Thursday, September 17, 2009

Carrying Capacity

An iconoclast by definition challenges cherished beliefs. One cherished belief is that "growth" is a given, and thus any discussion on restricting growth should be either outright prohibited or dismissed as irrelevant, inconsequential or seditious. However, the negative consequences of unrestricted growth are becoming ever harder to deny, ignore or mitigate. Like the child's observation in the Emperor's New Clothes, non-conversations about the obvious are most likely a sign of a kind of growth we wince to acknowledge: the growth of a collective failure to recognize (and respond appropriately to) the truth.

An early shot across the bow of controlling population growth in San Juan County might be to approach the topic by considering carrying capacity. Here we would presumably create a rational basis for limiting our "consumption" (and therefore population) of the county. Perhaps this is good. There is a but. Take water. If the carrying capacity of our water supply were used to limit our population, would it be surface water? rain water? drilled well water? or, say, de-sal water. Take food. If the carrying capacity of our county were based strictly on the food we could grow here, would that include barter? would it be any agricultural product (like trees) or simply those things normally called 'food'? What about fish? What about farmed fish?

I get a number of images when I imagine what "carrying capacity" might actually mean. I get the one-bag round the world traveler (that would be me) vs the Imelda Marcos semi-truck traveler. I get a lifeboat with less than rated capacity number of passengers vs one so loaded that the gunwales are an inch above the waterline. I get "living off the land" with what ya got vs one which is technology-assisted (and therefore always undefined). Bottom line: I get the question: "who is doing the carrying?" If it is just me, there is going to be a whole lot less carried. If it is going to be me with the assistance of a thousand information and fossil-fuel slaves, there is going to be a whole lot more carried.

In any case, the idea for carrying capacity would be likely viewed in terms of the maximum number of folks the islands could support. There is a Malthusian twist here. Sure we might be able to figure out some carrying capacity number (tho given the examples above there would surely be a lot of blood spilled...just look at the warm up saber rattling to the CAO), but is there a quality of life component? "We've figured out that SJC could support 150,000 people, but they'd all get 2343 calories per day and all the meals would be gruel". So it isn't just that we have finally decided the size of the lifeboat. We would also need to decide the lifeboat conditions. Who wants to use the image of a lifeboat to characterize a sustainable livable community? There are other issues here too (like democracy—we're all in this together—vs economy—"I've got more so I want more and money talks louder than votes--(otherwise known as) Let Them Eat Cake").

Is it fair or appropriate to see SJC as having to go it alone in terms of basing population on carrying capacity? Consider the notion that SJC is on mainland life support. We get power, fuel, food, money, ideas, entertainment, (and probably many more virtual and material commodities) from the Big East. It would be laughable to think we were independent in any meaningful dimension. As America goes, so goes SJC. If America's economy is toast, so is SJC's, in spades, because the economy here sucks the cream off of the mainland economy: tourism and construction. Those are discretionary expenses. They are the first to go when money and hope and inspiration and energy are tight. We're moving away from cream floating on top to skim milk or maybe to water. What we offer in exchange for mainland dollars has a soft underbelly. There are in fact other pretty places. With the economy down, there are other places that are even cheaper to buy your second home, if indeed there is a demand for this commodity any more. A rising tide may raise all boats, but a declining tide will generally do far more damage to the small ones first, since they get their crumbs from the big boats that abandoned them to deeper water. Exhibit A for this argument: the state of SJC's economy as I write.

My personal view on the lifeboat design and operation model is to design a high quality "reasonably sized" lifeboat that can handle virtually any weather and ensure that it is never more than half full (whatever "full" might mean). I like buffers. I like large margins of safety. I like freedom. I like options. The fuller the lifeboat, the more all of these qualities disappear. The law of unintended consequences is usually used to describe downside events—it is far more often shorted to the phrase "Whooops!" than "Hallelujah". Should we use the phrase "you only know a limit when you exceed it?" to define our approach to shaping the future of SJC?