We are stealing from the future

William R.Catton jun: As long ago as 1980 he was arguing that the Earth's population had already...
William R.Catton jun: As long ago as 1980 he was arguing that the Earth's population had already overshot its human carrying capacity. Photo supplied.
"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 . . .

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."

So begins Overshoot, a book conceived by American sociologist William R.Catton jun while he was living in New Zealand, teaching at Canterbury University from 1970 to 1972.

The book, eventually published in 1980, helped to move sociology beyond its previous habit of seeking only social explanations for social facts, and into the new ecological paradigm which emphasises the web of material and energy flows upon which all life - humanity no exception - depends.

The book presents a unified view of humanity, our history and our present predicament, as inseparable from our ecological context and from the principles of successional ecology.

At its core is an argument that modern technology, by greatly increasing our per-capita resource demands and environmental impact, has turned us all unwittingly into colossal antagonists of future people.

Prof Catton argues (some 28 years ago, in 1980!) that the Earth's population has already overshot its human carrying capacity - hence the book's title.

This has been able to happen because recent technological advances have at once created an illusion of unlimited abundance, while actually decreasing our maximum permanently supportable load, by driving an ever-increasing reliance on finitely available resources.

By failing to make the crucial distinction between developments that genuinely increased the Earth's human carrying capacity (such as the initial invention of agriculture) and those that can supplement our lives only temporarily (i.e. reliance on fossil fuels), we have created a state of competition between our own well-being and that of those who follow us.

And in this competition, the imbalance of power is total.

Fossil fuels are the world's endowment from the geological deep past.

Around 1800, we woke up to the fact that we'd inherited a zero-interest savings account - the geological strata - containing a vast fortune, which had been deposited, a penny a decade, since time immemorial.

Having progressively raised the world's human carrying capacity before 1800, by giving us access to a progressively greater portion of the resources of the biosphere, recent technological advance has mostly been accelerating the drawdown of that zero-interest savings account.

Industrial humankind's occupationally diversified population is effectively a detritus ecosystem: our ecology rests on an essentially linear, rather than cyclical, flow of resources.

Instead of wisely investing the energy wealth we've discovered for posterity, we have been spending it on building and populating our private theme park, Neverland.

On the plus side, it has been a good party.

Scattered through the book are references to how Prof Catton's experience of living in New Zealand was formative to his thesis. New Zealand, a country whose European colonisation had begun long after that of the America's, presented an ecological snapshot of an earlier time in the now heavily industrialised United States.

For instance, in 1970 the Maui gasfield extracted its first natural gas; before this New Zealand had entirely depended on oil and gas imports from overseas.

And through to the early 1970s, New Zealand had been highly dependent for its wealth on a mutualistic relationship with the United Kingdom - in which frozen meat was exported in exchange for the products of Britain's industrial economy - that was threatened as the United Kingdom debated whether to join the European Community, which it finally did in 1973.

The simplicity of this relationship highlighted both the extent to which New Zealand's economy depended on Britain's fossil-fuelled industry, and also the extent to which Britain depended on food imported from New Zealand, ultimately relying on Britain's use of "fossil acreage" to sustain its industrial activity.

And then the oil price hike of 1973 had suddenly thrown the entire West into recession, triggered when the major oil-producing nations announced that they would no longer ship oil to countries that had supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

Some of the most vivid sequences of Overshoot are a reworking of historic events within the framework of human ecology.

To Prof Catton, the exuberant self-conception of the youthful America, which found expression in its ideological politics, had as much to do with the extravagant ecological superabundance of a vast new, virtually unpopulated continent, as with more traditional social and historical explanations.

In another chapter, Prof Catton points out that, much like a chain, which is only as strong as its weakest link, the carrying capacity of any local ecosystem is limited by its scarcest essential resource (Liebig's law).

Trade has allowed human communities to exceed their local carrying capacities, by exporting locally abundant resources in exchange for locally scarce ones.

The Great Depression, essentially a breakdown in the global systems of trade, brought this fact into stark relief.

As hungry city folk migrated back into the countryside, temporarily reversing the longer arc of urbanisation, they were moving away from local ecosystems whose carrying capacities had been overshot.

If in our headlong pursuit of growth we have already overshot the whole Earth's human carrying capacity, the stark question we face is: how much, through changing the way we live, can we renew the carrying capacity of our planet? Such a task is made all the more difficult given that the usual effect of overshoot is to lower the carrying capacity, as the excessive population load progressively degrades its environment (for instance, in the domino-like collapse of the world's fisheries).

And if the Earth's human carrying capacity cannot be raised to match our bloated population load, then a downsizing is inevitable.

Will this come as a downsizing of per-capita consumption, or more traumatically, as a downsizing of population?

 - Will Catton is a studying towards a PhD in energy management at the University of Otago. His grandfather, Emeritus Professor William Robert Catton jun, will be giving a public lecture entitled "Why the future isn't what it used to be" in the university's St David Street Lecture Theatre from 7pm tonight.






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