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Overshoot Glossary

ABIOTIC SUBSTANCE: the non-living elements and compounds of the environment.

ADAPTATION: modification of something to "fit" or "go with" something else; hence, in ecology, the fitting of an organism to the requirements of its environment by means of adjustments of form or function.

ACE OF EXUBERANCE: the centuries of growth and progress that followed the sudden enlargement of habitat available to Europeans as a result of voyages of discovery; a period of expansion when a species takes exuberant advantage of the abundant opportunities in an eminently suitable but previously inaccessible habitat.

ANIMAL COMMUNITY: a biotic community in which animals play a conspicuous part in the collective adaptation of the total association of diverse organisms to their shared habitat.

ANOMIE: prevalence of the view that antisocial types of behavior are necessary as means to attain socially prescribed goals.

ANTAGONISM, ECOLOGICAL: a relationship between two or more species or groups of organisms in which the activities or indirect effects of the activities of one are harmful to another; may be quite impersonal, unintentional, and unconscious.

ANTAGONISM, EMOTIONAL: hostility, enmity, active opposition toward another individual or group; may result from ecological antagonism.

ANTIBIOTIC: (adj.) opposite of symbiotic; tendency for the life processes and products of one organism to be harmful to another organism or type of organism; (n.) chemically purified extrametabolite used in medicine to inhibit growth of disease-causing bacteria - e.g., penicillin, refined from an extrametabolite exuded by the penicillium mold.

ANTINOMIAN MOVEMENTS: groups of people who seek to change social conditions they deplore by repudiating or violating social or legal codes which they assume have caused the deplored conditions.

AUTOTROPHS (producers): organisms capable of photosynthesis, which converts abiotic substances into energy-rich organic substances. (Also, technically, organisms capable of chemosynthesis, whereby they obtain energy to build up organic substances by oxidizing inorganic compounds; not directly important to the argument of this book, so herein the word is used to denote only those organisms capable of photosynthesis.)

BIOGEOCHEMICAL CYCLES: patterns of circulation of energy and a score of chemical elements involved in life processes, in systems comprising earth, water, air, and organisms. The chemical materials can be and are recycled over and over again; the energy cannot be recycled.

BIOMASS: the amount of living material in a specified context.

BIOSPHERE: the region at and near the earth's surface within which life occurs, including land, water, and air; all life on the entire planet.

BIOTIC COMMUNITY: a more or less self-sufficient and localized web of life collectively adapting to the life-supporting conditions of the local habitat.

BIOTIC POTENTIAL: the capacity for reproduction, or the number of offspring that theoretically could be produced by a parental pair.

BLOOM: see irruption.

CARGO CULTS: systems of belief and ritual among Melanesian peoples in the islands of the Pacific, arising from their observation that the dominant European minority among them received vast quantities of material goods ITom unseen sources overseas; the native peoples, because of their sketchy and inaccurate notions of the origins of these goods, came to suppose they might be the rightful owners of such cargo and that it might ultimately be delivered to them.

CARGOISM: faith that technological progress will stave off major institutional change even in a post-exuberant world; the equivalent among people of industrial nations to the cargo cuIts of the Melanesian islanders.

CARNIVORE: an animal type that subsists by eating the flesh of other animals.

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 the human species).

CARRYING CAPACITY DEFICIT: the condition wherein the permanent ability of a given habitat to support a given form of life is less than the quantity of that farm already in existence.

CARRYING CAPACITY SURPLUS: the condition wherein the permanent ability of a given habitat to support a given form of life exceeds the quantity of that form then in existence.

CLIMAX COMMUNITY: a self-perpetuating community comprising a combination of species that can successfully outcompete any alternative combination which might otherwise replace it on a given site.

COLOSSUS: originally the gigantic statue of Apollo at the entrance of the harpor 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.

COMPETITION: a relationship between two or more organisms in which each makes demands upon its environment similar to the demands made by the other, with the result that the presence of each hampers the other in some way.

CORNUCOPIAN PARADIGM: a view of past and future human progress that disregards the carrying capacity concept, pays no attention to the finiteness of the world, or to differences between takeover and drawdown, and accepts uncritically the myth of limitlessness.

COSMETICISM: faith that relatively superficial adjustments in our activities will keep the New World new and will perpetuate the Age of Exuberance.

CRASH: the more or less precipitate decline in numbers that follows when a population has exceeded the carrying capacity of its habitat; otherwise called a die-off.

CULTURAL LAG: stress that occurs when interconnected patterns of culturally prescribed behavior or belief change at different rates of speed.

CULTURE: a system of socially acquired and transmitted standards of judgment, belief, and conduct, as well as the social and material products of the resulting conventional activities.

CULTURE OF EXUBERANCE: the total complex of beliefs and practices associated with the opportunities for expansive life in the Age of Exuberance; a culture founded upon the myth of limitlessness.

CYNICISM: ordinarily, a tendency to question the value of anything and everything; hence, in this book, disbelief that the New World's newness made any difference or that its oldness has any significance; disbelief that the Age of Exuberance was of any value, or that its termination matters.

DECOMPOSERS: heterotrophic organisms (usually microscopic) that break down the complex organic compounds of dead plants or animals, thereby releasing simple substances that can be re-used by  autotrophic producer organisms.

DETRITOVORE: an organism that subsists by consuming detritus; by extension, any organism that uses the accumulated remains of long-dead organisms, including industrial human communities which are "detritovorous" insofar as they depend on massive consumption of the transformed organic remains from the Carboniferous period known as fossil fuels.

DETRITus: originally a geological term meaning fragments ofrock or debris produced by disintegration and erosion; used by biologists to refer to the accumulated remains of organisms (e.g., humus in the soil, or decayed leaves in a pond); by extension, used in this book to refer to transformed remains of organisms that lived millions of years ago, such remains being useful as fossil fuels to organisms (humans) living today.

DETRITUS ECOSYSTEM: an ecosystem in which detritovores play a major part. As organic detritus accumulates in a given habitat, there is a temporary increase in carrying capacity for detritus consumers. Insofar as these are capable of increasing much faster than the detritus accumulates, however, their introduction to the community after detritus has already accumulated, or their release from some constraint that had earlier held back their use of the accumulation, tends to result in a cycle of bloom and crash. They irrupt and then, as the detritus supply is exhausted, they die off.

DEUS EX MACHINA: in ancient Greek drama, a deity brought in by stage machinery to intervene in the action; hence, any artificial or improbable resolution of a dilemma. ln this book, Cargoism is regarded as an instance of this. (See Cargoism.)

DIACHRONIC COMPETITION: a relationship between generations in which living organisms satisfy their wants at the expense of their descendants.

DOMINANCE: the capacity of a species to exert more influence than any other associated species in its community upon the characteristics of their habitat and upon other species in the community; ecological inequalities that arise from different resource-exploitation strategies characterizing different types of organisms.

DOMINANT: (adj.) having the capacity to exert more influence than any other species in the community; (n.) the particular species in a community with greater influence than any other.

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.)

ECOLOGICAL PARADIGM: in general, a view of the web of life that recognizes a common chemical basis for all types of organisms (including man), emphasizes the dependence of alllife processes upon flows of energy and exchanges of chemical substance between organism and environment, and expects living forms inevitably to have effects upon each other by these exchanges; in this book, rejection of the notion of human exemption from ecological principles and affirmation of the view that ecological concepts are essential for understanding human experience.

ECOLOGY: the study of ecosystems; Le., the study of interrelations in the web of life and between organisms and their environment.

ECOSYSTEM: a comprehensive web of interrelations between organisms, other organisms, and their environment; it tends to be characterized by the operation of various checks and balances.

ENCLOSE-AND-CONTROL PRINCIPLE: any adaptation wherein organisms retain homeostatically within themselves conditions necessary to their life that have ceased to be reliably available externally; the principle by which, for example, organisms that were once confined to aquatic environments became adapted to life on dry land by maintaining within themselves a wet "internal environment."

ENERGY SLAVES: a metaphor by which the value of fossil energy is measured in terms of the human muscle-power equivalent to it. For example, burning about 32 V.S. gallons (121 liters) of gasoline releases energy equal to the energy content of the food an active adult human being would consume in a year. Thus, the work obtained from this gasoline tends to approximate the amount of work that might have been obtained in a year from a human slave, assuming comparable energy conversion efficiency by fuel-burning machinery and food-burning human bodies.

ENERGY SUBSIDY: energy from sources other than sunlight applied to the growing of crops; e.g., fossil energy (in excess of the human labor displaced by its use) used in operating farm equipment, energy used to move water for artificial irrigation, the energy content of synthetic fertilizers applied to the soil, etc.

ETHNOCENTRISM: the tendency to regard the behavior of people raised by other standards than our own as wrong, rather than just different.

EVOLUTION: imperfect replication of the traits of organisms in their progeny and the selective retention among descendant populations of those traits best adapted to prevailing environmental circumstances.

EXTRAMETABOLITES: substances given off by organisms which, as they accumulate in the environment, affect the life processes of other organisms, and thus function as environmental chemical regulators.

EXUBERANCE, ECOLOGICAL: the lavish use of resources by members of a freely expanding population who are, at a given time, significantly fewer in number than the maximum permitted by the carrying capacity of their habitat.

EXUBERANCE, EMOTIONAL: a joyous, optimistic, almost euphoric mood; can result from ecological exuberance.

EXHAUSTIBLE RESOURCES: usable substances that are not currently being re-created by natural processes at rates comparable to actual or potential rates of consumption; e.g., detritus, fossil fuels, minerals, metallic ores.

FATE: in human experience, a future that happens to us regardless of our own actions; as defined by the sociologist C. Wright Mills, the summary outcorne not intended by anyone but resulting from innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people. For example, no one intended that city air should become smoggy, but the cumulative effects of individual decisions to buy and drive automobiles, to bum fuels to heat homes, or to buy products offuel-using industries have brought about this unintended environmental change.

FISH ACREAGE: the additional farmland a given nation would need in order to supply food equivalent to that portion of its sustenance obtained from the sea.

FOOD CHAIN: a hierarchy of relationships between species that consume or are consumed by other species; e. g., grass eaten by cow, beef or dairy products eaten by humans, human blood consumed by mosquitoes, mosquitoes eaten by trout, etc.

FOSSIL ACREAGE: the additional farmland a given nation would need in order to supply organic fuel equivalent to the coal, petroleum, or natural gas products it now uses.

FOSSIL FUELS: energy-rich substances created by geological transformation of the remains of organisms that lived long ago; including coal, petroleum, and natural gas.

GENERATION: as a measure of time, the average interval between becoming a parent and becoming a grandparent, or between being bom and becoming a parent; assumed herein to be about 25 years for Homo sapiens.

GHOST ACREAGE: the additional farmland a given nation would need in order to supply that net portion of the food or fuel it uses but does not obtain from contemporary growth of organisms within its borders-e.g., from net imports of agricultural products, from oceanic fisheries, from fossil fuels.

GREEN REVOLUTION: a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity resulting from use of specially bred crop plants capable of higher per-acre yields than varieties previously in use.

HERBIVORE: an animal type that subsists by eating plant tissues.

HETEROTROPH (consumer): an organism which cannot convert abiotic substances into organic matter but must use for its sustenance materials produced by other organisms.

HOMEOSTASIS: the prevention of change in some variable by means of compensatory change in another aspect of the system when an outside influence would otherwise have  produced change in that variable; the damping of oscillations in biological processes by regulatory mechanisms.

HOMO COLOSSUS: See Colossus.

HOMO SAPIENS: the species of mammal that includes both the reader and the author, and all other contemporary human beings; a language-using, tool making, social species, descended from earlier types of humans who were also members of the genus Homo, capable of evolving culturally as weil as genetically.

HUMAN COMMUNITY: a biotic community in which human beings, by virtue of their capacity for occupational and social differentiation, play so many of the roles that it appears the community is mostly under human control.

HUMAN ECOLOGY: properly defined, the comprehensive study of ecosystems involving mankind. (Nowa thoroughly interdisciplinary field of inquiry, among sociologists human ecology was regarded as a branch of academic sociology; they tended for a while to narrow it to the study oflittle more than the spatial structure of cities, afterward broadening it again to a more general study of social organization.)

HUMAN EXEMPTIONALlSM: the notion that human beings are so fundamentally unlike other living creatures that principles of ecology (and perhaps many of the principles of other branches of biology, too) are inapplicable to us.

IRRUPTION: the rapid exponential increase of a population after it suddenly gains access to an abundance of the resources it requires.

KILOCALORIE: a unit of energy; the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 kilo gram of water 1 degree Celsius.

LIMITING FACTOR: any condition in an ecosystem that tends to restrict growth of a population of organisms (or, the resource a given population needs that happens to be available in lowest per capita abundance).

METABOLlSM: physical and chemical processes occurring in living cells, or ganisms, and biotic communities, whereby compounds are either built up or broken down, and energy is either fixed or released. (lncludes both anabolism, the process by which food is tumed into living tissue, and catabolism, the process by which tissue is turned into waste products.)

MUTUALISM: a strong and reciprocal interdependence between different but associated life forms. (See symbiosis.)

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.

NEO-EXUBERANT: newly committed to the culture of exuberance (whether or not the carrying capacity surplus that gave rise to that culture still exists).

NET PRODUCTION: the quantity of organic matter produced during a given time period by photosynthesis in a given organism (or community) minus the quantity destroyed by respiration.

NEW REALITY, THE: the situation prevailing in the world following transition uom a carrying capacity surplus to a carrying capacity deficit.

NICHE: the role that an organism (of a given kind) plays in an ecosystemLe., the kinds of nutrients it has to obtain uom its environment, the kinds of things it must do to its environment in the process of living, the kinds of relationships it must have with other organisms to go on living, etc.

NICHE DIVERSIFICATION: increase in the structural complexity of a biotic community through enlargement of the number of distinct ecological niches; a common result of population pressure in a given niche. Among humans, occupational diversification is a special case of this natural process.

OSTRICHISM: obstinately persistent belief in the myth of limitlessness; the unrealistic supposition that nothing basic has changed; refusal to face facts.

OVERPOPULATION: population in excess of carrying capacity; population so numerous in proportion to resources that standards of living are lower than they would be if population were less numerous.

OVERSHOOT: (v.) to increase in numbers so much that the habitat's carrying capacity is exceeded by the ecologicalload, which must in time decrease accordingly; (n.) the condition of having exceeded for the time being the permanent carrying capacity of the habitat.

PARADIGM: an underlying shared idea of the fundamental nature of wh atever it is that a collectivity of minds seeks to understand; an idea that guides inquiry and thought by defining what seems real, how things are presumed to work, and how additional facts about this reality and these processes may presumably be obtained.

PHANTOM CARRYING CAPACITY: illusory or extremely precarious capacity of an environment to support a life form or a way of life; that portion of a popu lation that cannot be permanently supported when temporarily available resources become unavailable.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS: creation of organic molecules uom abiotic substances by the action of solar energy (a process that occurs in green plants, for example, by means of the catalytic action of a green substance called chlorophyll).

PIONEER COMMUNITY: the type of association of organisms that is capable of using a site early in its developmental history; the earliest pre-climax communit y on a given site.

PLANT COMMUNITY: a biotic community in which the dominant species are plants.

POLLUTION: the accumulation of harmful substances produced by human activity in the environment in which humans live; by extension, the accumulation of any life-limiting extrametabolites in the environment of any species.

POPULATION DENSITY: ratio of number of organisms of a given species to number of units of space in which they live; e. g., people per square mile.

POPULATION PRESSURE: the uequency of mutual interference per capita per day resulting uom the presence of others in a finite habitat.

POST-EXUBERANT: the condition of life in a world that has gone through an Age of Exuberance but now conuonts a carrying capacity deficit.

PRE-CLIMAX COMMUNITY: any community subject to succession because its collective use of a site is not self-compensating and the characteristics of the site are changed by that community's life processes so the site becomes less suited to supporting the existing association of organisms and more suited to supporting a changed association.

PRE-ECOLOGICAL THOUGHTWAYS: see cornucopian paradigm.

PRODUCTION: in ecology, the fixation of energy by photosynthesis (or, the construction of energy-rich organic matter uom energy-poor abiotic substances, by photosynthetic action).

PROSTHETIC DEVICE: in medical practice, an artificial substitute for a part of the body (as, for example, an artificiallimb); 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 do without having developed a special organ for the purpose.

QUASI-SPECIATION: the non-genetic differentiation of a human population into differently specialized subgroups by use of alternative tools, customs, or


REALISM: recognition that the Age of Exuberance is over and that overpopulation and resource depletion must inexorably change human organization and human behavior.

RECYCLING: the natural return of substances from the end of a food chain to the beginning, through the action of decomposers; by extension, artificial processes in which previously used materials are reused.

REDUNDANCY ANXIETY: a morbid apprehension arising from population pressure, based on the more or less conscious realization that if there is an excess of population in relation to carrying capacity, the population surplus may include oneself, not just others.

RENEWABLE RESOURCES: usable substances produced by on-going processes su ch as organic growth that takes place at rates commensurate with actual or potential rates of consumption; also usable energy obtained directly or indirectly from contemporary solar inputs, rather than withdrawn from finite quantities accumulated from past solar inputs.

RESOURCES: materials or energy sources usable by organisms. Not only the characteristics of the materials or sources, but also the traits of the organism and its equipment, will determine which materials or sources are usable.

RESPIRATION: chemical reactions in organisms by which energy in organic molecules is made available for use, mainly through oxidation of carbon compounds.

SELECTION PRESSURE: the favoring of one variant over another by its more advantageous adaptation to environmental circumstances; measured by differential rates of replacement.

SERAL STAGES: the developmental stages in a process of community succession.

SERE: the entire sequence of community types that tend to succeed each other on a given type of site.

SPECIATION: differentiation of a population into distinct types that do not interbreed and that have genetically produced traits adapted to different enVironmental conditions.

SPECIES: a category of organisms taxonomists have judged to be sufficiently distinct from others for recognition as a separate kind; assumed (or known) to be incapable of interbreeding with another species.

STANDING CROP: see biomass.

SUBDOMINANT: (n.) a species with significant but less than first-rank influence upon the characteristics of its habitat and upon other species sharing that habitat; (adj.) having less than first-rank influence.

SUBSPECIES: a partially differentiated sub-population still capable of interbreeding with other sub-populations of the same species; e.g., a race.

SUCCESSION: an orderly and directional process of community change resulting from modification of the habitat by the community and culminating in a maximally stable ecosystem relative to the characteristics of the site.

SUSTAINED YIELD: the result of balance between rates of harvest and rates of growth and replacement, so that the resource is not destroyed by overuse.

SYMBIOSIS: mutual dependence of populations of differentiated organisms.

SYMBIOTIC: mutually interdependent, especially in the positive sense of mutually beneficial.

TAKEOFF: in economics, the point in the history of a society at which its economic surplus is sufficient to permit continu al reinvestment in economic growth, so that growth becomes self-sustaining.

TAKEOVER METHOD OF ENLARGING CARRYING CAPACITY: increasing opportunities for one species by reducing opportunities for competing species.

TECHNOLOGY: either the systematic study and knowledge of the means of making and using devices for implementing the attainment of human goals, or the devices themselves.

TEMPORARY CARRYING CAPACITY: combination of actual carrying capacity and phantom carrying capacity; the population that a habitat can support for a short time only (until the supply of some exhaustible resource upon which that species has become dependent runs out).

TERRITORIALITY: an animal behavior pattern that commonly arises in response to actual or potential resource shortages: individuals or groups lay claim to distinct territories for feeding or breeding, drive off non-claimants, and thereby ensure that scarce resources will adequately support claimants rather than being spread too thinly among an excessive population.

TRADE ACREAGE: the addition al farmland a given nation would need in order to supply that net portion of food or fuel it ob tains by trade with other nations.

VILIFICATION: reviling or defaming other individuals or groups; imputing to supposed villains major responsibility for evil developments.

VISIBLE ACREAGE: the farmland, forests, and pastures within a nation's own borders which it recognizes as the source of products it consumes, or as the source of commodities it trades for imports it consumes.

WEB OF LIFE: the total network of cooperative, competitive, and predatory relationships between organisms struggling for existence in a common and finite habitat.


  • 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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