William R. Catton Jr.

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William R. Catton, Jr.
William R Catton Jr.jpg
William R. Catton Jr.
Born(1926-01-15)January 15, 1926
DiedJanuary 5, 2015(2015-01-05) (aged 88)
OccupationEnvironmental sociologist
Notable work

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.[1] 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, Catton wrote numerous articles, book chapters, and book reviews.[2]


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.

Catton died on January 5, 2015.[3][4]

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.[5]

"The core of Overshoot, which is also the core of the entire world of appropriate technology and green alternatives ... is the recognition that the principles of ecology apply to industrial society just as much as they do to other communities of living things."[6]


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 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."[5]: 8  He originated the formulation of Homo colossus as a quasi-species and detritivore, ecologically distinct from ancestral Homo sapiens.[7]

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 all lifeforms—not only humans—ancient or present, have been involved in processes that degrade the environments upon which they depend. Catton's 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]


Books (sole author)[edit]

  • Catton, William Robert (1966). From animistic to naturalistic sociology. New York: McGraw-Hill. OCLC 490221696. Retrieved 3 May 2021.
  • Catton Jr., William R. (1980). Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252098000. Retrieved 3 May 2021.
  • Catton Jr., William R. (2009). Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 978-1-4415-2241-2. Retrieved 3 May 2021.[8]

Books (co-author)[edit]




  1. ^ Lockie, Stewart (2015). "What is environmental sociology?". Environmental Sociology. 1 (3): 139–142. doi:10.1080/23251042.2015.1066084. S2CID 145548969.
  2. ^ "William R. Catton's research while affiliated with Washington State University and other places". ResearchGate. Retrieved 3 May 2021.
  3. ^ "Obituary William R. Catton Jr. (Jan 15, 1926–Jan 5, 2015)". Peak Oil India. February 6, 2015.
  4. ^ Cobb, Kurt (February 15, 2015). "William Catton's warning". Resilience. Retrieved 3 May 2021.
  5. ^ a b Catton, William R (2008-10-30). "A Retrospective View of My Development as an Environmental Sociologist". Organization & Environment. 21 (4): 471–477. doi:10.1177/1086026608328870. S2CID 144421790.
  6. ^ Greer, John Michael (February 5, 2015). "As Night Closes In". Resilience. Retrieved 3 May 2021.
  7. ^ 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."
  8. ^ Mobus, George (November 25, 2009). "Bottleneck by William Catton – A Review". Resilience. Retrieved 3 May 2021.

Further reading[edit]