Citizen Action Monitor

Global human society is functioning as a wasteful energy dissipating structure — Nate Hagens (4/5)

Our species is an out-of-control, energy-hungry, global Superorganism in the service of maximizing GDP growth.

No 2219 Posted by fw, May 18, 2018

To access links to other posts by Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament, click on the Tab titled Teachings of Dr. Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament – Links to Posts

Dr. Nate Hagens

“… our species in my opinion is de facto functioning as a superorganism beyond our individual control. … Physically, global human society is functioning as an energy dissipating structure.* We call it GDP, but to all first approximations, we could call it GDB – GROSS DOMESTIC BURNING, because every product, every cup, every slide projector, every shoe, every product that you guys have bought in the last week, somewhere on earth there was a little fire that contributed to creating it. … there is no secret society, there is no great president of the world or groups of presidents that actually have a plan. THE GAME IS THE PLAN. QUARTERLY EARNINGS IS THE PLAN. … The human Amoeba (Superorganism) IS the invisible hand of the market. Corporations, nations, people, small groups – we are maximizing our profits collectively and this adds up to this force that is propelling our global system forward and ignoring all these warnings, ignoring the environmental warnings because we’re focused just on the next three months. … We can’t just say ‘Hey, let’s leave the carbon in the ground and do what’s right for the climate.’ We can’t do that because we need the carbon to grow our economies.”Dr. Nate Hagens

*Megacities are energy-dissipative human superorganisms in that they use energy wastefully or extravagantly.

Finally, we have arrived at the essence of Dr. Hagens’ keynote address to science and technology students at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in January, 2018. Following his brief introduction in Pt 1, his dash through eight energy and money basics in Pt 2 and Pt 3, in this, Pt 4, Hagens is going to explain why humans in the global market are functioning like a superorganism.

What’s so special about systems synthesis analysis? The problem with almost all mainstream, and even progressive online news reports and articles, is that they reflect a micro, “silo thinking mentality”, which can be overly simplistic and misleading, leaving us without a relevant, macro framework understanding of our societal situation.

In Hagens’ systems synthesis approach, he synthesizes contributions from many disciplines including, for example: energy, economics/money/finance/debt/banking/trade/globalization, biology, human behavior, climate and environmental science, technology, and history. Hagens contends that a systems overview provides students and the public with an understanding of the opportunities and barriers relevant to our future.

Regarding this presentation, Hagens forewarns us: “I have 160 slides. Every time I do a talk like this, especially to young people, I realize it’s a little bit of a sledgehammer and I kind of feel bad. Hours before the talk I remove some slides, but it’s so important that people understand the whole picture, that I didn’t remove any slides and so I’m going to do the full fire hydrant as it were.”

Having struggled with the preparation of the transcript for Pt 4, I certainly feel like I’ve been hit by a sledgehammer. His talk comes fast and furious. Communication of his subject matter is challenging enough; it doesn’t help when terms are drawn from other disciplines, or when metaphors are unfamiliar. And the cut and paste of his PowerPoint slide delivery approach undermines narrative coherence.

So here’s my warning label for Dr. Hagen’s address – “Some Assembly Required”.

I hope my transcripts help with the cognitive assembly of meaning. Reading text has a way of slowing down, to a manageable pace, Dr. Hagens’ rapid-fire, verbal delivery style.

Believe me — The cognitive effort to extract meaning from Hagens’ talk is well-worth the effort. I’ll use it to challenge the Kinder Morgan arguments being promoted by Trudeau, Morneau, and McKenna.

Below is the embedded video of Hagens’ full 58-minute address, followed by a 22-minute Q&A session. My transcript of this segment on the human Superorganism begins at the 25:45-minute point and ends at about 46:20 minutes. I have included 9 of Hagens’ slides; you can view all of them by watching/pausing the video of his keynote address in another window while referring to the transcript.


WEP2018 TV: Energy, Money and Technology and the Human Superorganism by KAUST Official, streamed live on January 23, 2018

TRANSCRIPT (from 25:45 to 46:20)


25:45 – Now, let’s talk about the Superorganism. There’s something in nature called “the maximum power principle – maximum entropy production principle,” which states that organisms and ecosystems in nature self-organize so as to better access an energy gradient. So, a tree will grow its leaves and branches to maximize the surface area of the leaves to have for photosynthesis access to sunlight.

26:10 – If you take an airplane and do a thermal test on a forest area like this (as shown in slide) the coolest areas will be the oldest growth trees because they’re degrading the most sunlight. The hottest areas will be the areas where nothing is living, like the path.

[Human Behavior]

26:28 – Human behavior. I have a whole month of my class on human behavior. Now I’m going to tell you a story in 4 minutes. Our minds can look forward, but our feelings come from what worked in the past. ‘Ultra-sociality’ is a term that refers to how tribal, and how social we are as a species. We’re not individual sole hunters like a jaguar. We are community-based. We care what other people think. We cooperate towards larger goals. We’re incredibly social.

27:00 – For 290,000 years of our species’ history, we were hunter-gatherers roaming around. About 12,000 years ago we – because the climate changed – in 7 places around the world started agriculture. We started staying in place. We started generating surplus in the form of grain. And then a couple of hundred year ago – conveniently or not – coal, oil, and gas fossil helpers walked out of the ground and entered our economies. That changed the whole conversation of surplus.

27:34So if you think about nature, sexual selection, and relative fitness is a huge driver [of human behavior]. The same way that a peacock flashes its tails to a female peacock, this picture on the right is Tiger Wood’s yacht [smaller] and his ex-wife’s new boyfriend’s yacht [bigger]. And you laugh because you know – even in your own lives, you see this behavior.

27:57 – Here was an economics test —

Would you prefer a 4,000 square foot house where all your neighbors were 6,000 square foot, or would you prefer a 3,000 square foot house where all your neighbors’ houses were smaller, 2,000 square feet? The vast majority of people would prefer a smaller house as long as it’s bigger than their neighbors’. And this is a core driver of human behavior. We think we need more than we actually do because we look around at what other people are doing and we want to be at least as successful as them. So we spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on ‘relative’ instead of on how unbelievably, absolutely rich we are right now, relative to probably our ancestors and our descendants.

28:42Another problem is the ‘wanting’ of something feels stronger in our brains than the ‘having’. I recognize this. I used to manage money for billionaires on Wall Street. These guys had a billion dollars and they just wanted to get to 2 billion and they were going to quit and buy an island and just quit. But then their friends were making money at the same time and every day they had to get to get the feeling of making more. They were after the feeling not the actual thing. So we get the signal where we want to buy something like a car or some new shoes, and then we think about it and then we actually buy it. And that’s where the dopamine, the pleasing brain feeling hits us. But when we actually buy it, it’s downhill from there. We show a couple of our friends, we brag about it for awhile, and two weeks later we need to get that feeling again from something else.

29:32 – So, if we think about the way we’re wired – the agenda of the gene – think about this short checklist:

  • Temperature: would you rather be 10 degrees, 65 or 110? Well, you want to be 65, most people
  • Do you want to be wealthy or poor?
  • Do you want zero children, greater than zero?
  • Would you prefer a newspaper, dial-up or broadband?
  • Do you prefer to be miserable or comfortable?
  • Need to be in Jeddah in 2 hours? Do you want to drive a car or walk?
  • Prefer to win wars or lose wars?
  • Do you care more about how your life is this year or in ten years?
  • Do you prefer to be viewed as more or less successful than your neighbor?

If you think about these choices, these human preferences, virtually all of them have one thing in common: they’re correlated with more energy needs. You in Saudi Arabia need air conditioning, where I live, in Minnesota, right now we have heat. Both are uses of energy to make us more comfortable.

30:23So if we think about the human animal, we seek physical homeostasis, almost all of which requires energy. However, most psychological needs in our culture still require more energy, but don’t have to.

30:37And finally, as biological animals we heavily weight the present over the future. We care way much more about the next three days than the next three years. And we care way more about the next three hours than the next three days. So, in thermodynamic terms, power is energy used per unit of time. And the brain has a similar dynamic; it’s not so much energy, it’s experiences. We want brain services, we want them today, not next week, not next year, or next decade.

[Growing the Energy Spigot]

31:08 – Okay, so how does this all fit together? This is a total energy consumption graph. The last 200 years, globally, the beige on the bottom is biomass – trees mostly; then coal; then the green is oil; the red is natural gas; then nuclear, hydro and some renewables. Pretty much – with a few recessions and bumps – we’ve continued to grow the size of the energy spigot.

31:36Up until the 1970s this energy spigot, we continued our physical world expansion. We added vertical land productivity, which is fossil fuels, to previous horizontal productivity, which was farming, and then we ran into two energy crises in the 70s.

31:52The next stage was debt and trade productivity. In order to keep access to this energy spigot growing, we went to one debt as a way of pulling resources forward in time and, two, we went to globalization, a global market economy as a way to access cheaper areas or production and more cooperation. This model hit a wall in the great financial crisis in 2008.

32:14Then we entered the central bank and government guarantee era. Since 2008, central banks and governments with temporary – which are still going – too-big-to-fail guarantees, quantitative easing, artificially low interest rates, balance sheet expansion in order to maintain our populations’ access to energy.

32:33And now what’s happening is what I refer to as Orwellian productivity. There’s rule changes. Italy made prostitution and cocaine sales part of GDP in order to stay under ECB (European Central Bank) debt to GDP ratio [so] they could still have their debt guaranteed.

32:49New tax and benefit schemes and numerous other abstractions allow us to continue growing this energy spigot. But for how long?

[The Straw Model of Human Energy Use]

32:59This next piece is a model I’m working on. I’m going to go through it real fast to save time. But if you imagine the size of the human energy use as a straw, and then we take a cross-section of the straw, there’s things that cause the straw to grow.

  • The low cost of energy is a big one.
  • That type 2 technology, which is making things more efficient or finding new energy sources, that historically was a big one.
  • And then we also have government rules and money.


  • So, twenty, thirty years ago it was mostly the low cost energy and this type 1 technology that would grow the energy spigot.
  • But in order to keep it growing, we’re increasingly using less sustainable ways of growing this energy spigot. We’re creating money from thin air.
  • We’re making government rule changes.
  • And we’re developing all kinds of gadgetry and things that require a greater demand for energy but aren’t really paying it back.

33:58So there’s a push of the global economy, which is cheap energy, and there’s a pull, creating money to pull the system forward. They’re equivalent in their effect in the short term, but in the long term they’re not equivalent.

34:11 – So just as an example: This [graph] is hypothetical. These aren’t real numbers. Access to credit globally will change the shape of global oil production. With no debt it’s just kind of a normal curve, a Gaussian distribution. With access to debt we get a lot more [oil] out but at eventually a steeper [production] decline rate for various reasons. We also find some new stuff that we wouldn’t have found before so it’s not a total negative, but it changes the shape.

34:41 – So, basically the cross-section [of the spigot] now is we’re using things that are less sustainable to keep it going. So, the outputs of the superorganism are energy-based and the inputs increasingly are non-caloric*, based on human rule changes. [*not energy-based].


34:57 — So, coming back to this tree (at 25:45), if you think about the maximum power principle in nature, it also applies to human systems. This is a picture of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The net result of  7.5 billion humans, each [behaving] as evolved animals pursuing this optimal foraging theory, wanting a higher return the same way a cheetah would pursue a gazelle. We cooperate, assemble in groups, corporations, and nations — energy-hungry superorganisms. It could be Fort Lauderdale, or Jeddah, or Beijing, or Taipei, or the world over, self-organizing towards energy-dissipative structures. [Structures that use energy wastefully or extravagantly; to squander, deplete].

35:43 – So this puzzle I had at the beginning starts to take a shape and our species in my opinion is de facto functioning as a superorganism beyond our individual control. And this has two main inferences and I’ll follow with implications.

[When Bigger is Not Better]

36:00Naturally we assume that bigger, larger, more people is more able to grasp and vision and plan for complex events. A single human cell, a kidney, a person, a small group of people, a large group like Congress, a nation of humans, a world of 8 billion – we figure that we give more information to people above us in he hierarchy and better decisions will be made.

36:19That’s not true. It doesn’t work that way. There’s a maximum based on our tribal past that individuals in small groups are best able to parse and understand things. Large groups – well, here, behaviorally global human society functions using simple tropisms akin to a simple amoeba sloughing forward, all it’s wanting is energy. The larger the group of people the dumber it gets with respect to complex plans.

36:45 – So, thinking does not happen outside an individual brain. It’s kind of depressing when you first think about this, but there is no secret society, there is no great president of the world or groups of presidents that actually have a plan.


[Human Society as an Energy Dissipating Structure]

37:05 – And that leads me to the second point: Physically, global human society is functioning as an energy dissipating structure. We call it GDP, but to all first approximations, we could call it GDB – GROSS DOMESTIC BURNING. Because every product, every cup, every slide projector, every shoe, every product that you guys have bought in the last week, somewhere on earth there was a little fire that contributed to creating it.

[What Climate Crisis? – Out of Sight, Out of Mind]

37:34 – Okay. Downstream of the superorganism – I don’t have time to get into the environmental situation, but I must mention it because it’s critical to understanding the story. Since I’ve been alive, in the late 1960s we’ve lost half of the animals on earth. Our livestock, in our human population, if you put them on a scale they outweigh the remaining terrestrial wild animals 50 to 1. There’s pollution 5 miles under the Ocean in the Marianas Trench the same amount as there is in Chinese rivers. There’s a significant mass extinction going on now before ocean acidification and climate really are happening. So this is something out of our sight, out of our minds, but it’s happening and it’s important.


38:22So, the synthesis – how does this all fit together? The main implications of Superorganomics, as I term it –

The human Amoeba (Superorganism) IS the invisible hand of the market. Corporations, nations, people, small groups – we are maximizing our profits collectively and this adds up to this force that is propelling our global system forward and ignoring all these warnings, ignoring the environmental warnings because we’re focused just on the next three months.

If we look back to the trophic pyramid of our ancestors, that’s now changed. And now it’s in the little circle off to the bottom. We have this kind of mis-shaped tropic pyramid where we’ve used half – plus or minus – of the real low entropy energy. We’ve turned it into a lot of goods and services but increasingly more services. In my country, we now have more bartenders and waitresses than we have manufacturing employees. And we have this bloated financial system on top representing all things underneath, and it’s bloated because we have all these guarantees that basically no one can lose money because the Central Banks have their backs.

39:37 – So, what’s interesting here is a global culture. Humans are no longer maximizing surplus, but surplus value – in other words, digital representations of surplus. So long-term growth was not the norm.

This is a chart of the last 2000 years. We had a couple of very long periods without growth but all of our economic theories were invented in that red box era. So economic theory wasn’t chosen because it was true or valid. It was chosen and used in the service of this dissipative structure.

40:09When economic theory was invented, we were in this blue circle era, and the black line and the red line were right on top of each other. There was no shortage of energy. There wasn’t a shortage of anything. We made these observations that were accurate at the time but for the wrong reasons.

Now we’re in this red area of the black curve. All key decision-makers in our world are expecting the black line because of a flawed Cobb-Douglas and a monetary as opposed to an energy lens.

40:37There’s no credible institution or government body or corporation globally that is specifically planning for an end to growth despite growth being over in terms of income for 80% of the developed world population. Politically our system is not broken actually but working perfectly, moving away from the rich feeding grounds of fossil sunlight productivity is not in the job description of high status humans.


41:04 – Getting to technology, I have a few points to make about technology. This is an important one: as long as human cultures maximize GDP, which is what we’re all doing now, efficiency and better technology is merely going to build a larges global heat engine.

This [graph] shows fossil fuels, nuclear, hydro versus renewables as they pertain to electricity over the last 30 years.

What’s interesting is the graph on the right shows very high growth rates in renewables, but if you take the total – instead of the growth rate you look at the absolute, the one on the right compares to the one on the left — gas, oil, coal is growing on an absolute basis much, much larger. So, growing renewables in the current culture will likely just build an aggregate heat engine.

41:57 – The other problem with technology – the blue line is in America — the percent change in real income and you can see since the middle ‘70s the bottom 90% of Americans are about the same and most of the profits have been concentrated at the top. So the owners of capital, the owners of the robots, as it were, are getting most of the profits. And this is a problem in the future if we increasingly substitute human labor for mechanical labor under current trends it’s going to impoverish a higher number of humans.

[Technology Sidebar]

42:34 – Here’s a little sidebar relevant to the theme of this conference:

1/ Most technology is just leading to a higher global demand for primary energy. When primary energy begins to decline, technology is going to have to do much more (or we’ll have to do with less);

2/ As robots increasingly become cheaper than human workers, we’ll have to reconsider the relationship between ‘jobs’ and ‘work’ and what to do with all those who were replaced by robots. If enough people drop back to poverty levels, who will buy the tech products?

3/ There is a difference between being technological possible, and technologically affordable and scalable;

4/ Most modern time-saving tech devises give us more time to play games and waste time; and

5/ Technology (especially smart phones, Internet, social media etc.) are shortening our attention spans, making our citizens less capable of complex, long-term tasks. A lot of 19-year-olds are so addicted to social media they can’t even read a book.

[Remember “What the future will not be?” Humans choosing to leave fossil sunlight in the ground]

43:48 – The mass extinction in metabolic impacts on bio-geo-chemistry are downstream of the Superorganism. We can’t just say “Hey, let’s leave the carbon in the ground and do what’s right for the climate.” We can’t do that because we need the carbon to grow our economies.

44:16The main way we’re accessing energy today is via the credit markets. This chart shows the blue line as GDP and the red line is how much GDP growth every year, and the red line is how much we grew our credit every year. In order to keep things going, we’re going into more debt. As long as we can increase credit, we’ll continue to grow. When we can’t, we won’t.

44:41 – This chart shows global credit growth from 2002 to 2007 to 2012 to 2017. China is the red. China has been a big component of the growth in credit. But we’ve grown our credit globally from 89 trillion in 2002 to 217 trillion last year. Over the same time we grew our economy from 50 trillion to 75 trillion. So we’re growing more and more debt just to keep the economy going a little bit.

[We’re going to have to respond with “The Great Simplification” of advanced economies]

45:11 – So what we’re doing with all this stuff is we’re using these non-sustainable parts of the straw to kick the can further down the road until it’s blocking the road. And then we have to think about it. In my opinion, from the lens of the Superorganism we’re going to keep growing until we run out of food. And food could be energy, it could be money, it could be any of these things that expand the straw.

And then we’re going to have to respond to what I term “The Great Simplification” – a reduction of advanced economies’ GDP is now unavoidable. Once we remove low-productivity debt additions. Once we shift towards lower productivity, more costly energy and resources. And with the return of solar inputs (renewables).

[We can’t have a larger economy powered mainly by renewables]

45:55 – We talked about self-driving Uber cars and wind and things like that. We can have a very large economy, like now, with a decent amount of renewables. And a smaller economy powered in good part by renewables, but what we can’t have is a larger economy powered mainly by renewables. This gets back to the virtual versus the physical world question. [see slide Modern Human Culture at 46:18].

About Dr. Nathan John Hagens – Hagens, 51, worked on Wall Street at Lehman Brothers and Salomon Brothers for 10 years before closing his own hedge fund in 2003 to develop a systems synthesis approach to the human predicament. At one point, he was the lead editor of the influential online news and information resource, At present, Dr. Hagens is a professor at the University of Minnesota where he teaches a systems synthesis Honors seminar called Reality 101, A Survey of Human Predicament. The readings and lectures cover literature in systems ecology, energy and natural resources, thermodynamics, history, anthropology, human behavior, neuroscience, environmental science, sociology, economics, globalization/trade, and finance/debt with an overarching goal to give students a general understanding of how our human ecosystem functions as a whole.

Visit Nate Hagens’ personal website at The Monkey Trap.

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