William Catton: Overshoot and Bottleneck

This article began from a comment by Chris Korda on Unforced Variations for June 2014, one of RealClimate’s monthly open discussion threads (treasure troves of environmental information, as I have said before). Here’s the heart of what Korda posted:

I recently discovered the father of human ecology …William R. Catton. His classic book “Overshoot” seethes with innovation … Ever since we discovered oil we’ve been having a wild party, like yeast in a bottle, but now that the cheap good stuff is gone, our “exuberance” (reflexive optimism) increasingly seems like a bad joke.

Another point he makes is that the consequences were mostly unexpected. In the 1950s if you went around saying that people shouldn’t build cars and highways and suburbs because burning fossil fuels would change the atmosphere and the weather and cause flooding and a hothouse world, nobody would have believed you. They would have laughed, or given you a lobotomy.

It’s easy to blame people for being exuberant, but our optimism was forged during the seventeenth century when the resources of New World were seemingly inexhaustible and our population was relatively small.

Catton is still with us, and he makes these points and many others in a recent interview.

I will return to that interview in a moment, but introduce Overshoot first:

The core message in Overshoot is that, “… our lifestyles, mores, institutions, patterns of interaction, values, and expectations are shaped by a cultural heritage that was formed in a time when carrying capacity exceeded the human load. A cultural heritage can outlast the conditions that produced it. That carrying capacity surplus is gone now, eroded both by population increase and immense technological enlargement of per capita resource appetites and environmental impacts. Human life is now being lived in an era of deepening carrying capacity deficit. All of the familiar aspects of human societal life are under compelling pressure to change in this new era when the load increasingly exceeds the carrying capacities of many local regions—and of a finite planet. Social disorganization, friction, demoralization, and conflict will escalate.”

(Those are Catton’s words, quoted in the wikipedia article about him)

Catton’s follow-up book is Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse (2009). There’s a good review of it on The Oil Drum by George Mobus who usually blogs on the fraught interaction of society and environment at Question Everything. Usefully, Mobus begins by mentioning earlier books with similar themes. He continues thus:

In the sequel [to Overshoot], Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, [Catton] drops the part about we can evade the worst. The subtitle says it all. Now he concludes that it is already too late to mend our ways and somehow avoid the collapse of civilization. …

Catton’s arguments for why this is the most likely outcome for humanity boil down to something I have written about in my blog for several years now. It is the rate of change that matters as much as the degree or magnitude of change when it comes to shocking a population. If we look at the rate of climate change due to anthropogenic forcing, or the rate at which our fossil fuel energy sources are depleting, or the rate of aquifer depletion, or the rate of population increase, or the rate of consumption increase per capita in the developed and developing worlds, or… You get the picture. We are changing the world in ways unfavorable to human survivability more rapidly than we can either adapt or mitigate. And we have already passed the point of no return.

The interview mentioned by Chris Korda on RealClimate is concerned primarily with Bottleneck and seems worthwhile but I have to admit that I haven’t seen all 50 minutes of it (just because I prefer text to speech – I read faster than people talk, and it uses less bandwidth too). Here’s the link for those who don’t share my bias: http://youtu.be/oF6F0bgvARc

My own feeling is that Catton tends to be too negative but that his views are more realistic than the mainstream assumption that Business As Usual is still desirable and feasible. That makes him a useful guide. However, we must remember not to fall into the trap of negativity, since believing that we can’t make a difference becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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