Reflections on Overshoot by William R. Catton Jr., Part 1

I have tried to show the real nature of humanity’s predicament, not because understanding its nature will enable us to escape it, but because if we do not understand it, we shall continue to act and react in ways that make it worse.

– William R. Catton Jr., from the Preface of Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

First, I shall summarize the main ideas of Overshoot

– Humans are part of the local ecosystem, therefore to understand human society one must use the ecological paradigm, that is, look at humans the same way one would look at any other species in an ecosystem.
– All species, including humans, have a carrying capacity within the ecosystem. The carrying capacity is the largest possible stable population of that species the ecosystem can support.
– According to the ecological paradigm, humans have been able to greatly increase the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for humans by the takeover method, that is, taking biological resources which were previously exploited by different species. For example, when humans figured out how to use fire to make food more digestible, they used wood which otherwise would have gone to feed fungi. Thus, humans took a part of the biosphere which previously had been occupied by wood-consuming fungi.
– Many technological advances have increased the ecosystem’s carrying capacity for humans via the takeover method
– The takeover method is sustainable because it is about seizing a share of renewable resources from other species. Because the resources are renewable, the increase in carrying capacity is semi-permanent.
– In the year 1492, European technology allowed them to have a much higher carrying capacity per acre of arable land than the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Thus, the discovery of the Americas meant a dramatic increase of carrying capacity for Europeans, creating the ‘Age of Exuberance’. By contrast, since the indigenous human population of the Americas was already at the carrying capacity of the Americas ~with indigenous technology~, the coming of the Europeans meant that they would be crowded out of their ecological niche.
– Humans can use an increase in carrying capacity to either increase their population and/or to increase their material standards of living
– There is a limit to how much life the Earth can sustain, thus the takeover method is ultimately limited. Humans cannot use more than 100% of the biosphere, and in practice, trying to get even close to that would cause such ecological damage that it would actually decrease the ecosystem’s long-term carrying capacity for humans. In short, there is no second Earth full of resources to exploit.
– Some species use drawdown rather than takeover to TEMPORARILY increase their carrying capacity. Drawdown is when a species uses resources much faster than they can be renewed. These species drawdown the renewable resources until the resources are exhausted, which leaves the species with a population that greatly exceeds the carrying capacity. This leads to a mass die-off.
– Humans have also used drawdown during the industrial revolution – we have used nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuels, mineral deposits, etc, to enable a population boom.
– Humans have mistaken drawdown for takeover, and temporary increase in carrying capacity for a permanent increase. This is why people speak of ‘producing’ fossil fuels, when ‘extracting’ fossil fuels is a more accurate description of what is happening.
– With the use of drawdown, some humans have increased their material standards of living so much that they are now ‘homo colossus’ rather than ‘homo sapiens’ (Catton does not mean that ‘homo colossus’ is biologically a different species, it’s just a phrase he uses to distinguish high resource consumption humans from low resource consumption humans)
– Humans are already in overshoot (when a population exceeds its carrying capacity) (note: this book was published in 1980), and there is going to be a mass die-off. It is too late to prevent this.
– When a species is near or above its carrying capacity, there is great deal of intra-species competition. Humans are experiencing this with their many human-on-human conflicts.
– However, even though it is too late to stop human overshoot, there are still things humans can do to make the overshoot less bad. For example, humans can reduce their resource usage, can reduce births so the overshoot is less extreme. However, the most important thing humans can do is understand that this has been caused by ecological forces which affect all species, and is not caused by a malignant, evil Other. By understanding this as the work of fate (Catton has a nice definition of fate which does not depend on belief in theistic or supernatural entities) rather than the work of the Other, humans might be able to avoid great wars and genocides.
– People are at various stages of accepting the ecological paradigm, namely, Ostrichism (There’s nothing wrong!), Cynicism (None of this matters!), Cosmeticism (we can fix this with birth control, recycling, and environmental protection laws), Cargoism (technology will fix this!), and Realism (overshoot is here, and we must adapt as best we can). Adopting ‘Realism’ will lead to the best outcome for humans (I have to note the neat rhetorical trick of labelling people who agree with the writer as ‘Realists’ and everybody else as, er, look at the labels yourself).

This summary is long enough to be a post in itself, so I will start discussing what *I* think about all this in the next part (well, I already expressed some of my thoughts in this post).

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Catton’s Five Questions for an Old World

Last week, I mentioned my intention to read Overshoot by William R. Catton Jr.. I just finished reading the book. I intend to write a more general post about my reading experience, but first, I want to answer the “five questions for an old world” in Chapter 14 of Overshoot (the penultimate chapter).

This is what Catton says of the questions:

If instead, guided by knowledge based on the [ecological] paradigm, we can face reality, we may recognize that we still could make some adjustments to stem the tide of our de-civilization. Those adjustments will not “lead to an even better life,” but they may keep us from making our future more gruesome than it has to be. To see what really needs to be done, we must ask ourselves several excruciatingly tough questions. They carry our thinking far beyond the point reached in political discussions of energy policy.

I will answer each question on two levels – a) the individual level (referring to myself) and b) on a human-species-wide level.

1) Can we begin to phase out our use of “fossil fuels” as combustible sources of energy?

Answer (individual): I’ve used a number of ‘carbon calculators’ (figuring carbon footprint is a decent proxy for fossil fuel consumption) and they have such different assumptions that I get very different results using different calculators. However, they generally agree that I use much less fossil fuels than the ‘average’ resident of the United States, California, and San Francisco. They also agree that I use much more than the world per capita average. Some of the things which tend to make my carbon footprint / fossil fuel usage lower than an ‘average’ resident of San Francisco / the United States are a) the fact that nobody in my household owns a car b) I’m a strict vegetarian (no animal products in my diet, no dairy, no eggs, no fish, etc.) c) I have not been inside an airplane since 2014 d) I generally do not buy much in the way of material goods d) I live in a housing unit with no air conditioner and where we never ever turn on the central heating. That said, I am still very much a fossil fuel user. I do things which are not necessary for my survival, or even my happiness, which consume fossil fuels, such as using the computer for non-essential tasks (which uses electricity, which is derived from fossil fuels). I covered significant distances for discretionary travel last year, most notably the “The Mississippi Journey” using diesel-powered trains and buses. If I had just stayed in San Francisco, less diesel would have been burned. In summary, I have significantly lower consumption of fossil fuels than my peers, but I still refuse to do all I could to reduce my fossil fuel consumption.

Answer (species-wide): According to The World Bank, per capita carbon emissions from the United States has declined from 20.8 metric tons per year in 1980 (when this book was first published) to 16.4 metric tons a year in 2013. At first glance, that implies that residents of the United States are reducing their use of fossil fuels (assuming fossil fuel usage is correlated with carbon emissions). However, during the 1980-2013 time frame, a lot of manufacturing shifted from the United States to other countries, notably China, which has had a sharp rise in its per capita carbon emissions in the same time period. Since a significant portion of goods which Americans used were in 1980 manufactured in the United States but are now made in China (and other places) and imported by Americans, it’s possible that the carbon emissions have just been shifted, rather than reduced.

And then there is this chart which shows that global carbon emissions *from fossil fuels specifically* (not other sources) has been continuously and exponentially rising since 1800 – and that it has NOT STOPPED SINCE 1980. Okay, actually, there was a reduction in fossil fuel consumption during the recession in the early 1980s, but it was a small dip (just a 4% dip, as opposed to the 16% dip in fossil-fuel related carbon emissions which just happened to occur at the same time as the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic), but since the early 1980s recession it has been rising dramatically. More troublesome, global per capita fossil-fuel related carbon emissions have also been rising. So I conclude that, since this book has published, we have not weaned ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels. Could we still do it? It would have been easier to phase out of fossil fuels in 1980 than now, so that fact that it has not happened means that I do not expect it to happen until we are forced to stop using fossil fuels (i.e. extraction becomes too expensive due to having to resort to deposits which are difficult to extract). Technically, we could ‘begin’ to end our dependence, but considering the social reality, I say no, we cannot.

2) Can enough of us recognize at last the inescapable intricacy of any non-detritovorous relationship between the human species and its habitat? To translate that question into less jargon-laden terms, Can enough people figure out that we are dependent on the renewable/sustainable resources offered by our habitat, and that we have to keep our habitat in good condition in order to continue to have enough resources to survive at our current population level?

Answer (individual) Yes, I think I understand that humans need a habitat which supplies our needs in order to survive, and that degrading that habitat to the degree that it can no longer supply our needs means we will not survive. Of course, just because I think I understand it does not mean I actually do. Observe my behavior. I cause damage to the habitat which is not strictly necessarily for my current survival or even happiness. There are things which I could do to either reduce my negative impact on our global habitat, or to help restore the habitat, yet I do not. Perhaps my actions (such as going on a completely discretionary journey over thousands of miles in fossil-fuel powered vehicles) speak louder than my words or thoughts.

Answer (species-wide): Considering how much habitat destruction which threatens humans has happened since 1980, no, I don’t think ‘enough’ of us understand that, and I do not think enough of us will until habitat damage causes the global human population to go down, not up.

3) Can we candidly acknowledge that general affluence simply cannot last in the face of a carrying capacity deficit? To translate the question into a less-jargon heavy version, can we candidly acknowledge that general affluence cannot continue when we are using more ecological resources than are being replaced every year, which means that in the future humans will have dramatically less ecological resources?

Answer (individual): I can acknowledge that. It shapes a lot of decisions in my life. One reason I live the way I do now is that I think that there is a high chance that an affluent lifestyle will be impossible for me in the 2040s (assuming I am still alive then).

Answer (species-wide): Again, I don’t think people in general are going to acknowledge that until most currently affluent people are forced to become non-affluent, and not even then. After all, a lot of people are falling out of the middle class in the United States right now, but they are mostly blaming scapegoats who may be partially responsible but are not the deepest cause, and they believe that taking out the scapegoats will restore affluence when it will not.

4) Depletion of ghost acreage [non-renewable resources and resources we had temporarily appropriated from others which we are forced to give up] is not only forcing us to take stringent efficiency measures, but it will also irresistibly compel return to a simpler life. Will we accept it with any grace? Or will we kick and scream our way into it, imagining we could always have everything we want if only those government people weren’t forbidding it?

Answer (individual): I think I can accept it with some grace, though to be honest, I will probably also being doing some kicking and screaming too. After all, if I really believed that giving up the material benefits of fossil-fuelled affluence and going to a strict subsistence lifestyle was awesome, I would have already done that (and would have stopped updating this blog, and stopped using computers unless absolutely necessary for survival). That said, I find it ironic that, when the internet stops working for whatever reason, it bothers me less than it bothers my parents, even though they grew up in a time when there was no internet. My travels have also taught me that I can be happy even with a lower level of material wealth. For example, even though I definitely prefer sleeping under a solid roof surrounded by solid walls, living in a tent can be okay.

Answer (species-wide): I actually have some optimism here! Even though most people do not think in terms of the ‘ecological paradigm’ the general expectation is that people are going to be downwardly mobile than upwardly mobile. Why is that a good thing? As Overshoot sometimes mentions (and which is consistent with what I know about the world) if someone expects a bad thing to happen, and someone else does NOT expect the bad thing to happen, and bad thing does, in fact, happen, the person who expected it will handle it will be less mentally devastated than the person who did not expect it. Also, younger people in the United States are being less materialistic than earlier generations in significant ways – for example, many young people are foregoing car ownership, home ownership, etc. (granted, a lot of this has to do with the combination of high student debts + a terrible labor market for young people entering the work force, but the adaptation is happening). Granted, this is a bit of a US-centric analysis, but in other parts of the world where I have been, I have seen the same kinds of things happening. I can’t comment on what young people in, for example, South America are doing, but in Japan, there is also a strong sense of downward mobility, so many young Japanese people are turning away from a materialist lifestyle to try to pursue happiness in other ways.

Another source of optimism is that material well-being does not seem to cause happiness. Some measures of ‘happiness’ (such as the United Nations’ ‘World Happiness Report’) measure ‘happiness’ based on criteria such as ‘GDP per capita’ and find that countries with higher GDP per capita are also ‘happier’. However, according to the Gallup survey, which measures happiness by asking how people feel rather than measuring their material wealth, the correlation between a country’s wealth and its happiness is not strong (note: I haven’t done a regression analysis). What seems to have a big effect is not whether it’s a first world or third world country – compare Japan and Honduras for example. What seems to really make people unhappy is having recently been ravaged by war (Sudan, Serbia, Afghanistan) or major civil upheaval (Turkey, Tunisia).

5) Is there any chance that we can learn to practice such mandatory austerity unless we can first be spared the widespread, deliberate badgering of people into wanting more, more, more? With the [ecological] paradigm we should begin to recognize the increasingly anti-social ramifications of advertising.

Answer (individual): Okay, my first reaction to this question is ‘???!!!???’ It seemed to come out of the blue, especially since the rest of the book doesn’t discuss advertising or television at all. In the discussion of the question, Catton wonders whether it’s worth amending the Constitution of the United States (specifically the First Amendment) in order to make advertising, such as television commercials, illegal. When I got to that part, I thought ‘Whoa’. Upon further reflection, I realized that this is a very dated section of the book. As it so happens, I’ve read part of a very long 1970s tract about the social evils of television, and thinking about that tract made it easier for me to see where Catton is coming from, even though my reaction to the idea of violating the First Amendment to ban television commercials is still ‘Hell No!’

Anyway, I will now answer the question rather than just register my bafflement. I can be austere even when I am exposed to advertising. I admit there have been times when advertising has influenced me to consume things which were no in my best interest to consume, but I think I learned from certain early experiences, and that later increased my resistance to influence by advertising. And no, I don’t want ‘more, more, more’. I would actually be very happy just to maintain my current standard of material living for the rest of my life (especially since I think that I may not be able to maintain it for the rest of my life).

Answer (species-wide): There is actually some reason to have this concern, and actually, advertising in children’s television is regulated by the U.S. government because that has been shown to be a particularly harmful form of advertising. However, it seems to be that advertising has become much less effective in influencing people to consume stuff than it was back in 1980. Which makes me wonder if advertising really did play such a role in persuading to consume so much more than what they need even in 1980, or whether it was just a surface phenomenon which had a deeper cause beneath it. So yes, I think it is entirely possible for people to learn how to practice personal austerity even in a world full of advertising, and that interfering with the First Amendment is entirely uncalled for.

So, if you have gotten this far, I ask: how would you answer Catton’s five questions for an old world?

Reading the 1972 Edition of The Limits to Growth

Last month, I read an Ecology 101 textbook (specifically, Ecology: Concepts and Applications by Manual C. Molles Jr., 2nd edition) as part of this “deindustrial reading list”. I don’t know if I will go through with the whole list, but I did read the 1972 edition of The Limits to Growth this week.

The thesis of the book is pretty simple: exponential growth of both human population and industrial output cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. Furthermore, they calculate that, without major social/cultural changes, there will be a major economic and human population crash before 2100.

I had heard about this book a long time ago, and a lot of the ideas in this book have circulated widely. Yet I found this book was full of insights which have not circulated widely.

For example, I knew years ago that this book had a standard run model (a.k.a. “business as usual”) which led to a major human population crash before 2100, and that it various models associated with various policies which delayed the crash yet failed to prevent it, and that it also had a model in which the crash was prevented altogether. I had also read that the standard run “business as usual” model predicted remarkably well what has happened since 1972 (according to this and another source I cannot find right now). I had assumed that, because the standard run model predicted the collapse happening soonest, that it was the most dire scenario.

Now that I have read the book, I have found that the “standard run” scenario is not the the scariest scenario.

Yes, the collapse happens sooner under “standard run” than other scenarios. However, in many of the other scenarios, even though the collapse is delayed by decades, it still happens before 2100, and the longer the collapse is put off, the greater it is. Furthermore, the longer the collapse is put off, the greater the overshoot, and the more it will reduce the carrying capacity of the planet to support human beings (Wikipedia explains what overshoot is). “Standard run” does not result in the lowest final carrying capacity. In that sense, it is not the most frightening scenario.

Now, again, the book says that technology alone cannot solve the problem. Nothing I had heard or read about the book had indicated that it had that insight, but it makes a really good case for that point. The book runs the model in which nonrenewable resources are ‘unlimited’ due to amazing technological advances in resource usage efficiency and recycling. The collapse still happens in the 21st century, due to pollution.

The book admits that pollution is the hardest for them to predict because it is the factor for which they have the least good input. One of the pollutants they looked at was carbon dioxide. Their projections for how concentration of how carbon dioxide would increase in the atmosphere in a ‘business as usual’ scenario turned out to be … not far off.

Think of collapse via nonrenewable resource exhaustion vs. collapse via pollution this way (this is my example, not an example from the book). ‘Peak Oil’ is a shorthand for ‘fossil fuels are nonrenewable, and if we keep using them we will run out of economically viable fossil fuel supplies’. Given that nuclear power is only viable with massive economic subsidies, once fossil fuels run out, we will be left with only renewable power. Given that renewable power is nowhere close to being able to replace fossil fuel power right now, that means a sharp reduction in energy supplies, which could trigger a collapse of industrial civilization. However, if fossil fuels continue to be available indefinitely anyway for whatever reason, and they continue to be used, it keeps on increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which triggers collapse by extreme climate change. Collapse by resource depletion, or collapse by pollution? Even now, some people argue that climate change is what will trigger the collapse of civilization, before economically viable fossil fuels run out, and others say that the depletion of economically viable fossil fuels will happen before the more dire climate change scenarios can happen (climate change is already happening, so it’s too late to talk about stopping it completely).

As far as collapse happening earlier or sooner … imagine that the planet had been endowed with way less in the way of accessible fossil fuel supplies, and that economically viable fossil fuels had been depleted by, say, 1920. It probably would have caused a collapse of industrial civilization back then, and lots of human suffering, but it would have completely prevented climate change by carbon dioxide, and the crash which would have happened in that scenario would have been much less severe than the crash it looks like we are going towards.

Furthermore, the book has a scenario in which technology magically solves the nonrenewable resource problem and the pollution problem … and it just delays the collapse a little, and then it’s collapse by food shortage and global famines. Basically, any scenario they came up with which had a solution which was technology alone ended with a collapse by resource depletion, pollution, or food shortage, before the year 2100.

The models they had which did *not* lead to a population/civilization crash before 2100 included both technological and social change. Specifically, societies find mechanisms – which would have to be social, not technological – to ensure that the birth rate equalled the death rate, and that investment in industrial capital did not exceed depreciation.

Sara, the reading list says that that you should note whether The Limits to Growth makes more or less sense in the light of the ecological concepts you learned from the ecology textbook.

Well, I don’t have much to say. Yes, the ecology textbook went over population growth of individual species, that population growth tends to be exponential until it reaches the carrying capacity of the environment, and then the population tends to stabilize. The ecology textbook I read does not, however, describe overshoot. The ecology textbook goes into great detail about interactions between different organisms and the environment, which I suppose helped me make a little more sense of the emphasis in The Limits to Growth to studying complex interactions between different factors. However, The Limits to Growth explains its concepts so well that I doubt that reading the ecology textbook did much to influence how I made sense of it.

Is there anything else you want to say about The Limits to Growth?

The book also has some very interesting psychological insights. For example, it points out that so many people insist that technology can solve these problems because, for the past few hundred years, technology has solved problems, which is what has allowed the human population to grow as much as it had. This has established a culture which expects technology to solve society-wide problems. However, it can only do so *before* the hard limits of this planet have been reached. It has some insights into why it is so difficult to get humans to respond to problems such as pollution (there is a great car driving metaphor in the book).

There are also a few bits in the book which, in my opinion, are simply bullshit. But they are in the details, not in the general ideas. I’m not going to discard the value of this book just because they got some minor stuff wrong.

I highly recommend reading this book. Though I have not read the 1992 or 2004 updates, I recommend the 1972 version over those two for these reasons:

1) The 1972 version is the shortest.
2) The 1972 version was the bestseller which sold millions of copies, so it is the best for tracing the origins of various ideas.
3) Seeing what they actually said in 1972 and compare it today.

Sara, this book seems like it’s a real downer! I don’t want to read it!

If you don’t want to read it, then you don’t have to read it. But this is what I have to say about this book being a ‘bummer’.

First, it does not predict the extinction of human beings, even after the collapse. Since a lot of people do predict the near-future extinction of human beings, I consider this book to be more optimistic than those predictions. Also, as I already explained, current data indicates that we are not going into the scariest scenario described in the book.

Second, I don’t know about your life expectancy, but my current life expectancy, according to charts and whatnots, says that I am most likely to die in the early 2070s. I may, of course, live into the 2080s, and I may die a heck of a lot sooner than 2070 as well. That means that, if the Limits to Growth projections continue to predict the future as accurately as they have so far, there is a very high chance I will live long enough to witness the collapse. And if they are right about the death rate sharply rising in the middle of the 21st century, that may very well cut off my life and cause me to die in the 2050s rather than the 2070s. I cannot prevent the crisis, but if I am going to live long enough to get into the thick of it, I would rather have a better understanding of why such awful things are happening than a worse understanding of why such awful things are happening.

I looked up Donella Meadows, the lead writer of the The Limits to Growth. She was not much older than I am now when she did the studies which are the basis of The Limits to Growth. She died in 2001, at the age of 59 years old. That was significantly younger than her projected life expectancy in the early 1970s. It just goes to show that, even in good times, some people still get their lives cut short. On the flipside, even during times of general crisis, some people get really lucky and live long and satisfying lives anyway.

Soon, I plan to read the next book on that reading list, Overshoot. Based on what I know about it, it seems like it will be more of a downer than The Limits to Growth. I’ll see how I will react to that one.