Citizen Action Monitor

Myth #14 : Nate Hagens unveils evidence that upends the presumption “Technology Will Solve It”

“When technology is combined with a growth imperative in the financial markets, there is no way to shrink energy use.” —

No 2756 by fw, July 4, 2021 —

“Okay. First of all there are two general categories of technology: One is new inventions and processes that allow us to access energy itself – more cheaply or more widely – like better solar PV conductivity, or making natural gas powerplants more efficient. When we hear of energy technology, it’s usually of this variety. The second category of technology is inventions that either replace tasks humans used to do manually or with animals – like cars, chainsaws and tractors – or new inventions humans never had before until very recently – like Facebook, airplanes, Xboxes. All of this technology uses energy. It’s this second category that dominates our technology sector. We create and sell products that increase the baseline for energy demand in the next period. Look around your home and garage – how many gadgets, devices, machines and appliances do you have compared to your parents baseline, or their parents baseline? …. The creation, maintenance, replacement of these devices, not to mention marketing their coolness and necessity to developing countries, leads to increasing demand for energy every single year. When technology is combined with a growth imperative in the financial markets, there is no way to shrink energy use. In pursuit of profits, we have innovations that make devices more efficient over time. But if things really are cheaper we end up using more of them, or using our cost savings on other gadgets or other consumption. … Analyzing how we might arrive at a smaller, safer future isn’t in most organizations job descriptions because the market can’t plan for that. Renewable tech has arrived, but even in tandem with fossil hydrocarbons, will not be able to power THIS civilization. What level will this hybrid combination support is an urgent question.” —Nate Hagens, excerpts from his Myth #14

My transcript of this repost focuses on Nate’s concise 5:55-minute summary of the evidence that effectively contests Myth #14: “Technology Will Solve It.” Myth #14 is one of 33 myths Nate unveiled in his May 21st Earth Day talk titled, Earth and Humanity: Myth and Reality. The beauty of his 2hr, 52min long, information-rich Earth Day talk is that it is more of an indexed reference tool for recurrent consultation than a lecture meant to be assimilated in one sitting.

At the bottom of this post is a complete time-stamped list of the titles of all of Hagens’ 33 myths, plus his opening Introduction and closing Interventions (and Wild Ideas). The myths can be watched in any order — but, as Hagens mentions, the order decided on seems logical.

Briefly, Nate Hagens is a systems synthesist and well-known speaker on the big-picture issues facing human society. Before becoming a professor of an Honors seminar at the University of Minnesota, Nate was President of Sanctuary Asset Management and a Vice President at the investment firms Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers. He has a Masters Degree in Finance with Honors from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont.

The video segment of Myth #14, embedded in the repost below, starts at the 1:15:21 time stamp. (Although segment # ends at 1:21:16, this ~6-minute video clip will continue to play until it is stopped manually.)  For those who would prefer to watch Nate’s address on You Tube, without the transcript, click on the following linked title, which is also pre-set to begin at 1:21:16.

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MYTH #14: Technology Will Solve It, by Nate Hagens, Energy and Our Future / You Tube, May 16, 2021

TRANSCRIPT: Myth #14 (Starts at 1:15:21, Ends at 1:21:16)

There now exists in almost religious faith in the ability of markets and technology to solve any physical challenge [that] humanity comes across. We’ve solved things before; we will again.

But with the backdrop of the multiple energy myths and misunderstandings just covered [in this Earth Day talk], can we count on markets and technology alone to be our saviors?

Okay. First of all there are two general categories of technology: One is new inventions and processes that allow us to access energy itself – more cheaply or more widely – like better solar PV conductivity, or making natural gas powerplants more efficient. When we hear of energy technology, it’s usually of this variety.

The second category of technology is inventions that either replace tasks humans used to do manually or with animals – like cars, chainsaws and tractors – or new inventions humans never had before until very recently – like Facebook, airplanes, Xboxes.

All of this technology uses energy. It’s this second category that dominates our technology sector. We create and sell products that increase the baseline for energy demand in the next period. Look around your home and garage – how many gadgets, devices, machines and appliances do you have compared to your parents baseline, or their parents baseline?

The creation, maintenance, replacement of these devices, not to mention marketing their coolness and necessity to developing countries, leads to increasing demand for energy every single year. When technology is combined with a growth imperative in the financial markets, there is no way to shrink energy use. In pursuit of profits, we have innovations that make devices more efficient over time. But if things really are cheaper we end up using more of them, or using our cost savings on other gadgets or other consumption.

Think if air conditioners suddenly dropped in cost by 90% because of some new clever innovation – What would be the energy and climate impact of that? This is really important – technological improvements in a growing economy make us use more energy and stuff as opposed to simplifying our lives.

Aside from this rebound effect, efficiency improvements, economy wide, have been small – typically around 0.5% a year. If energy costs in the future triple in a decade, from 100 to 300 – for example, a 20% efficiency improvement – brings the new higher 300 costs only down to 240.

Technology will have a hard time keeping up with depletion on the carbon downslope. Technology currently is enthralling to the markets. So solar panels and other low-carbon or future-friendly materials don’t really solve resource depletion or climate issues because the entire institutional structure is based on surplus and growth.

Take solar for example. 2018 was a great year for solar photovoltaic. But just the increase in global demand for electricity from 2017 to 2018 – the height of the blueline here in 2018 [in the graph] – was almost double the entire amount of solar photovoltaic installed since it was invented, which is the height of the yellow line in 2018.

Which is why new, viable, profitable inventions – that on the surface are what we’d need for a more sustainable future – are adding to the carbon and resource throughput, not subtracting, as can be seen on the above panel, showing growth in fossil energy sources on the left, compared to renewables on the right. There is no way to subtract the bad energy other than a depression or institutional change of incentives, rules, or taxes.

Renewables aren’t replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon alternatives, they are adding to fossil fuels and building a bigger human heat engine. Where can you notice the CO2 reduction from the scaling of renewable energy in the above graph of total human emissions?

We’ve gotten really good at technology. But mostly it builds a bigger baseline need for energy next year. And a good portion of it turns billions of barrels of ancient sunlight into microlitres of dopamine. But Wall Street firms, government energy agencies, and advocacy groups all show analyses supporting stories aligned with the red arrow above, which is continued growth [of non-renewables].

Analyzing how we might arrive at a smaller, safer future isn’t in most organizations job descriptions because the market can’t plan for that. Renewable tech has arrived, but even in tandem with fossil hydrocarbons, will not be able to power THIS civilization. What level will this hybrid combination support is an urgent question.

In sum, technology plays an important role in human economies, but it’s just a role. It’s not the main or even the primary driver. The human enterprise is enabled by merging ideas and innovation with energy and materials into products and experiences that give us neurotransmitters aligned with our ancestral wiring. The conventional thinking is that $$ dollars $$ drive everything, followed by bytes*, followed by joules. [*bytes – units of digital information as in digital technology]

But a biophysical hierarchy would turn that on its head and add the head, neurotransmitters, are greater than joules, are greater than bytes, are greater than dollars.

Technology and innovation are going to be vital to human systems in the coming 50 years. We have to recognize that for now they are in service of the superorganism – both building a bigger heat engine and blind to a smaller economy ahead.

1:21:15 — End of Myth #14

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LIST OF THE 33 MYTHS (plus opening introduction, Interventions (and Wild Ideas and Closing thoughts)

Nate notes that the myths themselves are listed in reverse numerical order from #33 down to #1, while the time markers are in chronological order from beginning to end, which facilitates their quick and easy location on the video. The myths can be watched in any order, but the order they’re in made the most sense to Hagens. To go directly to the beginning of any numbered myth or to the opening Introduction and closing Interventions and Wild Ideas, just click on the hyperlinked time stamp in front of the term “Myth” .

Time stamps: //   0:04 Introduction //   2:20 Myth #33: The Experts Have ALL the Answers //   4:16 Myth #32: Humans Are Separate From Nature //   6:45 Myth #31: Humans Are Mostly Selfish //   12:17 — Myth #30: More Is Better  //  18:12 Myth #29: “Someday I’ll Have enough” //   21:18 Myth #28: We Care About the Future //   23:38 Myth #27: Everyone Has Their Own Truth //   26:37 Myth #26: Truth Matters //   29:31 Myth #25: Energy Is Merely a Commodity //   34:28 Myth #24: The American Dream is Based on Hard Work and Cleverness //   36:05 Myth #23: Oil: The USA Will Be the Next Saudi Arabia //    41:46 Myth #22: We Can Always Get More Resources if We Have More Money //   44:42 Myth #21: Renewables Can Power THIS Civilization //   50:55 Myth #20: In the future we won’t need oil due to Peak Demand!! //   55:01 Myth #19: We Can Achieve Net Zero!! (by 2050 or any date) //   59:54 Myth #18: As Earth runs out of resources, We’ll Colonize Outer Space!! //   1:02:26 Myth #17: Growth Is Forever //   1:05:04 Myth #16: GDP Is the Right Goal for Society //   1:10:56 Myth #15: Overpopulation Is the Main Driver //   1:15:21 Myth #14: Technology Will Solve It //    1:21:16 Myth #13: The Environment Is Part of the Economy //   1:24:04 Myth #12: The Natural World Is Ours //   1:27:03 Myth #11: Climate Change Is the Core Problem //   1:32:44 Myth #10: Billionaires and Politicians Are in Charge //   1:38:56 Myth #9: Financial Markets Give Us the Right Signals for the Future //   1:43:22 Myth #8: Stimulus Is Permanent //   1:48:37 Myth #7: We Need to Crash the System to Get a Fresh Start //   1:52:43 Myth #6: The Use of Nuclear Weapons Is Unthinkable //    1:57:03 Myth #5: Fossil Fuel Companies Are at Fault //    2:03:01 Myth #4: Capitalism Is to Blame //    2:07:54 Myth #3: Humans Are Bad //   2:11:37 Myth #2: We Face a Shortage of Energy //    2:14:17 Myth #1: We Are Doomed //    2:19:56 Interventions (and Wild Ideas)

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