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Book Review -Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse

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  • 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, 10:37 PM.

  • #2
    Re: Book Review -Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse

    Very interesting that you should reference this author. Way back in 1977 I took a course taught by Catton and he presented his thesis in the form of handouts that later were worked up into Overshoot. Over the last thirty years I have bought many copies of Overshoot as gifts made to thoughtful, insightful people. Along with William Ophuls' two books I think Overshoot should be required reading. I was not aware of this followup until tonight but you can bet I just ordered it on Amazon. Thanks!

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    • #3
      Re: Book Review -Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse

      The author, Martin Rees gives humanity just a 50/50 chance of surviving the century?

      Even the biggest doomers like Kuntsler pose as their worst case scenario, a human race that reverts back to a pre-industrial model: Self sustaining groups like nomads, small agricultural and fishing communities, etc.

      It is debatable whether we can develop some kind of post industrial society that is low impact and can still provide creature comforts but to question the survival of the human race?!?!
      Greg

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      • #4
        Re: Book Review -Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse

        These may tell you why Lord Martin Rees thinks so -- but he is not the author of the book or the book review - So this may well be digressing a bit.

        Interview with Martin Rees - Part 1

        Interview Part 2
        Last edited by Rajiv; 11-26-09, 02:22 PM.

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        • #5
          Re: Book Review -Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse

          Originally posted by BiscayneSunrise View Post
          The author, Martin Rees gives humanity just a 50/50 chance of surviving the century?

          Even the biggest doomers like Kuntsler pose as their worst case scenario, a human race that reverts back to a pre-industrial model: Self sustaining groups like nomads, small agricultural and fishing communities, etc.

          It is debatable whether we can develop some kind of post industrial society that is low impact and can still provide creature comforts but to question the survival of the human race?!?!
          Never heard of Martin Rees. I don't think he is related in any way to William Catton or his text. Neither is Kuntsler. The author of the OP book is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Washington State University. Please don't confuse him with other reactionaries with little to few legitimate credentials.

          Catton's Overshoot is somewhat dated but well referenced and I still like to read it every few years. Like I said in my earlier post, Catton should be read by anyone interested in the future of the human race. The other author, William Ophuls, was largely missed by academia and completely ignored by the main stream media. He should be reviewed again, especially now that American society and industrial culture in general have entered the declining phase. Democracy is doomed in case you haven't figured it out yet. One other author I would highly recommend is H. T. Odum and his book titled Environment, Power, and Society. His diagrams are worth taking the time to understand. Another good background text is Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies. Miss these books at your own peril.
          Last edited by reallife; 11-26-09, 11:59 PM. Reason: spelling

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          • #6
            Re: Book Review -Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse

            Also some of James Gustave Speth's work was talked about here

            The Bridge at the Edge of the World

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            • #7
              Re: Book Review -Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse

              Originally posted by BiscayneSunrise View Post
              The author, Martin Rees gives humanity just a 50/50 chance of surviving the century?

              Even the biggest doomers like Kuntsler pose as their worst case scenario, a human race that reverts back to a pre-industrial model: Self sustaining groups like nomads, small agricultural and fishing communities, etc.

              It is debatable whether we can develop some kind of post industrial society that is low impact and can still provide creature comforts but to question the survival of the human race?!?!

              I have to agree with you. Humans are like whitetail deer, or cockroaches, or . . . We are extremely adaptable. As you said, one can be very skeptical as to our future comfort, but short of nuclear or biowar armeggedon, its hard to imagine no humans within the span of a 100 or 1000 years.

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              • #8
                Re: Book Review -Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse

                Originally posted by leegs View Post
                I have to agree with you. Humans are like whitetail deer, or cockroaches, or . . . We are extremely adaptable. As you said, one can be very skeptical as to our future comfort, but short of nuclear or biowar armeggedon, its hard to imagine no humans within the span of a 100 or 1000 years.
                All too true. Humans, Homo sapiens, if you will are like all other animal species. When presented with an open niche, in our case, a niche created by the 'discovery' of the relatively under-populated New World by a technologically and socially advanced culture, the human population grew exponentially. Then, with onset of the Industrial Era, when fossil fuels became expoitable, beginning with coal, and then petroleum, natural gas, and nuclear fuels, our culture and population continued to grow, far beyond the population that was previously sustainable on a solar-based economy. That is exactly what any other species would have done and does do in the laboratory when conditions are altered. Unfortunately, our species is not unique. We will discover this as the fossil fuel underpining of our culture is kicked out from under us. No, our species will not become extinct. The population will shrink very significantly however. The question is how rapidly the population will shrink and how we will handle the drop off as individuals and as a society as a whole.

                Fortunately, whitetail deer didn't become extinct when they were hunted nearly into oblivion to make buckskin britches during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Recently, they have prospered since their predators were largely eliminated and human predation was regulated in a 20th Century environment that saw an explosion of the forest-grassland interface (think suburbs), their natural habitat. They really aren't very adaptable. They still stare at headlights after all. Cockroaches on the other hand.... :eek:
                Last edited by reallife; 11-26-09, 11:58 PM.

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