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Thread: Book Review -Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse

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    Default Book Review -Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse

    Book Review
    Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse


    Reviewed by George Mobus

    First I should confess to a strong bias toward the content of this book. As readers of my blog, Question Everything, will realize, I have been moving inexorably toward the same conclusion as the author, so you will perhaps forgive me if you think I may be suffering from a lack of sufficient critical thinking. Put bluntly, I think this is a book every thinking human being should read, and then consider for themselves.

    To a growing number of people it is looking more and more like mankind is about to undergo a most unpleasant transition. One might write such views off as being what kooks and apocalyptic religious fanatics hold to, and we know they are crazy. But over the last five years many deep thinking and well respected people have been sounding some alarms that are not as easily put aside. In 2004 Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal in Britain and clearly no intellectual harebrain, wrote Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning, Basic Books. In it he gives humanity about a 50/50 chance of surviving through the century. Not really good chances when you think about it.

    Last year James Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, wrote a sobering call for a massive revision of capitalism and an end to growth in The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, Yale University Press. Like many authors have done, he painted a picture of what was wrong and why, but then pointed to remedies that might presumably fix the problems. That is, if only our leaders and our citizens would see the light and do what is necessary we might avoid total collapse. Most of these authors offer humanity an escape hatch, but point out that we have to be willing to sacrifice substantially, in terms of material wealth, for it to work.

    The realization that mankind is damaging its planet is certainly not new. Rachel Carson (The Silent Spring, 1962) may have started the trend in increasing awareness that we are doing things, in our zeal to control nature, that were starting to backfire, threatening to leave us worse off if we didn't change our ways and attitudes. Environmentalism has largely operated on this theme for decades. We've been warned of environmental degradation, global warming, and peak oil, and how these are interlinked. We've been made immanently aware of the dangers we have ourselves created.

    Now William R. Catton, Jr., Emeritus Professor of Sociology at my state's other PhD granting institution, Washington State University, brings on the sequel to his first book in this genre, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press, in which he sounded an alarm being heard more frequently. Like Speth, Catton, in that earlier book, pointed out the problems as he saw them, from the viewpoint of a sociologist, and then declared that if we heed these warnings we might yet escape the worst.

    In the sequel, Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse, Xlibris Corporation, he drops the part about we can evade the worst. The subtitle says it all. Now he concludes that it is already too late to mend our ways and somehow avoid the collapse of civilization. Indeed the main title refers to an impending collapse of the human population. An ecological bottleneck (also called an population bottleneck) is where radical changes in the environment of a species causes a die-off of all but the most hardy of the population; hardy, that is, in terms of the selection pressures arising from the change. Of course there may be no sufficiently hardy individuals left or the ones that manage to survive cannot reproduce sufficiently to produce a new population. In that case the species goes extinct.

    Catton's arguments for why this is the most likely outcome for humanity boil down to something I have written about in my blog for several years now. It is the rate of change that matters as much as the degree or magnitude of change when it comes to shocking a population. If we look at the rate of climate change due to anthropogenic forcing, or the rate at which our fossil fuel energy sources are depleting, or the rate of aquifer depletion, or the rate of population increase, or the rate of consumption increase per captia in the developed and developing worlds, or... You get the picture. We are changing the world in ways unfavorable to human survivability more rapidly than we can either adapt or mitigate. And we have already passed the point of no return.

    As to why we are in this state of affairs, Catton calls on several sociological theories surrounding the evolution of culture and especially the development of over-specialization or 'division of labor'. The latter was touted by Adam Smith as the reason we were so efficient in our manufactures. And Catton, like many authors who deplore modern capitalism and corporatism, recognizes that at a time this was indeed a beneficial capacity. Today, however, he says that we overdid it and that the tendency toward deep specialization has tended to dehumanize and isolate each of us from the benefit of interpersonal relations. He further argues that we have come to think of others as instruments, mere means to our own ends. This he says is the end result of taking the abstraction of money as representing wealth too far in our thinking.

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    Last edited by Rajiv; 11-25-09 at 11:37 PM.

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