Acta Geographica Sinica ›› 2023, Vol. 78 ›› Issue (11): 2676-2693.doi: 10.11821/dlxb202311003

• Review and Theoretical Exploration • Previous Articles     Next Articles

A systematic review of centenary studies on natural resources and environmental carrying capacity

WANG Yafei1,2,3(), FAN Jie1,2   

  1. 1. Key Laboratory of Regional Sustainable Development Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
    2. College of Resources and Environment, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
    3. Centre for Sustainability Studies,Lund University (LUCSUS), Lund 22362, Sweden
  • Received:2022-08-22 Revised:2023-10-17 Online:2023-11-25 Published:2023-11-29
  • Supported by:
    National Natural Science Foundation of China(42001131);National Natural Science Foundation of China(41630644);The Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research Program(2019QZKK0406)


Carrying capacity, a concept entrenched in the natural resources and environmental field for nearly two centuries, has continually evolved to address the conflicts and sustainability of the human-nature relationship. This paper introduces an analytical framework for understanding carrying capacity within the context of the human-nature relationship. It systematically reviews the progression of international carrying capacity studies, analyzes global research trends, and compares these with Chinese studies, highlighting key research directions in China. Historically, carrying capacity traces its roots to (neo)Malthusian theories. Its evolution spans four distinct stages: resource carrying capacity (since the 1800s), environmental carrying capacity (since the 1970s), ecosystem carrying capacity (since the 1990s), and natural system carrying capacity (since the 2010s). The concept of carrying capacity varies widely across global disciplines and even within the same discipline, showcasing diverse applications. Carrying capacity has sparked controversy due to its connection to political economy theories and factors such as technological progress, market mechanisms, and spatial and temporal constraints. Therefore, it is imperative to engage in a restrained and explicit discussion and application of carrying capacity. Presently, China's carrying capacity studies align closely with the international community, capitalizing on regional-scale studies employing a holistic and systematic human-nature relationship approach. However, there is an opportunity for enhancement in terms of global-scale perspectives and the integration of natural and social sciences theories and methodologies. This paper proposes fostering innovation and application in carrying capacity research within the Chinese context. This entails integrating various disciplines and theories, exploring scale effects and mechanisms, utilizing model-data fusion and integration, applying case studies in various spatial units and typical zone types, and improving policy systems and institutions.

Key words: human-nature relationship, sustainable transformation, the limits to growth, planetary boundaries, spatial governance