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In a way, the world-view of the party imposed itself most
successfully on the people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the
most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what
was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what
was happening. By lack of understanding, they remained sane. They simply swallowed
everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind,
just like a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird. George
(Excerpt from Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change)
NEW ECOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDINGS
CIRCUMSTANCE: The Age of Exuberance is over, population has already overshot
carrying capacity, and prodigal Homo sapiens has drawn down the world's savings deposits.
CONSEQUENCE: All forms of human organization and behavior that are based on
the assumption of limitlessness must change to forms that accord with finite limits.
|Some people recognize that the
New World is old and that major change must follow.
|Some people have faith that
technological progress will stave off major institutional change.
|Some people have faith that
family planning, recycling centers, and anti-pollution laws will keep the New World new.
|Some people do not believe
that the New World's newness once did, or that its oldness now does, have any
|Some people insist that the
assumption of limitlessness was and still is valid.
Prelude to Collapse
by William Catton
(Excerpt from Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change)
The Industrial Revolution made us precariously dependent on nature's dwindling legacy
of non-renewable resources, even though we did not at first recognize this fact. Many
major events of modern history were unforeseen results of actions taken with inadequate
awareness of ecological mechanisms. Peoples and governments never intended some of the
outcomes their actions would incur.
To see where we are now headed, when our destiny has departed so radically from our
aspirations, we must examine some historic indices that point to the conclusion that even
the concept of succession (as explored in previous chapters) understates the ultimate
consequences of our own exuberance. We can begin by taking a fresh look at the Great
Depression of the 1930s, an episode people saw largely in the shallower terms of economics
and politics when they were living through it.  From an ecologically informed
perspective, what else can we now see in it?
The Great Depression, looked at ecologically, was a preview of the fate toward which
mankind has been drawn by the kinds of progress that have depended on consuming
exhaustible resources. We need to see why it was not recognized for the preview it was;
this will help us to grasp at last the meaning missed earlier.
We did not know we were watching a preview because, when the world economy fell apart
in 1929-32, it was not from exhaustion of essential fuels or materials. From the very
definition of carrying capacitythe maximum indefinitely supportable
ecological loadwe can now see that non-renewable resources provide no real
carrying capacity; they provide only phantom carrying capacity. If coming to depend on
phantom carrying capacity is a Faustian bargain that mortgages the future of Homo
colossus as the price of an exuberant present, that mortgage was not yet being
foreclosed in the Great Depression. Even so, much of the suffering that befell so much of
mankind in the 1930s does need to be seen as the result of a carrying capacity deficit.
The fact that the deficit did not stem from resource exhaustion in that instance makes it
no less indicative of the kinds of grief entailed by resource depletion. Accordingly, we
need to understand what did bring on a carrying capacity deficit in the 1930s.
Carrying Capacity and
To attain such an understanding we need to step outside the usual economic or political
frames of thought, go back two-thirds of a century before the 1929 crash, and reexamine
for its profound human relevance a principle of agricultural chemistry formulated in 1863
by a German scientist, Justus von Liebig.  That principle set forth with great clarity
the concept of the "limiting factor" briefly mentioned in Chapter 8. Carrying
capacity is, as we saw there, limited not just by food supply, but potentially by any
substance or circumstance that is indispensable but inadequate. The fundamental principle
is this: whatever necessity is least abundantly available (relative to per capita
requirements) sets an environment's carrying capacity.
While there is no way to repeal this principle, which is known as "the law of the
minimum," or Liebig's law, there is a way to make its application less restrictive.
People living in an environment where carrying capacity is limited by a shortage of one
essential resource can develop exchange relationships with residents of another area that
happens to be blessed with a surplus of that resource but happens to lack some other
resource that is plentiful where the first one was scarce.
Trade does not repeal Liebig's law. Only by knowing Liebig's law, however, can we see
clearly what trade does do, in ecological terms. Trade enlarges the scope of application
of the law of the minimum. The composite carrying capacity of two or more areas with
different resource configurations can be greater than the sum of their separate carrying
capacities. Call this the principle of scope enlargement; it can be expressed in
mathematical notation as follows:
CC (A + B) > CCA + CCB
The combined environment (A + B) still has finite carrying capacity, and that carrying
capacity is still set by the necessary resource available in least (composite) abundance.
But if the two environments are truly joined, by trade, then scarcities that are local to
A or B no longer have to be limiting.
A good many of the events of human history need to be seen as efforts to implement the
principle of scope enlargement. Most such events came about as results of decisions and
activities by men who never heard of Liebig or his law of the minimum. Now, however,
knowing the law, and understanding also the scope-enlargement principle, we can see
important processes of history in a new light. Progress in transport technology, together
with advancements in the organization of commerce, often achieved only after conquest or
political consolidation, have had the effect of enlarging the world's human carrying
capacity by enabling more and more local populations (or their lifestyles) to be limited
not by local scarcity, but by abundance at a distance.
Vulnerability to Scope
As human numbers (and appetites) grew in response to this exchange-based enlargement of
composite carrying capacity, continued access to non-local resources became increasingly
vital to human well-being and survival. As the ecological load increased beyond what could
have been supported by the sum of the separate carrying capacities of the formerly
insulated local environments, mankind's vulnerability to any disruption of trade became
more and more critical. The aftermath of the crash of 1929 demonstrated that
Unfortunately, modern transport systems, and some aspects of modern organization, are
based very heavily upon exhaustible resource exploitation. Insofar as this is true, they
must eventually founder upon the rocks of resource exhaustion. But even before they might
succumb to such physical disaster, the trade arrangements upon which the earth's extended
carrying capacity for Homo colossus has come to depend can be torn apart by social
catastrophe.  It is important to recognize at last that that is what happened in
1929-32. In fact, some of it began happening during, or as a repercussion of the Great War
World War I disrupted relationships between the various peoples of Europe and between
Europe, the New World, and the Orient. It also resulted in reallocation of the still
colonial parts of the world among the various imperial powers seeking to exploit them as
ghost acreage. Not all aspects of these changes wrought by the war would have reduced the
scope of application of Liebig's law, but some certainly did, for some peoples, to some
In the case of defeated Germany, access to resources from outside German territory was
cut off. At the same time, the staggering requirement of reparations payments to the
victorious Allies aggravated the load to be borne by Germany's limited indigenous carrying
capacity. Even internally, Germany suffered as inflation shattered the vital exchange
relations between its diverse localities and between the occupational categories
(quasi-species) into which its culturally advanced population had become differentiated.
 Destruction of the value of currency meant destruction of the medium of mutualism; as
inter-occupational symbiosis crumbled, hardship was rampant.
The astronomical German inflation was thus no mere fluke of history. Rather, it was a
preview of the larger preview to come, when other forms of financial disruption would rend
the fabric of trade throughout the world. By thus compelling a reduction of the scope of
application of Liebig's law back down to local resource bases, such trade dislocation
would convert existing loads of human resource-consumers, previously supportable by
composite carrying capacity, into overloads no longer fully supportable by fragmented
In America in the 1920s, after a brief post-war depression, a period of neo-exuberance
set in, leading in the later years of the decade to such an expectation of
perpetual progress and prosperity that some people found they could prosper from the
expectation itself. "Speculation" in the stock market became the expected way to
get rich.  Inhibitions against speculation were relaxed; people supposed the American
prototype democracy, having enabled the Allies finally to triumph over Kaiser Germany, had
made the world safe for getting rich and had established the right of everyone to try to
The essential contrast between speculation and genuine investment is this: speculators
buy stock not for the purpose of acquiring claims on future dividends from the business in
which they acquire shares, but for the purpose of profiting from the expected escalation
in their stock's resale value. When nearly all buyers are speculators, then virtually the
only value of their shares is the resale value. Stock prices continue to escalate under
such circumstances only as long as virtually everyone expects resale values to continue
rising, and are thus willing to buy. The fact that prices may already grossly exaggerate a
stock's intrinsic (dividend-paying) worth simply ceases to concern the speculator during
the time when price escalation is confidently expected to continue. Breakdown of that
faith, however, turns the process around. Anticipation of inexorable enrichment gives way
to fear of ruin as self-induced price escalation turns into self-induced price decline.
Panic, in the stock market sense, means the competitive drive to sell before falling
prices fall fartherwhich drives prices down.
What connected the 1929 Wall Street crash to Liebig's law was the fact that so much
speculative buying had been done with borrowed money. Collapse in the "value" of
stocks thus led to an epidemic of bank failures, because the banks were unable to retrieve
the funds they had lent to the speculators. Stock certificates taken in by the banks as
security from borrowers were worth much less money after the crash than the number of
dollars borrowed on them before the crash. When banks failed, depositors with accounts in
those banks suddenly found themselves shorn of the purchasing power formerly signified by
their bankbook entries. As depositors went broke, they ceased being able to buy goods or
hire employees. Sellers of whatever they would have bought, or workers they would have
employed, were therefore also suddenly bereft of revenue sources. In a society with
elaborate division of labor and a money economy, a "revenue source" is the magic
key that provides access to carrying capacity. Collapse of fiscal webs thus confronted
millions of people with loss of access to carrying capacity, as truly as if purchasable
resources had actually ceased to exist. Nations whose citizens had increasingly become
masters of one trade apiece and jacks of few others found themselves suddenly unable to
rely on composite carrying capacity drawn from a nonlocal environment. What I have called
the "medium of mutualism" was no longer functioning, so the scope of application
of Liebig's law of the minimum was being constricted once again to local (or personal)
There was not in those days any Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to back up the
solvency of an individual bank when it suffered a "run" by its depositors. The
failure of bank after bank in a time when banks had no institutionalized way of pooling
their assets for mutual protection can thus be seen as a fiscal instance of the hazards of
scope reduction. Had bankers understood that an ecological principle formulated by an
agricultural chemist could apply to the world of finance, perhaps something like the FDIC
would have been invented sooner.
The fiscal collapse had an even more important implication than this for our ecological
understanding of the human predicament. That implication appears in the generalized
Depression that followed. Consider the farm population in America. Like almost everyone
else, farm families were compelled, by the repercussions of bank failures and the
ramifications of general panic, to cut their consumer expenditures. Farmers also often had
to allow their land, their buildings, and their equipment to deteriorate for lack of money
to pay for maintenance and repairs. Many farms were encumbered by mortgagesmortgages
which were foreclosed by banks that now desperately needed the payments farmers could not
afford to make. (Bank failures were even more common in rural regions than in major
cities.) In spite of all these difficulties, however, the farm population in America
ceased declining (as it had been doing) and increased between 1929 and 1933 by more than a
million. The long-term trend of movement out of farm niches and into urban niches was
reversed during the Great Depression. 
Niches everywhere were being constricted by the Depression. However, the urbanizing
trend that had been occurring as a result of industrial growth in the cities and from
elimination of farm niches by mechanization of agriculture was disrupted by this economic
breakdown. At the heart of the reversal was a simple fact: the nature of' farming in the
1930s was still such that, whatever else they had to give up, there was still truth in the
cliche that "the farm family can always eat." Other (non-flood-producing)
occupational groups that now had to fall back (like the farmers) on carrying capacities of
reduced scope could find themselves in much more dire straits.
If we read it rightly, then, we can see the differential impact of the Depression upon
farm versus non-farm populations as a cogent indicator of the dependence of the total
population on previously achieved enlargements of the scope of application of' Liebig's
law With breakdown of the mechanisms of exchange, various segments of a modern nation had
to revert as best they could to living on carrying capacities again limited by locally
least abundant resources, rather than extended by access to less scarce resources from
elsewhere. Although scope reduction hurt everyone, rural folk had local resources to fall
back upon; urban people, in contrast, had so detached themselves as to have almost ceased
to recognize the indispensability of those resources. For reasons we shall examine in a
moment, economic hard times hit the farms sooner than they hit the cities, but in the
final scope-reducing crunch the farmers turned out to have an advantage sufficient to
interrupt a clear trend of urbanization.
No Fairy Godmother
The Depression also interrupted the advance of industrialization and its attendant
occupational diversification of the population. With hindsight, that interruption becomes
an opportunity to bring the previous diversification into ecological focus.
An ecological perspective enables us to see pressure toward niche diversification as
the natural result of the overfilling of existing niches. Among non-human organisms, this
pressure leads eventually to the emergence of new species. Among humans it leads through
sociocultural processes to the emergence of new occupations (quasispecies), which, as we
noted in Chapter 6, had been made clear by Emile Durkheim as long ago as 1893. To bring
Durkheim's analysis and the ecological perspective to bear upon the Great Depression,
however, we must take into account the fact that nature is no Fairy Godmother and provides
no guarantee that new niches will automatically be already available at the right time and
in the right quantity to absorb immediately the surplus population from overfilled
previous niches. Nor does nature guarantee pre-adaptation of the surplus individuals to
whatever new niches do become available.
In nature, overfilling of old niches can result in massive death. Many organisms fall
by the wayside in the march of speciation. Among human organisms the principles
hold, but the process is moderated because humans are occupationally differentiated by
social processes rather than by biological processes. Ostensibly, when old niches become
obsolete, we can retrain ourselves for new roles. So, for Homo sapiens,
overpopulation and death are avoidable results of niche saturation. The avoidance is not
easy, however, and retraining for new niches can be traumatic.
An ecological perspective thus heightens the significance of a classic sociological
study that clearly showed how unlikely it is, even among members of the relatively
flexible and plastic human species, that re-adaptation to new niches (as old ones close
up) will occur easily or automatically. Between 1908 and 1918, W. I. Thomas at the
University of Chicago analyzed mountains of documentary data on the experience of Polish
immigrants in America.  The people he studied had come to the New World after absorbing
the folkways of their native Poland. In America they were faced with the necessity of
adapting to unfamiliar circumstances. Thomas found that old ways of behaving and thinking
were not easily abandoned or changed. New ways were learned only with difficulty when they
contradicted the migrants' old-country upbringing. Thomas generalized from the immigrants'
situation to say something about social change in broader contexts. He concluded that an
accustomed way of behaving tends to persist as long as circumstances allow. When
circumstances change, making familiar and comfortable ways unworkable (or unacceptable), a
degree of crisis is inevitable. Re-adaptation hurts. It is resisted. 
We know now that the change that makes re-adaptation necessary need not be relocation.
Any event that makes old ways unworkable and new ways mandatory can provoke the trauma of
reorientation. Conflict and tension are natural accompaniments of change; they tend to
continue until some new modus vivendi is worked out. The new form of adaptation
will typically combine some elements of the old with some features imposed by the changed
"Culture shock" became a familiar term for denoting the enervating
disorientation and bewilderment associated with movement into unfamiliar societal
contexts. Even a casual tourist can feel it when he travels abroad. Half a century after
the phenomenon was studied by W. I. Thomas among Polish peasants resettled in America,
Alvin Toffler coined and popularized another phrase that extended the concept.
"Future shock" was his apt new term; forced adjustment to new ways can be
as traumatic as forced adjustment to foreign ways. 
People in a post-exuberant world found themselves surrounded by alien conditions. They
underwent a great deal of future shock, years before they got that name for it. By
mechanization of agriculture in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Western
world greatly reduced the number of farm workers needed to provide sustenance for
themselves and for urban dwellers. Displaced from agricultural occupations, ax-farmers
naturally migrated into cities in search of alternative employment, employment for which
their farming experience or upbringing had not prepared them. Industrial expansion
connected with World War I took up the slack temporarily, making employable on an
emergency basis many persons who would otherwise have been passed over as unprepared for a
given job. The war also helped hasten the mechanization of agriculture that was creating
the displaced farm-worker surplus. After the war, urbanization and the proliferation of
industrial occupations could not altogether keep pace with the continuing displacement of
workers from the farming sector. There continued to be more farmers than were needed, so
the agricultural portion of the economy was beset with "overproduction." This
depressed farm pricesseveral years before the Wall Street crash provided the impetus
that depressed prices for everyone. The resulting loss of purchasing power by the farming
population helped depress, in turn, the urban-industrial sectors of the world's economy.
Ecological difficulties were aggravated, of course, by human errorsthe glibly
confident indulgence in speculation in 1928 being one example. But the causal importance
of some human errors was easily overestimated. Amid the economic and political events of
1929-32 it was plausible for Americans, unaware of the ecological basis for what was
happening, to see all the difficulties of that difficult time as products merely of the
failures of the Hoover administration. This attractive oversimplification neglected one
fact that should have been obvious: many other nations, over which Mr. Hoover did not
preside, were undergoing the same calamity.
For those of radical inclination, it seemed plausible (in the absence of an ecological
paradigm) to attribute the dire situation to a failure of "the capitalist
system." But socialists believed as ardently as capitalists in the myth of
limitlessness. In spite of socialists' commitment to production for use rather than for
profit, they were not then (and have not been since) any more cautious than capitalists
about adopting the drawdown method. They assumed that socialist-sponsored versions of
drawdown could somehow eliminate such "capitalist contradictions" as
simultaneous overproduction and abject poverty. They remained just as unconcerned as the
capitalists about overshoot. 
Conservatives, on the other hand, who were not necessarily misanthropes, found it
plausible to whistle in the dark, insisting that prosperity would automatically return if
we just waited for the system to adjust itself. They were the Ostriches of their time,
holders of the Type V attitude (delineated in Chapter 4). They believed nothing essential
had changed from the Age of Exuberance.
Roosevelt was elected to replace Hoover, new approaches were put rapidly into practice,
and a discouraged nation took heart. But full economic recovery continued to elude even
the New Deal until preparation for World War II began to spur massive industrial
activitywith even more than the usual disregard for long-range drawdown costs.
Economic recovery under the New Deal was not unique. Nazi Germany also overcame its
depression, reducing unemployment in the first four years under Hitler from six million to
one million. (People outside Germany did not automatically interpret this achievement as
validation of Nazi tactics.) Under the Nazi method, millions of the unemployed could be
employed as soldiers, and millions more could be compulsorily retrained and given
niches as producers of military hardware. The war economy nurtured demand for consumer
goods for the soldiers and for these re-employed makers of military materiel; furthermore,
it provided "the correct psychological atmosphere," enabling the civilian sector
to accept painful re-adaptation.
War psychology overcame natural human resistance to departure from custom.  The war
also used elaborate technology and drew down the world's stocks of natural resources.
In the United States, wartime economic recovery supposedly proved that New Deal
"pump priming" by fiscal deficits had been the right kind of response to a
stagnant economy, except that it could not be done in adequate volume until the need to
re-arm rapidly for all-out war made truly massive red-ink budgets politically acceptable.
But American recovery from the depression of the 1930s did not unambiguously validate the
Keynesian economic theory implicit in Roosevelt's approach.
In either the German or the American portion of the Great Depression, an economic
interpretation (by minds unaccustomed to an ecological perspective) enabled us to miss the
point. Very simply, the ecological paradigm enables these events to be read as follows:
Expansion of the military establishment, at the cost of additional resource drawdown,
suddenly provided new niches (in industry and in the armed forces) capable of absorbing
the overflow from the whole array of saturated civilian occupations. And the wartime
social climate provided the patriotic push that made the trauma of re-adaptation to new
occupational roles endurable. The new or enlarged military-industrial niches had been
previously either non-existent or under serious stigma. What was important, ecologically
speaking, was the fact that previously existent and acceptable niches had been
saturated; there were people to sparein America because of technological
progress and population growth; in Germany because of the debacle of World War I and its
aftermath, which left the German economy, occupational structure, and national morale in a
shambles. Moreover, human redundancy throughout much of the world had become manifest
when, in various ways and in various places, the medium of mutualism came apart, leaving
everyone to cope with carrying capacity limits set by local minimums.
In the American case, the fiscal deficits run up during World War II were merely the
ledger-book picture of the change that eased the problem, not the cause of that change.
Red ink didn't re-employ the unemployed. The growing national debt (expressed in money)
was a fiction of accountancy, a fiction that enabled Americans to believe that wartime
drawdown of the once-New World's resource reservoir only constituted "borrowing from
ourselves," rather than stealing from the future. The reality of diachronic
competition remained unacknowledged. Nevertheless, resources used up in World War II were
made unavailable for use by posterity.
Circular versus Linear
Whatever the origins of human redundancy, and whatever the sequel to it, we needed to
see (but were not seeing) that what had happened to us between the wars, and especially
what happened to us since World War II, had not resulted merely from politics or economics
in the conventional sense. The events of this period had simply accelerated a fate that
began to overtake us centuries ago. The population explosion after 1945 and the explosive
increase of technology during and after the war were only the most recent means of that
Human communities once relied almost entirely on organic sources of energyplant
fuels and animal musclepowersupplemented very modestly by the equally renewable
energy of moving air and flowing water. All of these energy sources were derived from
ongoing solar income. As long as man's activities were based on them, this was, as church
men said, "world without end." That phrase should never have been construed to
mean "world without limit," for supplies can be perpetual without being
Locally, green pastures might become overgrazed, and still waters might be overused.
Local environmental changes through the centuries might compel human communities to
migrate. As long as resources available somewhere were sufficient to sustain the
human population then in existence, the implication of Liebig's law was that carrying
capacity (globally) had not yet been overshot. If man was then living within the earth's
current income, it was not from wisdom, but from ignorance of the buried treasure yet to
Then the earth's savings, and new ways to use them, began to be discovered. Mankind
became committed to the fatal error of supposing that life could thenceforth be lived on a
scale and at a pace commensurate with the rate at which treasure was discovered and
unearthed. Drawing down stocks of exhaustible resources would not have seemed
significantly different from drawing upon carrying capacity imports, at a time when nobody
yet knew Liebig's law, or the principle of scope enlargement, or the distinction between
real and phantom carrying capacity, or the various categories of ghost acreage.
Homo sapiens mistook the rate of withdrawal of savings deposits for a rise in
income. No regard for the total size of the legacy, or for the rate at which nature might
still be storing carbon away, seemed necessary. Homo sapiens set about becoming Homo
colossus without wondering if the transformation would have to be quite temporary.
(Later, our pre-ecological misunderstanding of what was being done to our future was
epitomized by that venerable loophole in the corporate tax laws of the United States, the
oil depletion allowance. This measure permitted oil "producers" to offset their
taxable revenues by a generous percentage, on the pretext that their earnings reflected
depletion of "their" crude oil reserves. Even though nature, not the oil
companies, had put the oil into the earth, this tax write-off was rationalized as an
incentive to "production." Since "production" really meant extraction,
this was like running a bank with rules that called for paying interest on each withdrawal
of savings, rather than on the principal left in the bank. It was, in short, a government
subsidy for stealing from the future.)
The essence of the drawdown method is this: man began to spend nature's legacy as if it
were income. Temporarily this made possible a dramatic increase in the quantity of energy
per capita per year by which Homo colossus could do the things he wanted to do.
This increase led, among other things, to reduced manpower requirements in agriculture. It
also led to the development of many new occupational niches for increasingly diversified
human beings. (Expansion of niches in Germany, America, and elsewhere from 1933 to 1945
was, it now appears, just a brief episode in this long-run development.) Because the new
niches depended on spending the withdrawn savings, they were niches in what amounted to a
"detritus ecosystem." Detritus, or an accumulation of dead organic matter, is
nature's own version of ghost acreage. 
Detritus ecosystems are not uncommon. When nutrients from decaying autumn leaves on
land are carried by runoff from melting snows into a pond, their consumption by algae in
the pond may be checked until springtime by the low winter temperatures that keep the
algae from growing. When warm weather arrives, the inflow of nutrients may already be
largely complete for the year. The algal population, unable to plan ahead, explodes in the
halcyon days of spring in an irruption or bloom that soon exhausts the finite legacy of
sustenance materials. This algal Age of Exuberance lasts only a few weeks. Long before the
seasonal cycle can bring in more detritus, there is a massive die-off of these innocently
incautious and exuberant organisms. Their "age of overpopulation" is very brief,
and its sequel is swift and inescapable.
When the fossil fuel legacy upon which Homo colossus was going to thrive for a
time became seriously depleted, the human niches based on burning that legacy would
collapse, just as detritovore niches collapse when the detritus is exhausted. For humans,
the social ramifications of that collapse were unpleasant to contemplate. The Great
Depression was, as we have seen, a mild preview. Detritus ecosystems flourish and collapse
because they lack the life-sustaining biogeochemical circularity of other kinds of
ecosystems. They are nature's own version of communities that prosper briefly by the
The phrase "detritus ecosystem" was, of course, not widely familiar. The fact
that "bloom" and "crash" cycles were common among organisms that
depend on exhaustible accumulations of dead organic matter for their sustenance was not
widely known. It is therefore understandable that people welcomed ways of becoming
colossal, not recognizing as a kind of detritus the transformed organic remains called
"fossil fuels," and not noticing that Homo colossus was in fact a
detritovore, subject to the risk of crashing as a consequence of blooming.
Bloom and crash constitute a special kind of sere; certain kinds of populations in
certain kinds of circumstances typically experience these two seral stagesirruption
followed by die-off. Crash can be thought of as an abrupt instance of "succession
with no apparent successor." As in ordinary succession, the biotic community has
changed its habitat by using it, and has become (much) less viable in the changed
environment. If, after the crash, the environment can recover from the resource depletion
inflicted by an irrupting species, then a new increase of numbers may occur and make that
species "its own successor." Hence there are cycles of irruption and die-off
(among species as different as rodents, insects, algae). Our own species' uniqueness
cannot be counted upon as protection. Moreover, some of the resources we use cannot
When yeast cells are introduced into a wine vat, as noted in Chapter 6, they find their
"New World" (the moist, sugar-laden fruit mash) abundantly endowed with the
resources they need for exuberant growth. But as their population responds explosively to
this magnificent circumstance, the accumulation of their own fermentation products makes
life increasingly difficultand, if we indulge in a little anthropomorphic thinking
about their plight, miserable. Eventually, the microscopic inhabitants of this
artificially prepared detritus ecosystem all die. To be anthropomorphic again, the
coroner's reports would have to say that they died of self-inflicted pollution: the
Nature treated human beings as winemakers treat the yeast cells, by endowing our world
(especially Europe's New World) with abundant but exhaustible resources. People promptly
responded to this circumstance as the yeast cells respond to the conditions they find when
put into the wine vat.
When the earth's deposits of fossil fuels and mineral resources were being laid down, Homo
sapiens had not yet been prepared by evolution to take advantage of them. As soon as
technology made it possible for mankind to do so, people eagerly (and without foreseeing
the ultimate consequences) shifted to a high-energy way of life. Man became, in effect, a
detritovore, Homo colossus. Our species bloomed, and now we must expect crash (of
some sort) as the natural sequel. What form our crash may take remains to be considered in
the concluding section.
One thing that kept us from seeing all this, and enabled us to rush exuberantly into
niches that had to be temporary, was our ability to give ideological legitimation to
occupations that made no sense ecologically. When General Eisenhower, as retiring
president, warned the American people to beware of unwarranted influence wielded by the
military-industrial complex,  it was presumably political and economic influence that
he had in mind. But the military-industrial complex was a vast conglomeration of
occupational niches. As such, it wielded an altogether different (and even more insidious)
kind of influence. The military-industrial complex helped perpetuate the illusion that we
still had a carrying capacity surplus; it made it profitable for the living generation to
extract and use up natural resources that might otherwise have been left for posterity. It
absorbed for a while most of the excess labor force displaced by technological progress
from older occupational niches that had been less dependent on drawing down reservoirs of
exhaustible resources. It thus helped us believe that the Age of Exuberance could go on.
Nor was General Eisenhower alone in missing the ecological significance and
over-emphasizing the political elements in the trends of' his time. His young, articulate,
and sophisticated Bostonian successor launched a new administration with an inaugural
address whose inspirational quality lay partly in its eloquent resolution of American
ambivalence. If we wanted to maintain full employment, we dreaded achieving it by means of
an arms race. Subtly, and with the gloss of' high idealism, John F. Kennedy reassured the
nationwide television audience on that crisp, brilliant January day in 1961 that the
temporary occupational niches of the military-industrial complex could be long-lasting and
could be made more honorable than horrible. There was to be a "new Alliance for
Progress," and we were to hope for emancipation from the "uncertain balance of
terror that stays the hand of' mankind's final war." But the conflict-bred niches
would last, for "the trumpet summons us again . . . to bear the burden of a long
twilight struggle year in and year out . . . against the common enemies of man: tyranny,
poverty, disease and war itself."  Under both parties, the military-industrial
complex enabled us to be preoccupied with matters that helped us ignore resource limits.
It helped thereby to obscure the fact that population was expanding to fill niches that
could not be permanent because they were founded upon drawing down prehistoric savings,
exhaustible fossil energy stocks.
The human family, even if it were soon to stop growing, had committed itself to living
beyond its means. Homo sapiens, as we saw in Chapter 9, was capable of transforming
himself into new "quasi-species." By the Industrial Revolution humans had turned
themselves into "detritovores," dependent on ravenous consumption of long-since
accumulated organic remains, especially petroleum.
If we were to understand what was now happening to us and to our world, we had to learn
to see recent history as a crescendo of human prodigality. When American birth rates
declined as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, this did not mean we were escaping the
predicament of the algae any more than the ringing words of President Kennedy's inaugural
address had really meant that we could eat our cake and still have it. Rather, something
had happened that was fundamental, and that could not be undone by brilliant rhetoric:
there had been a marked acceleration in our previously begun shift from a
self-perpetuating way of life that relied on the circularity of natural biogeochemical
processes, to a way of life that was ultimately self-terminating because it relied on
linear chemical transformations. They were linear (and one way) because man was using
(with the aid of his prosthetic equipment) so many non-crop substances. Man was no longer
engaged in a balanced system of symbiotic relations with other species. When man degraded
the habitat, it tended to stay degraded; it was not being rehabilitated by other organisms
with different biochemical needs.
Perils of Prodigality:
The Coming Crash
Man does not live on detritus alone. Misled by our prodigal expenditures of savings, we
allowed the human family to multiply so much that by the 1970s mankind had taken over for
human use about one eighth of the annual total net production of organic matter by contemporary
photosynthesis in all the vegetation on all the earth's land. That much was being used by
man and his domestic animals.  It would require taking over more than the other
seven-eighths to provide from organic sources the vast quantities of energy we were
deriving from fossil fuels to run our mechanized civilization, even if economic growth and
human increase were halted by the year 2000. Thus, as we began to see in Chapter 3, we
were already well beyond the size that would permit us to re-adapt (without severe
depopulation) to a sustained yield way of life when our access to savings gave out. On the
other hand, just three more doublings of population (scarcely more than Britain had
already experienced in the short time since Malthus) would mean that all the net
photosynthetic production on all the continents and all the islands on earth would have to
be used for supporting the human community. Then our descendants would be condemned to
living at an abjectly "underdeveloped" level, if no fossil acreage remained
available to sustain modern industry.
Such total exploitation of an ecosystem by one dominant species has seldom happened,
except among species which bloom and crash. Detritovores provide clear examples, but there
are others, and we shall take a close look at some of them in the final chapter. For Homo
sapiens, it was unlikely that we could even divert much more than the already
unprecedented fraction of the total photosynthesis to our uses.
It was thus becoming apparent that nature must, in the not far distant future,
institute bankruptcy proceedings against industrial civilization, and perhaps against the
standing crop of human flesh, just as nature had done many times to other
detritus-consuming species following their exuberant expansion in response to the savings
deposits their ecosystems had accumulated before they got the opportunity to begin the
It was not widely recognized, of course, but the imminence of that kind of culmination
really was why the United Nations had to convene its 1972 Conference on the Human
Environment. The conference in Stockholm was meant to begin the process of preventing our
only earth from being rendered less and less usable by humans. In short, its purpose was
to arrest global succession. Persons who had struggled valiantly to bring about this
conference had been engaged (in an important sense) in a global counterpart of the efforts
of Dr. Goodwin in Williamsburg. But whereas he sought to undo succession in order to
preserve history, they sought to preserve a world ecosystem in which Homo sapiens
might remain the dominant speciesand might remain human.
Until the extent of the transformation of Homo sapiens into Homo colossus
was seen and the full ecological ramifications of that transformation were more nearly
understood, however, it would hardly be recognized that the kind of world ecosystem the
United Nations was seeking to perpetuate was already being supersededby an ecosystem
that, by its very nature, compelled the dominant species to go on sawing off the limb on
which it was sitting. Having become a species of superdetritovores, mankind was destined
not merely for succession, but for crash.
Unfortunately but inevitably, the Stockholm deliberations were confused by the fact
that the luckier nations which happened to achieve industrial prodigality before the
earth's savings became depleted had already infected the other nations with an insatiable
desire to emulate that prodigality. The infection preceded recognition of the depletion.
The result of this sad historical sequence was the pathetic quarrel over whether the
luxury we cannot afford is economic growth or environmental preservation. Neither was a
luxury; worse, neither was possible on a global scale.
Excess numbers and ravenous technology had already brought Homo colossus to an
ecological impasse. The laudable ability of delegations from 114 diverse nations to hammer
out compromise resolutions favoring both environmental protection and economic
development for all nations did not extricate us from our predicament. Deft avoidance of
political deadlock once again preserved the illusion that cake could be both eaten and
saved. But illusion preserved was still illusion.
Man needed to realize how commonly populations of other species have undergone the
experience of resource bankruptcy. But we humans have been experiencing a double
irruption, confronting us with an intensified version of the plight of such species. As a
biological type, Homo sapiens has been irrupting for 10,000 years, and especially
the last 400. In addition, our detritus-consuming tools have been irrupting for the last
200 years. It is conceivable that the inevitable die-off necessitated by overshoot could
apply more to Homo colossus than to Homo sapiens. That is, resource demand
might be brought back within the limits of permanent carrying capacity by shrinking
ourselves to less colossal statureby giving up a lot of our prosthetic apparatus and
the high style of living it has made possible. This might seem, in principle, an
alternative to the more literal form of die-off, an abrupt increase in human mortality. In
practice, it runs afoul of several implications of W. I. Thomas's finding about resistance
to change. Accustomed ways of behaving and thinking tend to persist; this is probably as
true of the detritovorous habits of Homo colossus as it was true of earlier human
folkways. Outbreaks of violence among American motorists waiting in long queues to buy
gasoline, sputtering in stubborn non-recognition of the onset of the twilight of the
petroleum era, suggest that the people of industrial societies who have learned to live in
colossal fashion will not easily relinquish their seven-league boots, their heated homes,
and their habit of living high on the food chain. As we said, re-adaptation hurts. It will
Moreover, habits of thought persist. As we shall see in Chapter 11, people
continue to advocate further technological breakthroughs as the supposedly sure cure for
carrying capacity deficits. The very idea that technology caused overshoot, and that it
made us too colossal to endure, remains alien to too many minds
for"de-colossalization" to be a really feasible alternative to literal die-off.
There is a persistent drive to apply remedies that aggravate the problem.
If any substantial fraction of the more colossal segments of humanity did
conscientiously give up part of their resource-devouring extensions out of humane concern
for their less colossal brethren, there is no guarantee that this would avert die-off. It
might only postpone it, permitting human numbers to continue increasing a bit longer, or
less colossal peoples to become a bit more colossal, before we crash all the more
All this tends to be disregarded by advocates of a "return to the simple
life" as a gentle way out of the human predicament. Blessed are the less prosthetic,
for they shall inherit the ravaged earth. Probably so, in the long run. But some view the
dark cloud of fuel depletion and purport to see a silver lining already: individuals
forced to abandon much of their modern technology will then get by on smaller per capita
shares of the phantom carrying capacity upon which prosthetic man has become so dependent.
However, insofar as the high agricultural yields upon which our irrupted population's life
depends can be attained only by means of energy subsidiesby lavish application of
synthetic fertilizers, and by large-scale use of petroleum-powered machinerythe
dwindling fossil acreage will probably lower the output of visible acreage. As we asked
before, what happens when it becomes necessary again to pull the plow with a team of
horses instead of a tractor, and a substantial fraction of the crop acreage that now feeds
humans has to be allocated again to growing feed for draft animals (or biomass to produce
tractor fuel when the Carboniferous legacy is no longer cheaply available)? So much for that
It will spare us no grief to deny that Homo sapiens has been irrupting. It will
in no way ease the impact to deny that crash must follow. We must seek our rays of hope in
another way altogether (as we shall do in Chapter 15).
Not Cleared for Takeoff
The "developed" nations have been widely regarded as previews of the future
condition of the "underdeveloped" countries. It would have been more accurate to
reverse the picture, as perhaps the Stockholm Conference began to do for its most
perceptive participants and observers.
It was one thing to be an underdeveloped nation in the eighteenth century, when the
world had no highly developed nations. It is quite another thing today. When today's
developed nations were not yet industrialized and were just approaching their takeoff
point, the World had only recently entered an exuberant phase which made takeoff
possible. European technology was just starting to harness (for a few brilliant centuries)
the energy stored in the earth during the past several hundred million years, and the
sparsely populated New World had only recently become available for exuberant settlement
and exploitation. These conditions of exuberance no longer prevail. The underdeveloped
countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the twentieth century cannot realistically
expect to follow in the footsteps of the undeveloped nations of eighteenth-century Europe.
Most of today's underdeveloped nations are destined never to become developed.
Egalitarian traditions will be forced to adjust to permanent inequality.
Hard as it might be for the people and leaders of underdeveloped countries to face the
fact, they are not alone in finding it repugnant. The people and leaders of the affluent
societies have also resisted seeing it. Recognition that most of the world's poor would
necessarily stay poor would destroy the comforting conviction of the world's privileged
that their good fortune ought to inspire the world's poor to emulate them, not resent
Nature's limiting factors would not clear most underdeveloped countries for takeoff.
But now that people are so numerous, it would be even worse if many did somehow take off.
Most men of good will have been unable so far to accept this implication of the ecological
facts. Some will no doubt righteously denounce this book for analyzing the situation in
this unpalatable way, as if no fact could hurt us if we refused to acknowledge its truth.
But not only are there not enough of the substances a developed human community must take
from its environment in the process of living to permit a world of four billion people to
be all developed; the capacity of the world's oceans, continents, and atmosphere to absorb
the substances Homo colossus must put somewhere in the process of living is
limited. Even as a waste disposal site, the world is finite.
Right into the 1970s we were misled by so bland a word as "pollution" for
this part of our predicament. We were already suffering the plight of the yeast cells in
the wine vat. Accumulation of the noxious and toxic extrametabolites of high-energy
industrial civilization had become a world problem, but no government could admit that it
would turn into a world disaster if the benefits of modern technology were bestowed as
abundantly upon everyone in the underdeveloped countries as they already had been upon the
average inhabitant of the overdeveloped ones. Leaders everywhere had to pretend full
development of the whole world was their ultimate aim and was still on the agenda. By such
pretensions mankind remained locked into stealing from the future.
Learning to Read the News
Viewing contemporary events from a pre-ecological paradigm, we missed their
significance. From an ecological paradigm we can see that fewer members of the species Homo
colossus than of the species Homo sapiens can be supported by a finite world.
The more colossal we become, the greater the difference. What we called
"pollution," and regarded at first as either a mere nuisance or an indication of
the insensitivity of industrial people to esthetic values, can now be recognized as a
signal from the ecosystem. If we had learned to call it "habitat damage," we
might have read it as a sign of the danger inherent in becoming colossal. Even if the
world were not already overloaded by four billion members of the species Homo sapiens,
it does not have room for that many consumers of resources and exuders of extrametabolites
on the scale of modern Homo colossus. In short, on a planet no larger than ours,
four billion human beings simply cannot all turn into prosthetic giants.
As we move deeper into the post-exuberant age, one of the keen insights of a
passionately concerned and unusually popular sociologist, C. Wright Mills, will become
increasingly important to us all. It was an insight by which he tried to help his
contemporaries read the news of their times perceptively. We will need to be at least as
perceptive to avoid misconstruing events that will happen in the years to come.
Although the paradigm from which Mills wrote was pre-ecological, in one of his most
earnest books he transcended archaic thoughtways enough to note that only sometimes and in
some places do men make history; in other times and places, the minutiae of everyday life
can add up to mere "fate." Mills gave us an unusually clear definition of this
important word. Infinitesimal actions, if they are numerous and cumulative, can become
enormously consequential. Fate, he explained, is shaping history when what happens to
us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about
other matters by innumerable people. 
In a world that will not accommodate four billion of us if we all become colossal, it
is both futile and dangerous to indulge in resentment, as we shall be sorely tempted to
do, blaming some person or group whom we suppose must have intended whatever is happening
to happen. If we find ourselves beset with circumstances we wish were vastly different, we
need to keep in mind that to a very large extent they have come about because of things
that were hopefully and innocently done in the past by almost everyone in general, and not
just by anyone in particular. If we single out supposed perpetrators of our predicament,
resort to anger, and attempt to retaliate, the unforeseen outcomes of our indignant acts
will compound fate.
In precisely Mills's sense, the conversion of a marvelous carrying capacity surplus
into a competition-aggravating and crash-inflicting deficit was a matter of fate. No
compact group of leaders ever decided knowingly to take incautious advantage of enlargment
of the scope of applicability of Liebig's law, or subsequently to reduce that scope and
leave a swollen load inadequately supported. No one decided deliberately to terminate the
Age of Exuberance. No group of leaders conspired knowingly to turn us into detritovores.
Using the ecological paradigm to think about human history, we can see instead that the
end of exuberance was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to
have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to
move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not
depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper.
1. See the explanations offered by various analysts cited in Patterson 1965, pp.
2. For the original formulation of this principle, see Liebig 1863, p.207. Also see the
sharpened statement of it on p. 5 in the "Editor's Preface" to that volume. For
indications that Liebig had the principle in mind even before he grasped its generality
and fundamental significance, see his earlier work, Chemistry in Its Application to
Agriculture and Physiology (London: Taylor & Walton, 1842), pp. 41, 43, 85, 127, 129,
130, 132, 139, 141-142, 159, 178. On the development of Liebig's thinking about this and
other ecological principles, see Justus von Liebig, "An Autobiographical
Sketch," trans. J. Campbell Brown Chemical News 63 (June 5 and 12, 1891): 265-267,
276-278; W. A. Shenstone, Justus von Liebig: His Life and Work (New York: Macmillan,
1895); and Forest Ray Moulton, ea., Liebig and After Liebig: A Century of Progress in
Agricultural Chemistry (Washington: American Association for the Advancement of Science,
3. Cf. Fred Hirsch, Social Limits to Growth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1976). Too often social limits are unwisely cited as if to afford some basis for
disregarding environmental finiteness; social limits actually make finiteness all the more
salient. They do not make carrying capacity less relevant to human affairs. The cliche
which asserts "There are no real shortages, only maldistribution" inverts the
significance of social limits. In comparison with biogeochemical limits, social limits to
growth include all the ways in which human societies are prone to fall short of developing
and maintaining the optimum organization that would allow Liebig's law to apply only on a
thoroughly global scale, with carrying capacity thus never limited by local shortages.
Social limits, in other words, tend to aggravate, not alleviate, the problems posed by
4. See William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1960), pp. 61-62 In thinking about the human implications of the law of the
minimum and the social impediments to implementing the principle of scope enlargement, it
is well to remember that, when the collapse occurred in Germany, one ramification was the
opportunity it afforded for rise of the Nazi dictatorship, with grave consequences for
many other nations.
5. See Galbraith 1955, especially the first five chapters.
6. See Ch. 4, "Farmers in the Depression," in Chandler 1970.
7. See Thomas and Znaniecki 1918-1920 passim.
8. Cf. Robert A. Nisbet, Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press,
1969), pp. 282-284.
9. Toffler 1970, pp. 4-5.
10. Cf. Ehrenfeld 1978 (listed among references for Ch. 1), pp. 249-254. For recent
examples of socialist persistence in the myth of limitlessness, see Stanley Aronowitz,
Food, Shelter and the American Dream (New York: Seabury Press, 1974); Hugh Stretton,
Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
Also see Irving Louis Horowitz, Three Worlds of Development: The Theory and Practice of
International Stratification, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. xvi,
where "overdevelopment" is defined without any ecological reference as "an
excess ratio of industrial capacity to social utility," i.e., to the ability of
people with existing organization, skill levels, etc., to benefit from industrial output.
In contrast, overdevelopment signifies to ecologistse.g., Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1972
(listed among references for Ch. 12), pp. 418-420a level of technological
development that disregards physical and biological limitations and requires "far too
large a slice of the world's resources to maintain our way of life."
11. Michael Tanzer, The Sick Society (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971).
12. See, for example, Odum and de la Cruz 1963; Darnell 1967.
13. This makes it unwise to have defined these substances as "resources."
14. For an interesting discussion of the political significance of Eisenhower's
warning, see Fred Cook, The Warfare State (New York: Macmillan, 1962).
15. Quoted and discussed in Morison 1965 (listed among references for Ch. 5),p. 1110.
16. Odum 1971 (listed among references for Ch. 6), p. 55.
17. Mills 1958, pp. 10-14.
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Commoner, Barry 1971. The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology. New York: Alfred
Darnell, Rezneat M. 1967. "The Organic Detritus Problem." Pp. 374-375 in
George H. Lauff, ed., Estuaries. Washington: American Association for the Advancement of
Science, Publication no. 83.
Galbraith, John Kenneth 1955. The Great Crash 1929. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hubbert, M. King 1969. "Energy Resources." Ch. 8 in Committee on Resources
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Jensen, W. G. 1970. Energy and the Economy of. Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire: G. T.
Liebig, Justus 1863. The Natural Laws of Husbandry. New York: D. Appleton.
Mills, C. Wright 1958. The Causes of World War Three. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Odum, Eugene P., and Armando A. de la Cruz 1963. "Detritus as a Major Component of
Ecosystems." American Institute of Biological Sciences Bulletin 13 (June): 39-40.
Odum, Howard T. 1971. Environment, Power, and Society. New York: John Wilev & Sons.
Patterson, Robert T. 1965. The Great Boom and Panic 1921-1929. Chicago: Henry Regnery
Thomas, William Isaac, and Florian Znaniecki 1918-1920. The Polish Peasant in Europe
and America. 5 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Boston: Richard Badger.
Toffler, Alvin 1970. Future Shock. New York: Random House.
Watson, Adam, ed. 1970. Animal Populations in Relation to Their Food Resources. Oxford:
from William Catton Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.
Copyright 1982 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of
the University of Illinois Press.
To learn about overshoot and the coming die off: OVERSHOOT by Catton, 1982,
University of Illinois Press. Phone: 800-545-4703; FAX: 217-244-8082
To learn out about the coming energy crash and die off: BEYOND OIL, by Gever, et
al., 1991, University Press of Colorado, 303-530-5337
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