The Anthropocene vs. The Doomed Earth

On Saturday, September 14, 2013, The New York Times published an op-ed by Erle C. Ellis entitled, “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem.”  Professor Ellis challenges the conventional wisdom that the future of the Earth is threatened by an inexorably increasing human population.  He tells us that emerging knowledge of the history of human civilizations should reassure us that humans have altered ecosystems for 200,000 years to meet their needs and there is no reason to believe there is a limit to the ability of humans to continue to manipulate our environment as needed to support a growing population.   


Little of human history is recorded.  Therefore, only recent discoveries of archaeologists have informed us of the many technological advances of human civilization that increased food production.  Irrigation and agriculture, for example, is a relatively recent human accomplishment.  In the Old World, humans have supplemented their diets by raising domestic animals in the past 6,000 years.  This knowledge only reached the New World with Europeans in the 16th century. 

Professor Ellis suggests that our appreciation of human adaptability is based on our knowledge of the history of human accomplishment.   That knowledge is not only relatively new, but is not yet widely known by the public.  He admits that he, himself, did not comprehend human adaptability until studying agriculture in China, where human ingenuity has managed to keep pace with the growth of the most populous country on Earth.  His work is now as informed by archaeology, geography, and economics as it is by his original discipline, biology.

We introduced Professor Ellis (University of Maryland, Baltimore) to our readers in an article about the globalization of ecology by humans.  He is one of the proponents of naming a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, to acknowledge the fact that the activities of humans have altered the Earth in significant and profoundly important ways.  He does not find reason to despair about our impact on the Earth:

“The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems.  In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make of it.”  (1)

At the opposite extreme:  The viewpoint of Jake Sigg

At the opposite extreme of Ellis’ rosy view of the future of the Earth and its human occupants, we turn to Jake Sigg’s “Nature News.”  Regular readers of “Nature News” will find the following example of Sigg’s pessimistic view of the future of the Earth typical of his viewpoint:

“My vision for the world is increasingly apocalyptic.  Lest you think I’m being overly dramatic, with the type of economic/political system we have, things can only get worse, not better, and the horror and chaos of Syria, Egypt, et al could be easily foreseen–not in detail, but in general, as the result of too many competing for space and resources.  I expect lots of horror stories in the future, and I hope I’m dead by the time it hits me directly.  At the pace things are moving, I may not be that lucky.”  “Nature News,” September 7, 2013.

Jake Sigg’s concern about over-population also motivates his extreme opposition to immigration, including legal immigration. 

Finding Common Ground

As diametrically opposite as these viewpoints seem on the surface, they actually share common ground.  As Professor Ellis says, “The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science.”  In other words, the famines that humans have experienced were as much a failure of the social system as they were of the physical limitations of the planet to provide adequate food.  Jake Sigg agrees that “our economic/political system” is at least partially to blame for the failure to compensate for inadequate resources. 

For example, the current round of climate change has been caused by the activities of humans, but our social, political, and economic systems are preventing us from responding to it effectively.  Hunger in America will be exacerbated if conservative politicians are successful in their effort to drastically reduce the availability of food stamps to the poor.     

Professor Ellis is confident that human social systems will accommodate population increases.  Mr. Sigg predicts the opposite outcome.  The more likely outcome is probably somewhere in between.  We will probably muddle through with occasional catastrophic famines where physical shortages cannot be mitigated by competent social/political structures. 

Admittedly, this topic is a digression for Million Trees.  It is intended as a reminder that the ecological “restorations” being demanded by native plant advocates should be a public policy decision and the failure to treat it as such has resulted in irreparable harm to our environment.  It is therefore an example of how environmental problems and their resolution are ultimately failures of human social systems.

Update:  Our readers might be interested in Jake Sigg’s very different reaction to Erle Ellis’ op-ed in his latest newsletter (September 17, 2013), available here.  Here is an excerpt from it:

“One of the most discouraging developments of our time is the elevation of opinion to equal status with knowledge in the minds of large numbers.  People who have spent their lives studying and working in a field are on equal footing with someone who hadn’t thought about the matter five minutes ago, and their vote counts just as much.  Not exactly a way to build a lasting, self-perpetuating society.”

In other words, problems are caused by too much democracy, in Sigg’s opinion.  He believes that “experts” should be in charge, of which he—a retired gardener in the Recreation and Park Department– is apparently one and Erle Ellis—Associate Professor of geography and environmental systems at University of Maryland, Baltimore—is not.  In contrast, Million Trees values expertise, but considers the alteration of our public parks a political decision which must be made democratically.  More democracy is needed to resolve these conflicts, not less. 


Erle C. Ellis, “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem,” New York Times, September 14, 2013.

6 thoughts on “The Anthropocene vs. The Doomed Earth”

  1. Thanks, as usual, for your untiring dedication to getting the word out. If more people would have common sense and interfere less with the earth, then there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much worry about the future. I just can’t begin to understand these so-called “nativist” extremists. And I was shocked by those nasty remarks about immigrants too. I guess if someone should be so negatively extreme about our precious, endangered forests, mountaintops, openspaces, city parks, etc. then I shouldn’t be surprised that they’d be vehemently anti-immigrant as well.

  2. With respect to engineered ecosystems you missed mentioning the part about propagating the most useful species by burning woodland to enhance hunting and foraging success; which was a Native American technique that altered the North American natural landscape.

    Webmaster: We didn’t miss it. Ellis doesn’t mention Native Americans specifically. Burning the landscape was not limited to the New World. Africans did it for centuries for the same reasons as Native Americans. You will find frequent mention of Native Americans using fire to mold the landscape elsewhere on Million Trees.

    Necessity is the mother of invention and humans, the ultimate resource, have always come through. With global warming during the Medieval Warm Period growing enough food was not a problem. But with global cooling during the Little Ice Age there was widespread famine. Agricultural technology such as crop rotation and new ways to organize farming saved the day. I have confidence we will again deal with whatever comes our way.

    I like Jake Sigg on matters relating to plants, but his views on population are uninformed. The world’s growth rate has been dropping since the 1960’s and should level off before 2050, and then start to decline. A declining world population will present new problems for mankind. But in the meantime my property value will continue rise and I will be long gone before that happens.


  4. Public policy decisions and our concomitant value systems are at the core of environmental issues. You have put your finger on the common pulse of anti-immigration and anti-non-native plant extremism. It beats strongly in the hearts of those who refuse to adapt to the new and different landscape we have now than the one their forefathers encountered when they first came to the New World.

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