Sunday, February 15, 2015

William Catton's warning

William Catton Jr., author of the seminal volume about our human destiny, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, died last month at age 88.

Catton believed that industrial civilization has sown the seeds of its own demise and that humanity's seeming dominance of the biosphere is only a prelude to decline. His work foreshadowed later works such as Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies, Richard Heinberg's The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, and Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.

In Overshoot Catton wrote: "We must learn to relate personally to what may be called 'the ecological facts of life.' We must see that those facts are affecting our lives far more importantly and permanently than the events that make the headlines."

He published those words in 1980, and now, it seems, at least some of those facts have made their way into the headlines in the form of climate change, soil erosion, fisheries collapse, species extinction, constrained supplies of energy and other critical resources, and myriad other problems that are now all too obvious.

But, even today, few people see the world as Catton did. Few realize how serious these problems are and how their consequences are unfolding right before us. Few understand what he called "the tragic story of human success," tragic because that success as it is currently defined cannot be maintained and must necessarily unwind into decline owing to the laws of physics and the realities of biology. We can adjust to these realities or they will adjust us to them.

Perhaps the single keenest insight Catton had is that humans have become detritovores, organisms that live off the dead remains of other organisms. By this he meant the human dependence on fossil fuels which are the ancient dead remains of organisms transformed into oil, natural gas and coal.

It is the fate of detritovore populations to expand and contract with their supply of detritus. He likened modern humans to algae feeding on the rich surplus of nutrients from dead organic matter swept into a pond by spring rains and often multiplying so as to cover the entire pond with a green carpet. By summer, with the rush of spring nutrients depleted--nutrients which are like the one-time infusion of fossil fuels into human society--the algae population crashes, leaving mostly open water and sometimes just an uneven ribbon along the edge of the pond. It is a boom-bust population cycle well-known to biologists.

In 1980 it seemed as if this cycle might be mitigated by wise policy and serious, but achievable adjustments in the human way of life. By 2009 when Catton published his other book, Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse, he felt that the time for major mitigation of the inevitable bust portion of the population cycle had passed.

So, why even write another book? Catton explained in the last paragraph of Bottleneck:

I hope by the time [my great-grandsons] become great-grandfathers themselves, their generation will be so conspicuously more enlightened than mine was and our forebears were that the world population of bottleneck survivors will have evolved social systems better able to be circumspect in the use of their planet and its vulnerable biosphere. If readers of this book come to share similar hopes, and contribute to instilling them in their descendants, my reasons for writing will have been justified.

This is a humble ambition compared to the cautious hope that flowed from Overshoot in 1980. And, it is important to note Catton's emphasis on social systems for he was trained as a sociologist. He believed that despite our considerable technical prowess, our social system simply cannot contemplate making the drastic changes necessary to mitigate the downslope.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about Catton is that he did not blame anyone for the human predicament. To him that predicament is the natural outcome of evolutionary processes and the powers given to humans through those processes. That predicament is no more a product of conscious thought and intention than is the beating of our own hearts.

When I met and chatted with him for the one and only time in 2006, he was mildly jocular in the same way that his writing is, and he was upbeat in his attitude toward daily life, however disturbing the future may seem.

That was probably the product of a life spent in deep and patient study of the world around him, a world that yielded some of its most hidden and important secrets to him. And, he had the satisfaction of having published those secrets so that they would not be secrets any more.

Overshoot may stand as the central text of the 20th century about the ecological fate of humankind. The book represents a missed opportunity in that so few people were able to hear what Catton had to say in 1980, and so few want to hear it now--even as the headlines are filled with the very precursors of the bottleneck he laments in his last major piece of writing.

(To see my review of Bottleneck, click here.)

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Chris Kuykendall said...

I not only didn't know that Catton had died, but didn't know that he had written a second book. Sometime after Overshoot in 1980, I searched at the university libraries here (Austin, TX) for supplementary journal articles by Catton. In one of those, which probably remains far too undeservedly obscure, I found a brilliant drawing. It showed, first, a dolphin swimming in a box-shaped tank of water. The size of the cetacean represented the per capita metabolic rate of homo sapiens in 1790, before the widespread use of fossil fuels, and the size of the tank, although not drawn to scale compared to the dolphin, reflected the human per capita hectares of living-off-the-sun photosynthetic energetic availability that homo sapiens then enjoyed. An adjacent drawing then fast-forwarded to modern times in 1980. By tapping fossil fuels and applying far more per capita human energy to the enterprise of civilization, the effective per capita metabolic rate, adding in the extra, had grown the homo sapiens cetacean surrogate to the much larger size of a sperm whale. Meanwhile, the size of the photosynthetic-energetic per capita tank the bigger cetacean was enclosed by had shrunk drastically because human population had grown so much even while the earth was still its same finite size. I always thought this a very elegant visual way of depicting our civilizational energetic history, which some other book needed to pick up on and use. I'll order Bottleneck to see if perhaps it was used there. Plus I'll try to dig up, and share, the journal article citation for the source of the drawing.

Unknown Human said...

Awesome post.

Michael A. Lewis said...

Nothing can be done about overshoot now, of course, but then, hardly anyone knows this is the case anymore, and even fewer care. Life goes on in city halls, county chambers, state legislatures and even unto Washington, By God, DC, as if the Age of Exuberance had never ended.

The Board of Supervisors in Our Fair County passed a Climate Emergency declaration, at the same meeting where they supported status quo growth and development proposals, with straight faces, not even giggling. They don't get it, and they don't get that they don't get it.

Most folx pile into their individual cars of a morning and motor off 20-30 miles to their jobs, and back home that evening. They have to park in the driveway because their two-car garage is chucky-jammed full of stuff.

Meanwhile, my wife and I walk or bike wherever we go, leaving our 72 Bug sulking in the carport, dreaming of motor trips past. Our only fossil fuel use is natural gas at the power plant across the bay that powers our lights and refrigerator, and this electronic babble box on whose keyboard I pound out my daily thoughts. The sun and an occasional fire in the wood stove get us through the cool months.

A thousand years from now, everything will be OK. At 70, I'll be around for the beginning of the end, but I won't get to see the Grand Denouement. Have to leave that up to the imagination, as long as it lasts. I grieve for the non-humans who have to put up with it, but their time will come again.

The meek shall indeed inherit the Earth.