Covid-19 Update: We've taken precautionary measures to enable all staff to work away from the office. These changes have already rolled out with no interruptions, and will allow us to continue offering the same great service at your busiest time in the year.

An Empty World To A Full World Environmental Sciences Essay

2961 words (12 pages) Essay in Environmental Sciences

5/12/16 Environmental Sciences Reference this

Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work produced by our Essay Writing Service. You can view samples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

For much of human history, the human population was low; its ability to harvest or extract natural resources and harness energy was within the carrying capacity of the biosphere; and anthropogenic waste, both quantitatively and qualitatively, was within the capacity of ecosystem sinks to absorb. As human population has grown and technology has advanced, consumption of resources and production of waste have vastly exceeded sustainable levels and now threaten to overwhelm ecosystem functions. An economic system designed for a world of unlimited resources and unlimited sinks is no longer functional in a world of finite resources and overflowing sinks. Prize-winning economist and former Senior Environmental Economist at the World Bank Herman Daly (born 1938) has devoted much of his professional life to creating a new conceptual framework for understanding the implications of these changes. Daly coined the term “empty world” to mean our earlier, if erroneous, view of the human role in relation to the biosphere and its resources, and “full world” to describe the present reality.

In an empty world, it was possible to view human activity – and the human economy – as all encompassing, and the ecosystem as a subset of the economy, valuable primarily for its ability to supply throughput in the form of energy and stock-fund resources. When labor and human artifacts – the things people make – were in scarce supply, they were the limiting factors in human and economic development. Much of the focus of human endeavor was therefore on developing an infrastructure of technology to efficiently turn natural resources into needed manmade capital and artifacts. Throughput flowed from an apparently limitless abundance of resources to environmental sinks so apparently infinite that their services in absorbing and assimilating waste were not even assigned economic value or ownership.


“This picture is no longer realistic. The global economy, driven by surging population and consumption levels, has depleted both renewable and nonrenewable resources and degraded the air, water and land surfaces in the process. The ability of the biosphere to absorb and process the waste generated by economic processes is rapidly becoming overwhelmed. As natural capital is drawn down, we lose the very ecosystem services on which we rely to sequester carbon, regulate atmospheric gases, maintain climate, control flooding and erosion, form new soils, and recycle nutrients”. [is this mine?] [full world graphic]

This is the critical flaw in economic theory: it fails to take into account how economic processes consume resources and generate wastes, deplete resources and reduce assimilative capacities. – Herman DalyNeoclassical economics was based on a preanalytic vision of unlimited growth unconstrained by questions of resource depletion or overwhelmed sinks. The framework for dealing with the new “full world” paradigm is provided by the emerging transdisciplinary field of ecological economics.

If traditional, or neoclassical, economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources among competing interests using the market as the mechanism of distribution, then ecological economics is the study of how to balance competing needs for resources justly and sustainably among competing human and environmental interests within the constraints and limitations of the biosphere.

While neoclassical economics has defined human welfare as the ability to satisfy wants, ecological economics searches for ways to reduce and redistribute consumption. Where neoclassical economics sees growth as a panacea, ecological economics, with its awareness of finite resources, sees growth as the problem. Where neoclassical economics measures progress in terms of per capita income and Gross Domestic Product (GDP), ecological economics utilizes alternative indicators of development such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).


Some of the concepts which have emerged from ecological economics which are useful in understanding the full world paradigm are:

Sustainable Scale is the level of consumption at which the economy functions within the bounds of biophysical carrying capacity, without drawing on natural capital.

Optimal Scale is a concept from macroeconomics meaning the point at which marginal costs are equal to marginal benefits, ie the cost of producing a unit of product is equal to the benefit received. This concept can be extended to environmental impacts and social consequences as well.

Uneconomic Growth – All economic activities involve the throughput of materials and energy and a consequent cost to the environment. When the value of the natural capital being taken from the system is greater than the value of the manmade capital which is generated, Daly it “uneconomic growth.” This is a specific application of optimal scale to ecological economics.


Natural Capital – to draw an analogy from the monetary system, the ecological system can be visualized as being built upon a store of natural capital which yields interest in the form of natural resources and ecosystem services. If we are careful to live on the interest, the capital will last forever. When we dip into capital, as when we extract nonrenewable resources, overuse renewable resources, or overwhelm sinks, future income is reduced.

Ecosystem Services The interactions of the plants, animals and resources within an ecosystem, and the results of those interactions, are called “ecosystem functions.” When an ecosystem function has a value to human beings, we call it an “ecosystem service.” In an empty world, ecosystem services were treated as open-access free goods. In a full world, ecosystem services are increasingly valuable.



Sometime in July 2011, a baby will be born who brings the living human population of this planet to 7 billion. Using an exponential growth model, at our current 1.17% rate of growth, the population would be projected to double from 7 billion to 14 billion people in another 58 years. Although the historic population growth curve exhibits the classic “hockey stick” shape of exponential growth, most population scientists believe that a logistic growth equation, which adds calculations for death rates and ?, is a better model for predicting the future growth of the human population. Due to




Source limits: (see definition of “source” in Daly glossary, pg 440: “That part of the environment that supplies usable raw materials that constitute he throughput by which the economy produces, and which ultimately returns as was to environmental sinks.” ) Hubbert curve (graphic?) and resource scarcity (this will be a substantial section). I need to understand Hubbert curves. Check to see whether the graphics in EOE are sourced outside and write for permission to include an outside graphic. Vocab: depletion, Hubbert curve,

The other huge change in carrying capacity is related to the new scarcity of natural resources. Economics has great difficulty in acting on the new scarcity and limits to growth. Distribution is also a problem with natural resources.


“For every economically significant renewable resource, from forests to fisheries, the rate of extraction is now limited by scarcity, not by a lack of technology or equipment to extract it.”-Herman Daly

The term “renewable resources” is deceptive in a full world. If a resource is theoretically renewable but is being depleted faster than it can regenerate, the resource will eventually become exhausted. The world’s forests and fisheries are already critically depleted and are being consumed faster than they can regenerate. This issue has been called the “tragedy of the commons.”[link?] As stocks of a resource fall, it is in the common interest for individuals to use less. However, the individual forester, or the individual fisherman, has a family to feed and an investment in equipment which require that he continue to take as much of the resource as possible.

Resources already depleted from overconsumption face additional threats from environmental degradation and climate change. Renewable resources depend heavily on ecosystem services such as rain. In turn, depletion of the natural capital through resource exhaustion threatens the ecosystem of which those populations are a part, thereby putting the ecosystem services provided by that ecosystem at risk. [graphic of this cycle]


Water occupies a unique position, not only because it is essential to life on the planet and plays a pivotal role in so many environmental processes, but because it has properties of both renewable and nonrenewable resources. Although the amount of water on earth is considered to be finite, the natural hydrologic cycle cleans and redistributes the supply in what have, until recently, been fairly predictable patterns.

Human activities have made significant direct changes in the availability and distribution of water resources through pumping of aquifers, and the redirection, cooption, and pollution of natural flows of surface water. Human activity has also begun to make noticeable indirect changes in the distribution of rainfall and surface water through climate change.

Water shortages may become the defining crisis for much of the world’s population in less time than it will take to test other facets of planetary carrying capacity. Worldwide, climate-related changes in rainfall are already being felt. A recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund, which added climate change projections to existing models of population growth and human water consumption patterns shows that 70% of the United States will be at risk for water shortages by the year 2050. In 35% of the country, the crisis is expected to be severe.


Every resource on the planet is limited to what is already here, with the exception of energy, which falls onto the earth at a fixed rate in the form of sunlight. This wealth is called natural capital. Some resources are nonrenewable, such as minerals [needs work]

M. King Hubbart, a petroleum geologist, demonstrated that if you create a graph for the cumulative extraction of a nonrenewable resource over time, plotting the total extraction for a given period on a vertical axis, and time on the horizontal axis, the graph will form a bell curve starting at zero, before extraction began, rising gradually to a peak, and falling off again as the resource is depleted. The area under the curve measures the total available resource reserves. This type of graph is called a Hubbert curve. As the richest and most readily available resources are extracted first, many other mineral and other nonrenewable resources are now at or approaching peak on their respective Hubbart curves. [graph]


Fossil fuels are currently the predominant energy source in the world and a major component in vast numbers of manufactured products, from fertilizer and pesticides to plastic. Fossil fuels drive both the world economy and, through the release of greenhouse gases during combustion, climate change.

A Hubbart curve demonstrates that oil production has peaked worldwide and is on the downward side of the curve. While oil reserves remain in the ground, both as crude and in oil shales, extraction of these reserves will be increasingly difficult and expensive, while the quality of the available reserves will decrease, requiring more technology to refine.


Every economic activity produces waste. At one time, the earth’s ability to absorb waste was imagined to be unlimited. However, the sheer quantity of anthropogenic waste, much of which has no natural processes developed to break it down, means that land, air and water-based ecosystems are overwhelmed.

Waste, of course, occurs during natural processes. However, the post-industrial waste stream has changed both qualitatively and quantitatively. Quantitative changes are due to human population and excessive consumption of manufactured goods. Anthropogenic waste includes chemicals and compounds not found in nature, naturally occurring substances purified or concentrated beyond what would be found in nature, and chemicals and minerals previously sequestered underground, has created a qualitative change in anthropogenic waste


All living things are made up of carbons. Plants uptake waste carbon in the form of CO2 from the air and use it as building blocks, storing the carbon until it is released again through decay or combustion after the death of the plant. This process is called carbon sequestration. The cumulative ability of the earth’s plant life, as well as the phytoplankton in the oceans, to sequester carbon is called the carbon sink. Mathematicians are working to calculate the total capacity of the carbon sink. Excess carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. While debates occur over the exact amount of carbon which can be sequestered in the earth’s carbon sinks, the rising levels of atmospheric CO2 responsible for climate change are evidence that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are exceeding the capacity of the biospheric carbon sink.



The total impact of the human population on the environment is dependent on the combination of the number of people and their per capita consumption of resources. Thus estimates of global carrying capacity are highly variable and controversial. The carrying capacity of the earth means the number of people who can be supported at a given rate of consumption with a given level of technology. Currently, 9.5 billion is considered to be the conservative estimate of the carrying capacity of the planet for human population, with some theorizing upper limits as high as 50 billion. However, it should be remembered that with a population approaching 7 billion today, over 1 billion people are chronically hungry or malnourished. One person dies of starvation every 3.6 seconds. Over the next decade, water issues are likely to be the largest threat to ecosystems and human survival in many parts of the globe. Estimates of the planet’s ability to support vast population increases assume empty-world access to unlimited resources, a continued supply of ecosystem services, and development of new and unspecified technologies, which may or may not be consistent with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. [one planet-6 planets graphic]

While waste and distribution problems play a part in the one billion people who are currently starving on Earth, it is highly unlikely that the planet can sustain another 7 billion with any reasonable quality of life. Estimates of the carrying capacity of the earth vary from 9.5 billion to 50 billion, but in point of fact, we have been drawing on reserves of many of the earth’s nonrenewable resources since 1980, when the earth only supported 3.5 billion people. This is analogous to spending the principle out of a savings account rather than drawing only the interest. It is likely that 3.5 billion is the number of people which the planet can comfortably support.


The future of food production depends on human population, the impact of population growth on arable land, climate and weather, rates of topsoil depletion and degradation, and how decreasing stocks of oil will be allocated between the energy sector and the agricultural sector


It is clear that we live in a full world and probably have for over a generation. It is imperative that we reduce both human population and levels of consumption, end the use of fossil fuels, and develop technologies to recycle close to 100% of scarce minerals and other resources, and focus on non-consumptive measures of quality of life.

This will require a new economic paradigm. The neoclassical model, built on the empty world view of constant increases in system throughput, must be revisioned to conceptualize ways to optimize human welfare at or below current levels of throughput. This will require an emphasis on development rather than growth planet-wide, and reductions in consumption levels in the developed world.


The interactions of the plants, animals and resources within an ecosystem, and the results of those interactions, are called “ecosystem functions.” When an ecosystem function has a value to human beings, we call it an “ecosystem service.” These interactions are vast, complex, and incompletely understood, but without the natural ecosystems which surround us, we would have no air to breathe, no rain to water crops, no ability to assimilate any of the CO2 and other greenhouse gasses generated by human activity. Even the insects which pollinate our crops are an ecosystem service.

Maintaining the requirements of life for other species is often seen in terms of the threat to competing human interests and becomes the focus of intense controversy. Because of the complexity of ecosystems, the subtle nature of the services they provide, and the fact that small losses to the “web of life” which makes up the living portion of the ecosystem often seem, at least at a casual glance, to have caused no damage, we have been slow to develop any system of valuation for ecosystem services. Efforts to assign value to natural capital have focused instead on stock-fund resources — lumber, fish, maple syrup, pharmaceuticals, and crops. When environmental damage threatens a stock-fund resource, an industry, which represents a section of the economy, is threatened, and that is worthy of response, if only because if it is an industry, it has lobbyists and voters.

Ecosystem services to the planet are reduced when their structural components are harvested as resources, and by unsustainable or toxic waste. One benefit of defining ecosystem services as services in the economic sense is that it places these services on a par with other economic services



Development, Heresy, And The Ecological Revolution:An open letter to the industrialized world

by David C. Korten, Dancing Toward The Future (IC#32),Summer 1992, Page 30, The Context Institute

“An Essay on the Principle of Population by T. R. Malthus”. 1798. _________

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Find out more

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have the essay published on the UK Essays website then please:

McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams Prices from

Undergraduate 2:2 • 1000 words • 7 day delivery

Order now

Delivered on-time or your money back

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by Logo (202 Reviews)