Overshoot: Cargo Cults
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Copyright notice: The following is an excerpt from "Overshoot", by William R. Catton Jr., pages 187 to 195, University of Illinois Press, 1980.
We have transcribed these pages because of their clear language in dealing with widespread resource and energy illusions.
We would strongly recommend reading this book, which has lost nothing of its importance.
Helmut Lubbers

Space Age Cargo Cults

The cults that won Cargoist adherents among the citizens of advanced nations were not always obviously religious. The Type II belief held that great technological breakthroughs would inevitably occur in the near future, and would enable man to continue indefinitely expanding the world's human carrying capacity. This was a mere faith in a faith, like stock-market speculation; it had no firmer basis than naive statistical extrapolation - the uncritical supposition that past technological advances could be taken as representative samples of an inherently unending series of comparable achievements. Such a faith overlooked the fact that man's ostensible "enlargement" of the world's productivity in the past had mainly consisted of successive diversions of the world's life-supporting processes from use by other species to use by man. It failed to see that "progress" (even by the takeover method) must stop when all divertable resources have been diverted. Man obviously can't take over more than everything. (Less obviously, there are biological and geological reasons why considerably less than 100 percent of the world's resources could be diverted to human use.)
Technological optimism manifested itself in several pious hopes, enumerated below:

1. "Unlimited" food

Enthusiasm for the Green Revolution was merely a special case of this cult of great technological breakthroughs. It believed that the crucial breakthrough had already been achieved (by development of highyield strains of wheat and rice), and that now vigorous missionary effort throughout the hungry nations would convince their peoples to raise these superior crop varieties. Such an attitude was just another expression of inability to understand, or reluctance to perceive, the finiteness of the biosphere. Believers in this "breakthrough" were unable to see that further extension of the human irruption was going to be a problem aggravated, not a problem solved. They could not even see that the high-yield grains either would hasten the exhaustion of the soils on which they were grown or would intensify agriculture's precarious dependence upon a chemical fertilizer industry. Cultivation of renewable resources such as food was becoming heavily dependent upon continuing depletion of exhaustible resources like petroleum and minerals. Man's efforts to enlarge carrying capacity by agricultural progress were thus making the old takeover method dependent upon the treacherous drawdown method.

2. "Unlimited" alternatives

ln response to the worldwide shortfall of energy supplies under burgeoning demand, economists extolled "resource substitution" as the answer. The man in the street tended to believe that somehow "new sources" of energy would be tapped, to make us "self-sufficient" by some vague target date - 1980 at first, then 1990, then. . . . These were some of the millenarian pipe-dreams that arose to assuage postexuberant anxieties. American oil companies in the early part of 1974 bid up to $7,000 per acre to lease oil-shale "development" rights; if crude oil prices climbed high enough, these companies would start devouring mountains to extract shale oil. Their bids and intentions thus lent a peculiar aptness to the phrase of an English writer who wondered how many people "can safely play the planet-eating game."

ln Chapter 1 it was pointed out that two non-repeatable achievements had made possible four centuries of magnificent progress. Those two achievements were (1) the discovery of a second hemisphere, and (2) development of technology that could unearth and exploit the planet's energy savings, its fossil fuel deposits. Mankind's increasingly relentless search for new sources of energy and for more costly energy technologies expresses our wish to deny that achievements like those two were uniquely resultant from bygone circumstances.

3. "Unlimited" energy

ln earlier times occasional dedicated eccentrics who pipe-dreamed of violating the laws of physics tried to invent "perpetual motion" machines-to provide energy, supposedly, without consuming any fuel. These impossible devices had always seemed like an ideal means to perpetuate limitlessness. Now, in what we had thought were more sophisticated times, Cargoists permitted themselves to believe in the same sort of absurdity by talking glibly of the "breeder reactor" as a device that not only would generate vast quantities of energy but also would, in the process, "produce more fuel than it consumes." It would not do that, of course. The illusion that it would, and therefore that mankind could expect to continue treating the world as limitless, arose from careless phrasing that fostered misunderstanding of rather simple physical facts.

The fuel for nuclear fission power plants was the heavy element uranium. More than 99 percent of the uranium in the world was the heavier isotope, U-238, which would not enter into a chain reaction and generate power. The much scarcer U-235 would do so. Producing fuel for a reactor (or an atomic bomb) at first consisted of "enriching" natural uranium - that is, sorting out the fissionable U-235 atoms from the useless but more abundant U-238 atoms. However, if a neutron hurtling out of a fission reaction was captured by a U-238 nucleus before being slowed down by collisions with other atoms, it could tum the U-238 atom into Plutonium-239, which was fissionable. The so-called breeder reactor, then, was a device to enable some of the energy released by fission to be fed back to convert the non-fuel U-238 into the fuel Pu-239. It was not a device that could make fuel out of nothing, any more than was an oil refinery (which also refines more fuel than it bums). The breeder reactor wou Id merely enable man to reduce the unusable fraction of the available uranium. The illusion of limitlessness was sustained, then, not by the device itself, but by its name and the sloppiness of its common description. These devices did not offer "unlimited" quantities of energy for human use. They would multiply the usable energy content of known uranium reserves by a factor of up to sixty-not by infinity, or even by some astronomical number.

Besides, there was the question of safety.lo To be operationally safe, fast-breeder reactors would have to have at least the following features: (1) provision for infallibly shutting down the fission reaction under any circumstances that might arise; (2) means of assuring uninterrupted flow of coolant, or means of at least detecting with certainty any flow interruptions while they were still only incipient-i.e., before they permit dangerous overheating to occur; (3) means of preventing any escape of fission products in case of fuel melting as a result of failure of either of the above systems; (4) means of preventing discharge of any radioactive effluent; (5) facilities for -collection and very long-term storage of dangerously radioactive substances that are unavoidably created as by-products of the energy-generating process. Cargoism either overlooked the difficult engineering and organizational problems implicit in these safety requirements or glibly assumed they were soluble.

Cargoists were fond, too, of dreaming about nuclear fusion as the ultimate source of "limitless" energy. Il Deu terium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen, would serve as fuel in a reaction that could occur only at temperatures of millions of degrees-such as are found naturally in the interior of the sun. Handling the ionized gases involved in the fusion process imposed sufficient technical difficulties so that expecting energy problems to be solved by fusion was clearly a case of counting upon uncertain-to-hatch chickens. These unearthly plasmas must somehow be confined, for dissipation would instantly drop their temperature. Since no material container could be kept from vaporizing at even a fraction of the high temperature required, it quickly came to be assumed that containment must be accomplished by very strong magnetic fields. To generate su ch intense magnetism required electromagnets involving superconductive components. Materials can be made superconductive by cooling them down nearly to absolu te zero. Thus, at the outset, the whole idea of earthly nuclear fusion depended on assuming it would be feasible to engineer devices that could achieve in close proximity temperatures that were both unearthly high and unearthly low.

Fusion advocates inverted Liebig: preoccupation with the abundance of the hydrogen that would serve as fuel blocked perception among these Cargoists of a scarcity or absence of structural materials that would not become brittle at extreme temperatures and under exposure to intense radiation. Such materials would need to retain strength, maintain size and shape, resist fatigue, and not blister, sputter, or erode. Expectations of high energy outputs have prevented lay enthusiasts for thermonuclear power from considering such problems as the possibility that intense magne tic fields might alter the heatconducting properties of the liquid metals that would be expected to serve as coolants. There were also enormous problems in the matter of adapting electrical generating facilities to use the intense bursts of heat energy at very high temperatures emanating from thermonuclear reactions.

Popular mythology supposed that fusion power would be altogether free from problems of radioactivity, since hydrogen rather than uranium or plutonium would serve as the fuel. One system of fusion would use tritium (the heavier isotope of hydrogen with atomic weight = 3) as fuel; tritium was radioactive and could leak by diffusion through hot metal walls. Even the system that would use deuterium as the fuel would produce some tritium in the process, and would thus require coping with problems of possible tritium leakage. Moreover, as research toward fusion power progressed, it began to appear that the most economically feasible system was going to be one that was a kind of hybrid of fission and fusion, a system that would accept hazards of radioactive waste disposaI as the necessary price for simply making it feasible to begin using the cheap and abundant hydrogen as an auxilliary fuel.

The non-physicists who were counting thermonuclear ergs many years before an exceedingly problematic hatching were indulging in faith based on a little knowledge and much ignorance - just as Melanesians' expectations of cargo rested upon knowing very little and assuming too much about the nature of European production processes.

4. "Harnessing" the sun

The ultimate fall-back position of the modem Cargoist was the expectation that new technology would eventually "enable us to use solar energy." This view overlooked the ways in which man was already heavily dependent upon solar energy.

In more ways than one, solar energy supported the agriculture that had enabled Homo sapiens to irrupt from a few million inhabitants of the earth in pre-Neolithic times to some five hundred times as many only 400 human generations later. Solar energy supported agriculture not only through photosynthesis; it also supplied the energy for evaporation which was "pumping" each day some 68.6 trillion gallons (= 260 cu bic kilometers) of water from the surfaces of land and sea up into the atmosphere, whence it could rain down upon the world's farms, forests, and hydroelectric watersheds.

If only 1/10 of 1 percent of the solar energy that reached the earth's surface was captured by plants and fixed in organic molecules, this did not mean the other 99.9 percent was a "vast untapped reservoir" awaiting man's exploitation. It could be exceedingly dangerous for mankind to try using even an additional 0.1 percent; the difference between an untapped 99.9 percent and an untapped 99.8 percent might seem trivial, but it would be an imposition upon the energy system of the ecosphere comparable to that already being made by the en tire standing crop of organisms of all kinds.

The Cal Tech geochemistry professor Harrison Brown suggested back in 1954 that, a century hence, a world population of seven billion people could conceivably be living at an "American" level of energy use, and might be deriving one-fourth of that energy from solar devices. Rather simple calculations will show, however, that this would entai! diverting to human use an amount of solar energy roughly three times as great as the entire quantity of energy used by the world's population in the year Brown made the suggestion. To put this in perspective, consider the fact that the total human use of energy is already equivalent to more than 10 percent of the total net organic production by the en tire biosphere. To sl1pply future humans with three times that much from solar devices means doing something to the largely unknown natural pattern of energy flow on a scale that is not infinitesimal after all. Homo colossus would be swinging almost as much weight as a third of the whole biosphere! The potentially disruptive effects upon the balanced processes of nature have to constitute an enormous risk.

5. Other technological escapes

Cargoism was not always so flagrantly recognizable as in these examples. Had the Solomon Islanders been Europeans rather than Melanesians, perhaps instead of laboriously constructing neat rows of cargo storage houses they would have invested their hopes in a project like the British-French Concorde (to bring on the millennium byexpensively providing the blessings of supersonic travel for the world's businessmen and diplomats). No less exaggerated were the hopes invested by France in her unilateral pro gram for achieving nuclear weapons parity.

The belief that emigration by space ship to unpopulated worlds would exempt us from the consequences of overshooting this world's carrying capacity flourished briefly wh en the Space Age was beginning, but it was no more realistic than postwar construction of "airstrips" by Melanesians. (The latter had updated their cultist expectations of cargo delivery methods after American military aviation came into their lives during World War II.) Believers in extraterrestrial emigration as a solution to irrupting population never seemed to do the simple arithmetic to estimate the prodigious tonnage of space vehicles and impossible quantitites of fuel it wou Id take to boost up to escape velocity the earth's yearly increment of population (some 70 million human beings), plus the supplies they would need on their long journey to some hypothetically inhabitable other planet. We are, of course, talking of exporting 70 million people per year for the rest of their lives, never to retum. ln the entire Apollo pro gram of manned lunar landings, five pairs of astronauts spent a total of just over 23 man-days on the moon. If we could hope to hold the line on earthly population by exporting our growth to a planet no more inaccessible than the moon (as Europe once exported surplus people to the New World), it would take more than 60,000 Apollo-type launchings every day to do it! Even if that were not absurdly infeasible, scientific space research had quickly undercut any illusions of escape by this means, for the two most plausible planetary destinations, Venus and Mars, were shown by space probe photography and telemetry to be impossible environments for massive colonization by human refugees from the post-exuberant earth.

6. Ideological escapes

Other radical enthusiasms were non-technological in content. Just as the people of the Pacific islands supposed they could obtain, by appropriate religious activities, vast quantities of cargo whose industrial basis was unknown to them, so the assorted revolutionaries in the industrialized world from 1963 onward imagined that drastic redistribution of status and influence, adoption of new "lifestyles," relaxation of social restraints, and creation of a new "love ethic" could bring on the human benefits of a noncompetitive era more sublime than the imperfect but inspiring one that had been rather effectively nurtured by the carrying capacity surplus the world once enjoyed. Revolutionaries remained oblivious to what a bulletin of the Yale University School of Forestry astutely called "the ecologicallimits of optimism."

A case in point was the popularity of Charles Reich's book, The Greening of America. This popularity must be credited to the eamest desire of young people living in the twilight of exuberance for reassurance that simple acquisition of a new view of the world would, in effect, repeal certain laws of nature and exempt us from the consequences of the irruption that had been happening since Neolithic times. Reich and his eager readers seemed unaware that the increasingly competitive relations among members of the human species were the natural consequence of our inexorably changing ecological circumstances. Reich's views were a peculiar blend of Cargoism and CosmeticismY (He extolled the revolutionary implications of flared trousers, for example.) Except for the belief that drugs held promise of a shortcut to the millennium, Reich's "greening" was not particularly technological. He would have had us believe that we could transcend competitiveness by rejecting doctrines perpetrated by the corporate state. But replacing them with the "radical subjectivity" he advocated could not block the sequence of bloom and crash in which we had involved ourselves, any more than Melanesian rituals could bring European cargo to the islanders.

Reich's prescription for what he saw ailing us said we should abandon values artificially instilled by the corporate state, values that gave undue importance to status and power. We must "start from the premises based on human life and the rest of nature." But Reich's "nature" was an idol: nothing he said about it showed any awareness of the impact of resource limits, biogeochemical processes, symbiosis, ecological antagonism, etc., upon human relations. Ifhe had any comprehension of the perils of overshoot, this was not evident in his ex pectation that mere graduation to what he called "Consciousness III" could free men altogether from their competitive predicament. "Consciousness III" was thus a thoroughly millenarian illusion.

Looking for Scapegoats

The various forms of Cargoism all had in common a stubborn insistence that carrying capacity limits could be raised again, as they had been several times in the past. Many versions of Cargoism assumed technology was the means for doing this; some versions imagined it could be done just by changing our hearts and minds. Cargoists, especially of the latter persuasion, refused to believe that problems arising from overshoot were real and ineluctable. They therefore tended to resent Realists who sought to reveal the facts of a post-exuberant world. Cargoists seemed to say, in effect, "If we just don't accept them as facts, they won't be facts."

To the resistive mind, no new fact-revealing paradigm was acceptable unless it was palatable - i.e., unless its adoption would put things right as weIl as reveal the nature of our predicament. People with Cargoist outlooks were tempted, quite understandably, to suppose the world's troubles were not so much due to post-exuberant conditions as to spokesmen for a new paradigm who pointed out the conditions. According to Reich, for example, we needed to become deeply suspicious of rationality, logic, analysis, and principles. Defiance of previous authority has been a common component of cargo cults. It has had various modes of expression, such as the burning of sacred objects, the exposure of secret things to categories of persons for whom they had been taboo, or destruction of money and material possessions.

Had we known what acts to consider symptomatic, we might have seen Cargoist thoughtways and millenarian passions behind such modern events as the theft and publication of secret documents, the burning of ftags or embassies, and perhaps even the vandalistic attack on a priceless Michelangelo sculpture in the Vatican, or the scratching of the letters I-R-A into a treasured painting in the King's College chapel at Cambridge. Some of the more sordid features of the American and European "counterculture" in the 1960s and 1970s can be viewed as post-exuberant instances of the sacrilege and ritual obscenity that have occurred in other times and places when the people of a despairing society took the antinomian path and tried to attribute their plight to a moral code that cou Id be ove;thrown, rather than to circumstances that could not be escaped.

With restraint and inquiry, the circumstances might be understood. But understanding them might not enable us to change them, and people who could not abide the thought that our post-exuberant condition was due to real circumstances insisted that culprits must be causing it. If no obvious power-hungry tyrant or plutocrat was readily available for casting in the culprit role, there tended to be further insistence that the culprits were the ecologically awakened persons who made it their business to discover and point out the real circumstances. For example, one politically radical Protestant clergyman, writing in vigorous opposition to the "seduction of radicalism" by the "ecology movement" in the 1970s, compared such a movement's efforts to transcend politics in the name of nature to the German Nazi ideology of the 1930s. Hitler, he said, had urged Germans to live by the dictates of nature - i.e., give vent to their racial instincts. (Apparently we must all forever ignore "nature" because Hitler misused the word!) ln the name of compassion, writers like this clergyman deplored efforts to gain recognition for ecosystem constraints, as if the fact that the world was finite would not condemn burgeoning millions to a brutish existence, but speaking the words "limited carrying capacity" would bring on the horrors that must not happen.

  • Overshoot - Chapter 2 "The Tragic Story of Human Success"
  • Overshoot - Chapter 11 "Faith versus Facts" - including cargo cults
  • Overshoot - A Glossary
  • Overshoot - Cargo cults
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