Will we get past the bottleneck?

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

In his new book, Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, William Catton Jr. sees humanity headed toward a significant dieoff. As George Mobus points out in his book review, Catton is not alone in his thinking as Martin Reese gave humanity a 50-50 chance of surviving the next century in Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning. James Gustav Speth called for massive reforms to create a more sustainable society. Catton’s book does not close on a happy note. He claims we have passed the point of no return.

Catton offers an explanation as to why so few people heed the warnings. He believes the high level of occupational specialization in society blocks participants from seeing beyond their own economic interests. While people cooperate with each other through market exchanges, their narrow focus leaves them unable to grasp the significant cumulative worldwide environmental damages from their pursuits.

Massive increases in the use of fossil fuels contributed to a population explosion, high levels of resource consumption and extensive environmental damage, which Catton believes cannot be sustained.

Experts document the damage and report it in peer-reviewed publications, which could be used as a basis for corrective action. However, contrary views are advanced that confuse the public and undermine support for reforms.

Others fear potential adverse effects on their personal well-being and ignore the common good.

For Catton, the solutions to avoid a bottleneck include reduction in human population and consumption of natural resources and the abandonment of fossil fuels. He doubts essential reforms will be implemented in a timely fashion and advises readers to prepare for a dieback and the social disruption it will produce.

Given the difficulty of predicting the future, others believe there is still time to deal effectively with the situation. Some point to practical efforts in Sweden and neighboring countries whose governments have embraced environmental reforms as essential and economically desirable.

For such reforms to succeed, the public must view them as essential, and political and economic leaders must implement appropriate policies.

Rather than wait for reforms, citizens are taking personal and community actions. They are relearning the skills of an earlier era and teaching others those skills. Many are developing simple proficiencies in planting and tending a garden and cooking, canning, drying and freezing foods to provide a store of food and a sense of security.

Learning to sew, weave and make footwear could be helpful if conditions continue to deteriorate. Sourdough starter can be saved for continued use in bread baking. Developing a healthy lifestyle and learning basic medical skills can help individuals and families.

Practicing these skills will develop competence and confidence to implement them on a long-term basis, if needed.

Pursuing energy efficiency and alternative energy sources reduces dependence on outside energy sources, providing another measure of independence, security and self-confidence.

At one time, almost every community was self-sufficient and had people skilled in making and repairing small engines and simple tools for local use. There is sufficient knowledge left to rekindle interest in such efforts.

Given existing conditions, such efforts could prove essential.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. The Vogls and the IREA are members of the Environmental Hall of Fame. Dr. Robert Vogl is vice president of Freedom Field, and Dr. Sonia Vogl is a member of Freedom Field’s Executive Committee. The Vogls consult on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are active in preserving natural areas and are retired professors from Northern Illinois University. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Feb. 17-23, 2010 issue