The Great Pause Week 40: Catton-ary Collapse

Albert Bates
12 min readDec 20, 2020


Social theorists today work within a crumbling social matrix…. The old order has the picks of a hundred rebellions thrust into its hide.

— Alvin W. Gouldner

That quotation, from The Coming Crisis of Western Society, was chosen by William R. Catton to open his 1980 book on population. In late April, 2006, I attended the Peak Oil NYC conference at Cooper Union with speakers besides myself including Catherine Austin Fitts, Derrick Jensen, James Howard Kunstler, Geoff Lawton, David Pimentel, Michael Ruppert, Matt Savinar, Albert Bartlett, Michael Brownlee, William Clark, John Howe, John Ikherd, David Jacke, and Dmitry Orlov.

Then many of us hopped the Amtrak and went to Washington DC to attend a second conference May 7–9 with speakers such as Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, Mona Sahlin (Minister for Sustainable Development, Sweden), Lester Brown, Herman Daly, James Hansen, Kenneth Deffeyes, Michael Klare, Bill McKibben, Robert Costanza and Charles Hall. All this was followed by yet a third conference that same week in DC, Petrocollapse with Jan Lundberg, Richard Heinberg, and Randall Wallace. Such a movable feast.

As I wandered down the aisle of a theater-like classroom at George Washington University, I took a seat next to a couple of other participants in the first DC conference. At a break we introduced ourselves and I learned the two gentlemen seated next to me were William R. Catton, Jr. and Joseph Tainter. Some who read this may instantly recognize those names, but for others allow me to make introductions.

William R. Catton (1926–2015) was a pioneering scientist at Washington State University in the field of environmental sociology. Perhaps his most influential work was Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, written in 1980 but still prescient today. Joseph Tainter (1949-) is an anthropologist and historian at Utah State perhaps best known for The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988). To quote Wikipedia:

His paper, Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies (1996) focuses on the energy cost of problem solving, and the energy-complexity relation in man-made systems. The 2018 study, Toward a General Theory of Societal Collapse: A Biophysical Examination of Tainter’s Model of the Diminishing Returns of Complexity, by Ugo Bardi, Sara Falsini, and Ilaria Perissi, introduced a socioeconomic system model in support of Tainter’s diminishing returns mechanism.

I will return to discuss Tainter’s work next week but in this, my 40th week of Covid isolation, I’m going to delve into Bill Catton’s vast legacy. He penned a thorough analysis of the likely fate of humans in the 21st century late in his life in a self-published book, Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, but his earlier Overshoot, written in the 70s and only published by the University of Illinois Urbana in 1980, was “years ahead of its time because of the clarity of formulation of a fully ecological paradigm.” [Amazon review] Overshoot retraced human history through the lens of biophysical economics, arguing that the ubiquitous illusion of human control over nature was a reflection of exploitation of essential but finite resources. In modern prose of extraordinary clarity and readability, Catton recapitulated Malthus, adding two centuries of data and the modern context.

As a side-note, I found it interesting that Catton, as an author or co-author of books published by McGraw Hill, Harper & Row, and then University of Chicago Press, chose in 2009 to forego all that and self-publish Bottleneck. Bottleneck is not available in audiobook or Kindle, but there is an e-book version in Australia. Catton described his 30th-year reprise this way:

Ecological roots of our troubled time are deeper than its economic manifestations. Anguished posterity will look back on this 21st century as the bottleneck century. Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse was written to show how and why three converging trends have put humankind in much deeper peril than is generally acknowledged. First, there are many more of us inhabiting this planet than it can sustain. Second, technological advances of recent centuries have made gigantic and prodigal our per capita resource appetites and our per capita environmental impacts. Third, even though, as the symbol-using species, we humans conceivably could do better at anticipating future circumstances and planning ahead, our evolutionary heritage together with unanticipated dysfunctions of modern division of labor have kept us too preoccupied with short-term concerns. People today are dependent upon a fantastically intricate web of exchange relations (the market). Even when functioning normally and not in a collapsed condition, as currently this system of relations has a serious and pervasive dehumanizing effect not adequately discerned by economists nor sociologists. Recognition of and adequate adaptation to the deteriorating ecological context of human life has been impeded. Human societies (even our own) are almost certainly going to act in ways that will make an inevitably difficult future unnecessarily worse. Factors analyzed in this book have made people seriously averse to the kind and extent of cooperation our difficult future will require. Together with the basic trio of disturbing trends humans having become so numerous, so ravenous, and so short-sighted this has made the nature of today’s human prospect far more dire than most policymakers dare admit. It tempts even the wisest and most civic-minded to seek or promote remedial policies that will worsen the real predicament.

A hallmark of Catton’s work was his use of colorful terms to build a conceptual framework: ghost acreage for the additional farmland a country would require in order to meet its needs sustainably; phantom carrying capacity for that portion of a population load that cannot be permanently supported; drawdown for using non-renewable resources to temporarily exceed carrying capacity; and overshoot for going past carrying capacity. In a 1994 paper, “The Foundations of Human Ecology,” Catton wrote:

Until we … rejoin bioecology enough to get over thinking of succession as invader-driven, and recognize seral stages for what they are, sociologists will fail to comprehend the ineluctable difference [I would say similarity-ab] between industrialism and ecological climax.

He wanted his readers — and historians — to understand that industrial civilization causes ecosystem breakdowns more often than the reverse. Not every society ends in military conquest. What we call exceptionalism, Catton termed “human exemptionalism.” It’s an apt phrase. Failing to understand the stress any animal population places upon itself by unrestrained appetites, fecundity, heedless inefficiency, or fouling its nest, we set ourselves up for crash with scant preparation, only wealth attrition.

In an essay for Culture Change in August, 2009, Catton lamented how tone deaf elected representatives had become. Quoting Washington University professor Barry Commoner, he said the drastic mismatch between the ecosphere’s “cyclical, conservative, and self-consistent processes” and the technosphere’s “linear, innovative, but ecologically disharmonious processes” were:

… completely opaque to the person who happens to ‘represent’ my Congressional district. It is probably meaningless to most of her House colleagues, and to most members of the Senate. It would probably find little resonance with most of the voters who put them in Congress.

Throughout his academic career, Catton labored

to shed some light on the apparent refusal of ostensibly educated individuals to realize the urgent need, as Commoner puts it, for ending the ‘suicidal war’ between technosphere and ecosphere. Never have so many seemed so oblivious to so momentous a future-shaping condition.

Clairvoyantly forecasting the Facebook algorithmically manipulated global discourse we find ourselves in today, employing deception to trade eyeballs for money, Catton wrote:

Could mass media preoccupation with less crucially significant matters explain why there appear even now to be so many literate and educated people who remain unconcerned about these facts, or who deny their truth or at least their importance?

He noted that “ravenous industrial dependence on exhaustible resources was explicitly depicted from 1973 onward” and “treatment of global warming by the greenhouse effect of C02 etc. in the atmosphere became fairly clear from the mid-1950s.”

In the mid-nineteenth century, it was “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country” — i.e., go where there is new land to take over, and use such an increment of carrying capacity to prosper. At the start of America’s third century, however, it was “Try to speed up the economy” — i.e., try to draw down the finite reservoir of exhaustible resources a bit faster.
The time has come for scholars and everyone else to take a piercing look at the relationship between the earth’s changing capacity to support human inhabitants and the changing load imposed by our numbers and our requirements. The direction of recent change makes this relationship just about the most important topic there is for people to know about, and think about. We have come to the end of the time when it didn’t seem to matter….

So what explains the popularity of deliberate ignorance? Catton wrote Overshoot in 2009, five years after Facebook was launched in a Harvard dormitory room but had yet to grow to full-spectrum dominance. Disinformation, while rampant, had yet to be weaponized.

Catton at first thought the reason was that most people were not ecologically literate. Overshoot laid out the case fairly well, tracing the development of civilization from nomadic tribes in the Middle East to the economic caste tribes of the present, and flagging points of departure, unnoted each time, from the rules of biophysical economics. Since the Industrial Revolution, if not the Enlightenment, the myth of technology über alles had attracted a near-universal following; “a consummate faith that continuing technological innovations will enable Earth’s human carrying capacity to be expanded ‘to almost any required size.’ (Ehrlich and Holdren’s characterization of the mindset, Science 171, March 26, 1971). Catton quoted a 1980 article by Julian Simon:

Incredible as it may seem at first, the term ‘finite’ is not only inappropriate but is downright misleading in the context of natural resources….Even the total weight of the earth is not a theoretical limit to the amount of copper that might be available to earthlings in the future. Only the total weight of the universe — if that term has a useful meaning here — would be such a theoretical limit. In summary, because we find new lodes, invent better production methods, and discover new substitutes, the ultimate constraint upon our capacity to enjoy unlimited raw materials at acceptable prices is knowledge. And the source of knowledge is the human mind. Ultimately, then, the key constraint is human imagination and the exercise of human skills. Hence an increase of human beings constitutes an addition to the crucial stock of resources, along with causing additional consumption of resources.

Unfortunately for Catton and his contemporaries, Varki and Brower’s 2005 analysis of denial as a genetic coping mechanism came a quarter century after their search for some way to explain Simon’s and others’ monumental ignorance of ecology. Lacking the MORT theory, Catton latched on to a pseudo-psychiatric diagnosis of anosognosia.

After searching not very profitably through a number of papers in psychiatric and related journals,’ I happened to encounter in Discover magazine an unexpectedly suggestive article. It described research by a neuroscientist and physician at the University of California at San Diego. He studies a rather amazing form of denial. The researcher’s name is Vilayanur Ramachandran, and the form of denial he has been studying is called anosognosia. “One of the best- known victims of the condition was Supreme Court Justice William 0. Douglas, who suffered a right-hemisphere stroke in 1974 that paralyzed his left side and eventually forced his retirement. He initially dismissed the paralysis as a myth, and weeks later was still inviting reporters to go on hiking expeditions with him. When one visitor asked about his left leg, he claimed he had recently been kicking 40-yard field goals with it” (Shreeve, 1995).

As Dr. Ramachandran describes it, anosognosia is a condition in which the patient does not just ignore his or her paralysis, but actively denies it “in spite of… complete inability to move.” To explain away the real condition, the patient often concocts “elaborate stories or chillingly unreal rationalizations.” (Confabulations is the term for these stories.)

This is chillingly close to the denialism of the pathologically narcissistic current occupant of the White House, 25th Amendment be damned, but the condition is not unprecedented. Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, suffered a stroke on October 2,1919 while winding up a nationwide speaking tour to raise public support for the League of Nations. Despite paralysis of the left side of his body, he remained under the illusion, persistently fostered by those around him, that he was on the way to recovery. In the spring of 1920 Wilson drafted a document entitled ‘3rd Inaugural.’ Neither his wife nor his physician would tell him that it was an utter impossibility for him to run for a third presidential term.

Nor is it unprecedented for a sitting US President to marry his own daughter, by the way. Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland became the youngest First Lady at age 21 when she married President Grover Cleveland in the White House. Catton’s point, and his life’s work, was that insanity runs not merely in individuals or families, but in whole societies.

In a footnote to a 1995 paper, Catton recalled that George Lundberg in 1956 had described social denial as “a curious form of sympathetic magic.” Lundberg defined “sympathetic magic” as any “reasoning that calls into question the wishful thinking which constitutes the principal basis of much contemporary social science.”

Catton wrote:

By thinking of denial as a defense against intolerable anomalous information, we come back to the classic assertion by Paul Sears (1964) that ecology ‘if taken seriously as an instrument for the long-run welfare of mankind, would … endanger the assumptions and practices accepted by modern societies….’ Ecology, he said, affords by its very nature a continuing critique of human operations within the ecosystem.
Some of the makers of these policies will be unwilling to accept its implications, especially if, as Garrett Hardin (1985) contended three decades later, ecology ‘demands that our current political, social, economic, and moral order be stood on its head.’
[This] challenged beliefs and attitudes that were central to their very identity as humans made in the Western industrial mold. In the same way, and just as fundamentally, it must challenge the beliefs and attitudes crucial to the identities of members of the 104th Congress of the United States. Is it possible that for them, ‘downsizing’ government (to ‘balance the budget’ by 2002 A.D.) has a ‘latent function’? — it has helped divert attention from humanity’s involvement in that ‘suicidal war’ on the ecosphere. If surviving that conflict requires downsizing industrial civilization, rather than just the federal government, how long can the world afford such diversion of those who purport to shape the course of history? When will evidence (or social pressure) suffice to emancipate them from habits of denial?

The question remains pregnant. In an introspective moment towards the end of his life, Bill Catton urged young people

… to recognize that our lifestyles, mores, institutions, patterns of interaction, values, and expectations are shaped by a cultural heritage that was formed in a time when carrying capacity exceeded the human load. A cultural heritage can outlast the conditions that produced it. That carrying capacity surplus is gone now, eroded both by population increase and immense technological enlargement of per capita resource appetites and environmental impacts. Human life is now being lived in an era of deepening carrying capacity deficit. All of the familiar aspects of human societal life are under compelling pressure to change in this new era when the load increasingly exceeds the carrying capacities of many local regions — and of a finite planet. Social disorganization, friction, demoralization, and conflict will escalate.

Next week, we will take a look at Joseph Tainter’s prognosis, bearing gifts for our times, with the storied ends of diverse civilizations as his star in the Eastern sky.

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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Albert Bates

Emergency Planetary Technician and Climate Science Wonk — using naturopathic remedies to recover the Holocene without geoengineering or ponzinomics.