Citizen Action Monitor

The Great Simplification coming next decade with 30% drop in capitalist economies, says Dr. Nate Hagens

Globally, we’re turning into an energy-squandering superorganism, like some energy-hungry, blind, purposeless amoeba.

No 2480 Posted by fw, June 10, 2019

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

“What I’m going to talk about today is the human superorganism functioning as an energy-hungry, blind, purposeless amoeba. And that is what our culture has become. And the rest of this talk, I’m going to explain the logic, quickly, of why that’s the case, and what it implies. We have two predominant cultural narratives right now. We have the Green New Deal where we migrate energy systems to 100% renewables, work toward zero emissions. We have Business As Usual which is – Nothing’s wrong with the past model. There are no shortages of anything and we just need to deregulate and reduce taxes. The bigger picture tells a different story. I’m going to tell a third story, one that integrates human behaviour, energy, money into this superorganism, emergent dynamic of how humans are currently functioning. … Under this framing, viewing humanity as a superorganism, what is NOT likely to happen? We’re not likely to grow the economy AND mitigate the Sixth Mass Extinction and climate change; We’re not likely to grow the economy by getting rid of the bad fuels and replacing them with rebuildables [renewables]; We’re not likely to choose to leave fossil carbon in the ground because it’s so tethered to our experiences, our life standards, our wages, our profits, our growth, the cheap stuff that we buy; and Governments are not likely to embrace limits to growth before limits to growth are well past.”Nate Hagens

The above passage is taken from Dr. Hagens’ 2019 Earth Day talk in Stockholm Wisconsin. Despite the foreboding challenges ahead, Dr. Hagens concludes his talk on this optimistic note: “We’re functioning as an energy-seeking, mindless, superorganism, and we figured it out.” Well, Nate Hagens certainly figured it out, but most of us remain clueless.

Below is an embedded video of Hagens’ 46-minute, information-rich talk, along with my very long transcript, which features my chronological index, added bracketed bold italicized subheadings, added hyperlinks, and inline definitions of unfamiliar terms. Since my transcript does not include Hagens’ 177 slides, I suggest you have the transcript and video open in adjacent tabs in your browser.

Dr. Nate Hagens, a well-known speaker on the big picture issues facing human society, formerly worked on Wall Street at Lehman Brothers and Salomon Brothers for ten years before closing his own hedge fund in 2003 to develop a systems synthesis approach to the human predicament, which he teaches at the University of Minnesota. (Visit Hagens’ new website, Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future. And to see his 16 videos that discuss the relationships between money, energy, and wealth in the real world, click on Nate Hagens Nexus One Energy and Economy)

To view Hagens’ 2019 Earth Day talk, without my transcript, click on the following linked title,


Earth Day Talk, Stockholm Wisconsin, by Nate Hagens, Published on You Tube by Energy and Our Future, April 22, 2019

This is a story about our culture, arriving at a period I refer to as ‘The Great Simplification’. This story explains why things in the environment and social sphere are getting worse not better, and why we won’t en masse do anything meaningful until we get emotional cues to do so. Obviously this is a bit of a buzzkill to hear about – especially on a nice spring day – but imo [in my opinion] we have to understand the current game board and rules if we’re to make good ‘game moves’ as future events arrive. The more people who are aware of – and start to engage on — the choreography of these issues in their communities and in their own lives, the higher the chances of a networked, creative response will be. My hope with these and other videos is to change the initial conditions of these future events in a positive way. Because we have a lot to lose — and also gain.

You Tube Video link


0:00 — So this is the eleventh year in a row that I have done an Earth Day talk. It’s kind of like people like me come out of the closet one day a year to tell you the things. Last year I promised to do two things after my talk: one was to do maybe only 10 slides and talk for 5 minutes on each slide; and the other was to get a hair cut. And neither of those did I do this year.

So there’s 177 slides, so I’m going to speak relatively fast. What I’m trying to do the last 15 years, I’ve been trying to put together a cohesive picture of humans in our predicament. And I’m going to try tonight to simplify something that’s complex. But it’s still going to be complex.

I have a six-hour version of this online that you could watch if you’re interested. [Available at Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future ]

Earth Day ~2050

Precipitous Decline of the Ten Million Species We Share this Planet With

0:52 — So, with that, Earth Day. The reason I’m doing this is so we will continue to have Earth Days. Maybe every day will be Earth Day. In the future, when 30, 40, 50 years from now, our kids and grandkids will care about nature and the earth.

Earth Day 2250

2050 is a gateway to 2250 where I would imagine our descendants hopefully could coexist in a world with hummingbirds and elephants and dolphins. That world is still possible, but it is at risk.

1:22 – We continually get messages in the news, on NPR all the time, about the stock market is at all-time highs. But the real stock market, which is our ecosystems, the ten million species we share the planet with, are near all-time lows.

Just real briefly, going over this, if we count the weight of all the mammals on the planet, 36% are humans and 60% are cows, pigs sheep and goats [for a total of 96%]. Only 4% are wild animals, including the 2% of those in the oceans. So land mammals, humans and our livestock outweigh them fifty to one.

2:03 – Vertebrates, any animal with a backbone, have declined 52% since I was born – vertebrate populations. What a horrible thing to say on Earth Day.

Birds, 70% of the birds alive on this planet are chickens and turkeys. 30% are wild birds. That’s not only because we like to eat chicken; it’s because the bird populations are declining, especially grassland birds and insectivores because insects are declining.

2:35 – We don’t have experts that have funding to be studying this over decades. But there have been some studies in Germany Nature Reserve showing an 80% decline in insect populations over the last 40 years. The latest estimate is that the world insect population is declining in mass 2.5% per year.

2:56 – Part of this is due to things that are unseen. We can’t even measure their impact. Phthalates are micro-plastics that are a by-product of fossil carbon in our plastics. They’ve tested remote ant species in many different places in the Amazon that tested positive for phthalates. There’s pollution in the bottom of the ocean in the Marianas Trench that’s ten times stronger than in a Chinese river because that’s where it descends.

3:24 – I’m sure you’ve all heard about the issues with plastics. There are five trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean that are measurable in size. By the year 2050, under this trend, there will be more plastics than fish.

Climate Change

3:37 — Many of you are aware of climate change. This chart on the top shows that CO2 concentration over the last 400,000 years, and we’re spiking upwards. It hasn’t been stable over this time. If you look at the middle graph in the red – that the red temperature – we kind of evolved our industrial agricultural systems in that tiny little stable period on the right. I’ll talk about that in a little while.

4:05 – The oceans are kind of the bastard stepchild of the environmental story. Ocean has acidified 25% in the last 150 years. There’s 2%, on average, less oxygen.

Yes we had that horrible Notre Dame fire that raised a billion dollars last week, but our world is on fire, The natural world is on fire.

4:28 — In order to diagnose what we do about that, and what is the trajectory forward, we have to first analyze and diagnose the patient. And that’s what I’m going to try to do the rest of this talk.

An Epic Battle

4:40 – So what I’m going to frame is a battle that you’ve never really heard about. We have some famous battles in history. King Kong and Godzilla. David and Goliath. We had the Blob and Los Angeles. And I’m getting closer to the reality of our story. We had the Star Trek episode, The Borg and Earth. And what I’m going to talk about today is the human superorganism functioning as an energy-hungry, blind, purposeless amoeba [unicellular organism]. And that is what our culture has become. And the rest of this talk, I’m going to explain the logic, quickly, of why that’s the case, and what it implies.

Two predominate cultural narratives – The Green New Deal and Business as Usual

5:23So we have two predominant cultural narratives right now. We have the Green New Deal where we migrate energy systems to 100% renewables, work toward zero emissions. We have Business As Usual which is – Nothing’s wrong with the past model. There are no shortages of anything and we just need to deregulate and reduce taxes.

The bigger picture tells a different story

5:40I’m going to tell a third story, one that integrates human behaviour, energy, money into this superorganism, emergent dynamic of how humans are currently functioning.

So, real brief backdrop on some of these things.


5:56In nature, things depend on and get benefits from energy. There’s an energy cost and an energy revenue in every transaction. The cheetah gets a lot of calories from chasing, successfully hunting a gazelle. Energy capture in nature, organisms and ecosystems self-organized so as to access more sunlight to degrade an energy gradient. An oak tree will have the maximum surface area exposed to the sun on its leaves. It won’t have one leaf, it won’t have ten million leaves, it will have the right amount in order to access sun.

Human Behavior

6:31 – Some human behavior – well, we evolved from pre-hominid [before the primates] ancestors all the way back to the Proconsul in the trees. We are adaptation executors — we don’t go through life trying to maximize our amount of children. We try to get the same feelings that our successful ancestors got via hormones, endocrine cascades, neurotransmitters, dopamine, oxytocin – things like that. So, when we make a winning stock trade our brains think that we just bagged a gazelle on a hunt, for our tribe.

7:08The amount and type of stimuli in our modern world is orders of magnitude more intense and able to hijack our attention span than our ancestors. When we playing Fortnite , our brain is also thinking: “Wow, I am the best hunter in my tribe.” And that explains why there’s no young people here tonight – one reason.

7:30We are also ultra social, which means we’re one of the most social species on the planet. We care about what others think of us. We do what others recommend we do. We are part of this large group entity that’s cooperating towards profits, GDP surplus. And we are intensely susceptible to wanting to be liked and respected.

Time bias

7:53 – We also care enormously about the present versus the future. Our ancestors – human and otherwise – focused on the present. If they were worried about some distant even they would have been out-competed in the moment. So we have an intense preference on the present – not only the present this year but the present tonight, the present this week.

Energy Economy

8:15 – Okay. Energy Economy. Again, I have a two-hour series on this and I’m going to cover it in five minutes.

We are energy blind as a culture. We think the world revolves on money and human cleverness. Energy, just like in nature, underpins human economies.

Energy surplus

8:31About 200 years ago we puzzled out how to get this fossil carbon compounds out of the ground. We’re taking them out ten million times faster than they were sequestered. But they’re enormously powerful. And they describe most of the economic benefits that we’ve experienced the last couple of hundred years.

8:50 — This is my farm, not too far from here. I’m about one-tenth of a horse. I’m next to Binga, my horse, who’s one horse. That’s my mini Rhino, which is 45 horsepower worth of work. And that’s my truck, with a little bit of diesel fuel does the work of 150 horses. This is all because we have this fossil sunlight packed in this dense small area. One barrel of oil does four and a half years of my physical work for $60. Oh, and by the way, a plane does a hundred thousand horses worth of work.

Energy Benefits

9:36So the story of our economy, the story of industrialization, is replacing things that humans used to do manually with machines powered by fossil carbon – coal, oil, and natural gas. Me and a chainsaw can do the work of 100 people with an ax or a saw. But as the price of gasoline goes up we get fewer benefits.

Energy Scale

10:00 – So this is energy scale. This is the magnitude of human energy use. Until the mid 1850s most of American fuel was trees – biomass – the beige at bottom [of the graph]. Then we found coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectric, nuclear, and solar, wind, geothermal and other things in the yellow.

10:26So this is a bit of a shocker. But if think about one barrel of oil can do four and a half years of my work, we have the labor subsidy in the amount of coal, oil, natural gas we use today, which is 17 terawatts a year, of 500 billion humans. Right now. And there’s five billion of us in the workforce. So this is the subsidy that were given to us by this ancient sunlight all the time that’s underpinning all of this.

10:58 – So these benefits have given us — the average American today has 50 times the goods and services that the average human did in the year 1800. We’ve exploded not only in population, but in GDP per capita – the benefits we got per capita.

11:16 — There’s a biological law called Kleiber’s Law which shows that the metabolism — or how much energy an organism or animal uses — is its mass to the three-quarters power. The same dynamic happens in human systems. The global economy and all these individual economies, the same dynamic shows. The size of the economy is correlated to how much energy it uses.

11:41So it’s no surprise that the amount of world energy use is extremely correlated in the last 50 years to our GDP. If we burn more, we’re going to generate more GDP.

Energy vs Money and Credit

11:55 – So briefly on money, money is created with no reference to the underlying amount of energy natural resources available. Its only reference is to the productivity of our economies.

Credit Productivity

12:08Productivity of our economies has been going down, and so what we’ve done is we’ve added more and more money to pull resource consumption forward in time. I was born in the late 1960s. Since then we’ve grown our debt as a nation and as a world more than we’ve grown our economies, our GDP in every single year and that relationship is accelerating. Right now the world is 330% debt to the size of the world economy. So imagine if your salary was $50,000 and you owed the bank $165,000. That’s the situation the entire world in in.

Energy Depletion

12:53 – Energy depletion – We hear these narratives in the news – both of these graphs show the exact same thing. It shows that the United States peaked in oil production in 1970, sharp decline, and we’ve shot through that because of technology and cleverness. And now we’re surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s largest oil producer. This is true. But this is also true – basins, reservoirs, wells follow a logistic curve, kind of like a bell curve. This is America, the lower 48 states conventional oil. We added Alaska, which really isn’t contiguous to the United States, on top. We added offshore [drilling] in the Gulf of Mexico. And now we’re adding tight oil to the mix. Tight oil is the source rock. There is nothing left after tight oil. It’s where the oil migrated to from these other areas.

13:48The cost of oil extraction is up 370% in the last 15 years. So there’s a lot of it left but it’s getting more costly in energy, water, dollar, and environmental terms. Why is this important? Because energy underpins everything in our societies. And as it gets more expensive, so do other things.

Energetic Remoteness

14:10 – This graph shows the – the red shows the consumption of energy in the [copper] mining industry in Chile. And the blue is how much copper they actually got out. So as we go to lower quality resources, any kind of resources, there’s more rock, there’s more roads that have to be built, there’s more energy that has to be used. So energy is embedded in everything.

Energy Blindness

14:34So effectively, our culture is energy blind. We have these fancy economic formulas – and I have a Masters from one of the best business schools in the country; they never taught me this – this [image on screen] is the standard economic circular model, but we conflate the dollar value of energy with the work value of energy. And we don’t include the cost of pollution at all. All we do is account for how much it costs to extract that barrel of oil, which can then do four and a half years of my work.

What Happened?

15:04 – Okay. So what happened? Let’s put this all together. The chart I showed earlier on temperature in the last 450,000 years, this little section here is enlarged, okay. This is the last 10,000 years. All of a sudden humans – we had lived roughly 290,000 years in relative harmony with nature – all of a sudden we started to stop moving around, stop hunting and gathering, and started agriculture. And this set in motion all the other things that I’m going to talk about here.

15:40 – So, this little creature represents the agenda of the gene – kind of our prepared learning when we’re born, we like certain things. Certain things are cultural. Certain things are genetic.

  • So would you prefer 10 degrees, 65 degrees, or 110 degrees.
  • Will you prefer to be poor or rich?
  • Do you want 0 children, or greater than 0?
  • Would you prefer a newspaper, dial-up, DSL, or broadband?
  • Do you need to be in town tonight – drive a car, take a bus, or bicycle?
  • Prefer to be viewed as more or less successful than your neighbor?
  • Do you care more about how your life is in 2019 or 2029?
  • Do you prefer to win wars or lose wars?

16:17What all these things have in common is our preferences are tethered to energy use. Okay. So this [on the screen] is a conceptual graph. Back in the days before fossil carbon we had the sun and the soil and water and we had a maximum amount of capacity of how much geologic solar flows could produce for human societies.

16:41 – And then we started to mine underground and find these ancient ores and resources. And again they follow something called a logistic curve. We find the easiest stuff first and then we grow up the scale, and then we hit a maximum, and then this, the later half [of the curve] is the more expensive, less dense, costlier stuff.

[Why economies turned to globalization and debt after 1970’s energy crisis]

17:02 – So this [logistic process] is things like oil. And then we overlaid monetary representations of these resources — in the black line [on the onscreen graph]. So early economists actually did recognize the importance of resource productivity. They had land and what land could create for us, [represented] in the economic models in the 1900s, 19th century. But then over time, because of this massive bolus [dose] of fossil magic, our system grew so fast and large that our land no longer explained all this wealth. So all of a sudden the economists jettisoned this land productivity and they parsed everything into two things – labor and capital. So right now all the economic Nobel Laureates in the world do not treat energy as anything special; it’s all labor and capital. But, you can’t blame them because during this period, the red line and the black line looked kind of similar. But in order to maintain — after the 1970s’ energy crisis – in order to maintain our access to all this energy and resources, we increasingly had to go to globalization and to debt as a way of keeping our access to more and more energy.

[Financialized debt used to consume more and more]

18:15Now our society views the world solely through this financial lens. And we’ve not only financialized the human experience, but also the explanation of it. So what we’re doing is we’re using this black line [money], which is central banks and guarantees and artificially supported markets to pull the red line [renewables] forward. We’re using debt as a way to continue to consume more than we would otherwise be able to.

18:43So using credit, out of thin air, pulls consumption forward in time. It would be the same way if s helicopter dropped a billion dollars over Red Wing [Minnesota]. All of you would leave this talk immediately and be diving on the ground with your backpacks grabbing stuff. But at the time that the helicopter did that no change in the amount of resources or energy or oil or phosphorous or copper would have happened. This is kind of an analogy to what’s happening on the current economic system.

19:13 – So if you think of an oil field that has different tiers and different costs, if there’s no debt it follows this sort of curve [on the left]. But if we’re able to borrow money and generate credit, we actually find more oil, we find a new – the black tranche – we’re able to increase the amount of energy that we use in the short run. But the cost is when it’s done. It [oil?] depletes very rapidly. And this is again a kind of an example of what our economic system is doing.

19:44 – Since it’s Earth Day, I’ll note that this credit mechanism not only is pulling consumption forward in time, it’s also pulling carbon forward in time, which, depending on how things unfold, is good news.

[Economic growth is slowing and only top 5%, the wealthy, are benefitting]

So, not to get economically wonky but I just found this graph today. Despite all this massive credit injections in our society, productivity per unit of human labor is at 40 year lows. In other words, all this stuff is kind of running out of steam. Not only that but I’m sure you’re all aware that most of the growth in the economy is going to the top 5%, or even the top 1%. So the median household income hasn’t changed in 25 years, not even the top 5% [of median household incomes]. Only the top 5% are participating in this GDP. So economic growth is slower and it’s not for everyone.

Starlings: 3 simple rules

20:35 – Okay. Getting back to the big picture. You all know what a murmuration of starlings is. One starling, an individual bird, follows three simple rules: 1/ Do what your neighbors do; 2/ Don’t get too close; 3/ Fly towards the center. And the result of this is these beautiful formations in the sky called “murmurations”.

Three Simple Rules

20:54 — Humans are doing the same thing. We’re following three simple rules —

1/ We coordinate in our households and small businesses, in corporations as nations to acquire surplus;

2/ Then we follow cultural rules on socially accepted behavior; and

3/ We spend the surplus on cool stuff like Netflix and pizza, Game of Thrones, and a trip to Disneyland, and all things that our culture approves.

[Globally, we’re turning into an energy-hungry superorganism – an amoeba]

21:18 — But the ‘emergent property’* of this, of 7.7 billion of us, pursuing these simple rules, is we’re turning into this energy-hungry superorganism in the same way that Kleiber’s Law, with arteries and veins of an animal, we’re doing that planet wide. And if you think about this overhead view of a city [image on the screen] – and if this was in full motion you’d see the break lights an the headlights going in different directions – it looks a lot like arteries and veins. And the hemoglobin is oil and diesel and gasoline. [*An emergent property is a property which a complex system has, – like a superorganism– but which the individual parts of the system do not have].

21:52 – So metaphorically, but not so much metaphorically, we’re functioning as an energy hungry superorganism — I call it an “amoeba”, which I’ll explain why in a second.

The Implications

What are the implications of humans functioning as an amoeba?

[US and UK are becoming LESS energy intensive, but the world is becoming MORE energy dissipating]

22:09 — Okay. [Number 1] —  So the United States and the United Kingdom and a few other economies are becoming less energy intensive. We can generate some economic output by using a little bit less energy. But physically the world — because we import a lot of our stuff from China and other places — the global human society is functioning as an energy dissipating structure. Gross World Product (GWP) could easily be renamed “Gross World Burning” (GWB) because every single good and service in our economies – this clicker [in Hagen’s hand], this microphone, this computer, this building, these lights required a fire, somewhere, to produce and deliver to where we consume it.

[Global human society, tethered to energy use, is now functioning just like a mindless amoeba]

22:50Okay. Number 2 – Behaviorally, global human society functions using simple tropisms* akin to an amoeba. It’s not thinking, it’s just mindlessly going forward. In effect, the larger the group of people, the less able it is to depart from the gene agenda which is tethered to energy use. [*In biology, the growth or movement of a plant or animal toward or away from an external stimulus such as light, heat, or gravity.]

[There’s no one driving the bus]

23:09So culturally, selection pressure will not weed out the less sustainable models, which ours certainly is. Humanity as a whole has become the superorganism. And there is no one driving the bus. We all like to think there’s this smart group of billionaires in Davos, or Obama and all his buddies in Europe and whatever – they have a secret – they don’t. I know some billionaires. They’re as perplexed and scared as the people in Red Wing. They certainly have a lot more cushion, financially, but they don’t know what’s going on. The conversations in Davos last month – you could read the news – they’re clueless about what’s happening. They know something is terribly wrong.

[Climate change is not the problem, it’s the symptom of optimizing GDP]

23:51 – Back to Earth Day. Issues like population, climate change, ocean acidification, are not the problems. They’re the symptoms of human economies optimizing GDP, which is correlated with carbon. Look at all these conferences on climate in last fifty years relative to our CO2 in the atmosphere. So many of the environmental issues we face are a by-product of the metabolism* of this amoeba dynamic, which is why they’ve been getting worse not better. [*The chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life. There is constructive metabolism and destructive metabolism.]

[Asking voters to keep carbon in the ground won’t reduce emissions in growth-driven economies]

24:25So asking voters to keep carbon in the ground is behaviorally similar to arguing with a forest fire. Let me make an important distinction here. These were some of the environmental facts I listed earlier. These ones [outlined] in the red [boxes] – climate [and] ocean risks and some of the plastics ones, but not all – are part of the metabolism of human society. They will be fixed when the scale of our economy goes down.

24:52 – These other things have a cultural component. Europe just voted to eliminate all single-use plastics. There’s a lot of backlash in China right now for the dumping of sharks back in the ocean after just taking their fin off. And ivory is becoming socially not cool to have. So the things in yellow [boxes] are things that we can culturally, socially change. But the things in red – the climate and ocean things – are more linked to this mass to the three-quarter size.

[Our key decision-makers mistakenly believe money is our reality]

25:28 — So back to this. All key decision-makers in our world today are expecting this black line [money] is our reality and it’s going to continue. And we’re using this black line by creating more money and more credit – especially places like China and Japan – and the stories that support this, to temporarily increase the red line [non-renewables].

[No government is planning for an end of economic growth]

25:49 — There is no credible institution or government body or corporation globally that is specifically planning for an end of growth. But for the developed world, 80% of people, growth is already over. And this [the next graph] is – I could spend an hour on this because it’s so essential, but it’s also a little complicated and scary – but the red line shows the credit growth in the world. And the blue line shows GDP growth – the growth of our economies. They’re incredibly correlated.

[The developed world is already at 330% ratio of debt to GDP]

26:18So our economies will grow as long as we can continue to borrow money. Okay. And we’re already at 330% debt to GDP as a developed world. Could we go to 400%? Sure. Could we go to 500%? Yes. 600%. No. 700% No. So at some point we have a cultural bill due. We’ve been consuming more than our means for fifty years. And that bill is coming due. And that has implications for our societies, for our economies, for our environment, for our communities – and I’m going to get into that a little bit later.

[Renewable energy will not be our salvation]

26:53Renewable energy, which is more aptly called rebuildable energy because we have to rebuild it every 20 or 30 years. Under current cultural guidelines, renewables, we’re only adding them to the mix. We’re not subtracting the other stuff. This [graph] is the last 19 years. The gray [column] shows the increase in fossil carbon use, and the green [column] shows the increase in renewable energy. Other than this one year, which was the Great Recession [of 2009], fossil energy is still 75% of our increase in use. So rebuildables are currently are merely making fossil carbon more efficient globally.

[Adding renewables will simply grow the whole energy supply system]

27:31 – So if we think of this superorganism dynamic, what’s going to happen is this is just going to be bigger with solar and wind and still coal, natural gas and oil. So we will use less of the coal and stuff as fuel, but we’ll grow the whole system.

27:48 — The narratives in the news, though, are that we’re going to continue to grow the economy – this blue line [named ‘stochastic tech’ on the graph] — using stochastic variable renewable technology. Which, if you think about the 500 billion fossil workers we have, is unlikely. They [fossil carbon] are mature. They are cheap. We can use them for some effect, but  it’s going to be a smaller system.

28:13 — And very few people are talking about the size and scale of how we could use hardly any coal, oil, natural gas, and use them as “seed corn”* to invest into renewables. Where is the scale of that? Most of the narratives are “We’re going to continue this.” [*seed corn is money that businesses spend at the beginning of renewable projects until the renewables begin producing profits.]

[To keep the economy growing we’re going to keep kicking the energy consumption can down the road]

28:34 – So what we’re doing is we’re kicking the can. This is an ‘emergent property’* of almost 8 billion of us following those simple rules I talked about. We’re functioning as a superorganism. We’re now growth-constrained as a culture and we’re going to kick any and all cans forward to keep growth going. [*An emergent property is a property which a complex system has, – like a superorganism– but which the individual parts of the system do not have].

[A rude awakening is coming in the next decade]

28:51What happens when we’ve kicked the can as far as it will go and it’s now blocking the road? I think this moment is coming in the next decade. The social and economic recalibrations related to this are going to change everything. They’re going to change education, philanthropy, institutions, society and the environment.

[Four things NOT likely to happen]

29:08 – So under this framing, viewing humanity as a superorganism, what is NOT likely to happen?

  • We’re not likely to grow the economy AND mitigate the Sixth Mass Extinction and climate change.
  • We’re not likely to grow the economy by getting rid of the bad fuels and replacing them with rebuildables.
  • We’re not likely to choose to leave fossil carbon in the ground because it’s so tethered to our experiences, our life standards, our wages, our profits, our growth, the cheap stuff that we buy.
  • Governments are not likely to embrace limits to growth before limits to growth are well past.

[Six things that ARE likely to happen]

29:48 – Okay, so under this framing what is likely to happen?

  • We’re going to grow our gross energy while the net declines.
  • We’re going to have all kinds of technologically, feasible energy schemes that aren’t really going to produce much energetic contribution to society.
  • We’re going to – and you’re going to see this in the 2020 election – we’re going to have “Modern Monetary Theory” which is basically printing money from the government — because the government can never go bankrupt – to spend in the real world. But MMT is divorced from a biophysical understanding of energy and resources.
  • We’re going to, in the 2020 election, have universal basic income conversations. Andrew Yang is already talking about this, because half the people in our country are broke. And we’re going to have to support them; otherwise it will be bad.
  • We’re going to have fewer environmental regulations. Already today, on Earth Day, Trump is bragging on how great he’s done for the environment — and by the way, he’s repealing all this protection of national parks and things like that. Look what happened in Brazil with Bolsonaro – they’re allowing more soybean farming in the Amazon, etc.
  • In my opinion, we’re going to be pedal-to-the-metal on all these things until we hit a wall. But we will hit a wall.

The Choreography

[The Great Simplification is coming]

31:05 – So the choreography. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I consider the future a probability distribution of various possibilities. I think, informed by this analysis – I might have some things wrong, but generally I think I’ve got most of this right —  certain paths that we’re currently following are going to be dead ends.

So this is my opinion –

[Reduction of 30% in advanced economies]

31:27 — In the next decade we’re going to face what I call The Great Simplification. A reduction in advanced economies around 30%, maybe more is likely now. In my opinion it’s a foregone conclusion because we’re using so much credit and debt to continue consuming the amount we are today. So once we remove these low productivity editions of credit, with the shift towards lower productivity energy resources and with the return to current solar inputs — like using the lower quality of stochastic sources. So a 30% drop in the economy is exactly what happened in the 1930s. That was a 29.6% peak to trough decline.

32:12The good news is that energy use and well-being are extremely correlated when you’re very poor. But once you have basic needs met there’s very little well-being and human development index from more energy use. The United States uses 30 times the Energy as the average Filipino – [compared to] the average American – but they’re equally happy. We don’t need all this money and energy to be happy as long as we community and the people around us are healthy and have sufficient resources. Kuwait average earnings $70,000 a year; Guatemala $7,000 equally happy. There’s lots of examples of this. We just don’t – we compare ourselves so much to others that we believe this is true as long as it’s true for everyone else.

[Back to the 1993 future]

33:00So a 30% drop in GDP in this country brings us back to 1993. Now it’s not going to be shared equally and that’s going to have to be addressed. But the 1990s were not such a horrible time.

[To do list]

33:13 – So in my opinion we face a certain choreography if all this going to unfold. Right now we have to deal with partisan issues – trust in science; trust in media; the fact that the left and the right are not talking to each other. They only care about the messenger, not the message. We’re going to have to navigate that now. We’re going to have to navigate this financial economic reset in the next decade. And if that happens, we have a chance – possibly a great chance because our current system is so frozen – to put in caps and floors and appropriate taxes, and non-renewable resources put a tax on them. Eliminate human labor tax, lots of difference social initiatives that could never happen right now we’re in this can-kicking mode.

Why aren’t we hearing more about this?

[There is no cohesive narrative among silos of expertise]

34:07 – Why aren’t you hearing more about this? Well, in my opinion, the intelligentsia and the media are islands of expertise separated by oceans of non-science. You’ve got experts on renewable energy on this island and on this island climate change experts. On this island psychologists. This island finance. And you don’t have a cohesive narrative that ties everything together because they don’t talk to each other and their status depends on them being experts in their one subject.

[The human brain is not tuned in to this complex, threatening, future-oriented predicament]

34:35 — Worse, the story that I’m telling is almost the prefect storm for the human brain to ignore or deny. It’s complex. It’s threatening. It’s in the future. I’m not hearing this from anyone in my tribe. Why didn’t I hear this from Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow, they’re not talking about this. There’s not an immediate answer to what you can do about it. So we evolved almost to perfectly ignore the synthesis that I’m telling you.

The two predominant cultural narratives

35:01 – Getting back to these two predominant cultural narratives, they both share many of the same shortcomings –

  • A lack of natural resources to complete these efforts
  • The systemic inability of financial credit to expand forever
  • Current societal dissonance [disagreement] that will make these difficult to implement

[Wearing a policymaker’s hat blinds one to reality – More GROWTH is the only option]

35:17I’ve been dealing with policymakers – I met with a state governor last month, mayors – and I found something amazing. I believe that there’s four possibilities –

  • We could continue to grow in the future
  • We can muddle through, which is the 0 to 2% bouncing around
  • Or we bend, which is a 30% drop in the size of our economies
  • Or we break, which is Mad Max, certainly possible though I don’t think it’s likely

35:46 – As individuals – high level people, low level people, bartenders, waitresses, truck drivers, mayors, CEOs – we can understand this. This makes sense. We might disagree about the odds. But, once you put on the hat of a mayor or a planner or a CEO, a politician, these types of futures remain in our social blind spots. They can only see this pink [on an on-screen diagram] GROWTH, which makes this really a social puzzle on how to have these conversations.

[Two interrelated challenges]

36:16So there are two interrelated challenges: One is the fact that we need to plan for a drop in the size of our economies; Two is we need to figure out how to even have a conversation about it because it’s so awkward.

What to do as a culture? – Change the narrative, and much more

[Surprising suggestion — Print money, buy other people’s oil and leave our oil in the ground]

36:34So, what to do as a culture? We need to change the narrative. Right now we’re so proud that we’re exhausting our children’s inheritance with the last oil that we have. What we’re effectively doing is draining America first and bragging about it. A wise nation that has the ability to print our own money and is the seigniorage* of the world currency market, we should print money buy other people’s oil and leave ours in the ground because we’re going to need it. Your grandkids are going to like that amazing fossil magic for somethings. [*from the Old French seigneuriage, “right of the lord (seigneur) to mint money“), is the difference between the value of money and the cost to produce and distribute it.]

37:13We need – like I said – to educate, plan and implement a tax – not only on carbon, but on all non-renewable resources – phosphorous, carbon, I mean copper, etc. – for when the credit party ends. And simultaneously, at that moment, there’ll be a lot of people that are unemployed — we remove taxes on human labor. This could not happen right now. We’re going to do the opposite to this right now

37:38We need to regain civil discourse, trust in science, media, and our neighbors – because the challenges I’m talking about tonight from the human amoeba are nonpartisan. This is not a left versus right story. And we need to educate and inspire young people and old people to care beyond their own self-interest – maybe beyond their own species because the real stock market is in real trouble.

38:02 – We have thousands of emojis and icons to represent all kinds of things that we text to someone. We have no icon that represents the future. It’s an abstraction to our culture. We need some sort of cultural icon to represent out shared collective future.

38:20 — We need Earth Trek imagination and inventions instead of Star Trek ones. Again, imagine what sort of investments, as a culture, would be appropriate to The Great Simplification line instead of business as usual line.

38:35So with my students I list the top 10 inventions that humans ever made. You might be able to guess a few of them, but for lack of time, number 3 was a bicycle, number 2 was a story – our ability to tell stories, and the best invention was the Golden Retriever. But all three of these things use very few resources and given us great brain experiences. And that’s the direction we need to go. We need to differentiate between ‘clever’ and ‘wise’.

Make America “Good” – Philanthropy and institutions?

39:09 – Okay. What about philanthropy and institutions? We have these billion-dollar philanthropists that spend $50,000,000 a year and keep the billion there [unspent] and spend their 5% a year or whatever. We need to spend that [billion that they’re not spending] down because it may not exist in 10 or 20 or 30 years. So philanthropy needs to spend down and make a difference now while they can. Even if they don’t agree with what I’m saying tonight, even if they think that what I’m saying is five or ten percent plausible, that behooves them to change their campaigns and their investment strategy.

As a community?

39:40 – What about as a community? Social capital is going to be paramount. Most people don’t even leave their houses anymore. So one suggestion I have is this summer go and knock on the doors of ten people within a half mile of your house that you’ve never met before. We need to have conversations about life with real people. Imagine everyone in your city, including you, living on 30% less. I think this is a real possibility in the next decade.

40:11 – What would you do if the blue line [on-screen graph, Great Simplification] is more your future and the [the future of the] people in your community? Communities are going to go different ways. There’s guns, gold, bitcoin and beans dynamic that when people start to figure this out – and they will – that’s going to be the response. Or there’s going to be “Do my civic duty.” Care about the nature in my place. Farmers’ markets, community meetings, healthy ecosystems.

[Have meetings about what’s really going on]

40:37 — So your community, our community, is going to have a choice of which of these things to stress. And every community in America is going to be different. But I would like to have this brief talk tonight – I would like this to be a clarion call where we have weekly or every other week or whatever we can do meetings about what’s really going on. Yeah, they’re going to be unpleasant and maybe uncomfortable and awkward, but we need to start talking about the real issues that face the world in this area.

41:07 — We need facilitators between the economy and the environment. We need to think about the world; it’s about to get to be a much bigger place in the next decade. So we need to think about the micro-components for all the things we use in our life that come from South Korea or Bangladesh or somewhere. We need to localize and regionalize the supply chains.

41:27 — We need to tithe [pay or give to] to this place, to your place. Wherever you live, consider giving 10% of your time and effort every week to doing something that matters in your community. I would choose something to do in nature as well. But if you’re not going to do it, who is? I mean this [photo] is Red Wing 140 years ago. What’s Red Wing going to look like in the future? We need to think and talk about a different trajectory than business as usual.

As individuals?

41:56 – What about as individuals? I have 50 of these [to do’s] for my students and I limited it to like 5 or 6 here.

  • First of all, think for yourself, reject the consensus trance.
  • Make sure you’re a critical thinker and test whether the reality matches what you think it does.
  • Remember that the best things in life are free after our basic needs are met.
  • So we are incredibly focused on comparing ourselves to the Joneses. When we finally catch up to Jones we realize he’s kind of a knucklehead and miserable. We have to care about absolute wealth as opposed to relative wealth.
  • Go on periodic vision quests. I went for a week hiking the Appalachian Trail with my brother. It was really hard work 10 hours a day. I didn’t have my phone. I had some withdrawal symptoms, but I felt amazing after. We need to unplug from technology.
  • Choose your tribe. We’re on this runaway train where the amoeba is shovelling fuel into the engine, but meet at the dining car with people that share your values, your morals, your sense of humor and that you enjoy hanging out with. Who you are surrounded by has a major, major influence on your outlook and what you do in life.
  • Simplify first and beat the rush.
  • If you think about this energy and money reality that I’ve laid out, just like in Minnesota and Wisconsin when you’re looking in a snowstorm at 2 or 3 cars ahead of you to see the brake lights in case something is happening, do the same thing. Try to imagine what the likely trajectory might be in the next decade and make choices accordingly.
  • Learn a physical skill. A lot of my students have no physical skills at all. They just think that their major is going to get them through life, they can’t grow or fix anything – not that I can really, but I’m good with a chainsaw and I grow potatoes.
  • So what as an individual would you do, appropriate investments of your time and resources and money?
  • And finally, aspire to be net positive. We have so many social shaming things like “Oh, you ate that hamburger! You should be a vegetarian.” Or “I can’t believe you flew somewhere.” To minimize your extraneous energy use, and to be a good environmental steward, that’s good hygiene – but on a larger scale, you’re just becoming a smaller part of a big problem.

So I teach my students to maximize their impact, not minimize it. Try to make a difference at larger scales than your own life.

Educate and inspire others on new aspirations and values

Educate and inspire others on new aspirations and values. One of my favorite things to do in life in the morning is to check my wildlife camera in the backyard. And I don’t see stuff like this [photo] often. This was a few years ago – I saw a bear. And sometimes there are flying rabbits. And I had a badger last year. And I also had a Fisher cat. I was so excited. This was a dopamine better than winning a stock market or a fantasy football contest or anything. I was like “Wow, a Fisher cat on our property.”

And we have to care about the creatures in our place because if we don’t, who will? And the steps are, you first have to understand what’s going on, which I hope I’ve given a little bit of insight into. Then you have to care because some people don’t care. Then you have to do? And then you have to strategize on how to grow it and be more effective. And then you have to do some more.

45:21 – So we’re alive at this amazing and perilous time, It’s not as perilous as what our ancestors faced. We are facing this superorganism dynamic, but as individuals and small groups we can accomplish amazing things. And my last advice is life is amazing, live it, try to do something beyond your own immediate comfort and self-interest.

We as a species, live on a heliocentric [sun-centered] world and we figured it out. We evolved and we figured it out. We’re functioning as an energy-seeking, mindless, superorganism, and we figured it out.

I invite you all to play a role in our cultural evolution towards some new mitochondria* after growth that we have higher values towards something larger than our own self-interest that respects the rest of the planet. [*power generators of the cell].

Thank you.


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