Posted by: Michael George Daniel | September 8, 2008

Overshoot

William R. Catton, Jr. published his book Overshoot in 1980. I was 20 years old at the time. I discovered his brilliant book this year at the age of 48. In it, Catton lays out a simple but comprehensive analysis of the history of the world as it relates to our finite resource base and human population. Corollary to these issues are of course the issues of other species; their numbers, their decline, their relationship to human well being.

Some two million years ago, Catton writes, the first humans emerged and existed by whatever means they could muster. This meant hunting and gathering from the land resources as they were presented and as nature could sustain. There were estimated to be fewer than two million human beings at this time. Over the course of the next 1.965 million years, humans were wildly successful. It is estimated that the population of humans had doubled some four times, to 35 million. Based on the technology of the age, which is to say there was none, the carrying capacity of the earth with regard to humans was roughly being met. Then, human ingenuity changed history when it was discovered that plants could be managed: agriculture was developed and the food available to sustain a human population increased. Thus, the carrying capacity of the Earth expanded. This subtle point, about the ability of human inventiveness to modify the natural capacity of the Earth to support human populations, is key.

Subsequently, we learned how to mine, mold and use metal. In my own casual research, I have come to believe that this development, the discovery of how to use metal for weapons and implements, was the turning point from the previous collaborative human mode of organization to one of command and control. It is at this point in history that, as David Korten puts it in his book of the same name, I’m paraphrasing the title here, we went from Earth Community to Empire. For some reason, this shift is also the catalyst for the emergence of male domination. As a result, the female gender, and our inherent female nature regardless of gender, was repressed.

Catton refers to this stage of human evolution as Prosthetic Man. It represents yet another means by which we humans figured out a way to extend the carrying capacity of the earth. Ultimately, only so much energy is received by the earth each day. To the extent that we use more than that everyday, we are getting the deficit from somewhere. We are getting it from stored energy resources. Of course this stored resource is finite: that is the nature of the planet, it is a finite, physical manifestation of the infinite energy of the universe. Energy resources are but one of the many resources we exploit in our living. But it perhaps represents a less intuitive resource than say, gold or dirt or water. Somehow, it seems much easier to fool ourselves that there are such quantities of undiscovered oil and natural gas, the stored energy resource that we are specifically discussing, that we don’t have to worry, just yet, about it running out.¬† This of course is not true, but this blog won’t argue that case.

Catton made the point that, as Prosthetic Man, we learned how to harvest and use this stored energy and further extend the carrying capacity of the earth beyond the energy balance represented by what came in and what was needed to support all of the life on the planet. Yes, that is somewhat key, there is the little matter of life forms and our relationship with them as well. I could write, ‘other life forms and how their existence impacts humans’, but then I’d be falling back into that subtle, yet oh-so-catastrophic anthropomorphic mode in which we only can relate to all-that-is-other-than-us by regarding how it might serve us.

The fact is, we live in a collaborative web of life in which we are served and serve all other aspects of Nature. I will use the term Nature interchangeably with the word Universe. The bottom-line of Catton’s analysis is that our leveraged ability to support human population by accessing both the incoming and stored energy of the earth has created an ever increasing consumption of finite resource. His Overshoot refers to the fact that we continue to find ways to move ever more quickly toward the cliff edge of depletion. Our bloated world population is in peril. He coined a second ‘sticky’ phrase to characterize this stage of human development. He called it ‘homo-colossus’. What he meant by this characterization is that humans have succeeded in increasing the carrying capacity of the earth, and thus the population and the population’s capacity to consume resources to a point that is disproportionate with any other species or time in history. Homo-colossus has succeeded in accelerating the rate of depletion of resources and the destruction of the life-carrying capacity of earth’s systems to breathtaking (pun sort of intended) levels.

Those that would point back to our human inventiveness, the cause of this situation, as the differentiating means by which we will get out of this situation make a couple of mistakes, in my opinion. First, this belief structure is referred to by Catton as a cargoist perspective. Cargoists believe that some future person, people, revelation, savior, messiah, etc., will come/be discovered to fix things. This is a symptom of denial. The second big mistake that I see, with the human inventiveness argument is the context issue. If we continue to exercise our inventiveness, as has been the case during the current evolutionary cycle, we will have done little to address the system inside of which this inventing is taking place. It is our disconnection with the rest of the web of life that ultimately undergirds our continuing expectations that our inventions can save us. In actuality what is happening is a race to the end of the world in which it is a crap shoot as to whether there will be any humans left to evolve to the next level, a level of consciousness in which our rational self-awareness re-integrates with our natural sensibilities and restores our experience of inalienable connection with all living systems in Nature.

There is one other error that I see in the inventiveness argument. It is the implication that humans are somehow above and separate from the rest of the web of life. There is the temptation to assign God-like qualities to our unique level of evolved consciousness. This level of consciousness that we enjoy, and the rationality and articulation we enjoy along with it is just that – an extension of Nature’s consciousness; an aspect of it, not separate, but simply what one might call the leading edge. This is not so much God;the whole thing is God, our consciousness and that of all of Nature. In this regard we are co-creators: the possibility exists that we can awaken soon enough to avert the final catastrophe, but there is no guarantee.

Of course the sad news is that nobody wants to talk about overpopulation. It is an off limits topic in the mainstream. And that is too bad. Because it is the poor and marginalized that will not survive, initially. Although, there is also a very good argument that the poor are better suited to survival in the coming ages because they are much closer to understanding how to live in concert with the resource balance as presented than do most of the the people of, say, the Western world.

Catton offers a brilliant analogy taken from the natural world. He analyzes the populations cycles of rabbits, lynx and yeast, for example. He describes the life cycle of yeast in a vat of grape juice: wild times; what is known as a population bloom or irruption. The yeast consume the sugar in the vat of juice and thrive and multiply. They produce a waste product: alcohol. Eventually the sugar is used up and the waste product kills almost all of the population of yeast.

Again informally, I studied the analyzes Catton presented. The graphs can be summarized as a series of peaks and valleys in terms of population cycles. There seemed to be a common ratio of peak to trough: 14 to 1. I use this ratio to help get a feel for the kind of population change implied by Catton’s analysis and illustrations. With a world population of 7 billion, we are talking about a population meltdown resulting in a world population of 500 million people. That’s pretty significant (understatement).

The question is, should we do anything about it? I’m sure the kind of population collapse illustrated above will not happen tomorrow. The starting point of 7 billion might be more like 10 billion or 15 billion. Who knows. The point of the illustration is to offer a little insight – an experience of the kind of collapse that shows up, consistently, in nature. A little awareness goes a long way. In my experience with change and the psychology of conditioning, the fact is, all we have to work with is our awareness. This is, after all, a crisis of consciousness.

Let us agree on one thing: there is a limit to how many humans the earth can sustain. I don’t know how many that is. How would you answer the question? Let us begin by asking good questions. Obviously, by doing so, I am coming full circle to an acceptance of the human inventiveness argument. When we pull our heads out of the sand and, in full awareness, ask what shall we do about the nine equivalent earths needed to sustain the resource demand of just the United States, then I believe our inventiveness will have a chance of moving us toward a solution.

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Responses

  1. I never read the book you refer to but I tend to disagree with the need for population control/limitation (and think it is a good thing the main stream media doesn’t embrace ideas of “overpopulation” which still tend to receive more press than those who question the theory-an subtle advantage they hold that may be unfair).

    Inventiveness is one reason to avoid comparing human beings to other animals. Thus why I argue typical math equations used when determining how much wilderness can support a given number of animals (often of a specific type) should not be used for humans beings. So don’t use population growth and die-off cycles for yeast, rabbits, or whatever when looking at humans. Such an example of growth and die off is misleading.

    You are correct in that we are using stored sources of energy which, by the nature of using them faster than they are made, are going to run out. But going to non stored-actively receiving sources of energy seems to pollute less and still provide energy-solar rather than coal power plants. In addition there are vast amounts of solar and geothermal energy that are generally untapped. Thus there is a potential duel solution presented with renewable energy-a source which isn’t likely to run out soon in addition to a less pollution-which is a major reason for global warming.

    Also consumption is something I tend to view as the main problem as it can increase regardless of the number of humans (note that the number of cars and electronic devices per US household has been rising even as the average number of children per family has dropped over the past couple hundred years). It also relates directly to pollution as factories generating products to be consumed pollute themselves. These factories are also powered by polluting power plants that are frequently coal using-like in China. And many of the created goods pollute themselves-like cars. Thus consumption (which isn’t population based) is the problem that should be looked over (and thankfully is but not nearly enough in the media).

    As I mentioned China, I would like to point out that in this population controlled nation the amount of pollution generated has been growing rapidly. The birthrate (amount of annual additional Chinese) has been dropping. But annual emissions have been growing rapidly. If population determined pollution level then the growth in annual Chinese emissions would be slowing (to mirror slowing population growth) rather than speeding up (as it is now).

    So I guess the example of yeast is faulty as it doesn’t factor in both human inventiveness and the fact that the amount of waste produced by humans (unlike yeast) isn’t based on their population size.


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