Overshoot

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Tortoise
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Overshoot

Post by Tortoise » Mon Sep 05, 2011 8:48 pm

In other threads, I've briefly mentioned a couple of ideas from William Catton's 1980 book Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, which I read based on MT's recommendation. MT suggested we start a thread dedicated to this book and related issues.

Overshoot was one of the first books to declare the need to understand human society and its history in terms of a fully ecological paradigm. The book's central thesis is the following:
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 [fossil fuels] 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.
Catton contends that "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." He explains that, rather than increasing the earth's permanent carrying capacity, the exploitation of fossil fuels has actually made the situation worse by providing the illusion that carrying capacity has been increased. In response to this illusion of increased carrying capacity, human populations have grown at an exponential rate--far beyond the true (i.e., permanent/sustainable) carrying capacity defined by the total amount of land and renewable resources on the earth.

One of the more unique contributions Catton makes in Overshoot is to frame the ecological predicament in a sociological context, summarizing five key perspectives along a sort of "denial spectrum" that various people have in regards to humans' ecological predicament:
  • 1. Ostrichism: Insisting that the assumption of limitlessness was and still is valid
  • 2. Cynicism: Not believing that the New World's newness once did, or that its oldness now does, have any significance
  • 3. Cosmeticism: Having faith that relatively superficial adjustments like family planning, recycling centers, and anti-pollution laws will keep the New World new and perpetuate the Age of Exuberance
  • 4. Cargoism: Having faith that technological progress will stave off major institutional change
  • 5. Realism: Recognizing that the New World is old and that major change must follow
Personally, one of the aspects of Overshoot that stood out most prominently to me was Catton's discussion of the fact that cultural paradigms can be extremely stubborn and resistant to change, specifically the fact that the cornucopian paradigm is so persistent in modern cultures and strongly influences political and economic discussions. Even the basic vocabulary used in said discussions is based largely on the cornucopian paradigm. Reading this book opened my eyes to some basic ecological facts that are simply not discussed in the mainstream media, even by so-called "ecologists" of the Cosmeticist variety. The true ecological predicament of mankind--carrying capacity overshoot--is rarely, if ever discussed. And if it is discussed, it is generally only from a Cosmeticist or (at best) Cargoist perspective.

One of the key points of this book is that, while Homo sapiens is certainly unique among the animals in its being able to understand and react to its ecological predicaments, it is not "above" ecological reality. It is too late for us to use our uniquely human abilities to prevent overshoot and the resulting population crash. The best we can do at this point is to recognize the inevitability of the eventual crash (excepting a Cargoist deus ex machina fantasy such as "free energy") and adjust our cultural paradigms to reflect this ecological fact so that when the crash comes, it will not be falsely blamed on human scapegoats. Failing to make this basic cultural preparation could be far more disastrous than even the inevitable population crash.
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Re: Overshoot

Post by MediumTex » Tue Sep 06, 2011 12:24 am

Tortoise,

That's a great overview of Catton's book.

Catton's ideas are some of the most challenging I have ever encountered.  It's hard to fully grasp them and work them into one's existing worldview, and yet the revisions to one's wordview that Catton's logic suggests can also be overwhelmingly difficult to embrace.

What you're left with is it's hard to forget about what Catton argues and it's also hard to know what exactly you are supposed to do with the new knowledge he offers.

Catton's concepts of "phantom carrying capacity" (i.e., a spike in carrying capacity coming from drawing down millions of years of accumulated resources) and his clear-headed description of the way humanity has displaced other species in its takeover of ever-greater portions of the earth's habitat (typically without thinking twice about what the need to displace another species suggests about our own species) are both stimulating and troubling. 

Catton makes virtually all environmental writing and thinking seem painfully short-sighted and lacking in any kind of real coherence.  For example, what's the point in conserving or recycling if it simply buys a doomed survival strategy a few more decades?

"Overshoot" is one of those books that people long for who love ideas and who love to be challenged intellectually.  The fact that it doesn't necessarily have a happy ending (or at least as we have come to understand the concept of happy endings) doesn't mean that it's not an incredibly important set of ideas to be aware of as we chart our way forward as a species.

Tortoise, did you run across anything in the book that seemed off the mark or any conclusions that didn't seem to flow from the arguments he was making?

Reading the Amazon reviews is interesting.  As I recall, one guy said he had several thousand books in his library, and if he could only save one, "Overshoot" would be it. 

I have yet to read a strong refutation of Catton's basic thesis, which is pretty amazing given that he is arguing that much of what we think of as progress is actually deeply destructive to our long term survival prospects.
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Re: Overshoot

Post by stone » Tue Sep 06, 2011 7:21 am

It sounds like a coherent version of the kind of thing I maddly ranted at psychiatric nurses (bless them). Looking at it all from a saner perspective I think that we have hope if we alow ourselves to tap into one of the most valuable resources we have namely human potential. That also is an entirely non-renewable resource. After the next hour has gone by we will never recover this hour's manpower that will be lost due to unemployment, repression, poverty etc etc. Dahrabi in India has one of the lowest consumption rates on the planet and is devoted to recycling. If we globally could adopt a version of that then we could over the next centuries potentially go back to being a smaller population of people in a reforested world with the journey being happy and comfortable. It is just down to human relations IMO.
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Re: Overshoot

Post by Lone Wolf » Tue Sep 06, 2011 2:39 pm

That sounds like some hardcore doom and gloom.  Does the author make any specific predictions as to when this all goes down?  Malthus and Ehrlich's predictions were famously way off the mark (such as Ehrlich's predictions of millions of deaths by worldwide famine by 1975.)

I know that the book is a little bit old, but does he have anything much to say about nuclear power?  Breeder reactors?

The issue I have with these predictions is that we don't live in a static world.  If we have 20 years before "we're all gonna die", that's one thing.  But if we have some hundreds of years (and given things like nuclear power, oil shale, tar sands, etc. this doesn't seem inconceivable), we are almost certain to have passed the point at which we've developed machine intelligence that far exceeds that of human beings.  It's hard for me to imagine that this problem won't be solved.  I do expect war, disruption, and upheaval around the issues of energy.  But in the end I think we'll move on to denser, superior but more technologically advanced sources of energy and continue as a species just fine.

Does that seem hopelessly cornucopian?  When I think of how different 1911 looks from 2011, it just seems like the way things are most likely to work out.

I do like that even though my thesis is nowhere near as well thought out as Catton's, everyone here is pulling for me to be right.  :)
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Re: Overshoot

Post by Indices » Tue Sep 06, 2011 2:58 pm

I'm skeptical of any books that try to predict long term trends, optimistic or negative. I just can't get into them because they are invariably wrong. Or they're right but the date with which they are right is off by a century or so.

They have found that humans are good at predicting the weather within two days. That is about it when it comes to making future predictions on anything with a lot of variables. So whenever I hear someone predict something that is supposed to happen several decades from now I just don't buy it. Again, positive or negative. We may very well be wiped out soon or we may be on the verge of utopia. Who knows?
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Re: Overshoot

Post by Lone Wolf » Tue Sep 06, 2011 3:01 pm

Indices wrote: I'm skeptical of any books that try to predict long term trends, optimistic or negative. I just can't get into them because they are invariably wrong. Or they're right but the date with which they are right is off by a century or so.
Oh yeah?  Hey, I've got this great investment strategy that I think you might like...  :)
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Re: Overshoot

Post by MediumTex » Tue Sep 06, 2011 4:18 pm

Lone Wolf wrote:
Indices wrote: I'm skeptical of any books that try to predict long term trends, optimistic or negative. I just can't get into them because they are invariably wrong. Or they're right but the date with which they are right is off by a century or so.
Oh yeah?  Hey, I've got this great investment strategy that I think you might like...  :)
I should make it clear that Catton's argument is about a LOT more than predicting any specific event on any particular timetable.

His arguments are very challenging (they were for me at least).  I wouldn't get hung up on whether is trying to predict the future or not.  What he is doing is much different from that.  I wouldn't invite everyone here to take a look at something like this if it was just another prediction about the future.

For me, I found Catton's work to open up an interesting perspective on a part of our shared mental experience of ourselves (e.g., how we got here and where we are going) that I had never seen before.

It's a hard set of ideas to adequately summarize.  I just found the book fascinating and disturbing.
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Re: Overshoot

Post by Tortoise » Wed Sep 07, 2011 2:45 am

MediumTex wrote: Tortoise, did you run across anything in the book that seemed off the mark or any conclusions that didn't seem to flow from the arguments he was making?
No, the arguments and conclusions in the book seemed consistent with each other. If I had to make one or two criticisms, I suppose they'd be:
  • Catton didn't mention the theory of abiogenic petroleum origin even once, as I recall. If he considered it a debunked idea (as most scientists now do), he could have at least said so in passing.
  • The book does not address the fact that, even long before the discovery of fossil fuels, the course of evolution has been pushing life towards ever-increasing levels of complexity and intelligence. Fossil fuels have certainly amplified the expression of human intelligence, but they did not create it. What might be the ultimate purpose of evolution on this planet, and how might fossil fuels fit into that picture? If there is a purpose guiding evolution, how might it make man's ecological situation unique in relation to less highly evolved organisms?
Lone Wolf wrote: Does the author make any specific predictions as to when this all goes down?
No, he doesn't. As MT pointed out, the focus of Overshoot is not on specific predictions. It's on the sociological aspects of mankind's ecological predicament.
Lone Wolf wrote: I know that the book is a little bit old, but does he have anything much to say about nuclear power?  Breeder reactors?
He very briefly touches on nuclear power, including breeder reactors. He contends that nuclear power poses significant safety, waste-disposal, and technological challenges. He does not claim the challenges are insurmountable; he simply does not make the Cargoist assumption that mankind definitely will overcome them in time to replace fossil fuels with nuclear power. Even if that happens, Catton points out that the supply of known nuclear fuel for breeder reactors on this planet is not unlimited.

To reiterate, Overshoot is not a book about predictions. It's really a book about learning to think about history and current events from an objective ecological perspective that is rarely encountered in the mainstream, even in today's increasingly "Earth-friendly" political climate.
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Re: Overshoot

Post by stone » Wed Sep 07, 2011 5:06 am

Tortoise, the ultimate aim of evolution is that what lasts, lasts. As Stephen J Gould said we are now in the age of bacteria as the planet has been for the past 4B years. As time has gone buy, a few very complex oddballs have also cropped up and the most complex of those have gotten more complex as the millions of years have gone by. Is your question why the most complex organisms around today (eg trees, whales, us etc) are more complex than those earlier on in evolution? My guess is that one evolutionary strategy is a minimal draw down strategy and that complexity aids that. A whale that lives for 200 years and has two offspring that have a 100% chance of survival (and themselves breeding) has found a successful way to usher its DNA across the millenia. Even a tiny chance of a "black swan" screw up will stop an evolutionary lineage when you are dealing with Billions of years. Evolution does not care whether a species makes up 50% of the global biomass or 0.000000000000...........01% at its maximum extent. All that matters is that it doesn't ever become extinct.
I guess people actually had a very stable population size for much of the past 100k years. I suppose the past few thousand years have been a kind of tumor like growth event for the human population.
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Re: Overshoot

Post by Liz L. » Wed Sep 07, 2011 2:22 pm

Reserved at the library, and looking foward to reading.
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Re: Overshoot

Post by Tortoise » Thu Sep 08, 2011 2:03 am

stone wrote: Tortoise, the ultimate aim of evolution is that what lasts, lasts.
That just begs the question, much like the anthropic principle does in cosmology. In other words, if we (intelligent life) exist simply because evolutionary conditions caused us to come into existence randomly, then the obvious next question is, Why did those particular evolutionary conditions prevail over most other alternative conditions that presumably would not have supported the emergence of intelligent life?

This planet is not the only habitat that is fine-tuned to support the emergence of intelligent life. The universe as a whole is fine-tuned with a handful of very particular physical constants that allow stable galaxies and solar systems to form rather than all matter flying apart from each other or collapsing into one big super-dense lump. Why is that?
stone wrote: My guess is that one evolutionary strategy is a minimal draw down strategy and that complexity aids that.
Evolutionary "strategy"? Strategy implies intelligence. Under the mainstream evolutionary theory that evolution proceeds via natural selection acting on random genetic mutations, how do you see "strategy" entering the picture?
stone wrote: I guess people actually had a very stable population size for much of the past 100k years. I suppose the past few thousand years have been a kind of tumor like growth event for the human population.
Tumor-like growth is one way of looking at the situation. But a different perspective is that evolution is accelerating over time. In Gould's theory of punctuated equilibria, evolution does not proceed gradually and uniformly but is instead characterized by brief periods of rapid evolution followed by long periods of stasis.

In the Cambrian explosion, for example, the rate of evolution was estimated to have accelerated by an order of magnitude. One way of looking at evolution is that it is in some sense an "intelligent" process, and that the emergence of human life and culture has now allowed evolution to manifest itself through purposeful human actions rather than through the much slower and less efficient process of natural selection acting on a virtual infinitude of random variations (most of which lead nowhere).

What I'm getting at is this: maybe nature designed the Earth's fossil fuel deposits as a temporary "springboard" for intelligent life's next big evolutionary leap. If human civilization is not a tumor that the Earth is actively attempting to rid itself of, might this "springboard" scenario be a possibility per Gould's theory of punctuated equilibria?
Last edited by Tortoise on Thu Sep 08, 2011 2:06 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Overshoot

Post by stone » Thu Sep 08, 2011 2:50 am

Tortoise, have you heard punctuated equilibria called "evolution by jerks" and the alternative "evolution by creeps" :).

Personally I'm happy with accepting that everything is accidental. I don't see intelligence as a goal of evolution but merely as an accidental by-product. I'm not sure how well we know how little or much intelligent life the universe has. It wouldn't amaze me if our kind of intelligence is incompatible with its own continued existence and so tends to snuff its self out very very quickly in cosmological terms- Hence why we don't get many visits by aliens.

By "evolutionary strategy" I did not mean to imply intention. I just meant an accidental assemblage that continued due to the fortuitous way that it was constructed to operate. That is all that life is IMO. Some lifeforms have very large volatile populations (lemmings, some disease pathogens), others have very stable populations (whales)- that was what I meant by different strategies.

I don't see what we are doing to earth as being much different from what the first photosynthetic bacteria did when they produced oxygen and so poisoned the earth for 99.9% of the life on earth at that time. I'm sure the geochemical changes we make will drive evolution. There is no reason to believe that we will continue though or that intelligent life on earth will continue IMO.
"Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." - Mulla Nasrudin
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