Carrying Capacity Durango Herald Environment


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© Richard Grossman MD, 2008


One of the conditions of my wife’s and my courtship was that she teach me how to ski. I got back at her by teaching her to drive.

This has been a cold, snowy winter. Although we’re all grateful for the moisture, many people have had a difficult time with all the shoveling and power outages. It was a real Colorado winter!

If you read the Herald regularly you know that I recently accepted a wager on global climate change. Dr. Roger Cohen bet $5000 that the climate will be cooler in a decade; I hope he is correct. Unfortunately, there is much evidence that the climate is warming, and that we humans are causing the change.

This cold winter does not undermine the concept of global warming. “Global climate change” is a more descriptive term than “global warming” since not all parts of the world will heat up. Furthermore, there is so much variability in climate from year to year that a cold winter doesn’t prove that global warming isn’t happening.

            It would be absolutely amazing if all the people—with all our consumption—didn’t alter the planet’s climate in major ways. One savant predicted that climate change will lead to decreased agricultural productivity. Lack of food will cause the death by starvation of hundreds of millions of people. Our population has outgrown our planet! I am sad that my grandchildren are likely to suffer from the profligate expansionism of my generation. We can help restrain climate change with our daily decisions, including skiing.

            It was late February when I started writing this, and snow was abundant both in the air and on the ground. I shoveled one morning and skied cross country in the afternoon. Both were good exercise. The day before, we hit Purgatory (now officially “Durango Mountain Resort”) for a beautiful day of powder. When we stopped to catch our breath on Sally’s Run, my wife commented “You’re really smiling!”

            On skinny skis we travel through the woods close to our home. With just a short car ride we’re off on forest roads or going cross country on gentle slopes.

There is a lot to see in the winter woods. Deer, elk and cottontail rabbits are common. Once we were treated to a glimpse of an ermine (the short-tailed weasel in its winter coat) as it porpoised through the snow. We also enjoyed tracking a mountain lion walking along a road up north. The big cat had come out of the woods, gone up over the snow bank at the side of the road, and then walked along the road. We were sure that it was a cat because the prints were lacking claw marks. At one place we saw where it had lain down and left a clear imprint of where its tail had rested. We have also had a peek of (or seen the tracks of) voles, mice, coyotes, turkeys and many other animals.

            Comparing alpine and cross country skiing, there are several differences. Skinny skis take us into quiet terrain where we seldom see other people—and usually our dog can come along. Cross country skiing is always a good workout.

            At Purgatory we usually run into friends, so it is more sociable. It is fun to push our skills to see if we can survive the black diamond trails. There is intermittent exercise with a chance to catch your breath on the lifts.

            Another way to look at the comparison is cost. Cross country is quite inexpensive. In addition to financial expense there is also the cost to the environment. Roundtrip to Purgy takes over two hours and a half tank of gas. Although convenient, the lifts that haul us up hill have an environmental price. They run on fossil fuel that generates green house gases. All in all, cross country has much less impact.

            It is possible to estimate the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide produced in a year—the “carbon footprint”. This should include direct uses (such as burning fossil fuels) and indirect usage (such as the energy used to manufacture a pair of skis). My favorite calculator (although it doesn’t include one’s choice of skiing) is at You’ll find the calculator link in the lower right corner.

            We are fortunate to live in an area with wonderful outdoor activities, including skiing. In order to keep our environment healthy, however, we should make conscious choices to decrease our impact.

Carrying Capacity Durango Herald Global Climate Change Global Conflict Population

Recognize a Cause of War

While visiting Prague, Czech Republic, for a medical meeting, we did as much sightseeing as possible. One day we toured the appalling walled city of Terezin.

Although fortified to keep people out, Terezin’s primary use has been as a prison. During the Second World War the Nazis transformed Terezin into a concentration camp. Over 150,000 people, mainly Jews, were imprisoned there—not for any crime, but because of their beliefs. Most were transported to other camps for extermination.

Our gentle guide, in broken English, told us of the horrors of the camp. She showed us where many prisoners were hanged or faced the firing squad. We paused in the small cold cell where fifty people were held with just one meal a day and no toilet facility. She described the food—gruel, with a scrap of meat just once a week. We viewed a sleeping room with bunk beds three high. Each person had just ten square feet for himself and all belongings.

Despite atrocious conditions and thousands of deaths from starvation and disease, the prisoners maintained a cultural life. They produced plays and musical performances. The Nazis used Terezin to mislead the Red Cross into believing that concentration camp conditions were acceptable. They achieved this ruse by deporting many prisoners, fresh paint and other temporary improvements.

The whole time I was in Terezin I speculated how Nazi despotism could have been prevented. Might another similar tragedy be possible? If so, how could we nip it in the bud?

I concluded that a free press is the best weapon against totalitarian control. Although freedom of the press is assured by our Bill of Rights, most countries lack that guarantee. Even in the USA, independence of the media is not assured as huge conglomerates buy up smaller media. We are indeed fortunate that the Durango Herald remains independent. Unfortunately, the Nazis recognized the media’s importance and were quick to suppress them. Perhaps Internet will be more resistant to suppression.

We were relieved to ride a comfortable bus back to Prague. Because this magnificent city was not bombed during WWII, it architecturally beautiful. Tourism has helped to revive an economy that was stifled by communism until 1989. The excellent public transportation system is widely used so there are fewer private cars, and the streets are “pedestrian friendly”. A good dinner surrounded by pleasant Czechs helped to revive my faith in humanity.

The day’s second shock came when I read e-mail. A video by a Kenyan reporter views his country’s current warfare from a distinctive perspective. He feels that the killings there are not just a result of the recent election. Indeed, the slaughter started before the disputed voting. To see this video, go to:

This reporter asserts that his country’s large and growing population has subdivided the available land so that each person’s allotment is too small to grow sufficient food. The fighting is really about land. When he asked a rebel about overpopulation, the soldier pointed out that the only way for poor people to gain power is by increasing their numbers. This is a basic conundrum.

There is precedent for the theory that overpopulation is destabilizing Africa. In a powerful article ( published on the tenth anniversary of the holocaust in Rwanda, David Gasana points out that the killing occurred where people were close to starvation.

Dr. Gasana had been a minister in the Rwandan government before the holocaust there. He points out that the birth rate, which had been one of the highest in the world, increased the Rwandan population beyond his country’s ability to grow sufficient food. The government was too poor to import the food needed to prevent hunger. The fighting was really about trying to feed one’s family.

Dr. Maurice King is one of my heroes. A retired physician, his years of working in Africa have made him concerned about the future of that continent. He fears that many other countries will follow in Rwanda’s and Kenya’s footsteps. He predicts that poor people will be trapped without food or any means of escape, when human population outgrows the capacity of the land to support the people. He calls this controversial theory “demographic entrapment” Read more at:

Whether the extreme of demographic entrapment, or Hitler’s claim of needing “Lebensraum” as an excuse to exterminate non-Aryans, a certain amount of land is needed to support any human population. What is frightening is that, in many places, we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of our environment.


© Richard Grossman MD, 2008