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. 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)