Facing the Future Wisely

Perilously Persistent Cargoism

It is essential to see the profound peril in continued flagrant misperception of the very nature of the human situation. That peril compelled me to write this book. Misperception is the problem to be overcome by a paradigm shift, and only a paradigm shift can overcome it. Misperception will tend to motivate efforts to pursue ostensible "solutions" that will, when the circumstances are so much different from what people suppose them to be, make matters worse instead of better. In this concluding chapter, therefore, I want to highlight the contrast between prevalent presuppositions about our situation (and about our options) and the actual ecological circumstances that need to be recognized and with which we must do our best to cope.

During the debate on energy policy, one ominous sign of the prevalence of mistaken assumptions was the fact that Cargoist expectations could pass for Realism. [Realism: recognition that the Age of Exuberance is over and that overpopulation and resource depletion must inexorably change human organization and human behavior. Age of Exhuberance: the centuries of growth and progress that followed the enlargement of habit available to Europeans as a result of voyages of discovery: a period of expansion when a species takes exhuberant advantage of the abundant opportunities in an eminently suitable but previously inaccessible habitat. Cargoism: faith that technolgical progress will stave off major institutional change even in a post-exhuberant world; the equivalent among people of industrial nations to the cargo cults of the Melanesian islanders.] As we saw in Chapter 4, Realism and Cargoism are importantly different. This difference has been obscured during public debate by exaggeration of a lesser difference—between Cargoist expectation that "tech fixes" will overcome our problems, and the more exuberant former expectation that problems would naturally vanish with passage of time.

In referring to Cargoist thoughtways I am not now merely speaking of particular technological proposals—of domestic solar water heaters or other "soft energy paths," of the breeder reactor, stepped-up oil exploration, better carburetors or smaller cars, gasification of coal, geothermal power generation, etc. At this point I have in mind the general background belief that carrying capacity can "always" be raised anew by further technological breakthroughs. [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 human species).] As we saw in Chapter 2, major technological achievements did in past ages repeatedly raise the ceiling for human population. Modern Cargoism naively supposes this picture of the past must also be a valid picture of the future. It may not be.

Figure 1:

In Figure 1, three images are compared. Image A schematically depicts a curve of exponential growth in a situation where there is no ceiling. That image represents the expectations nurtured by the Age of Exuberance. Only the outright Ostrich can hold that view of the human situation today.[Ostrichism: obstinately persistent belief in the myth of limitlessness: the unrealistic supposition that nothing basic has changed; refusal to face facts.] Image B (if taken as a picture of the past) shows that Image A was once plausible because the ceiling sometimes was raised before the growth curve had quite bumped against it. The Cargoist way of thinking takes Image B as a picture of the future. Image C, a schematic way of reflecting the fact that prosthetic man's resource appetite has grown larger and larger, shows that carrying capacity can be considered a diminishing quantity rather than an ever-enlargeable quantity. [Prosthetic device: in medical practice, an artificial substitute for a part of the body(as, for example, an artificial limb; by extension; any artificial device or any other thing that either serves a function some organ would otherwise serve, or enables an organism to do something it could not otherwise so without having devloped a special organ for the purpose.] Technological advances can reduce carrying capacity, even if historically their function was to raise it. Image C is much more different from Image B than the latter is from Image A. Insofar as Image C is applicable to mankind's situation in the real world of post-exuberant times, then Image B is not sufficiently more realistic than Image A to serve in charting our way into a post-exuberant future.

Despite this, there are persistent temptations toward Cargoist thinking. By the time the thirty-ninth president of the United States implored his countrymen to devote themselves to "the moral equivalent of war" to meet the challenge of living in a post-exuberant world, to tax themselves in ways that might begin to foster energy conservation, and by the time he urged Congress to enact various efficiency-promoting policies, other developments were already beginning to provide excuses for supposing crash would be averted. Hope continued to spring from anticipation of new ways to accelerate drawdown.

Oil companies, styling themselves "energy companies" as they diversified their holdings and their entrepreneurial activities, filled the media with ads extolling technological breakthroughs to come. Americans would beat the Arabs at their own game; if the Arabs happened to be sitting on top of the world's largest remaining oil reserves, Americans had more than that much energy under their own land in the form of coal. The ad writers glowingly told the viewing and reading public about new ways being devised to dig it up faster and burn it better. Coal would be liquefied, gasified, piped in one form or another to where we wanted it. (The need for vast quantities of water to do this, and the scarcity of water in some areas where much of the strip mining was going to occur, were not mentioned in the ads. Nor was the inescapably dead-end nature of the drawdown method ever acknowledged, amid Cargoist rhetoric and imagery.) [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. (See, by contrast, Sustained yield.)]

Excuses were available internationally for thinking along Cargoist lines. European nations had faced a serious emergency at the time of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, but this had subsided. Now, oil rigs in the North Sea were "producing." New life was being pumped into the British economy by the oil being pumped ashore in Scotland. Norway, too, was extracting North Sea petroleum, and was rising in affluence among the top-ranking nations. So neo-exuberant attitudes were again temptingly plausible.

In America, shortages of gasoline and fuel oil had for a while been hard not to notice, though even in 1974 they had been relatively mild. In 1977 and 1978, Americans underwent harsh winters but surmounted some newsworthy economic dislocations and some discomfort. In 1978 these problems were aggravated by a coal miners' strike, and in 1979 the upheaval in Iran resulted in renewed gasoline shortages. But fossil acreage deprivations were (for a while) nuisances that came and went. People soon adjusted to paying higher prices for fuel after OPEC decreed that they must. When above-ground stockpiles of mined coal were drawn down during the 1978 strike, the United Mine Workers and the coal mine "operators" were jawboned into arriving at a strike settlement, although there was no official or public recognition of the fact that this merely returned them to drawing down exhaustible underground stocks of unmined coal. And if the Europeans thought the North Sea provided the kind of anti-crash insurance they sought, Americans took the same view of Alaska's north slope.

Not visible to the average citizen of the colossal energy-consuming countries was the fact that for several years the ratio of proven oil reserves to on-going consumption had been falling. Not realized by those who now felt reassured that easily usable energy was going to continue to be plentiful was the fact that several deposits comparable in magnitude to the North Sea and Alaskan north slope oil fields would need to be discovered each year to feed fuel appetites already so colossal and obstinately growing. Instead, what was visible was the fact that the once-controversial pipeline to Valdez was completed. Oil began flowing through it in July, 1977. A few attempts to sabotage it either fizzled or only briefly impeded the flow—and gave Americans the somehow comforting illusion that voracious energy appetites could always be fed as long as adequate "security measures" were taken to protect our hunter-gatherer facilities. Tankers brought the oil from Valdez to California, in sufficient abundance to exceed the capacity of coastal refineries and continental pipelines. The resulting "glut" once more fanned the flames of cornucopianism, giving the myth of limitlessness new plausibility in a time when it ought to have been nearing extinction.

Opportunity Becomes Necessity

In the past, when the myth of limitlessness was more excusably plausible, technological progress ran ahead of population growth and ahead of resource appetite enlargement. [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.] This gave us room to grow. When we entered post-exuberant times, we faced a reversal of this situation: growth was continuing and had become a hard-to-break habit, an ingrained expectation now threatening to run ahead of technological advances. Growth momentum was now demanding that the technicians make their breakthroughs as needed to keep us from feeling the pinch of the world's limits. What had been a land of "limitless" opportunity became a land obsessed with conjuring enough new opportunities to keep pace with compulsive growth.

It was not the first time in human history that opportunities had developed into precarious requirements. It is instructive to look at the case of the Irish. There were only about 2,000,000 human inhabitants of the Emerald Isle in 1700, a century after the potato was introduced.3 At first, potatoes were an addition to the roster of Ireland's food crops; in time they were to become the mainstay of the Irish sustenance base, for reasons I shall not delve into here, having to do with the already troubled history of that country. Eventually they came to be virtually the entire fare of perhaps as many as 90 percent of the people. In 1727, before this had come about, oat crops failed, so the people of Ireland ate up their potatoes about two months sooner than they usually would have done, and many starved before winter had ended. This experience was the provocation for Jonathan Swift's satirical essay (called "A Modest Proposal") depicting a solution to the problems of Ireland by eating superabundant children.

Figure 2:

In 1739, Ireland was subjected to an unusual November freezing spell, which destroyed potatoes still in the field and already in storage. It has been estimated that 300,000 people died. But thenceforth, as the Irish became more and more committed to reliance on the potato, their numbers expanded (for a while at an accelerating pace) until they had passed the 8,000,000 mark by the census of 1841. In the top panel of Figure 2, I have plotted the Irish population curve, fitted to dots representing actual data. Population was still rising (probably through a kind of demographic momentum) when a fungus infection of potato plants reached Ireland in 1845. It turned potatoes into stinking, inedible, gooey globs. As the fungus organism (a competitor of Homo sapiens) took over the consumption of potatoes, the fungus irruption terminated the prior human irruption.

A people who had become so completely dependent on one type of resource, which now turned out to be a fallible resource, were living so precariously that a population crash was inevitable when that resource did indeed fail. Recent censuses have thus shown Ireland (both the Republic and Northern Ireland together) to be inhabited by only about half as many people as lived there just prior to the famine. One striking feature of the Irish experience is the fact that population was still increasing, and the rate of increase had barely begun to diminish, when crash began. The onset of crash was not heralded by any prior period of "equilibrium."

For about four generations the potato had been an opportunity for the Irish, but it soon became a requirement. For modern prosthetic hunter-gatherer nations, fossil acreage has been similarly converted by exuberant growth (of both population and industry) from an abundance of opportunities into an indispensable requirement. Although in the Irish case we know what happened to population (it crashed, but this crash consisted partly of emigration rather than totally of die-off), we can only surmise the carrying capacity trend. It does seem certain that the 8,175,124 population figure for 1841 had exceeded what the sustainable carrying capacity of the land might have been even if potatoes had not been susceptible to blight. Sooner or later soil deterioration from excessive use would have taken a similar toll, though more gradually.

Minds that think ecologically can penetrate beyond the idiosyncrasies of political history, such as the prolongation of feudal warfare in Ireland, and the chronic conflict between the Irish and the English, or between Protestants and Catholics. They can see from the lynx cycles or the Irish population experience the utter folly inherent in the American Petroleum Institute slogan, "A country that runs on oil can't afford to run short." The slogan becomes much truer if we delete its last two words! For any species—human, feline, or whatever—excessive dependence upon a non-constant resource base makes life precarious.

Many former settlements in the American West surged into brief prosperity and then atrophied into ghost towns. Essentially the same process was at work there and in Ireland: people allowed themselves to become numerous and extremely dependent upon a single type of resource that could not remain always abundantly available. Among the ghost towns, of course, "crash" presumably consisted entirely of out-migration; as long as there were other niches in a national economy into which ex-boomtown folk could move, actual die-off was quite unnecessary. Half or more of the Irish crash consisted of emigration. For a world population that has overshot carrying capacity, however, emigration is not a feasible alternative to die-off.


Pasts and Their Futures, Four Models of Overshoot

Pasts and their Futures

Even in the face of precedents like Ireland, eminent minds have continued to disregard the prospect of crash for prosthetic1 societies. Herman Kahn and his associates, for example, assumed that a logistic curve was still the appropriate model to represent the American Experience with growth. Moreover, they quite arbitrarily assumed that America had merely arrived at the curve's inflection point by the time of the national bicentennial, Panel A. That assumption allowed them to project a further 200 years of growth for this nation, albeit progressively decelerating growth. The scale of American life would eventually be twice as high as had already been reached; if actual population increase leveled off much sooner than 200 years hence, then much of the increased scale could take the form of further enlargement of per capita consumption. In any event, there was, they supposed, room for us to become more numerous and more colossal.

The logistic model hardly applies to all populations. It assumes a constant carrying capacity. It could have applied to Americans if, after European colonization of the North American continent began, the technology used by these new inhabitants had not continued to advance. Then the merely geographic increment of carrying capacity would have produced an expansion of population to fill the newly available but fixed number of niches. At first the expansion would have shown an accelerating pattern. The Age of Exuberance was a manifestation of that pattern, a response to the unexploited niches then available in a New World. Eventually the pattern would have changed to decelerating growth as the ceiling was approached.

Technology did not remain static, however. Recognizing that the technological change that has turned Homo Sapiens into Homo Colossus enable us to consume exhaustible resources at escalating per capita rates, and enables us to take over for ecologically unproductive uses land that might otherwise have provided sustenance in the form of renewable resources, Panel B shows carrying capacity being reduced as population expanded in the age of exuberance. [Colossus: originally the gigantic statue of Apollo at the entrance of the harbor of Rhodes; hence, any gigantic person or thing; in this book, a human being equipped with tools or apparatus that greatly enlarge the resource demands and environmental impact of that organism.] The future portion of Panel B depicts what supposedly might happen if, as is advocated by those who have become just enough ecologically aware to sound the alarm, the nations of the world succeed in halting growth very soon. So sharp a turn in the trend curve —from still-accelerating "progress" to a "steady state society" almost overnight— would inevitably be one of the most socially traumatic experiences in American history. Accordingly, these persons who oppose the "steady state society" idea insist that such a transition would be intolerable; many of them also insist that it is not necessary. But even the advocates of such a revolutionary curbing of aspiration tend to assume that the line between past and future occurs at a point in time where growth has not yet overshot carrying capacity. If overshoot has already occurred (or must occur because of demographic and technological momentum already generated), then the model depicted in Panel B is already obsolete, whether or not such a transition to equilibrium might once have been feasible.

Resistance to abrupt change of deeply ingrained habits, expectations, and institutional forms and processes probably means the curve could not be voluntarily ( or democratically) bent toward the horizontal as sharply as shown in Panel B anyway. Sociocultural (and economic) momentum would tend to make Panel C more realistic. That is, the growth curve will continue upward, even as more and more people begin to sense something like a decline in carrying capacity. Overshoot will occur, if it hasn't already. We may come to feel guilty about stealing from the future, but we will continue to do it. Overshoot will further aggravate the reduction of carrying capacity. Crash must follow. The greater the overshoot, the greater the crash.

After human population has crashed, resource species population could again grow faster than they would be consumed. Thus, in Panel C, the carrying capacity curve is shown bottoming out and starting to recover as a result of human population crash. Another cycle of human increase follows. This lynx-like recovery would be possible if carrying capacity were entirely or even mainly determined by renewable resources —i.e., if Homo Sapiens were still a consumer of organic products entirely derived from other (rabbit-like) living components of the biotic community.

This is manifestly not the case. Hence, in Pane D, "carrying capacity" has been represented by two different curves. A major fraction of the recent, apparently high carrying capacity for human high-energy living must be attributed to temporary resources —i.e., non-renewable fossil acreage, the earth's savings deposits. In Panel D, it is optimistically assumed that the component of carrying capacity based on renewable resources has remained stable so far. But it is recognized that serious overshoot, induced by temporarily high composite carrying capacity, will at least temporarily undermine even the sustainable component. "Energy plantations" for example (one of the Cargoist3 proposal's), will tend to aggravate the competitive relation between our fuel-burning prosthetic machinery and ourselves; land taken over to feed technology will not feed humans. So "temporary carrying capacity" is shown actually dipping below the horizontal line for a while, before it recovers and becomes again simply "carrying capacity". The lesson from Panel D is that crash caused by the exhaustion of phantom carrying capacity by Homo Colossus could preclude a later cycle of regrowth.

The boundary between past and future is drawn in Panel D, as in the other three panels, at a time when population appears not yet to have overshot carrying capacity. Whether or not that optimistic feature of the model is justified by current facts makes little difference if current practices have committed us to a trajectory that continues upward so that it is destined soon to cross the descending curve that represents global carrying capacity, a capacity not yet acknowledged to be finite. My own view, of course, is that the curves have already crossed.

Either way, the past shown in Panel D more nearly accords with ecological history that do the pasts shown in Panels A, B, or C. The future hypothesized by Herman Kahn's think-tank group is dangerously optimistic because it is based on the least realistic past. But the pasts shown in Panels B and C are also less realistic than the past shown in Panel D. The futures shown in Panels B and C are therefore also probably somewhat "optimistic" —although it seems necessary to enclose the word in quotation marks, because even the Panel B future seems dismal, and the Panel C future seems disastrous.


Our best bet is to act as if we believed we have already overshot, and do our best to ensure that the inevitable crash consists as little as possible of outright die-off of Homo Sapiens. Instead, it should consist as far as possible of the chosen abandonment of those seductive values characteristic of Homo Colossus. Indeed, renunciation of such values may be the main alternative to renewed indulgence in cruel genocide. If crash should prove to be avoidable after all, a global strategy of trying to moderate expected crash is the strategy most likely to avert it.


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—Overshoot: The Ecological Basis for Revolutionary Change; Wiilliam R. Catton, Jr.; pg. 244-54,266