There is no more difficult topic to address than the next of the "Five Limits", population. One writer has compared it to "gazing at the sun"...
"Our Need for a New Perspective"
Excerpt from William R. Catton, Jr. "Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change"
(University of Illinois Press, 1980) pp. 3 - 12
Competition across Time
On the banks of the Volga in 1921 a refugee community was visited by an American newspaper correspondent who had come to write about the Russian famine.' Almost half the people in this community were already dead of starvation. The death rate was rising. Those still surviving had no real prospect of prolonged longevity. In an adjacent field, a lone soldier was guarding a huge mound of sacks full of grain. The American newsman asked the white-bearded leader of the community why his people did not overpower this one guard, take over the grain, and relieve their hunger. The dignified old Russian explained that the sacks contained seed to be planted for the next growing season. "We do not steal from the future," he said.
Today mankind is locked into stealing ravenously from the future. That is what this book is about. It is not just a book about famine or hunger. Famine in the modern world must be read as one of several symptoms reflecting a deeper malady in the human condition namely, diachronic competition, a relationship whereby contemporary well-being is achieved at the expense of our descendants. By our sheer numbers, by the state of our technological development, and by being oblivious to differences between a method that achieved lasting increments of human carrying capacity and one that achieves only temporary supplements, we have made satisfaction of today's human aspirations dependent upon massive deprivation for posterity.
People of one generation have become indirect and unwitting antagonists of subsequent generations. Yet diagnoses of our plight - even ecological analyses - have not made clear one essential point. A major aim of this book is to show that commonly proposed "solutions for problems confronting mankind" are actually going to aggravate those problems. Proposed remedies for various parts of our predicament need to be evaluated by asking whether they will intensify the adversary relationship between people living today and people of the next generation, and the next. . .
The overlooked differences between methods that permanently enlarged human carrying capacity and more recent methods that have only enabled us temporarily to evade the world's limits can be seen if we contrast the way people used to seek the good life versus today's substitute expedient. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country" - i.e., go where there is new land to take over, and use such an increment of carrying capacity to prosper. At the start of America's third century, however, it was "Try to speed up the economy" - i.e., try to draw down the finite reservoir of exhaustible resources a bit faster.
Because this book is meant to overcome our habit of mistaking techniques that evade limits for techniques that raise them, it is, in a sense, a book about how to read the news perceptively in revolutionary times. That cannot be done without certain unfamiliar but increasingly indispensable concepts. "Carrying capacity" is one of them. Until recently, only a few people outside such occupations as wildlife management or sheep and cattle ranching have even known this phrase. Its vital importance to all of us has not been as obvious as it is now becoming. The time has come for scholars and everyone else to take a piercing look at the relationship between the earth's changing capacity to support human inhabitants and the changing load imposed by our numbers and our requirements. The direction of recent change makes this relationship just about the most important topic there is for people to know about, and think about. We have come to the end of the time when it didn't seem to matter that almost no one saw the difference between ways of enlarging human carrying capacity and ways of exceeding it.
It has now become essential to recognize that all creatures, human or otherwise, impose a load upon their environment's ability to supply what they need and to absorb and transform what they excrete or discard. An environment's carrying capacity for a given kind of creature (living a given way of life) is the maximum persistently feasible load - just short of the load that would damage that environment's ability to support life of that kind. Carrying capacity can be expressed quantitatively as the number of us, living in a given manner, which a given environment can support indefinitely.
When the load at a particular time happens to be appreciably less than the carrying capacity, there is room for expansion of numbers, for enhancement of living standards, or both. If the load increases until it exceeds carrying capacity, overuse of the environment reduces its carrying capacity. That is why it has become important to recognize the difference between increasing the number an environment can support indefinitely and surpassing that number by "accepting" environmental damage. Overuse of an environment sets up forces that will necessarily, in time, reduce the load to match the shrinkage of carrying capacity.
As these points begin to indicate, in order really to understand our future we need a clear-headed ecological interpretation of history, because the pressure of our numbers and technology upon manifestly limited resources has already put out of reach the previously acceptable solutions to many of our problems. There remains steadfast resistance to admitting this, but facts are not repealed by refusal to face them. On the other hand, even the "alarmists" who have been warning of grave perils besetting mankind have not fathomed our present predicament.
I speak of "predicament," not "crisis," because I refer to conditions that are not of recent origin and will not soon abate.
In brief, that predicament and its background can be outlined as follows: Human beings, in two million years of cultural evolution, have several times succeeded in taking over additional portions of the earth's total life-supporting capacity, at the expense of other creatures. Each time, human population has increased. But man has now learned to rely on a technology that augments human carrying capacity in a necessarily temporary way - as temporary as the extension of life by eating the seeds needed to grow next year's food. Human population, organized into industrial societies and blind to the temporariness of carrying capacity supplements based on exhaustible resource dependence, responded by increasing more exuberantly than ever, even though this meant overshooting the number our planet could permanently support. Something akin to bankruptcy was the inevitable sequel.
Old Ideas, New Situation
The sequel has begun to happen, but it is not generally recognized for what it is. We have come to a time when old assumptions that compel us to misunderstand what is happening to us have to be abandoned.
We and our immediate ancestors lived through an age of exuberant growth, overshooting permanent carrying capacity without knowing what we were doing. The past four centuries of magnificent progress were made possible by two non-repeatable achievements: (a) discovery of a second hemisphere, and (b) development of ways to exploit the planet's energy savings deposits, the fossil fuels. The resulting opportunities for economic and demographic exuberance convinced people that it was natural for the future to be better than the past. For a while that belief was a workable premise for our lives and institutions. But when the New World became more populated than the Old World had been, and when resource depletion became significant, the future had to be seen through different lenses.
Assumptions that were once viable but have become obsolete must be replaced with a new perspective, one that enables us to see more effectively and to understand more accurately. This book seeks to articulate that needed perspective. It is no easy task, for the new way of seeing must differ sharply from traditional assumptions. Being unfamiliar, the new perspective will initially be distasteful and seem implausible. We shall continue to wish that some of the experiences it enables us to understand more clearly were not happening. But if we have the wisdom implied by the name we gave our own species, we must face the fact that continued misunderstanding of unwelcome experiences cannot prevent them from happening and cannot insulate us from their consequences.
People accustomed to expectations of magnificent progress have been appalled to find that they have lost their confidence in the future. The idea that mankind could encounter hardships that simply will not go away was unthinkable in the Age of Exuberance. This idea must be faced in the post-exuberant world. It seemed at last that it might really be faced when the thirty-ninth president of the United States decided (shortly after taking office) to emphasize energy conservation in response to manifest depletion of once-abundant fuels, rather than resorting to the traditional American urge to "produce our way out" of mounting difficulties. Important options had been lost irretrievably when humanity irrupted beyond the earth's permanent carrying capacity. New and different imperatives now must be faced. Their ecological basis must be seen.
Man is like every other species in being able to reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of any finite habitat. Man is like no other species in that he is capable of thinking about this fact and discovering its consequences. Thinking about other species, man has seen their dependence upon environmental chemistry and upon the energy of sunlight. Man has recognized the many-faceted interdependence of diverse organisms, their impact upon their habitat, their impermanence, and their inability to foresee and evade the processes leading to their own displacement by successors. Thinking about our own species, however, at least until April, 1977, too many of us imagined ourselves exempt, supernatural. Until a president not yet worn down by the compromises inherent in office holding nudged Congress and the American people into serious discussions of conservation, men and women throughout the United States and many other lands relied on technological progress to cure the very afflictions it had been causing.
Nature is going to require reduction of human dominance over the world ecosystem. The changes this will entail are so revolutionary that we will be almost overwhelmingly tempted instead to prolong and augment our dominance at all costs. And, as we shall see, the costs will be prodigious. We are likely to do many things that will make a bad situation worse. It is hoped that the kind of enlightenment offered in this book may help curtail such tendencies.
The paramount need of post-exuberant humanity is to remain human in the face of dehumanizing pressures. To do this we must lean somehow to base exuberance of spirit upon something more lasting than the expansive living that sustained it in the recent past. But, as if we were driving a car that has become stuck on a muddy road, we feel an urge to bear down harder than ever on the accelerator and to spin our wheels vigorously in an effort to power ourselves out of the quagmire. This reflex will only dig us in deeper. We have arrived at a point in history where counterintuitive thought ways are essential.
We live in a world where it is becoming increasingly evident that, for quite nonpolitical reasons, governments and politicians cannot achieve the paradise they have habitually promised. Political habits persist, though, and people have seen their leaders continuing to dangle before them the kinds of carrots ordinary men and women know are becoming unattainable. The result has been erosion of faith in political processes. As that faith disintegrates, societies all over the world are floundering, or becoming dictatorial.
Even among Americans, who confront worldwide shrinkage of political liberty with a proud memory of two centuries' experimentation in democratic nation-building, faith in democracy has been seriously strained. That strain may be reduced when politicians are astute enough to discover, and realistic enough to point out to their constituents, the nonpolitical reasons why certain traditional goals are no longer attainable.
The alternative to chaos is to abandon the illusion that all things are possible. Mankind has learned to manipulate many of nature's forces, but neither as individuals nor as organized societies can human beings attain outright omnipotence. Many of us remain, to this day, beneficiaries of the once - New World's myth of limitlessness. But circumstances have ceased to be as they were when that myth made sense. Unless we discard our belief in limitlessness, all of us are in danger of becoming its victims.
In today's world it is imperative that all of us learn the following core principle:
Human society is inextricably part of a global biotic community,
and in that community human dominance has had and is having self-destructive consequences.
That principle is the basis of the nonpolitical obstacles that now frustrate human societal aspirations everywhere on earth. The obstacles are nonpolitical because they are not uniquely human. In less-than-global ecosystems, as we shall see in Part IV, other dominant species before us have also been unavoidably self-destructive. We and our leaders need to understand such examples and to avail ourselves of the light they cast on our own history and our own situation. They exemplify a stark fact about life which we desperately need to grasp - and we need to see that grasping it will actually help us to adjust sanely to an unwelcome but inescapable future.
Because we haven't known these things, we, the human species, are inexorably tightening the two jaws of a vise around our fragile civilization. As we shall see in the next two chapters, there are already more human beings alive than the world's renewable resources can perpetually support. We have built complex societies that therefore depend on rapid use of exhaustible resources. Depletion of resources we don't know how to do without is reducing this finite planet's carrying capacity for our species. That is one jaw of the closing vise. The other is the accumulation of harmful substances that are unavoidably created by our life processes. There are so many of us, using so much technology, that these substances accumulate too fast for the global ecosystem to reprocess them; in fact, by overloading the natural reprocessing systems we are even breaking down their already limited capacity to set things right for us. This accumulation of toxic materials also reduces the earth's human carrying capacity.
Oblivious of the fact that we were living between these two jaws, most of mankind has until recently applauded each turn of the vise handle. From the archaic perspective we are struggling to outgrow, it seemed like welcome progress. Hundreds of millions want the handle turned at least one or two more revolutions, for they have not yet fully shared in that progress. And that is what their leaders continue to promise.
Homo sapiens has not been the first type of organism to experience this vise-tightening, nor even the first species to inflict upon itself this kind of fate. Pre-human instances of this common phenomenon hold important lessons for us, as we shall see. For mankind, as the pressure intensifies, ignorance of its most fundamental causes (and ignorance even of how common the phenomenon has been in nature) makes it easy to succumb to the temptation to vilify particular human groups and individuals. "If only ... ," we have been tempted to exclaim, "... if only those _____ weren't up to their nefarious business." Then history could resume its march of millennial progress (we suppose). "They" are the obstacles to our attainment of benevolent goals.
Depending upon which outraged in-group was doing the finger-pointing, "they" has referred to different out-groups. In place of "those _____," devout Maoist Chinese could read "Russian revisionists." Bedeviled Israelis could read "PLO terrorists," while embittered Arabs could read "land-grabbing Zionists." Angry Irish Catholics could read "Protestant extremists," and irate Ulster Protestants could read "IRA Provisionals." Black Rhodesians could read "the colonialist white minority regime"; Fidel Castro in Cuba could read "Yankee imperialists"; American motorists annoyed by increased gasoline prices could read "the oil cartel"; etc.
While vilification often brings emotional gratification, it brings no solution to our common plight. Indeed, it aggravates life's difficulties. Our common plight is not really due to villains. Too few of a troubled world's proliferating antagonists have known the concepts that would enable them to see the common roots of their own and their supposed adversaries' deprivations. Under pressure, people retreat from the mutual understanding mankind has so falteringly achieved. Pressure also makes us disinclined to comprehend the human relevance of nature's impersonal mechanisms. It behooves some who have borne the pressure only marginally to discern and discuss its nature, that all may stand some chance of abstaining from the plight-worsening actions to which pressure so easily tempts us.
The pressure to which we have collectively subjected ourselves, needs to be turned off, of course. But it is already too late to evade the future by so doing. This book is not a belated harangue for more birth control, much less a plea for one more revolution, or one last orgy of repentance. There is no point to another morbid wringing of hands over mankind's alleged "greed" or immoral myopia. Merely to deplore human appetites and shortsightedness is useless, without some effort to understand them (and to put them in perspective by comparing them with those of other species).
The purpose of this book, therefore, is to illuminate the nature and causes of the human predicament, so as to make possible some mitigation of its social, emotional, and moral effects. To mitigate the effects of post-exuberant pressures, we must recognize their deepest roots. 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 headlines. To understand the human predicament now requires a truly ecological perspective.
We need an ecological world view; noble intentions and a modicum of ecological information will not suffice. This new paradigm will help us see how the self-destructive ways of mankind are in many respects typical of the paths followed by other creatures. Until the reader has made the paradigm shift herein called for, it will doubtless be difficult to see why it matters whether we recognize the typicality of our seemingly unprecedented predicament. It will not be easy to see how finding our plight to be natural or ineluctable provides any consolation. As Kuhn pointed out, it is difficult (even in scientific discussions) for adherents of one paradigm to communicate effectively with those who perceive and reason in terms of a different paradigm. But I have tried to achieve communication across the paradigm barrier by writing as clearly and persuasively as I can, albeit from an unconventional perspective. I ask the reader to make an equally earnest effort to achieve the reorientation of thought represented by the following chapters. This is not a book to be read either casually or passively
With active effort, the reader may find it possible to accept the view that, since human beings are not the first creatures to foul their own nest, no special burden of shame or guilt need fall upon us for the present and future condition of our world. As we discover and encounter "the wages of overshoot," mankind's humane tendencies will be strained to the breaking point. They will need the solid reinforcement they can obtain from knowledge that our species has not been unique in proliferating beyond carrying capacity It will be essential to realize that what is happening to us is a mere sequel to our past achievements.
As we reap the whirlwind of troubles - necessitated by excessive success, thinking ecologically of our global predicament may reduce the temptation to hate those who seem to be trespassing against us.
* Highly Recommended *
"Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change" William R. Catton, Jr. University of Illinois Press 1980
"The Last Days of Ancient Sunlight: Waking Up To Personal And Global Transformation" Thom Hartman Three Rivers Press 1999