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Synthesis/Regeneration 52   (Spring 2010)

William Catton: Sequel to Overshoot

Review by Phil Ardery Jr.

Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse, by William R. Catton, Jr., Xlibris, 2009, 290 pp, ISBN: 978-1-4415-2241-2 (hardcover), 978-1-4415-2224-5 (softcover).

Near the end of this book, William R. Catton, Jr. writes, "All the previous chapters have been aimed at enabling the reader to see why, with great reluctance and regret, I am compelled to doubt that we can confidently hope to avoid a serious `crash' as the focal human experience of the 21st century - envisioned also as our species having to pass through an ecological `bottleneck.'"

The bottleneck will involve some measure of "actual population die-off, such as befalls other species when they overshoot their habitat's carrying capacity." Die-off will be reduced to the degree that birth rates fall, and, more significant still, to the degree that people in industrialized countries, Americans in particular, "drastically downsize our per capita `ecological footprint.'"

To achieve the less painful passage through the impending bottleneck, Catton says, "Unprecedented society-wide and world-wide cooperation is urgently needed" to pull back from "the abusive dominance of the biosphere by Homo colossus." (The term Homo colossus, coined in Catton's 1980 classic Overshoot, describes modern human beings whose acquired technology greatly enlarges per capita resource appetites and per capita emissions.) Probabilities for achieving the needed cooperation are close to zero, Catton reasons, because our biological and cultural inheritances militate against it. Specifically, Catton points to the disastrous interplay of natural selection, the commercial takeover of human language, and industrial society's extreme specialization in the workplace.

Die-off will be reduced to the degree that people in industrialized countries
"drastically downsize our per capita `ecological footprint.'"

Catton credits early 20th century American sociologist E.A. Ross (Sin and Society, 1907) for recognizing the desocializing impact of specialized labor, though of course Ross did not foresee its ecological consequences. Catton writes, "In a society with elaborate division of labor we rely upon others to look after our sewage, invest our savings, nurse our sick and teach our children." Today's mutualism differs from pre-industrial mutualism in the degree to which modern transactions are commercialized, executed as an exchange for money. As Catton states it, "The interdependence generated by division of labor has made money an essential aspect of life. This drives people toward seeing `the economy' as a money tree. We grow up learning ways to participate in plucking money tree foliage."

As money becomes the object of labor, we humans lose solidarity and distance ourselves from the consequences of our actions. Ross had written, "It takes imagination to see that the savings-bank wrecker, loan shark, and investment swindler, in taking livelihoods take lives. It takes imagination to see that the business of debauching voters, fixing juries, seducing lawmakers, and corrupting public servants is like sawing through the props of a crowded grandstand." The modern detached condition means that when catastrophe happens, the malefactor whose actions contributed to its likelihood consoles his conscience, in Ross's phrase, "by blasphemously calling it an `accident' or `an act of God.'" Putting Ross's insight into the ecological and 21st century context, Catton writes, "Looking ahead, that blasphemy will surely be a recurrent misdefinition of our situation when the world confronts enormous woes following our pell-mell depletion of this planet's carbon-sequestering `fossil fuel' deposits and our centuries-long practice of injecting greenhouse gases into the global atmosphere, bringing about the devastation of coastal lands by rising sea level."

While not subscribing to even a loose postulation of biological determinism, Catton does remind the reader that "Our existence indicates that our ancestors had successfully outcompeted neighboring groups of hominids, both ecologically and culturally, and left descendants." Furthermore, "Deception is among the set of strategies by which an individual organism's chances of survival are enhanced, enabling its attributes to be transmitted to the next generation."

As money becomes the object of labor, we humans lose solidarity
and distance ourselves from the consequences of our actions.

As a college student 60 years ago, Catton encountered the writings of S.I. Hayakawa and Alfred Korzybski ("General Semantics"). Catton took from them "the idea that our use of language in defining situations we encounter in life is analogous to the use of maps when we travel, or when we simply want to understand the locations of places and the characteristics of regions." Socially responsible speakers and writers, seeking to help fellow humans orient to ecological facts on the ground, would strive for the same accuracy sought by conscientious mapmakers. "The relationship between words and things or events should be like the relation between a map and the territory it represents." But in the "free market" industrialized world, advertising dominates the flux of words and images. "Division of labor promotes the use of words (and other symbols) not for the purpose of informing but for the purpose of enticing/seducing/exploiting," Catton writes. Plucking money tree foliage virtually requires a person in the industrialized era to subvert language to the service of commerce, making it a tool for persuasion and thereby denying it the value it might achieve as a navigation aid.

Catton tries to correct such habitual mistaken phrasings as oil production, which he labels instead as extraction. "Perhaps the ultimate human error was our recent ancestors' innocent misconception in defining (and thus perceiving) the underground carboniferous substances as available fuels.. Unquestioned definition of the sequestered carbon as fuel-meant-for-burning led to massive, on-going, ultimately disastrous desequestration."

Heretofore, short-sighted behavior has been the greatest guarantor of survival and succession into a next generation. E.O. Wilson (The Future of Life, 2002) wrote, "For hundreds of millennia those who worked for short-term gain within a small circle of relatives and friends lived longer and left more offspring.." Carrying those same behaviors through the impending bottleneck will devastate Earth life.

Americans have a special responsibility for the destruction ahead, having elected leaders on the promise they will "stimulate the economy" and wage wars across the planet in service to commercial interests and our own Homo colossus appetites.

In Adolfo Doring's 2008 documentary film Blind Spot, in which Catton is featured along with Richard Heinberg, Lester Brown, David Korten and others, Catton recalls that US President "Jimmy Carter suggested we're going to have to do without some of the things that we're accustomed to doing with abundant petroleum energy. And immediately after he made an address to the nation talking about the need for adjusting, Howard Baker, who was then the majority leader of the Senate, went on the air with a counter-speech in which he said that that wasn't the American way, that the American way was to find more oil and produce our way out of this predicament we were in."

Of course, Carter lost his next election, and we know how Barack Obama learned the political lesson from that one. In January 25, 2010 remarks to the White House Middle Class Task Force, Obama said, "We're going to keep fighting to rebuild our economy so that hard work is once again rewarded, wages and income are once again rising, and the middle class is once again growing. And above all, we're going to keep fighting to renew the American dream and keep it alive not just in our time but for all time."

So, the tactic preferred by today's elected so-called leaders is to mislead until the day when facts will ultimately trump spin, and America discovers our supermarket shelves are suddenly empty, and we explode in a stupid rage. A better way? I don't prevent the bottleneck, but I get my fears about the future more under control, and I preserve some self respect, when I promote such non-Colossal programs for job creation as a changeover to the 30-hour work week.

The statement, "To make what I know inform what I do" encapsulates a test of sorts for a person's relative maturity. In writing Bottleneck, Catton has honored that principle. His dedication page reads,

To Nancy and our sons in loving appreciation for steadfastly insisting this book needed to be written. May future generations of people inhabiting this planet be descended from the most hubris-free members of each preceding generation.

Phil Ardery Jr., a member of the

Synthesis/Regeneration editorial board, serves on the coordinating committee of The Greens/Green Party USA and lives and works in Louisville, KY, where he helps organize the Louisville Sustainability Forum.

[3 sep 10]

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