Overshoot in my own Time

You may be wondering how it is that the human population went so deeply into overshoot in my time, and why we seemed so helpless to do anything about it. The quick and dirty answer is that it couldn’t have happened without agriculture and cheap oil, but so much more is involved in our race toward extinction—details and relationships that I think you will benefit from understanding. But first let’s take a quick look at the population dynamics of our wild, pre-agricultural ancestors, just to put things in perspective.

During the period of human dispersal across the globe—between sixty and ten thousand years ago—the natural world offered a rich array of ecosystems fairly overflowing with life forms, and thus with opportunities for humans to make a good living. As long as this condition prevailed, and there was new territory to expand into, there was no particular incentive to limit group size, except as it became unwieldy for group encampments and migrations, or as social tensions prompted a group to split up and go separate ways. But once all–or nearly all– available niches were filled with other humans a new urgency impressed itself upon our kind: we had to match population size to the available resources on a finite Earth. Failure to find this balance could lead to nothing but grief.

In the hunter-gatherer lifeway, the individual and group incentive is to take good care of their resource base. Human lives depended upon fully functional ecosystems as well as on maintaining a balance between prey species and the human appetite for them. Harm the resilience of the ecosystem, upset the balance of the predator-prey relationship (by over-exploitation, say), and you can be sure human lives will suffer the consequences. Living within the Earth’s annual solar budget in this way is living in the Gift. It is living off the interest of Earth’s natural capital, off the abundance of a fecund and generous Mother Earth. And there is a built-in disincentive to spending down the principal.

Agricultural man lives by a different life-strategy, which can fairly be described as living in the Theft. This lifeway is based upon the principle of spending down the principal; it has no staying power because it depends upon the mining of resources—both ‘renewable’ and non-renewable– unto exhaustion. But as long as the party lasts, great fortunes are made by a few individuals, while many others enjoy living in improvident luxury (including myself)—all at the expense of a living planet.

It is not possible for the Earth to support the more than seven billion of us without agriculture, without oil, or without living in the Theft. We couldn’t all be here if the world was still a commons and hadn’t been privatized. All of these cultural institutions make it possible to overpopulate the planet with humans—and this is beginning to be acknowledged by some of my contemporaries. But few ever contemplate the question: what makes it impossible (or all but) to stop growing our population– or, better yet, reverse our trajectory, and thereby lessen the pressure of our gigantic boot-print on the face of our Mother? Even among those who recognize that we are deep into overshoot, there is little understanding of why we cannot force a change in this self-destructive trajectory. But this is something you need to know.

Let’s begin with the enabling cultural injunction, found in the Book of Genesis, but already part of our culture before it ever became codified in print: ‘Go forth and multiply!’ It matters not a whit whether one is a practicing Jew or Christian for this directive to have resonance, because it is enshrined in our deep culture, and has been for thousands of years. Populating the Earth without limit has been planted deep in our collective psyche, as part of our operating program, and it shows.

Even if, by some miracle, the entire human population were to undergo an instantaneous global mind change at this very moment, and could shed this deep programming; even if we all felt compelled to severely limit the human population, I seriously doubt that we could act upon it, because of all the snares we’ve managed to entangle ourselves in. Some of these reside in our deep culture, and give us marching orders we are barely are of. For instance, within the same document that enjoins us to be fruitful and multiply we find sanctified approval for wealth creation and the storing up of great riches by favored individuals. This of course runs exactly counter to the egalitarianism of the hunter-gatherer, where all is to be shared equitably among everyone in the group; where no more is to be taken from Mother Earth than can be used immediately—thus insuring fairness and justice within the group itself, while also conserving the Earth’s Gifts for later, including for future generations.

As with the injunction to expand the human population, this encouragement to seek power and wealth had to have been well-established within the culture long before it was ever enshrined in print and made official doctrine. That is to say, it runs deeper than any one religion, and has, by my time, been taken for granted by almost everyone within civilized society. And also taken for granted is the (unacknowledged) fact that wealth creation is not possible by living in the Gift, but only by living in the Theft–that is, by spending down the Earth’s principal: its complexity, diversity, and resilience, accrued over 3.8 billion years of Earthly evolution. Living in the Theft is a life strategy that can work for a few, for awhile, but inevitably must fail completely.

With overpopulation and wealth creation as foundational principles, other cultural institutions would inevitably appear to facilitate these cultural marching orders. And this is where we began our problematic relationship with complex systems: systems that promised Power—and delivered—but not without exacting a soul-withering price for our elevated status as Masters of the Planet. Indeed, it may not be overly fanciful to see what has happened to the civilized human in the light of a Faustian Bargain or Deal with the Devil.

Complex systems are not well understood, and have only been the subject of close study for three or so decades—and looked into mostly by those trained in the traditions of materialist science. Thus, complex systems are assumed to be without personality or personhood of their own, and are thought to be more like mechanisms than organisms. And this may actually be the case–no one really knows– but I think it dangerous to underestimate what they are and what they can do. Accordingly, I find it useful to personify them to some degree and to see them as having agendas of their own: as if they were volitional beings with a will of their own. I wouldn’t call them the Devil, or Mephistopheles, or the incarnation of evil, and yet, their effects can run so counter to the purposes of all Life as to seem purposefully intent upon the destruction of a living Earth. If they are just mechanical entities operating out of a handful of principles, rules, or laws, and otherwise have no intentions of their own, you have to wonder why these rules are as they are, and why they couldn’t have been formulated in a way that was friendlier to Life.

Usury is the lending of money that must be repaid by a certain time– with interest: often, very steep interest. Usurers were long regarded as blood-sucking parasites that preyed upon the weak and poor, and were all but banned from civil life. Then came the Industrial Revolution, and with it the need for finance capital, and thus bankers became respectable and important members of civilized society. The problem with usury, beyond its predatory proclivities, is its built-in imperative for growth. Interest on debt is by its nature a pyramid- or Ponzi-scheme: it requires that new money enter the game, and not just new money but new players—new people born into the world, to service the debt of their elders. Usury only works in a world of perpetual growth.

Manufacturing depends upon the mining of resources; the mining of resources, in turn, depends upon machines and other manufactured goods to go about its business. Both mining and manufacturing depend upon a transportation network to move stuff in and out of their locations, and to transport goods to distribution centers. All of these interlocking systems are mutually interdependent, and they consist of both organizational and physical infrastructure. These are systems of systems as well as systems within systems. Some of these systems are linear, and therefore predictable. Others are non-linear and pregnant with surprise. What they share in common is a growth imperative: they all want to get bigger and bigger, and bigger still.

Our economic system—capitalism—also depends upon perpetual growth. Politicians like to talk about ‘growing the economy’—and preferably at a rate well above 3% per year. The prosperity of the (American) people depends upon it. Anything below this threshold creates anxiety among our Captains of Industry and causes them to hold their cash reserves close: no expansion; no hiring; no new ventures.

It is the nature of corporations to want to grow, to consolidate, to become a vast empire of interrelated businesses. Financial, organizational, and Power incentives drive corporate systems toward vertical integration and economies of scale. The byword is: Get big or get out. And the bigger you get, the more political clout you have, which translates into ever more favorable governmental policies, regulations, and tax loopholes. All the incentives built-in to the organization of our corporate systems favor, and select for, more Power, more business, more money—and the way to accomplish these goals is to grow larger and larger, and larger still. The pressure is on: Get big or get out.

Everything central to our way of life is in the growth mode: the banks, the corporations, all our extractive and service industries, and, not least of all, our population. More people means: more willing buyers of homes, cars, electronic gadgets, and all the trappings of modern life. More jobs, more prosperity, more everything. More, more, more. It is in the interest of banks and corporations, as well as businesses large and small, that the market for products continues to grow. More, more, more. Grow, grow, grow.

On a finite planet with degraded natural systems and diminishing natural resources this growth imperative, built-in to our systems and into our lives, is an irresistible force coming up against an immovable object. It is us hitting a wall, and doing so at speed. More and more people in my time now see this crash coming. Of course there is also plenty of willful and studied stupidity on this subject. But here again, consider the incentives. As we spend down the last of what is left, there are still fortunes to be made. But it is not only the power elite who gain by the liquidation of natural systems as we turn the Earth inside-out and upside-down in our frenzy to mine everything that can be mined. We are all implicated, all more-or-less willing accomplices, in this final dismantling—because we are dependent on all these systems not only for our improvident lifestyle, but perhaps even for our very lives.

It would seem to make perfect sense, given our trajectory toward doom, that we should reverse our course as quickly and completely as we can. One way to do this would be to de-grow our population. Another would be to make far fewer demands upon this ailing and injured planet. Doing both at the same time would be better yet. But there are a few problems with this obvious fix, not the least of which is our agricultural system which –(get this now)– takes ten calories of energy (by way of cheap oil) to produce one calorie of food energy to power people. The industrial agricultural system has been in place for less than three quarters of a century, but it s responsible for more than tripling our population in that short time. Without the high grade energy of cheap oil there could never have been more than seven billion of us. But the fact is: there are more than seven billion living humanbeings. And what individual, or group, is going to take the responsibility for whittling this untenable number down to size? Even if all seven billion of us could agree that our numbers must be reduced—which we emphatically do not—how would we go about implementing this concerted will that we do not have?

Or let’s say that we could all agree that we wanted to live under a no-growth steady-state economic system (for which, again, there is, emphatically, no agreement). What would happen to all these interlocking systems– in which we are invested and enmeshed– that only work under conditions of growth, and falter under contraction? We really don’t know exactly what would happen, because non-linear complexity is involved, but it is a good guess that it would look quite a bit like dominoes falling—and they’d be falling on us.

I want you to understand why it is, when there were at least a few of us who could see what was coming, that we did nothing, or next to nothing, to slow this juggernaut down. I can see where you might be harboring bitter resentments against those who left you a world so broken in so many ways. I don’t know if you yourself hold the value of intergenerational justice, but if you do, you will likely feel that you have been thoroughly betrayed. And you have, but not out of maliciousness; not even out of indifference—at least not complete indifference. I personally know individuals who feel strongly that we are doing you a terrible injustice—and we are. But I want you to realize that we really didn’t have a choice in the matter. Whatever little any of us might have been able to do on your behalf wasn’t going to be nearly enough, because this growth catastrophe is systemic.

We are all invested in these systems, one way or another, and have grown utterly dependent upon them for whatever there is left to value in human life. The thing is, almost none of can see how we could possibly live without them—and truly almost none of us could. The bind we are in is this: it is suicidal to go on as we are, and it would be suicidal to stop, and collapse all these systems that support our lives. Most of us live day to day, putting one foot in front of the other, more or less on automatic pilot, taking whatever satisfaction we can from our life in bondage to these systems. Even if we realize that something vital to our being has been taken from us, and that our lives are hollow, this is still all we have: a life of sorts. Your life, on the other hand, is mere conjecture—a shimmer in the mists of a future that may never arrive. And so we go with what we know, here and now.

Would you, in our place, behave any differently?


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