In 1980 a book entitled Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change by William Catton, Jr. was published. Professor Catton’s book has become one of the great works detailing the concept of biotic populations (in this case, humans) exceeding their resource base. Thus the title Overshoot in which a population outgrows both the food available as well as other life-based requirements needed for survival. Books like Overshoot explain not only what circumstances can lead to a population breakdown but can also provide insights, if we are perspicacious, on how to avoid those predicaments.
But this should not be confused with end-of-the-world discourse. Humans have been preoccupied with those sorts of scenarios for a very long time. In fact, centuries before the birth of Jesus of Galilee others, whether as an anointed one (moshiach) or prophet, predicted the end of humanity. It seems we have a longstanding fascination for what is, if we are to be honest, a yearning to get out of the current situation and find something better or at least different. There is always a faction obsessed with cataclysmic or eschatological finality. The latest wave began in the mid-1970s when publications began appearing about surviving a coming collapse. The current “assault rifle” preoccupation has its roots in a book called Survival Guns that appeared in that first wave of “head for the hills” hysteria. But that was over 30 years ago and despite ever increasing problems—environmental, political and economic—we have yet to experience the need to “bug out” to anywhere except perhaps the mall come Black Friday.
Even so, there are those amongst us who live on a constant “alert status” preparing for the big drawdown. I’ve often wondered if we could go back a few hundred years (this would be dependent on where in the world you live) and spend some time there and then be suddenly transported back to the present if most of us might conclude that much of the world has deteriorated already. From water we can no longer drink, to skies severely polluted, to forests annihilated, to landscapes so mutilated they are nothing short of trash-pits, we have gone a long ways in ruining the earth. And yet, at the same time our population has grown at a meteoric rate. While economists with their seemingly ever-present myopia remain oblivious to the nightmare of exponential human population growth there are many in the world of science that are now deeply troubled about where things are going. In the book, Overshoot, William Catton suggests that in our contrived ecosystem the earth reached its maximum “carrying capacity” at about 4.2 billion population and that was back in the early 1980s. A “contrived ecosystem” is an artificial system held together by synthetic means. In other words, remove the artificiality of a system and the carrying capacity is instantly reduced dramatically. Take away electricity and gasoline, for example, and the ability to produce food on bare land via “modern” agriculture is immediately halted. In a world that already has countries unable to sustain their own populations without outside help it becomes clear that any sort of extrinsic “limiting factor,” from sudden loss of the ability to distribute energy to profound drought to economic shutdown to world war to pandemic, and we are abruptly in an acute state of population reduction.
In a twisted irony our population increase began as our technologies, particularly our cutting tools, improved. From bone and stone knives, axes and spear points to copper and bronze and then iron and steel we refined our ability to cut into both the biotic and abiotic world. What, pray tell, is a plow other than a type of cutting tool? And as plowing became more efficient we were able to produce more food while at the same time destroying our forests (and thus the ability to hunt and gather) and all the while our human populations flourished. What is an oil drill other than a type of cutting tool? What is a bulldozer other than a massive form of whacking trees and erasing the landscape?
Years ago I asked a class what they would do if there was a sudden loss of power everywhere. To make the point more dramatic I turned off the lights in a windowless classroom. The female students gasped and the men became anxious as well. And then, as always, some fellow proclaimed: “Well, I’ll just head out into the woods and live off the land.” So I asked him: “Where will you live off the land? There is so little woods left that the ability to hunt and forage is practically gone. There is little potable water. You can’t drink the water from the Rio Grande because it is severely polluted. The upland areas have mostly shallow-wells with brackish water and what good water you might find will already have people with guns sitting on it. It’s that way nearly everywhere. You will find millions of desperate folks alongside you who will be more than willing to lighten your pack whether you like it or not. The pestilence that will sweep overland within weeks will be horrific. In less than six months every deer, cow, goat and chicken will be consumed—often at a substantial waste of meat. People will kill a cow and eat only a tiny bit before the rest rots.” Of course, after class the students would scurry out the door with nary a thought about what we’d just discussed.
And so here we are: Watching YouTube videos on survival gear and sustainability over the long haul, and reading articles on “bug out bags” and contemplating living “off the land” and all of those things reside in the world of either extreme naiveté or in the realm of delusion. Don’t be angry just be real. With a current human population of over seven billion and with resources constantly depleted worldwide we have no factual place to “bug out.” In isolated situations like after a hurricane (Hurricane Katrina comes to mind) people had to survive in a micro cosmos of filth, crime, and greatly reduced resources. But the world all around the victims lay intact and people could pack their bags and head to a Holiday Inn somewhere or they could wait while supplies were brought to them. In that sense the best bug-out bag is a suitcase or pack with enough clothes, meds and toiletries to spend a few days in a nearby city or shelter. But what if a pandemic strikes worldwide and suddenly there is no help to ship supplies to you; and to make things worse you can’t drive to the next town and check into a motel because they are all very sick and experiencing their own troubles?
Yes, we have created a real predicament for ourselves. Even now more forests are being cleared lessening places where people might hunt or forage. More water is being polluted as “fracking” operations for gas wells contaminate millions of gallons of water every year. Heck, we just had an election where the frackers, polluters and desecraters pumped mega millions into the fray to insure they would be able to continue their mutilations. They lost. But regardless, populations continue growing exponentially. Add to that the phenomena of “human population pressure” where people start to interfere with each other as population densities become critical. What do you think “road rage” is all about? What do you think is causing the intense anger we see all around us? The explanations we’ve been given by scores of pundits, politicians and plutocrats range from the ridiculous to the absurd. But the facts are simple: We are in overshoot and are now experiencing the problems associated with populations when they have gone far beyond their maximum carrying capacities. William Catton, Jr. predicted all of this years ago. Others concur. And yet, we journey on wearing blinders. The data tells us that most populations fall dramatically when limiting factors come into play but they do not disappear altogether. When I wrote the novel, The Trail, I brought the concept of population and societal collapse into play in a real sense. Nonetheless, the possible proximity of such an unfolding is indeed disconcerting. Everyone wants to believe that they will survive and some even think a sort of “sustainability” can be achieved even as they currently live surrounded by millions of people. There is no foolproof answer other than to live a life of frugality sans the hedonism preached daily on the radio and other places. Perhaps it’s time we rethink our mode of living. Not that we will survive but that we will live. And living will not be the constant acquisition of “things” as we slide headlong through hyper-consumption and gluttony. Instead it will be a lifestyle of simplicity and frugality where the measure of the quality of one’s life will not be scored on how many vehicles we own or houses we possess or how we have accrued objects to play with but instead how we appreciate those things that we seem to push away or overlook. Did I mention that early this morning I watched four green jays drinking water at the birdbath?