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?

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