Circular Versus Linear Ecosystems
From the book Overshoot by William Catton
Whatever the origins of human redundancy, and whatever the sequel to it, we needed to see (but were not seeing) that what had happened to us between the wars, and especially what happened to us since World War II, had not resulted merely from politics or economics in the conventional sense. The events of this period had simply accelerated a fate that began to overtake us centuries ago. The population explosion after 1945 and the explosive increase of technology during and after the war were only the most recent means of that acceleration.
Human communities once relied almost entirely on organic sources of energy -- plant fuels and animal musclepower -- supplemented very modestly by the equally renewable energy of moving air and flowing water. All of these energy sources were derived from ongoing solar income. As long as man's activities were based on them, this was, as church men said, "world without end." That phrase should never have been construed to mean "world without limit," for supplies can be perpetual without being infinite.
Locally, green pastures might become overgrazed, and still waters might be overused. Local environmental changes through the centuries might compel human communities to migrate. As long as resources available somewhere were sufficient to sustain the human population then in existence, the implication of Liebig's law was that carrying capacity (globally) had not yet been overshot. If man was then living within the earth's current income, it was not from wisdom, but from ignorance of the buried treasure yet to be discovered.
Then the earth's savings, and new ways to use them, began to be discovered. Mankind became committed to the fatal error of supposing that life could thenceforth be lived on a scale and at a pace commensurate with the rate at which treasure was discovered and unearthed . . .
Homo sapiens mistook the rate of withdrawal of savings deposits for a rise in income. No regard for the total size of the legacy, or for the rate at which nature might still be storing carbon away, seemed necessary. Homo sapiens set about becoming Homo colossus without wondering if the transformation would have to be quite temporary. (Later, our pre-ecological misunderstanding of what was being done to our future was epitomized by that venerable loophole in the corporate tax laws of the United States, the oil depletion allowance. This measure permitted oil "producers" to offset their taxable revenues by a generous percentage, on the pretext that their earnings reflected depletion of "their" crude oil reserves. Even though nature, not the oil companies, had put the oil into the earth, this tax write-off was rationalized as an incentive to "production." Since "production" really meant extraction, this was like running a bank with rules that called for paying interest on each withdrawal of savings, rather than on the principal left in the bank. It was, in short, a government subsidy for stealing from the future.)
For a longer excerpt from Overshoot, see the Brain Food website
Diamond: The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race