Can we knowingly plan an escape from a trending downward spiral of economic growth followed by decline?
No 2563 Posted by fw, December 28, 2019 (Set 3: The Big Picture – No 7 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
“We are not remotely functioning to our potential as individuals or as a culture. In fact, we’re mostly asleep to both the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead. Many things which feel possible, are not. But many things which feel impossible are also not. Learning how to sort these things out is the challenge of our time and the great challenge of our species for all time since we’ll never face this scale of problem again. That’s what Reality 101 and this short hologram of it were created to be – a more complete way of thinking about the world and ourselves, filtered of evolved bias and delusion. This new clarity of thought and perception shows scary things which were previously invisible to us. But it also shows just what we have to work with, who we really are, and what to expect going forward. That means we have to find paths to the best futures which are still possible even if those paths are difficult in some ways.” —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.
In this, Dr. Hagens’ second to last video in Set 3 of 8 videos — as well as being his second to last of his full set of 34 videos — he acknowledges “This has been a great deal of information that poses more questions than answers.” In this video, Hagens poses some provocative big questions inferred from his Big Picture synthesis of humanity’s existential predicament. He titles this video, 8 Great Questions for Our Time. In point of fact, within each of his 8 questions, he asks numerous complementary questions. Moreover, his “questions” are sometimes little more than headings with a question mark.
Be that as it may, his 8 Great Questions does serve as an outline of sorts of the content of this video. So, here they are — 8 Great Questions –
My repost, below, of Hagens’ video 7 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 7, without my transcript, by clicking on the following linked title.
Alright. Second to last video. This has been a great deal of information that poses more questions than answers. So let’s look at some of the big questions inferred from this synthesis.
Consistent economic growth has been a recent and fleeting global experience
1/ Are we more than a superorganism? Consistent economic growth is a very recent and probably a fleeting experience for our species. For most of even the last 2,000 years, growth was not the norm. But all of modern economic theory was invented and articulated in the red box below.
Global civilization has been a benefactor of a one-time carbon pulse
The early economists attempted to turn economic science into physics. and they were assisted and subsidized, without being aware of it, until recently by continued access to a one-time carbon pulse. But this one-off energy jackpot underpinning our society is not repeatable according to known science. And our institutions would be wise to develop some scenario planning. And what if that blue [growth] line doesn’t continue skyward?
We are already hitting social limits to growth
We are already hitting social limits to growth. What will happen beyond growth? At some point the superorganism that is the global economy will run out of cans to kick, which will result in an economic decline. The default then will likely be followed by a society self-organizing around energy towards more growth, which, in turn, hist limits causing further decline. Rinse and Repeat like a weakening fly batting against a window.
Can we knowingly plan an escape from this growth / decline downward spiral?
Can knowing what we now know about behavior, energy, and the environment inform what sort of governance and objectives we aspire to as a culture?
We’ve come a long way from hunter-gatherer bands on the Savanna to vast populations living in cities around the planet.
Can we collectively be something more than an energy-dissipating amoeba? How might we merge growth with governance?
2/ Population or Consumption? Population today is 1900 times larger than it was at the dawn of the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago. We’re right now at 7.7 billion people. There is roughly a 1 in 12 chance that any given human since the dawn of our species is alive today.* Many people now think the single biggest problem we face is human population. Is that true? [*This sentence makes no sense to me but I have left it in]
We have human populations, but we also have populations of our “stuff” made from Earth’s minerals, metals, and energy
We have to remember we have populations of human beings but also populations of laptops, cars, refrigerators, airplanes, cell phones, microwaves, air conditioners, etc.
Some human consumption facts —
So which is the greater issue? – [population growth or growth of stuff to consume?]
131 million human babies are born each year, and around 50 million people die each year, leading to a net increase of 80 million new humans annually. Every year we create around 100 million, 3,000-pound new vehicles.
Population growth facts —
A win-win-win human population reduction idea
Changing this growth rate from 1.1%, plus 80 million, to minus 1.1%, which would be minus 80 million annually, would result in a change in global population of 1 billion people per decade. This could be achieved by three things:
1/ Universal women’s rights. Sanctions against nations that don’t achieve that. Allowing women to choose if and when they have children;
2/ Universally available contraceptives so women and families can protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies – preferably free government-sponsored contraceptives; and
3/ A global communication effort – Public Relations Campaigns that popularize small families, contraception, women’s rights, abortion rights, waiting longer to start a family, and so forth.
These three actions would take us from plus 1.1 to minus 1.1 easily. None of these are coercive. And they all have other positive social values. This program would be win-win-win. The only loser would be economic growth because reducing population via any of these methods would be exactly in opposition to our current economic rules which require growth.
But there’s pressure on to increase, not decrease, population growth
More babies are seemingly required for schools, toys, laptops, pensions and growth and to keep interest on debts being paid. Already, countries that have low population growth rates are taking extreme measures to increase their populations, not decrease them. Denmark now has a “Do It For Denmark” campaign where parents of childless couples get stipends from the government to send their adult children on vacations to romantic locations in order to increase the number of Danish babies.
Do we have a population problem, a consumption problem or both?
So, do we have a population problem, a consumption problem or both? Or are they directly related with the problem being population x consumption?
Could it be that a Filipino family with 10 kids has a lower impact than a US family with 1 kid? A hard question but an obvious one to consider.
Declining resource availability will reduce population in less pleasant ways
Finally, why would a lower population be desirable over and above the impacts on the world?, given that eventually the declining availability of fuel, minerals and metals will mean declining food, sanitation and peace, which will reduce population in less pleasant ways.
Humanity’s challenge is to make informed, wise choices while there’s still time
There’s no doubt we’ll eventually reach a sustainable population one way or another. So it’s a good thing we still have choices. This is an important issue.
3/ Who will do our work in the future? This question gets at the heart of the relationship between energy and technology. What is the relationship between work and a job?
99% of physical labor is done via fossil carbon via machines and industry
99% of the physical labor in our global economy is done by inanimate fossil carbon via machines and industry. The average American has a job and a paycheck, but also has 250 energy helpers standing invisibly behind him or her, in the form of machines underpinning our industry using fossil carbon.
From this perspective, what do jobs mean? And what is the difference between jobs and work? If you could graduate and make $100,000 per year to just pull a lever, and this was socially acceptable, would you do it? In effect, many people not only would but are.
Most technology increases the demand for primary energy. What happens when primary energy declines?
Recall that most technology is just leading to higher global demand for primary energy. When primary energy begins to decline, technology will have to do much more, or we’ll have to do with much less. Recall that there’s a difference between technologically possible and technologically affordable and scalable.
What impact will robots have on jobs and work? Will unemployment increase? Will consumption decrease? Will growth decline?
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 people were replaced by robots? If enough people drop back to poverty levels or are unemployed, who will buy the technological products?
“The American way of life is non-negotiable.” President George Bush 2005
“There are no greater people than the American citizenry, and as long as we believe in ourselves, and our country, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.” President Donald Trump, Jan. 20, 2017
Americans have used more fossil carbon to support their lifestyles than any country on Earth
In this century, in the last century, in the last 200 years, since the dawn of time, the USA has used more fossil carbon to support our lifestyles than any other country on Earth. At approximately 250 human workers per person, of coal, oil, and natural gas, per American per year, that is quite some subsidy to our way of life,* which some say is non-negotiable. [*I find this part of the sentence confusing. Here is my rewrite: “In one year, one American worker using carbon energy, can be as productive as 250 Americans working without the benefit of carbon energy”].
We led the world on the way up. Could we lead the world on a prosperous descent?
In the future, what will be the relationship between jobs and work? What will be the role of education and jobs?
4/ Consumption or meaning? This is a representation of a one-time fossil carbon energy pulse visualized on a longer-term scale than a human lifetime.
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 the reach those Armageddon climate scenarios suggested by the IPCC. The bad news is hardly anyone is planning for a world with a smaller energy footprint.
If we knew 200 years ago what we know now, would we have done anything differently?
I often wonder if we had to go through the past 200 years to become aware as a species, to go to the brink and reassess our situation based on science and open eyes and open hearts.
Knowing what we know now, can we do anything differently for the future? What are our physically possible choices? What sort of things will be the best use of our remains fossil carbon stocks? How can our society work towards not wasting our remaining low entropy resources? Can we use it towards seedcorn for a different, more sustainable future?
5/ Clever or wise? Homo sapiens means “wise man.” We are now approaching 8 billion in population. The average species lasts one to two million years, meaning, if we don’t screw things up, there could possibly be a trillion humans living sometime in the future.
Humanity’s belief that cleverness will save us is based on a hidden assumption of infinite energy and resources
But if we’re to get there we probably need wisdom much more than cleverness. Our economists and our own fantasies believe that cleverness is humanity’s ultimate resource, which will propel us into Star Trek futures of universal wealth. This belief contains an enormous hidden assumption – That the universe is constructed in such a way that sufficient cleverness will uncover infinite energy and resources.
Most of our energy still comes from that single carbon pulse, and that will not change
Yet there’s been no new form of energy discovered in over 100 years, and even today the vast majority of our energy is from the carbon pulse with the rest accounting to a rounding error, which also depends on carbon pulse energy to exist.
We are not wise about how to use less of this excess net energy
We have been clever about finding ways to use this excess net energy, but so far less wise about using less.
If we were wise, we would do the very opposite of what we are doing
Wisdom would dictate taking a look at what’s possible and optimizing outcomes for a long and thriving existence on Earth. That’s the opposite of what we’re doing so far.
What if iPhones, the ability to fly to Jamaica on a holiday, Siri [virtual assistant] giving you directions on how to get to the concert hall, Oculus Rift virtual experiences, Facebook and FaceTime – what if all that is the Star Trek future and we’re living it right now? What sort of wisdom would we need to pursue an Earth Trek future?
6/ Equity and Justice – How inclusive? Wealth and income inequality are no doubt a very serious issue in our world, particularly in the USA. Robust scientific studies show that less equal societies have many more social problems and less overall wellbeing.
We fail to use the wealth of surplus of carbon energy to bring fairness, equity and justice to the vulnerable
Beginning quite recently in historical terms, much of the human race is now seeking to spread justice, inclusivity and fairness as societal- and species-level goals. Living at the peak of the carbon pulse wealth makes that a tenable option to pursue, since even with wide wealth disparity there is plenty to go around and no real need to fight or oppress others. Yet the reality of this so far falls short with fairness mostly practiced in terms of those we live alongside and interact with.
Our lifestyles impoverish people in other countries
We abhor slavery but are quite fond of lifestyles which impoverished people in other countries, assemble our smartphones and live with the pollution of making our cars and solar panels. So global rights and inclusivity are far from perfect.
49% of global emissions are emitted by the richest 10% of people on the planet
The single biggest variable leading to global CO2 emissions is an increase in income. And 49% of global emissions are emitted by the richest 10% of people on the planet, which includes most Americans.
As affordable resources peak in availability, there will be insufficient energy and resources available to help underdeveloped nations
Moreover, our belief systems speak in terms of developed nations and underdeveloped nations as though some nations are lagging a bit behind but will someday have the resources that we first-world nations now have. Yet seeing this in light of the carbon pulse of energy shows it’s a misnomer. There will be insufficient energy and materials for that to occur as affordable resources peak in availability. Whether we still pursue equality once we start using less is an open question. Fortunately our absolute wealth levels are far more than we need to be healthy, happy and prosperous.
Morally, we should apply the concept of “deep fairness” to future generations — but will we do it?
It could be we should consider the concept of “deep fairness,” which extends not only to the people around us, and those who make our stuff, but to the generations which must seek happiness in times to come – our children, grandchildren and others who will have to increasingly make do without air-conditioning and other products of a globe-spanning, exosomatic energy machine which extracts and constructs.
And other species, as aware in their own ways as we are in ours, facing looming problems of non-existence based on the side-effects of this giant machine. Whether they share the Earth of our grandkids or are replaced by jellyfish and slimes, will also be determined by the course we choose today.
Do we actually believe in fairness, justice and equality?
Our current course is towards a more lonely future on a much-changed world. And this challenges us to take a hard look at whether we actually believe in fairness, justice and equality.
So how wide do we draw the boundaries of analysis on equality? And which is more critical – equality or the level of our consumption, or both?
7/ Social Contract for the 21st century? Humans have a long history of social contracts – rules constructed on the basis of the needs and the knowledge of the people living together at the time. This is the “Cave of the Hands” in Argentina, a hunter-gatherer culture around 10,000 years ago. Around 3,000 years ago we had the well-preserved Babylonia code of Hammurabi – rules of laws from ancient Mesopotamia. 800 years ago we had the Magna Carta. 240 years ago, the US Constitution, and more recently a number of amendments.
Will we continue to be ruled by our selfish behavior, dong what “feels good” to us and meets approval from our friends?
So who do we want to be? How do we want our grandkids and future historians – if there are any – to think of us? And how do we want to think of ourselves? Are we ready to practice some form of deep fairness and do it in a wise way? Or should we double down on what feels good, and what those around us think is okay?
The peaking of the carbon pulse will bring many changes. And the way we navigate those will tell our story.
Are we willing to live a little bit less lavishly and more self-aware?
Will we, amoeba-like continue to reproduce and consume until we hit hard limits and crash like bacteria in a petri dish? Or might we use our cleverness in the service of optimizing our future? Are we willing to live a little bit less lavishly and a bit more self-aware to actually steer our future using our principles rather than our immediate desires? That’s not only an open question, it’s the open question for humanity, and for each of us individually.
Just watching this series of videos means you are privy to many things that most people don’t yet know or never think about, and will never wish to believe.
How will you use this knowledge? And what does that say about us all?
8/ What is your big question about the future? Given this synthesis of human evolved behavior, ecology, environment, energy, economy, and systems, what is your big question about the future? What motivates you or makes you curious?
We’re mostly asleep to both the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Maybe you can research it, understand it, play a role in its unfolding this century. While there’s a great deal on energy and ecology blindness in our culture right now, we are not remotely functioning to our potential as individuals or as a culture. In fact, we’re mostly asleep to both the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Many things which feel possible, are not. But many things which feel impossible are also not. Learning how to sort these things out is the challenge of our time and the great challenge of our species for all time since we’ll never face this scale of problem again.
Reality 101 was created to be a more complete way of thinking about the world and ourselves
That’s what Reality 101 and this short hologram of it were created to be – a more complete way of thinking about the world and ourselves, filtered of evolved bias and delusion. This new clarity of thought and perception shows scary things which were previously invisible to us. But it also shows just what we have to work with, who we really are, and what to expect going forward. That means we have to find paths to the best futures which are still possible even if those paths are difficult in some ways.
Will these teachings make you a better player on this new game board?
The game board and pieces still look like chess. But the rules have changed. Knowing a bit about the themes you have just been exposed to makes you a better player on this new game board of the future, even versus the former chess masters of previous generations.
But how do you take this stuff on board personally? These big questions about this century are great to think about, but what do you do as an individual?
[NEXT] A brief list of suggestions will be the last in this introductory video series about the human predicament.
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