Citizen Action Monitor

We’re headed for an increasingly complex, lower quality energy system, says Dr. Nate Hagens

The bad news – Few are planning for a world with a smaller energy footprint, with far fewer benefits

No 2504 Posted by fw, August 12, 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

Dr. Nate Hagens

“We’re headed for an increasingly complex energy system, and also a lower quality energy system than we’ve become accustomed to. And this has implications. The good news is, if we pause to reflect on it, that we don’t need all this energy and stuff to be happy. We need enough to have our basic needs met, and a little bit more, but a lot of that energy we’re using today is wasted. But our current culture has an embedded belief that human economies are somehow exempt from this biological rule, possibly because famous examples warning about growth in the past were wrong. … It is possible we can grow for a while longer, but all of our institutions implicitly expect growth to continue throughout this century. Could they say otherwise?”Dr. Nate Hagens

As mentioned in my August 5 post, Dr. Nate Hagens, professor at the University of Minnesota, has uploaded a set of 34 videos on the nature of our human predicament. These videos, which he uses in his teachings and public lectures, are grouped in three sections —  Brain and Behavior; Energy and Economy; and The Big Picture. They are freely available for all on You Tube, offering a total of 6 hours of viewing time. The August 5 post provides a list of all 34 titles along with each and every embedded video.

On August 7, I posted Part 14 of Section 2 in the set of 34 videos, including an embedded video of Hagens’ presentation, and my full transcript of his narration, which includes added subheadings, text highlighting, and added links to other sources. In Part 14, Hagens discusses the reality of the daunting challenge ahead in transitioning from fossil fuels to 100% renewables by 2050, a reality that misrepresents current fossil fuel energy facts.

Following up on Part 14, posted below is an embedded video of Hagens’ Energy and our Future, Part 16 of Section 2, of his Energy and Economy set of videos. In this video and accompanying transcript, I direct your attention to a part that captured my interest – his discussion of four possible economic growth futures that might emerge as we continue our transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Surprisingly, Hagens says a Green Growth economic growth future is “pretty unlikely.” .

Included with the embedded video below, is my full transcript of Hagens’ narration, along with my added subheadings and text highlighting. The above passage is taken from my transcript.

Alternatively, this video, without the transcript, can be viewed by clicking on the following linked title.

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Energy and Our Future | Energy and Economy #16/16 by Nate Hagens, Reality 101 – UMN Nexus One, January 31, 2019 (11:59)

TRANSCRIPT

We’re at the end of the energy videos. Thank you for staying with me. Let me do a quick whirlwind summary.

Burning fossil carbon energy resources has given us huge lifestyle benefits, but at a cost  

Our culture is energy blind. We don’t recognize the importance and ubiquity of energy supporting our current lifestyles. Energy is important in nature. It underpins natural systems and has been a driver of evolution. Energy also impacts human systems and the vast armies of fossil workers that came out of the ground a couple of hundred years ago. They’ve given us huge benefits in the form of higher wages, higher profits, lower priced stuff.

The cost – Burning fossil carbon has had large, but slow, damaging impacts on the environment

We’ve continued to expand the scale of our energy use to now, every American, on average, uses 100, hundred watt lightbulbs per person, which is around 10,000 watts per day. We have the metabolism* of about a 30-ton animal. This metabolism, and burning fossil carbon five to ten million times faster than it was sequestered is having large but slow impacts on the environment, the ocean, the atmosphere. [*The set of life-sustaining chemical reactions in organisms. The three main purposes of metabolism are: the conversion of food to energy to run cellular processes; the conversion of food/fuel to building blocks for proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and some carbohydrates; and the elimination of nitrogenous wastes. These enzyme-catalyzed reactions allow organisms to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments].

As the cost of energy goes up, so too does the cost of fuel-based energy production, unless production processes can be made more efficient  

Energy is linked to the size of our economies and it will remain so. We can get a little more efficient here and there with technology, but basically GDP is a function of how much energy we burn. Energy is ubiquitous in our economies, and if the cost goes up it has a ripple effect through all kinds of other things that we do. We’re separated from the things we want by barriers of time, complexity and energy. And everything we do will be become more expensive if we can’t reduce the energy consumption of specific processes faster than prices grow.

As fossil carbon stocks are more quickly depleted, extraction costs rise – A story the media largely ignores

Fossil carbon is non-renewable on human timescales. We’ve accessed the best first. The stuff that’s left is more costly environmentally in energy terms. The United States now is the world’s largest oil producer but we’re at the source rock. There’s nothing left after that and it depletes very rapidly and it’s very costly [to extract]. So this is not the narrative we’re hearing in the media.

Different energies, different properties — Will intermittent renewables be able match the just-in-time delivery demands of our existing fossil-based global trade infrastructure?

Energy differs in the properties that it provides, both in nature and in human systems. And a stochastic*, more intermittent renewable future is possibly a mismatch with our current just-in-time delivery, global transportation infrastructure. [*A randomly determined process]

We’re headed for an increasingly complex, lower quality energy system

We’re headed for an increasingly complex energy system, and also a lower quality energy system than we’ve become accustomed to. And this has implications.

Can we willingly learn to do with less energy and less stuff? 

The good news is, if we pause to reflect on it, that we don’t need all this energy and stuff to be happy. We need enough to have our basic needs met, and a little bit more, but a lot of that energy we’re using today is wasted.

The bad news is our institutions expect energy and economic growth to continue this century

So, some context here. We naturally understand that baby elephants need to eat in order to grow. But when they grow up, then they stop growing. Similarly, we naturally understand that human babies need to eat to grow. But they stop growing, vertically, around 20 years old. But our current culture has an embedded belief that human economies are somehow exempt from this biological rule, possibly because famous examples warning about growth in the past were wrong. Like Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich. Well, they weren’t really wrong, they just didn’t have the full picture. Malthus made his predictions before we found fossil carbon. Ehrlich warned about limits before we used globalization and debt as a way to pull resources forward in time. It is possible we can grow for a while longer, but all of our institutions implicitly expect growth to continue throughout this century. Could they say otherwise?

What would be the impact on the biosphere if we continued on the predicted growth path?

There are many governmental forecasts for global growth the first half of this century. Most are between 2% and 3% annual growth. Shown above is an OECD government forecast to 2050 for the world’s major countries. Such a tripling in the size of the world economy, if we continue the average historical annual energy efficiency improvement of the last 50 years of 0.5% a year, would result in us using 2.5 times the energy we use today as a global culture in 2050. Can this happen?

Would things be so bad if we didn’t continue on this energy and economic growth path?

What would be the impacts on the biosphere, forests and other species if it does? What would be the impacts if it doesn’t?

You should all now understand a bit more about the drivers and constraints underpinning this question.

Economists think as they do because all modern economic theory was formulated during a geologically brief, unique period of rapid exponential growth

All of modern economic theory was invented and articulated during the period contained in the red box above. The early economists’ attempts to turn physics into economic science were assisted by a continued access to the one-time carbon pulse. But this energy flux underpinning our society is not repeatable.

“Our institutions will eventually have to adapt to a more realistic future trajectory”

And our institutions will eventually have to adapt to a more realistic future trajectory. Long-term growth was not the norm. It’s important to be aware that we are alive during a unique exponential growth period shown in that red box [in the above image]. 

Income inequality has already exposed the social limits to growth

Despite the conversation about future energy and economic growth, we are already witnessing social limits to growth, as evidenced by the yellow vests in France, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump being our presidential candidates in the USA, and populist movements all around the world. Growth has slowed in aggregate, but most of the growth is going only to the top. Only the top 5% or 10% or so of income earners in the United States are earning more than they did 15 years ago. When we used to have very sharp periods of growth, it was easier to spread to all sectors of society. This is no longer the case. The sharp rise in energy prices from 1999 to 2008 or so took a lot of wind out of the sails of the United States and global economy. And the recovery since that has been based on cheap money, debt, and global financial guarantees. It’s worked so far but it’s resulted more in growth of financial assets, and to the top 5% of income earners. And it’s also not sustainable.

Good news – We’ll deplete affordable carbon energy resources before we reach the point of collapse

We are living in this tiny geologic sliver of time we refer to as the “carbon pulse.” We’re probably somewhere between the blue and the red stars on this graph. The good news is we probably don’t remotely have enough affordable carbon to reach the Armageddon climate scenario suggested by the IPCC economists.

The bad news – Few are planning for a world with a smaller energy footprint, and with far fewer benefits

The bad news is hardly anyone is planning for a world with a smaller energy footprint, which would mean less benefits to the average human.

Four possible future scenarios

If you think of the future as four possible scenarios,

  • [Quadrant one] the top left is Green Growth. We’ll continue to grow and will do so with such an energy surplus we’ll be able to solve our environmental problems.
  • [Quadrant two] The top right is we’ll continue to grow but we’ll do so in a dirty Mordor-like fashion.
  • [Quadrant three] The bottom left is we won’t continue to grow. We’ll have a smaller economy. It will be informed by wise social governance, respect other species and other generations, kind of the best of what humans are capable of.
  • And the fourth quadrant is we won’t grow and we won’t have social cohesion – sort of like a Mad Max scenario.

Quadrants one and four have one thing in common – they obviate any personal responsibility to do anything

Now what’s interesting is when we’re exposed to these scenarios our mind gravitates to quadrant one. In quadrant four everything is going to work out and be great, or everything sucks and nothing is going to work, That’s because both of those scenarios have one thing in common – it means we don’t have to do anything about it. Everything is going to be fine or we’re screwed means it obviates any personal responsibility to be involved and to change.

Quadrant one, Green Growth, is pretty unlikely

We don’t know what the odds of these four scenarios are, although I think green growth is pretty unlikely. And I think Mad Max is pretty unlikely.

Quadrants two and three are most likely – and we have the fewest people working on them

I think, ironically, quadrants two [continue to grow] and three [no growth, smaller economy] are the most likely. And we have the fewest people working on them.

What might life be like in quadrant 3, no growth, smaller economy?

So what sort of things would fit in quadrant three. Well, imagine the best ten experiences of your life. If you’re like most people, and not an adrenaline junkie, most of those things required very little exo-somatic energy. So recognition that most of the time the best things in life are free by more people may hopefully lead to some future cultural transition where we start to appreciate energy and use it in different [socially responsible] ways towards more sustainable objectives. Specifics on how to do that are beyond the scope of this video but generally taxing the bads of GDP and subsidizing the goods would be a good start. Taxing financial transactions and non-renewable resources like copper or oil, and not taxing human labor or income might be one good idea.

Who knows what might happen if 5% to 10% of our population became energy and systems aware?

To conclude. Energy is invisible to most Americans, indeed to most humans. I hope this video series has allowed you to see energy in a new way. We can’t know how being more energy aware will change our futures. Certainly if we explain that there was a gazelle problem to a cheetah it probably wouldn’t change its behavior. But humans can learn, share cooperate and use intelligent foresight to be very creative. Who knows what might happen if 5% to 10% of our population became energy and systems aware?

So, here’s some core takeaways from this energy video series for college students –

FirstLearn to see the influence and importance of energy in your lives. Energy, before these videos might be [have been] invisible, now it’s visible.

SecondLearn to appreciate the massive benefits that energy gives us. The next time you’re on an airplane, look out the window at what an amazing experience this is on the backs of fossil carbon.

ThirdYou might think about how this energy economy synthesis might affect your field of study and your career. Consider how you might make better future choices given that energy is probably going to become more expensive and less abundant during your lifetime. How might you combine this new knowledge in a productive pro-social way to help your community and the world.

Here’s a task for you. If you had to sum up these videos in a one-minute spiel, how would you tell your best friend what you just learned about energy? Do you think its important that people know these things? I hope you learned a few things about energy and are able to integrate them into the way you think about the world, and your life and career.

The next and final Nexus video series will be about fitting everything together in the big picture. In addition to human behavior and energy, we’re now going to add in ecology, systems, the world, the future, what does it mean to be alive at this amazing and perilous time. What are some things you can do personally in your own lives to be more resilient, to have more of a role in our future?

Thank you. Talk to you soon.

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This entry was posted on August 12, 2019 by in academic counterpower.
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