Citizen Action Monitor

The Big Picture – Our global civilization of billions behaves as a superorganism, always awake, always hungry

It functions as an energy dissipating structure, consuming every single good or service in our global economic system.

No 2562 Posted by fw, December 24, 2019 (Set 3: The Big Picture – No. 6 of 8)

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

Dr. Nate Hagens

“I believe we are at a cusp in our species’ history where it’s both possible and necessary to look at the really Big Picture. What follows in this video is my own synthesis, but it’s based on the work of many other scientists across many disciplines. It’s not a cheerful story, at first blush, but it’s a clarifying one. So many people … are anxious, depressed, uncertain, and worried about our current situation. I believe understanding this situation is the first and necessary step towards mitigating the worst [threats], adapting to what’s ahead in creative and pro-social ways in planting seeds for emergent cultural change in the decades ahead. … So, under this framing, what is NOT likely to happen? (1) Growing the economy and mitigating climate change in the mass extinction is unlikely; (2) Growing the economy by replacing fossil fuels with renewables is unlikely. We can add renewable to the mix, but not subtract fossil fuels; (3) Humans en masse choosing to leave fossil carbon in the ground is unlikely; and (4) Governments embracing limits to growth before limits to growth are well past [the point of no return] is unlikely. … We’re not evil or flawed or any worse or better than any generation of our ancestors. But we’re approaching 8 billion strong. And the collective living of our lives, combined with a massive pulse of fossil sunlight has caused us to self-organize into a culture that is no longer sustainable. And even if it was, it’s having significant impact on the natural world.”Nate Hagens

Dr. Nathan J. Hagens teaches a systems synthesis Honors seminar — Reality 101: A Survey of the Human Predicament — to students at the University of Minnesota. Nate Hagens is a familiar name to anyone who tracks energy and resilience. Nate was a successful Wall Street trader. He left all that in 2003 to probe more deeply with his students into the human predicament.

There is no one driving the bus of human civilization,” contends Dr. Hagens. “If you read the news and interviews during the recent gathering of billionaires in Davos, this was kind of obvious. The gathered rich and powerful were lacking a cohesive narrative on what is happening and how to respond.

More to the point, “In order to maintain populations’ access to current or even higher levels of consumption and experiences,” Hagens declares “… we’re now using increasingly risky strategies rule changes, subsidies and especially credit. We are now growth constrained and will kick any and all cans forward to keep growth going. What cans are there left to kick?” he asks.

My repost, below, of Hagens’ video 6 of 8 in Set 3 of The Big Picture series of 34 videos, includes the embedded video, my added subheadings, text highlighting, selected images, minor editing changes, and my full transcript.

Alternatively, watch video 6, without my transcript, by clicking on the following linked title.

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The Superorganism: The Big Picture: Set 3, No. 6 of 8 by Nate Hagens, Reality 101 – UMN Nexus One, March 25, 2019 (18:12 min)

TRANSCRIPT

In his Big Picture synthesis, Hagens has identified factors that impact global heating, the oceans, and the environment

Okay. We’ve looked at human behavior, energy, money, technology, economy, growth, and the external impacts our system has on global heating, the oceans, and the environment. Now let’s put this all together.

Understanding The Big Picture is the first step in mitigating urgent challenges and adapting to what’s ahead

I believe we are at a cusp in our species’ history where it’s both possible and necessary to look at the really Big Picture. What follows in this video is my own synthesis, but it’s based on the work of many other scientists across many disciplines. It’s not a cheerful story, at first blush, but it’s a clarifying one. So many people your age and older are anxious, depressed, uncertain, and worried about our current situation. I believe understanding this situation is the first and necessary step towards mitigating the worst, adapting to what’s ahead in creative and pro-social ways in planting seeds for emergent cultural change in the decades ahead.

Here goes.

Paradoxically, stock markets are at an all-time high, but individual income growth ended a decade ago

Okay. We live in a time of paradox. We’ve had a 12-year plateau in conventional oil production, yet the price is still under $60. US oil production just hit an all-time high. We have wide-spread recognition of human-caused climate change, massive investments in renewable energy, but globally, carbon dioxide is still increasing at the highest rate in history. For the majority of people in the developed world, growth, measured by income after expenses, ended over a decade ago. Yet stock markets are still at all-time highs. Everyone’s somewhat worried but no one talks about the actual threats and issues on TV or in public.

Meanwhile, the popular media spin myths that misinform and mislead the public

We live in a time of myth:

  • Demand for oil will drive up due to self-driving electric Uber taxis;
  • We’re going to begin manned space colonies on Mars by 2030;
  • The global economy will be growing a 20% per year by the year 2060;
  • We willing grow our economies, mitigate climate change and solve global poverty and inequality using solar wind and smart grid technology;
  • Humans will be extinct from climate change by 2025.

And many, many more of such ideas.

What is our most urgent challenge? Take your pick. Or could it be “All of the below?”

So, what is our most urgent challenge? – political dysfunction, climate change, ocean issues, overpopulation, pollution, species loss, social justice, poverty…

Which of these things is the most important depends on someone’s perspective and perhaps value system.

But what if they’re all related?

RECAP

Okay. We’re going to first do a recap of the previous videos.

Ecology

Organisms and ecosystems self-organize to maximize access to an energy gradient

There are trophic pyramids [energy gradients] in nature. Underpinning all levels is the energy from our sun. Animals, at different levels, optimize foraging strategies to access energy surplus. Organisms and ecosystems self-organized so as to better access an energy gradient. For example, a tree grows the exact amount of leaves that maximize its surface energy in order to degrade incoming sunlight into photosynthesis.

Human Behavior

Okay. We learned about human behavior.

  • Humans are adaptation executives, not fitness maximizers.
  • We go through our days trying to attain the daily emotional states of our successful ancestors.
  • Humans are among the most social creatures on Earth.
  • Because of that we live as part of a system that suppresses the wants and needs of the individual for the greater goals of society, which nowadays are profits and quarterly earnings.
  • As discussed in the time-blindness video, we have steep discount rates and
  • we prefer to consume rewards today as opposed to deferring them to the future, for good biological reasons.

Energy, Money, Economy

Our society misunderstands the origins and reasons for our current vast wealth — globally national income is linked to energy

Okay. The energy, money, economy section. As discussed in those videos, our society generally misunderstands the origins and reasons for our current vast wealth. We are energy and resource blind. Every single good and service that generates GDP, requires an energy input. We’ve gotten slightly more efficient over time – on average about three-tenths of a percent per year – but, globally, energy and national income are tightly linked and will remain so.

Fossil carbon has powered machines, boosting worker productivity, and increased global income

Relative to 200 years ago, we have massive extra calories added to our global system from fossil carbon gas, oil, and coal, which we pull out from the ground to boost our labor force, powering our machines, technology and heavy industry. This has led to a 14-fold increase in global income since 1800, and a 24-fold increase in income for the average American.

Fossil carbon is not unlimited, and extraction costs are rising

This fossil carbon is not unlimited, and we’ve already found and used the cheapest and easiest. There’s plenty left but it’s more costly in energy dollar and environmental terms.

When energy costs rise, so does the cost of consumer goods

And finally, since energy is so ubiquitous in the processes that underpin our daily lives, everything gets more expensive if energy cost goes up. This will be a theme that we will become well aware of in coming decades.

So those are some of the fundamentals.

WHAT HAPPENED?

How did we arrive at this place with all these issues?

So what happened? How did we arrive at this place with all the issues we’re currently facing?

The arrival of agriculture led to a critical shift in human behavior, organization, and impact

For 290,000 years of our species’ history we were roaming bands of 100 or so people in Africa. Around 10,000 years ago the climate warmed, glaciers receded and, in no fewer than 5 places on Earth, humans started agriculture which led to villages, cities and eventually nation states. This new phenomenon of agricultural surplus allowed some members of society to do jobs unrelated to agriculture. It doesn’t seem like it, but this would be the critical shift in human behavior, organization, and impact.

For most of history, humans appropriated primary capital from nature, turning it into useful things as secondary capital and then having some sort of monetary marker – gold, beads, wampum, eventually money that acted as a lubricant for commerce. Groups of people self-organized to maximize this surplus usually tethered to physical output like grain.

In the same way that a tree grows leaves to access sunlight, human society self-organized around this energy surplus. Ronald Wright, in [his book] A Short History of Progress, [about societal collapse] writes:

“What took place in the early 1500 was truly exceptional, something that had never happened before, and never will again. Two cultural experiments running in isolation for 15,000 years, or more, at last came face to face. Amazingly, after all that time, each could recognize the others’ institutions. When Cortez landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theater, art, music and books. High civilization, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the Earth.”

Recall that we are walking forward in today’s novel cultural and technological environment. But our brains are still looking backward, executing adaptations we inherited from our successful ancestors. How this manifests today is something like this checklist.

  • Do you want [the temperature] to be 10°F, 65°F, or 110°F ?
  • Do you prefer everyone to be like you or to be ostracized?
  • Would you rather be rich or poor?
  • How many children do you want? Zero or greater than zero?
  • Would you prefer newspaper, dial up, DSL [digital subscriber line], broadband [any high-speed Internet access that is always on]?
  • Would you prefer to be miserable or comfortable?
  • If you need to be in town soon, would you drive a car or take a bus or a bike?
  • Would you prefer to be more or less successful than your neighbor?
  • Do you care more about how your life is today or how it will be ten years from now?
  • Would you prefer to win a war or lose a war?

All the above preferences have one thing in common — they all require energy

What do all of these preferences have in common? They require energy, and more energy is generally preferable.

Credit allows individuals, businesses and governments to keep consuming

So when resources started getting less available or more costly, we could continue our access to them by creating credit.

But, for the last 50 years, global credit has grown by a larger amount than our economies

The resulting amount of credit globally has grown by a larger amount each year than our economies have for the last 50 years. This dynamic of consuming today what we couldn’t really afford without credit applies to individuals, to countries, as well as to actual resources.

Borrowing to access more expensive, less accessible energy resources, increases their availability but also increases their rate of decline

This conceptual graph shows how a normal resource pool – for example oil – might change when people can borrow money to spend on complicated technology to access more of the difficult portion of the resource. It does increase the total size of the resource, but it also increases the rate at which it depletes after it begins its decline.

Okay. So let’s fit all this together. Recall human energy history over the past 200 years – a story of adding more energy sources to the mix, growing GDP and continuing upwards. Let’s take a closer look.

Cheap fossil energy has facilitated the emergence of institutions and structures optimized for economic growth

Our gregarious natures, when combined with modern technological inventions and an ample power supply, caused the emergence of institutions and structures that were optimized for growth. Up until the 1970s we merely expanded the boundaries of our physical world using these very high energy-gain fuels and open lands.

Cheap fossil energy changed in the 1970s when oil prices spiked

But that model ran into limits with the OPEC and oil price spikes in the 1970s. Notably, real wages and genuine indicator – energy use per capita – and other metrics for the USA also peaked in the 1970s.

Globalization and debt rapidly increased energy use — until the crash of 2008

The human economy then went on to two new pathways: (1) globalization and the outsourcing of production and supply chains to their least costly areas, and (2) turning to credit to accelerate human consumption after the disconnect of money from the gold standard.

Since 2008, several financial measures sustained energy use growth, but at a slower pace

With debt and globalization we rapidly grew the size of the human energy spigot. This model ran into a brick wall in 2008 as the financial disconnect from underlying capital came crashing down — the bubble pricked by Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Since 2008, we’ve continued growing this energy spigot at a slower pace via

  • central banks taking over the credit guarantee mechanism
  • and general management of markets by governments,
  • artificially low interest rates,
  • direct liquidity to institutions at risk,
  • ongoing central bank balance sheet expansion,
  • and government deficit spending.

All of these “temporary measures” continued 10 years after the crisis began.

Other measures were introduced to keep energy use growing

Additionally, to keep this energy spigot growing, which gives citizens more preferential energy services, countries are changing their rules in order to gain more access. For example, the USA is changing its definition of intellectual property to recognize more GDP today versus allocating it to the future.

Italy and other European countries even added prostitution and cocaine sales to bolster their GDP

Italy and many other European countries are adding prostitution and cocaine sales to their economic statistics to keep their GDP to debt ratio above the European Central Bank minimums.

Okay. Let’s recall the murmuration of starlings example. Starlings as individuals follow three simple rules: (1) Do what your neighbor does; (2) Don’t get too close; (3) Fly towards the center. With all these individual starlings doing that, it creates and emergent property of these beautiful shapes, these murmurations in the sky.

Like murmurations of starlings, humans follow a few simple rules to create an emergent effect of 7.7 billion people

In a similar way, human individuals also follow a few simple rules: (1) Cooperate with others in small businesses or corporations or at national levels to gain access to energy and monetary surplus; (2) Follow cultural rules of what behaviors are socially acceptable; (3) We spend this surplus on fun, interesting and socially approved things.

The emergent effect is the creation of a globally connected network — civilization behaving as a superorganism

The emergent effect of 7.7 billion people following these simple rules is a globally connected network that functions like a real live organism. This superorganism is fed by a global transportation system with gasoline and diesel acting as the hemoglobin. Viewed this way, the superorganism is always awake and always hungry as it expands delivery nodes for goods, services, and people around a larger and larger global network.

This superorganism behaves like a giant amoeba, providing a throughput for more energy use

So the puzzle pieces in the opening image reassemble into something that resemble a giant amoeba. The amoeba doesn’t have a brain, but follows simple rules — whatever allows it to access more throughput. And this is all predicated on more energy.

IMPLICATIONS

In the context of our urgent challenge list above, it turns out that all these urgent issues are related

Okay. So what are the implications of viewing the world from this lens? Think about our urgent challenge list. Which of these is most urgent? It turns out that all of these issues are related and can be explained by this superorganism dynamic.

So what are the 3 main inferences of viewing our human economy in this way?

1/ Physically, global human society is functioning as an energy dissipating* structure. Every single good or service consumed in our global economic system originated with a small fire burning somewhere on the planet. [*Dissipate – In physics, to cause energy to be lost through its conversion to heat, which performs work]

2/ Behaviorally, global human society functions using simple tropisms akin to an amoeba. In effect the larger the group of people, the less able it is to depart from the gene agenda which is tethered to energy.

Viewed from this perspective there is no one driving the bus of human civilization and plans. Which, if you read the news and interviews during the recent gathering of billionaires in Davos, this was kind of obvious. The gathered rich and powerful were lacking a cohesive narrative on what is happening and how to respond.

3/ Issues like population, climate change, ocean risks, are downstream of human economies optimizing GDP. Many of our environmental issues are a by-product of the metabolism of this superorganism dynamic. Asking voters to keep carbon in the ground, based on how powerful it is and what it provides to our societies, is behaviorally akin to arguing with a forest fire.

Most decision-makers in the world are expecting energy and economic growth to continue

Okay. Back to these conceptual graphs. For much of the last 100 years the black line, which is our monetary representations of reality, tracked closely with our real energy and material situation. So it’s understandable that people expect this line to continue higher. And indeed most leaders and institutions are planning on this. All key decision-makers in the world are expecting growth to continue.

Credit and monetary creation will stimulate the continuing increase of non-renewable, finite resources

But, we’re using that black line — which is credit and monetary creation, and the stories that support it — to temporarily increase the red line, which is our non-renewable, finite resources. There is no credible institution or government body or corporation globally that is specifically planning for an end to growth, despite growth and income in wages being over for over 80% of the developed world.

As a global culture we’re kicking the can of growth down the road – We’re functioning as a superorganism

So we, as a global culture, are kicking the can of growth. This is an emergent property of 7.7 billion of us following simple rules. We’re not bad people. We’re just alive at a time where our collective impact is now quite large. We’re functioning as a superorganism.

To drive higher levels of consumption, we’re promoting risker strategies, especially subsidies and debt

In order to maintain populations’ access to current or even higher levels of consumption and experiences, we’re now using increasingly risky strategies rule changes, subsidies and especially credit. We are now growth-constrained and will kick any and all cans forward to keep growth going.

What cans are there left to kick? What will happen when we have kicked the can as far as it will go is now blocking the road?

Given the current adoption of riskier strategies, what is NOT likely to happen?

The social and economic recalibrations related to this phenomenon will change education, philanthropy, institutions and societies.

So, under this framing, what is NOT likely to happen?

1/ Growing the economy and mitigating climate change in the mass extinction is unlikely;

2/ Growing the economy by replacing fossil fuels with renewables is unlikely. We can add renewable to the mix, but not subtract fossil fuels;

3/ Humans en masse choosing to leave fossil carbon in the ground is unlikely;

4/ Governments embracing limits to growth before limits to growth are well past [the point of no return] is unlikely.

Bottom line —

Okay. Sorry for the flurry of slides and concepts. Many of the logical pieces that build into this story are very hard to convey in a short sound bite, but this is the gist of it

We’re not evil or flawed or any worse or better than any generation of our ancestors. But we’re approaching 8 billion strong. And the collective living of our lives, combined with a massive pulse of fossil sunlight has caused us to self-organize into a culture that is no longer sustainable. And even if it was, it’s having significant impact on the natural world.

Up Next in video 7 — So how do we think about this predicament? What comes next? And what do we do about it?

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