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Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change [Paperback]

William R. Catton
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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@CATTON\Overshoot@"Perhaps at no time in human history has there been a more compelling need to re-examine public assumptions and to change national expectations. Overshoot is a book that contributes to this vital task." -- Stewart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior

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On the banks of the Volga in 1921 a refugee community was visited by an American newspaper correspondent who had come to write about the Russian famine. Read the first page
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE SKY "MIGHT" BE FALLING! May 11 2000
Format:Paperback
Being the first reviewer of this title verifies the specificity of the subject matter. Trying to be a skeptic among both extremes of environmental thought can be a tough act, especially after reading such explosive "documentation" of what Catton blatantly subtitles "The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change". His research is thick and juicy; his claims believeable. Written in 1980, the concerns maintain an ever-increasing credibility of the much earlier "Tragedy of the commons" analogy, in that, limited resources and unlimited consumption will eventually come to a head. This book shines a giant flashlight on what many don't what to look at. I'm still on the fence, but looking into the other yard now. Highly recommend this for those in the light though it is written for those in the dark. Could be one of the most important books in this lifetime if not the next.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  35 reviews
99 of 106 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece, offers solution for THE problem of our time April 8 2005
By J. Mann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I am astonished at the quality of this book, which is about the eighth book in a personal reading program that included Paul Roberts' The End of Oil, Kenneth Deffeyes' Beyond Oil, Jared Diamon's Collapse, Cottrell's Energy and Society, Michael Klare's Blood and Oil, and others, all extremely good and relevant books. The task this author undertakes is to help readers find a new perspective from which to constructively and usefully interpret inevitable and major changes the world around us. By taking this approach, the author is providing the very essential tool we need to cope with these changes.

The issue is our ecological footprint.

Catton uses the term "Age of Exuberance" to represent the time since 1492 when first a newly discovered hemisphere and then the invention of fossil-fuel-driven machines allowed Old-World humans to escape the constraints imposed by a population roughly at earth's carrying capacity, and instead to grow (and philosophize and emote) expansively. He then reminds us that we are soon to be squeezed by the twin jaws of excessive population and exhausted resources, as our current population is utterly dependent on the mining and burning of fossil energy and its use to exploit earth's resources in general. In spring 2005, the buzz about "the end of cheap energy" is reaching quite a pitch, and when and if the "peak oil" scenario (or other environmental limit-event) is reached, the impact on our social / political world will be enormous. Already the US is brandishing and using its superior weaponry to sieze control of oil assets; this same kind of desperate struggle may well erupt at all levels of society if we don't find a way to identify the problem, anticipate its consequences, and find solutions. Catton offers a perspective based on biology / ecology -- not bad, since we are indeed animals in an ecology and we are indeed subject to the iron laws of nature and physics. With this perspective we can avoid ending up screaming nonsense at each other when changes begin to get scary. My urgent recommendation is, read this G.D. book and do it now.
44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect, A Masterpiece June 5 2009
By Prokopton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
'Essential Reading' is a phrase applied to just about every third book published these days, but this 1980 work remains probably the most essential of our time. It gives you the straight truth with simplicity and wisdom, and its cumulative effect on the reader is very strong, despite a very unadorned writing style.

Catton's basic approach starts off sounding a little Malthusian: we humans are just one more animal on this planet, and our overpopulation of it relative to what can realistically be supported is going to start placing us under great pressure, as would happen with any other animal in the same boat. Our methods of maintaining our numbers are gradually wiping out the biodiversity we need for our civilization to sustain itself.

This process cannot continue indefinitely, it must crash -- and such a crash would be natural and normal, even commonplace. It can be graphed happening time and again to numerous species which overshoot their necessary resource base. They begin with the exuberance of having more than enough support to grow, but then this growth takes them past the point at which sufficient resources are available, and they die off. This is nature's way, and we should not think we are immune.

Yeast making wine in a vat will be subject to the same process, a surge and then a sudden die-off. It happened to humanity on Easter Island (for example), and now it is happening to us. We can take a lesson from yeast if we will, and recognize the process. "We need a clear-headed ecological interpretation of history," says the author at the start (and of course goes on to provide an excellent one.)

Growth, says Catton, has become a kind of disease in our recent history. That very 'progress' which we are being sold as a solution to every ill has turned us from Homo Sapiens into Homo Colossus, an animal which requires more and yet more support, and can absolutely count on not getting it forever.

A key Catton concept is 'carrying capacity' -- the amount of a species that an environment will support. If those figures are exceeded, die-off is the inevitable result. Our technological cleverness has time and again expanded the available carrying capacity, hence our massive numbers on this planet. We assume we can continue that curve indefinitely, but that won't do: the augmentation of carrying capacity that the new technologies represents is a purely temporary drawdown. Withdrawing fossil fuel capital we cannot replace is a finite process with a definite endpoint. We can (and should) confidently expect all drawdown-based 'progress' to vanish, and with it, our ability to support the lifestyle we currently live. (The Great Depression, for Catton, was a mere 'preview' of what we are letting ourselves in for).

I've made the book sound ecological and perhaps rather conventional-sounding today -- but it's so much more, because it was written not by an ecologist but by a sociologist. Catton doesn't merely present the bare environmental facts. What interests him is the way these rule our behaviour, just as the behaviour of all animals interweaves with the environment that sustains them. What have the recent exuberant centuries done to our culture, to the way we relate to ourselves, to the stories we are telling? And what will happen to that culture now, in the absence of the exuberance that formed it?

We have formed a feeling of limitlessness 'out there', ready to exploit, which is not really justified by our recent history. Analyzing the 70s (at the end of which he was writing) with its oil spikes and military depredations, Catton recasts all the players as colonies of human animals jockeying for access to resources. The reader is taught to 'see ecologically', a point of view that is always relevant for the reason that life seeks to sustain itself by reliable and predictable means. These forces can clearly be seen driving history.

So our culture will change, in a way that is bound to make us feel it where it hurts, because we will be forced to admit that progress of the kind we have had in recent centuries is not going to continue indefinitely -- it would be physically impossible. Again looking at it societally, Catton points out that the greatest temptation in a time of decline will be to abandon the ecologically neutral view and blame somebody for all this. Emotional tantrums will turn our already difficult fate into a cruel one. The choice is ours. Looking for scapegoats is so easy and so destructive, when in fact the entire process has been a perfectly natural one.

What we need is lucid foreknowledge, courage, and stoicism (in the original sense of philosophical acceptance of fate). "Those who don't see ecologically see antagonistically," says Catton simply, and adds that, "barring human extinction, there will never come to an end man's need for enlightened self-restraint."

Despite a complete lack of any 'spiritual' viewpoint, Catton's book thus builds a considerable prophetic force. 'Ecological modesty' is our true safety. We are the animal that is smart enough to see this, but are we smart enough to act on it? Catton wants us to assume our situation is just as bad as it very well might be. Let's face it knowing that it is a naturally occurring process, rather than hunting for a human to hate. That way, we will actually achieve what we have so often boasted of in the recent past, and transcend our animalistic instincts to make a better world.

Reading this book today is really an amazing experience. It takes one out of the media blame bubble and the half-baked schemes of deliverance being concocted now, into an earlier time when clear-sightedness, if not heeded, was at least being practiced and practiced well. It's like moving from cans of coca cola, bizarre health drinks and exotic teas to a simple glass of clear water. We do sorely need it. Of course this book's audience -- never large apparently -- is growing these days. (Such modern authors as John Michael Greer are plainly taking their approaches from Catton to a great extent.)

This book will prepare you to understand the movements of your time, and to deal with them philosophically and psychologically. To see reality is wisdom, and I will be honest, I find more wisdom in this book than in many that are termed 'wisdom literature'. You really *must* read it, and there is no other volume in the world of which I would say that. I've barely managed to get anything of it across really. I genuinely believe the future might depend on how many people have these ideas in mind, and I'm not being dramatic in saying that, just honest.
58 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read this book! July 23 2004
By Jonathan Love - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If you have found your way to this book, then I assume that you are aware that the "resources" of our world cannot possibly sustain anything close to our current way of life. William Catton's book, written in 1980, remains as visionary and relevant today as the day it was written. "Overshoot" provides a solid background of research and a realistic view of what the likely consequences of humanity's failure to notice that we have entered into "overshoot" of the earth's carrying capacity. As a companion to Charles Tainter's "The Collapse of Complex Societies" and Rees & Wackernagel's "Ecological Footprint," this book rounds out a complete education in the fix we humans have created for ourselves - a real challenge, well documented by Catton.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The ecological view March 21 2007
By Michael John Connolly - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I own some eight thousand books and if my house caught fire this is the only book I would risk my life to save. Read it and it will change the way you view the human race. Probably one of the most important books ever written.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Important Work to be Read Widely May 16 2006
By Geomon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a highly significant book. It is probably safe to say that most intelligent readers today (2006) are nevertheless unaware of the important, basic ecological themes addresed by Catton, but none can afford to remain uninformed of them. There are many more detailed works on the subject of resources depletion and societal collapse, but none strike to the core of the problem--us, "Homo colossus", or Homo sapiens on fossil fuel steriods--speeding down a highway with a definite "road ends" sign and barricade, our collective "carrying capacity" limit. Catton's arguments are hard to believe at first, then become harder to dismiss, as he makes the case for our innocent or perhaps not so innocent past deeds and current ways. At the end of this extremely well-written and researched work, you will likely find yourself looking for the exit--alas, there is only one Earth, one life. Published in 1980, the material is just as relevant if not more so today, 26 years later and even farther out on the limb. Will our technology save us again, or even prolong our growing masses and consuming way of life much longer? Perhaps, but Catton is no optimist here, with what appears to be a socially sound and ecologically wise judgement of our species.
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