William R. Catton Jr.

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William R. Catton Jr.

William Robert Catton Jr. (January 15, 1926 – January 5, 2015) was an American sociologist best known for his scholarly work in environmental sociology and human ecology. Catton was known primarily for his 1980 book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Catton wrote three other books, including From Animistic to Naturalistic Sociology and his 2009 book Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse. In addition, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, book chapters and book reviews.


William Catton was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on January 15, 1926. He served in the US Navy from 1943 to 1946. After his military service he enrolled at Oberlin College, where he met Nancy Lewis. The two were married in 1949 and produced four sons, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Catton graduated from Oberlin College with an A.B. degree in 1950, whereupon he entered the graduate program in sociology at the University of Washington. He earned his M.A. there in 1952 and his Ph.D. in 1954. He was Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Washington State University. Catton served as president of the Pacific Sociological Association 1984-85 and as the first chair of the American Sociological Association Section on Environmental Sociology.[1]

Catton died on January 5, 2015.[2]

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change[edit]

Overshoot was started during Catton’s three years in New Zealand, and completed after he returned to the US in 1973 to become Professor of Sociology at Washington State University. Overshoot was not published until 1980. During this period Catton, in collaboration with fellow scholar, Riley Dunlap, produced a series of influential articles on ecological issues.[3]

Overshoot continues to be a source of conceptual insight and existential inspiration regarding the ecological basis of human societies, especially to those who see a threat posed by peak oil, climate change, and other ecological pressures Catton either identified or anticipated. Years ahead of its time because of the clarity of formulation of a fully ecological paradigm, the book supplies scientific analysis.[citation needed]

Intellectual contribution and critiques[edit]

Positively, William Catton came of age in sociology when the major debates were about social-only theoretical orientations (structural-functionalism or consensus theory versus Marxism or conflict theory), and methodology (quantitative versus qualitative). However, his inherent attraction to nature and understanding how the earth’s ecosystems operated afforded him the insight that human social systems including their economies operate within parameters of the natural ecology or they destroy it. Catton’s primary contribution is the trailblazing articulation of an environmental sociological framework that challenged existing sociological theories in general from a completely different tack: by synthesizing sociological and ecological theory. He argued that the prevalent idea of human control over nature, instead of being a great achievement, might only be a reflection of exploitation of natural resources that were actually finite.

To set the tone for his work and the era and intellectual conflicts in which it was published, one of his observations is that, "Monumental social changes (and troubles) in the 21st century will be misunderstood (and thus worsened, I believe) insofar as people ... continue interpreting events according to a [pre-ecological] worldview that insufficiently recognizes human society’s ultimate dependence on its ecosystem context."[3]:8 He originated the formulation of Homo colossus as a quasi-species and detritivore, ecologically distinct from ancestral Homo sapiens.[4]

A notable aspect of Catton's writing is its expansion beyond the specialization silos so often seen in academia and sometimes reflects greater whole-systems understandings of Earth's biospheric life-support machinery than others whose fields of specialization are more narrowly focused. In this respect, Catton advances, by his books in particular, core ecological understandings that are needed by policymakers and sectors of academia whose whole-systems expertise by background and training is otherwise limited.

While some would critique his suggestion that past 'Homo sapiens' were different — somehow living and evolving in ecological balance, in a scientific sense his suggestions are accurate in that humankind's ability to amplify individual impacts, damages, and wastes by technology has been combined with an ongoing and explosive growth in human numbers. Although this has been questioned in some respects (Boas, 1998, Eco Homo; Redman, 1999, Human Impacts on Ancient Environments) and by historical environmental sociological work (Chew, 2001 World Ecological Degradation, 2007 The Recurring Dark Ages; Whitaker, 2009 Ecological Revolution), it remains significant that humans, ancient or present, have been involved in processes that degrade the environments upon which they depend (Krech, 2000 The Ecological Indian: Myth and History). Catton's essential perspectives of natural science are consistent with, and have contributed to a broader understanding of, core carrying capacity as a limiting factor of the natural world as well as other limits and realities of natural ecosystems.

Awards and honors[edit]

  • 1983, Fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology
  • 1985, Distinguished Scholarship Award, Pacific Sociological Association
  • 1985, Award of Merit, Natural Resources Research Group, Rural Sociological Society, (co-recipient with Riley E. Dunlap)
  • 1986, Award for Distinguished Contribution, Section on Environmental Sociology, American Sociological Association (co-cipient with Riley E. Dunlap)
  • 1989, Distinguished Achievement Award, College of Sciences and Arts, Washington State University


Books (sole author)[edit]

  • From Animistic to Naturalistic Sociology New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966. 364 pp.
  • Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980. 298 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-00988-4
  • Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse Xlibris Corporation, 2009. 290 pp. ISBN 978-1-4415-2241-2 (self-published)

Books (co-author)[edit]

  • Conceptual Sociology: A Manual of Exercises Relating Concepts to Specimens, Principles and Definitions (with Otto N. Larsen) New York: Harper & Row, 1962. 276 pp.; Second edition, 1971. 227 pp.
  • Sociology (fourth edition, with George A. Lundberg, Clarence C. Schrag, and Otto N. Larsen). New York: Harper & Row, 1968. 771 pp.


  • "Can Irrupting Man Remain Human?” BioScience, 26 (April 1976): 262-267.
  • "Paradigms, Theories, and the Primacy of the HEP-NEP Distinction.” (with Riley E. Dunlap) The American Sociologist, 13 (November 1978):256-259.
  • “Environmental Sociology.” (with Riley E. Dunlap) Annual Review of Sociology, 5 (1979):243-273.
  • “A New Ecological Paradigm for Post-Exuberant Sociology.” (with Riley E. Dunlap) American Behavioral Scientist, 24 (September/October 1980):15-47.
  • Separation versus Unification in Sociological Human Ecology.” in Lee Freese (ed.), Advances in Human Ecology, vol. 1. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press Inc., 1992. pp. 65-99.
  • “Carrying Capacity and the Death of a Culture: A Tale of Two Autopsies.” Sociological Inquiry, 63 (May 1993):202-223.
  • “What Have We Done to Carrying Capacity?” in Scott Wright, Richard Borden, Margaret Bubolz, Luc Hens, Jonathan Taylor, Thomas Webler, Denise Meeker, and Robert Griffore (eds.), Human Ecology: Progress Through Integrative Perspectives. Bar Harbor, ME: The Society for Human Ecology, April 1995. pp. 162–170.
  • The Problem of Denial, 1995.
  • Malthus: More Relevant Than Ever, 1998.
  • The World's Most Polymorphic Species: Carrying capacity transgressed two ways
  • Worse than Foreseen by Malthus
  • Tribute to Garrett Hardin, 2003



  1. ^ All biographical information from the Curriculum Vita of William R. Catton, Jr. Incomplete citation.
  2. ^ "Obituary William R. Catton Jr. (Jan 15, 1926 – Jan 5, 2015)". peakoilindia.org. February 6, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Catton, William R (2008-10-30). "A Retrospective View of My Development as an Environmental Sociologist". SAGE journals. Retrieved 10 September 2017. 
  4. ^ William Catton, Overshoot (1980), p. 170. "When the earth's deposits of fossil fuels and mineral resources were being laid down, Homo sapiens had not yet been prepared by evolution to take advantage of them. As soon as technology made it possible for mankind to do so, people eagerly (and without foreseeing the ultimate consequences) shifted to a high-energy way of life. Man became, in effect, a detritivore, Homo colossus. Our species bloomed, and now we must expect a crash (of some sort) as the natural sequel."