From Prometheus to Arcadia: Human Supremacy, Carrying Capacity and Ecological Footprints

One key difference between what are sometimes labeled the eco-pessimist and eco-optimist perspectives is their very different take on the place of humanity within broader ecosystems. Anthropocentrism, or more recently “human supremacy,” views humankind as the most important form of life on Earth, endowed with an unparalleled and beneficial ability to remake its natural environment for its benefit. So-called Prometheans (named for the mythical Titan Prometheus who gave fire to humans) have long emphasized nature’s shortcomings, dangers, and resilience. While they acknowledged that human actions could create negative consequences, these would be best addressed through further innovation and economic growth.

By contrast, ecocentrism (a.k.a. as the Arcadian vision) grants intrinsic value and rights to other life forms and rejects the notion that humans have a special status in the universe. While ecocentrists believe that Nature is plentiful and essential for human survival, they also view it as fragile and to be handled with extreme caution. As such, humans can never be immune from the negative consequences of ignoring natural laws while economic growth is inherently limited by the level of human abuse the local flora and fauna will tolerate.

Until the recent publication of a few books devoted to the topic, historical treatments of Prometheanism were typically confined to short—and generally hostile—sub-sections within broader treatises and textbooks on environmental thought. In an age dominated by eco-catastrophism it is nevertheless useful to revisit some of the insights of more optimistic writers who saw much good in humans’ unique abilities to specialize in what they do best, trade with each over ever longer distances and expand and improve upon their stock of knowledge and capital by transmitting and (re)combining ideas, know-how and materials.

Writing two centuries ago, anarchist William Godwin (1756-1836) observed that before the publication of Thomas Robert Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, most people believed that an increase in population would deliver better days. Godwin saw “something exhilarating and cheerful” in this earlier spirit when humanity believed it could summon “the unlimited power we possess to remedy our evils, and better our condition.” Humans, he observed, felt they “belonged to a world worth living in.”

Earlier writers who held such thoughts included the German alchemist Johann Joachim Becher (1635-1682) who argued that with “increase of population come increased facilities for subsistence, and through the latter comes influx of people; this in its turn causes further increase of population, and so on in an everlasting circle.” Another was the French economist Nicolas Baudeau (1730-1792) who wrote that the “productiveness of nature and the industriousness of man are without known limits” because production “can increase indefinitely” and as a result “population numbers and well-being can go on advancing together.”

While they were profoundly divided over the benefits of free markets, Prometheans shared a belief that humans differ sufficiently from other animal species to invalidate analogies between growth in human societies and growth in the rest of the natural world. As such, they rejected any notion of an absolute limit to the number of humans a local ecosystem could support, a concept later labeled ecological (or environmental or ecosystem) carrying capacity.

In his Treatise on Political Economy first published in 1803, French liberal economist Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) was confident that humans’ unique abilities to trade, barter, reason and use foresight would give them the ability to offset natural constraints, unlike other animals that were “incapable of providing for future exigencies.” As such, people were “not more scantily supplied with the necessaries of life, because their number is on the increase”, nor more materially prosperous “because it is on the decline”. Rather, their “relative condition depends on the relative quantity of products they have at their disposal; and it is easy to conceive these products to be considerable, though the population be dense; and scanty, though the population be thinly spread”. Indeed, he observed, famine was more common in Europe during the less populated Middle Ages than in his day.

Godwin similarly observed that a human being is the “only animal capable of persevering and premeditated industry” and the “only creature susceptible of science and invention and possessing the power of handing down his thoughts.” As a result of past advances, most humans were “not living upon the wild fruits of the earth, or the wild animals of the field”, but upon the products of human industry. Every person born into this world was therefore “a new instrument for producing the means of subsistence” and every member added to the numbers of the community, is a new instrument for increasing those means”. The human species was therefore “capable of improvement from age to age, by means of which capacity we have arrived at those refinements of mechanical production and science, which have been gradually called into existence”. By contrast, “all other animals remain what they were at first, and the young of no species becomes better or more powerful by the experience of those that went before him”.

Building on Say’s work, the French liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) granted Malthus his key premise for “all living species, except man.” A human being, he wrote, “is perfectible; he seeks to improve his situation” and “[p]rogress is his normal state”. As a result, “the means of existence increase more rapidly than population”. Bastiat, whose take on Malthusianism was rather cautious, argued his case “not only [based on] the theory of perfectibility”, but also on “facts, since everywhere we find the range of man’s satisfactions widening”. Karl Marx (1818-1883) later opined that an “abstract law of population exists for plants and animals only, and only in so far as man has not interfered with them”.

In his 1879 best-selling Progress and Poverty, American economist Henry George (1839-1897) stated that “everywhere the vice and misery attributed to over-population can be traced to the warfare, tyranny, and oppression which prevent knowledge from being utilized and deny the security essential to production”. This was because, of “all living things, man is the only one who can give play to the reproductive forces, more powerful than his own, which supply him with food”. Indeed, “while all through the vegetable and animal kingdoms the limit of subsistence is independent of the thing subsisted, with man the limit of subsistence is, within the final limits of earth, air, water, and sunshine, dependent upon man himself”. As he put it, if “bears instead of men had been shipped from Europe to the North American continent, there would now be no more bears than in the time of Columbus, and possibly fewer, for bear food would not have been increased nor the conditions of bear life extended, by the bear immigration, but probably the reverse”. It was therefore “not the increase of food that has caused [the North American] increase of men; but the increase of men that has brought about the increase of food”.

The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1873) observed In his 1957 book Theory and History that only humanity had the power to escape from the struggles for survival, provided people engage in social cooperation within the context of a market economy. As he saw things, an “eminently human common interest, the preservation and intensification of social bonds, is substituted for pitiless biological competition, the significant mark of animal and plant life”. As a result, humanity was “no longer forced by the inevitable laws of nature to look upon all other specimens of his animal species as deadly foes”. It was thus “inappropriate to refer to animals and plants in dealing with the social problems of man” because for “animals the generation of every new member of the species means the appearance of a new rival in the struggle for life. For man… it means rather an improvement than a deterioration in his quest for material well-being”.

The American Trotskyist Joseph Hansen (1910-1979) also noted at the time that he and his comrades took “a decidedly different view of humanity” than neo-Malthusians because they “note that man has hands and a brain, the capacity to use tools and an inclination for teamwork. These have made him, in distinction to all other animals, a food producer.” He added that, in “today’s world, hunger is completely abnormal. Humanity can produce all it needs and many times over. Moreover, man’s capacity to increase his food supply expands with the increase in population and at an ever-higher rate than population growth”. A big population was therefore “an asset, not a liability. Failure to see this rather obvious fact is the basic flaw in the Malthusian argument.”

“Fortunately for our species, economic and environmental indicators unmistakably convey that, in the context of market economies, albeit not in centrally planned ones, past Promethean writers proved much more right than their opponents.”

Fortunately for our species, economic and environmental indicators unmistakably convey that, in the context of market economies, albeit not in centrally planned ones, past Promethean writers proved much more right than their opponents. This is not to say that environmental challenges are non-existent, but that their root causes are more ideological and institutional than rooted in some immutable natural laws that inherently constrain human actions.

Although this was probably not her intent, a few years ago the ecologist Laura Jane Martin came with a better way to market Promethean insights to eco-pessimists when she suggested replacing the term “(ecological) footprint” with “handprint.” A footprint, she argued, is a “mark one never meant to leave” that “evokes both the weight of whoever left it and that being’s ominous absence.” To most environmentalists, the very notion of a footprint evokes actions such as trampling, treading, oppressing and dominating. Heavy feet further “imply antagonism and the lack of intimacy between humans and the non-human world.”

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By contrast, a handprint is “deliberate, skilled and artful” while evoking “human agency and the human ability to shape the world by choosing among many possible natures.” A handprint, she wrote, “suggests stewardship” and allows us to ask about the “place of creativity in conservation” and “how can human existence lead to good?”

Although Martin doesn’t quite understand this, stewardship has long been best incentivized in the context of free-markets and private property rights. Perhaps in time she and other eco-pessimists will further realize that voluntary market transactions are nowhere to be found where the law of the jungle reigns and that the invisible handprint of the market is often guided by a green thumb.