From Ethical Politics
Bottleneck, as described by biologists, is the period of drastically narrowed life opportunities when a species has expanded into a newly available niche, overshot the permanent carrying capacity afforded by that niche, thereby damaging its habitat, and finds itself therefore facing a die-back to a number commensurate with the diminished carrying capacity residually available to sustain it.
How is the human prospect subject to this biological concept?
Consider the thrust of three books by Jared Diamond. His stated theme in 1992’s The Third Chimpanzee was “How the human species changed, within a short time, from just another species of big mammal to a world conqueror, and how we acquired the capacity to reverse all that progress overnight." His 1997 Guns, Germs and Steel amplified this, as did especially his magisterial coverage of factors leading to reversal, in his 2005 book, Collapse.
In the twentieth century, human numbers exploded and advances in technology and organization made vast new niches available. A substantial fraction of the world’s total Homo sapiens population committed itself to living as Homo colossus (people equipped with fossil-fuel-using technology giving them gigantic capabilities). Millions of other people in many lands aspired to follow in those footsteps. Because humanity’s enormous twentieth-century technological accomplishments made so many people resource-ravenous, the twenty-first century will have to be a bottleneck era for the world’s human population. During this swarm into the ephemeral niches made by and for Homo colossus, little thought was given to the possibility that those new niches were irreparably temporary—based as they were on ravenous use of non-renewable resources and upon virtually unfettered spatial expansion of human activities. Confined to a finite global habitat, progress produced an awesome and deepening carrying capacity deficit.
Viewed from today, the vaunted “land of opportunity” promised by technological progress might turn out to be a land of exhausted and constricted opportunities. Will wars now be fought among competitors over access to dwindling resources? Plausible scapegoats are being and will be sought—to function as “explanations” of the self-inflicted miseries resulting from human overuse of the planet. Those scapegoats become targets of malicious and destructive actions.
Prodigal Homo colossus has learned to require resources Earth cannot continue supplying. Nor can Earth absorb (and recycle) the prodigious accumulation of noxious, toxic, landscape-altering or climate-changing end-products injected into the global environment to meet mankind's basic needs and more importantly the contemporary lifestyles demands of many.
Accordingly, the number of humans living upon this planet, although still increasing in the twenty-first century’s first decade will very probably be markedly fewer by 2100, the century’s end. And people accustomed to economic growth (shortsightedly equated with progress) will be compelled to adapt to inevitably squeezed and constrained standards of living in a resource-depleted world.
- Ambrose, Stanley H. 1998. “Late Pleistocene human population bottlenecks, volcanic winter, and differentiation of modern humans.” Journal of Human Evolution, 34 (6):623-651.
- Catton, William R. Jr., 2000, "Worse than Foreseen by Malthus (even if the living do not outnumber the dead)". Demographic, Environmental, and Security Issues Project.
- Catton, William R. Jr. 1984. “Probable Collective Responses to Ecological Scarcity: How Violent?” Sociological Perspectives, 27 (January):3-20.
Author: William Catton