“Man does not live by detritus alone.”
Overshoot, William Catton
One of the unique capabilities that set Homo Sapiens apart from all the rest of the animal kingdom is our mastery of tools. As a species we are able to expand the carrying capacity of our environments through the use of technology. This has been going on for a very long time. The chart below, reproduced from Catton’s Overshoot, provides a fascinating glimpse into the major milestones of mankind’s technological developments and how those have had a direct effect on our population numbers. The chart starts at the dawn of pre-history and registers the first population increase 35,000 years ago when the same inheritable characteristics we recognize as human today was established. The first major technological breakthrough after that period is the dawn of agriculture where the cultivation of plants allowed the population to increase close to 1,000% in a mere 160 generations, counting each generation as 25 years. The next 160 generations saw the development of metallurgy and the plow, increasing human numbers another 250%. The chart ends in 1975 with a total world population of four billion human beings recording a 200% increase in population numbers over only four and half generations. Though the chart ends there from the perspective of when this is being written in 2014 we could add one more line; 1.6 generations later the total human population is over 7.2 billion, almost double what it was in 1975.
This is just one more indication that business as usual will not be continuing much longer. How many more doublings of the total population are even conceivable?
The important take away from this analysis for our purposes is how historically technology performed the role of increasing the carrying capacity of our environments. The total carrying capacity could have been said to be the product of resources times technology. Too much of a good thing, victims of our success, today we find that the technology we are using is actually shrinking our carrying capacity. Today the relationship seems to be one of division so that total carrying capacity is equal to resources divided by technology. This is worth a moment of careful contemplation. Malthus was concerned with the problem of expanding human population butting its head against fixed limits but in the real world we are discovering the expanding human population is butting its head against shrinking limits.
Among those who think about the ecological crises it can be heard that there was roughly one billion humans on earth before the industrial revolution began and so we can expect there to again be one billion when the depletion of fossil fuel runs its course. While this is a horrifying picture if the die-off does not unfold gradually, it is scientifically wildly optimistic because it fails to take into account the damage done to the natural environments by the population blooming in our Age of Exuberance. The most probable total population some centuries hence just might be considerably smaller than one billion. Just how much smaller is a point of contention which need not concern us here. Even if it is three or four times as many, the point remains: a population bottleneck is a frighteningly real possibility.
Population combined with our technology has grown so large it is as if a whole new species has evolved, one which is very much capable of altering the biosphere as a whole. This new species was christened Homo Colossus by William Catton, capturing the essence of the challenge our ecological analysis of modern industrial civilization presents. To understand the powerful metaphor requires that we learn to look at man’s tool use from another perspective. Normally when we think of our use of tools we consider them as means of adapting the environment to our human needs; we plant a farm of crops to feed ourselves, we warm our houses to fend off the cold. It is equally valid to propose that human tool use adapts humans to diverse environments. Our tools are somewhat like prosthetic devices we add to our bodies; we don a coat and now survive in environments that were formally too cold, we strap on a plow and fertilizer spreaders and find we can grow crops where previously the soil was too poor.
Our tools act as prosthetic devices; the cup of a mining scoop acts as an extended hand. At some point these prosthetics crossed the line into gigantism where sheer size began affecting whole ecosystems – a mountain removed here, a river diverted there. Not many people appreciate the scale at which human aspirations are unfolding all across the earth, all day, every day. That mining scoop just mentioned is capable of lifting 325 tons of “overburden” with every bite it takes into the earth looking for coal. This is not just a multiplication of men with shovels but a qualitatively different event altogether. Consider a giant dump truck used in mining operations capable of hauling 380 tons of earth in a single load. They weigh 1,375,000 lbs. rolling on tires that are roughly 13 feet tall and the tires alone cost $50,000 to $60,000 each – everything about these modern machines is giant.
I have used the examples of mining operations in illustrating the gigantism of Homo Colossus deliberately. To feed their enormous appetites has required that we dig deep into finite stocks of minerals, extracting and using up resources that might otherwise have been left for prosperity. Of all the occult substances found deep in the nether regions of the earth none can hold a candle to the devil’s blood, oil. Here, in decaying carbon material, Homo Colossus found its preferred food. Ecologically we can classify it as a detritus ecosystem for these are the ecosystems that feed on decaying carbon materials. These are the ecosystems that feed off dead biomass, breaking down the complex arrangements of molecules and releasing their elements back into the cycles of material flow. These are also the ecosystems that are prone to the population overshoot and collapse we looked at last week.
It is time to take a step back and ask ourselves, what does all this mean? This blog is not a substitute for a university ecology class; this is an exploration of mindful ecology. What do these ecological concepts mean for a compassionate, caring individual, our families and our societies?
I think most people fundamentally want to know they are doing good by the world. They want what is best for their children and loved ones. A consensus has been built up that business as usual was leading all of us to a good place. Progress was hard work but the sacrifices were worth it; from the second job to help the first child of this family get through college, to cutting down old growth forest to build a new settlement. The difficult unequal social arrangements of the modern world have been easily accepted largely because the promise was implied that if we could just lift the standard of living for the rich high enough, the process would inevitably improve lives for the poorest of peoples as well. The justification for consumerism as culture is that only through development can the desperate suffering of the third world be improved. If they keep working at it, the almost unspoken justification for our consumer lifestyles runs, they will someday be just like us.
In practice the third world is strapped with debt to first world banks for expensive first world infrastructure projects built by first world companies. Since the poorer country is able to borrow only so much, the rich governments of the world “give” them aid dollars with the stipulation that they can only be spent on “infrastructure improvement” projects. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins gives a small peak into what is going on. This is how the wealth pump of empire works, pumping wealth from the peripheries into the imperial core. The companies and banks of the overdeveloped world profit but the question remains, did the recipient country benefit as well? There is no simple answer. In some cases the graft runs rampant and the whole adventure is one of abuses to land, animals and people. In other cases things are properly constructed but because the rest of the supporting infrastructure is missing the benefits are much less than what had been promised. In other cases real benefit is given, improving the daily lives of the poor by creating hospitals, education, sanitation, and widespread literacy.
In Western culture with its roots in ideals of Christian charity, consumerism acted as the outer form of something more important; it funded the cornucopia of technological progress. There has been every reason to believe in this secular god, progress. The so-called Green Revolution did manage to feed many additional billions of people since it began a few decades ago. We set foot on the moon, scanned the brain, and shared it all with TV, radio, computers, the internet – it is all very real and impressive. We are grateful and expect it will continue. Ecology states unequivocally, ‘No, this pattern of consumption will not continue.’ It would take multiple earths to bring the underdeveloped world to the state of industrialization found in the overdeveloped world. The implied promise behind the whole consumer shtick is shown to be bust, an impossibility on a planet of seven billion people. Holding out hope that it will happen someday is now nothing more than cold cruelty.
There is a meaningfully sustainable degree of technology that we can all hope future generations may find. Today what we see are the deprivations of those suffering from not having enough infrastructure and technology to lead decent human lives at one end and those suffering total domination by the machine at the other. There must be a middle way of using appropriate technology sized to a human scale if our wisdom can find it, a way to avoid the extremes of underdevelopment and overdevelopment.
Looking around us today, this is not the future we ordered when we began this industrialized consumerism; collapsed fisheries and dead zones haunt our oceans, the land is scarred with cesspools of heavy metals and hot nuclear wastes, even the very air we breathe has become toxic to the stability of climate, all the while causing the sixth mass extinction; ghoulishly wiping out an estimated 200 species every day.
Looking around today many good people are questioning the formerly unquestioned foundation on which this whole thing depends: that human progress is technological progress. This vision was sold to us by those who profit from our entrapment. I drive a car, I contribute to global warming. I buy food from a chain grocery store, I contribute to topsoil loss. On and on it goes right through the litany of horrors that is a typical day in the overdeveloped world when seen through the eyes of critical ecological analysis.
What happens to a culture that loses its most fundamental belief? When the justification for the blood, sweat and tears of generations no longer works? I certainly do not know. We are seeing the process play out all around us. I do know that psychologically seeing through the norms of the overdeveloped world’s culture can be a most unpleasant waking up. To retain strength and to honor that which is decent in human beings is the challenge. It is important to distinguish between the bitterness needed for dismantling Homo Colossus from any dispersion we might be tempted to cast on Homo Sapiens. Given the chance I am pretty sure the mosquitoes and the lions, the elephants and the blue-footed booby would have used the energy bonanza in a way not all that different than we did. Perhaps, as the Native Americans teach, we are among the youngest of our animal brothers and sisters: still intoxicated with the enthusiasms of youth and with plenty left to learn.