Friday, July 9, 2010

The Elephant in the Room

No, I haven't abandoned this blog, but digging through the archives of John Michael Greer's Archdruid Report, and following up on links and recommendations, has put me in serious sponge mode.

I just finished reading Overshoot by William R. Catton. It's still a timely book 30 years after publication, a stark and devastating analysis of the human predicament from an ecological perspective. In a nutshell: we're riding a wave of exuberance that started with the Age of Discovery, got a boost from the Industrial Revolution, and is accelerating straight toward a crash: a major decline in both human population and material standard of living. The timing and exact nature of the crash will depend on many factors, but at this point in time, if you accept certain premises, some sort of crash is unavoidable.

If everyone on Wall Street read and understood Catton's book, or if any major world leader understood and articulated it (even Jimmy Carter missed the mark), the crash would start today, and maybe in a preferable form to many of the alternatives.

Depending on your knowledge of the science of ecology (as opposed to the movement or the marketing strategy), you may be missing a lot of the background concepts and terminology. Or you may have some misconceptions of the concepts and their implications. That's one of the biggest impediments to understanding where we are. It's also an impediment to any kind of leadership on the issue. We have for too long failed to recognize or accept that we are living beyond sustainable limits, in terms of numbers and in terms of energy consumption.

The first premise we must discuss is that there is a finite carrying capacity for a given species of organism in a given ecosystem. In other words, there is a maximum average population that can be supported indefinitely by the resources that an organism uses.

"Maximum average" might seem like an oxymoron until you realize that organisms can and do temporarily exceed carrying capacity. The outcome of this overshoot (hence the title of Dr. Catton's book) can be oscillation if resources can recover quickly enough, or longer-term crash if resources are too depleted or damaged to recover quickly.

The majority of the Earth's biomass is the result of photosynthesis, which is the conversion of sunlight into chemical bond energy in plants and certain bacteria. These organisms, called producers, are the basis of most food chains and webs that support life on Earth, including humans.

For a very long time, human populations were supported by the living food webs of the land and sea. With the domestication of plants and animals, we managed to increase carrying capacity by slowly and incompletely displacing other ecosystems, including other human societies, with our own agricultural systems. But we were still living within limits, as long as soil fertility could be maintained or regenerated, because we were supported by current solar income.

Something fundamental changed at the end of the 1700's. Starting in England, and spreading through Europe and the lands settled by Europeans, people began to rely more on solar savings, the vast deposits of fossilized detritus we know as coal, petroleum, and natural gas. This was solar energy stored over hundreds of millions of years. Once extracted from the Earth's crust it yielded a tremendous amount of energy and greatly increased industrial production and efficiency.

Fossil fuel-driven mechanization was applied to manufacturing, transportation, and eventually to agriculture. The extra energy has allowed us to displace other ecosystems and other "less productive" societies at an ever faster pace and to perpetuate the illusion that we are somehow separate from Nature and not subject to her limits.

Almost everyone is aware of some of the problems with this situation. Pollution and habitat destruction are the most obvious effects. We are poisoning the air and water we rely on while our growth threatens the few relatively undisturbed natural places. There is, of course, a great global debate about global warming.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Few realize how much our whole economy and way of life are dependent on cheap energy from fossil fuels. Cheap fossil fuel lets us dominate and exploit other parts of the world for our own gain. The expectation of continued growth into the future allows continued deficit spending on programs that allow continued population and economic growth.

Catton uses the term "ghost acreage" to describe the production that comes from outside a given area's or country's current solar income. It could be acreage or resources in an exploited country, or the resources from international waters, or the fossil fuel deposits in the Earth's crust. Ghost acreage allows for phantom carrying capacity, but only as long as the ghost acreage lasts and is accessible. Political strife, overfishing, and shrinking fuel supplies with diminishing energy returned on energy invested are all threats to access.

Eventually, the fossil fuels left in the Earth will be too costly to support the current paradigm. This might happen in the next 10 years, or the next 50. The Great Depression of the 1930's and the energy crises of the 1970's were good previews of what to expect, but there won't be the same prospects for recovery back to unsustainability. For reasons discussed elsewhere, renewable energy just won't take up the slack without a) requiring huge fossil energy investments up-front and b) becoming unsustainable themselves.

We'll see major contractions of industry, transportation, and communications. Population will decline as the health care system degrades. The US Federal government will have to divest from its empire and delegate more authority to states and localities if it hopes to survive. We will transition into a poor country. Local communities and local food will once again be the focal points of our lives. Let's hope this is the outcome. It beats some of the apocalyptic scenarios many have imagined.

But don't take my word for it. Besides, I've omitted a lot of details that have been covered elsewhere. A good place to start would be John Michael Greer's book The Long Descent, then the archives of his blog, including the comments. Follow the reading recommendations there. Start gardening. Connect to your local community. Learn to live a simpler humbler life.

My current mantra is from the cover of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:



  1. I think it is definitely important to learn about ecological principles as both you and Greer mention. It is also very important to study the specifics of the particular bioregion one lives in too. Do you have any insights on your own bioregion or area you live in? That would make a fine post too!

  2. I remember my great-grandmother telling me back in the late 1960's that we were going to regret what we were doing to the planet. I don't recall her ever uttering the word "ecology" but she certainly knew of it after living her entire life up to her elbows in it working the family homestead in northern Michigan.

    Good summation of where we are and how we got here. Now to convince more than a handful of people of the seriousness of the situation while the worst effects of the four horsemen can be mitigated. We're in the process of heading for Florida where we hope to at least convince some of our family by example if not by words.

  3. Another good bit of bumper sticker philosophy is "Live simply that others may simply live".

    We are going to have to change the current paradigm that overconsumption is the definition of success, and that economy, frugality, and mindfulness are for losers that "nature" is culling.

  4. Lance, I have thought about the bioregional implications, and I agree it would be a very interesting, albeit extremely complex topic. You see, I live in the midst of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, so the biological factors are heavily influenced by sociological and political factors that could play out in unpredictable ways. I look around though and see a good agricultural climate and surprising amounts of arable land, much of it currently lying fallow in the form of suburban lawns.

    Ric, I think leading by example is the way to go, and avoids some of the pain of skulls hitting brick walls. As for the horsemen, I suspect it's a little late to have much direct influence.

    Snoozepossum, there will have to be some literal culling to bring us back within carrying capacity, and it won't necessarily seem fair, though it will be more in line with ecology than what currently prevails