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Thanks, Bill.

February 5, 2015

catton-smallI learned today of the passing of William Catton, author of Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (1982), and Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse (2009). (For a biography of Catton, see Wikipedia ). I didn’t read Overshoot until around 1999; when I did, it made an enormous impression. My book The Party’s Over owed a great deal to it: I summarize Catton’s arguments in Chapter 1 which, in retrospect, is the core of the book. It was an honor to have an opportunity to introduce roughly 50,000 readers to his ideas; I only hope that a significant number of those readers took the trouble to seek out Catton’s book for themselves.

John Michael Greer, in his latest blog, has already said of Catton much of what I would say. I met Bill at two or three conferences; he was soft-spoken and friendly—hardly a fire-breathing rebel—though his book calls into question the very foundations of industrial civilization in a more radical fashion than Das Kapital.

An entire cohort of ecological authors and activists who were active in the 1970s and ’80s is now retiring or passing away. A couple of weeks ago I heard that Lester Brown is reducing his workload substantially. Catton and Brown, along with others of their generation including Paul Ehrlich, Walter Youngquist, Jerry Mander, Herman Daly, and Wendell Berry deserve acknowledgement for their extraordinarily important contributions. More names spill from memory: Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrère, James Hanson, E.O. Wilson, Silvia Earle, James Lovelock (not all of these folks see eye to eye on every issue). Perhaps you would like to add to the list in the comments section that follows. It’s especially important that these folks hear that appreciation while they’re still with us.

  • Helga Vierich

    Thank you for saying what many feel today.

  • sbean

    Daniel Quinn is 79 (and counting).

  • Paul Chefurka

    It’s not much of a stretch to say that William Catton’s slim little book “Overshoot” changed my life.

    I don’t remember how I first heard of it, but it was shortly after I had figured out the significance of climate change and the realities of Peak Oil about a decade ago. I do remember the impact it had on me. I had read perhaps two chapters when I put down the book, stared off into the distance, and for the first time in my life thought those fateful words: “We’re fucked, aren’t we?”

    Of course I didn’t fully believe that epiphany on the spot – I still had a lot of work to do. I was the product of a progressive, liberal, scientific home; I was a hard-core software engineer during the peak of the tech boom; I personified the power of human ingenuity; I especially believed in exploring the truth or falsehood of any proposition on my own.

    I began to look at the world around me more critically. Did what I saw fit better with the cornucopian views I had held for the previous 50 years, or with this brand new, utterly heretical idea I had just encountered? The more I looked, the clearer the answer became. The human species is undeniably in the state of overshoot that Catton described so unsparingly.

    Accepting that premise, however, brought me face to face with an extremely uncomfortable set of conclusions. Situations that are unsustainable will not be sustained. Overshoot implies correction. Correction implies dieoff. Dieoff implies a radical alteration of our species’ accustomed way of living.

    I began looking for signs that the human ingenuity I worshiped so fervently would be able to turn the situation around before Mother Nature, red in tooth and claw, stepped in to do the job for us. This time, the more I looked the less evidence I saw. When COP15 blew its brains out in Copenhagen at the end of 2009, I finally accepted that despite the best intentions of a few, the human collective has no intention whatever of trying to rectify the situation. We seem utterly committed to a one-way trip off the cliff, with the movie “Thelma and Louise” as our roadmap.

    With that acceptance came a burning desire to understand why we are doing this. Why does our course seem irreversible? What is locking us into such an obviously catastrophic course of action?

    My efforts to unravel these questions have led me a long way from the cornucopian tranquility of my software engineering days. The investigation has taken me down rabbit-holes I could never have predicted, where I found such gems as the materialist anthropology of Marvin Harris, Howard Odum’s Maximum Power Principle, evolutionary psychology, and finally to the non-equilibrium thermodynamics of Ilya Prigogine and Eric Schneider.

    Bill Catton’s seminal concept has been at the core of my writing for many years now. It helped to disabuse me of the notion that humanity could ever be a truly sustainable presence on the planet. It has allowed me to frame the radical understanding that even a few tens of millions of humans, living as we now do, are far too great a load for Mother Earth to bear. It has helped me come to terms with the possibility that our species could go extinct far more rapidly than most of us can comprehend.

    Fortunately, in this life every coin has two sides. In the end, Catton’s terrifying idea was responsible for triggering the spiritual explorations that have taken me through the “gateless gate” into a quieter and more joyful landscape. There aren’t enough words in the English language to express my gratitude for this unexpected result.

    So Bill, wherever, whenever and whatever you now are, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for your clarity, your courage, your wisdom, and for the humanity that flowed from you so naturally. You were illuminated by the glow of Diogenes’ lamp, and became a beacon in your own right.

    Rest in peace.

  • Michael Dowd

    Beautiful, Richard, thank you!

    When I saw the simple title, “Thanks, Bill” I wept.

    What an fascinating chain of events… I was sitting at Bron Taylor’s kitchen table (author of Dark Green Religion) last week, in the midst of reading Overshoot, which I learned about from John Michael Greer (whom I learned about from your book, The End of Growth), and I mentioned how much I was loving Catton’s book. And Bron said, “Did you know he just died? I heard about it on a list-serve I’m on.”

    I called John Michael Greer a few days later and told him about Catton’s passing, as I had spoken with Will Catton, the physicist/meteorologist grandson of William R. Catton and lives in New Zealand, who confirmed his grandfather’s death. (Will wrote a wonderful short piece promoting his grandfather’s work a few years ago for the Otago Daily Times, “We are stealing from the future.”)

    Coincidentally, on the day that William Catton died, January 5th, I was reading aloud to Connie Barlow, my science writer wife, a November 2011 post by John Michael Greer where he mentions being at a ASPO conference and meeting Catton, and feeling like a star-struck teenager. Since I hold The Archdruid in such high esteem, I bought both Overshoot and Bottleneck that afternoon. I just finished reading Overshoot yesterday.

    Last week, even before finishing Overshoot (I already knew that it would be one of the most important books I’ll ever read), I reached out to University of Illinois Press and volunteered to record an audiobook version of it, which they seemed quite interested in having me do. (I recorded the Penguin audio of my own book, Thank God for Evolution.)

    I predict that William Catton will be like Aldo Leopold — someone who gets more and more famous the longer he’s been dead due to the obvious correctness of his ecological wisdom. I’m surely intending to play my role in helping that vision become reality. Bringing the ecological paradigm fully and completely into western religion and the wider culture, as Catton did for sociology, is a huge part of my own sense of “calling” or life-purpose.

    In any event, thanks, again, Richard, for honoring this great man.

    (I would add Thomas Berry to your excellent list.)

    Together for the future,

    ~ Michael

    PS. I’ve started collecting TRIBUTE QUOTES. Here are a few that have been sent to me over the past few days…

    “William Catton was a pioneering world leader in dealing with environmental issues. He was one of the few sociologists who recognized the existential nature of the crisis now facing civilization. We’re all going to miss him.” ~ PAUL R. EHRLICH

    “William Catton was prescient enough to see what was coming from a long way off, and responsible enough to spend his life warning us. Peace on his soul, and heaven help our own.” ~ ALAN WEISMAN

    “William Catton’s Overshoot was the most important book of its time, and one of the most important of all times, in pointing out the biological fact that humans have a carrying capacity similar to other animal species, and that temporarily exceeding this carrying capacity – as we did long ago – has grave consequences for humanity and for nature. Unfortunately, we have still not heeded Catton’s advice.” ~ REED F. NOSS

    “William Catton’s Overshoot was one of the most important books of the 20th century. I wish that everyone would read that book. As well as being a brilliant and articulate advocate for sanity in a culture gone completely insane, Catton was a good and gentle person.” ~ DERRICK JENSEN

  • Guest

    I would add “Thomas Berry” to your excellent list.

  • Michael Dowd

    Paul, what a fabulous and well written tribute!

    Thank you!!

  • GrowthBuster

    Bill Catton is one of the greats. Reading Overshoot had a huge impact on the documantary I produced about our love affair with growth. Thank you for remembering and honoring him. I just published a podcast of the Bill Catton interview I did for that film. It’s episode 7 of a new radio series called Conversation Earth. You can hear it here: http://www.conversationearth.org/the-cornucopian-myth-william-catton-107/ It’s an amazing conversation.