On Darwin, carrying capacity and Kauai

  • Contributed photo

    Douglas Slain

I was reading a biography of Charles Darwin when a colleague rang me up and interestingly used the phrase, “carrying capacity.” The term made me think of what I was reading and where I am living.

First, did you know that Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, came up with the concept of evolution before Charles? Erasmus was a celebrated physician who wrote erotic poetry about plants. And did you know that 30 percent of Americans consider themselves creationists?

Here is one argument in Darwin’s favor. Look at flightless birds such as the apteryz of New Zealand (known here as kiwis). How could a supreme being intentionally have done this to a bird?”

Know what the creationist said when asked, “If what you believe is true, then why do men have nipples?” I forget what he said, but it was funny.

By the way, if you care, Darwin did not dispute the existence of a God. What Darwin challenged was the supposed godliness of man. Darwin wrote, “I am not of the conviction that we above all other life forms are spiritually elevated, divinely favored, possessed of special status in the expectations of God, with special rights and responsibilities on the Planet.” That is the piece that drives that 30 percent of us bonkers even today.

I prefer to contemplate and appreciate the Hawaiian state motto, appearing on the Great Seal, “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” I am surprised we do not see it more frequently. I like to remember that the name Kauai means “season of abundance.”

Back to work. One of the pillars of evolution is competition for limited resources; i.e., carrying capacity. Here on Kauai there is a carrying capacity for taro plants and taro farmers, for feral pigs, for surfboard shops, for coral reefs, for our wonderful chickens, for our song birds, for tourists, for horses and cows, for air traffic, for albatrosses, and for pet hamsters. (A pet hamster had to be flushed down an airplane toilet after failing a care-animal test, as reported in a recent issue of TGI.) There is a carrying capacity for almost everything on this rare and exotic island except rainfall and water falls.

This column will comment on Kauai and its unique place in the world, with an eye on carrying capacity, interwoven with whimsical references to poesy and history, such as this paean to my favorite activity (author unknown):

Ode to Reading

There is no Frigate like a Book/

To take us Lands away,

Nor any courses like a Page

Of prancing Poetry

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll—

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears a Human soul.

The best idea I have heard in a while? All Kauai resorts should at least consider doing what the developers of Coco Palms are planning: Electric cars to be used on an as-needed basis. Room rates will include airport shuttles. It is a huge win-win-win.

Fewer rental cars, less costly, less pollution, less congestion.

Separately, for any golfers (and others — see below re impact) I quote from some of what Don Cunningham, who lives near the Prince Golf Course, wrote in his letter to the County Planning Commission last month.

“The Prince has been recognized by multiple golf and travel magazines as one of the top 100 courses in the country out of more than 11,000 courses. Yet is has been closed for over 3 years. World-renowned courses like the Prince will fill your hotels rooms, the tables in your restaurants, and the case registers of retail establishments. All of which brings significant tax revenue to the county and state. There is a resort Golden Goose in existence that sits idle.”

I agree in spades. Open the Prince, we say.

Did you hear the one where past, present and future all walked into a bar together? It was tense.

The biography referred to above is “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution.” (2006) Norton.


Douglas Slain is a retired law publisher and recovering academic living the “Lucky we live Kauai” life and playing as much tennis as possible. After getting an master’s degree from the Social Thought Committee at the University of Chicago (studying with Saul Bellow and Hannah Arendt), he received his juris doctorate degree from Stanford Law School and founded a law publishing company. He served as the secured transactions adviser to the Ministry of Finance for the Republic of Latvia and as chair of the American Bar Association’s Professional Responsibility Committee. He taught at Stanford Law School as an adjunct clinical law professor. He sailed a 43-foot Swan sloop around the Caribbean and the Pacific for over a decade. He now lives in Kapaa.

  1. RG DeSoto February 17, 2018 11:13 am Reply

    Douglas “carrying capacity” is what economists have called scarcity or scarce resources for over a century. In a market economy prices are the reflection of the relative scarcity of the various resources that comprise the means of production. This ensures that scarce resources are allocated in a most efficient manner. Of course, the more efficiently that resources are allocated–such as in a market economy–the more substantial the “carrying capacity” of a particular society.
    RG DeSoto

  2. Milt Clark February 17, 2018 12:01 pm Reply

    As a semi-retired environmental scientist, former academic and sailer, spending my winters in Kauai, I appreciated the thoughtful perspective provided by Douglas Slain. Carry capacity is the number of people that the planet, country, or an island can sustainability support without environmental degradation. Most scientists would conclude that humans have already exceeded our planetary carrying capacity as evidenced by the decline of forests, ocean fisheries, loss of thousands of species, and the damage caused by unchecked carbon emissions. On Kauai, traffic backups have significantly increased, ocean reefs have been degraded by land runoff of chemicals (including from golf courses) and unresolved sewage problems often makes swimming and surfing unsafe. While the column suggests we may have reached our carrying capacity on Kauai, advocating reopening the Prince Golf Course, which the Planning Commission said would fill hotel rooms and restaurants, thus increasing tourism, simply doesn’t follow a Kauai carrying capacity argument. I have no objection seeing the Prince Golf Course reopen if chemical use and runoff is sensibly controlled, but hoping for even more tourism as a result is short slighted.

  3. Steve Martin February 17, 2018 5:45 pm Reply

    Mr.Slain…. We don’t need the Prince open. Everything on the island is already “carring capacity.” Enuff already. A sophisticated efficient shuttle bus system second to none that caters to all transportation needs for tourists, residents and businesses 24/7/365 days a year. It will create related businesses, jobs, marketing of business uses. A system that I’m talking about covers the tourists needs which would mean they don’t need to rent a car. A public transportation shuttle system so we can cut 8 to10 thousand rental cars off our roads daily. Some would say, Sounds to good to be true but only a fool would think it can’t be done.

  4. rk669 February 17, 2018 7:08 pm Reply

    Now,how did we get the Duckbilledplatipus? Oh by the way,global warming is a Hoax,it’s a Scam to generate Revenue! Weren’t we supposed to have an Iceage coming in the 70’s? Looks like it’s happening NOW!

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