carrying capacity overshoot william catton

Overshoot: Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet

Our planet has a carrying capacity for each species with a particular way of life. Industrialized humans (in fact, civilized societies in general) have exceeded that carrying capacity by both our population and our extraction-based way of life.

The assumption that an infinite growth is possible in a finite planet is inherently flawed. Any system based on this assumption is inherently unsustainable and waiting  to collapse. This overshoot poses a risk for other natural communities relying on Earth as well as for the future generations of life that are yet to come.

The following is an excerpt from Overshoot by Wiliam Catton. Catton’s work is well-written, compelling, and deeply researched. He explains the greatest problems facing humanity as a result of the collective absence of an ecological perspective and reluctance to face limits to growth. While there may be elements of his presentation you disagree with, the ecological fundamentals he presents are simply true.

By William Catton / Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

In a future that is as unavoidable as it will be unwelcome, survival and sanity may depend upon our ability to cherish rather than to disparage the concept of human dignity. My purpose in writing this book has been to enhance that ability by providing a clear understanding of the ecological context of human life.

It is axiomatic that we are in no way protected from the consequences of our actions by remaining confused about the ecological meaning of our humanness, ignorant of ecological processes, and unmindful of the ecological aspects of history. I have tried to show the real nature of humanity’s predicament not because understanding its nature will enable us to escape it, but because if we do not understand it we shall continue to act and react in ways that make it worse.

Competition Across Time

On the banks of the Volga in 1921 a refugee community was visited by an American newspaper correspondent who had come to write about the Russian famine. Almost half the people in this community were already dead of starvation. The death rate was rising. Those still surviving had no real prospect of prolonged longevity. In an adjacent field, a lone soldier was guarding a huge mound of sacks full of grain. The American newsman asked the white-bearded leader of the community why his people did not overpower this one guard, take over the grain, and relieve their hunger. The dignified old Russian explained that the sacks contained seed to be planted for the next growing season. “We do not steal from the future,” he said.

Today mankind is locked into stealing ravenously from the future. That is what this book is about. It is not just a book about famine or hunger. Famine in the modern world must be read as one of several symptoms reflecting a deeper malady in the human condition— namely, diachronic competition, a relationship whereby contemporary well-being is achieved at the expense of our descendants. By our sheer numbers, by the state of our technological development, and by being oblivious to differences between a method that achieved lasting increments of human carrying capacity and one that achieves only temporary supplements, we have made satisfaction of today’s human aspirations dependent upon massive deprivation for posterity.

People of one generation have become indirect and unwitting antagonists of subsequent generations. Yet diagnoses of our plight— even ecological analyses—have not made clear one essential point. A major aim of this book is to show that commonly proposed “solutions” for problems confronting mankind are actually going to aggravate those problems. Proposed remedies for various parts of our predicament need to be evaluated by asking whether they will intensify the adversary relationship between people living today and people of the next generation, and the next…

The overlooked differences between methods that permanently enlarged human carrying capacity and more recent methods that have only enabled us temporarily to evade the world’s limits can be seen if we contrast the way people used to seek the good life versus today’s substitute expedient. In the mid-nineteenth century it was “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country”—i.e., go where there is new land to take over, and use such an increment of carrying capacity to prosper. At the start of America’s third century, however, it was “Try to speed up the economy”—i.e., try to draw down the finite reservoir of exhaustible resources a bit faster.

Because this book is meant to overcome our habit of mistaking techniques that evade limits for techniques that raise them, it is, in a sense, a book about how to read the news perceptively in revolutionary times. That cannot be done without certain unfamiliar but increasingly indispensable concepts. “Carrying capacity” is one of them. Until recently, only a few people outside such occupations as wildlife management or sheep and cattle ranching have even known this phrase. Its vital importance to all of us has not been as obvious as it is now becoming. The time has come for scholars and everyone else to take a piercing look at the relationship between the earth’s changing capacity to support human inhabitants and the changing load imposed by our numbers and our requirements. The direction of recent change makes this relationship just about the most important topic there is for people to know about, and think about. We have come to the end of the time when it didn’t seem to matter that almost no one saw the difference between ways of enlarging human carrying capacity and ways of exceeding it.

It has now become essential to recognize that all creatures, human or otherwise, impose a load upon their environment’s ability to supply what they need and to absorb and transform what they excrete or discard. An environment’s carrying capacity for a given kind of creature (living a given way of life) is the maximum persistently feasible load—just short of the load that would damage that environment’s ability to support life of that kind. Carrying capacity can be expressed quantitatively as the number of us, living in a given manner, which a given environment can support indefinitely.

When the load at a particular time happens to be appreciably less than the carrying capacity, there is room for expansion of numbers, for enhancement of living standards, or both. If the load increases until it exceeds carrying capacity, overuse of the environment reduces its carrying capacity. That is why it has become important to recognize the difference between increasing the number an environment can support indefinitely and surpassing that number by “accepting” environmental damage. Overuse of an environment sets up forces that will necessarily, in time, reduce the load to match the shrinkage of carrying capacity.

As these points begin to indicate, in order really to understand our future we need a clear-headed ecological interpretation of history, because the pressure of our numbers and technology upon manifestly limited resources has already put out of reach the previously acceptable solutions to many of our problems. There remains steadfast resistance to admitting this, but facts are not repealed by refusal to face them. On the other hand, even the “alarmists” who have been warning of grave perils besetting mankind have not fathomed our present predicament.

I speak of “predicament,” not “crisis,” because I refer to conditions that are not of recent origin and will not soon abate.

In brief, that predicament and its background can be outlined as follows: Human beings, in two million years of cultural evolution, have several times succeeded in taking over additional portions of the earth’s total life-supporting capacity, at the expense of other creatures. Each time, human population has increased. But man has now learned to rely on a technology that augments human carrying capacity in a necessarily temporary way—as temporary as the extension of life by eating the seeds needed to grow next year’s food. Human population, organized into industrial societies and blind to the temporariness of carrying capacity supplements based on exhaustible resource dependence, responded by increasing more exuberantly than ever, even though this meant overshooting the number our planet could permanently support. Something akin to bankruptcy was the inevitable sequel.

Old Ideas, New Situation

The sequel has begun to happen, but it is not generally recognized for what it is. We have come to a time when old assumptions that compel us to misunderstand what is happening to us have to be abandoned.

We and our immediate ancestors lived through an age of exuberant growth, overshooting permanent carrying capacity without knowing what we were doing. The past four centuries of magnificent progress were made possible by two non-repeatable achievements: (a) discovery of a second hemisphere, and (b) development of ways to exploit the planet’s energy savings deposits, the fossil fuels. The resulting opportunities for economic and demographic exuberance convinced people that it was natural for the future to be better than the past. For a while that belief was a workable premise for our lives and institutions. But when the New World became more populated than the Old World had been, and when resource depletion became significant, the future had to be seen through different lenses.

Assumptions that were once viable but have become obsolete must be replaced with a new perspective, one that enables us to see more effectively and to understand more accurately. This book seeks to articulate that needed perspective. It is no easy task, for the new way of seeing must differ sharply from traditional assumptions. Being unfamiliar, the new perspective will initially be distasteful and seem implausible. We shall continue to wish that some of the experiences it enables us to understand more clearly were not happening. But if we have the wisdom implied by the name we gave our own species, we must face the fact that continued misunderstanding of unwelcome experiences cannot prevent them from happening and cannot insulate us from their consequences.

People accustomed to expectations of magnificent progress have been appalled to find that they have lost their confidence in the future. The idea that mankind could encounter hardships that simply will not go away was unthinkable in the Age of Exuberance. This idea must be faced in the post-exuberant world. It seemed at last that it might really be faced when the thirty-ninth president of the United States decided (shortly after taking office) to emphasize energy conservation in response to manifest depletion of once-abundant fuels, rather than resorting to the traditional American urge to “produce our way out” of mounting difficulties. Important options had been lost irretrievably when humanity irrupted beyond the earth’s permanent carrying capacity. New and different imperatives now must be faced. Their ecological basis must be seen.

Man is like every other species in being able to reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of any finite habitat. Man is like no other species in that he is capable of thinking about this fact and discovering its consequences. Thinking about other species, man has seen their dependence upon environmental chemistry and upon the energy of sunlight. Man has recognized the many-faceted interdependence of diverse organisms, their impact upon their habitat, their impermanence, and their inability to foresee and evade the processes leading to their 6 own displacement by successors. Thinking about our own species, however, at least until April, 1977, too many of us imagined ourselves exempt, supernatural. Until a president not yet worn down by the compromises inherent in office-holding nudged Congress and the American people into serious discussions of conservation, men and women throughout the United States and many other lands relied on technological progress to cure the very afflictions it had been causing.

Nature is going to require reduction of human dominance over the world ecosystem. The changes this will entail are so revolutionary that we will be almost overwhelmingly tempted instead to prolong and augment our dominance at all costs. And, as we shall see, the costs will be prodigious. We are likely to do many things that will make a bad situation worse. It is hoped that the kind of enlightenment offered in this book may help curtail such tendencies.

The paramount need of post-exuberant humanity is to remain human in the face of dehumanizing pressures. To do this we must learn somehow to base exuberance of spirit upon something more lasting than the expansive living that sustained it in the recent past. But, as if we were driving a car that has become stuck on a muddy road, we feel an urge to bear down harder than ever on the accelerator and to spin our wheels vigorously in an effort to power ourselves out of the quagmire. This reflex will only dig us in deeper. We have arrived at a point in history where counter-intuitive thought-ways are essential.

15 thoughts on “Overshoot: Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet”

  1. Overshoot is next on my reading list. It is sitting on my bedside table just under Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame”, which I am currently reading. If you really want a challenge, try Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society”. Terrific insights, but, wow, really dense. I got halfway through and then had to take a break for some lighter reading, which included “Sapiens” and “Man’s Rise to Civilization”.

  2. • Since the early Roman Empire, the human population has doubled five and a half times. The 1st doubling took 1100 years, and added 175 million people. The 5th doubling took 40 years, and added 2.8 billion. As Paul Ehrlich states, “A long history of exponential growth does not imply a long future of exponential growth.” By the estimates of several scientific disciplines, human growth will end badly, sometime in the next 20-60 years.
    • Bhutan is the only country on earth where 60% of the land is required by law to remain forested, carbon sequestration must exceed carbon emissions, and “profit” is regarded as an alien concept. Population is more or less stable at 800,000. Imagine a world where 60% undeveloped land, positive carbon sequestration, non-profit enterprises, and population stability had been mandated by law (as it is, indirectly, by natural law) for the last 2000 years.
    • Suicide attempts are illegal in many places, and it is justifiable to use lethal force against a person who is threatening your life. If I am not mistaken, the central premise of Deep Green Resistance is to enforce both of these laws, globally and collectively.

  3. First and foremost: I haven’t read Overshoot, but I’ve heard of it multiple times from friend and Earth First! cofounder Dave Foreman. If this excerpt is any indication of what the book is like, it’s very disappointing. The main thing I noticed in this excerpt was the typical human anthropocentrism. Obsessing on what humanity needs, saying that things were basically good until a short while ago, etc., is not the basis of a radical analysis or radical environmentalism. Dave is no more anthropocentric than I am, which is to say not at all, so I don’t understand why he often referred to this book. My comments about specific statements in the excerpt are as follows:

    “As these points begin to indicate, in order really to understand our future we need a clear-headed ecological interpretation of history …” And we will not get that interpretation by failing to go back far more than 400 years.

    Humans did not “discover” a new hemisphere 400 years ago. Instead, Europeans invaded what are now called the Americas, committing genocide against the Native people, stealing their land, and destroying it for their own foolish and relatively short-term benefit. This claim is ethnocentric at best, racist at worst.

    “Man is like every other species in being able to reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of any finite habitat.” And humans are unlike any other species in that they were able to circumvent natural population controls that would have lowered their population as soon as it exceeded the carrying capacity of their respective ecosystems and habitats. Expanding out of Africa all to every continent but Antarctica and causing extinctions all along the way, then using agriculture instead of hunting and gathering for food, are the first two examples of this. The fact that humans are “capable of thinking about [being able to overpopulate] and discovering its consequences,” yet have chosen to do nothing about this until we were so overpopulated that we’re choking the life out of the planet and everything that lives here shows the moral and ethical failures of humans, not to mention the practical failure.

  4. I don’t buy the idea that human overpopulation has anything to do with food availability – at least not in the scale brought by civilization. Hunter-gatherers had plenty to eat and didn’t overpopulate. The concept of famine was invented by agrarian societies. Poverty has never prevented population growth.

    Much more likely, patriarchy (which on its turn probably resulted from a combination of factors, possibly including agriculture and animal husbandry) caused human population to grow excessively by reducing women’s social role to reproductive/sexual/labour. *Of course* women will have a lot of babies when this is the only thing we’re seen as good for.

  5. @I.
    Food availability is a major natural limitation of population size, not only in humans but in all species. Consider the Petri dish experiment that we all did in high school biology.

    What I espouse about agriculture causing a major human population explosion is a THEORY. No one has proven why agriculture and exponential human population growth started about the same time, but agriculture circumventing the natural population control of food availability makes the most sense of any theory I’ve read on the subject. I don’t know whether hunter-gatherers outside of tropical Africa had famines or starvation, but my guess would be that they did because they had left their natural habitat, which is the tropical savanna of Africa.

    But that all said, agriculture is very bad for the environment even if it didn’t cause human overpopulation. By definition, “agriculture” means killing native plants, and indirectly the animals that depend on them, in order to plant what you want. No other animal lives this way (the only other animal that uses what could be called agriculture is some species of ants, but they don’t kill any native plants to do it), and it’s very harmful to every other species and to ecosystems themselves.

    As to why women have a lot of babies: I don’t know whether hunter-gatherers have evolved beyond this, but in nature women are constantly pregnant and have a lot of babies. The reason that humans don’t overpopulate in hunter-gatherer societies is that, as with most terrestrial mammals, the large majority of children do not live to breeding age. Additionally for humans, many women would die in childbirth. So it’s not that hunter-gatherers don’t have a lot of kids, it’s that most of the kids don’t live long enough to have their own kids.

  6. Nah. Women are not constantly pregnant unless men impregnate us constantly. You need to learn what patriarchy is and how it was formed. I recommend “The Creation of Patriarchy” by Gerda Lerner.

  7. @I.
    Like a global warming/climate change denier, you won’t accept facts. Facts and reality don’t care whether you like them, they exist nonetheless. There’s no point in having a discussion with you if you’re going to deny what are accepted natural history and biological FACTS.

    And BTW, “patriarchy” doesn’t exist where humans live naturally, which they do only as hunter-gatherers. (Because humans have an intellect that’s much more developed than other animals, male humans could create a patriarchal system in hunter-gatherer societies also, but it would be more difficult and it’s far less common there.) That’s like saying that lions are patriarchal because the females do all the hunting, i.e. all the work. You need to reshape your ideologies to conform to the natural world, not vice versa. Different genders have DIFFERENT biological (i.e, “natural”) roles to play. Neither role is superior or inferior, though I think it would be best if women made all the major societal decisions. So men and women are equal but different, despite what many brainwashed modern humans think.

  8. A freely available audiobook version of OVERSHOOT, by William R. Catton, Jr. (narrated by me), can be found here:

    Also see my “RIP Homo colossus” playlist:

    For solid ecological grounding, in addition to Catton, I recommend the following…

    William E. Rees —

    Teddy Goldsmith —

    William Ophuls —

    Tom Wessels —

    I’ve also recorded John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, Tim Watkins, and many others.

    Here are ALL my playlists:

  9. As various modern societies have demonstrated (most notably Russia, Japan, and Italy), wherever women’s access to education and employment approaches that of men, populations stabilize or even decline — and, unfortunately, the growth demands of capitalism are violated, and governments declare a “population crisis,” and start pushing for more babies. Capitalism is hard-wired for self-destruction.

    South Korea is an extreme (and almost comical) example. That country now faces an extreme population decline. Due to an abundance of career opportunities for women — AND the persistence of a patriarchal culture, where men typically expect marital dominance — something approaching a majority of young South Korean women are now refusing to marry, and are establishing a subculture of their own (where I would imagine lesbianism and male prostitution are rampant).

    At the other end of the spectrum, I continue to be amazed at how leaders in all fields of world society accept a future world of 10 or 11 billion people as an inevitability we must somehow accomodate, instead of an existential crisis we must somehow prevent.

    Someone in the DGR readership always accuses me of “racism” when I make this perfectly logical point. But there is nothing racist in not wanting to see the people of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America commit collective suicide, and take the ecology of the planet down with them.

    Nor is there necessarily anything draconian in advocating a mind shift away from babies being a “blessing,” and toward a culture where having multiple children is considered antisocial behavior. All we need is for political leaders of the overpopulating countries themselves to make this point, and for religious leaders to admit that ancient scriptural exhortations to “be fruitful and multiply” did not mean “until you destroy the planet you live on.” It’s time foe the bishops and imams of the world to grow up and say, “Okay, God/Allah. We did that. Now what?”

    As I’ve also noted here, two states in India put a quick end to population increase, simply be restricting government jobs and aid to parents of no more than two children. (Population in India as a whole continues to inceease by about 1% a year. But in those two states, it has stabilized — and without any forced abortions, sterilizations, or babies being killed.)

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