'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.