Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Dependence on Phantom Carrying Capacity

by William R Catton, Jr

Chapter 3 of Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change
(University of Illinois Press, 1980)

Other Foundations, Other Limits

Because the people of industrial nations did not recognize themselves as hunters and gatherers, they adhered to premises that were becoming more and more false. Franklin D Roosevelt spoke for all believers in those premises in the next-to-last sentence he ever wrote: "The only limits to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today".

Six years before Roosevelt's final expression of the optimistic faith that had become standard in the Age of Exuberance, one of the world's foremost demographers, P K Whelpton, had written that increasing numbers of people were only compatible with a rising standard of living when a nation either was still underpopulated, or could still call upon technological progress to offset the disadvantages of overpopulation. According to Whelpton, the United States in 1939 was already overpopulated. <1> Technology, which had formerly enlarged carrying capacity, was growing in its power to do just the opposite - to increase per capita resource requirements, and thus aggravate the overload.

Still, assumptions and expectations from the Age of Exuberance persisted for another generation, making more convulsive than it might have been the eventual change entailed by their obsolescence. <2>

Roosevelt died in 1945 without recognizing the end of exuberance. He was drafting a Jefferson Day radio address when a cerebral hemorrhage struck him down. His final sentence was: "Let us move forward with strong and active faith". Under his leadership, actions by the American nation (in concert with many others) had done much to renew the commitment of people to this exuberant spirit, delaying for another generation widespread comprehension of its obsolescence. Strong and active faith was characteristic of the age of apparent limitlessness; it had motivated nation-building and other impressively creative human activities. After World War II, for one more generation, people in many parts of the world would act from the illusion that the world's less fortunate could reap the benefits of an age of neo-exuberance by creating new nations in areas formerly held as colonies by one European power or another. But terminating colonialism could not renew limitlessness. Both imperialism and the subsequent graduation of the earliest and richest colonial components of empires into the status of new nations had been results, not causes, of the age of surplus carrying capacity.

The achievements of Homo sapiens have always required foundations other than the self-assurance and determination to which Roosevelt appealed. Sheer will-power, important as it can be, cannot be implemented without material resources and physical energy, regardless of the institutional expectations of a people. As long ago as 1893, at a meeting of the American Historical Association, Frederick Jackson Turner insisted that "Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions". <3> In the special instance of American institutions, these vital forces had consisted very largely, Turner said, of the presence of free land and the continuous westward advancement of American settlement by European immigrants and their descendants into areas previously inhabited only by disregardable non-Europeans.

When the land was filled up and no longer available at little or no cost, and when its inhabitants were no longer people who could be disregarded, institutions had to change. But persistent myths would delay institutional adaptations that were eventually inevitable. These obsolete myths would impede understanding of the real causes of change. <4>

No Longer Hypothetical

Here was a characteristic instance of cultural lag: by the time a substantial number of people began to worry out loud about what to do "if" the world "eventually" were to become overloaded, it already was. In the 1960s many books and articles appeared which spoke of dire troubles ahead "unless" growth of population were halted, or "if" the rate of extraction of petroleum or other resources from the earth continued to double every N years. Some of this kind of literature had come out in the 1950s, and one emphatic treatise on the subject - William Vogt's Road to Survival - was published in 1948. <5> The implication in nearly every one of these publications was that the dire troubles were still hypothetical, a possibility still avoidable, provided the right corrective measures were adopted in time. The purpose of most writers was to arouse people to accept or demand the necessary preventives before it was too late. Although some authors insisted that it was already later than people generally realized, few ventured to suggest (even in the 1970s) that, for the post-exuberant world, eventually had already come yesterday.

The growth and progress upon which we looked back with such pride had committed mankind to living on a scale that exceeds the sustainable carrying capacity of this finite planet, and the leaders of nations continued to devote far more effort toward attempting to prolong overshoot than toward undoing it. Reluctance to face facts was driving us to make bad matters worse. The faster the present generation draws down the fossil energy legacy upon which persistently exuberant lifestyles now depend, the less opportunity posterity will have to live in anything like the same way or the same numbers. Yet most contemporary political proposals for solving problems of economic stagnation or inequity amount to plans for speeding up the rate of drawdown of non-renewable resources. <6>

Invisible Acreage

The truth of these statements is implicit in the concept of "ghost acreage". Georg Borgstrom, a food scientist at Michigan State University, devoted a whole chapter of his 1965 book, The Hungry Planet, to this subject. A number of nations have seemed to get away with exceeding the human carrying capacity of their own land, but Borgstrom pointed out that they had only been able to do so by drawing upon carrying capacity that was "invisible" - that is, located elsewhere on the planet. The food required by such a nation's population comes only partly from the harvest of "visible acreage" - farm and pasture land within the nation's borders. A very substantial fraction comes from net imports of food. Not all the imports come from other countries; some are obtained from the sea. Borgstrom therefore subdivided "ghost acreage" into two components, "trade acreage" and "fish acreage". By each phrase he simply expressed, in terms of land area, the additional farming that would have been needed to provide from internal sources the net portion of a nation's sustenance actually derived from sources outside its boundaries and in excess of its own carrying capacity. As we shall see, a third component must be recognized if we are to understand fully the part played by ghost acreage in the life of modern man.

To see the importance of Borgstrom's two components, trade and fish acreage, let us consider two examples: Great Britain, a national ancestor of the United States, and Japan, a booming industrial giant in the Far East. By 1965 more than half of Britain's sustenance was coming from ghost acreage. <7> 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 <8> (which presumably means that nearly all might have died). Yet this was the most prosperous nation in the Orient, the one whose low birth rate supposedly exemplified Asia's hope of averting overpopulation.

These densely populated nations had continued to exist and prosper only because, on top of their own intensive agriculture, they could harvest the oceans and could export non-agricultural products in ex-change for food from countries with agricultural surpluses. Accordingly, ghost-acreage-dependent countries like these were vulnerable to foreign efforts to manipulate their policies (such as the Arab oil embargo). They were also threatened by population growth in the food-exporting countries, for such growth would stem the flow of food exports they needed in order to survive.

When there ceased to be agricultural surpluses anywhere, and when all nations became dependent on oceanic ghost acreage, population densities of a British or Japanese magnitude would be more obviously non-viable. In the meantime, Americans, Canadians, Australians, et al, habitually pointed to their own wheat surpluses and reassured themselves that they were a long way from being overpopulated. "Look at Japan", said their people, blinded still by the old pre-ecological paradigm: "much more heavily populated than we are, yet prospering".

Space Age accomplishments at last brought some recognition that the earth must be considered as a unit. It is man's one habitat. This planet is an island, more absolutely than Japan or Britain. When Homo sapiens in the 1960s became able to "export" a few manufactured items from earth to the moon, to Mars, to Venus, et cetera, only new knowledge came back in exchange - there were no imports of foodstuffs. The knowledge increments were magnificent achievements, well worth pursuing; still, the terms of the exchange by which they were accomplished began to underscore the fact that mankind as a whole could not disregard overpopulation, as some component countries had continued to do when they outgrew the carrying capacities of their own territories. There was no "trade acreage" in outer space.

"Fish acreage", if considered globally, could also be seen to provide only a shrinking reserve for the world's family of nations to fall back on. The earth's oceans are finite. In the 1970s the fish, whales, and other edible marine creatures were already being harvested in greater quantities than would permit a sustained yield. <9> From over-fishing and from pollution, the seas were dying. <10> Accordingly, various nations were becoming more overtly competitive in their use of this reserve. Some were compelled by circumstances to express such competitiveness in the form of territoriality. Human societies thus turned out to behave much in the manner of communal groups of other mammal species, when one group begins to suffer from encroachments by others upon resources it needs in order to sustain itself. A typical animal response to population pressure is to assert territorial claims and to exclude competitors from the claimed area. <11> A number of nations unilaterally extended their claims to exclusive fishing. The original "three-mile limit" of national sovereignty over the seas became a "twelve-mile limit", and then various nations went on to extend their fishing claims out to fifty miles, or a hundred, or two hundred. <12>

The so-called Cod War between Britain and Iceland, and similar friction between the United States and Peru, were territorialist responses to the end of exuberance. These territorialist responses were becoming so universal that they compelled the United Nations to begin rewriting the law of the sea to institutionalize such marine claim-staking. Meanwhile, the United States unilaterally proclaimed a 200-mile fishing limit effective March 1 1977, and this severely pinched fish acreage-dependent Japan. On a November day in 1976, when talks began that were intended to lead to a bilateral North Pacific fisheries agreement between Japan and the US, thousands of banner-carrying Japanese took to the streets of Tokyo in protest. In a newspaper ad, the Japan Fisheries Association said the 200-mile limit off American shores could seriously restrict Japanese protein consumption, curtailing by as much as 44 percent the amount of fish that would be eaten in Japan. <13>

Importing from the Past

The onetime American shibboleth, "Freedom of the seas", had been an idea born in the Age of Exuberance. Post-exuberant overload was now depleting the world's resources and requiring even the United States to take such steps as fencing off a private fishing domain. But the predicament was global. Without knowing it, Homo sapiens faced a plight much like that of Japan when confronted with fish-depleted oceans. As an island in space, the world could not rely on imports from elsewhere; nevertheless, it was already heavily dependent upon imports from elsewhen. That we were importing from the past becomes clear when we logically extend Borgstrom's ghost acreage concept to include a third component. Technological progress had made mankind heavily dependent upon imports of energy from prehistoric sources. Man's use of fossil fuels has been another instance of reliance on phantom carrying capacity.

The energy we obtain from coal, petroleum, and natural gas can be expressed as "fossil acreage" - the number of additional acres of farmland that would have been needed to grow organic fuels with equivalent energy content. Mankind originally did rely on organic fuels, chiefly wood. Wood was a renewable resource, though even in the world's once vast forests it grew in limited quantity. Access to vast but non-renewable deposits of coal and petroleum came to be mistaken by peoples and nations as an opportunity for permanently transcending limits set by the finite supplies of organic fuel.

When fossil fuels had been depleted enough to make supplies of them precarious, insufficient, and increasingly expensive, proposals for making up the shortfall included various versions of "energy farming" - growing crops from which fuels could be derived. The acreage required for future energy plantations is an obvious measure of the phantom carrying capacity upon which fossil-fueled civilization had been depending. As we shall see in the next section of this chapter, re-expressing modern rates of energy use in ghost acreage terms enables us to recognize how seriously our hunting-and-gathering industrial civilization overshot the real (that is, permanent) carrying capacity of the planet's visible acreage.

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 some 2,000 to 3,000 kilocalories of chemical energy (from food) into heat in the course of a day's activity. With the mastery of fire and with the domestication of animals, additional energy came under human use, even before some of the energy from flowing water and moving air began to be harnessed for the conduct of human tasks.

Fire extended man's range and man's diet, thereby enlarging the world's carrying capacity for our species. Use of this form of energy set early hominids apart from other animals that relied entirely on their own metabolism. Fire's heat, used directly, helped make us human; but, in time, Homo sapiens attained a kind of superhumanity by learning to convert the heat energy from fire into mechanical energy by means of various engines. Just before the Continental Congress gave the world a new nation to serve as the prime model of the exuberant way of life, James Watt devised for the world a practical engine for converting heat from fire into rotary motion, by means of steam pressure moving a piston in a cylinder and turning a crankshaft. The steam engine began to transform men into supermen. At first fueled sometimes with wood, later exclusively with coal, and still later largely with oil, these devices and their successors made available for the performance of an immense assortment of tasks the prodigious quantities of energy stored within the earth, in the transformed remains of organisms that lived millions of years ago. Man thus became uniquely differentiated from all other mammals by his ability to use solar energy that had reached the earth long before he existed - energy captured in prehistoric photosynthesis.

A geological savings bank had been accumulating these deposits of fossil energy for hundreds of millions of years. The steam engine and various improved successors to it - gasoline, diesel, jet, and rocket engines - gave man the key to this geological bank. What marvels poured forth from the turning of that key! The energy expended in two decades by a vast labor force of Egyptians stacking up some 2,300,000 blocks of stone (each weighing about two and a half tons) to form the Great Pyramid of Cheops was less than the energy released in a few minutes by three stages of a Saturn V rocket propelling men toward the moon. <14> Little wonder that the illusion of limitlessness was reinforced by space flights. In 1972, for example, the first Bangladesh head of state, Sheik Mujibur Rahman (destined for assassination within a few years by disillusioned constituents), pleaded for American aid for his newborn and frail nation, exclaiming, "If you Americans can put a man on the moon, you can do anything". <15> It seemed so, but it was far from true.

Fossil-fueled engines were to serve as the prime mover in launching the Industrial Revolution; they thereby brought about comprehensive reorganization of human societies. Industrialization compounded exuberance; James Watt was as much a revolutionary as Columbus had been. The apparent limitlessness of opportunities, was underscored by the availability of energy in such quantities, and at such unprecedentedly low cost per man-hour equivalent, that human slavery lost its economic value. When men very much wanted tasks accomplished but could not or would not pay a free worker's wage, enslaving other human beings used to be the only solution. Clever machinery and cheap, abundant energy broke this pattern, serving as a great emancipator - the more so as invention continued to widen the range of tasks in which power-driven apparatus could substitute for human hands.

As we shall see, the "abundance" of this fossil energy was due to man's readiness to withdraw and spend it thousands of times faster than nature had deposited it in the earth's savings. And the energy from fossil fuels was cheap only because no workers had been paid (or slaves maintained) to grow the vegetation from which coal and oil had been formed. The cost of fossil energy, then, was determined essentially by the cost of extracting these fuels from storage. At the beginning of 1974, when oil prices had begun to rise sharply, a million kilocalories (equivalent to approximately one man-year of food-supported muscle power) cost only about $16 if obtained by burning 32 gallons of gasoline (at service station pump prices in the US). That amount of energy would have cost some thirteen times as much if obtained from burning a liquid derived from contemporary agriculture (such as corn oil, 52 gallons at $4 per gallon, retail). If gasoline and other fossil fuels had been thirteen times as costly, we would never have fallen into the trap of reorganizing our social systems around their abundant use. Our overcommitment to dependence on fossil acreage was the result of the temporarily low cost of energy from antiquity. Because the low cost was temporary, it was an unrealistic basis for a way of life. <16>

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. Otherwise stated, the average human being, whatever he might have done in a day with his own unaided muscle power, could now do about ten times as much by using his bodily energy mainly to direct the activities of mechanical servants using energy derived from fossil fuel combustion (that is, from ghost acreage). More than nine-tenths of the energy used by Homo sapiens was now derived from sources other than each current year's crop of vegetation. Plants capture contemporary solar energy and produce combustible organic materials from inorganic substances. The fossil fuels, on the other hand, contain pre-historic solar energy, for they were geologically formed from organic materials produced by ancient photosynthesis. The exuberant way of life was now based, therefore, on a pattern of energy use that involved a high ratio between prehistoric energy and contemporary energy - a ratio that could hardly continue. Yet until the Arab oil embargo in 1973 this fact went almost unrecognized by news media, and there was little concern among the general public about the ratio's precariousness.

Recognition of the social significance of physical energy remained almost nil among politicians and social scientists until depleted resources began failing to meet persistently exuberant demand. But in a book called Energy and Society, whose enormous importance was insufficiently realized when it was published just a decade after the end of World War II, Fred Cottrell of Miami University in Ohio made clear the fact that "man can exist only where he is able to replace the energy he uses up in the process of living. He must regularly be in control of energy equal to or in excess of this minimum. A permanent deficit makes life impossible." <17> Full comprehension of the information and a thorough understanding of the reasoning in Cottrell's vital but neglected book would have shown the salience of Borgstrom's "ghost acreage" concept for the post-exuberant world. It was important to consider not just the food that keeps human bodies alive, but the energy of all kinds used by the mechanical extensions of man's bodily apparatus. Chapter 9 will explain why this was so important. For now, it is enough to be aware that, throughout the world, vast quantities of machinery driven by vast quantities of fossil energy had become indispensable for doing the things that had become part of human living during four centuries of exuberance.

Precarious Way of Life

Any nation that realized its self-sufficiency had fallen to less than ten percent would almost certainly sense the precariousness of its existence. Borgstrom did not cite any nation whose visible acreage met as little as ten percent of its needs. In energy terms, however, the condition of the post-exuberant world had become precarious in just that way. The human species, through technological progress, had made itself more than ninety percent dependent on phantom carrying capacity - a term we must now define. Phantom carrying capacity means either the illusory or the extremely precarious capacity of an environment to support a given life form or a given way of living. It can be quantitatively expressed as that portion of a population that cannot be permanently supported when temporarily available resources become unavailable.

Although the living generation did not realize that it was ninety percent redundant, the effects of dependence on phantom carrying capacity were beginning to be noticeable and disturbing. The reason for these effects remained unacknowledged, due to the continued grip of obsolete concepts on our thinking. Obsolete (that is, ecologically naive) concepts impaled the minds of those in high office as well as the man in the street. As late as the end of 1973, both the president of the United States and the chairman of the Senate Interior Committee proclaimed as a goal of American policy the attainment of "energy self- sufficiency" by 1980. If the expression meant anything at all, it had to mean (in Borgstrom's terms) a goal of deriving all energy used by Americans from visible acreage, none from trade acreage. But the living generation could not become really self-sufficient just by ending its dependence on trade acreage; this would only accelerate the drawdown of energy deposits hidden beneath the domestic (visible) acreage. To achieve independence from OPEC opportunists by this method meant inflicting upon American posterity a legacy of aggravated resource depletion. In short, energy independence was illusory so long as massive quantities of energy were still to be obtained from fossil sources.

Neither the senator nor the president showed any understanding of the deep dependence of all modern civilization upon imports of energy from the prehistoric past. In 1970 American energy use amounted to the equivalent of approximately 58 barrels of oil per capita annually. Were it to become necessary to obtain all this energy from agricultural crops (that is, from contemporary solar income, the only basis for permanent "self-sufficiency") rather than principally from the earth's savings deposits, the acreage required can be calculated as follows. Suppose alcohol derived from corn were to be the standard fuel. From each bushel of corn, about 2.3 US gallons of alcohol could be produced. <18> In 1970 the entire United States corn crop came to about 4.15 billion bushels; this would have yielded about 9.67 billion gallons of alcohol - if we had been willing to forgo exporting any of the corn, or eating any of it, or feeding any of it to livestock. Since each gallon of alcohol has heat value equivalent to about 0.7 gallons of gasoline, this means the entire 1970 corn crop, converted to alcohol, could have supplied less than 7 1/2 percent of that year's domestic demand for motor fuel! It would have supplied only 1.27 percent of total US energy consumption. Even the record corn crop tabulated in 1976 (just over 6 billion bushels <19>) would have supplied less than 2 percent.

In other words, if we could miraculously increase corn yields about fifty fold, making 5,100 bushels grow on each tract of land now producing 100 bushels, we could eat our corn and have our fuel, too - free from dependence on depletable antiquity.

Make the merely optimistic assumption that we could perpetually hope to harvest 100 bushels of corn per acre, using energy inputs no larger than the 31 gallons of gasoline equivalent per acre that a 1944 estimate said were required to drive the machinery used in modern farming. <20> (Actually, the impressive rise in per-acre yields since 1952 up to a point where that 100 bushel figure is plausible has depended on further large energy subsidies in the form of heavy applications of synthetic fertilizers.) The energy cost of raising each 100 bushels of corn would amount, then, to the fuel derived from about 19 bushels. So the net fuel production would be based on no more than about 81 bushels per acre. Each acre would yield the net equivalent of almost 3 barrels of crude oil. To provide for the energy Americans were using in 1970 entirely by growing corn and converting it to alcohol, we would have needed just about 20 acres of good farmland per capita. But in 1970, the United States had just slightly more than five acres of farmland per capita - about half the nation's total area, and barely more than one-fourth of what it would take to meet American energy "requirements" from energy plantations converting contemporary solar energy into fuel. If all the farms in America had been devoted entirely to growing fuel-producing corn, and all could have yielded a net 3 barrels of crude-oil-equivalent per acre, the nation's human carrying capacity without ghost acreage would have been no more than 51 million persons. (It would have been appreciably less than that, actually, because presumably we would have wanted to use some of the farms to produce something to eat.)

As a drawdown-dependent nation, the United States was thus already relying upon fossil acreage four times as extensive as its total visible farm acreage. Our concern for the incidental fact that an appreciable and growing fraction of that fossil acreage was overseas and under the control of potentially hostile peoples was permitted to overshadow the more permanently significant fact that fossil acreage anywhere, and under anyone's control, was non-renewable. We were living on four parts of phantom carrying capacity for every one part of permanent (real) carrying capacity.

It should be clear, therefore, that the actual population of the United States had already overshot its carrying capacity measured by the energy-producing capability of visible American acreage. To achieve genuine self-sufficiency in energy by 1980, assuming a 1970 way of life but depending on visible acreage only, the population of this nation would have had to level off no later than 1880.

So the exuberant lifestyles of modern Homo sapiens were far more precarious than people realized. They could be practiced only as long as it was possible to continue extracting enough fossil fuels to maintain a high ratio of ghost acreage to visible acreage. <21> When two things put this high ratio in conspicuous jeopardy, some perceptive people began at last to sense the fact that continuation of the exuberant way of life was threatened. One signal was the build-up of pollution; accumulation of the combustion products from fossil fuels began to indicate that continued use in continuously increasing quantities posed real hazards to human health and survival - and to the health and survival of other organic species upon which humans depend. The other signal was increased difficulty of obtaining the fuels themselves; some of the most accessible deposits had been depleted, and some of the largest known remaining reserves were under the territories of nations not always eager to turn over such wealth to American or West European consumer nations - at least not without exacting a price that seemed exorbitant by standards forged in the Age of Exuberance.

That age was over, and its standards were already obsolete. Because of cultural lag, their obsolescence would be only belatedly recognized. Meanwhile, prices would inevitably rise. Politicians and pundits, working from the old paradigm, would continue invoking merely fiscal explanations for this inflation, neglecting its ecological basis. Among its effects would be some loss of the emancipating influence of cheap energy. Opinion leaders would generally continue seeking political explanations for the erosion of freedom, and would continue neglecting the ecological pressure causing it. By scorning as mere "Arab blackmail" the second signal mentioned above (the increased difficulty of obtaining fuels), such minds insisted on remaining blind to a reality far more significant than its surface political manifestations. <22>

Solutions That Aggravate Problems

Most of the world did not recognize the extent to which it was dependent on phantom carrying capacity in its use of fossil fuels. Non-recognition of dependence on invisible acreage, or the illusion of self-sufficiency, could lead to disaster, for actions based on illusions are inherently hazardous.

Consider, for example, the consequences of imagining that the resources of finite oceans were limitless. The more dependent a given nation became on "fish acreage", the more it was driven to improve the technology of fishing or to increase the fraction of its labor force engaged in fishing. It needed to maximize its proficiency in harvesting food from the sea. The more fish it could take, the better its people could be supported - as long as there remained fish stocks to draw down. When the oceans seemed vast and fish stocks seemed unlimited, there were no inhibitions against perpetually increasing the annual catch. By the time the danger of destroying the resource became evident, the people who needed the fish were already present, and the nation's dependence on resource-destroying rates of harvest was already established. Only after a lapse of time would calamity overtake it. If a fish-dependent nation's rate of harvesting fish exceeded the sustained yield rate, the effects of the damage to world fish stocks would be spread (for the time being) among other fishing nations. Although only a fraction of the immediate damage would be felt by a particular fisheries-dependent nation, that damage-committing nation would get all the benefit of its own excessive harvest.

Whenever the in-group directly and exclusively benefits from its own overuse of a shared resource but the costs of that overuse are "shared" by out-groups, then in-group motivation toward a policy of resource conservation (or sustained yield rates of harvesting) is undermined. In other words, competition for scarce resources is the enemy of self-restraint. This becomes especially so, as Garrett Hardin showed in a 1968 article in Science magazine, when scarcity becomes increasingly acute. <23>

Even so, in the case of "fish acreage", it was possible for substantial numbers of people both in the fish-dependent nations and in the more nearly food self-sufficient ones to see that a rate of harvesting in excess of the rate of replacement led to exhaustion of the resource in the long run, and could be advantageous only in the short run. Indeed, an appreciable fraction of the earth's human population was apparently beginning to grasp the sustained yield idea in regard to living resources such as fish or forests.

Understanding a principle and abiding by it are not the same thing. Overfishing continued in the 1970s, from necessity. The need for food now prevented men from always exercising the self-restraint they might know was necessary to ensure food for posterity. Posterity doesn't vote, and doesn't exert much influence in the marketplace. So the living go on stealing from their descendants.

Comprehension of the principle of sustained yield with respect to fish acreage has not prompted people to extend the idea very far into their thinking about other kinds of resources. Ghost acreage of the Carboniferous period was the resource base for "modern" living. In Asia, Japan was the nation most dependent upon such prehistoric photosynthesis. In Europe, Britain has been dependent on it longer than other nations. Americans were heavily dependent upon it, in spite of their huge expanse of visible acreage and their conspicuous agricultural surpluses. The more "modern" a nation had become, the more its way of life was based on importing energy from hundreds of millions of years ago. Yet so powerful was the old paradigm that it prevented most minds from even entertaining the thought that a replacement rate for fossil fuel deposits was as salient as the replacement rate for fish.

We have overused fossil acreage far more than we have overfished the seas. Overfishing means harvesting fish faster than they replace themselves by reproduction and growth. The inevitable result of continued overharvesting is eventual exhaustion of the resource. If it had been thought that men were harvesting fish as much as 1,000 (or even 100) times faster than the fish could replace themselves, there would have been much alarm around the world already. By 1970, the worldwide ratio between our use of fossil fuels and the natural rate of their replacement by geological processes was more like 10,000 to 1. Yet, at least until 1973, neither the ratio nor even the concept of replacement as such had entered the thoughts of most of the world's ravenous users of prehistoric energy, imbued as they still were with the notion of limitlessness.

For human minds shaped by the culture of exuberance, the closest approach to concern for a replacement rate in the realm of energy seemed to be the vague public awareness that continued geological exploration was constantly leading to discovery of additional deposits of fossil fuels. New discoveries would "replace" the known "reserves" mankind was continually depleting. Oil wells were known to run dry, but new wells were continually being "developed". The rate of discovery had no relation to the rate at which nature was laying down these deposits, but it looked like a rate of replacement. For a while it exceeded the rate of extraction (misleadingly called "production"), so the, illusion of a sustained yield felt almost plausible, even for a resource that, in principle, had to be exhaustible. Deceptive language supported this illusion.

In the 1950s, however, in America's conterminous forty-eight states the discovery rate for petroleum deposits had peaked and turned downward. The downturn came in spite of improved technology for exploration, expanded geological knowledge, and intensified effort because only the less readily discoverable deposits remained to be found. When the "production" rate was less than the discovery rate, as it had been for several decades, the known "reserves" had been increasing from year to year (though the oil that existed in the world was not increasing). "Production" continued increasing even after the discovery rate began to decrease. The two curves crossed in 1961. <24> Thereafter, even the superstitious notion that a rate of discovery somehow sufficed in lieu of an actual replacement rate could no longer support the illusion of sustained oil yields.

Modern man misled himself in a number of ways. He made prodigal use of prehistoric ghost acreage to achieve illusory increases in "efficiency" in farming the visible acreage of the present. <25> Cottrell showed in his book, for example, that much more energy was invested to raise fifty bushels per acre in wet-rice farming by mechanized methods in Arkansas than by hoe culture methods in Japan. The illusion that the Arkansas procedures were more "efficient" arose from the fact that less than two man-days of human labor per acre were involved there, as against ninety man-days in Japan. To achieve that saving of more than 88 man-days of human labor, however, the Arkansas farmer had to invest in tractor and truck fuel, electricity, and fertilizer, all involving energy that was equivalent to at least 800 additional man-days of effort. This energy extravagance would be even more flagrant if the accounting included the energy used in manufacturing, shipping, and maintaining the tractor, truck, electric pumping apparatus, and so on.

Toward the end of 1973, when a no longer deniable shortage of petroleum was curtailing the use of automobiles in many countries, and was producing other unanticipated modifications of human activity, one American food distributor warned customers that food bills might be increased more than travel costs by the oil shortage. The distributor reported that the US Department of Agriculture had said some thirty percent of the nation's fuel consumption was used in growing food and conveying it to the consumer's table. What neither that distributor nor his customers seemed to recognize was that the figure cited implied that several times as much energy went into producing, processing, and distributing food as the food itself contained! In terms of "newspeak", the perverted language from George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984, here was another inversion of meaning, similar to "war is peace" and "freedom is slavery". Fossil fuel use had enabled man to believe that "prodigality is efficiency".

Under these thoughtways men continued at the close of the 1970s to imagine that the solution to energy problems was to improve the technology for locating deposits and for extracting combustible substances from nature's underground storage, or to increase the financial incentives for doing these things. It was as if a family whose members were living far beyond their current income should urge the head of the household to solve their problem of overspending by increasing his proficiency in filling out withdrawal slips at the bank. It
was as if they were to commend rather than reprimand him for withdrawing more each week than the week before. Newspeak: "Extraction is production".

Living on Ten Earths

A good estimate of the rate at which nature might be replacing the energy deposits man was withdrawing could have been easily calculated. One merely needed to know (1) the total weight of the earth's atmosphere, (2) the fraction of it that was oxygen, (3) how long it had taken for that much oxygen to be released from carbon dioxide (in which it had formerly been bound), and (4) the comparative weight of the one atom of carbon to the two atoms of oxygen in each former molecule of atmospheric carbon dioxide. None of this information was secret or undiscovered; it wasn't even very obscure. Sea-level atmospheric pressure was commonly known, as was the approximate diameter (from which could be calculated the surface area) of the earth. So the weight of all the air on earth could be calculated to a reasonable approximation with ordinary high school mathematics. Roughly one-fifth of the air was now oxygen, and 99 percent of that free oxygen had been released, it has been estimated, in the last 600 million years. <26> The atomic weights of carbon and oxygen were readily available, and their ratio was simple to calculate. So it turned out that about 625,000 tons of carbon per year had been the average amount buried in deposits of coal, oil, natural gas, and other less combustible substances since the photosynthetic process began releasing into the atmosphere a net total of one million billion tons of oxygen. Much of that extraction of carbon from the atmosphere had occurred in the Carboniferous period, between 215 and 300 million years ago, so the present average annual addition to the world's fossil fuel deposits could scarcely be as much as half the long-term average.

By the 1970s, however, the world's human population, with all its technology, was burning these substances at a rate that re-oxidized and returned to the air more than four billion tons of carbon each year. In short, the rate of "harvesting" from this ghost acreage (4 billion tons per year) was more than 10,000 times what the rate of replacement might now be (1/2 x 625,000 tons per year). Conservative as the estimate of a 10,000 to 1 ratio might be, it was not calculated in time to deter deep commitment of human societies to such overuse.

Even more simply, it would have been possible (had it not been for the pre-ecological paradigm) to see how much the output of agriculture and forestry and fishing would have had to increase if Homo sapiens were to try to derive more of his current energy expenditures from current energy income. Man was withdrawing annually from savings about ten times as much energy as he was obtaining from current income (from organic sources); therefore, to reduce his dependence on fossil acreage by only one-tenth, man would have to double his use of contemporary photosynthesis. That would obviously entail improvements falling somewhere in the almost surely unattainable range, between another doubling of yield per acre and another doubling of tilled acreage at existing yields.

To become completely free from dependence on prehistoric energy (without reducing population or per capita energy consumption), 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. Neither alternative, and none of the reasons for them, were contemplated by those who glibly sought "energy independence".

James Watt had been conventionally regarded as something of a cultural hero for giving man access to a vast "new" source of energy. In the eighteenth century no one could recognize that, by inventing the steam engine, Watt was inventing a way for mankind to overshoot the sustainable carrying capacity of this one earth. Watt was a clever and decent man who lived in (and exemplified) the Age of Exuberance. His invention compounded the influence of Columbus's discovery, extending the carrying capacity surplus that briefly shaped our ideas, our lives, and our institutions. Watt reinforced man's belief in limitlessness.

Neither Watt nor Roosevelt, who also reinforced that belief, was ever taught to think in terms of carrying capacity or ghost acreage. So Roosevelt could not know, while inspiring and leading his countrymen toward recovery from economic depression, or when helping ensure Allied victory over Axis aggression, that he was prolonging unrealistic expectations of exuberance. No one in his "brain trust" could warn him of this, because even the keen minds of his advisors were tuned to the old cornucopian paradigm and were not trained to recognize the perils of dependence on phantom carrying capacity.

Once mankind was committed to heavy reliance on continued use of exhaustible resources such as the deposits of fossil energy, it was certain to be as painful for people to emancipate themselves from their own technological entrapment as it had been for earlier men to emancipate themselves from owning human slaves.

From the end of 1973, Americans began worrying about the ratio between their consumption of "foreign oil" and their consumption of "domestic oil". We let these worries overshadow completely the more profound issue that should have concerned everyone: the ratio between our dependence on energy from antiquity and our use of contemporary energy, that is, the ratio between expenditures of withdrawn savings and expenditures of current income. The four billion human inhabitants of this one earth had learned to live as if they could count on harvesting each year the equivalent of ten earths' worth of combustible substance.


1. Recognition of this called for a change of national policy that long ago. See Whelpton 1939.

2. Compare discussion of the revolutionary potential when "cultural lags" pile up (Ogburn 1957) with the statement by Heilbroner (1974, page 132; listed among references for Chapter 1) explaining why the outlook is for "convulsive change".

3. Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin 41 (1894):79-1 12.

4. Neither the change nor the misunderstanding of it would be exclusively American. This was important: the world had been affected by the free land in the Western hemisphere. It had also been affected by the technology that increased man's power to extract from the land in both hemispheres more wealth than earlier generations ever dreamed possible. So the whole world was now also affected by the filling up of formerly free land, and by the accumulated side-effects of modern technology. See Webb 1952 (listed among references for Chapter 2) and Cottrell 1955.

5. There were a few ways in which bigots might misread their racism into a book like Vogt's, and some writers (for example, Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism [New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1976], pages 378-380) were offended by these aspects of the book. In a later book (People! Challenge to Survival [New York: William Sloane Associates, 1960]) Vogt acknowledged that he had been accused of racism for urging sharp reduction of birthrates especially among Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans, but he pointed out that his accusers "chose to forget my belief that the United States would [also] be better off with less people". They also seemed to have read through Road to Survival without grasping its central message, as expressed in statements like these:

[page 80] We must realize that not only does every area have a limited carrying capacity - but also that this carrying capacity is shrinking and the demand growing. Until this understanding becomes an intrinsic part of our thinking and wields a powerful influence on our formation of national and international policies we are scarcely likely to see in what direction our destiny lies.

[page 284] By excessive breeding and abuse of the land mankind has backed itself into an ecological trap. By a lopsided use of applied science it has been living on promissory notes. Now, all over the world, the notes are falling due. Payment cannot be postponed much longer. Fortunately, we still may choose between payment and utterly disastrous bankruptcy on a world scale. It will certainly be more intelligent to pull in our belts and accept a long period of austerity and rebuilding than to wait for a catastrophic crash of our civilization.

Critics who dismissed Vogt as an implicit racist were evading the necessity of facing that choice between revising our drawdown policies and undergoing global bankruptcy. Vogt had said (page 284), "In hard fact, we have no other choice". And he was hardly being racist or xenophobic when he insisted (page 285), "Drastic measures are inescapable. Above everything else, we must reorganize our thinking. If we are to escape the crash we must abandon all thought of living unto ourselves". By accusing Vogt of racism, however, preoccupied critics could even remain blind to such warnings as this:

[page 68] We are an importing nation; and every day we waste hundreds of millions of gallons [of gasoline] ... Our tensions find outlets in ... traveling at high speeds that reduce the efficiency of our cars. We build into our automobiles more power and greater gas consumption than we need. We use the press and radio to push the sales of more cars. We drive them hundreds of millions of miles a year in pursuit of futility. With the exhaustion of our own oil wells in sight, we send our Navy into the Mediterranean, show our teeth to the USSR, insist on access to Asiatic oil-and continue to throw it away at home.

6. For example, American officials urge Saudi Arabia to keep oil output high to help stabilize the world economy in the face of shortages from other sources; the administration pushes through Congress a proposal for an Energy Mobilization Board with powers to "cut red tape" (that is, bypass environmental protection legislation) when energy-related projects such as pipelines, oil refineries, synthetic fuel factories, and so on, are at stake; the government "deregulates" natural gas and petroleum prices partly to "give incentives" to "producers".

7. Borgstrom 1965, page 78.

8. Ibid.

9. See such sources as Small 1971; Colin Clark, "The Economics of Over exploitation", in Hardin and Baden 1977, pages 82-95; P A Larkin, "An Epitaph for the Concept of Maximum Sustained Yield", Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 106 (January 1977):1-11. There is an important relation between the sustained yield concept and the concept of carrying capacity. Carrying capacity could be defined as the maximum population of an exploiting species supportable by sustained yields of exploited resource species. See the definitions of these two terms given in the Glossary.

10. See Moorcraft 1973.

11. See Wynne-Edwards 1975.

12. See several of the papers in Schmidhauser and Totten 1978.

13. "Japanese Protest US Fishing Limit", Seattle Times, November 4 1976, page G4.

14. Richard S Lewis, Appointment on the Moon (New York: Viking Press, 1969), pages 504, 546, gives the total weight of the Apollo ll Command Module plus Service Module plus Lunar Module plus Lunar Adapter as 50 tons. The velocity to which all this weight had been boosted when it left earth orbit en route to the moon was 24,000 miles per hour. It had thus had imparted to it 2.61 times 1012 joules of kinetic energy. For comparison: since three-fourths of the Great Pyramid's 450 foot height is above its center of mass, the 11.5 billion pounds of stone used to build it were raised an average 112.5 feet from the ground; this imparted to the 2.3 million stone blocks a total of 1.76 times 1012 joules of gravitational potential energy-roughly two-thirds of the energy imparted by rocket engines to the spacecraft bound for the moon.

15. Newsweek, March 27 1972, page 39.

16. In 1979, American gasoline prices began to catch up with the higher prices most of the world's other peoples had already experienced for years. The rise continued to be mistaken for "gouging" or "blackmail", even though in ecological terms it was fundamentally an approach to greater realism, that is, the beginning of a continuing correction of past underpricing.

17. Cottrell 1955, page 4.

18. See Ayres and Scarlett 1952, pages 233-239, and Cottrell 1955, pages 141-142.

19. Christian Science Monitor, November 12 1976, pages 1, 30.

20. Cottrell 1955, page 142.

21. Recent research even indicates that biomass farming would, with present technology, yield negative net energy: energy inputs would exceed the energy content of the usable fuels made from the harvests. This shows even more emphatically how dependent upon phantom carrying capacity modern nations have allowed themselves to become. See Weisz and Marshall 1979.

22. At a time when other nations were devising "carless day" schemes, or were at least having to curtail the hours or days of the week on which gasoline could be sold, the American Daily News Digest (put out by Research Publications of Phoenix, Arizona) expressed its "conservative, free-market economics philosophy" by asking "Why is it that only the US has a gasoline shortage?" The answer it suggested (in the third week of May 1979) was that "only the US has a Department of Energy". Startlingly similar views were expressed the following month by the 1976 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Milton Friedman, who called for immediate abolition of the DOE and elimination of all price controls on petroleum products and natural gas, "confident that the market will promptly bring the energy crisis to an end". See his column in Newsweek, June 18 1979.

23. Hardin's article has been widely cited and reprinted, and is included in Hardin and Baden 1977. See page 28 therein.

24. See Hubbert 1969 (listed in references for Chapter 10), page 178.

25. When used with insufficient care, "efficiency" can be a very misleading word. It always has a hidden reference: efficient with respect to what? In America and throughout the industrial world, labor efficiency has been purchased at the price of energy inefficiency. The latter type of efficiency has simply been neglected; as long as energy was unrealistically cheap and lavishly abundant, even the familiar concept of capital efficiency served very inadequately as a correlate or indicator of energy efficiency.

26. See the chapter by Lloyd V Berkner and Lauriston C Marshall in Brancazio and Cameron 1964. For a less technical version, see the article by the same authors in the tenth anniversary issue of Saturday Review, May 7 1966.

Selected References

Ayres, Eugene, and Charles A Scarlett. 1952. Energy Sources: The Wealth of the World. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Billington, Ray Allen. 1966. America's Frontier Heritage. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Borgstrom, Georg. 1965. The Hungry Planet. New York: Collier.

Borgstrom, Georg. 1969. Too Many: A Study of Earth's Biological Limitations. New York: Macmillan.

Brancazio, Peter J, and A G W Cameron, editors. 1964. The Origin and Evolution of Atmospheres and Oceans. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Bryson, Reid A, and Thomas J Murray. 1977. Climates of Hunger: Mankind and the World's Changing Weather. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Cottrell, Fred. 1955. Energy and Society. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Esposito, John C. 1970. Vanishing Air. New York: Grossman.

Hardin, Garrett, and John Baden, editors. 1977. Managing the Commons. San Francisco: W H Freeman.

Loehr, Rodney C, editor. 1952. Forests for the Future: The Story of Sustained Yield as Told in the Diaries and Papers of David T Mason, 1907-1950. St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.

Loftas, Tony. 1970. The Last Resource: Man's Exploitation of the Oceans. Chicago: Henry Regnery.

Moorcraft, Colin. 1973. Must the Seas Die? Boston: Gambit.

Ogburn, William F. 1957. "Cultural Lag as Theory". Sociology and Social Research 41 (January - February): 167-174.

Ordway, Samuel H, Jr. 1953. Resources and the American Dream. New York: Ronald Press.

Park, Charles F, Jr. 1968. Affluence in Jeopardy. San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper.

Schmidhauser, John R, and George O Totten III, editors. 1978. The Whaling Issue in US-Japan Relations. Boulder: Westview Press

Small, George L. 1971. The Blue Whale. New York: Columbia University Press

Turner, Frederick Jackson. 1920. The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt

Vogt, William 1948. Road to Survival. New York: William Sloane Associates.

Weisz, Paul B, and John F Marshall. 1979. "High-Grade Fuels from Biomass Farming: Potentials and Con straints". Science 206 (October 5): 24-29

Whelpton, P K. 1939. "Population Policy for the United States". Journal of Heredity 30 (September): 401-406.

Wynne-Edwards, V C. 1965. "Self-Regulating Systems in Populations of Animals". Science 147 (March 26): 1543-48.

Bill Totten


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