Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change by William R. Catton Jr., University of Illinois Press (1982), ISBN: 0-252-00988-6 / 978-0-252-00988-4
I believe it was Mark Twain who defined a classic as a book that nobody wants to read but everyone wants to have read. This is a book that everyone ought to have read by now – it came out originally back in 1980 – but apparently not many people actually have. In a small way, I hope this review will help to remedy that.
William Catton was an academic sociologist, but don’t let that put you off. This is very much a book for the lay reader. He assumes very little by way of prior knowledge, and the book includes an extensive glossary of terms. The book is written with great lucidity and indeed restraint, and this makes its message all the more powerful. It is rooted not in sociology as such, but in ecology. This is a perspective that, as he notes, was unusual in his day; sadly, it continues to be so.
Catton begins from the premise that humanity is in crisis. It is sobering to be reminded how apparent this was even when he was writing in the 1970s. His central contention is that the nature and causes of this crisis can only be appreciated from an ecological perspective. The meat of the book is his exposition of ecological principles, starting with the core concept of carrying capacity. He goes on to apply these principles as an explanatory tool for human history, both ancient and modern.
He anticipates and dismisses the claims of human exceptionalism, which is to say that ecological principles apply to all other living organisms but not to us. Given that those principles do in fact apply, he makes a cogent case for the self-defeating nature of industrial civilisation.
Human society is inextricably part of a global biotic community, and in that community human dominance has had and is having self-destructive consequences.Chapter 1, “Our Need for a New Perspective” (p. 10)
His account of the Industrial Revolution and the succeeding period – what he terms “The Age of Exuberance” – is useful not only in itself but as an explanation for why we have the habits of thought that we do. As Catton makes clear, these habits in themselves are one of the biggest obstacles to be overcome. In an entertaining section, he categorises responses to the crisis into five groups, ranging from “Realism” to “Ostrichism” (Chapter 4, “Watershed Year: Modes of Adaptation”, Table 2). He is refreshingly free of acrimony in this; he understands why people react as they do. But it is very obvious that there is very little realism about, any more than there was in 1980.
At the same time, he is clear-eyed about the future that awaits us if we fail to see things realistically and to take the appropriate action. He views the Great Depression, for example, as a “preview” of the kinds of disruption industrial society can expect to face. A significant chunk of the book (Chapters 11 and 12) is devoted to the psychological difficulties we face in adapting appropriately. Catton shows compassion as well as ruthlessness here in his analysis.
It is impossible to read this book and remain optimistic about the future of industrial civilisation. Perhaps this is why it is not, as perhaps it should be, on every school curriculum in the “developed” world. The book’s publication was also, in a sense, ill-timed: even as it came off the presses, the Reagan-Thatcher worldview was becoming dominant in the West, and it was never going to get much of a hearing in the corridors of power. Witness the desperate rearguard action against reality being fought to this day by Nigel Lawson, Mrs Thatcher’s long-time Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In this historical context, even Catton’s very limited faith in the Carter administration appears rather tragic:
The third week in April, 1977, was a pivotal moment in history. It was the time when the world’s most colossal energy users were at last called upon by their president to face the future realistically.Chapter 14, “Turning Around” (p. 227)
Well, we know how well that turned out. The little that Carter managed to achieve was undone, and worse, by his successors, with the results that we now see.
Nits can of course be picked. Catton’s account of early human history is rather outdated, as one might expected from a book written forty years ago by a non-specialist. (I would highly recommend James C. Scott, Against the Grain, and/or David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything, for a corrective.) But none of this detracts from his core argument. Indeed Overshoot has aged remarkably well, on the whole, because it relies mainly on extremely well-established truths and on logical argument rather than on passionate rhetoric.
If the book has a weakness, it is that while it is long on diagnosis it is rather short on remedies. Partly this is because there simply are none, or not palatable ones at any rate. The best-case scenario is both unlikely and horrible; it is just less horrible than the others. If you want practical guidance on measures you can take to cope with what’s coming – and you will once you’ve read this, if you don’t already – you will need to look elsewhere.
Reading Overshoot is like taking a cold shower. You will emerge with fewer illusions, but it won’t necessarily be fun. But it is also bracing and, in its way, invigorating. Once you’ve seen the world as Catton shows it to you, it is hard to stop seeing it that way. And from that viewpoint it becomes possible to see some ways forward.
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