Sunday, May 21, 2006

 

A prescient warning

Here's a manual version of the cover of a great book.

OVERSHOOT
The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

carrying capacity: maximum permanently supportable load
cornucopian myth: euphoric belief in limitless resouces.
drawdown: stealing resources from the future.
cargoism: delusion that technology will always save us.
overshoot:
growth beyond an area's carrying capacity, leading to
crash:
die-off

William R. Catton, Jr.
Foreword by Stewart Udall

This is such a great book. Even the foreword (by a former Secretary of the Interior---back when they were interested in fighting the rape and pillage lobby, rather than dropping the gate down and leaving the moat unguarded) has more substance than most books published today. Here is just some of that prescient warning--from 1980:

These developments suggest that a major reorientation is necessary if we are to cope with an energy predicament which threatens to cripple our country. If the atomic age now appears to have been an age of overestimation, then it is vital that we put technology in perspective and gain a better understanding of its strengths, and its limits. This will entail a reassessment of the contributions of technology--and of cheap petroleum--to postwar progress. Such an inquiry might challenge, for example, the claim that the Green Revolution is a monumental triumph of science and technology. How much of our farm productivity increase has been due to science, and how much to cheap oil, superior U.S. soils, and the beneficient weather of recent years?

It is undeniable that scientific advances in agronomy, in plant genetics, in weed and pest control, and in new insights about the applications of fertilizers and the mechanization of farming have added substantially to agricultural output. But petroleum that was deceptively cheap has played a major role in nurturing this illusion of perpetually expandable abundance. It has supplied fuel for water pumps and processing plants and field machines, and it has served as low-cost raw material for fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides. Studies have already shown that the food and fiber industry is the single largest user of energy in this country, so we should abandon the pretense that our success in farming is solely an achievement of science and technology.

It is equally instructive to take a fresh look at transportation, another sector supposedly the scene of engineering's greatest achievements. Again, the available evidence suggests that the contributions of technology have been overstated, while the role of cheap oil has been understated. . . . It was not just the advances in pipeline technology that made it possible for people in New York and New Jersey to burn Texas gas in their homes; it was a one-time abundance of natural gas. Nor was it the skill of aerospace engineers which allowed our air transport to flourish; dirt-cheap petroleum made the whole thing "fly."

(All emphasis above added. I haven't finished the book yet, but it's clearly going on my top 100 most important book list. University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-00988-6, 266 pp. plus endnotes, glossary, indices.)

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