Book notes: Overshoot, by William Catton

I recommend William Catton’s Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change not so much because of the facts it brings to light—probably you’re familiar with just about all of them—or because of Catton’s specific interpretation of them, but because of the analytical concepts that Catton introduces. Most of them are simple and obvious (after they’ve been pointed out, anyway), but taken together they make it clear that the standard pat answers that both liberal and conservative Christians give to questions about ecological crisis are not good enough.

Catton’s terms are so important to his argument that he has put a mini-glossary on the cover of his book, and provided a more complete one in the back of the book. Here are the central definitions, from which you can pretty much reconstruct Catton’s understanding of how the world works.

  • Carrying capacity: the maximum population of a given species which a particular habitat can support indefinitely (under specified technology and organization, in the case of the human species).

  • Phantom carrying capacity: illusory or extremely precarious capacity of an environment to support a life form or a way of life; that portion of a population that cannot be permanently supported when temporarily available resources become unavailable.

  • Temporary carrying capacity: combination of actual and phantom carrying capacity; the population that a habitat can support for a short time only (until the supply of some exhaustible resource runs out which the species depends on).

  • Carrying capacity deficit (surplus): the condition wherein the permanent ability of a given habitat to support a given form of life falls short of (exceeds) the quantity of that form already in existence.

  • Drawdown: method of extending carrying capacity, an inherently temporary expedient by which life opportunities for a species are temporarily increased by extracting from the environment for use by that species a significant fraction of an accumulated resource that is not being replaced as fast as it its drawn down.

  • Takeover: method of extended carrying capacity which increases opportunities for one species by reducing opportunities for competing species.

  • Ghost acreage: the additional farmland a given nation would need in order to supply that net portion of the food or fuel it uses but does not obtain from contemporary growth of organisms within its borders—e.g. from net imports of agricultural products, from oceanic fisheries, from fossil fuels.

  • Overshoot: the condition of having exceeded for the time being the permanent carrying capacity of the habitat.

  • Age of Exuberance: the centuries of growth and progress that followed the sudden enlargement of habitat available to Europeans as a result of voyages of discovery; a period of expansion when a species takes exuberant advantage of the abundant opportunities in an eminently suitable but previously inaccessible habitat.

  • Myth of limitlessness: the belief (more implicit than explicit, perhaps) that the world’s resources are sufficient to support any conceivable human population engaged in any conceivable way of life for any conceivable duration; derivatively, the belief that a given resource is inexhaustible or that substitutes can always be found.

  • Cornucopian paradigm: a view of past and future human progress that disregards the carrying capacity concept, pays no attention to the finiteness of the world or to differences between takeover and drawdown, and accepts uncritically the myth of limitlessness.

  • Cargoism: faith that technological progress will stave off major institutional change, even in a post-exuberant world; the equivalent among people of industrial nations to the cargo cults of the Melanesian islanders.

Given these terms, here is how my thinking about ecology runs after reading Catton’s book:

  • For any given mixture of technologies and cultures, there is a maximum population that the Earth can sustain.

  • That maximum can be increased (or decreased, I suppose) by a change in either technologies (e.g. plant cultivation, mettalurgy, tools, firearms) or cultures.

  • When the population grows past the sustainable maximum, such overshoot can be maintained for some finite amount of time through either takeover (e.g. discovery of the New World) or drawdown (e.g. turning fossil fuel into food).

  • Civilizations large (e.g. Europe) and small (e.g. Easter island) have crashed after a period of overshoot; twice in the last millennium the population of Europe declined after a crash.

  • Contrary to popular belief, technological innovation has rarely come to the rescue and saved us from the effects of overshoot; rather, the innovation tends to come first (e.g. plant cultivation, mettalurgy, tools, firearms), increasing carrying capacity, which is then slowly soaked up by population growth.

  • The huge growth in population over the past two hundred years correlates pretty closely to our ability and willingness to draw down finite resources (settling the New World, turning fossil fuel into food).

  • The resources we have been taking over or drawing down show signs of nearing exhaustion (peak oil, no more land to bring into agricultural production)

  • Some of the technological innovations that promised to increasing carrying capacity have backfired (industrial agriculture, the green revolution, biofuels); most of the rest are speculative, and their practicality has yet to be demonstrated.

  • Once takeover and drawdown are no longer possible, population will be forced within actual carrying capacity, which may or may not exceed the current population of the Earth.

And given all that, I’m still looking for a thoughtful Christian answer to this question: is it ever wise to put bounds on our fruitfulness that God hasn’t put there himself?


10 thoughts on “Book notes: Overshoot, by William Catton

  1. Should we frame the question from the perspective of what bounds has God put in place? Do not some of the limitations on carrying capacity (God’s invisible attributes and moral requirements revealed through general revelation – Romans 1) inform the bounds of fruitfulness? Should these limitations not also move mankind to better reflect the Image we are made in by expressing our creativity (that is, finding creative solutions to the problems we face, solutions that are in line with being good stewards of His creation)? Not everything in God’s will is expressly stated in His Special Revelation.

  2. Um, I’m guessing that is you, Greg? (The one married to me.) I was going to ask Rick to rephrase the question, but I see that’s wholly unnecessary since you understand it! Are you sure you’re not a lawyer in your other life? :)

    is it ever wise to put bounds on our fruitfulness that God hasn’t put there himself?

    My first answer, if I understand it, would be “yes.” Christians in China (not a rare, unusual circumstance when you consider the millions of Chinese….I’m not using a rare exception to argue a general case here) are wise to put bounds on their fruitfulness in order to avoid the outcome imposed by the government. There are no reports of God closing their wombs magically yet plenty of reports of forced abortions. So if I understand the question, yes we are free to use the common grace of medical surgery to avoid the sin of murder, but there’s the huge possibility I’m missing the question.

    I appreciate and agree with the Biblical view of children –that they are blessings. We live that. Yet, the Bible doesn’t call it a good thing that a man who does not provide food for his family. It is true that we can’t see tomorrow, but why presume that God will provide tomorrow if a man is not providing TODAY? What if all your current children curse you? I find these Scriptures frequently absent of these discussions, as I’ve written elsewhere, “be fruitful” isn’t the trump verse of the Bible.

    Ergo, I’d say that the Chinese Christians aren’t the only ones who ought to examine their lives in wisdom and with gravity. While the quiverfull position ought to be the default for Christians, we do well to apply the whole counsel of God to our lives and not pet verses.

  3. I won’t comment on your “fruitfulness” question (which I would say betrays certain assumptions), but my attention was caught by your last bullet:
    “Once takeover and drawdown are no longer possible, population will be forced within actual carrying capacity, which may or may not exceed the current population of the Earth.”
    When we reach that point we will be in a Solar Age which will afford us only as much energy as we can produce from the sun. Even at 100% efficiency we can’t come close to capturing enough solar power to maintain anywhere near the current energy consumption. It takes massive amounts of energy to produce the things like tractors and fertilizers that allow us to feed the current population. Most of our modern technologies will no longer be available to us. I don’t see how actual carrying capacity could be anywhere near the current population.
    So I am not contemplating how full my quiver should be. Instead I consider what I can teach my one daughter that will allow her to live in a world that may not have the abundant energy and natural resources that allow us to live the way we do, and how she will answer her own questions about whether she should share her own food with her neighbor. Chances are these are the kinds of questions that will contfront her and her offspring instead of ‘would Jesus drive an SUV?’
    You might find Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ a good compliment to ‘Overshoot’. Diamond presents no “Christian” perspective, but he is thorough (and a Pulitzer Prize winner). Along with ‘Collapse’, I am reading ‘Entropy: A New World View’ by Jeremy Rifkin (yes, I know he’s a bit of a wack-o). Rifkin explains that unless we find a way (which we won’t) to break the 2nd law of thermodynamics (Entropy), we simply can not sustain our high energy society no matter how much we tinker.

  4. Are you sure you’re not a lawyer in your other life?

    I was teasing him about writing such a long sentence. My public apologies for the possible insult. :)

  5. Anybody know how a postmillennialists answer these questions? I was raised in the mainstream “left behind” tradition, and in past years have been a member of postmil churches, but I really struggle with this doctrine when I consider the ecology of the earth.
    For instance I was speaking with a neighbor who has lived in my neighborhood his whole life. He logs in the winter and told me that the trees are not growing as large as they used to, are dying earlier and the wood is not as good. I understand this is anecdotal evidence and could be due to local conditions, but somehow I don’t think so.

  6. Doug,
    They might say who are you going to believe, the man in the white lab coat or God? They might also say that if things were done God’s way we would have a more food and fewer problems. How many govts. institute principles of restitution for crimes as one example? Are the food/resource problems at the moment the result of over population or sinful men and govts.? A man has a requirement to provide for his own family, as long as that can be accomplished I can not see any obvious sin in having as many children as one desires and teaching those children to go and do likewise. If there is no sin there really isn’t a question to wrestle with.

  7. Very interesting argument put fourth with this take on things. I am going to have give this book a read ad the last question of fruitfulness is something that hits near and dear to me right now. It is something I have struggled with for some time and I had decided against, with at least some of these reasons being a part of the justification. However, of late, I strongly think that reasoning to have been in error – that by limiting my on, I would be exactly as the question poses here, perhaps limited what should and could be. Of course, without going into deeper detail this is all just a argument in my own head right now without real possibility of acting on it I for sure decided as I feel right now.

  8. I’ve not had the chance to read this book although I am not unfamiliar with the theme. It’s a fascinating subject and one that I ponder from time to time, although living in the midwest surrounded by fields and pastures it is hard to move past the local anecdote and consider for a moment the possibility of food shortages and mass population.

    My wife and I love children and we hope our quiver has a lot of room for arrows. We grow gardens and orchards and raise a few critters on our three acres. We are dependent upon the grocer, although I suppose we could become independent should we desire to try. This may solve the solution for our brood, but it does not factor in the plight of the masses.

    As a Christian, I believe in the promises of God and seek to consider that for me, the conclusion of any matter is to fear God and keep His commandments. I have a hard time setting aside the promise of God’s provision so that I could set aside what I perceive to be a commandment (bearing children.) Without faith it is impossible to please God.

    What about famine and shortage? God has judged civilization in years past by such measures. If we are just and godly stewards, is our chief end to establish measures to “ensure” God cannot judge the earth by drought and famine? If we were to globally limit the size of our families, can we safely propose that we are free from powerful arm of the Almighty, who makes the clouds as the dust beneath His feet and keeps the treasuries of the hailstones?

    It is difficult for me to grasp the notion that suggests that if we are faithful stewards of God’s creation and seek to love our neighbor as ourselves that we can outstrip the potential of the dirt. I recently read somewhere of an 1/8 acre of southern Cal producing tons of produce annually. During World War II, one cannot help at least at the marvel at the ingenuity required to turn the Ford plants into an industrial machine that could crank out a B-24 in 90 minutes. While bombing devices serve to produce little intrinsically in which to glory, one cannot help but notice that man, made in the image of God, can perform marvelously in filling and dividing as he seeks to exercise dominion over the earth. I suspect in the area of food production man could accomplish much should he desire and should God be pleased to grant succes to his effort.

    A simpleton I may be, but I find it hard to believe that should man exercise wise stewardship that he would ever potentially outstrip the planet. On the other hand, if we seek to abuse the land and our neighbor in our quest for prosperity, should we even wonder at all whether our actions are indefinitely sustainable? Should we not expect to see God drive such a race from the land?

    Perhaps even the lost man can recognize the problem. Is a green answer the ultimate solution? I fear if nothing is done regarding the heart of man, we can adopt all of the green measures that we desire and the end result will be that a future people, should Christ be pleased to tarry, shall be buying tickets to view our ruins as I recently did as I explored the ancient Anasazi ruins of southern Colorado. Life flourished there for a time. Then they were gone. If God is sovereign in the affairs of makind, is there anything actually amiss in this pattern?

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