Obituary: William R. Catton Jr. (Jan 15, 1926 Jan 5, 2015)
When William R. Catton Jr., American sociologist and author of Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, passed away on January 5th, it went unnoticed by the mainstream media, or even the alternative press. This was expected, too. His work shaped the views of many activists and writers on issues like Peak Oil, resource depletion etc, but remain largely unknown outside these circles.
Catton’s primary contribution is the trailblazing articulation of an environmental sociological framework that challenged existing sociological theories in general from a completely different tack: by synthesizing sociological and ecological theory. He argued that a prevalent idea of human control over nature, instead of being a great achievement, might be only be a reflection of exploitation of natural resources that were actually finite.
Cattons landmark 1980 book Overshoot had on its cover the following mini-glossary that concisely presented its themes:
carrying capacity: maximum permanently supportable load.
cornucopian myth: euphoric belief in limitless resources.
drawdown: stealing resources from the future.
cargoism: delusion that technology will always save us from
overshoot: growth beyond an area’s carrying capacity, leading to
The central insight of Overshoot, which brought to fore concepts like carrying capacity, was this:
our lifestyles, mores, institutions, patterns of interaction, values, and expectations are shaped by a cultural heritage that was formed in a time when carrying capacity exceeded the human load. A cultural heritage can outlast the conditions that produced it. That carrying capacity surplus is gone now, eroded both by population increase and immense technological enlargement of per capita resource appetites and environmental impacts. Human life is now being lived in an era of deepening carrying capacity deficit. All of the familiar aspects of human societal life are under compelling pressure to change in this new era when the load increasingly exceeds the carrying capacities of many local regions—and of a finite planet. Social disorganization, friction, demoralization, and conflict will escalate.
Acknowledging his debt to Catton, noted Peak Oil writer John Michael Greer writes:
Plenty of books in the 1970s and early 1980s applied the lessons of ecology to the future of industrial civilization and picked up at least part of the bad news that results. Overshoot was arguably the best of the lot, but it was pretty much guaranteed to land even deeper in the memory hole than the others.
The difficulty was that Catton’s book didn’t pander to the standard mythologies that still beset any attempt to make sense of the predicament we’ve made for ourselves; it provided no encouragement to what he called cargoism, the claim that technological progress will inevitably allow us to have our planet and eat it too, without falling off the other side of the balance into the sort of apocalyptic daydreams that Hollywood loves to make into bad movies.
Instead, in calm, crisp, thoughtful prose, he explained how industrial civilization was cutting its own throat, how far past the point of no return we’d already gone, and what had to be done in order to salvage anything from the approaching wreck.
Cattons view of the future, and the human response to overshoot, was dim:
Monumental social changes (and troubles) in the 21st century will be misunderstood (and thus worsened, I believe) insofar as people continue interpreting events according to a [pre-ecological] worldview that insufficiently recognizes human society’s ultimate dependence on its ecosystem context.
As Peak Oil writer Peter Goodchild put it: Its sometimes useful to divide people into those who have read Cattons Overshoot and those who havent. Which of the two groups people belong to determines most of their major decisions over the coming decades.