Overshooting the Human Project

Earth by NASA
NASA: public domain image

The first astronauts described Earth with mystical awe as a vulnerable pearl in the barren wastes of space. It had looked the same since before the rise of mammals in the Cenozoic epoch, but suddenly our dirty footprints are all over Mother Earth. Visible from space, they will remain a legacy of the Anthropocene for eons after our species has vanished.

I live in a bubble with a stocked pantry and full gas tank in my car, needing to see a larger reality through the eyes of an ecologist. No book opened them wider to our plight than William Catton’s Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. He published in 1980 with a preface by Stewart L. Udall, former Secretary of the Interior. I had never heard of it until someone I respect said it should be compulsory reading as a key book of the 20th century.

I found a copy with a drab grey cover in the college library after sliding stacks on rollers and knelt down to the bottom shelf. Asking the librarian when the book last went out, he grinned as he stamped it for return in 364 days. I am the first reader in decades. That obscurity is the book’s first message.

The gist is about Earth’s carrying capacity, an expression from ecology and familiar to lemmings. Let me illustrate.

My computer has a large, fixed amount of memory on the hard drive. It seemed limitless at first and for several years I saved thousands of files and software updates without hindrance (equivalent to the exponential rise of animal or human populations). When it ran low on memory, I bought external drives to expand the ‘carrying capacity’ instead of deleting files. I was naïve to think it would never crash by running out of gigabytes. Of course, my solution was to transfer files to a new computer with more memory, but we can’t move humanity after plundering our only planet.

Catton’s book opens with a poignant story in the inaugural year of the Soviet Union (1922). An American journalist visited a Russian community where half the population had died of famine, and the death rate still soared. A lone soldier guarded a huge mound of sacks of grain nearby. When the visitor asked a bearded elder why they didn’t overpower the guard to relieve their hunger, he said the sacks contained seed for growing next season: “We don’t steal from the future.”

The book continues with a history of our species told from an ecological point of view. In the Old Stone Age, hunter-gatherers depended on wild foods from their locality. They could gather more food after inventing spears and bows and arrows, which enabled a slight uptick in their numbers. The emergence of agriculture 10,000 years ago had a bigger impact, especially after the invention of plows. Much later, artificial fertilizers raised the carrying capacity for even more surviving children.

By the Middle Ages, Europe was filling up with people, despite the Black Death. The discovery of the New World and doubling of United States territory from the Louisiana Purchase plus the introduction of hand-held firearms was like opening a valve for European expansion into lands regarded as ‘empty’. In fact, they were already ‘full’ to the extent that indigenous people could manage in the circumstances of earlier technological development. As our numbers surged, logging, farming, mining, and hunting displaced animal life, including many insects (‘the little creatures that run the world,’ E.O. Wilson). For untold generations, people had subsisted on renewable resources from photosynthesis (solar power), but everything changed two centuries ago.

The Industrial Revolution began with inventions like James Watt’s steam engine, replacing human and animal muscle power with fossil energy from photosynthesis millions of years ago and, therefore, non-renewable. Energy is necessary for the engine of a growing human society. Thus began the Age of Exuberance when growth seemed limitless, and temporarily unconstrained by energy, the human population grew even faster. Antiseptic surgery after 1865 and antibiotics in the next century compounded the increase. Calamitous world wars had little impact on the exponential increase toward a plateau at the carrying capacity (logistic curve).

Nations that were formerly self-sufficient overshot their ability to provide enough energy and food for themselves (Britain among the first). They absolutely depended on imports from elsewhere, called ‘ghost acreage’ by Georg Borgstrom (The Hungry Planet).

In the aftermath of World War II, many Americans still believed the myth of limitless growth, which seemed confirmed by the euphoric Green Revolution and Moon landings among other triumphs in science and technology. OPEC’s Oil Embargo in 1973 triggered anxiety, although hopes of discovering limitless energy remained (fusion power is always 30 years in the future!). Governments didn’t question the drawing down of finite resources or have guilty consciences about unborn generations. Business continued as usual for the hallowed growth of GDP under a neo-lib establishment.

It seemed unpatriotic to doubt the American Dream, a project promising to raise all boats around the world (drip-down economics), and yet it didn’t take an ecologist to question it (Death of a Salesman, 1949). But it is always more attractive to be optimistic than the alternative and the privileged don’t willingly yield their entitlements. However, the Age of Exuberance gradually turned sour from mounting evidence of our impact on global warming, species extinction, fisheries, pollution, topsoil erosion, etc.

We now live in an Age of Anxiety in which fear of resource scarcity haunts society. Nativism looks inward, hostile to immigration or sharing our stuff with others (America First!). It presents itself as virtuous while stealing wealth in the ground from the future (the old Russian would shake his head).

Since Catton’s book appeared the world population has grown from 4.5 Bn to nearly 8 Bn. Teeming numbers coupled with an insatiable appetite clamor for fair shares of limited resources. There aren’t enough to be distributed equitably. Even in 1980, he calculated we need ten Earths (and so much more today). The dilemma emerges from our most glorious achievements in technology and medicine plus the momentum of human reproduction that casts us precariously beyond our carrying capacity on a finite planet. The threats are social as well as humanitarian. Long before collapse occurs, the strains and inequities threaten peace and security, especially in open societies and no less in countries where politicians exhort the population to expect unrealistic development goals. These fears were discussed under the buzzword ‘sustainability’ in the Brundtland Report of 1987. Their noble efforts were never going to be equal to the immense challenges of persuading a world inured to its ways.

Catton didn’t live to see coal in retreat or oil and gas slowly replaced by renewable solar and wind energy that provide 22% of US electricity in 2022 (https://www.eia.gov). I expect he would say it is late and then sneer at reports of more fossil fuel use this year.

He called our species Homo colossus for our impact on the biosphere, the thin rind of Earth that supports all life. His book offers no prescriptions, only scenarios ranging from incorrigible optimism to certain calamity. The best hope for humanity and the natural world we love and depend on is resilience until a healthy equilibrium. The process will be alarming if it succeeds, but eventually fewer people could live sustainably, even in a blessed ‘communion’ with other creatures for mutual benefit. The ecotheologian Thomas Berry called this futuristic epoch, the Ecozoic. I always thought the lines in Isaiah about the lion lying down with the lamb absurd, but perhaps it stands as a metaphor. We need dreams for anxious times after peering out of our comfortable bubble.  

Chimps Head for Retirement

In 1871, the now-extinct Hornet magazine published a cartoon of Charles Darwin looking like a human-ape chimera. It was not meant kindly.

Charles Darwin
The Hornet Magazine

We might suppose that progressive Victorian thinkers would have embraced chimps, gorillas, orangs, etc. as newly-found cousins. Perhaps some did, but lonely captivity in bare “prisons,” laboratory experimentation, and hunting continued.

It takes a long time for ingrained attitudes about the “beasts” to change, even when evidence mounts about their cognition and suffering. It’s ironic that medical research which adopted apes for human ends has raised appreciation of them as sentient beings that insists on a higher ethical standard of care not much different to what we demand for ourselves. Jane Goodall, the foremost chimpanzee expert and advocate, urges, “Surely we should treat them with the same consideration and kindness as we show to other humans; and as we recognize human rights, so too should we recognize the rights of the great apes?”

There was a recent instance of how attitudes are changing when the head of the NIH announced that the last 50 chimpanzees in federal laboratories will be retired to a sanctuary for the rest of their lives. The published reasons for freeing the chimps was utilitarian and couched in unemotional waffle (“the need for research has essentially shrunk to zero”), but I’m sure that public opinion influenced the policy. Pictures of apes in cages, separated from their babies, and communicating with people in sign language open our hearts to them as we see more of us in them and vice versa. We are unashamedly sentimental about our pets, and why not for our simian cousins too? This might sound surprising coming from a writer who sometimes used animals in research (never primates), but it’s not shameful to admit a change of heart. The treatment of animals as only subjects of curiosity, cuisine and companionship can evolve to something greater, although I can’t say how far the ineffable feelings can go.

The reason why animals, even apes, never deserved the protection of legal rights was, of course, because they are not human. They don’t have a brain and moral law that in our own estimation justified us as their emperors. The difference between Us and Them is that we regard ourselves as a benevolent species, for that’s what humane means. What a shocking self-deceit!

Most Victorians, irrespective of whether they believed the Creation Story or Evolutionary Theory, thought our species was destined to rule the Earth. The Darwinian revelation that we are a Johnny-come-lately species didn’t puncture that mental outlook, and modern ecology has struggled to fix a truer and more sustainable perspective against the resistance of economic and political forces. The justification for using and abusing animals was the same as that for the mistreatment and malice of other ethnicities of our own species—they were all dehumanized.  Lately, I have been musing when the divorce with nature began.

A new breed of eco-theologians, including the late Thomas Berry, admit that the three great monotheistic religions unconsciously helped to vindicate brutal treatment of animals and careless stewardship of the environment. When people lived much closer to the land as a source of production, there could be greater feelings of unity with the rest of creation, and less hubris exploiting its “goods.” The natural world was a divine revelation that preceded the Scriptures. Still today, some native religions teach that the land and its inhabitants, plant and animal, are sacred, and the sacrifice of an animal taken in a hunt was a sacramental act for some North American Indians.

If I try to pinpoint a time and place in history when Western attitudes changed I choose Medieval Europe. As a devotee of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas taught that humans stand at the apex of nature’s hierarchy, owing no special moral responsibility to animals, which are only instruments for our use. When the Black Death arrived a hundred years later, killing a third to a half of the population, the church tried to soften the horror of temporal existence and the hard Augustinian doctrine of a broken world by focusing the minds of the faithful on the permanent reward of peace in heaven. With eyes fixed on such a great hope why should anyone bother about the Earth and its creatures? Wasn’t the great lover of creation, Francis of Assisi, just a sentimental monk?

Although the tide of faith started ebbing in the Enlightenment, attitudes towards nature and animal life remained harsh. The wild woods, mountains, and oceans, and the creatures they harbored were dangerous, not precious gifts. Beauty and its ally, security, lay in the towns and cities, and urbanization increased the drift from old feelings of communion with nature. Materialism and its goods had arrived. Pressed to choose a historical figure to represent the changing secular attitudes it’s hard to beat Descartes. He drew a metaphysical gulf between Mind and Matter. Since animals were assumed not to have a mind or self-consciousness (now repudiated), they were regarded as biological machines, mere matter not calling for special care.

The promotion of a bunch of chimps to a gentler life as senior citizens is a tiny example of how public sensibilities have evolved, although there is a long way to go before deep-seated religious and secular assumptions are replaced with more open and enlightened feelings that can bring us closer to our spiritual Earth home. We can expect to see more controversy and struggles over our management of animals—for food production, sporting entertainment, medical research—and I have no idea where they will end. But a quotation from Henry Beston holds a guiding light for me. He was a friend of Rachel Carson and like another temporary hermit in Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau, he spent a solitary year in a cabin, but beside the ocean instead of a pond. He wrote in The Outermost House:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for the tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal world shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of   the earth.

I guess old Darwin would have shared those feelings and welcomed the belated rediscovery we are making of caring for our real home, this shrinking world with its creatures whose destiny is more completely in our hands than ever. He might have enjoyed seeing his caricature in magazines, believed there was dignity in a hairy pelt, and reflected on Francis’s dream of an Earth family—Mother Earth, Brother Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Donkey, Brother Chimp, Brother Darwin.

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