive success understand that food supply can vary and that other environmental factors can change people’s need for food. For example, a house might mean that a person doesn’t need to eat as much food as to stay warm as a person otherwise would. Over time, monetary transactions have replaced local production and the barter, thus modifying local human carrying capacity. However, purchases can also impact the regions that are thousands miles away. For example, carbon dioxide produced from an automobile can travel to the upper atmosphere.

Technology plays an important role in the development of carrying capacity and even though sometimes its effects are positive, in other cases it can cause a lot of problems. For example, it was suggested that the Neolithic revolution increased the carrying capacity of the planet through the invention of agriculture. In the same way, the use of fossil fuels presumable artificially increased the carrying capacity by the use of stored sunlight, although food production doesn’t guarantee the capacity of the climatic and biospheric life-support systems of the Earth to resist the wastes and damage from fossil fuels. It has also been suggested that development of technology increased the carrying capacity: fertilizer, greenhouses, fish farming, composting, etc. On the other hand, when writing a definition essay on the subject, it is worth mentioning that a lot of technology enabled people to impose more damage, which is done very quickly and efficiently. For example, chain saws, machine guns, earth-movers, the capacity of fishing fleets to capture and harvest fish species faster than the fish reproduce in the natural way.

Agricultural capability of the planet increased in the last quarter of the 20th century. Most substantially, the production of food in China is declining, placing a load on the whole carrying capacity of the world, especially when population in China could expand to about 1.5 billion people by the year of 2050.

Can All the People on Earth be Fed Well if the Food Distribution System Will Improve?

It is often said that the only reason people starve is that our food distribution system is poor for the task and that is why there is so much poverty in the world. This depends on what kind of diet we use. According to the Hunger Report Update made in the Brown University back in 1991, we could feed 5.9 billion people (less than there are now on the planet) on a fully vegetarian diet on the level of harvests similar to those in 1989.

If we want to add 15% animal products or meat, we could only feed 3.9 billion people. If the diet includes only 25% of the calories from animal products, then we could feed only 2.8 billion people.

Ecological Footprint

Ecological footprint accounting is one of the ways that can estimate the human demand in comparison to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. Instead of gambling about the future possibilities and limitations established by carrying capacity terms, ecological footprint accounting gives empirical and non-speculative assessment of the past. It compares historic generation levels with historical human demand in the same year. According to one result, the human demand in 1999 exceeded the planet’s biocapasity by 20%.

On our service you can find a lot of articles and manuals that explain the notion of carrying capacity. Also, there is a huge database of authors who can help you complete various educational projects, like writing a cover letter, term paper, diploma, dissertation, etc.

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