Saturday, February 7, 2015


The many comments appearing all over the Web for the death of William Catton , the author of "Oversoot", show how deep the impact of this book was on many of us. 

"Overshoot" was part of that wave of books and studies of the 1960s and 1970s which tried to come to terms to the consequences of the unavoidable limitation of the natural resources available to humankind. The initiator of the trend was, perhaps, Garrett Hardin with his 1968 "The Tragedy of the Commons." Earlier on, in 1956, Marion King Hubbert had proposed the concept of "peaking" of oil production, a remarkable first in a field in which the term "depletion" was all but banned. But Hubbert remained within the conventional paradigm that saw technology as able to solve all problems and he believed that nuclear energy would come to the rescue. Hardin, and later Catton and others, instead, saw the root of the problem in humankind's behavior: the tendency to overexploit natural resources; to use today what should be left for tomorrow. The basic message of "Overshoot" is that overexploitation is a basic consequence of the way human beings behave in the ecosystem. It is not something that can be solved by technological wizardry.

We may compare "Overshoot" to another book that carried a similar message: "The Limits to Growth" of 1972. Conceived at about the same time (even though "Overshoot" was published only in 1980), these two books can be seen as opposite in terms of public relation strategies. Overshoot never was a best-seller, nor it was translated in any language (except, recently, in Russian and Spanish). Instead, "The Limits to Growth" was sold in millions of copies and translated into almost every language which appears in print. But, as a consequence, "The Limits to Growth" was the target of a strong demonization campaign which turned into an obligatory laughing stock for anyone who dared to mention it in public. "Overshoot", instead, escaped the attention of the powers that be and never received the same treatment. So, it has been quietly influencing an entire generation of people who have understood the root causes of our problems (see, e.g. this comment by John Michael Greer).

Re-examined more than 40 years after its conception, "Overshoot" appears dated in many details but not in its basic message. Its strength remains having posed so openly and so clearly the essence of the problem: human beings are part of the ecosystem and they tend to behave accordingly; trying to expand as much as possible and to appropriate as many resources as they can. It is normal: we are gradually discovering how the laws of physics and biology apply to the economy (Hardin was a biologist, after all). Unfortunately, if humans behave as just one of the species of the ecosystem, they tend to appropriate as many resources as they can, and as fast as possible. Then, the result is the phenomenon called "overshoot," with the associated suffering, destruction, and assorted disasters at least for that subsystem of the ecosystem we call "humankind". Can we avoid that? So far, it doesn't seem so: we even refuse to acknowledge that the problem exists.

On the other hand, if overshoot is part of the way the ecosystem works, we have to accept it; no matter how bad its consequences can be, at least from our viewpoint of human beings. One of the rules of the ecosystem is that in order for something new to be born, something old has to die. That is how the ecosystem has been working for billions of years; it will keep working in the same way for the future; with or without human beings. 


  1. A point I haven't seen made often is: what is the carrying capacity of humanity using finite one off resources like fossil fuels? I would guess it is the same for bacteria on a petri dish or in a bottle of grape juice, which is zero. Therefore, it is not fair to say the bacteria are in overshoot, just as it isn't really fair to say humanity is in overshoot. While I have no idea what the ultimate carrying capacity for humanity is based on geologically renewable resources, my guess is the integral of humans having lived using fossil fuels is greater than humans having lived if we never used fossil fuels. I have seen estimates that nature's technological innovation is 5 to 6 orders greater than humanities, so when bacteria choose to completely devour the resource in the media they live on it might tell us something about what our real options have been all along.

    1. Overshoot as a concept makes sense when there is a _flow_ - overshoot is the move from sustainable to unsustainable. Overshoot is _how you get there_, not once you've reached the wall and crash.
      a distinction to make: overshoot does not make sense in the context of a strictly fixed environment like the bottle or the petri dish- there, slow or fast, any growth at all is doomed from the very first move.
      Overshoot on earth is against the renewal of the biosphere by (almost entirely) energy inputs from the sun, driving weather, directly fuelling photosynthesis, driving the mechanisms that move large amounts of material around and mix them (atmosphere and ocean currents for example).. From this flow, one can derive a carrying capacity. This capacity is the limit of what can be supported on an indefinite, ongoing basis, given this flow. Naturally things will live slightly below this limit , as some kind of storage (energy or other useful things) is a winning strategy that even simple bacteria follow- and also because nature's recycling is not always 100% efficient (think of the coal deposits, which were the result of tens of millions of years of dead trees piling up before lignin-metabolising bacteria evolved to eat the dead trees). Overshoot is when one exceeds the capacity afforded by the flow. It is how you get into deep trouble (like starvation and extinction). You can live in overshoot for a little while, before the consequences catch up to you- the length of time then depends on what reserves you have to burn through. In the case of humans today, we have been using non-biosphere energy (fossil fuels, nuke power, etc etc) to conquer more and more of the biosphere and burning up the 'reserves' of the rest of the biosphere to buy a little more time, since we are in the deep shit situation of overshoot already. sooner or later we slam into the wall where there's no more reserves to burn through, and this doesn't just mean oil reserves.

    2. Brian: " I have seen estimates that nature's technological innovation is 5 to 6 orders greater than humanities".
      Please, could you give some reference?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)