Sunday, January 31, 2010

The bottleneck century

In his documentary What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire filmmaker Tim Bennett notes that many of the book authors now writing about peak oil, climate change, species extinction and myriad other urgent environmental and resource topics usually end their otherwise grim analyses with what he calls "the happy chapter," a chapter with solutions and responses which will supposedly help us to avert catastrophe.

In a new book, Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse, William Catton, Jr. dispenses with "the happy chapter" altogether and simply gives us the grim prognosis. Human society is now on an unstoppable trajectory for a significant die-off. Catton, author of the well-known classic of human ecology, Overshoot, expects that by 2100 the world population will be smaller, perhaps much smaller, than it is today. We are in what he calls "the bottleneck century." He likens our situation to that of an airplane taking off at nighttime with a crew that is unaware that the runway is too short. The pilot will accelerate the plane as usual expecting a normal takeoff. Unless the pilot somehow receives and believes a warning to brake and reverse the engines quickly, by the time he or she actually sees the end of the runway, it will be too late and the plane will crash.

Well, the warnings have been issued, Catton explains. And, few people believe them. Catton spends much of the book explaining why this is so. As you read his explanation, it becomes clear why there will be no "happy chapter" at the end.

The main culprit, according to Catton, is the division of labor into ever smaller occupational niches. The marvel of such a system is that people who know nothing about one another's occupation can cooperate through the miracle of the marketplace to increase society's overall productivity and wealth. And, they can exchange every kind of good or service through the medium of money. The downside of such a complex and finely differentiated system is that no one can really understand it.

That might not matter so much except that fossil fuels have enabled humans to increase both their numbers and per capita consumption enormously in the last 200 years. The impact of that vast increase on the world's renewable and nonrenewable resources has been profound. It has lead to all the effects mentioned above and many others including deforestation, heavy erosion of farmland, toxic pollution of air and water, and overharvesting of fisheries.

But how does our complex division of labor make it more difficult to respond to these problems? First, we cannot make an independent appraisal of these problems because of our limited knowledge, mostly confined to our occupational niches. As a result we must rely on experts.

This leads to the second difficulty. We are often faced with competing opinions among experts. Never mind that some of these experts are merely paid spokespersons for the fossil fuel industry or for big agribusiness or for the forestry industry. Without careful discernment, most of the public has difficulty differentiating scientifically-based statements from mere polemic and outright falsehood. The mass media thus becomes a conduit for propagating bad or at least inconclusive information. In short, the feedback we humans need to in order to run our society in a sustainable way is dangerously lacking.

Because language is the way humans coordinate much of their activity--especially in our complex society of highly differentiated occupations--when that language becomes corrupted or is used to deceive, it works against the survivability of the species. One problem is that we have outdated wordmaps which tell us, for instance, that natural resource extraction is really "production" and can therefore be expanded as necessary whenever we like. And, we believe we can throw things "away," when there really never has been any "away." We "throw away" our carbon emissions into the atmosphere and produce global warming. We "throw away" our toxic chemicals into landfills which then leak into our waterways.

Third, since nearly all humans now labor in exceedingly narrow occupational niches, they seek to maintain those niches by competing with others. The famed sociologist Emile Durkheim hypothesized that division of labor would create solidarity among humans through interdependence. Instead, it has created the alienation and competition that go hand-in-hand with the dominance of the market system in nearly every economic transaction. Most humans now believe their lives are about acquiring money rather than resources since for so many money is the only gateway to the resources they need. This financializes their thinking and makes it difficult to talk about Earth systems in some other context than the market.

Fourth, human beings evolve in response to current conditions, not future ones. Humans are known to discount possible future events greatly. This puts their focus on what they are experiencing right now and makes them vulnerable to large, abrupt changes since their inclination to prepare for future changes is exceedingly limited.

The competitive and impersonal nature of modern society, the corruption of language and control of mass communication by vested interests, and the focus of humans on the here and now combine to make it all but impossible to coordinate human efforts worldwide in the thoroughgoing way that would be required to avoid the bottleneck. Those efforts would have to include an immediate drop in fertility rates below replacement, a vast reduction in the consumption of natural resources, and the complete abandonment of the burning of fossil fuels. You can see why Catton thinks such developments must be placed in the "impossible" category.

None of these main points are dealt with systematically in the book, but appear and reappear in various contexts. Catton could have used an editor to help him organize his message and make it more succinct and focused. For example, the many personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout the text seem as if they could have been eliminated or at least been more sharply written. The failure of style in this book may result from it being self-published. But I can understand Catton's urgency. At 84 he may have felt that he didn't want to wait to line up a regular publisher.

Still, despite Catton's discursive style, the reader will be rewarded with his subtle insights into the nexus between nature and human society. Rather than giving us a catalogue of our depleted resources; our poisoned water, food and air; or the data behind our endangered climate, he assumes all of this and tells us why human beings are unlikely to respond to these problems and therefore seem almost certain to face a bottleneck in this century. For those who have read his marvelous book Overshoot, this new book will not seem as challenging as it otherwise might be.

"Bottleneck" ends with a disheartening message for it suggests that there is no alternative but to prepare for the bottleneck. Catton is nevertheless explicit about the advantages of knowing the worst rather than living in any temporary blissful ignorance. He does not believe humans will be wiped out, but rather that their numbers will be considerably reduced and their societies simplified. If his book contributes to some form of ecological awareness that can be transmitted beyond the bottleneck, then he says he will consider it a success. It's an oddly humble objective for a book so sweeping in its conclusions.


Rice Farmer said...

I have not read the book, but I have to agree with the author's conclusion as you describe it.

The corruption of language and control of communication reach their apotheosis in how politicians address their constituents. This is really the worst part of the problem. For example, take the recent state of the union address. (Let me emphasize here that I see President Obama as nothing more or less than a continuation of the same old program, and just another cogwheel in the machine.) It was just the usual enthusiastic pep talk full of can-do rhetoric meant to encourage Americans and keep them from rioting in the streets. Democratically elected politicians and even dictators communicate like this. "We are a great nation," "There is nothing we can't accomplish when we commit ourselves to it," blah blah blah.

Lest I sound too critical, I admit that Mr. Obama et al. realistically have no choice at this time. Since it's too late to avert disaster, world leaders now can only keep plugging holes in the dike until it breaks. If world leaders had been honest with us many decades ago, perhaps the situation wouldn't be this bad, but unfortunately that's not the way the system works.

Michael P. said...

Hi Kurt, Thanks for a concise summary of an important book. I heard Lierre Keith once say that the core of contemporary ecological thinking can be grasped by reading William Catton and Derrick Jensen. Glad to see Catton continuing to share his wisdom with us all.

Anonymous said...

A world leader was indeed honest with us 35 years ago - Jimmy Carter. Too bad american public was too stupid and too selfih to follow his leadership. Carter was too smart and too far ahead of the time. Only in communist country does a top leader have power to make pronouncement that involve vast personal sacrifice and make it stick. It's hopeless in US, since most people immigrated to live the materialistic american dream. Therefore, even if communinst china is vastly more overpopulated than US, it has better chance to survive the bottleneck centry as semblence of a unified country than US.

Anonymous said...

thanks Kurt