We need to plan for a smaller economy, but decision makers see growing the economy as the solution. —
No 2712 Posted by fw, February 22, 2021—
1/ In my February 19, 2021 piece, I reposted a report co-authored by 17 scientists that documents, in considerable detail, the evidence of humanity’s existential plight. My repost is titled: Just how bad will future environmental conditions get? In a word, “ghastly!”. The title of the report that I reposted is “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future”, by Frontiers in Conservation Science, January 13, 2021.
2/ Included at the bottom of my February 19 repost is a link to a 90-minute video titled OMEGA – Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future . This 90-minute video brings together six experts, including two commentators, Bill Rees and Nate Hagens, for a ZOOM discussion of the January 13 report co-authored by the 17 scientists.
3/ Although the hosts of the 90-minute video refer to the event as a “discussion,” I found the format of the proceedings was more along the lines of a Q & A directed at the participants and the two commentators, Bill Rees and Nate Hagens, with very little discussion among the respondents.
4/ During the 90-minute discussion, Nate Hagens was asked for his input 4 times. Reposted below is my transcript of Nate’s response to a request to share his opinion of the report “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future” published by Frontiers in Conservation Science, January 13, 2021.
5/ At the bottom of this post is the 90-minute embedded video of the full ZOOM discussion where you can watch Nate share his ten-minute opinion of the January 13 report.
Those who are unfamiliar with Nate Hagens’ work, may, in places, find his choice of words, his phrasing, and his explanations in the transcript conceptually and cognitively challenging. I suggest you skim those and move on to the many passages that are illuminating, thought-provoking and worthy of contemplation.
Here, then, are Nate Hagens’ thoughts on the report “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future” published by Frontiers in Conservation Science, January 13, 2021. Remember to check out the video at the bottom of this post.
TRANSCRIPT OF HAGENS’ REMARKS (26:50 to 36:39)
I love the paper. I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle. I’m going to try to give a macro framework of where that fits into our socioeconomic situation. I’m going to give three core themes in five minutes: 1) human metabolism; 2) a systemic risk summary; and 3) choreography for response.
So, first of all, energy is the currency of life. The origins of capitalism might be found in nature because there’s an energy investment and an energy return for all biological organisms. There’s a scaling law that relates the metabolism of biological organisms and structures to their mass, and it ends up being their mass to the three-quarter power. And this also actually applies to human systems. The global human enterprise uses energy at around three-quarters to the power of our [population] size.
A few hundred years ago we happened upon fossil sunlight that was stored underground. And we all have been alive during the upper part of this curve [Fig 1] which I refer to as “The Carbon Pulse”. Right now humanity is generating constant metabolism of 17 terawatts which is equal to 170 billion, 100-watt lightbulbs turned on all the time.
This is because we’re accessing fossil carbons and hydrocarbons 10 million times faster than they were sequestered. One barrel of oil does four and a half years of my physical work. And the global economy uses a hundred billion barrels of oil equivalents of fossil fuels every year, which works out to a labor equivalent of 500 billion human workers relative to the four or five billion actual human workers.
This explains some of the data in Gerardo’s paper where a few hundred years ago, relative to today, we’ve increased the biomass of megafauna on the planet by seven-fold due to this bolus of ancient productivity. Most of this is our livestock where humans and our livestock now outweigh wild mammals [by about] 50 to 1.
So, in effect, especially oil but all global fuels are acting as the hemoglobin of globally interconnected economic system. And no one’s in charge of this system. Global human culture, when we cooperate at family levels, at corporations, at nation states towards getting our basic needs, we end up tethering to energy, and we’re becoming, globally, an energy-dissipating structure, something I liken into an amoeba, a mindless amoeba.
This is kind of a scary proposition, but I think this gets to some of the conclusions in the “ghastly paper”. And I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year dealing with high-level U.S. politicians, and I now really believe this to be true — Given this framing, there is no one driving the bus – not politicians, not billionaires.
We are enthralled by this economic system pursuing growth. And it can’t be stopped until it stops of its own accord. Trying to de-grow, trying to put prices on carbon and shrink our economy is akin to arguing with a forest fire.
Which gets to the graph that Bill [Rees] already showed – We’ve been arguing to no avail for 50 years.
So effectively our economies are now growth constrained, and we’re going to kick any and all political, social cans forward in order to keep growing.
With that framework, what is NOT likely to happen? –
1/ Growing the economy AND mitigating climate change in the 6th mass extinction discussed in this paper
2/ Growing the economy by REPLACING fossil fuels with renewables
3/ Humans en masse choosing to leave fossil carbon in the ground
4/ Governments embracing limits to growth BEFORE we’re already past limits to growth
Under this superorganism framing, what IS likely to happen? –
1/ We’re going to grow our “gross” energy while the net energy declines
2/ We’re going to have massive monetary creation by governments and central banks, Modern Monetary Theory, etc.
3/ Universal basic income
4/ Populism, nationalism
5/ We’re going to continue to keep kicking cans until we hit a wall
So, where’s the risk on this? Our culture is – we care about nature, we care about climate change — but we’re energy blind. We don’t see that we’re part of a system, and, en masse, we’re drawing down the principal and considering it as interest.
So, getting back to the themes in Gerardo and Paul’s paper, if we think of the carbon pulse, the environmental impact of this is in two categories –
One, is the metabolism of the human heat engine. We use all this energy, and the waste stream, the CO2, goes to the atmosphere and the oceans.
But there’s a separate category which is the toxics, the fact that we’re losing insect biomass at two and a half a year, there’s so much plastic in the oceans. And, as our fossil carbon declines, these curves may go in different directions.
After we peak in fossil carbon – and I would argue strongly that global peak oil was 2018 – but I think the metabolism impact of humans is peaking now. And so our CO2 is peaking in the next decade. But as our economies decline, and we try to get our same neurotransmitters en masse that we have, will our other impacts go up on the environment? An open question.
So we’ve arrived at a species-level story but it’s not yet integrated. Gerardo did a great job of integrating the environmental damage in his paper but that’s just one part of the story. We have finance, and geopolitics, and climate change, and renewable energy, and all these other things.
We, as a culture, live with lots of islands of expertise separated by an ocean of nonsense. And we need to fly up high enough and look down at what’s happening.
The other problem alluded to in the paper was that this story is complex, it’s threatening, it’s in the future, it’s abstract, there’s no key people on television telling us this, there’s no easy answer. So it’s the perfect storm for our evolved tribal minds to ignore or deny. Which makes it almost impossible to have this story be discussed in the halls of Congress or on MSNBC News. It’s a real pickle.
So where do we go from here? Given the metabolism underpinning our civilization, there’s a disparity between what we SHOULD do and what we MUST do. In my analysis, I think we’re headed for a financial recalibration because we’ve been kicking the can using debt for over 50 years. We need to plan for a smaller economy, but we’re getting social signals that all these things are going to be solved with a growing economy.
In my opinion we have a series of social, environmental, political challenges that we can’t solve right now. We have to solve them sequentially. And as you’ve seen even with the election of Biden, our country, the United States, is 50 – 50 pretty much, or 51 – 49. And we have some dire risks for democracy and social cohesion.
We first have to navigate that and get some sort of unity in our country to keep social dialogues in government intact. Then we have a date in the next decade with a financial calibration back down to the biophysical energy and materials underpinning it. And then, if we navigate that, I think we have a chance at sustainability and governance.
Briefly, here are three ideas that my teams and organizations are working on –
1/ One is, at the moment of this financial recalibration, we’re going to have massive deflation. At that moment we could tax not only carbon, but all non-renewable resources, and remove a tax on human labor. It would do more for climate change than most other environmental impacts than any activism of the last 50 years. But it could never be enacted right now because it would be too unpopular. It would imply a shrinking economy. But we can build blueprints and constituency ahead of time.
2/ We also undeniably need to move away from being a heat engine as our cultural aspiration. GDP was never meant to be our goal. We need to move towards more wellbeing – how are we actually doing. And I’ve got a state-level project working on this.
3/ And finally I don’t believe we’re ever going to directly communicate these challenges to sitting politicians unless we’re in a crisis because this is not in their job description. So I think to create networks of people, high-level people, philanthropists, former political leaders, business leaders, etc. that integrate how the situation fits together, and then they, in turn, can come up with blueprints – break glass in case of emergency plans – and hand them off to people in a credible way when the situation warrants it.
In conclusion, we’ve had a series of social contracts in our species history – Code of Hammurabi, Syntagma Square, Magna Carta, US Constitution – and we’re now approaching a species-level social contract. We are not alive in normal times, and for all of you on this call thank you for joining for some part of your personal, professional life. Please consider service to the future.
RELATED VIDEO –
Nate’s 10-minute response begins at 26:50 and ends at 36:39
OMEGA – Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future, posted by Stanley Wu on You Tube, January 31, 2021 — The formal session will last an hour with an additional half hour for those who can stay. We hope you will join us for this thought-provoking discussion.
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