Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

The Industrial Revolution made us precariously dependent on nature’s dwindling legacy of non-renewable resources, even though we did not at first recognize this fact. Many major events of modern history were unforeseen results of actions taken with inadequate awareness of ecological mechanisms. Peoples and governments never intended some of the outcomes their actions would incur.

Industrialization: Prelude to Collapse
“Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change” by William R. Catton, Jr. University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition (July, 1982) ISBN: 0252009886

Unrecognized Preview

The Industrial Revolution made us precariously dependent on nature’s dwindling legacy of non-renewable resources, even though we did not at first recognize this fact. Many major events of modern history were unforeseen results of actions taken with inadequate awareness of ecological mechanisms. Peoples and governments never intended some of the outcomes their actions would incur.

To see where we are now headed, when our destiny has departed so radically from our aspirations, we must examine some historic indices that point to the conclusion that even the concept of succession (as explored in previous chapters) understates the ultimate consequences of our own exuberance. We can begin by taking a fresh look at the Great Depression of the 1930s, an episode people saw largely in the shallower terms of economics and politics when they were living through it. [1] From an ecologically informed perspective, what else can we now see in it?

The Great Depression, looked at ecologically, was a preview of the fate toward which mankind has been drawn by the kinds of progress that have depended on consuming exhaustible resources. We need to see why it was not recognized for the preview it was; this will help us to grasp at last the meaning missed earlier.

We did not know we were watching a preview because, when the world economy fell apart in 1929-32, it was not from exhaustion of essential fuels or materials. From the very definition of carrying capacity—the maximum indefinitely supportable ecological load—we can now see that non-renewable resources provide no real carrying capacity; they provide only phantom carrying capacity. If coming to depend on phantom carrying capacity is a Faustian bargain that mortgages the future of Homo colossus as the price of an exuberant present, that mortgage was not yet being foreclosed in the Great Depression. Even so, much of the suffering that befell so much of mankind in the 1930s does need to be seen as the result of a carrying capacity deficit. The fact that the deficit did not stem from resource exhaustion in that instance makes it no less indicative of the kinds of grief entailed by resource depletion. Accordingly, we need to understand what did bring on a carrying capacity deficit in the 1930s.

Carrying Capacity and Liebig’s Law

To attain such an understanding we need to step outside the usual economic or political frames of thought, go back two-thirds of a century before the 1929 crash, and reexamine for its profound human relevance a principle of agricultural chemistry formulated in 1863 by a German scientist, Justus von Liebig. [2] That principle set forth with great clarity the concept of the “limiting factor” briefly mentioned in Chapter 8. Carrying capacity is, as we saw there, limited not just by food supply, but potentially by any substance or circumstance that is indispensable but inadequate. The fundamental principle is this: whatever necessity is least abundantly available (relative to per capita requirements) sets an environment’s carrying capacity.

While there is no way to repeal this principle, which is known as “the law of the minimum,” or Liebig’s law, there is a way to make its application less restrictive. People living in an environment where carrying capacity is limited by a shortage of one essential resource can develop exchange relationships with residents of another area that happens to be blessed with a surplus of that resource but happens to lack some other resource that is plentiful where the first one was scarce.

Trade does not repeal Liebig’s law. Only by knowing Liebig’s law, however, can we see clearly what trade does do, in ecological terms. Trade enlarges the scope of application of the law of the minimum. The composite carrying capacity of two or more areas with different resource configurations can be greater than the sum of their separate carrying capacities. Call this the principle of scope enlargement; it can be expressed in mathematical notation as follows:

CC (A + B) > CCA + CCB

The combined environment (A + B) still has finite carrying capacity, and that carrying capacity is still set by the necessary resource available in least (composite) abundance. But if the two environments are truly joined, by trade, then scarcities that are local to A or B no longer have to be limiting.

A good many of the events of human history need to be seen as efforts to implement the principle of scope enlargement. Most such events came about as results of decisions and activities by men who never heard of Liebig or his law of the minimum. Now, however, knowing the law, and understanding also the scope-enlargement principle, we can see important processes of history in a new light. Progress in transport technology, together with advancements in the organization of commerce, often achieved only after conquest or political consolidation, have had the effect of enlarging the world’s human carrying capacity by enabling more and more local populations (or their lifestyles) to be limited not by local scarcity, but by abundance at a distance.

Vulnerability to Scope Reduction

As human numbers (and appetites) grew in response to this exchange-based enlargement of composite carrying capacity, continued access to non-local resources became increasingly vital to human well-being and survival. As the ecological load increased beyond what could have been supported by the sum of the separate carrying capacities of the formerly insulated local environments, mankind’s vulnerability to any disruption of trade became more and more critical. The aftermath of the crash of 1929 demonstrated that vulnerability.

Unfortunately, modern transport systems, and some aspects of modern organization, are based very heavily upon exhaustible resource exploitation. Insofar as this is true, they must eventually founder upon the rocks of resource exhaustion. But even before they might succumb to such physical disaster, the trade arrangements upon which the earth’s extended carrying capacity for Homo colossus has come to depend can be torn apart by social catastrophe. [3] It is important to recognize at last that that is what happened in 1929-32. In fact, some of it began happening during, or as a repercussion of the Great War of 1914-18.

World War I disrupted relationships between the various peoples of Europe and between Europe, the New World, and the Orient. It also resulted in reallocation of the still colonial parts of the world among the various imperial powers seeking to exploit them as ghost acreage. Not all aspects of these changes wrought by the war would have reduced the scope of application of Liebig’s law, but some certainly did, for some peoples, to some extent.

In the case of defeated Germany, access to resources from outside German territory was cut off. At the same time, the staggering requirement of reparations payments to the victorious Allies aggravated the load to be borne by Germany’s limited indigenous carrying capacity. Even internally, Germany suffered as inflation shattered the vital exchange relations between its diverse localities and between the occupational categories (quasi-species) into which its culturally advanced population had become differentiated. [4] Destruction of the value of currency meant destruction of the medium of mutualism; as inter-occupational symbiosis crumbled, hardship was rampant.

The astronomical German inflation was thus no mere fluke of history. Rather, it was a preview of the larger preview to come, when other forms of financial disruption would rend the fabric of trade throughout the world. By thus compelling a reduction of the scope of application of Liebig’s law back down to local resource bases, such trade dislocation would convert existing loads of human resource-consumers, previously supportable by composite carrying capacity, into overloads no longer fully supportable by fragmented carrying capacities.

In America in the 1920s, after a brief post-war depression, a period of neo-exuberance set in, leading in the later years of the decade to such an expectation of perpetual progress and prosperity that some people found they could prosper from the expectation itself. “Speculation” in the stock market became the expected way to get rich. [5] Inhibitions against speculation were relaxed; people supposed the American prototype democracy, having enabled the Allies finally to triumph over Kaiser Germany, had made the world safe for getting rich and had established the right of everyone to try to do so.

The essential contrast between speculation and genuine investment is this: speculators buy stock not for the purpose of acquiring claims on future dividends from the business in which they acquire shares, but for the purpose of profiting from the expected escalation in their stock’s resale value. When nearly all buyers are speculators, then virtually the only value of their shares is the resale value. Stock prices continue to escalate under such circumstances only as long as virtually everyone expects resale values to continue rising, and are thus willing to buy. The fact that prices may already grossly exaggerate a stock’s intrinsic (dividend-paying) worth simply ceases to concern the speculator during the time when price escalation is confidently expected to continue. Breakdown of that faith, however, turns the process around. Anticipation of inexorable enrichment gives way to fear of ruin as self-induced price escalation turns into self-induced price decline. Panic, in the stock market sense, means the competitive drive to sell before falling prices fall farther—which drives prices down.

What connected the 1929 Wall Street crash to Liebig’s law was the fact that so much speculative buying had been done with borrowed money. Collapse in the “value” of stocks thus led to an epidemic of bank failures, because the banks were unable to retrieve the funds they had lent to the speculators. Stock certificates taken in by the banks as security from borrowers were worth much less money after the crash than the number of dollars borrowed on them before the crash. When banks failed, depositors with accounts in those banks suddenly found themselves shorn of the purchasing power formerly signified by their bankbook entries. As depositors went broke, they ceased being able to buy goods or hire employees. Sellers of whatever they would have bought, or workers they would have employed, were therefore also suddenly bereft of revenue sources. In a society with elaborate division of labor and a money economy, a “revenue source” is the magic key that provides access to carrying capacity. Collapse of fiscal webs thus confronted millions of people with loss of access to carrying capacity, as truly as if purchasable resources had actually ceased to exist. Nations whose citizens had increasingly become masters of one trade apiece and jacks of few others found themselves suddenly unable to rely on composite carrying capacity drawn from a nonlocal environment. What I have called the “medium of mutualism” was no longer functioning, so the scope of application of Liebig’s law of the minimum was being constricted once again to local (or personal) resources.

There was not in those days any Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to back up the solvency of an individual bank when it suffered a “run” by its depositors. The failure of bank after bank in a time when banks had no institutionalized way of pooling their assets for mutual protection can thus be seen as a fiscal instance of the hazards of scope reduction. Had bankers understood that an ecological principle formulated by an agricultural chemist could apply to the world of finance, perhaps something like the FDIC would have been invented sooner.

The fiscal collapse had an even more important implication than this for our ecological understanding of the human predicament. That implication appears in the generalized Depression that followed. Consider the farm population in America. Like almost everyone else, farm families were compelled, by the repercussions of bank failures and the ramifications of general panic, to cut their consumer expenditures. Farmers also often had to allow their land, their buildings, and their equipment to deteriorate for lack of money to pay for maintenance and repairs. Many farms were encumbered by mortgages—mortgages which were foreclosed by banks that now desperately needed the payments farmers could not afford to make. (Bank failures were even more common in rural regions than in major cities.) In spite of all these difficulties, however, the farm population in America ceased declining (as it had been doing) and increased between 1929 and 1933 by more than a million. The long-term trend of movement out of farm niches and into urban niches was reversed during the Great Depression. [6]

Niches everywhere were being constricted by the Depression. However, the urbanizing trend that had been occurring as a result of industrial growth in the cities and from elimination of farm niches by mechanization of agriculture was disrupted by this economic breakdown. At the heart of the reversal was a simple fact: the nature of’ farming in the 1930s was still such that, whatever else they had to give up, there was still truth in the cliche that “the farm family can always eat.” Other (non-flood-producing) occupational groups that now had to fall back (like the farmers) on carrying capacities of reduced scope could find themselves in much more dire straits.

If we read it rightly, then, we can see the differential impact of the Depression upon farm versus non-farm populations as a cogent indicator of the dependence of the total population on previously achieved enlargements of the scope of application of’ Liebig’s law With breakdown of the mechanisms of exchange, various segments of a modern nation had to revert as best they could to living on carrying capacities again limited by locally least abundant resources, rather than extended by access to less scarce resources from elsewhere. Although scope reduction hurt everyone, rural folk had local resources to fall back upon; urban people, in contrast, had so detached themselves as to have almost ceased to recognize the indispensability of those resources. For reasons we shall examine in a moment, economic hard times hit the farms sooner than they hit the cities, but in the final scope-reducing crunch the farmers turned out to have an advantage sufficient to interrupt a clear trend of urbanization.

No Fairy Godmother

The Depression also interrupted the advance of industrialization and its attendant occupational diversification of the population. With hindsight, that interruption becomes an opportunity to bring the previous diversification into ecological focus.

An ecological perspective enables us to see pressure toward niche diversification as the natural result of the overfilling of existing niches. Among non-human organisms, this pressure leads eventually to the emergence of new species. Among humans it leads through sociocultural processes to the emergence of new occupations (quasispecies), which, as we noted in Chapter 6, had been made clear by Emile Durkheim as long ago as 1893. To bring Durkheim’s analysis and the ecological perspective to bear upon the Great Depression, however, we must take into account the fact that nature is no Fairy Godmother and provides no guarantee that new niches will automatically be already available at the right time and in the right quantity to absorb immediately the surplus population from overfilled previous niches. Nor does nature guarantee pre-adaptation of the surplus individuals to whatever new niches do become available.

In nature, overfilling of old niches can result in massive death. Many organisms fall by the wayside in the march of speciation. Among human organisms the principles hold, but the process is moderated because humans are occupationally differentiated by social processes rather than by biological processes. Ostensibly, when old niches become obsolete, we can retrain ourselves for new roles. So, for Homo sapiens, overpopulation and death are avoidable results of niche saturation. The avoidance is not easy, however, and retraining for new niches can be traumatic.

An ecological perspective thus heightens the significance of a classic sociological study that clearly showed how unlikely it is, even among members of the relatively flexible and plastic human species, that re-adaptation to new niches (as old ones close up) will occur easily or automatically. Between 1908 and 1918, W. I. Thomas at the University of Chicago analyzed mountains of documentary data on the experience of Polish immigrants in America. [7] The people he studied had come to the New World after absorbing the folkways of their native Poland. In America they were faced with the necessity of adapting to unfamiliar circumstances. Thomas found that old ways of behaving and thinking were not easily abandoned or changed. New ways were learned only with difficulty when they contradicted the migrants’ old-country upbringing. Thomas generalized from the immigrants’ situation to say something about social change in broader contexts. He concluded that an accustomed way of behaving tends to persist as long as circumstances allow. When circumstances change, making familiar and comfortable ways unworkable (or unacceptable), a degree of crisis is inevitable. Re-adaptation hurts. It is resisted. [8]

We know now that the change that makes re-adaptation necessary need not be relocation. Any event that makes old ways unworkable and new ways mandatory can provoke the trauma of reorientation. Conflict and tension are natural accompaniments of change; they tend to continue until some new modus vivendi is worked out. The new form of adaptation will typically combine some elements of the old with some features imposed by the changed circumstances.

“Culture shock” became a familiar term for denoting the enervating disorientation and bewilderment associated with movement into unfamiliar societal contexts. Even a casual tourist can feel it when he travels abroad. Half a century after the phenomenon was studied by W. I. Thomas among Polish peasants resettled in America, Alvin Toffler coined and popularized another phrase that extended the concept. “Future shock” was his apt new term; forced adjustment to new ways can be as traumatic as forced adjustment to foreign ways. [9]

People in a post-exuberant world found themselves surrounded by alien conditions. They underwent a great deal of future shock, years before they got that name for it. By mechanization of agriculture in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Western world greatly reduced the number of farm workers needed to provide sustenance for themselves and for urban dwellers. Displaced from agricultural occupations, ax-farmers naturally migrated into cities in search of alternative employment, employment for which their farming experience or upbringing had not prepared them. Industrial expansion connected with World War I took up the slack temporarily, making employable on an emergency basis many persons who would otherwise have been passed over as unprepared for a given job. The war also helped hasten the mechanization of agriculture that was creating the displaced farm-worker surplus. After the war, urbanization and the proliferation of industrial occupations could not altogether keep pace with the continuing displacement of workers from the farming sector. There continued to be more farmers than were needed, so the agricultural portion of the economy was beset with “overproduction.” This depressed farm prices—several years before the Wall Street crash provided the impetus that depressed prices for everyone. The resulting loss of purchasing power by the farming population helped depress, in turn, the urban-industrial sectors of the world’s economy.

Ecological difficulties were aggravated, of course, by human errors—the glibly confident indulgence in speculation in 1928 being one example. But the causal importance of some human errors was easily overestimated. Amid the economic and political events of 1929-32 it was plausible for Americans, unaware of the ecological basis for what was happening, to see all the difficulties of that difficult time as products merely of the failures of the Hoover administration. This attractive oversimplification neglected one fact that should have been obvious: many other nations, over which Mr. Hoover did not preside, were undergoing the same calamity.

For those of radical inclination, it seemed plausible (in the absence of an ecological paradigm) to attribute the dire situation to a failure of “the capitalist system.” But socialists believed as ardently as capitalists in the myth of limitlessness. In spite of socialists’ commitment to production for use rather than for profit, they were not then (and have not been since) any more cautious than capitalists about adopting the drawdown method. They assumed that socialist-sponsored versions of drawdown could somehow eliminate such “capitalist contradictions” as simultaneous overproduction and abject poverty. They remained just as unconcerned as the capitalists about overshoot. [10]

Conservatives, on the other hand, who were not necessarily misanthropes, found it plausible to whistle in the dark, insisting that prosperity would automatically return if we just waited for the system to adjust itself. They were the Ostriches of their time, holders of the Type V attitude (delineated in Chapter 4). They believed nothing essential had changed from the Age of Exuberance.

Roosevelt was elected to replace Hoover, new approaches were put rapidly into practice, and a discouraged nation took heart. But full economic recovery continued to elude even the New Deal until preparation for World War II began to spur massive industrial activity—with even more than the usual disregard for long-range drawdown costs.

Economic recovery under the New Deal was not unique. Nazi Germany also overcame its depression, reducing unemployment in the first four years under Hitler from six million to one million. (People outside Germany did not automatically interpret this achievement as validation of Nazi tactics.) Under the Nazi method, millions of the unemployed could be employed as soldiers, and millions more could be compulsorily retrained and given niches as producers of military hardware. The war economy nurtured demand for consumer goods for the soldiers and for these re-employed makers of military materiel; furthermore, it provided “the correct psychological atmosphere,” enabling the civilian sector to accept painful re-adaptation.

War psychology overcame natural human resistance to departure from custom. [11] The war also used elaborate technology and drew down the world’s stocks of natural resources.

In the United States, wartime economic recovery supposedly proved that New Deal “pump priming” by fiscal deficits had been the right kind of response to a stagnant economy, except that it could not be done in adequate volume until the need to re-arm rapidly for all-out war made truly massive red-ink budgets politically acceptable. But American recovery from the depression of the 1930s did not unambiguously validate the Keynesian economic theory implicit in Roosevelt’s approach.

In either the German or the American portion of the Great Depression, an economic interpretation (by minds unaccustomed to an ecological perspective) enabled us to miss the point. Very simply, the ecological paradigm enables these events to be read as follows: Expansion of the military establishment, at the cost of additional resource drawdown, suddenly provided new niches (in industry and in the armed forces) capable of absorbing the overflow from the whole array of saturated civilian occupations. And the wartime social climate provided the patriotic push that made the trauma of re-adaptation to new occupational roles endurable. The new or enlarged military-industrial niches had been previously either non-existent or under serious stigma. What was important, ecologically speaking, was the fact that previously existent and acceptable niches had been saturated; there were people to spare—in America because of technological progress and population growth; in Germany because of the debacle of World War I and its aftermath, which left the German economy, occupational structure, and national morale in a shambles. Moreover, human redundancy throughout much of the world had become manifest when, in various ways and in various places, the medium of mutualism came apart, leaving everyone to cope with carrying capacity limits set by local minimums.

In the American case, the fiscal deficits run up during World War II were merely the ledger-book picture of the change that eased the problem, not the cause of that change. Red ink didn’t re-employ the unemployed. The growing national debt (expressed in money) was a fiction of accountancy, a fiction that enabled Americans to believe that wartime drawdown of the once-New World’s resource reservoir only constituted “borrowing from ourselves,” rather than stealing from the future. The reality of diachronic competition remained unacknowledged. Nevertheless, resources used up in World War II were made unavailable for use by posterity.

Circular versus Linear Ecosystems

Whatever the origins of human redundancy, and whatever the sequel to it, we needed to see (but were not seeing) that what had happened to us between the wars, and especially what happened to us since World War II, had not resulted merely from politics or economics in the conventional sense. The events of this period had simply accelerated a fate that began to overtake us centuries ago. The population explosion after 1945 and the explosive increase of technology during and after the war were only the most recent means of that acceleration.

Human communities once relied almost entirely on organic sources of energy—plant fuels and animal musclepower—supplemented very modestly by the equally renewable energy of moving air and flowing water. All of these energy sources were derived from ongoing solar income. As long as man’s activities were based on them, this was, as church men said, “world without end.” That phrase should never have been construed to mean “world without limit,” for supplies can be perpetual without being infinite.

Locally, green pastures might become overgrazed, and still waters might be overused. Local environmental changes through the centuries might compel human communities to migrate. As long as resources available somewhere were sufficient to sustain the human population then in existence, the implication of Liebig’s law was that carrying capacity (globally) had not yet been overshot. If man was then living within the earth’s current income, it was not from wisdom, but from ignorance of the buried treasure yet to be discovered.

Then the earth’s savings, and new ways to use them, began to be discovered. Mankind became committed to the fatal error of supposing that life could thenceforth be lived on a scale and at a pace commensurate with the rate at which treasure was discovered and unearthed. Drawing down stocks of exhaustible resources would not have seemed significantly different from drawing upon carrying capacity imports, at a time when nobody yet knew Liebig’s law, or the principle of scope enlargement, or the distinction between real and phantom carrying capacity, or the various categories of ghost acreage.

Homo sapiens mistook the rate of withdrawal of savings deposits for a rise in income. No regard for the total size of the legacy, or for the rate at which nature might still be storing carbon away, seemed necessary. Homo sapiens set about becoming Homo colossus without wondering if the transformation would have to be quite temporary. (Later, our pre-ecological misunderstanding of what was being done to our future was epitomized by that venerable loophole in the corporate tax laws of the United States, the oil depletion allowance. This measure permitted oil “producers” to offset their taxable revenues by a generous percentage, on the pretext that their earnings reflected depletion of “their” crude oil reserves. Even though nature, not the oil companies, had put the oil into the earth, this tax write-off was rationalized as an incentive to “production.” Since “production” really meant extraction, this was like running a bank with rules that called for paying interest on each withdrawal of savings, rather than on the principal left in the bank. It was, in short, a government subsidy for stealing from the future.)

The essence of the drawdown method is this: man began to spend nature’s legacy as if it were income. Temporarily this made possible a dramatic increase in the quantity of energy per capita per year by which Homo colossus could do the things he wanted to do. This increase led, among other things, to reduced manpower requirements in agriculture. It also led to the development of many new occupational niches for increasingly diversified human beings. (Expansion of niches in Germany, America, and elsewhere from 1933 to 1945 was, it now appears, just a brief episode in this long-run development.) Because the new niches depended on spending the withdrawn savings, they were niches in what amounted to a “detritus ecosystem.” Detritus, or an accumulation of dead organic matter, is nature’s own version of ghost acreage. [12]

Detritus ecosystems are not uncommon. When nutrients from decaying autumn leaves on land are carried by runoff from melting snows into a pond, their consumption by algae in the pond may be checked until springtime by the low winter temperatures that keep the algae from growing. When warm weather arrives, the inflow of nutrients may already be largely complete for the year. The algal population, unable to plan ahead, explodes in the halcyon days of spring in an irruption or bloom that soon exhausts the finite legacy of sustenance materials. This algal Age of Exuberance lasts only a few weeks. Long before the seasonal cycle can bring in more detritus, there is a massive die-off of these innocently incautious and exuberant organisms. Their “age of overpopulation” is very brief, and its sequel is swift and inescapable.

When the fossil fuel legacy upon which Homo colossus was going to thrive for a time became seriously depleted, the human niches based on burning that legacy would collapse, just as detritovore niches collapse when the detritus is exhausted. For humans, the social ramifications of that collapse were unpleasant to contemplate. The Great Depression was, as we have seen, a mild preview. Detritus ecosystems flourish and collapse because they lack the life-sustaining biogeochemical circularity of other kinds of ecosystems. They are nature’s own version of communities that prosper briefly by the drawdown method.

The phrase “detritus ecosystem” was, of course, not widely familiar. The fact that “bloom” and “crash” cycles were common among organisms that depend on exhaustible accumulations of dead organic matter for their sustenance was not widely known. It is therefore understandable that people welcomed ways of becoming colossal, not recognizing as a kind of detritus the transformed organic remains called “fossil fuels,” and not noticing that Homo colossus was in fact a detritovore, subject to the risk of crashing as a consequence of blooming.

Bloom and crash constitute a special kind of sere; certain kinds of populations in certain kinds of circumstances typically experience these two seral stages—irruption followed by die-off. Crash can be thought of as an abrupt instance of “succession with no apparent successor.” As in ordinary succession, the biotic community has changed its habitat by using it, and has become (much) less viable in the changed environment. If, after the crash, the environment can recover from the resource depletion inflicted by an irrupting species, then a new increase of numbers may occur and make that species “its own successor.” Hence there are cycles of irruption and die-off (among species as different as rodents, insects, algae). Our own species’ uniqueness cannot be counted upon as protection. Moreover, some of the resources we use cannot recover. [13]

When yeast cells are introduced into a wine vat, as noted in Chapter 6, they find their “New World” (the moist, sugar-laden fruit mash) abundantly endowed with the resources they need for exuberant growth. But as their population responds explosively to this magnificent circumstance, the accumulation of their own fermentation products makes life increasingly difficult—and, if we indulge in a little anthropomorphic thinking about their plight, miserable. Eventually, the microscopic inhabitants of this artificially prepared detritus ecosystem all die. To be anthropomorphic again, the coroner’s reports would have to say that they died of self-inflicted pollution: the fermentation products.

Nature treated human beings as winemakers treat the yeast cells, by endowing our world (especially Europe’s New World) with abundant but exhaustible resources. People promptly responded to this circumstance as the yeast cells respond to the conditions they find when put into the wine vat.

When the earth’s deposits of fossil fuels and mineral resources were being laid down, Homo sapiens had not yet been prepared by evolution to take advantage of them. As soon as technology made it possible for mankind to do so, people eagerly (and without foreseeing the ultimate consequences) shifted to a high-energy way of life. Man became, in effect, a detritovore, Homo colossus. Our species bloomed, and now we must expect crash (of some sort) as the natural sequel. What form our crash may take remains to be considered in the concluding section.

One thing that kept us from seeing all this, and enabled us to rush exuberantly into niches that had to be temporary, was our ability to give ideological legitimation to occupations that made no sense ecologically. When General Eisenhower, as retiring president, warned the American people to beware of unwarranted influence wielded by the military-industrial complex, [14] it was presumably political and economic influence that he had in mind. But the military-industrial complex was a vast conglomeration of occupational niches. As such, it wielded an altogether different (and even more insidious) kind of influence. The military-industrial complex helped perpetuate the illusion that we still had a carrying capacity surplus; it made it profitable for the living generation to extract and use up natural resources that might otherwise have been left for posterity. It absorbed for a while most of the excess labor force displaced by technological progress from older occupational niches that had been less dependent on drawing down reservoirs of exhaustible resources. It thus helped us believe that the Age of Exuberance could go on.

Nor was General Eisenhower alone in missing the ecological significance and over-emphasizing the political elements in the trends of’ his time. His young, articulate, and sophisticated Bostonian successor launched a new administration with an inaugural address whose inspirational quality lay partly in its eloquent resolution of American ambivalence. If we wanted to maintain full employment, we dreaded achieving it by means of an arms race. Subtly, and with the gloss of’ high idealism, John F. Kennedy reassured the nationwide television audience on that crisp, brilliant January day in 1961 that the temporary occupational niches of the military-industrial complex could be long-lasting and could be made more honorable than horrible. There was to be a “new Alliance for Progress,” and we were to hope for emancipation from the “uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of’ mankind’s final war.” But the conflict-bred niches would last, for “the trumpet summons us again . . . to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle year in and year out . . . against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” [15] Under both parties, the military-industrial complex enabled us to be preoccupied with matters that helped us ignore resource limits. It helped thereby to obscure the fact that population was expanding to fill niches that could not be permanent because they were founded upon drawing down prehistoric savings, exhaustible fossil energy stocks.

The human family, even if it were soon to stop growing, had committed itself to living beyond its means. Homo sapiens, as we saw in Chapter 9, was capable of transforming himself into new “quasi-species.” By the Industrial Revolution humans had turned themselves into “detritovores,” dependent on ravenous consumption of long-since accumulated organic remains, especially petroleum.

If we were to understand what was now happening to us and to our world, we had to learn to see recent history as a crescendo of human prodigality. When American birth rates declined as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, this did not mean we were escaping the predicament of the algae any more than the ringing words of President Kennedy’s inaugural address had really meant that we could eat our cake and still have it. Rather, something had happened that was fundamental, and that could not be undone by brilliant rhetoric: there had been a marked acceleration in our previously begun shift from a self-perpetuating way of life that relied on the circularity of natural biogeochemical processes, to a way of life that was ultimately self-terminating because it relied on linear chemical transformations. They were linear (and one way) because man was using (with the aid of his prosthetic equipment) so many non-crop substances. Man was no longer engaged in a balanced system of symbiotic relations with other species. When man degraded the habitat, it tended to stay degraded; it was not being rehabilitated by other organisms with different biochemical needs.

Perils of Prodigality: The Coming Crash

Man does not live on detritus alone. Misled by our prodigal expenditures of savings, we allowed the human family to multiply so much that by the 1970s mankind had taken over for human use about one eighth of the annual total net production of organic matter by contemporary photosynthesis in all the vegetation on all the earth’s land. That much was being used by man and his domestic animals. [16] It would require taking over more than the other seven-eighths to provide from organic sources the vast quantities of energy we were deriving from fossil fuels to run our mechanized civilization, even if economic growth and human increase were halted by the year 2000. Thus, as we began to see in Chapter 3, we were already well beyond the size that would permit us to re-adapt (without severe depopulation) to a sustained yield way of life when our access to savings gave out. On the other hand, just three more doublings of population (scarcely more than Britain had already experienced in the short time since Malthus) would mean that all the net photosynthetic production on all the continents and all the islands on earth would have to be used for supporting the human community. Then our descendants would be condemned to living at an abjectly “underdeveloped” level, if no fossil acreage remained available to sustain modern industry.

Such total exploitation of an ecosystem by one dominant species has seldom happened, except among species which bloom and crash. Detritovores provide clear examples, but there are others, and we shall take a close look at some of them in the final chapter. For Homo sapiens, it was unlikely that we could even divert much more than the already unprecedented fraction of the total photosynthesis to our uses.

It was thus becoming apparent that nature must, in the not far distant future, institute bankruptcy proceedings against industrial civilization, and perhaps against the standing crop of human flesh, just as nature had done many times to other detritus-consuming species following their exuberant expansion in response to the savings deposits their ecosystems had accumulated before they got the opportunity to begin the drawdown.

It was not widely recognized, of course, but the imminence of that kind of culmination really was why the United Nations had to convene its 1972 Conference on the Human Environment. The conference in Stockholm was meant to begin the process of preventing our only earth from being rendered less and less usable by humans. In short, its purpose was to arrest global succession. Persons who had struggled valiantly to bring about this conference had been engaged (in an important sense) in a global counterpart of the efforts of Dr. Goodwin in Williamsburg. But whereas he sought to undo succession in order to preserve history, they sought to preserve a world ecosystem in which Homo sapiens might remain the dominant species—and might remain human.

Until the extent of the transformation of Homo sapiens into Homo colossus was seen and the full ecological ramifications of that transformation were more nearly understood, however, it would hardly be recognized that the kind of world ecosystem the United Nations was seeking to perpetuate was already being superseded—by an ecosystem that, by its very nature, compelled the dominant species to go on sawing off the limb on which it was sitting. Having become a species of superdetritovores, mankind was destined not merely for succession, but for crash.

Unfortunately but inevitably, the Stockholm deliberations were confused by the fact that the luckier nations which happened to achieve industrial prodigality before the earth’s savings became depleted had already infected the other nations with an insatiable desire to emulate that prodigality. The infection preceded recognition of the depletion. The result of this sad historical sequence was the pathetic quarrel over whether the luxury we cannot afford is economic growth or environmental preservation. Neither was a luxury; worse, neither was possible on a global scale.

Excess numbers and ravenous technology had already brought Homo colossus to an ecological impasse. The laudable ability of delegations from 114 diverse nations to hammer out compromise resolutions favoring both environmental protection and economic development for all nations did not extricate us from our predicament. Deft avoidance of political deadlock once again preserved the illusion that cake could be both eaten and saved. But illusion preserved was still illusion.

Man needed to realize how commonly populations of other species have undergone the experience of resource bankruptcy. But we humans have been experiencing a double irruption, confronting us with an intensified version of the plight of such species. As a biological type, Homo sapiens has been irrupting for 10,000 years, and especially the last 400. In addition, our detritus-consuming tools have been irrupting for the last 200 years. It is conceivable that the inevitable die-off necessitated by overshoot could apply more to Homo colossus than to Homo sapiens. That is, resource demand might be brought back within the limits of permanent carrying capacity by shrinking ourselves to less colossal stature—by giving up a lot of our prosthetic apparatus and the high style of living it has made possible. This might seem, in principle, an alternative to the more literal form of die-off, an abrupt increase in human mortality. In practice, it runs afoul of several implications of W. I. Thomas’s finding about resistance to change. Accustomed ways of behaving and thinking tend to persist; this is probably as true of the detritovorous habits of Homo colossus as it was true of earlier human folkways. Outbreaks of violence among American motorists waiting in long queues to buy gasoline, sputtering in stubborn non-recognition of the onset of the twilight of the petroleum era, suggest that the people of industrial societies who have learned to live in colossal fashion will not easily relinquish their seven-league boots, their heated homes, and their habit of living high on the food chain. As we said, re-adaptation hurts. It will be resisted.

Moreover, habits of thought persist. As we shall see in Chapter 11, people continue to advocate further technological breakthroughs as the supposedly sure cure for carrying capacity deficits. The very idea that technology caused overshoot, and that it made us too colossal to endure, remains alien to too many minds for”de-colossalization” to be a really feasible alternative to literal die-off. There is a persistent drive to apply remedies that aggravate the problem.

If any substantial fraction of the more colossal segments of humanity did conscientiously give up part of their resource-devouring extensions out of humane concern for their less colossal brethren, there is no guarantee that this would avert die-off. It might only postpone it, permitting human numbers to continue increasing a bit longer, or less colossal peoples to become a bit more colossal, before we crash all the more resoundingly.

All this tends to be disregarded by advocates of a “return to the simple life” as a gentle way out of the human predicament. Blessed are the less prosthetic, for they shall inherit the ravaged earth. Probably so, in the long run. But some view the dark cloud of fuel depletion and purport to see a silver lining already: individuals forced to abandon much of their modern technology will then get by on smaller per capita shares of the phantom carrying capacity upon which prosthetic man has become so dependent. However, insofar as the high agricultural yields upon which our irrupted population’s life depends can be attained only by means of energy subsidies—by lavish application of synthetic fertilizers, and by large-scale use of petroleum-powered machinery—the dwindling fossil acreage will probably lower the output of visible acreage. As we asked before, what happens when it becomes necessary again to pull the plow with a team of horses instead of a tractor, and a substantial fraction of the crop acreage that now feeds humans has to be allocated again to growing feed for draft animals (or biomass to produce tractor fuel when the Carboniferous legacy is no longer cheaply available)? So much for that silver lining.

It will spare us no grief to deny that Homo sapiens has been irrupting. It will in no way ease the impact to deny that crash must follow. We must seek our rays of hope in another way altogether (as we shall do in Chapter 15).

Not Cleared for Takeoff

The “developed” nations have been widely regarded as previews of the future condition of the “underdeveloped” countries. It would have been more accurate to reverse the picture, as perhaps the Stockholm Conference began to do for its most perceptive participants and observers.

It was one thing to be an underdeveloped nation in the eighteenth century, when the world had no highly developed nations. It is quite another thing today. When today’s developed nations were not yet industrialized and were just approaching their takeoff point, the World had only recently entered an exuberant phase which made takeoff possible. European technology was just starting to harness (for a few brilliant centuries) the energy stored in the earth during the past several hundred million years, and the sparsely populated New World had only recently become available for exuberant settlement and exploitation. These conditions of exuberance no longer prevail. The underdeveloped countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the twentieth century cannot realistically expect to follow in the footsteps of the undeveloped nations of eighteenth-century Europe. Most of today’s underdeveloped nations are destined never to become developed. Egalitarian traditions will be forced to adjust to permanent inequality.

Hard as it might be for the people and leaders of underdeveloped countries to face the fact, they are not alone in finding it repugnant. The people and leaders of the affluent societies have also resisted seeing it. Recognition that most of the world’s poor would necessarily stay poor would destroy the comforting conviction of the world’s privileged that their good fortune ought to inspire the world’s poor to emulate them, not resent them.

Nature’s limiting factors would not clear most underdeveloped countries for takeoff. But now that people are so numerous, it would be even worse if many did somehow take off. Most men of good will have been unable so far to accept this implication of the ecological facts. Some will no doubt righteously denounce this book for analyzing the situation in this unpalatable way, as if no fact could hurt us if we refused to acknowledge its truth. But not only are there not enough of the substances a developed human community must take from its environment in the process of living to permit a world of four billion people to be all developed; the capacity of the world’s oceans, continents, and atmosphere to absorb the substances Homo colossus must put somewhere in the process of living is limited. Even as a waste disposal site, the world is finite.

Right into the 1970s we were misled by so bland a word as “pollution” for this part of our predicament. We were already suffering the plight of the yeast cells in the wine vat. Accumulation of the noxious and toxic extrametabolites of high-energy industrial civilization had become a world problem, but no government could admit that it would turn into a world disaster if the benefits of modern technology were bestowed as abundantly upon everyone in the underdeveloped countries as they already had been upon the average inhabitant of the overdeveloped ones. Leaders everywhere had to pretend full development of the whole world was their ultimate aim and was still on the agenda. By such pretensions mankind remained locked into stealing from the future.

Learning to Read the News

Viewing contemporary events from a pre-ecological paradigm, we missed their significance. From an ecological paradigm we can see that fewer members of the species Homo colossus than of the species Homo sapiens can be supported by a finite world. The more colossal we become, the greater the difference. What we called “pollution,” and regarded at first as either a mere nuisance or an indication of the insensitivity of industrial people to esthetic values, can now be recognized as a signal from the ecosystem. If we had learned to call it “habitat damage,” we might have read it as a sign of the danger inherent in becoming colossal. Even if the world were not already overloaded by four billion members of the species Homo sapiens, it does not have room for that many consumers of resources and exuders of extrametabolites on the scale of modern Homo colossus. In short, on a planet no larger than ours, four billion human beings simply cannot all turn into prosthetic giants.

As we move deeper into the post-exuberant age, one of the keen insights of a passionately concerned and unusually popular sociologist, C. Wright Mills, will become increasingly important to us all. It was an insight by which he tried to help his contemporaries read the news of their times perceptively. We will need to be at least as perceptive to avoid misconstruing events that will happen in the years to come.

Although the paradigm from which Mills wrote was pre-ecological, in one of his most earnest books he transcended archaic thoughtways enough to note that only sometimes and in some places do men make history; in other times and places, the minutiae of everyday life can add up to mere “fate.” Mills gave us an unusually clear definition of this important word. Infinitesimal actions, if they are numerous and cumulative, can become enormously consequential. Fate, he explained, is shaping history when what happens to us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people. [17]

In a world that will not accommodate four billion of us if we all become colossal, it is both futile and dangerous to indulge in resentment, as we shall be sorely tempted to do, blaming some person or group whom we suppose must have intended whatever is happening to happen. If we find ourselves beset with circumstances we wish were vastly different, we need to keep in mind that to a very large extent they have come about because of things that were hopefully and innocently done in the past by almost everyone in general, and not just by anyone in particular. If we single out supposed perpetrators of our predicament, resort to anger, and attempt to retaliate, the unforeseen outcomes of our indignant acts will compound fate.

In precisely Mills’s sense, the conversion of a marvelous carrying capacity surplus into a competition-aggravating and crash-inflicting deficit was a matter of fate. No compact group of leaders ever decided knowingly to take incautious advantage of enlargment of the scope of applicability of Liebig’s law, or subsequently to reduce that scope and leave a swollen load inadequately supported. No one decided deliberately to terminate the Age of Exuberance. No group of leaders conspired knowingly to turn us into detritovores. Using the ecological paradigm to think about human history, we can see instead that the end of exuberance was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper.


1. See the explanations offered by various analysts cited in Patterson 1965, pp. 227-245.

2. For the original formulation of this principle, see Liebig 1863, p.207. Also see the sharpened statement of it on p. 5 in the “Editor’s Preface” to that volume. For indications that Liebig had the principle in mind even before he grasped its generality and fundamental significance, see his earlier work, Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology (London: Taylor & Walton, 1842), pp. 41, 43, 85, 127, 129, 130, 132, 139, 141-142, 159, 178. On the development of Liebig’s thinking about this and other ecological principles, see Justus von Liebig, “An Autobiographical Sketch,” trans. J. Campbell Brown Chemical News 63 (June 5 and 12, 1891): 265-267, 276-278; W. A. Shenstone, Justus von Liebig: His Life and Work (New York: Macmillan, 1895); and Forest Ray Moulton, ea., Liebig and After Liebig: A Century of Progress in Agricultural Chemistry (Washington: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1942).

3. Cf. Fred Hirsch, Social Limits to Growth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976). Too often social limits are unwisely cited as if to afford some basis for disregarding environmental finiteness; social limits actually make finiteness all the more salient. They do not make carrying capacity less relevant to human affairs. The cliche which asserts “There are no real shortages, only maldistribution” inverts the significance of social limits. In comparison with biogeochemical limits, social limits to growth include all the ways in which human societies are prone to fall short of developing and maintaining the optimum organization that would allow Liebig’s law to apply only on a thoroughly global scale, with carrying capacity thus never limited by local shortages. Social limits, in other words, tend to aggravate, not alleviate, the problems posed by biogcochemical limits.

4. See William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), pp. 61-62 In thinking about the human implications of the law of the minimum and the social impediments to implementing the principle of scope enlargement, it is well to remember that, when the collapse occurred in Germany, one ramification was the opportunity it afforded for rise of the Nazi dictatorship, with grave consequences for many other nations.

5. See Galbraith 1955, especially the first five chapters.

6. See Ch. 4, “Farmers in the Depression,” in Chandler 1970.

7. See Thomas and Znaniecki 1918-1920 passim.

8. Cf. Robert A. Nisbet, Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 282-284.

9. Toffler 1970, pp. 4-5.

10. Cf. Ehrenfeld 1978 (listed among references for Ch. 1), pp. 249-254. For recent examples of socialist persistence in the myth of limitlessness, see Stanley Aronowitz, Food, Shelter and the American Dream (New York: Seabury Press, 1974); Hugh Stretton, Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976). Also see Irving Louis Horowitz, Three Worlds of Development: The Theory and Practice of International Stratification, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. xvi, where “overdevelopment” is defined without any ecological reference as “an excess ratio of industrial capacity to social utility,” i.e., to the ability of people with existing organization, skill levels, etc., to benefit from industrial output. In contrast, overdevelopment signifies to ecologists—e.g., Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1972 (listed among references for Ch. 12), pp. 418-420—a level of technological development that disregards physical and biological limitations and requires “far too large a slice of the world’s resources to maintain our way of life.”

11. Michael Tanzer, The Sick Society (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971).

12. See, for example, Odum and de la Cruz 1963; Darnell 1967.

13. This makes it unwise to have defined these substances as “resources.”

14. For an interesting discussion of the political significance of Eisenhower’s warning, see Fred Cook, The Warfare State (New York: Macmillan, 1962).

15. Quoted and discussed in Morison 1965 (listed among references for Ch. 5),p. 1110.

16. Odum 1971 (listed among references for Ch. 6), p. 55.

17. Mills 1958, pp. 10-14.


Selected References

Chandler, Lester V. 1970. America’s Greatest Depression 1929-1941.New York: Harper & Row.

Commoner, Barry 1971. The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Darnell, Rezneat M. 1967. “The Organic Detritus Problem.” Pp. 374-375 in George H. Lauff, ed., Estuaries. Washington: American Association for the Advancement of Science, Publication no. 83.

Galbraith, John Kenneth 1955. The Great Crash 1929. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Hubbert, M. King 1969. “Energy Resources.” Ch. 8 in Committee on Resources and Man, Re

sources and Man. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Jensen, W. G. 1970. Energy and the Economy of. Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire: G. T. Foulis.

Liebig, Justus 1863. The Natural Laws of Husbandry. New York: D. Appleton.

Mills, C. Wright 1958. The Causes of World War Three. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Odum, Eugene P., and Armando A. de la Cruz 1963. “Detritus as a Major Component of Ecosystems.” American Institute of Biological Sciences Bulletin 13 (June): 39-40.

Odum, Howard T. 1971. Environment, Power, and Society. New York: John Wilev & Sons.

Patterson, Robert T. 1965. The Great Boom and Panic 1921-1929. Chicago: Henry Regnery

Thomas, William Isaac, and Florian Znaniecki 1918-1920. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. 5 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Boston: Richard Badger.

Toffler, Alvin 1970. Future Shock. New York: Random House.

Watson, Adam, ed. 1970. Animal Populations in Relation to Their Food Resources. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dependence on Phantom Carrying Capacity
Other Foundations, Other Limits

Because the people of industrial nations did not recognize themselves as hunters and gatherers, they adhered to premises that were becoming more and more false. Franklin D Roosevelt spoke for all believers in those premises in the next-to-last sentence he ever wrote: “The only limits to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today”.

Six years before Roosevelt’s final expression of the optimistic faith that had become standard in the Age of Exuberance, one of the world’s foremost demographers, P K Whelpton, had written that increasing numbers of people were only compatible with a rising standard of living when a nation either was still underpopulated, or could still call upon technological progress to offset the disadvantages of overpopulation. According to Whelpton, the United States in 1939 was already overpopulated. Technology, which had formerly enlarged carrying capacity, was growing in its power to do just the opposite – to increase per capita resource requirements, and thus aggravate the overload.

Still, assumptions and expectations from the Age of Exuberance persisted for another generation, making more convulsive than it might have been the eventual change entailed by their obsolescence.

Roosevelt died in 1945 without recognizing the end of exuberance. He was drafting a Jefferson Day radio address when a cerebral hemorrhage struck him down. His final sentence was: “Let us move forward with strong and active faith”. Under his leadership, actions by the American nation (in concert with many others) had done much to renew the commitment of people to this exuberant spirit, delaying for another generation widespread comprehension of its obsolescence. Strong and active faith was characteristic of the age of apparent limitlessness; it had motivated nation-building and other impressively creative human activities. After World War II, for one more generation, people in many parts of the world would act from the illusion that the world’s less fortunate could reap the benefits of an age of neo-exuberance by creating new nations in areas formerly held as colonies by one European power or another. But terminating colonialism could not renew limitlessness. Both imperialism and the subsequent graduation of the earliest and richest colonial components of empires into the status of new nations had been results, not causes, of the age of surplus carrying capacity.

The achievements of Homo sapiens have always required foundations other than the self-assurance and determination to which Roosevelt appealed. Sheer will-power, important as it can be, cannot be implemented without material resources and physical energy, regardless of the institutional expectations of a people. As long ago as 1893, at a meeting of the American Historical Association, Frederick Jackson Turner insisted that “Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions”. In the special instance of American institutions, these vital forces had consisted very largely, Turner said, of the presence of free land and the continuous westward advancement of American settlement by European immigrants and their descendants into areas previously inhabited only by disregardable non-Europeans.

When the land was filled up and no longer available at little or no cost, and when its inhabitants were no longer people who could be disregarded, institutions had to change. But persistent myths would delay institutional adaptations that were eventually inevitable. These obsolete myths would impede understanding of the real causes of change.

No Longer Hypothetical

Here was a characteristic instance of cultural lag: by the time a substantial number of people began to worry out loud about what to do “if” the world “eventually” were to become overloaded, it already was. In the 1960s many books and articles appeared which spoke of dire troubles ahead “unless” growth of population were halted, or “if” the rate of extraction of petroleum or other resources from the earth continued to double every N years. Some of this kind of literature had come out in the 1950s, and one emphatic treatise on the subject – William Vogt’s Road to Survival – was published in 1948. The implication in nearly every one of these publications was that the dire troubles were still hypothetical, a possibility still avoidable, provided the right corrective measures were adopted in time. The purpose of most writers was to arouse people to accept or demand the necessary preventives before it was too late. Although some authors insisted that it was already later than people generally realized, few ventured to suggest (even in the 1970s) that, for the post-exuberant world, eventually had already come yesterday.

The growth and progress upon which we looked back with such pride had committed mankind to living on a scale that exceeds the sustainable carrying capacity of this finite planet, and the leaders of nations continued to devote far more effort toward attempting to prolong overshoot than toward undoing it. Reluctance to face facts was driving us to make bad matters worse. The faster the present generation draws down the fossil energy legacy upon which persistently exuberant lifestyles now depend, the less opportunity posterity will have to live in anything like the same way or the same numbers. Yet most contemporary political proposals for solving problems of economic stagnation or inequity amount to plans for speeding up the rate of drawdown of non-renewable resources.

Invisible Acreage

The truth of these statements is implicit in the concept of “ghost acreage”. Georg Borgstrom, a food scientist at Michigan State University, devoted a whole chapter of his 1965 book, The Hungry Planet, to this subject. A number of nations have seemed to get away with exceeding the human carrying capacity of their own land, but Borgstrom pointed out that they had only been able to do so by drawing upon carrying capacity that was “invisible” – that is, located elsewhere on the planet. The food required by such a nation’s population comes only partly from the harvest of “visible acreage” – farm and pasture land within the nation’s borders. A very substantial fraction comes from net imports of food. Not all the imports come from other countries; some are obtained from the sea. Borgstrom therefore subdivided “ghost acreage” into two components, “trade acreage” and “fish acreage”. By each phrase he simply expressed, in terms of land area, the additional farming that would have been needed to provide from internal sources the net portion of a nation’s sustenance actually derived from sources outside its boundaries and in excess of its own carrying capacity. As we shall see, a third component must be recognized if we are to understand fully the part played by ghost acreage in the life of modern man.

To see the importance of Borgstrom’s two components, trade and fish acreage, let us consider two examples: Great Britain, a national ancestor of the United States, and Japan, a booming industrial giant in the Far East. By 1965 more than half of Britain’s sustenance was coming from ghost acreage. If food could not be obtained from the sea (6.5%) or from other nations (48%), more than half of Britain would have faced starvation, or all British people would have been less than half nourished. Likewise, if Japan could not have drawn upon fisheries all around the globe and upon trade with other nations, two-thirds of her people would have been starving, or every Japanese citizen would have been two-thirds undernourished (which presumably means that nearly all might have died). Yet this was the most prosperous nation in the Orient, the one whose low birth rate supposedly exemplified Asia’s hope of averting overpopulation.

These densely populated nations had continued to exist and prosper only because, on top of their own intensive agriculture, they could harvest the oceans and could export non-agricultural products in ex-change for food from countries with agricultural surpluses. Accordingly, ghost-acreage-dependent countries like these were vulnerable to foreign efforts to manipulate their policies (such as the Arab oil embargo). They were also threatened by population growth in the food-exporting countries, for such growth would stem the flow of food exports they needed in order to survive.

When there ceased to be agricultural surpluses anywhere, and when all nations became dependent on oceanic ghost acreage, population densities of a British or Japanese magnitude would be more obviously non-viable. In the meantime, Americans, Canadians, Australians, et al, habitually pointed to their own wheat surpluses and reassured themselves that they were a long way from being overpopulated. “Look at Japan”, said their people, blinded still by the old pre-ecological paradigm: “much more heavily populated than we are, yet prospering”.

Space Age accomplishments at last brought some recognition that the earth must be considered as a unit. It is man’s one habitat. This planet is an island, more absolutely than Japan or Britain. When Homo sapiens in the 1960s became able to “export” a few manufactured items from earth to the moon, to Mars, to Venus, et cetera, only new knowledge came back in exchange – there were no imports of foodstuffs. The knowledge increments were magnificent achievements, well worth pursuing; still, the terms of the exchange by which they were accomplished began to underscore the fact that mankind as a whole could not disregard overpopulation, as some component countries had continued to do when they outgrew the carrying capacities of their own territories. There was no “trade acreage” in outer space.

“Fish acreage”, if considered globally, could also be seen to provide only a shrinking reserve for the world’s family of nations to fall back on. The earth’s oceans are finite. In the 1970s the fish, whales, and other edible marine creatures were already being harvested in greater quantities than would permit a sustained yield. From over-fishing and from pollution, the seas were dying. Accordingly, various nations were becoming more overtly competitive in their use of this reserve. Some were compelled by circumstances to express such competitiveness in the form of territoriality. Human societies thus turned out to behave much in the manner of communal groups of other mammal species, when one group begins to suffer from encroachments by others upon resources it needs in order to sustain itself. A typical animal response to population pressure is to assert territorial claims and to exclude competitors from the claimed area. A number of nations unilaterally extended their claims to exclusive fishing. The original “three-mile limit” of national sovereignty over the seas became a “twelve-mile limit”, and then various nations went on to extend their fishing claims out to fifty miles, or a hundred, or two hundred.

The so-called Cod War between Britain and Iceland, and similar friction between the United States and Peru, were territorialist responses to the end of exuberance. These territorialist responses were becoming so universal that they compelled the United Nations to begin rewriting the law of the sea to institutionalize such marine claim-staking. Meanwhile, the United States unilaterally proclaimed a 200-mile fishing limit effective March 1 1977, and this severely pinched fish acreage-dependent Japan. On a November day in 1976, when talks began that were intended to lead to a bilateral North Pacific fisheries agreement between Japan and the US, thousands of banner-carrying Japanese took to the streets of Tokyo in protest. In a newspaper ad, the Japan Fisheries Association said the 200-mile limit off American shores could seriously restrict Japanese protein consumption, curtailing by as much as 44 percent the amount of fish that would be eaten in Japan.

Importing from the Past

The onetime American shibboleth, “Freedom of the seas”, had been an idea born in the Age of Exuberance. Post-exuberant overload was now depleting the world’s resources and requiring even the United States to take such steps as fencing off a private fishing domain. But the predicament was global. Without knowing it, Homo sapiens faced a plight much like that of Japan when confronted with fish-depleted oceans. As an island in space, the world could not rely on imports from elsewhere; nevertheless, it was already heavily dependent upon imports from elsewhen. That we were importing from the past becomes clear when we logically extend Borgstrom’s ghost acreage concept to include a third component. Technological progress had made mankind heavily dependent upon imports of energy from prehistoric sources. Man’s use of fossil fuels has been another instance of reliance on phantom carrying capacity.

The energy we obtain from coal, petroleum, and natural gas can be expressed as “fossil acreage” – the number of additional acres of farmland that would have been needed to grow organic fuels with equivalent energy content. Mankind originally did rely on organic fuels, chiefly wood. Wood was a renewable resource, though even in the world’s once vast forests it grew in limited quantity. Access to vast but non-renewable deposits of coal and petroleum came to be mistaken by peoples and nations as an opportunity for permanently transcending limits set by the finite supplies of organic fuel.

When fossil fuels had been depleted enough to make supplies of them precarious, insufficient, and increasingly expensive, proposals for making up the shortfall included various versions of “energy farming” – growing crops from which fuels could be derived. The acreage required for future energy plantations is an obvious measure of the phantom carrying capacity upon which fossil-fueled civilization had been depending. As we shall see in the next section of this chapter, re-expressing modern rates of energy use in ghost acreage terms enables us to recognize how seriously our hunting-and-gathering industrial civilization overshot the real (that is, permanent) carrying capacity of the planet’s visible acreage.

Everything human beings do requires energy. At the barest minimum, animals human in form but with no technology would have been converting in their own bodies some 2,000 to 3,000 kilocalories of chemical energy (from food) into heat in the course of a day’s activity. With the mastery of fire and with the domestication of animals, additional energy came under human use, even before some of the energy from flowing water and moving air began to be harnessed for the conduct of human tasks.

Fire extended man’s range and man’s diet, thereby enlarging the world’s carrying capacity for our species. Use of this form of energy set early hominids apart from other animals that relied entirely on their own metabolism. Fire’s heat, used directly, helped make us human; but, in time, Homo sapiens attained a kind of superhumanity by learning to convert the heat energy from fire into mechanical energy by means of various engines. Just before the Continental Congress gave the world a new nation to serve as the prime model of the exuberant way of life, James Watt devised for the world a practical engine for converting heat from fire into rotary motion, by means of steam pressure moving a piston in a cylinder and turning a crankshaft. The steam engine began to transform men into supermen. At first fueled sometimes with wood, later exclusively with coal, and still later largely with oil, these devices and their successors made available for the performance of an immense assortment of tasks the prodigious quantities of energy stored within the earth, in the transformed remains of organisms that lived millions of years ago. Man thus became uniquely differentiated from all other mammals by his ability to use solar energy that had reached the earth long before he existed – energy captured in prehistoric photosynthesis.

A geological savings bank had been accumulating these deposits of fossil energy for hundreds of millions of years. The steam engine and various improved successors to it – gasoline, diesel, jet, and rocket engines – gave man the key to this geological bank. What marvels poured forth from the turning of that key! The energy expended in two decades by a vast labor force of Egyptians stacking up some 2,300,000 blocks of stone (each weighing about two and a half tons) to form the Great Pyramid of Cheops was less than the energy released in a few minutes by three stages of a Saturn V rocket propelling men toward the moon. Little wonder that the illusion of limitlessness was reinforced by space flights. In 1972, for example, the first Bangladesh head of state, Sheik Mujibur Rahman (destined for assassination within a few years by disillusioned constituents), pleaded for American aid for his newborn and frail nation, exclaiming, “If you Americans can put a man on the moon, you can do anything”. It seemed so, but it was far from true.

Fossil-fueled engines were to serve as the prime mover in launching the Industrial Revolution; they thereby brought about comprehensive reorganization of human societies. Industrialization compounded exuberance; James Watt was as much a revolutionary as Columbus had been. The apparent limitlessness of opportunities, was underscored by the availability of energy in such quantities, and at such unprecedentedly low cost per man-hour equivalent, that human slavery lost its economic value. When men very much wanted tasks accomplished but could not or would not pay a free worker’s wage, enslaving other human beings used to be the only solution. Clever machinery and cheap, abundant energy broke this pattern, serving as a great emancipator – the more so as invention continued to widen the range of tasks in which power-driven apparatus could substitute for human hands.

As we shall see, the “abundance” of this fossil energy was due to man’s readiness to withdraw and spend it thousands of times faster than nature had deposited it in the earth’s savings. And the energy from fossil fuels was cheap only because no workers had been paid (or slaves maintained) to grow the vegetation from which coal and oil had been formed. The cost of fossil energy, then, was determined essentially by the cost of extracting these fuels from storage. At the beginning of 1974, when oil prices had begun to rise sharply, a million kilocalories (equivalent to approximately one man-year of food-supported muscle power) cost only about if obtained by burning 32 gallons of gasoline (at service station pump prices in the US). That amount of energy would have cost some thirteen times as much if obtained from burning a liquid derived from contemporary agriculture (such as corn oil, 52 gallons at per gallon, retail). If gasoline and other fossil fuels had been thirteen times as costly, we would never have fallen into the trap of reorganizing our social systems around their abundant use. Our overcommitment to dependence on fossil acreage was the result of the temporarily low cost of energy from antiquity. Because the low cost was temporary, it was an unrealistic basis for a way of life.

Within two eventful centuries of the time when James Watt started us substituting fossil energy for muscle power, per capita energy use in the United States reached a level equivalent to eighty or so ghost slaves for each citizen. The ratio remained much lower than that in many other parts of the world. But, dividing the energy content of total annual world fuel consumption by the annual rate of food-energy consumption in an active adult human body, the world average still worked out to the equivalent of about ten ghost slaves per person. Otherwise stated, the average human being, whatever he might have done in a day with his own unaided muscle power, could now do about ten times as much by using his bodily energy mainly to direct the activities of mechanical servants using energy derived from fossil fuel combustion (that is, from ghost acreage). More than nine-tenths of the energy used by Homo sapiens was now derived from sources other than each current year’s crop of vegetation. Plants capture contemporary solar energy and produce combustible organic materials from inorganic substances. The fossil fuels, on the other hand, contain pre-historic solar energy, for they were geologically formed from organic materials produced by ancient photosynthesis. The exuberant way of life was now based, therefore, on a pattern of energy use that involved a high ratio between prehistoric energy and contemporary energy – a ratio that could hardly continue. Yet until the Arab oil embargo in 1973 this fact went almost unrecognized by news media, and there was little concern among the general public about the ratio’s precariousness.

Recognition of the social significance of physical energy remained almost nil among politicians and social scientists until depleted resources began failing to meet persistently exuberant demand. But in a book called Energy and Society, whose enormous importance was insufficiently realized when it was published just a decade after the end of World War II, Fred Cottrell of Miami University in Ohio made clear the fact that “man can exist only where he is able to replace the energy he uses up in the process of living. He must regularly be in control of energy equal to or in excess of this minimum. A permanent deficit makes life impossible.” Full comprehension of the information and a thorough understanding of the reasoning in Cottrell’s vital but neglected book would have shown the salience of Borgstrom’s “ghost acreage” concept for the post-exuberant world. It was important to consider not just the food that keeps human bodies alive, but the energy of all kinds used by the mechanical extensions of man’s bodily apparatus. Chapter 9 will explain why this was so important. For now, it is enough to be aware that, throughout the world, vast quantities of machinery driven by vast quantities of fossil energy had become indispensable for doing the things that had become part of human living during four centuries of exuberance.

Precarious Way of Life

Any nation that realized its self-sufficiency had fallen to less than ten percent would almost certainly sense the precariousness of its existence. Borgstrom did not cite any nation whose visible acreage met as little as ten percent of its needs. In energy terms, however, the condition of the post-exuberant world had become precarious in just that way. The human species, through technological progress, had made itself more than ninety percent dependent on phantom carrying capacity – a term we must now define. Phantom carrying capacity means either the illusory or the extremely precarious capacity of an environment to support a given life form or a given way of living. It can be quantitatively expressed as that portion of a population that cannot be permanently supported when temporarily available resources become unavailable.

Although the living generation did not realize that it was ninety percent redundant, the effects of dependence on phantom carrying capacity were beginning to be noticeable and disturbing. The reason for these effects remained unacknowledged, due to the continued grip of obsolete concepts on our thinking. Obsolete (that is, ecologically naive) concepts impaled the minds of those in high office as well as the man in the street. As late as the end of 1973, both the president of the United States and the chairman of the Senate Interior Committee proclaimed as a goal of American policy the attainment of “energy self- sufficiency” by 1980. If the expression meant anything at all, it had to mean (in Borgstrom’s terms) a goal of deriving all energy used by Americans from visible acreage, none from trade acreage. But the living generation could not become really self-sufficient just by ending its dependence on trade acreage; this would only accelerate the drawdown of energy deposits hidden beneath the domestic (visible) acreage. To achieve independence from OPEC opportunists by this method meant inflicting upon American posterity a legacy of aggravated resource depletion. In short, energy independence was illusory so long as massive quantities of energy were still to be obtained from fossil sources.

Neither the senator nor the president showed any understanding of the deep dependence of all modern civilization upon imports of energy from the prehistoric past. In 1970 American energy use amounted to the equivalent of approximately 58 barrels of oil per capita annually. Were it to become necessary to obtain all this energy from agricultural crops (that is, from contemporary solar income, the only basis for permanent “self-sufficiency”) rather than principally from the earth’s savings deposits, the acreage required can be calculated as follows. Suppose alcohol derived from corn were to be the standard fuel. From each bushel of corn, about 2.3 US gallons of alcohol could be produced. In 1970 the entire United States corn crop came to about 4.15 billion bushels; this would have yielded about 9.67 billion gallons of alcohol – if we had been willing to forgo exporting any of the corn, or eating any of it, or feeding any of it to livestock. Since each gallon of alcohol has heat value equivalent to about 0.7 gallons of gasoline, this means the entire 1970 corn crop, converted to alcohol, could have supplied less than 7 1/2 percent of that year’s domestic demand for motor fuel! It would have supplied only 1.27 percent of total US energy consumption. Even the record corn crop tabulated in 1976 (just over 6 billion bushels ) would have supplied less than 2 percent.

In other words, if we could miraculously increase corn yields about fifty fold, making 5,100 bushels grow on each tract of land now producing 100 bushels, we could eat our corn and have our fuel, too – free from dependence on depletable antiquity.

Make the merely optimistic assumption that we could perpetually hope to harvest 100 bushels of corn per acre, using energy inputs no larger than the 31 gallons of gasoline equivalent per acre that a 1944 estimate said were required to drive the machinery used in modern farming. (Actually, the impressive rise in per-acre yields since 1952 up to a point where that 100 bushel figure is plausible has depended on further large energy subsidies in the form of heavy applications of synthetic fertilizers.) The energy cost of raising each 100 bushels of corn would amount, then, to the fuel derived from about 19 bushels. So the net fuel production would be based on no more than about 81 bushels per acre. Each acre would yield the net equivalent of almost 3 barrels of crude oil. To provide for the energy Americans were using in 1970 entirely by growing corn and converting it to alcohol, we would have needed just about 20 acres of good farmland per capita. But in 1970, the United States had just slightly more than five acres of farmland per capita – about half the nation’s total area, and barely more than one-fourth of what it would take to meet American energy “requirements” from energy plantations converting contemporary solar energy into fuel. If all the farms in America had been devoted entirely to growing fuel-producing corn, and all could have yielded a net 3 barrels of crude-oil-equivalent per acre, the nation’s human carrying capacity without ghost acreage would have been no more than 51 million persons. (It would have been appreciably less than that, actually, because presumably we would have wanted to use some of the farms to produce something to eat.)

As a drawdown-dependent nation, the United States was thus already relying upon fossil acreage four times as extensive as its total visible farm acreage. Our concern for the incidental fact that an appreciable and growing fraction of that fossil acreage was overseas and under the control of potentially hostile peoples was permitted to overshadow the more permanently significant fact that fossil acreage anywhere, and under anyone’s control, was non-renewable. We were living on four parts of phantom carrying capacity for every one part of permanent (real) carrying capacity.

It should be clear, therefore, that the actual population of the United States had already overshot its carrying capacity measured by the energy-producing capability of visible American acreage. To achieve genuine self-sufficiency in energy by 1980, assuming a 1970 way of life but depending on visible acreage only, the population of this nation would have had to level off no later than 1880.

So the exuberant lifestyles of modern Homo sapiens were far more precarious than people realized. They could be practiced only as long as it was possible to continue extracting enough fossil fuels to maintain a high ratio of ghost acreage to visible acreage. When two things put this high ratio in conspicuous jeopardy, some perceptive people began at last to sense the fact that continuation of the exuberant way of life was threatened. One signal was the build-up of pollution; accumulation of the combustion products from fossil fuels began to indicate that continued use in continuously increasing quantities posed real hazards to human health and survival – and to the health and survival of other organic species upon which humans depend. The other signal was increased difficulty of obtaining the fuels themselves; some of the most accessible deposits had been depleted, and some of the largest known remaining reserves were under the territories of nations not always eager to turn over such wealth to American or West European consumer nations – at least not without exacting a price that seemed exorbitant by standards forged in the Age of Exuberance.

That age was over, and its standards were already obsolete. Because of cultural lag, their obsolescence would be only belatedly recognized. Meanwhile, prices would inevitably rise. Politicians and pundits, working from the old paradigm, would continue invoking merely fiscal explanations for this inflation, neglecting its ecological basis. Among its effects would be some loss of the emancipating influence of cheap energy. Opinion leaders would generally continue seeking political explanations for the erosion of freedom, and would continue neglecting the ecological pressure causing it. By scorning as mere “Arab blackmail” the second signal mentioned above (the increased difficulty of obtaining fuels), such minds insisted on remaining blind to a reality far more significant than its surface political manifestations.

Solutions That Aggravate Problems

Most of the world did not recognize the extent to which it was dependent on phantom carrying capacity in its use of fossil fuels. Non-recognition of dependence on invisible acreage, or the illusion of self-sufficiency, could lead to disaster, for actions based on illusions are inherently hazardous.

Consider, for example, the consequences of imagining that the resources of finite oceans were limitless. The more dependent a given nation became on “fish acreage”, the more it was driven to improve the technology of fishing or to increase the fraction of its labor force engaged in fishing. It needed to maximize its proficiency in harvesting food from the sea. The more fish it could take, the better its people could be supported – as long as there remained fish stocks to draw down. When the oceans seemed vast and fish stocks seemed unlimited, there were no inhibitions against perpetually increasing the annual catch. By the time the danger of destroying the resource became evident, the people who needed the fish were already present, and the nation’s dependence on resource-destroying rates of harvest was already established. Only after a lapse of time would calamity overtake it. If a fish-dependent nation’s rate of harvesting fish exceeded the sustained yield rate, the effects of the damage to world fish stocks would be spread (for the time being) among other fishing nations. Although only a fraction of the immediate damage would be felt by a particular fisheries-dependent nation, that damage-committing nation would get all the benefit of its own excessive harvest.

Whenever the in-group directly and exclusively benefits from its own overuse of a shared resource but the costs of that overuse are “shared” by out-groups, then in-group motivation toward a policy of resource conservation (or sustained yield rates of harvesting) is undermined. In other words, competition for scarce resources is the enemy of self-restraint. This becomes especially so, as Garrett Hardin showed in a 1968 article in Science magazine, when scarcity becomes increasingly acute.

Even so, in the case of “fish acreage”, it was possible for substantial numbers of people both in the fish-dependent nations and in the more nearly food self-sufficient ones to see that a rate of harvesting in excess of the rate of replacement led to exhaustion of the resource in the long run, and could be advantageous only in the short run. Indeed, an appreciable fraction of the earth’s human population was apparently beginning to grasp the sustained yield idea in regard to living resources such as fish or forests.

Understanding a principle and abiding by it are not the same thing. Overfishing continued in the 1970s, from necessity. The need for food now prevented men from always exercising the self-restraint they might know was necessary to ensure food for posterity. Posterity doesn’t vote, and doesn’t exert much influence in the marketplace. So the living go on stealing from their descendants.

Comprehension of the principle of sustained yield with respect to fish acreage has not prompted people to extend the idea very far into their thinking about other kinds of resources. Ghost acreage of the Carboniferous period was the resource base for “modern” living. In Asia, Japan was the nation most dependent upon such prehistoric photosynthesis. In Europe, Britain has been dependent on it longer than other nations. Americans were heavily dependent upon it, in spite of their huge expanse of visible acreage and their conspicuous agricultural surpluses. The more “modern” a nation had become, the more its way of life was based on importing energy from hundreds of millions of years ago. Yet so powerful was the old paradigm that it prevented most minds from even entertaining the thought that a replacement rate for fossil fuel deposits was as salient as the replacement rate for fish.

We have overused fossil acreage far more than we have overfished the seas. Overfishing means harvesting fish faster than they replace themselves by reproduction and growth. The inevitable result of continued overharvesting is eventual exhaustion of the resource. If it had been thought that men were harvesting fish as much as 1,000 (or even 100) times faster than the fish could replace themselves, there would have been much alarm around the world already. By 1970, the worldwide ratio between our use of fossil fuels and the natural rate of their replacement by geological processes was more like 10,000 to 1. Yet, at least until 1973, neither the ratio nor even the concept of replacement as such had entered the thoughts of most of the world’s ravenous users of prehistoric energy, imbued as they still were with the notion of limitlessness.

For human minds shaped by the culture of exuberance, the closest approach to concern for a replacement rate in the realm of energy seemed to be the vague public awareness that continued geological exploration was constantly leading to discovery of additional deposits of fossil fuels. New discoveries would “replace” the known “reserves” mankind was continually depleting. Oil wells were known to run dry, but new wells were continually being “developed”. The rate of discovery had no relation to the rate at which nature was laying down these deposits, but it looked like a rate of replacement. For a while it exceeded the rate of extraction (misleadingly called “production”), so the, illusion of a sustained yield felt almost plausible, even for a resource that, in principle, had to be exhaustible. Deceptive language supported this illusion.

In the 1950s, however, in America’s conterminous forty-eight states the discovery rate for petroleum deposits had peaked and turned downward. The downturn came in spite of improved technology for exploration, expanded geological knowledge, and intensified effort because only the less readily discoverable deposits remained to be found. When the “production” rate was less than the discovery rate, as it had been for several decades, the known “reserves” had been increasing from year to year (though the oil that existed in the world was not increasing). “Production” continued increasing even after the discovery rate began to decrease. The two curves crossed in 1961. Thereafter, even the superstitious notion that a rate of discovery somehow sufficed in lieu of an actual replacement rate could no longer support the illusion of sustained oil yields.

Modern man misled himself in a number of ways. He made prodigal use of prehistoric ghost acreage to achieve illusory increases in “efficiency” in farming the visible acreage of the present. Cottrell showed in his book, for example, that much more energy was invested to raise fifty bushels per acre in wet-rice farming by mechanized methods in Arkansas than by hoe culture methods in Japan. The illusion that the Arkansas procedures were more “efficient” arose from the fact that less than two man-days of human labor per acre were involved there, as against ninety man-days in Japan. To achieve that saving of more than 88 man-days of human labor, however, the Arkansas farmer had to invest in tractor and truck fuel, electricity, and fertilizer, all involving energy that was equivalent to at least 800 additional man-days of effort. This energy extravagance would be even more flagrant if the accounting included the energy used in manufacturing, shipping, and maintaining the tractor, truck, electric pumping apparatus, and so on.

Toward the end of 1973, when a no longer deniable shortage of petroleum was curtailing the use of automobiles in many countries, and was producing other unanticipated modifications of human activity, one American food distributor warned customers that food bills might be increased more than travel costs by the oil shortage. The distributor reported that the US Department of Agriculture had said some thirty percent of the nation’s fuel consumption was used in growing food and conveying it to the consumer’s table. What neither that distributor nor his customers seemed to recognize was that the figure cited implied that several times as much energy went into producing, processing, and distributing food as the food itself contained! In terms of “newspeak”, the perverted language from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, here was another inversion of meaning, similar to “war is peace” and “freedom is slavery”. Fossil fuel use had enabled man to believe that “prodigality is efficiency”.

Under these thoughtways men continued at the close of the 1970s to imagine that the solution to energy problems was to improve the technology for locating deposits and for extracting combustible substances from nature’s underground storage, or to increase the financial incentives for doing these things. It was as if a family whose members were living far beyond their current income should urge the head of the household to solve their problem of overspending by increasing his proficiency in filling out withdrawal slips at the bank. It was as if they were to commend rather than reprimand him for withdrawing more each week than the week before. Newspeak: “Extraction is production”.

Living on Ten Earths

A good estimate of the rate at which nature might be replacing the energy deposits man was withdrawing could have been easily calculated. One merely needed to know (1) the total weight of the earth’s atmosphere, (2) the fraction of it that was oxygen, (3) how long it had taken for that much oxygen to be released from carbon dioxide (in which it had formerly been bound), and (4) the comparative weight of the one atom of carbon to the two atoms of oxygen in each former molecule of atmospheric carbon dioxide. None of this information was secret or undiscovered; it wasn’t even very obscure. Sea-level atmospheric pressure was commonly known, as was the approximate diameter (from which could be calculated the surface area) of the earth. So the weight of all the air on earth could be calculated to a reasonable approximation with ordinary high school mathematics. Roughly one-fifth of the air was now oxygen, and 99 percent of that free oxygen had been released, it has been estimated, in the last 600 million years. The atomic weights of carbon and oxygen were readily available, and their ratio was simple to calculate. So it turned out that about 625,000 tons of carbon per year had been the average amount buried in deposits of coal, oil, natural gas, and other less combustible substances since the photosynthetic process began releasing into the atmosphere a net total of one million billion tons of oxygen. Much of that extraction of carbon from the atmosphere had occurred in the Carboniferous period, between 215 and 300 million years ago, so the present average annual addition to the world’s fossil fuel deposits could scarcely be as much as half the long-term average.

By the 1970s, however, the world’s human population, with all its technology, was burning these substances at a rate that re-oxidized and returned to the air more than four billion tons of carbon each year. In short, the rate of “harvesting” from this ghost acreage (4 billion tons per year) was more than 10,000 times what the rate of replacement might now be (1/2 x 625,000 tons per year). Conservative as the estimate of a 10,000 to 1 ratio might be, it was not calculated in time to deter deep commitment of human societies to such overuse.

Even more simply, it would have been possible (had it not been for the pre-ecological paradigm) to see how much the output of agriculture and forestry and fishing would have had to increase if Homo sapiens were to try to derive more of his current energy expenditures from current energy income. Man was withdrawing annually from savings about ten times as much energy as he was obtaining from current income (from organic sources); therefore, to reduce his dependence on fossil acreage by only one-tenth, man would have to double his use of contemporary photosynthesis. That would obviously entail improvements falling somewhere in the almost surely unattainable range, between another doubling of yield per acre and another doubling of tilled acreage at existing yields.

To become completely free from dependence on prehistoric energy (without reducing population or per capita energy consumption), modern man would require an increase in contemporary carrying capacity equivalent to ten earths – each of whose surfaces was forested, tilled, fished, and harvested to the current extent of our planet. Without ten new earths, it followed that man’s exuberant way of life would be cut back drastically sometime in the future, or else that there would someday be many fewer people. Neither alternative, and none of the reasons for them, were contemplated by those who glibly sought “energy independence”.

James Watt had been conventionally regarded as something of a cultural hero for giving man access to a vast “new” source of energy. In the eighteenth century no one could recognize that, by inventing the steam engine, Watt was inventing a way for mankind to overshoot the sustainable carrying capacity of this one earth. Watt was a clever and decent man who lived in (and exemplified) the Age of Exuberance. His invention compounded the influence of Columbus’s discovery, extending the carrying capacity surplus that briefly shaped our ideas, our lives, and our institutions. Watt reinforced man’s belief in limitlessness.

Neither Watt nor Roosevelt, who also reinforced that belief, was ever taught to think in terms of carrying capacity or ghost acreage. So Roosevelt could not know, while inspiring and leading his countrymen toward recovery from economic depression, or when helping ensure Allied victory over Axis aggression, that he was prolonging unrealistic expectations of exuberance. No one in his “brain trust” could warn him of this, because even the keen minds of his advisors were tuned to the old cornucopian paradigm and were not trained to recognize the perils of dependence on phantom carrying capacity.

Once mankind was committed to heavy reliance on continued use of exhaustible resources such as the deposits of fossil energy, it was certain to be as painful for people to emancipate themselves from their own technological entrapment as it had been for earlier men to emancipate themselves from owning human slaves.

From the end of 1973, Americans began worrying about the ratio between their consumption of “foreign oil” and their consumption of “domestic oil”. We let these worries overshadow completely the more profound issue that should have concerned everyone: the ratio between our dependence on energy from antiquity and our use of contemporary energy, that is, the ratio between expenditures of withdrawn savings and expenditures of current income. The four billion human inhabitants of this one earth had learned to live as if they could count on harvesting each year the equivalent of ten earths’ worth of combustible substance.


1. Recognition of this called for a change of national policy that long ago. See Whelpton 1939.

2. Compare discussion of the revolutionary potential when “cultural lags” pile up (Ogburn 1957) with the statement by Heilbroner (1974, page 132; listed among references for Chapter 1) explaining why the outlook is for “convulsive change”.

3. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin 41 (1894):79-1 12.

4. Neither the change nor the misunderstanding of it would be exclusively American. This was important: the world had been affected by the free land in the Western hemisphere. It had also been affected by the technology that increased man’s power to extract from the land in both hemispheres more wealth than earlier generations ever dreamed possible. So the whole world was now also affected by the filling up of formerly free land, and by the accumulated side-effects of modern technology. See Webb 1952 (listed among references for Chapter 2) and Cottrell 1955.

5. There were a few ways in which bigots might misread their racism into a book like Vogt’s, and some writers (for example, Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism [New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1976], pages 378-380) were offended by these aspects of the book. In a later book (People! Challenge to Survival [New York: William Sloane Associates, 1960]) Vogt acknowledged that he had been accused of racism for urging sharp reduction of birthrates especially among Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans, but he pointed out that his accusers “chose to forget my belief that the United States would [also] be better off with less people”. They also seemed to have read through Road to Survival without grasping its central message, as expressed in statements like these:

[page 80] We must realize that not only does every area have a limited carrying capacity – but also that this carrying capacity is shrinking and the demand growing. Until this understanding becomes an intrinsic part of our thinking and wields a powerful influence on our formation of national and international policies we are scarcely likely to see in what direction our destiny lies.

[page 284] By excessive breeding and abuse of the land mankind has backed itself into an ecological trap. By a lopsided use of applied science it has been living on promissory notes. Now, all over the world, the notes are falling due. Payment cannot be postponed much longer. Fortunately, we still may choose between payment and utterly disastrous bankruptcy on a world scale. It will certainly be more intelligent to pull in our belts and accept a long period of austerity and rebuilding than to wait for a catastrophic crash of our civilization.

Critics who dismissed Vogt as an implicit racist were evading the necessity of facing that choice between revising our drawdown policies and undergoing global bankruptcy. Vogt had said (page 284), “In hard fact, we have no other choice”. And he was hardly being racist or xenophobic when he insisted (page 285), “Drastic measures are inescapable. Above everything else, we must reorganize our thinking. If we are to escape the crash we must abandon all thought of living unto ourselves”. By accusing Vogt of racism, however, preoccupied critics could even remain blind to such warnings as this:

[page 68] We are an importing nation; and every day we waste hundreds of millions of gallons [of gasoline] … Our tensions find outlets in … traveling at high speeds that reduce the efficiency of our cars. We build into our automobiles more power and greater gas consumption than we need. We use the press and radio to push the sales of more cars. We drive them hundreds of millions of miles a year in pursuit of futility. With the exhaustion of our own oil wells in sight, we send our Navy into the Mediterranean, show our teeth to the USSR, insist on access to Asiatic oil-and continue to throw it away at home.

6. For example, American officials urge Saudi Arabia to keep oil output high to help stabilize the world economy in the face of shortages from other sources; the administration pushes through Congress a proposal for an Energy Mobilization Board with powers to “cut red tape” (that is, bypass environmental protection legislation) when energy-related projects such as pipelines, oil refineries, synthetic fuel factories, and so on, are at stake; the government “deregulates” natural gas and petroleum prices partly to “give incentives” to “producers”.

7. Borgstrom 1965, page 78.

8. Ibid.

9. See such sources as Small 1971; Colin Clark, “The Economics of Over exploitation”, in Hardin and Baden 1977, pages 82-95; P A Larkin, “An Epitaph for the Concept of Maximum Sustained Yield”, Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 106 (January 1977):1-11. There is an important relation between the sustained yield concept and the concept of carrying capacity. Carrying capacity could be defined as the maximum population of an exploiting species supportable by sustained yields of exploited resource species. See the definitions of these two terms given in the Glossary.

10. See Moorcraft 1973.

11. See Wynne-Edwards 1975.

12. See several of the papers in Schmidhauser and Totten 1978.

13. “Japanese Protest US Fishing Limit”, Seattle Times, November 4 1976, page G4.

14. Richard S Lewis, Appointment on the Moon (New York: Viking Press, 1969), pages 504, 546, gives the total weight of the Apollo ll Command Module plus Service Module plus Lunar Module plus Lunar Adapter as 50 tons. The velocity to which all this weight had been boosted when it left earth orbit en route to the moon was 24,000 miles per hour. It had thus had imparted to it 2.61 times 1012 joules of kinetic energy. For comparison: since three-fourths of the Great Pyramid’s 450 foot height is above its center of mass, the 11.5 billion pounds of stone used to build it were raised an average 112.5 feet from the ground; this imparted to the 2.3 million stone blocks a total of 1.76 times 1012 joules of gravitational potential energy-roughly two-thirds of the energy imparted by rocket engines to the spacecraft bound for the moon.

15. Newsweek, March 27 1972, page 39.

16. In 1979, American gasoline prices began to catch up with the higher prices most of the world’s other peoples had already experienced for years. The rise continued to be mistaken for “gouging” or “blackmail”, even though in ecological terms it was fundamentally an approach to greater realism, that is, the beginning of a continuing correction of past underpricing.

17. Cottrell 1955, page 4.

18. See Ayres and Scarlett 1952, pages 233-239, and Cottrell 1955, pages 141-142.

19. Christian Science Monitor, November 12 1976, pages 1, 30.

20. Cottrell 1955, page 142.

21. Recent research even indicates that biomass farming would, with present technology, yield negative net energy: energy inputs would exceed the energy content of the usable fuels made from the harvests. This shows even more emphatically how dependent upon phantom carrying capacity modern nations have allowed themselves to become. See Weisz and Marshall 1979.

22. At a time when other nations were devising “carless day” schemes, or were at least having to curtail the hours or days of the week on which gasoline could be sold, the American Daily News Digest (put out by Research Publications of Phoenix, Arizona) expressed its “conservative, free-market economics philosophy” by asking “Why is it that only the US has a gasoline shortage?” The answer it suggested (in the third week of May 1979) was that “only the US has a Department of Energy”. Startlingly similar views were expressed the following month by the 1976 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Milton Friedman, who called for immediate abolition of the DOE and elimination of all price controls on petroleum products and natural gas, “confident that the market will promptly bring the energy crisis to an end”. See his column in Newsweek, June 18 1979.

23. Hardin’s article has been widely cited and reprinted, and is included in Hardin and Baden 1977. See page 28 therein.

24. See Hubbert 1969 (listed in references for Chapter 10), page 178.

25. When used with insufficient care, “efficiency” can be a very misleading word. It always has a hidden reference: efficient with respect to what? In America and throughout the industrial world, labor efficiency has been purchased at the price of energy inefficiency. The latter type of efficiency has simply been neglected; as long as energy was unrealistically cheap and lavishly abundant, even the familiar concept of capital efficiency served very inadequately as a correlate or indicator of energy efficiency.

26. See the chapter by Lloyd V Berkner and Lauriston C Marshall in Brancazio and Cameron 1964. For a less technical version, see the article by the same authors in the tenth anniversary issue of Saturday Review, May 7 1966.

Selected References

Ayres, Eugene, and Charles A Scarlett. 1952. Energy Sources: The Wealth of the World. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Billington, Ray Allen. 1966. America’s Frontier Heritage. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Borgstrom, Georg. 1965. The Hungry Planet. New York: Collier.

Borgstrom, Georg. 1969. Too Many: A Study of Earth’s Biological Limitations. New York: Macmillan.

Brancazio, Peter J, and A G W Cameron, editors. 1964. The Origin and Evolution of Atmospheres and Oceans. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Bryson, Reid A, and Thomas J Murray. 1977. Climates of Hunger: Mankind and the World’s Changing Weather. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Cottrell, Fred. 1955. Energy and Society. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Esposito, John C. 1970. Vanishing Air. New York: Grossman.

Hardin, Garrett, and John Baden, editors. 1977. Managing the Commons. San Francisco: W H Freeman.

Loehr, Rodney C, editor. 1952. Forests for the Future: The Story of Sustained Yield as Told in the Diaries and Papers of David T Mason, 1907-1950. St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.

Loftas, Tony. 1970. The Last Resource: Man’s Exploitation of the Oceans. Chicago: Henry Regnery.

Moorcraft, Colin. 1973. Must the Seas Die? Boston: Gambit.

Ogburn, William F. 1957. “Cultural Lag as Theory”. Sociology and Social Research 41 (January – February): 167-174.

Ordway, Samuel H, Jr. 1953. Resources and the American Dream. New York: Ronald Press.

Park, Charles F, Jr. 1968. Affluence in Jeopardy. San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper.

Schmidhauser, John R, and George O Totten III, editors. 1978. The Whaling Issue in US-Japan Relations. Boulder: Westview Press

Small, George L. 1971. The Blue Whale. New York: Columbia University Press

Turner, Frederick Jackson. 1920. The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt

Vogt, William 1948. Road to Survival. New York: William Sloane Associates.

Weisz, Paul B, and John F Marshall. 1979. “High-Grade Fuels from Biomass Farming: Potentials and Con straints”. Science 206 (October 5): 24-29

Whelpton, P K. 1939. “Population Policy for the United States”. Journal of Heredity 30 (September): 401-406.

Wynne-Edwards, V C. 1965. “Self-Regulating Systems in Populations of Animals”. Science 147 (March 26): 1543-48.

Worse than Foreseen by Malthus (even if the living do not outnumber the dead)
March 2000

In the decade just after World War 2, the ideas of Thomas Robert Malthus made a comeback. Becoming acutely aware of rapid population increase and degradation of environments, we learned to speak of a “population explosion.” A rumor circulated that there might be more humans alive in our time than the sum of all past populations. Although the rumor was mathematically incorrect, it expressed a valid concern. If descendants of the 950 million contemporaries of Malthus in 1798 had continued doubling every 25 years (as he reported the people in England’s colonies in America had been doing), there would be today 242 billion people on this planet. That would be more than the total of all past human births. [1]

The present world population of 6 billion is only two and a half percent of that 242 billion. World population has not doubled eight times. It has “only” doubled two and two-thirds times in the eight quarter-centuries since Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population. This reduced number of doublings shows how important it was to point out, as Malthus did, factors that restrain population increase.

Even if, statistically, there are not “more humans alive than dead,” the more fundamental point conveyed by that inaccurate aphorism is well taken. Despite the Malthusian checks on population growth, the world is today burdened with a prodigiously huge human load.

We need to realize the “load” with which we humans burden the planet’s ecosystems consists of more than just a population number. People living by different cultures not only reproduce at different rates; they impose very different per capita ecological impacts. Culture includes a population’s technology and people’s ways of organizing themselves. Each of us living in a “developed” country (i.e., industrialized far beyond anything conceivable to Malthus) has an enormously greater resource appetite and environmental impact than does each resident of a so-called “developing” country. For our grossly unsustainable manner of living, 6 billion is far too many.

Over all previous time, calculated estimates show that actually up to 20 times that many people were born and have died. [2] But the per capita demands and impacts of most of them were far less than ours are today. So, given our prodigal way of living, if one of every 20 people who have ever lived are living now, this is in itself a fact that ought to impress us no less than the spurious “more humans alive than dead” claim.

Malthus, were he among us today, would surely agree — because it matters how we live. The very technological progress cited by those who imagine the warnings of Malthus have been rendered obsolete has actually intensified the problem he was trying to illuminate — the problem of a human load outgrowing their environment’s carrying capacity.

In recognition of our voracious appetites for non-renewable resources, I have proposed the term “Homo colossus” to designate modern humans equipped with today’s technology and organization. Per capita energy use can serve as a reasonable index of the extent to which we are colossal. [3] During

those same two centuries since Malthus wrote his essay, the world average per capita energy use more than doubled, and in America it doubled four times! Depending on just what threshold we require for applying the label, it could well be true that there are more members of Homo colossus living than dead, even if that is not so for non-colossal Homo sapiens.

For too long too many have imagined that all 6 billion Homo sapiens (or more yet in the future) could aspire to become colossal. Even the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) advocated achieving this by accelerating economic growth everywhere, to bring living standards in the developing countries up to those of industrial nations. But the Commission seemed oblivious to the fact this would require several additional Earths to provide the needed resources and absorb the end-products of so much Homo colossus metabolism. [4]

If, as is increasingly being argued, we colossal modern humans have overshot global carrying capacity,[5] a monumental downsizing episode lies ahead. Can we yet choose whether it will be a downsizing of prodigal life-styles rather than a downsizing of population numbers? That is the issue modern Malthusians are striving to bring to public attention.


[1] For an early estimate of the total number of human babies ever born, see Cook, Robert C. “How Many People Have Ever Lived On Earth.” Population Bulletin, 18 (February 1962):1-19. [2] See sources cited in Weeks, John R. 1989. Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues (4th edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., pp. 54-55. [3] With regard to the devastating impact of our own species upon the world on which we must live, see Chapter 6 (especially the presentation of the I=PAT formula, pp. 132-134) in Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. 1990. The Population Explosion. New York: Simon & Schuster. In my book (Catton, William R. Jr. 1980. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, Urbana: University of Illinois Press) I developed a similar perspective — but without the formula. [4] See, for example, pp. 12-16 in Wackernagel, Mathis, and William Rees. 1996. Our Ecological Footprint. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers. [5] See not only ibid., but also Postel, Sandra, “Carrying Capacity: Earth’s Bottom Line.” pp. 3-21 in Lester R. Brown, et al. 1994. State of the World 1994. New York: W. W. Norton.; and see Appendix 6 in Cohen, Joel E. 1995. How Many People Can the Earth Support? New York: W. W. Norton.

These definitions are from Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change by William J. Catton, Jr.
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 a eminently suitable but previously inaccessible habitat. [Imagine a roe and a buck deer placed upon an island covered with forage and where there are no predators. They will happily be fat and multiply as fast as they can. That was what it was like when the Europeans came from over the sea to the new world, the Americas. Their superior weapons and method of social organization allowed them to largely ignore the fact that the Indians were already there.]

Ecological Exuberance: the lavish use of resources by members of a freely expanding population who are, at a given time, significantly fewer in number than the maximum permitted by the carrying capacity of their habitat. [The catfish are jumping, the corn is high; your daddy’s rich and your mammy’s good lookin’.]

Culture of Exuberance: the total complex of beliefs and practices associated with the opportunities for expansive life in the Age of Exuberance; a culture founded upon the myth of limitlessness. [The American Dream; there will always be more tomorrow of that which we now perceive as wealth than there is today, no matter how many more people there are.]

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 either that a given resource is inexhaustible or that substitutes can always be found. [The belief that there is enough material and energy for everybody on the Earth to have a car, and a house with three garages, that it’s just a matter of working for it. That way, driving a guzzler has absolutely nothing to do with somebody else’s poverty.]

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. [This is the way TV urges most people to think, because the big boys are always after more money, no matter what. There will never be too many people or gasoline guzzlers, too much carbon dioxide, or enough stuff to spend money on.]

Cosmeticism: faith that relatively superficial adjustments in our activities will keep the New World new and will perpetuate the Age of Exuberance.[Thinking that nuclear and wind power, smaller cars, and better light bulbs will allow everything to just keep on truckin’ the way it is.]

Ostrichism: obstinately persistent belief in the myth of limitlessness; the unrealistic supposition that nothing basic has changed; refusal to face facts. [Thinking that it doesn’t matter if species are increasingly going extinct, the climate getting worse, the poor more desperate, the people more numerous, the moneyed increasingly blind and isolated swamped in their things and power —that is the way the world has always been and always shall be.]

Realism: recognition that the Age of Exuberance is over and that overpopulation and resource depletion must inexorably change human organization and human behavior. [Realizing that the only thing that is going to get us to the other shore beyond the darkness is a great change.]

Paradigm: an underlying shared idea of the fundamental nature of whatever it is that a collectivity of minds seeks to understand: an idea that guides inquiry and thought by defining what seems real, how things are presumed to work, and how additional facts about this reality and these processes may presumably be obtained. [The habit of understanding the world that lies even deeper than our awareness. Now, it is belief in the fairness of money and its ability to lead us into the future.]

Ecological Paradigm: in general, a view of the web of life that recognizes a common chemical basis for all types of organisms (including man), emphasizes the dependence of all life processes upon flows of energy and exchanges of chemical substance between organism and environment, and expects living forms inevitably to have effects upon each other by these exchanges; in this book, rejection of the notion of human exemption for ecological principles and affirmation of the view that ecological concepts are essential for understanding human experience. [A way of understanding the world that is only in its beginning; in which we understand our actions upon the ecological systems to have global consequence and our destiny becomes that of a species dependent upon our relations with one another and the biosphere, rather than this current concept fostered by our economic system of isolated individuals, each getting his own.]

Human Exemptionalism: the notion that human beings are so fundamentally unlike other living creatures that principles of ecology (and perhaps many of the principles of other branches of biology, too) are inapplicable to us. [Thinking that the possession of consciousness somehow exempts us from the cycles and consequences of nature, such as being able to overpopulate our planet beyond its long term capacity to support us.]

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 some significant fraction of an accumulated resource that is not being replaced as fast as it is drawn down. [Creating the possibility for more people to be alive by exhausting resources faster than they are being replaced.]

Detritus Ecosystem: an ecosystem in which detritivores play a major part. As organic detritus accumulates in a given habitat, there is a temporary increase in carrying capacity for detritus consumers. Insofar as these are capable of increasing much faster that the detritus accumulates, however, their introduction to the community after detritus has already accumulated, or their release from some constraint that had earlier held back their use of the accumulation, tends to result in a cycle of bloom and crash. They irrupt and then as the detritus supply is exhausted, they die off. [Species can evolve that learn to feast off of accumulated dead remains, increase their exhaustion of that stored energy rapidly while it exists, run into the peak, and then die off.]

Detritovore: an organism that subsists by consuming detritus; by extension, any organism that uses the accumulated remains of long-dead organisms, including industrial human communities which are “detritovorous” insofar as they depend on massive consumption of the transformed organic remains from the Carboniferous period known as fossil fuels. [We are living off of the supply of dinosaur blood which can only run out because they are no longer walking the Earth, as well as off the other hydrocarbons, all of which are accumulations of dead organic matter.]

Takeover Method of Extending Carrying Capacity: increasing opportunities for one species by reducing opportunities for competing species. [Creating the possibility for more people to be alive by extinguishing other species.]

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. [In the case at the beginning of the deer, if there was some way that they could learn to stop increasing their population at a number where the forage grew back as quickly as it was being eaten, then they would have a lifestyle in harmony with the environment, capable of continuing into the future without end. That number would be the carrying capacity of the island. For humans, the carrying capacity can be enlarged within limits with changes in technology and organization. What is important is to see the limits before one runs into them like a brick wall, and to realize which of the two ways of change best promises to fulfill any need to adapt —technology has been given the credit for everything, but it has been upon the back of the dinosaurs. If technology can no longer carry the ball then we are forced toward a different organization, and in all probability, a much smaller population.]

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. [The millions and millions of houses that have been built around the idea of always having automobiles, and which will be almost worthless without them.]

Redundancy Anxiety: a morbid apprehension arising from population pressure, based on the more or less conscious realization that if there is an excess of population in relation to carrying capacity, the population may include oneself, not just others. [Realizing that if there are too many people in the world, then one’s own goose might be cooked.]

Carrying Capacity Deficit, Overshoot: the condition wherein the permanent ability of a given habitat to support a given form of life is less than the quantity of that form already in existence. [The deer multiply beyond the number where the forage can grow back. In their hunger they devour it down to the roots where it grows back even more slowly, and almost all the deer then die off. This happened at St. Matthew Island. It also happened with people at Easter Island.

The way to understand overshoot in terms of human being is to give up for a minute the fantasy that there is nothing that science cannot do. Look around at the degree to which our society is based upon the current supply of dinosaur blood, and imagine that supply declining every year after year from now until forever. Then, reflect upon the attitudes that so many people have and that are so encouraged by the profit seekers: “I’ve got the money to buy an SUV and to fill the gas tank, and if that’s what I want to do that’s what I’m going to do”;”If they don’t have enough money to have a life, it’s because they are either lazy or their government is rotten”;”If the world is going to run out of oil, then I had better hurry up and use what I can while it’s still here”;”We can’t let jobs and growth be taken away to save some silly endangered specie”;”It is God’s Will that brings children into the world”;”The End of the World is coming and we at least are going to go to heaven, so why worry?” Even if somehow the reality of dinosaur blood exhaustion does not leave us beyond the capacity of the Earth to sustain us, our attitudes surely will. This is overshoot.]

Diachronic Competition: a relationship between generations in which living organisms satisfy their wants at the expense of their descendants.[This is where people don’t know what to do with themselves other than want what the TV pushes them toward, such as retiring on golf curses in the desert watered with drinking water. They have to enjoy now the money they’ve got, regardless of the trashed out world that they leave behind.]

5 thoughts on “Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

  1. Really great article – I was thinking about a similar article which I will probably still take a shot at, but from a slightly different angle. Thanks for sharing this with your readers…I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates it.

  2. But the humane solution is obvious: population control. Birth control & renewable power can easily support a *smaller* population.

    Apex predators often practice population control, actually. If humans fail to learn this lesson we’ll get wiped out in a huge bust.

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