Limits to Growth

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about limits to growth, and human expansion. Here are some of my thoughts. I would love to hear yours.

Humans expanded out of Africa 60,000 years ago. Were there environmental barriers that prevented them from leaving before that time? Often they are accused of killing the megafauna, that began a decline around the same time. But what if the Megafauna acted as a barrier? What if predation from megafauna was a barrier to expansion in those regions? What if the megafauna extinction are what allowed humans to migrate out of Africa? Or could it have been glaciers that prevented expansion? What if our technological limits and understanding worked as a limit to our growth? Once we had the “idea” for shoes, for example, we were able to travel through snow and ice beyond what had limited us before. Then I think about barriers like disease, which again, through technology (anti-biotics) we were able to surpass.

Then I think about limits to growth in a cultural sense, not environmental. I think of the bible, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Which says, don’t limit your growth. Then I think of Martin Prechtel and the Mayan concept of “Original Debt” and that in their religion, creating things was very spiritually expensive, and therefore many projects were simply not undertaken because they would have required a religious cost. This is a culturally imposed barrier to growth. I often think about the infanticides in the archeological record and wonder if those were people limiting their growth. Of women breast feeding for years to avoid ovulation and more pregnancy.

Not sure where I am going with any of this. I just seem to keep coming back to the two central barriers in rewilding:

Population Growth/Density

I’m trying to wrap my head around these ideas and understand what happened to us that triggered growth from both the environmental and cultural sides of things… and where to go/what to do with this information as it relates to rewilding in the current era.

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It seems like you have two distinct questions: (1) what are the limits to (population) growth/expansion and (2) what are the causes of (population) growth/expansion?

As for (1), the actual limits, as you rightly illustrate with your examples, depend upon various environmental and cultural conditions. If we understand what those conditions are, then we may be able to narrow down some actual limits. Anything else would be speculation.

As for (2), I would rank sedentism and agriculture as two primary historical causes, along with certain religious beliefs (you mention the biblical injunction) that place value on human life as such over other life in an imbalanced manner.

I guess my question to you would be this: in what ways do you see population growth/expansion as a barrier to rewilding? (Not that I disagree with you, since I don’t yet know your reasons.)


I hope this is related enough to the topic but one thought I had what that in starting to act as master’s of the world, we started controlling (or wanting to) all aspects of life. And we started discarding the natural order and mechanisms.

One example that comes to mind is the spreading of viruses as a signal to spread out or simply be less crowded in an area (which would also have the impact of limiting the total number of people). By introducing vaccines, we circumvented this and allowed for people to live crowded in cities.

Maybe shifting our perspective to respect the natural order and mechanisms and also not equate “life” with “human life” would go a long way. MAYBE.

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Has any gateway to growth ever been as great as the increased use of fossil fuels? I know the philosophical underpinnings of civilization were laid far before then, but there were major barriers to population growth as recently as 200 years ago.

I’ve thought a lot about population growth/decline. I’ve been feeling very pessimistic lately. I’m not sure that there is a reasonable solution - other than the pipe dream of world-wide consensus on controlled decline.

One other thought. Where is the line with cultural definitions of “shamefulness” (for lack of a better term)? I know in the context of most civilizations reproductive shame falls almost entirely on women - and in very horrible ways that I would never want to replicate. But are there records of cultures using shame or guilt rather than violence to discourage excessive reproduction? Is there ever a point at which that is acceptable if unlimited reproduction will mean ecological and cultural collapse? Maybe there is a more positive way to frame social pressures?

I don’t know if that is at all on topic. :slightly_smiling:


Most of my work as a forest steward is intervening in the attack – introduced invasive plant and animal species weakening and defeating thriving communities of biodiversity. My heart, mind and body are on the front line, giving me first hand understanding.

When a new species is introduced, often it is challenged to survive, much less thrive, due to difficulties adjusting quickly to new conditions. But when a species can adjust to new conditions, its evolutionary history has afforded it methods of expanding to which the existing species have not had time to counter-adapt, giving the invader a decisive advantage. Whether we humans themselves adapted to hurdle their natural barriers, or our barriers somehow eroded giving us easy expansion opportunities is a moot point. To this day our species has not only invaded every bioregion, we have introduced other species invaders that have thrown nature out of overall homeostasis.

All life has a longing to live and expand. But all species also need species symbiosis to survive – all life requires community. As species adapt new ways to expand, other species adapt ways that counter-balance the expansion. This balance and counter-balance is best achieved through slow changes. When changes happen too quickly counter-adaptations may not manifest in time, leaving opportunities for monocultures to establish, and extinctions to occur. Examples of humans’ biocultural adaptations include using tools, controlling fire, agriculture. These ‘inventions’ served as a catalyst for our growth in population and expansion out of our niche into habitats of other species communities.

The true question is, What is the human habitat? That is, assuming our species’ adaptions came at a slow enough pace that other species had time to manifest counter-balancing adaptations, where would our niche have been? We are, after all, animals. All animals have a habitat. If English ivy growing up a tree in the Pacific Northwest could be asked, Where is your niche?, it may take offense to even the implication that it is not entitled to expand as freely as it chooses. But the longing to populate and expand does not override a species’ natural limits to life within diverse living communities. Symbiosis is the primal nature ethic.