[Coral-List] girl power, human population size and reef

Joshua Cinner joshua.cinner at jcu.edu.au
Mon Sep 15 19:34:36 EDT 2008

Hey Folks,
I have enjoyed the discussions sparked by Stephen's editorial and would like
to lend some social science perspectives to the debate.  Many ecologists
tend to take what we would call a "neo-Malthusian" perspective on
human-environment interactions- suggesting that population is the primary
force through which human impact the environment.  Undoubtedly, population
is a problem, but as John B. and some of the others pointed out,
human-environment interactions are more complicated than that.  However,
social scientists have a number of alternative theories or perspective about
how human social structure can influence the environment.  There is
considerable empirical evidence of factors such as affluence and inequality
having greater influences on the environment than population, often in
non-linear and sometimes even positive ways. For example, the Environmental
Kuznets Curve hypothesis suggests a U shaped relationship between affluence
and certain environmental conditions- where low and high levels of affluence
tend have good environmental conditions, but intermediate levels of
affluence have poor environmental conditions.  Some studies even suggest
that environmental conditions decline again with further affluence - an
upside down n shaped relationship (basically, the low hanging fruit gets
picked, conditions improve, then and more complicated and larger scale
problems like carbon come into play).  Interestingly, we tend to see these
relationships for some pollutants/resources, but not all.  The reasons for
these observed relationships have to do with synergistic effects of
technology, economic structure, and our ability to "export our footprint",
often to poorer areas of the world (i.e. protecting the Great Barrier Reef,
but importing seafood from Thailand or wherever). So, yes, it goes well
beyond condoms.  

As John pointed out, these factors can have roles at different scales. Fpr
example, sometimes poverty can create situations whereby the poor engage in
environmentally destructive behavior because they have no options. I've just
published a paper with some colleagues on poverty traps in the Kenyan
artisanal coral reef fishery, which is available Online Early in
Conservation Biology.  Thus, poverty can have profound impacts on local
resources, but as John B. mentioned, increasing affluence can have more
serious impacts on global commons (i.e. carbon) or resources further afield.
Anyone interested in social science perspectives on human-environment
interactions might want to dig up the articles I've listed at the end of the

What is interesting about Stephen's questions is that he essentially asks
whether people in large groups (i.e. at the national level) can cooperate to
sustainably use common resources.  Much of the evidence we see in
sustainable commons institutions is from small-scale societies.  For
example, I found that communities in Papua New Guinea with populations >1000
do not have customary closures that can be used to manage reef fisheries
(Cinner, J, S. Sutton, T. Bond. 2007. Socioeconomic thresholds that affect
use of customary fisheries management tools.  Conservation Biology 21:
1603-1611). However, in contemporary and urban societies, we also see that
people cooperate and act in ways that go beyond their rational and immediate
self interest- they volunteer, help a passerby, and do manage other types of
common resources. We don't often see this behavior and energy harnessed for
environmental resources yet,  but as far as I can tell, there shouldn't be
any theoretical or genetic reason it couldn't be.  People do cooperate,
particularly when incentives are structured to encourage them to do so.
These incentives can be moral, economic, social, etc. and can use different
institutions to create incentives at a range of scales (i.e. federal laws,
community chastising, family support, etc.).  This is really the domain of
common property scholars and political scientists.  I don't pretend to be
either, so it would be great to have them weigh in on the debate.  

My point here isn't that debates about population are irrelevant.  They are
not. Population has influences on how we use resources, and how we can
cooperate to manage them.  But as some others have pointed out, there
certainly is more to consider.  


Clausen, R. & York, R. (2008a) Economic growth and marine biodiversity:
Influence of human social structure on decline of marine trophic levels.
(2008) Conservation Biology. 22: 458-466

Clausen, R. & York, R. (2008b) Global biodiversity decline of marine and
freshwater fish: A cross-national analysis of economic, demographic, and
ecological influences. Social Science Research (in press). DOI

Arrow, K., Bert Bolin, Robert Costanza, Partha Dasgupta, Carl Folke, C. S.
Holling, Bengt-Owe Jansson, Simon Levin, Karl-Goran Maler, Charles Perrings,
David Pimentel. 1995 Economic Growth, Carrying Capacity, and the
Environment. Science. 268: 520-521.

Dietz, T. E.A Rosa, and R. York 2007 Driving the human ecological footprint.
Front Ecol Environ; 5: 13-18

Lantz, V. and Martinez-Espineira (2008) Testing the Environmental Kuznets
Curve Hypothesis with Bird Populations as Habitat-Specific Environmental
Indicators: Evidence from Canada. Conservation Biology, 22: 428-438

McPherson, M.A.  and M.L. Nieswiadomy (2005) Environmental Kuznets curve:
threatened species and spatial effects Ecological Economics 55: 395-407

Grossman, G.M. and Krueger A,B. (1995) Economic growth and the environment.
The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 110: 353-377

"I know that the human being and fish can coexist peacefully"
George W. Bush


Joshua E. Cinner, PhD
Senior Research Fellow (APD)
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University
Townsville, QLD 4811
ph: +61 7 4781 6751
fax: +61 7 4781 6722
joshua.cinner at jcu.edu.au
Seminar on  "Conservation Action in a Changing Climate" :  



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