Obituary: William Robert Catton, Jr. 1926-2015

By Goodrich, Colin; Du Plessis, Rosemary et al. | New Zealand Sociology, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Obituary: William Robert Catton, Jr. 1926-2015


Goodrich, Colin, Du Plessis, Rosemary, Dunlap, Riley E., New Zealand Sociology


Bill Catton died suddenly on January 5th 2015 in Port Chalmers, New Zealand where he was staying with family who had gathered for a family wedding. Bill is survived by Nancy, his wife of 66 years and his sister, Ruth Willard Catton, both of whom were with him when he died. He is also survived by sons Stephen, Philip, Theodore and Jonathan, and by grandchildren Felicity, William, Walter, Eleanor, Benjamin and Eli, and by great-grandsons Sebastian and Alexander.

Bill was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on January 15, 1926. At seventeen years of age he enlisted in the US Navy and served there from 1943 to 1946. He was wounded in Pacific combat aboard USS Ticonderoga and when recovered, served in the official occupation of Japan. En route home from the war he suffered the crushing of his pelvis by equipment failure aboard ship. His injury would prevent him from ever running so that during his convalescence Bill resolved that his lifetime goal for recreation would be wilderness backpacking and camping. These pursuits became legion with him and he generously shared with others this passion. As his children acknowledge, wilderness hiking became significantly defining of both his marriage and his family.

After his military service he enrolled at Oberlin College, Ohio where he met Nancy Lewis, his wife to be. They were married while still at Oberlin and soon thereafter moved to what was to be one of the great loves of his life, the United States Pacific Northwest. Bill did his Masters and PhD at the University of Washington where George Lundberg helped lead his doctoral committee.

Bill started his professional career as a mainstream sociologist without a special focus on environmental issues. However, in the course of his early research he worked with John Hendee, then a USFS forest ranger who later became Professor of Resource Recreation and Tourism and Director, University of Idaho Wilderness Research Centre at the University of Idaho, Moscow, and Frank Brockman, a National Parks naturalist who became Professor of Forestry at the University of Washington. His association with these men guided his thinking into ecological and environmental concepts that he had not previously considered part of his sociological kitbag. In addition, the 'neo-positivist' influence of Lundberg is clearly evident in his early work. His dissatisfaction with the growing qualitative slant in sociology and his growing concern for the health of environment and the detrimental impacts that over usage had were important factors leading him towards wanting to devise more quantitative understandings of the relationship between people and the natural environment. Within this he was strongly influenced by the work of population ecologists and biologists who saw increasing incompatibility and tensions between growing populations and (more or less) finite resource bases. In short he was severely challenged by the Western view that 'growth is good'.

Bill's broad aim to make sociology more scientific, more 'real'-world and objectively based became more specifically an aim to increase in the discipline of sociology the understanding of the biogeochemical processes associated with the environment. His increasing concern with the lack of consideration of environmental factors was already manifest in his published work in the early 1970s but is perhaps best seen as coming to fruition with three publications at the end of the 1970s. Two he published jointly with Riley Dunlap, the first entitled 'Environmental Sociology: A New Paradigm,' (1978), the second, 'Environmental Sociology: A Framework for Analysis,' (1979). His magnum opus on this elaboration of both his broad and specific aims was the publication of what he regarded as his most important work, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, (1980). Bill actually started writing Overshoot as early as 1972 and finished it during 1977-78. He had considerable trouble finding a publisher, as those initially approached considered the ecology field saturated. …

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