[Note: This is the forty-ninth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews. These samples are not freestanding pieces. They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time. If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.
“Limit” is a power word, a gateway that can open or close, and influence the course of ecosystem trends. When members of a species move into an ecosystem, and adapt to it, they make use of available resources, and expand until their growth is paused by limits — food, water, climate, predators, etc. Herbivores are limited by the availability of digestible vegetation. Predators are limited by the availability of prey. The whims of climate can suddenly tighten limits, or relax them. The dance of life is full of surprises. Humans are unique in that we can sometimes blow away traditional limits via the wildcard of technological innovation.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote a landmark book announcing that there were limits to growth, an idea that many still consider to be silly nonsense (we have no limits!). At the time, Britain’s Industrial Revolution was rapidly eliminating the traditional cottage-based craft workers who spun yarn, knitted garments, and wove fabric.
During this era, aristocrats were also busy enclosing (privatizing) the common lands, which forced many peasants from homes where their ancestors had lived for generations. Enclosure freed up land that could be used to raise lots of sheep, which generated far more income than rents from hungry dirty peasants.
Many displaced peasants migrated to filthy crowded cities to work in textile factories. Kirkpatrick Sale described folks working up to 18 hours per day (never less than 10), breathing air that was thick with dust. Many were injured by the whirling and jerking machines. Most of the workforce was women and children (as young as 4 or 5), because they worked for far less money than men. While the poor folks lived in misery, the well to do were surfing on big waves of wealth. Life was grand!
Steam powered textile factories were driving cottage enterprises extinct, at the same time that enclosures were forcing many to migrate to cities, where low-paying factory work was available. Factories could make clothing that was far less expensive, and far lower in quality. Shoddy hosiery sometimes decomposed after a single wearing. Poor folks could only afford the cheap crap. Cottage workers were too proud of their craft to lower their standards, or work for peanuts.
Let’s take a quick side trip. In the 1851 census, my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Cleaton Rees was a handloom weaver in the parish of Llangurig, Wales, as was her mother, sister, four of her sisters-in-law, and many of their neighbors. The wool produced in the Cambrian Mountains was rugged. Flannel woven from it lasted nearly forever, but was a bit scratchy.
Sarah had been a widow since 1844, when her husband died from “decline” at 23. She had three sons. Unlike factory rats, handloom weavers generally earned a living income. Sarah did not marry again for 11 years, but she did leave Llangurig. In about 1853, Sarah and her sons moved south to Merthyr Tydfil, an ironworking district. Was she forced out by enclosure, or did her source of income go belly up?
In the 1861 census, she was working as a beer house keeper at the Green Dragon, and her sons were iron miners. In the region, dense coal smoke made the air black, and the rivers too. It was a miserable life — hard work, wee wages, filthy air, raw sewage everywhere, and tainted water that killed thousands. Cholera was common. Legends tell of families being alive and well in the morning, and all dead by sunset. In 1863, Sarah, her sons, and new husband, packed up and moved to the U.S., where they found coal mining work in Ohio.
When Malthus wrote in 1798 there were about 8.8 million English. By 1861, the number had soared to 20.1 million. Sarah and Malthus spent their lives in a population explosion, an era of intense social turbulence. In 1798, like today, the wizards in the center stage spotlights were radicalized utopians, like Marx, Engels, and Malthus’s crazy daddy, who enthusiastically celebrated the wonders of progress, and the limitless rosy future that laid ahead.
For 200+ years, legions of critics have been denouncing the legacy of Malthus, because he predicted that rapid population growth would soon lead to catastrophe. Actually, he never made that prediction, although he was right to be wary of growth. Few critics have actually read his book. Over the years, Malthus penned six editions. Garrett Hardin sat down and read them all, comparing the additions and deletions. In Living Within Limits, Hardin concluded that 95 percent of his ideas were correct. Not bad!
William Catton put his finger on Malthus’ core misunderstanding. Malthus simply could not imagine that it was possible for humankind to ever exceed Earth’s carrying capacity. At the time, the global population was just approaching one billion. Much of the U.S. Midwest was still a vast ancient forest. He clearly underestimated the destructive potential of technological innovation, and what it would do to the planet.
Catton wrote a masterpiece on carrying capacity, and how it impacts humans and everything else. On the book cover, his five word definition of carrying capacity was “the maximum permanently supportable load.” His use of “permanent” doesn’t mean for all eternity, because all living systems never stop changing. It sort of meant living in a manner that was not at the expense of the next generation(s), or the vitality of the ecosystem — something that could operate indefinitely, because it was not a belligerent enemy of the family of life.
Around 300,000 years ago, the planet’s carrying capacity for humans was limited by the resources available within their original homeland in east Africa. They lived lightly, because that was their only option. Later, as the ancestors migrated into Asia, Europe, and Australia, the planet’s carrying capacity for humans expanded, because they inhabited more territory, and had access to more resources. Their expansion did not leave behind a wake of ecological wreckage, at first. As discussed earlier, a number of large game species were gradually driven to extinction when the intrepid pioneers lived a bit too hard.
Over the passage of millennia, some ancestors gradually swerved farther and farther across the yellow line of limits. Eventually, with the domestication of plants and animals, some clever ones closed their eyes and stomped on the accelerator. Bye-bye forests, wetlands, topsoil, and animal life. Bye-bye healthy wild ecosystems. Hello growing mobs, civilizations, tyrants, slavery, patriarchy, and a wake of irreparable wreckage. Whoops!
For any species, the carrying capacity limits for a region, or the planet, can be altered in two ways. (1) Takeover is expansion into new habitat, which provides access to additional resources. This is not inherently naughty. For example, long, long ago horses and camels migrated from America to the Old World. Mammoths and saber-tooth cats migrated in the opposite direction. So, takeover can genuinely enlarge carrying capacity for a species.
(2) Drawdown enables carrying capacity limits to be temporarily overridden by diminishing exhaustible resources — forests, topsoil, minerals, oil reservoirs, and so on. For example, when an ancient forest is displaced to create farms and pastures, more food can be produced, and the mob can grow — at the cost of degrading exhaustible resources, and overthrowing traditional balances in the ecosystem. Drawdown can include horses being replaced with tractors, manure replaced with synthetic fertilizer, and rainfall supplemented with water extracted from ancient aquifers.
Catton wrote that drawdown did not actually elevate carrying capacity. Instead, it created “phantom carrying capacity,” because the expansion was unsustainable and temporary. Writing in 1980, he said that the ongoing survival of 90 percent of humankind (including Americans) was dependent on phantom carrying capacity, far in excess of traditional limits. Today, that percentage is certainly higher, because it is enabled by ever-growing dependence on fossil energy and other strategic nonrenewable resources.
Drawdown leads to overshoot — growth beyond an area’s carrying capacity, eventually leading to crash and die-off. Blissfully ignorant consumers, as well as world leaders, often mistake overshoot for progress. Today, humankind has advanced deeply into overshoot, impacting the entire planet. Consequently, as the still soaring population works harder and harder to ravage the natural world, the global carrying capacity for humans is deteriorating, while phantom carrying capacity soars ever higher.
Overshoot doesn’t <bleep> around. It is beginning a messy and merciless process of herding the enormous human mob into a narrow bottleneck, through which only a limited number can pass. The tight squeeze will continue until the human mob is reduced to a number that can live in peace with a severely damaged Earth (if we don’t simply get pushed off the stage forever).
Energy and Growth
In this long and lumpy comedy of errors, the transition to fossil energy shifted the monster into warp drive. In the famous story, Dr. Frankenstein’s creepy monster spoke these words to him, “You are my maker, but I am your master.” Today’s globalized industrial civilization is living like there’s no tomorrow, and behaving as if we were the last generation. This story will have a crappy ending. Consumer society has zoomed far beyond the border, deep into the bowels of Crazyland, where folks soar away in beautiful hallucinations of limitlessness — a magical realm of progress, abundance, perpetual growth, maniacal shopping, and 500 channels of nonstop entertainment with no commercials.
J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke wrote about the planet shaking explosion of eco-destruction that has occurred since 1945. They noted that energy is the guiding force, the trail blazer, of humankind’s long meandering saga. We can’t photosynthesize sunlight, so we survive by eating plants and animals. In the days before hominins learned how to kindle fire, their sole source of life energy was a raw food diet. Fire led to cooking, which enabled the ancestors to transform indigestible stuff into an additional sources of life energy. Increased access to edible energy enabled the survival of more food eaters.
Tragically, with the emergence of plant and animal domestication, traditional limits to growth could be radically exceeded, temporarily, by rubbishing wild ecosystems, and replacing them with manmade ecosystems capable of producing far more edible energy, when conditions were favorable. Cereal grains are energy dense, and suitable for long term storage. Today, our food is produced by mechanized, irrigated, chemical drenched, industrial agriculture, which further accelerates overpopulation.
Similarly, the domestication of livestock and poultry generated even more food energy, especially when wild predators (competitors) were systematically exterminated. Enslaved horses could convert the solar energy stored by vegetation into mechanical energy useful for carrying riders and cargo, or for pulling plows, carts, and carriages. Prior to this time, for almost 300,000 years, the primary source of mechanical energy used by our ancestors was human muscle power.
Catton wrote that agriculture provided phantom carrying capacity. Another phantom was the exploitation of “ghost acreage.” The hungry mobs in places like Britain could be fed by importing lots of food produced on faraway acres in other lands. Many nations are now depend on imported food. Another phantom was industrial fish mining, depleting wild fisheries to feed hungry urban populations. All wild animals have limits too. The global food system can seem like a shaky house of cards.
The planet-eating monster is primarily powered by nonrenewable fossil energy, a form of stored sunshine that accumulated over the course of 500 million years. Every day we move closer to the post-fossil era, and to the funeral wake for today’s global food industry, and the overshoot it conjured into existence.
In 2019, ecological economist William E. Rees wrote a stunning sentence: “It is a quirk of exponential growth that half the fossil energy ever used (and half the fossil CO2 ever produced), has been burned (emitted) in just the past 35 years!” Rees has come to the conclusion that humans are not “primarily a rational species.” It’s hard to disagree.
Growth Soars Away
Eventually, our food production surpluses rose to the point where a portion of the mob was no longer needed in the fields and pastures. It became possible to feed people who could indulge in specialized activities, like metallurgy, woodworking, ceramics, construction, warfare, religion, government, and on and on. We swerved into the express lane, and commenced our joyride of turbocharged cleverness with no brakes, no roads, and no foresight — full speed ahead into the powerful nightmare world of unintended consequences. Yippee!
Growing numbers of folks accumulated in villages, towns, and cities. Poor sanitation, malnutrition, and high density living laid out the welcome mat to a wide variety of herd diseases. William McNeill noted that for 8,000 years, cities were demographic black holes, because of their high death rates. Their ongoing existence depended on the constant inflow of surplus people from the countryside, commonly bachelors, spinsters, orphans, and refugees who were not among the lucky winners in the land inheritance lottery.
William Stanton pointed out that around 1750, population trends shifted into a new mode, accelerating growth. Food production was booming. Colonies in Africa, Australia, and the Americas greatly expanded the area of land used for growing crops and raising livestock. It became possible to import abundant amounts of food. New World crop plants were sent back to the Old World, including two extremely productive super foods — potatoes and corn (maize). Old World livestock was sent to the colonies, where they could explode into the millions.
Our skills at soil mining improved. The area of land that could support ten people in 1700, could support 50 by 1900. New types of potent fertilizers became available, further boosting productivity. Crop breeding research launched the Green Revolution, which enabled a dramatic increase in productivity.
Stanton wrote that when agriculture became dependent on oil, the need for human labor was reduced by a factor of 40 to 1. Using the latest mega-technology, the factor might be close to 100 to 1. New farm machinery promoted higher crop yields. New dams enabled deserts to become lush croplands. New irrigation pumps enabled water miners to drain ancient aquifers. New petrochemicals reduced crop losses by insects, diseases, and weeds.
Birth control is intended to prevent unwelcome pregnancies. Stanton talked a lot about its opposite, death control, which was intended to delay unwelcome deaths. Prior to 1750, high mortality rates provided a reliable restraint on growth. Then, from 1750 to now, stunning advances in death control kicked open the gateway to a horrific population explosion. He decreed that this was an era of weak restraints on growth (WROG). Naturally, when death rates drop below birth rates, population rises. Growth happens.
In prehistoric times, there were periods of WROG that began when wild humans first set foot on uninhabited continents and islands, and discovered an abundance of delicious resources. Five centuries ago, civilized folks from the Old World washed ashore in the New World. The infectious diseases they carried with them rapidly spread, killing most of the inhabitants on two continents. The massive die-off then cleared the stage for a 500 year WROG rocket ride.
In the current WROG surge, while birth rates chug along, death rates have been dramatically driven down by technological innovations. Food production is booming. Mortality from infectious diseases has been reduced by new vaccines, antibiotics, wonder drugs, antiseptic surgery, and other health care advances. Public health has been improved by energy-guzzling systems for garbage disposal, safe drinking water, and sewage treatment. What this one-time binge on fossil energy is doing to the climate will eventually drive a stake through the heart of the WROG era.
Growth Nears Retirement
As the old proverb says, what goes up, must come down. During the current WROG nightmare, technological cleverness has made it possible to maximize drawdown, and foolishly override carrying capacity limits. We’re rocketing into the future, at maximum velocity, blindfolded, out of control, lost in a dream world of vivid hallucinations — a joyride into the roaring flames of overshoot. This is what is known as progress, sustainable growth, a high standard of living, and other oxymoronic gibberish.
When you spend every minute of your life pounded by a hurricane of conflicting, nonsensical, fabricated information, it can sometimes be difficult to see and think clearly. Most folks unconsciously assume that the decadent lifestyles of the WROG era (including our entire lifetime) are perfectly normal. Wrong!
When I was born in 1952, there were 2.6 billion humans. Today in 2020, it has tripled to 7.8 billion, and is still growing — a massive explosion resulting in catastrophic irreversible damage. Oddly, most folks in the land of glowing screens consider the status quo to be not only normal, but the pinnacle of the entire human experience. We have great powers of imagination.
We’ve gotten way too clever at exceeding limits — by sneaking around them, leaping over them, tunneling under them, or exterminating them. Consumer society has soared away into a state of limitless debauchery. No previous generation has ever lived in such a destructive manner. This way of life has an expiration date, and there are folks alive today who will experience its arrival.
In the absence of wisdom, foresight, radical birth control, and enthusiastic worldwide cooperation, food will become increasingly expensive and/or scarce. No matter how hard we wish, it is not possible to conjure megatons of food out of thin air via hope, prayers, voting, or positive thinking. When overshoot finally slams into the stone wall of carrying capacity, carrying capacity giggles, overshoot splatters, and the obesity epidemic sings its death song.
Sooner or later, as the WROG circus rides off into the sunset, the most vulnerable regions will eventually reach what Stanton calls the violent cutback level (VCL). When this happens, violence becomes inevitable, he says, because the surefire medicines that effectively cure acute overpopulation are bitter. He noted that a number of regions began approaching VCL levels in the late 1970s, Rwanda for example. The number of hotspots continues growing. Stanton noted that folks having low social status, or high bad luck, will be among those affected first. Political correctness will go extinct, as will sympathy for underdogs, scapegoats, heretics, and (fill in the blank).
Societies that are ethnically and culturally homogenous, like Iceland, have not shattered into aggressively competing factions, so the possibility of reaching their VCL is not a constant danger. On the other hand, in dysfunctional, oppressive, intolerant, multi-cultural societies — flaming hotbeds of merciless, power crazy, pathological selfishness — like the U.S., the Middle East, and many other regions, VCL is always just one spark away.