Humans and Earth: Transitioning from Teenagers to Adults as a Species (lecture)

The lecture link below was a talk given on Earth Day at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. (The sound on the Q&A was poor so that was left off – the Q&A of the previous night starts at the 1:09 mark at this link:  http://youtube/iyG95w4TT8w?t=1h9m)

I’ve concluded that facts are necessary but insufficient to change peoples behavior on the myriad converging crises our species and culture face. As such we are unlikely to do anything meaningful ahead of time to mitigate some of the major risks (finance/currency, poverty, economy, biodiversity, ocean, climate etc.).  I have also discovered that telling people the whole story – firehose style, is kind of like a curse, unless you proffer some action steps.   It’s why I largely stopped speaking a couple years ago (other than on Earth Days)- and why I conclude this talk with some suggestions on what individuals concerned about these things can begin to think about.

Essentially mankind has never had a plan or a goal. We pass the baton each day, each week, each year, each generation without a collective realization of our historical trajectory and future fiduciary.  Many in the tribe of Man think about deep-space. How many are thinking about humans and deep time? If we want a livable world in 100, 500, 10,000 years, with things we value, some long term ethos has to precede any actions we might take.  Our species shuffles forward like an amoeba pursuing amoebic goals. Sorting between complexities, blazing paths through reality to a target goal, is the province of individual minds.  And individual minds can influence other individual minds.

We don’t know what will happen. But we can know with high confidence what won’t happen, and that is a seriously important thing. The future will also be a matter of degrees; near-infinite variation of outcomes which are not equivalent.  And as much genetic/cultural baggage we carry, we humans have never known and been aware scientifically about ourselves and our natural world the way we are now– there are emergent properties bubbling up at the intersection of our morality and our knowledge. Things might look dark, but there is always a chance for benign and fantastic trajectories for the future – and the odds increase slightly with every person that acknowledges this truth.  “We” might not know how to influence things. Our actions might just as easily make things worse as better. But if one views the future as a fan of possibilities, many are still available, and those in our small but growing demographic who are aware of supply and demand drivers might aspire, at least for some fraction of their time, to synthesize and uphold as examples what this tribe of humans COULD be like what they COULD manifest as, despite the tall odds.

My ultimate point in this lecture is not a call to action, but a call not to rule out action.   What matters?  Caring defines what matters. In the same way, not caring defines what doesn’t matter.   The beliefs in powerlessness, futility, and nihilism are powerful ones. They are nearly as powerful as denial of scientific facts in rationalizing personal inaction. Ergo,  deciding to spend all of ones time finding personal peace and dancing around a campfire wearing a badger mask accomplishes as much for the future we care about as a full-on life of fossil fueled smorgasboard, imo.  Nothing.  Our situation calls for dignity, integrity, creativity and probably some discomfort. Ultimately, the combination of 100:1 exosomatic buffer (for americans), scientific knowledge of how we got here, and emergent properties at the intersection of culture and knowledge,  we may pass the baton forward in ways different than the deterministic course that brought us to this point. And there are degrees of both success and failure in any case. What we do, what we think, and how we live our lives matters.

The Earth Day lecture linked below is an attempt to look beyond the reductionist mainstream dialogue and synthesize ecology, environment, energy and behavior with a look to the future.   Long ago I realized that human behavior, particularly cognitive biases and belief systems are at the core of our multiple economy/environment problems, so I spent about 1/3 of the lecture on that.  I ended the talk with some suggestions on how we might keep a foot in both worlds and meet the future halfway.  More on that soon

10 Responses to Humans and Earth: Transitioning from Teenagers to Adults as a Species (lecture)

  1. Thanks Nate, for your excellent too-fast lecture, and your courage to spread the word of our collective predicament. I appreciated your perspective like “60 invisible workers” per person, and language “fossil carbon” rather than “fossil fuel”, as well as “no shortage of energy, but a longage of expectations.” These help frame where we are, even if there are no solutions, more clarity why individually we should consider reducing debt for more flexibility in our futures.

    • Nate Hagens

      Tom- thank you.
      It’s closer to 600 invisible workers (as low as 200 as high as 700 depending on whether it’s actual work done or work potential….e.g. the 1700 kWh in 1 barrel of oil is how much work those kWh COULD do – when we burn oil there is a loss (efficiency) so we don’t actually get 11 years of human labor out of 1 barrel in todays economy -more like 3-4. 60 was how many barrel of oil equivalents of fossil energy the average american uses (coal, oil, NG).

  2. Great talk Nate! You talks, like all fine wines, are getting better and better with age;). I really liked your visualization of how we react to information/science with “Godzilla in Minneapolis”. Funny and (sadly) true!

    What I find so frustrating is that the change for a better future is probably ecologically and economically feasible, but politically unfeasible (although our biology and how we evolved are great obstacles for change, which probably are reflected in our political systems – politicians are humans too). These issues of climate change, energy constraints, biodiversity loss, financial overshoot, environmental destruction etc. are so large and complex that one can feel a little bit of hopelessness. It is somewhat understandable that our current politicians and governments are turning to increased complexity and “Orwellian productivity” (as you so eloquently put it in another talk) to deal with the current (and future) economic crisis. I can’t see that governments are enjoying bank bailouts and austerity measures…..they just don’t know how to deal with this kind of complexity.

    But, then I see articles like this one,, which gives me great optimism and hope. Something is clearly happening at the community level a lot of places (and not only in the US, I have seen examples other places too). I somehow believe that our “mirror” neurons (although I am speculating) plays an “unconscious” part in change when we see other people (neighbors, community etc) change their behavior and lives for the better outside the current paradigm.

    Btw, this quote stood out to me from the article “Gottlieb and Joshi note that while urban agriculture thrives during economic downturns, gardens are “vulnerable to real estate speculation and new development scenarios.”” Seems to me that there will be a lot less real estate speculation and more economic downturns in the future to “fuel” urban agriculture….

    It is also encouraging that our exosomatic calories buffer is so large (as you say 100:1 in the US, probably a little less in Europe). It would be more concerning if it was 10:1 or smaller! This gives us a lot of “wiggle-room” for positive outcomes. We are clearly not energy broke!

    In the end I fear that blame and anger (from a biological and cultural perspective – to many wants have become needs etc) will trump empathy and forgiveness and thereby make change a difficult and challenging task. But if we can move from blame and anger to fear and hope (which are very powerful motivators) we can make a better future trajectory than the current one for the coming generations! I for one am subscribing to the latter!

    P.S! Maybe you have read this book, but if not, i highly recommend it – “Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change” by Bruce E. Wexler

    If you have any great books that you have read lately you are more than welcome to share :) I love reading books!

  3. Nate Hagens

    I’ve not read that book but will add it to the list. Other than Under a Green Sky
    and Revolutions that Made the Earth
    (both highly recommended)
    the only non-fiction books i read now are about belief systems and the brain. I am currently reading this one:

    As i implied in that talk, insights into how our brains really work are at the core of what we face – and yes – I am not nihilistic about our chances of landing safely in the distant future. Too many people are so sure of whats going to happen and that usually means we are missing some emergent properties. In any case I think its worth trying to change how we view ourselves and what we value. Thanks for the note.

    • Nice book recommendations Nate! They seem right up my alley so they are added to my list. Thanks!

      Christian Wik

  4. Hi, Nate, great presentation! Very creative slides on “what costs $100″ and the time/energy intensity of milking the cow with/without tech. Here are some thoughts as I watched this.

    I think it is important to add that the cost of getting the $70/barrel of oil out of the ground is only the human labor involved, and not the actual cost over time to Nature and to society. Our society does not recognize that money never pays for the natural processes involved–money is only the cost of human labor, in the past, present, or future. Nature is free and infinite, thus ignored. So anytime cost is mentioned in dollars, we need to begin to include the disclaimer about costs of Nature to emphasize the misvaluation, or else use a different metric like emergy that does include valuation of Nature .

    And the 60+ energy slaves far understates the problem in emergy terms. And human labor has very different values, depending on where it is in the hierarchy, in terms of investments of education, setting, and so on.

    On the European energy price graph, if electricity prices are inflating slower than FF prices, then electricity is under-priced and being overutilized in alternative energy schemes. Our monetary prices are all mis-valued, so bad pricing creates incentives for poor allocation of societal resources. And you say we turn energy into dollars–perhaps we could rephrase that as using dollars to inaccurately measure the human contributions to our productivity, while ignoring the source contributions.

    You mention maximum power and Jevon’s paradox as separate phenomena. But Jevons paradox IS the maximum power principle, but stated in 19th century economic terms rather than energetic basis. Yes?

    Declining debt productivity is a euphemism for inflation. Why not just call it what it is?

    Climate change denial is a bias of the Right, but I believe that the Left has similar cognitive biases, such as widespread denial of the dangers inherent in nuclear waste. Has the recent media focus on climate denial evolved out of projections of our other subconscious worries and our own denial of real problems? Or is it just plain ignorance? At this point in our culture, whatever the media focuses on is a distraction from our imminent, unsolvable problems.

    Climate models are predicated on continued economic growth and Business as Usual, which is not thermodynamically possible.

    It is unclear from your talk whether you think we can level off at a steady state, or if we need instead to reduce our society by a significant amount. I think your stance is significant descent, and you imply that when you say we will eventually be at 100% renewables, but if significant descent is not in your message, then we let everyone off the hook. If we say that we will not stand for environmental degradation, but interpret that protection narrowly to mean LED lights as a sop to climate change, then that won’t help anyone except light bulb manufacturers. Behaviors need to be substantially different if we are to reduce societies’ energy basis significantly.

    Nice synthesis!

  5. mididoctors

    HI Nate. Good stuff but i think the benefit of energy to human labour slide at 10:40 is a bit confusing and the point difficult to understand. I had to watch it a couple of times to get it.

    • Nate Hagens

      ya – that one was in my Twenty Things post on TOD – it’s probably best to keep it out of a short presentation. Basically we dont exchange fossil labor for human labor 1 for 1 – we add hundreds, thousands or more units of fossil labor to replace one human unit of effort – we do this because it is extremely cheap (or has been). The message of the graphic/point is that when energy prices go up, it is not a linear unwind of benefits but much higher than that. a doubling of price causes gas prices that employees pay to get to work to go up -yes – thats what media focuses on – but the larger story is the ripple effect on all mechanized processes in the economy, giving lower profits and wages. I have a new slide (for the next talk!) showing that real household median income for the US peaked in 1999 – exactly the year that oil prices hit their low.

      • mididoctors

        Interesting. I have always calculated my income as human effort in hours spent at work vs cost of items/services especially rents. where the cost in effort to pay ones rent in london has more than doubled for everyone I know and has been eroding for a long time. Money wages etc vs cost of living stats rarely really convey the feel of changing living standards to me where as the notion of how much effort I have to put in to pay the rent/electricty bill seems more “real”.

  6. Philip Bogdonoff

    Nate, any chance you could post a link to your slides? In the video there are frequently ones that are completely washed out. It would be nice to be able to have readable slides to follow along with your talk. Thx, — Philip