Population and Environment

, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 195–215 | Cite as

Revisiting carrying capacity: Area-based indicators of sustainability

  • William E. Rees


Conventional wisdom suggests that because of technology and trade, human carrying capacity is infinitely expandable and therefore virtually irrelevant to demography and development planning. By contrast, this article argues that ecological carrying capacity remains the fundamental basis for demographic accounting. A fundamental question for ecological economics is whether remaining stocks of natural capital are adequate to sustain the anticipated load of the human economy into the next century. Since mainstream (neoclassical) models are blind to ecological structure and function, they cannot even properly address this question. The present article therefore assesses the capital stocks, physical flows, and corresponding ecosystems areas required to support the economy using “ecological footprint” analysis. This approach shows that most so-called “advanced” countries are running massive unaccounted ecological deficits with the rest of the planet. Since not all countries can be net importers of carrying capacity, the material standards of the wealthy cannot be extended sustainably to even the present world population using prevailing technology. In this light, sustainability may well depend on such measures as greater emphasis on equity in international relationships, significant adjustments to prevailing terms of trade, increasing regional self-reliance, and policies to stimulate a massive increase in the material and energy efficiency of economic activity.


Capital Stock Ecological Footprint Natural Capital Carry Capacity Ecological Economic 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Catton, W. (18 August, 1986). Carrying capacity and the limits to freedom. Paper prepared for Social Ecology Session 1, XI World Congress of Sociology. New Delhi, India.Google Scholar
  2. Christensen, P. (1991). Driving forces, increasing returns, and ecological sustainability. In R. Costanza, (Ed.).Ecological economics: The science and management of sustainability, pp. 75–87. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Costanza, R. & Daly, H. (1992). Natural capital and sustainable development.Conservation Biology 1, 37–45.Google Scholar
  4. Daly H. & Goodland, R. (1993).An ecological-economic assessment of deregulation of international commerce under GATT. Discussion draft. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.Google Scholar
  5. Daly, H. (1986). Comments on “population growth and economic development”.Population and Development Review 12, 583–585.Google Scholar
  6. Daly, H. (1992). Steady-state economics: Concepts, questions, policies.Gaia 6, 333–338.Google Scholar
  7. Folke, C., Larsson, J., & Sweitzer, J. (1994). Renewable resource appropriation by cities. Paper presented at “Down To Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics,” Third International Meeting of the International Society for Ecological Economics, San José, Costa Rica (24–28 October 1994).Google Scholar
  8. Hannon, B. (1975). Energy conservation and the consumer.Science 189, 95–102.Google Scholar
  9. Hardin, G. (1991). Paramount positions in ecological economics. In R. Costanza, (Ed.).Ecological economics: The science and management of sustainability, pp. 47–57. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Jaccard, M. (1991).Does the rebound effect offset the electricity savings of powersmart? Discussion Paper for BC Hydro. Vancouver: BC Hydro.Google Scholar
  11. Kirchner, J., Leduc, G., Goodland, R., & Drake, J. (1985). Carrying capacity, population growth, and sustainable development. In D. Mahar (Ed.).Rapid population growth and human carrying capacity: Two perspectives. Staff Working Papers #690, Population and Development Series. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.Google Scholar
  12. Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., & Randers, J. (1992).Beyond the limits. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.Google Scholar
  13. Overby, R. (1985). The urban economic environmental challenge: improvement of human welfare by building and managing urban ecosystems. Paper presented in Hong Kong to the POLMET '85 Urban Environmental Conference. Washington, DC: The World Bank.Google Scholar
  14. Pauly, D. & Christensen, V. (1995). Primary production required to sustain global fisheries.Nature 374:255–257.Google Scholar
  15. Pearce, D. (1994).Sustainable consumption through economic instruments. Paper prepared for the Government of Norway Symposium on Sustainable Consumption, Oslo, 19–20 January, 1994.Google Scholar
  16. Rees, W. (1992). Ecological footprints and appropriated carrying capacity: What urban economics leaves out.Environment and Urbanization 4, 2, 121–130.Google Scholar
  17. Rees, W. (1988). A role for environmental assessment in achieving sustainable development.Environ. Impact Assess. Rev. 8, 273–291.Google Scholar
  18. Rees, W. (1990).Sustainable development and the biosphere. Teilhard Studies Number 23. American Teilhard Association for the Study of Man, or: The Ecology of Sustainable Development.The Ecologist 20(1), 18–23.Google Scholar
  19. Rees, W. (1994a).Sustainability, growth, and employment: Toward an ecologically stable, economically secure, and socially satisfying future. Paper prepared for the IISD Employment and Sustainable Development Project. Winnipeg, Manitoba: International Institute for Sustainable Development. (Revised version inAlternatives 21:4 [October/November 1995]).Google Scholar
  20. Rees, W. (1994b). Pressing global limits: Trade as the appropriation of carrying capacity. In T. Schrecker & J. Dalgleish (Eds.).Growth, trade, and environmental values, pp. 29–56. London, Ont: Westminster Institute for Ethics and Human Values.Google Scholar
  21. Rees, W. (1995). Achieving sustainability: Reform or transformation?Journal of Planning Literature 9, 343–361.Google Scholar
  22. Rees, W. & Wackernagel, M. (1994). Ecological footprints and appropriated carrying capacity: Measuring the natural capital requirements of the human economy. In A-M. Jansson, M. Hammer, C. Folke, and R. Costanza (Eds.).Investing in natural capital: The ecological economics approach to sustainability, pp. 362–390. Washington: Island Press.Google Scholar
  23. RIVM (1991).National environmental outlook, 1990–2010. Bilthoven: Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheit en Milieuhygiene.Google Scholar
  24. Saunders, H.D. (1992). The Khazzoom-Brookes postulate and neoclassical growth.The Energy Journal 13, 4, 131–148.Google Scholar
  25. Schmidt-Bleek, F. (1992a). MIPS—A universal ecological measure.Fresenius Environmental Bulletin 1, 306–311.Google Scholar
  26. Schmidt-Bleek, F. (1992b). MIPS revisited.Fresenius Environmental Bulletin 2, 407–412.Google Scholar
  27. Schneider, E. & Kay, J. (1992). Life as a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics. Preprint from:Advances in Mathemetics and Computers in Medicine. (Waterloo, Ont.: University of Waterloo Faculty of Environmental Studies, Working Paper Series).Google Scholar
  28. Sterrer, W. (1993). Human economics: A non-human perspective.Ecological Economics 7, 183–202.Google Scholar
  29. Vatn, A. & D. W. Bromley. (1993). Choices without prices without apologies.Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 26, 129–148.Google Scholar
  30. Vitousek, P., Ehrlich, P., Ehrlich, A., & Matson, P. (1986). Human appropriation of the products of photosynthesis.BioScience 36, 368–374.Google Scholar
  31. Wackernagel, M. (1994).The ecological footprint and appropriated carrying capacity: A tool for planning toward sustainability. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning. Vancouver: UBC/SCARP.Google Scholar
  32. WCED. (1987).Our common future. World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  33. von WeizsÄcker, Ernst U. (1994).Earth politics. London: Zed Books (see Chapter 11: Ecological Tax Reform).Google Scholar
  34. Wackernagel, M. & W. Rees. (1995).Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabriola Island, BC and Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press, Inc 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • William E. Rees
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Community and Regional PlanningThe University of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

Personalised recommendations