Assimilative Capacity Revisited
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Assimilative capacity is the ability of natural systems to assimilate humankind's wastes. Wastes (output) of some species in natural systems are the resources (input) of other species. Before the Industrial Revolution, this concept of input and output held true for human activity, but industrialization created wastes that were qualitatively and quantitatively different from those of natural systems. The unique nature of some persistent wastes that accumulate in organisms over long periods of time makes estimates of safety problematic. An even larger problem is the devastating effects that global heating and other types of climate change are having on the integrity of ecosystems. An ecosystem in disequilibrium probably has no assimilative capacity. Since greenhouse gas emissions are increasing rapidly, the already bad situation will worsen. Another factor diminishing the probability of the effective use of the assimilative capacity concept is ecological overshoot (i.e., humankind's failing to live on ecological services and using ecological capital as a substitute), which is an unsustainable practice. Biotic impoverishment (i.e., loss of biodiversity) also increases the probability of ecological disequilibrium. Finally, exponential growth of the human population, about 1.5 million additional people weekly, means a steadily increasing loss of space for natural systems and more acquisition of natural resources for human use. In short, present waste disposal practices are no longer suitable.