Email: moc. Catton, Jr. I wished I had read it 27 years ago, but at that time I had already left my undergraduate ecological roots behind me while engaged in the excitement and challenges of the start of my public health career at the Wisconsin State Health Department. Well, better late than never! Despite its maturity, Overshoot remains a vividly fresh and visionary work of brilliance and foresight.
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Because many people still have not heard of it, much less read it, and so have missed one of the most important books of the 20th century. On the first page of the book we read, "Today mankind is locked into stealing ravenously from the future.
That is what this book is about. At the beginning of the industrial revolution in there were fewer than one billion humans worldwide. This perception of limitlessness "spawned new beliefs, new human relationships, and new behavior. Believing that limitless expansion could go on forever, humans expanded their numbers rapidly.
But by , when Catton wrote Overshoot, it was dawning on some people that limitless expansion is not possible on a finite planet. With new wealth, Europeans and eventually some others gained more leisure time, which allowed the development of more technical ingenuity. Today humans are displacing wildlife at an astonishing pace in what is being called the sixth great extinction of species.
The takeover method continues today. Technology allowed humans to accelerate the takeover method of expanding carrying capacity, but it also created a second way, the "drawdown method" in which non-renewable resources were drawn down for the benefit of the present generation.
The most important of these non-renewable resources were the fossil fuels hidden underground. Fossil fuels allowed us to substitute ancient sunlight for human muscle power, giving each of us in the U.
In addition to fossil fuels, we drew down highly-concentrated mineral deposits -- iron, copper, chromium, vanadium, titanium, phosphorus, and so on. With new technologies producing more food and fewer infant deaths, the human population expanded rapidly. Global population doubled to one billion in the years , then doubled again in only 80 years to reach 2 billion by The third doubling took only 45 years, reaching 4 billion in At this rate, population will hit 8 billion by and The world is adding a population the size of the U.
It can be quantitatively expressed as that portion of the population that cannot be permanently supported when temporarily available resources become unavailable.
Much of 18th and 19th century trade consisted of powerful nations England, Holland, Belgium, France, and others convincing weaker nations to use their land to produce goods for export to Europe at "reasonable" prices. Trade acreage provided the basis of 19th century colonial empires, and still provides the basis of much "free trade" today. Bolivia is resisting, but it seems likely that Japan and the U. The use of these three kinds of "phantom carrying capacity" has obscured from us the true nature of our situation: phantom carrying capacity is temporary.
Nature will not renew these deposits, at least not on a time-scale likely to help humans. Humans are decimating marine fisheries, harvesting fish lower on the food chain each passing year, while acidifying the oceans, which is undermining the base of oceanic food webs. Thus, given the way humans have managed it, fish acreage can provide only temporary expansion of carrying capacity. So phantom carrying capacity has fooled us into thinking that the Earth can support more of us than, in fact, it will support in the future.
This reflects one of the most important changes brought on by the "age of exuberance" -- humans came to believe in the permanence of limitlessness. We thought our technology had allowed us to permanently expand the carrying capacity of planet Earth, which is not the case. Technical advances turned out to be a double-edged sword.
For a time, they increased the carrying capacity of the planet for humans. More food could be grown on less land, for example. In other words, Catton says, technology initially increased the carrying capacity of the planet for Europeans but eventually the situation reversed and technology itself began to expand the foot print of each industrialized human, thus reducing the carrying capacity of the planet for industrialized humans.
As Catton says, it would help us understand our situation better if we renamed ourselves from Homo sapiens to Homo colossus.
Meanwhile human population continues to grow. Unfortunately, the limits of carrying capacity are not easy to see under the best of circumstances. They are also difficult to see because we have temporarily lifted some of them by our reliance on "phantom carrying capacity" -- plus we have been blinded by our belief in the permanence of limitlessness and, as I see it, the religion of growth.
Finally, carrying capacity is not a fixed limit like a concrete wall; carrying capacity can be exceeded, at least for a time. A species can temporarily exceed the carrying capacity available to it -- by overexploiting and thus degrading the environment which reduces the carrying capacity available to future generations.
That is what we humans are doing today -- living beyond our means, borrowing capacity from the future and using it up.
We are depleting the base of available capital, not merely living off the interest. This means future generations will have less capital to work with. Soil that we degrade will not be available to our grandchildren for growing crops. Mineral deposits that we mine and disperse into the environment are no longer available for future manufacture. Acidified oceans will not produce the abundance of fish that our heirs could have otherwise expected. You will recall that this is what we were told on the first page of the book: "Today mankind is locked into stealing ravenously from the future.
If we humans exceed the human carrying capacity of the Earth, this sets into motion forces that will, in time, bring our numbers back into line with available carrying capacity. Denying the likelihood of such a crash will not prevent it from occurring, Catton believes. We are drawing down the future, using up resources faster than nature can replenish them.
The Global Footprint Network estimates that, for all humans to live at the U. Therefore the "age of exuberance" -- the age in which we developed expectations of a perpetually expansive life -- is drawing to a close. Furthermore, the attitudes we developed during that age are obsolete, and are preventing the clear thinking needed now. Today, 28 years after Catton published Overshoot , the evidence of overshoot is everywhere: global warming; the thinning ozone layer; marine fisheries depleted; oceans acidifying damaging the base of oceanic food chains ; humans crowding out other species, causing the sixth great extinction; tillable soils shrinking as deserts expand; forests disappearing; mountain snow pack and glaciers shrinking, jeopardizing fresh water supplies; global-warming-related multi-year drought afflicting large sections of the U.
This list could be readily extended. Where does that leave us? It leaves us facing the specter of die-off.
The question is, how will humans manage that specter? The tendency will be for some to lay blame on others -- scapegoats -- even though no one group is responsible for our predicament. As Catton says, "the conversion of a marvelous carrying capacity surplus into a competition-aggravating and crash-inflicting deficit was a matter of fate.
Clear knowledge may forestall misplaced resentment, thus enabling us to refrain from inflicting futile and unpardonable suffering upon each other. Our top priority must be to preserve the biosphere, upon which we humans are entirely dependent. In my opinion, we must use all our science and ingenuity and heart and common sense to try to learn where the crucial limits are and then practice living within them.
Since ecological limits are not always readily discernable except by exceeding them and observing the damage in the rear-view mirror , we can adopt a precautionary approach and err on the side of caution, not assuming that our risk assessments and our cost-benefit analyses can provide reliable guidance.
History shows us that they cannot. We can stop insisting that material growth and rapid technical innovation are essential for human well-being. Yes, growth is needed in the third world -- roads, power plants, water supplies and more -- but the overdeveloped world needs to substantially reduce its footprint to make space for that needed growth.
Our insistence on growth everywhere and on rapid technical innovation is what will finally destroying the planet as a place suitable for human habitation. Rapid innovation is, by definition, ill-considered innovation.
Back to Catton, who says we could " We would do this for the ultimate sake of our own species. We would also do our best to stretch our remaining supplies of fossil acreage, instead of competing to hasten their consumption. We would painstakingly revise our cultural values to reduce resource appetites. We would foster non-consumptive modes of human enjoyment, and we would reckon our wealth in terms of environmental assets rather than in terms of the rate at which we plunder them. Is William Catton correct?
He wrote 28 years ago and new information has come to light. But is the basic thread of his argument correct? You can read Overshoot and decide for yourself.
Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change
Overshoot is a sober, no-nonsense, presentation of ecological facts about the human condition and civilization. There are absolutely no emotional appeals, no aesthetic arguments, and no moral claims distracting from the simple paradigmatic wisdom Catton is pushing. As fossil fuels, clean water, arable land, minerals, etc, are exhausted, we WILL experience an extremely unpleasant die-off, accompanied by a likely-total collapse of our civilization. Speaking of paradigm shift, Catton quite handily put the final nail in the coffin of my old, ideological way of thinking, and confirmed my new since about this time last year paradigm. This paradigm refuses explanations for large-scale historical, economic, and social trends based on abstract, ideological factors and not on biological, anthropological, and geographical ones. Catton gave me a number of missing links in the exposition of such an understanding. Economic growth depends on wealth creation, and while that could theoretically occur merely from enhanced human innovation, in practice it obviously occurs by expanding our access to and consumption of physical resources.
He served in the US Navy from to After his military service he enrolled at Oberlin College , where he met Nancy Lewis. The two were married in and produced four sons, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Catton graduated from Oberlin College with an A. He earned his M.