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Overshoot, We Are Here


If we don’t blow ourselves off the face of the earth in the struggle for diminishing scarce resources, humanity will survive. We are a powerfully resourceful and inventive animal. However, if we don’t address the issues below then in the long run it will be same old, same old. We will repeat what all animals do and what is particular to us humans.

As an expression of life, as a representative animal and as ourselves, we are exactly how we would end up. We are not dysfunctional, as some would have it. We did not take a wrong turn in the past, ten thousand years ago at the agricultural revolution. We are not a cancer on the earth and we are not disconnected from our environment.

There are several natural factors that have aimed us at this particular moment in human history, where population pushes against resource availability, where as a social animal we stand against each other, where we are immersed in an environment of our own creative making and where our brilliance threatens us.

We are exactly where we have to be. It is the nature of the beast. Every life form, amoeba, oak tree, aphid, mouse, will make as many of their kind as the resources in the environment permit. And they will use those resources until they are no more and they either die out or relocate to more resources.

We are no different. We have population density because we can. Unlimited growth is written into the code of life. In the universe’s ironic wisdom, not only are we driven by this code, but also it feels good. And, oh my, we know it feels good. So we mate and we do what we can to be able to mate.

And as any lifeform will do, we will use all the resources available to us both for propagation and for enduring in the present. Here enters the second prong of overshoot – population pressure. We are devouring our environment as fast as we find ways to use it.

As David Price states in his great essay that all should read:

“All species expand as much as resources allow and predators, parasites, and physical conditions permit. When a species is introduced into a new habitat with abundant resources that accumulated before its arrival, the population expands rapidly until all the resources are used up.”1

Price is defining the process of overshoot, the convergence of the dual population issues of density and pressure. (See also Catton, William. 1980. Overshoot. University of Illinois Press. Chicago).

Overshoot as noted is a characteristic of life itself. Another critical aspect defining our present situation is territoriality/tribalism. Many organisms define territory. The song of birds, the scent of dogs, the deed of homeownership each expresses marking of territories. As a social animal, our territories extend beyond solid things. Our groups are part of our territory. Our congregation, a clan, a tribe, and a nation these and others commandeer loyalty, energy, and defense if deemed necessary. This need for and protection of our social groups is a critical part of being human. Important to note the threat to any of these does not have to be directly physical. (See bibliography US and Them at the end of the essay)

The infant human’s need for attachment is well documented. This need evolves with the advent of language and self into a need to belong. There is voluminous evidence for attachment needs of all humans cross culturally. There is evidence for the behavioral and emotional results of various kinds of attachments. The need for identity is closely related to attachment. Here there is also significant research available as well as research on the disturbances of poorly formed identity. (See bibliography ATTACHMENT at end of the essay)

I am using the generalized term tribalism to indicate this human need for social identity and its protection. Tribalism dictates the stresses that limited resource create whether they are real or imaginary. When the physical scarcity of resources raises its ugly head, whether it is land, wood, oil, food, or mates, the group looks beyond their boundaries for more.

Support of the group is not particular to the human animal; however, we have several unique takes on it. We create group identities, boundaries of belonging of all sorts that are not physical or directly related to physical survival. A threat to our group(s) is a threat to our stability psychologically, socially and also perceived as physically.

Man can be the most affectionate and altruistic of creatures, yet he’s potentially more vicious than any other. He is the only one who can be persuaded to hate millions of his own kind whom he has never seen and to kill as many as he can lay his hands on in the name of his tribe or his God.

(-Benjamin Spock, pediatrician and author (1903-1998)

Benjamin Spock, Decent and Indecent (1970), quoted in Rebecca Davison and Susan Mesner, eds. The Treasury

Of Religious & Spiritual Quotations: Words to Live By (Pleasantville: Reader’s Digest, 1994), p. 224.)

William Bridges indicates four ways we are embedded in our world – identity, engagement, orientation and enchantment. (Bridges, W. 1989. Transitions. Addison-Wesley. N.Y.) (See also my essay for a more in depth description of these aspects – Disruption of these especially our enchantment, our way of seeing the world, our way of making sense of the world and our place in it, is a serious threat.

Some atheists and other critics of religion like to use the analogy of a crutch for religion – which it is something that the weak use to get them through otherwise difficult situations. The implication is that, if they were stronger (like us) they could dispense with the crutch and walk independent and free. [But] you cannot pull a crutch from underneath a cripple and expect him or her to walk. Rather, they will fall and then probably blame you for the accident. The real point is more profound but perhaps more discouraging: religion for the religious person is like culture for the cultural person – it is glasses, not crutches. And these glasses are not prophylactic – they do not help the person to see “better.” They make seeing at all possible. Maybe an ultimate analogy for culture in general and religion in particular is not glasses but the very eyes themselves. You could not expect to pull someone’s eyes out and have them see better, any more than you could expect to take away someone’s culture and have understand and act better.

Eller, David. 2010. “The cultures of Christianities.” In The Christian Delusion edited by John W. Loftus. Prometheus. N.Y. pg. 44

In may seem that I am targeting religions as the bad boy of group cohesiveness and group violence. Religion, spirituality and their many facets and manifestations have been an interest of mine for decades so I have more sources for them. There is considerable literature around these issues. (See US AND THEM in the bibliography). Nationalism, tribalism and other exclusionary groupings have contributed to violence against the other across human history and human cultures.

Religion creates unchallengeable aspects – such as salvation or submission – that are as proprietary as a deed to a home. The group and the individuals of the group must defend these unchallengeable aspects for continued belonging and stability.

The postulation of invisible, undetectable effects that (unlike atoms and germs) are systematically immune to confirmation of disconfirmation is so common in religions that such effects are sometimes taken as definitive. No religion lacks them, and anything that lacks them is not a religion, however much it is like a religion is other regards. Pg. 164. Dennet, Daniel. 2006. Breaking the Spell. Viking. N.Y.

A fourth and particularly human issue is our manipulation of the environment both physical and social. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, we are a powerfully creative and inventive animal. Our abilities in using the natural environment and manufacturing devices of all kinds to facilitate our living more easily in the moment on the earth is our particular tool for survival. The eagle has its eye sight, its soaring, its talons as tools for survival; ours is in part our technological ability (I believe we have an even more profound ability that allows enculturation of all humans, see:

These abilities carry with them a flaw, a flaw that may well be fatal. We are not designed to consider the long term. We are designed to be aware of the immediate; the tiger in the brush, the viper in the tree – immediate dangers and fears – the fight or flight response. Only particular and a limiteds number of members of a group see into the distance.

Consider it this way. If humanity is seen as a person who is 100 years old, the first 99 years of her life would have been spent as gatherer and hunter. She would have only one year to adapt to the changes in family structure, living arrangements, child rearing and all the other pressures and stresses that the shift to agriculture brought. This same 100 year old person would have five or six days to adapt to the enormous changes brought about by the industrial revolution. And less than a day to adapt to the mass of information made available by electronics.

Each adaptation moves us further away from the original social and physical environment of our emergence. Is it bad or wrong? This is not the criteria. There is no fault. Each accommodation comes from necessity and is the best we know at the time. At the leading edge of human history is an accumulation that expands and deepens the knowledge of our travels. (From my essay:

We are burdened with a belief in our specialness which we think manifest as our seeming control of the environment. This control is an illusion founded in perhaps arrogance, short sightedness and hubris. The evidence that it is an illusion continues to manifest itself and is given proof by the convergence of the many issues facing humanity at this point in time. Ozone depletion, acid rain, nuclear waste, oil spills, population predicated on a nonrenewable resource, radiation in the air, radiation in the water, medicines in our drinking water, depletion of clean water globally, melting of glaciers and ice caps the list goes on and on.

We simply do not account for unintended consequences. One of the powerful unintended consequences is our distance if not mental and emotional divorce from the living environment. We are absolutely connected to our environment, an environment of our own making, mechanical timings and straight lines. By losing our awareness of and embeddedness in the living environment, our sense of specialness blinds us to the true connectivity of all things. This imperils our very existence. And it is cumulative.

Four natural aspects of life and being human have been named: population, resource consumption, tribalism and unintended consequences of our “genius”. We must in our genius figure out how to mitigate these or as I said earlier, we will continue to overshoot, battle for real and imagined resources and misuse our special tools of survival. It is truly a conundrum. These aspects support and celebrate life and as with any animal and with our particular human challenges they threaten overshoot and conflict in their very success.

How to accomplish this “social engineering” while being fair and not dictatorial should be the immediate debate and exploration. How do we enjoy the pleasure and sensuality during procreation and separate the pleasure and sensuality from procreation? When do we instill these behaviors and attitudes while protecting the young from power-over? How do we assess technological applications without stifling creativity and inventiveness? How do we reemerge our enchantment into the web of life and celebrate that connection? If these issues demand development of politics, economics and even religion, how do we protect against tyranny?

I have thought about these issues for decades. I don’t know.


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