William R. Catton, Jr.: An Appreciation

Published on March 5th, 2015

Several weeks ago I learned that William R. Catton, Jr., author of the landmark book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, had passed away in January at the age of 88 in Washington State, days shy of his 89th birthday.

Dr. Catton was a professor emeritus of sociology at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. This unassuming, polite gentleman and U.S. Navy veteran (1943-1946) was not all that well-known among most environmentalists, population activists or immigration campaigners.

But Catton’s seminal work Overshoot, published in 1980, profoundly influenced a generation of leading sustainability thinkers, among them William E. Rees (who pioneered the ecological footprint concept), author and speaker Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute, religious naturalist Rev. Michael Dowd, Kurt Cobb, an author and speaker focused on energy and the environment, and writer/author John Michael Greer of The Archdruid Report. The tributes and appreciations poured in from these folks and others (e.g., Paul Ehrlich, Derrick Jensen, Reed Noss, Alan Weisman).

William R. Catton Jr.
William R. Catton, Jr. (1926-2015)

Catton’s Overshoot flew under the radar for a good many years. It was never a bestseller like the Club of Rome’s hard-hitting Limits to Growth. But gradually Overshoot emerged as a classic. Back in the late 1990s, when I worked for Carrying Capacity Network in Washington, DC, it sat on the bookshelves of the CCN library. Catton, after all, was on CCN’s Board of Advisors. Yet there were a good many reads on our shelves – including The Limits to Growth in about ten languages – and I ignored Overshoot, in spite of its bright yellow cover, until someone I respected immensely gave it a glowing recommendation.

That would be Bill Rees, my old professor and master’s thesis advisor at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Bill was visiting DC and gave a presentation on the ecological footprint to the CCN board and staff. Afterwards, he told me that there was no better explanation of the ecological predicament humanity faced than Overshoot. I started reading it that very night.
Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary ChangeOvershoot’s cover is powerful and stark, with sparse definitions of key carrying capacity concepts:

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
crash: die-off

As noted on the cover, the foreword is by none other than Stewart Udall, President Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior and the author of the 60s-era conservation classic, The Quiet Crisis. I had gotten to know Udall when I volunteered for his son Tom’s first Congressional campaign in Albuquerque in 1988. (It was unsuccessful, but Tom Udall is now one of New Mexico’s two U.S. senators in Washington.)

The gist of Catton’s thesis is this: that Homo sapiens is undergoing a population irruption (explosion) as a result of having discovered vast, but ultimately limited, new resources, as any other species would under such fortuitous (if temporary) circumstances – from yeast in a winemaking vat stocked with sugary nutrients to reindeer transplanted onto Alaska’s St. Matthew Island, carpeted with thick mats of lush lichens never before grazed. In our case, those resources are the fossil fuels which took nature millions of years to amass from ancient sunshine, but which man is going to effectively exhaust in two or three centuries. (In so doing, and in the act of releasing trillions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we will also be altering the Earth’s climate and ecosystems for hundreds of thousands or millions of years to come.)

Rather than living within nature’s “income” or flows, man’s science and technology inadvertently allowed us to draw down nature’s “capital,” and live as detritivores, that is, like those animals in an ecosystem that feed on dead or decaying organic material, especially plant detritus. We are prospering because of the photosynthesis which captured sunlight falling upon “phantom lands” and “ghost acreage” in the ancient geologic past of the Carboniferous Period.

Our fellow detritivores:

Fungi are also detritivores…
Wood Louse
As is this wood louse.

These fossil fuels (and other nonrenewable minerals and metals) aided and abetted the astonishing, exponential growth in our populations and economic activity since about the early 1800s. They allowed for the emergence of what geologist M. King Hubbert once called an “exponential growth culture.” That is, an irrational belief system or cornucopian myth that such unbridled growth was the natural, ordained order of things and could and would continue with abandon and without limit…effectively forever. It was our divine destiny, after all.

In every other species in nature and in every other prior civilization in history, such periods of exuberant growth have eventually come to an end, followed by contraction or collapse. The noted English historian Edward Gibbon described one such famous collapse with the 1776 publication of his multi-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

As an ecologist, it always surprised (and perhaps secretly disappointed) me that a sociologist, and not a fellow ecologist, wrote Overshoot. I’d never given the field of sociology much credit for understanding the roots of our environmental predicament – that is not its focus, after all – and in general I’d stick with this assessment. But sociologist Catton grasped large-scale, long-term ecological truths that had eluded even ecologists.

Overshoot is a compelling work – at once insightful, empathetic and wise. It is absolutely without judgmental rancor or the gratuitous contempt of humanity’s excesses (short-sightedness and greed) that characterizes so many environmentalist screeds, including my own. It appeals to the better angels of our nature for humility, wisdom, restraint and compassion.

I actually had a mild brush with William Catton back when I worked for CCN and he was on our advisory board. It concerned an interview I’d conducted with prominent syndicated columnist and author Georgie Anne Geyer, which ran in a 1997 issue of CCN’s journal Focus.

Geyer had just written Americans No More, a book about the death of citizenship in our country. In its preface, she wrote that in her globe-trotting travels as a journalist, in far-flung places as diverse as the Balkans, Latin America and the Middle East, everywhere she found countries and cultures struggling with the fundamental question, “Who belongs?” In Geyer’s view, “the nation-state is under severe attack by many, many forces that have never attacked it before.” She told me: “Citizenship is under tremendous attack both from the globalizers on the right and the ‘multiculturalists’ on the left.”

William Catton scolded us for even raising the question of “who” as opposed to strictly “how many.” At the CCN board’s request, I wrote a letter to him responding to his critique of Geyer’s thinking that who you allow to immigrate into a country, on the basis of compatibility with the host culture, is as an important and legitimate a question as how many.

Of course, this issue has become even more salient and controversial in the “post-9-11” world we inhabit, with its much-debated “clash of civilizations.” It is an issue that every society as a whole, to say nothing of NGOs, must wrestle with. Population groups like CAPS correctly steer clear of this controversial and ethical conundrum however.

I am very grateful to William Catton for his groundbreaking insights into the ecological plight of our species and our planet, and for having crossed paths with him in our journeys through life.

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