Overshoot: The Human Trajectory
By EV World
William Catton wrote his landmark book , Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change nearly 30 years ago. The premise of his thesis is that any species -- including man -- can be too successful in exploiting ecological niches and their accompanying resources. Such is the case of humanity's dependence on the finite resource called oil, which is why Professor Catton was asked to address the Sustainable Energy Forum on Peak Oil and the Environment in Washington, D.C. this past May.
"My intention today, using an evolutionary time perspective, is to emphasize that the changes coming to our future lives will be no passing inconvenience. Overwhelming dependence on an exhaustible resource has roots in a trend established long prior to its crescendo in the last half century."
And for the next 30 minutes, Catton dons his professorial mantle and proceeds to walk through a lecture he has surely given countless times.
Catton points out that he carefully and deliberately avoids the term "crisis" when referring to the problems facing modern man; preferring instead the term "predicament" because what looms ahead can't be dismissed as a temporary storm that can be ridden through.
"The consequences of our uses of hydrocarbon fuels will never be adequately understood if viewed apart from a context provided by principles of ecology," Catton explained. "It's become essential to recognize that all creatures, human or otherwise, impose a load upon the environments that surround them, the ability of that environment to supply what they need, and to absorb and transform what they excrete or discard.
"What is meant by an environment's carrying capacity for a given kind of creature living in a given way of life, is the maximum persistently feasible load. It's a load just short of what would begin damaging that environment's ability to support life of that kind."
The critically important qualifier in that definition, Catton insists, is the phrase "living in a given manner"
The thrust of his argument is that once a culture reaches the carrying capacity of it resources, it can no longer increase in numbers or raise its collective standard of living, especially both.
"Most people still resist seeing the relevance of the carrying capacity concept for the human condition. Without this conceptual aid to vision," he continued, "they fail to see the serious effects of overuse of the environment or of a resource." In the case of the Peak Oil and the Environment conference, it's oil, he emphasized.
So, it is with some irony that he carefully builds the case that modern, energy-intensive man has assumed the energy consumptive qualities roughly equivalent to an Ultrasaur-- once thought to be the world's largest dinosaur -- at a population density of 64 per square mile.
He emphasizes that the more there are of us and the larger our energy/resource consumption footprint, the harder it is for the environment to provide the three basic categories of services upon which all life is dependent: an environment from which we obtain energy to live, in which to carry on life's activities, and into which to discard our metabolic products.
"The more colossal we are and the more of us there are… the less likely we are to keep these three vital functions from interfering with each other," he stated, cautioning that it is as important to consider the consequences of our collective impact on the "into" as it is the "from" when discussing man's prolific use of hydrocarbon fuels.
Catton is has lost none of his didactic charm and persuasiveness, so if you're looking for a thought-stimulating lecture, then be sure to listen to his presentation in its entirety. You can do so by using either the Windows or Quicktime MP3 players in the right hand column or by downloading the file to your computer hard drive for playback on your favorite MP3 device.
EV World extends its thanks to the organizers of the Sustainable Energy Forum for granting us permission to record the event.