Catton’s “Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse”

Book Review of  Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, by William R. Catton, Jr.
Reviewed by George Mobus

Below are some excerpts (some paraphrased) from from this review:

In Catton’s book, Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, Catton doesn’t mince words: we can’t evade the worst any longer.  Civilization is going to collapse.  The main reason is not just how big the changes are, it’s the RATE of CHANGE.  We are destroying the world so rapidly across so many resources  we can neither adapt or mitigate the problems.  We’re past the point of no return.

One reason this happened is that we got too specialized in our division of labor, which has led to dehumanization and isolating us from each other.  Many see other people as instruments to be used to further our own ends.

Humans, like all animals, have a biological dictate to maximize their access to energy. For humans this meant learning to control fire, making clothing, building shelters, the invention of tools and agriculture. It culminated in the discovery of fossil fuels that allow modern humans incredible power over their environment. Catton renames a the people in developed countries who consume massive amounts of fossil fuels Homo colossus, who can use machines that do orders of magnitude more work than a human can do with muscle power. This is done by burning carbon which produces CO2 and returns fossil carbon deposits to the atmosphere and oceans after sequestration for millions of years. It’s the rapidity with which this is happening which leads Catton to conclude that we can’t put the brakes on for this train. You can try but you won’t stop in time to avoid a crash.

Unfortunately for mankind, there are now far too many of Homo colossus in the global population. And the damage is done. NASA climatologist James Hanson has claimed that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere should not be over 350 parts per million (ppm) in order to avoid calamitous climate shifts. But we are already at 400ppm and climbing.

Catton sees an impending threat from the fact that we are going to run out of this magical fuel one day.  When that happens what becomes of Homo colossus? Indeed what happens to Homo sapiens? Even though peoples in developing and underdeveloped nations don’t burn the fuels directly, they still rely on the developed world for aid produced by burning those fuels.

Catton bases his analysis on the idea of carrying capacity. Fossil fuels have artificially boosted the carrying capacity of earth for human occupancy (if you ignore the damage we’ve done to other species). We are in overshoot, the theme of his previous book. We are like the cartoon character, Wile Coyote, racing off a cliff in futile pursuit of the Roadrunner, suspended mid air until he realized his predicament; then it was too late and he would fall. When the fossil fuels are effectively used up, what will replace them? As things stand now, there simply is no realistic or viable alternative energy source that could scale up to the level needed by modern civilization in time to take over the job. Once again, it’s the rate of change that gets us.

In spite of continued pie-in-the-sky thinking by even engineers and scientist who should know better, no one has shown how real time solar energy in all of its many forms (thermal, photovoltaic, wind, even hydroelectric) will ever match the power in fossil fuels. These came from ancient photosynthesis over millions of years compressed and cooked into a convenient package over more millions of years. The scope of concentration is literally unimaginable (apparently) yet very serious people dream of capturing current solar influx and replacing fossil fuels with it. They may be serious but they are also dreamers or delusional. While in theory, the total daily influx of solar energy to the earth would provide many times over what we need to sustain our current civilization and provide development for the lesser developed nations, our systems of capture would have to cover gigantic areas of the planet. Our energy storage and distribution systems would have to be radically redesigned and rebuilt. And all of this comes just as we recognize the impacts of declining net energy from fossil fuels; those fuels being needed to subsidize the building of all that energy infrastructure.

It is this lack of inherent wisdom that will keep us, has kept us, from doing the right things to prevent the impending impasse. Catton’s ‘Prognosis for Humanity’, page 206, is alarming.

…with great reluctance and regret, I am compelled to doubt that we can confidently hope to avoid a serious “crash” as the focal human experience of the 21st century—envisioned also as our species having to pass through an ecological “bottleneck”.

This is by far the most explicit statement of what we would call doom of any author in the popular book trade. There have been many writers, especially in the blogosphere, who have expressed similar conclusions. But I have yet to see a writer of some eminence such as Catton go all out and claim that the end is near. Unfortunately, I happen to agree with him.

The question for me is: Will humanity come through this bottleneck with a gene pool competent to meet the challenges of a changed world AND have a stronger native capacity for sapience, for wisdom? Assuming some remnant of humanity does survive, that is no guarantee that our descendants will go on to evolve a better ability to make good, long-term judgments in that future world. Nor are we guaranteed that they will be able to reconstruct anything like modern technology-based society in order to re-achieve a species fitness allowing them to survive and thrive in the very long run.

I have to applaud Catton for writing so honestly about what he has concluded. Every other author of books on end-of-the-world scenarios at least offers that if we would only come to our senses… the world won’t end. William Catton does not do this. Sorry for the spoiler but you should know in advance. Thus this probably isn’t a book easily digested by everyone, even though I think everyone who believes themselves to be a critical thinker should read it.

The reviewer is an Associate Professor of Computing and Software Systems at the University of Washington Tacoma. He is currently on sabbatical leave studying biophysical economics and energy-related issues at the State University of New York, Environmental Sciences and Forestry in Syracuse NY. His blog is Question Everything at:



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