It is axiomatic that we are in no way protected from the consequences of our actions by remaining confused about the ecological meaning of our humanness, ignorant of ecological processes, and unmindful of the ecological aspects of history.
- William R. Catton, Jr.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about carrying capacity, and what that will mean for life through the crash. The best book I’ve read about carrying capacity—what it is and what it means—is Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, by William R. Catton Jr.
Any environment’s carrying capacity, he states, is the number of creatures living a certain way who can be supported permanently on a certain piece of land, for example how many deer could live on a certain island without overgrazing and damaging the capacity of that island to grow food for them.
Permanently is the key word here, because it’s possible to overshoot carrying capacity—to temporarily have more creatures than the land can support—but doing so damages the land, and permanently lowers future carrying capacity. This is true when we talk about nonhumans, and it’s just as true when we talk about humans.
Consider the land where you live. How many people could it have permanently supported before the arrival of our extractive culture? How many people did it support? What did these people eat? What materials did those who came before use to make their homes?
And now? What will those who come after eat? If you were to rely only on local foods harvested sustainably—by which I mean entirely without the assistance of civilization or its technologies (e.g., no fossil fuels or mining)—what would you eat? Do the plants and animals eaten there before still call this their home? How many people could live in your place forever? How many people will live there after the crash?
There are a few ways one can temporarily exceed a place’s carrying capacity.
One is by degrading the landscape; for example, eating all of the local fish this year instead of eating few enough that the fish remain fecund as always.
Another example would be killing off species you don’t eat—salamanders, owls, bees, grasshoppers, and others—and in doing so almost undoubtedly impeding the eventual viability of your food sources.
Once you’ve undercut the carrying capacity where you live, you can continue to exceed your carrying capacity by degrading someplace else, for example, by eating all of that place’s fish.
This is just another way of saying that cities must import resources, a process also known as conquest, colonialism, and these days, the global economy. As we’ve seen, when the resources of that other place get depleted—when its carrying capacity has more or less been permanently reduced—those who are importing resources will attempt to find another place to exploit.
Because the power of those at the center of empires always depends on this importation/exploitation, the powerful have become quite adept at it. It is, at this point, nearly ubiquitous. As long ago as 1965, more than half of Great Britain’s foods were coming from what Catton and others call “ghost acreage,” that is, from sources invisible to those at the center.
Catton writes, “If food could not be obtained from the sea (6.5%) or from other nations (48%), more than half of Britain would have faced starvation, or all British people would have been less than half nourished. Likewise, if Japan could not have drawn upon fisheries all around the globe and upon trade with other nations, two-thirds of her people would have been starving, or every Japanese citizen would have been two-thirds undernourished.” This importation not only makes the lifestyles (and lives) of those who import dependent on the military and economic violence I’ve been talking about so far in this book, but also makes them strangely dependent on those from whom they steal.
The United States economy is dependent on oil from the Middle East, South America, and around the world. American lives are dependent on it: the agricultural infrastructure—from gasoline to pesticides—rests on the foundation of oil and natural gas.
It’s not too much to say that we eat refined and transformed oil. It’s like Catton wrote, “Everything human beings do requires energy. At the barest minimum, animals human in form but with no technology would have been converting in their own bodies about 2,000 to 3,000 kilocalories of chemical energy (from food) into heat in the course of a day’s activities.”
That changed with domestication—more properly called enslavement—as some humans were able to harvest the energy—work—of those they enslaved, whether it was an ox pulling a plow or a bunch of humans pulling big blocks of stone to make mausoleums for the rich.
And it changed again with oil.
James Watt is one of the most important names in the history of enslavement, a first vote inductee into the Enslavers Hall of Fame, which is quartered neither in Cooperstown nor Cleveland, but in every city on the planet, and increasingly, in every head.
He ranks up there with the first of the domesticators, who not only enslaved plants, animals, and land to agriculturalists but all of us to the process of agriculture.
He ranks with those who first created a god in the sky, in so doing denying the divinity present in every rock, plant, animal, river, and raindrop, as well as every moment of every being’s life, and in so doing also created a heaven beyond the earth where the wretched could receive a reward perhaps (they hope) commensurate with their enslavement here.
He ranks with the founders of the first cities, whose kingship, we learn from the ancient King List of Sumer, “was lowered down from heaven,” showing, if little else, that from the beginning, all writers have been propagandists, and mainly for the wrong side. He ranks with those who first used force to steal another’s resources.
He ranks with those who discovered—after agriculture had enslaved us all—that, as Lewis Mumford put it, “He who controlled the agricultural surplus exercised the powers of life and death over his neighbors. That artificial creation of scarcity in the midst of increasing natural abundance was one of the first characteristic triumphs of civilized exploitation: an economy profoundly contrary to the mores of the village.”
Others in the Hall of Fame would include those who discovered, as Mumford also wrote, that any “crude system of control had inherent limitations. Mere physical power, even if backed by systematic terrorism, does not produce a smoothly flowing movement of goods to a collecting point, still less a maximum communal devotion to productive enterprise.
Sooner or later, every totalitarian state, from Imperial Rome to Soviet Russia, finds this out. To achieve willing compliance without undue waste in constant police supervision, the governing body must create an appearance of beneficence and helpfulness, sufficient to awaken some degree of affection and trust and loyalty.”
Entire histories could be filled with those who are in the Enslavers Hall of Fame (indeed, this is precisely what history consists of): the Benedictine Monks who developed clocks in order to regiment work, enslaving themselves and those who followed to time itself, and enslaving each moment also to this artificial creation, the clock, the second; Columbus, Cortés, Frobiscer, Cartier (and the kings and queens [and bankers] they served), who sought out new peoples and new lands to enslave; today’s mineralogical and biological prospectors (and the CEOs they serve) who seek to enslave ever more of the planet; the engineers, scientists, and technicians from the earliest cities till now who conceptualize ever-more-efficient ways to bring everything we see (and things we do not see) under their control; and many many more.
James Watt invented an effective means to enslave the dead. The bodies of the dead are burned in a confined space, heating the air around them and causing it to expand. Because the space is confined, pressure goes up, pushing out a piston which is attached to, and turns, a crankshaft. This enslavement device is called the steam engine, and has evolved now into the internal combustion engine.
At first the burned dead were trees, and later the longer dead, in the form of coal and oil. The energy released in this burning originally struck the earth when these plants and animals were alive, and had been stored in their bodies. Of course using energy stored in the bodies of others is old news: everybody’s been doing that since they learned how to metabolize. And everybody who has ever used fire to keep themselves warm has used energy stored in trees, or coal, for that matter. The big change was in the conversion of these dead into mechanical energy, into what Catton and others call “ghost slaves.”
A ghost slave would be the equivalent to how much energy one human would spend in one day (that 2,000 to 3,000 kilocalories Catton mentioned). Yesterday, for example, I went to a traditional Yurok (Indian) brush dance pit, where they hold their annual brush dances. The pit is perhaps four feet deep, and about ten by ten. A narrow ramp leads into it. The walls are lined with weathered wooden planks, and a pole stands one per side. There is effectively no roof. I was told that the design is similar to that of a traditional Yurok home, except, of course, that the houses have roofs. The point as it relates to ghost slaves is this: this home could be constructed by hand by a few people in a day with materials close by.
I pictured how the Yurok traditionally lived, there on the banks of the Klamath River. Fishing for salmon. Hunting for elk and deer. Gathering greens and berries. Performing rituals. Building their homes. Playing. Sustainably. Using their own energy, energy gained from eating, metabolizing.
We have come to base our way of living on these ghost slaves, and our use of them has turned us into slavers on a degree unimaginable to the most megalomaniacal of our forebears. More energy was used in a few minutes to propel a Saturn V rocket toward the moon—and perhaps to an even less life-serving purpose—than was used by two decades of Egyptians stacking 2.3 million blocks of stone (each stone weighing 2.5 tons) to form the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
A little closer to the experience of most of us is the truth that, as Catton points out, “Within two eventful centuries of the time when James Watt started us substituting fossil energy for muscle power, per capita energy use in the United States reached a level equivalent to eighty or so ghost slaves for each citizen. The ratio remained much lower than that in many other parts of the world. But, dividing the energy content of total annual world fuel consumption by the annual rate of food-energy consumption in an active adult human body, the world average still worked out to the equivalent of about ten ghost slaves per person....More than nine-tenths of the energy used by Homo sapiens was now derived from sources other than each year’s crop of vegetation.”
Because the amount of energy that struck the earth a very long time ago and ended up stored in coal, oil, natural gas, and so on is merely tremendous, and not infinite, its use is not sustainable. To base one’s way of life on this energy is to live unsustainably.
“To become completely free from dependence on prehistoric energy (without reducing population or per capita energy consumption),” wrote Catton, and remember this was more than twenty years ago, meaning that things have become far more extreme, “modern man would require an increase in contemporary carrying capacity equivalent to ten earths—each of whose surfaces was forested, tilled, fished, and harvested to the current extent of our planet.
Without ten new earths, it followed that man’s exuberant way of life would be cut back drastically sometime in the future, or else that there would someday be many fewer people.” Or maybe both.