Is climate change just a symptom? Dr. Nate Hagens says we need a change of cultural purpose, away from money – but that can’t happen until we pass through a financial “recalibration” and emergency. Humans need to stimulate our primitive brains without wrecking the planet. The author of “Reality 101”, Hagens has the big picture diagnosis and a start on the cure.
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”
The famous biologist E.O. Wilson said that at Harvard in 2009. We like to think we are self-directed, but we live in a world beyond our control. Something larger is going on, and we don’t know what it is. If it breaks, we do not know how to fix it.
Dr. Nate Hagens spent the last decades searching for the big picture questions and answers. Around the year 2000 he dropped out of managing very big money on Wall Street. He became a popular speaker on the study of resources and Peak Oil. Hagens started teaching at University. Now Hagens discovers a new life-like entity composed of humans, the “superorganism“. He can see a different path for humanity – but after a crash of our financial system.
Nate has a Masters Degree in Finance from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. He is a Board Member of the Post Carbon Institute, and belongs to other groups, like the “The Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future” and the Bottleneck Foundation. Nate teaches a popular course called “Reality 101 – A Survey of the Human Predicament” to graduate students at the University of Minnesota. Hagens’ new textbook, just out in September 2019 is “The Bottlenecks of the 21st Century: Essays on the Systems Synthesis of the Human Predicament.”
Nate writes: “To avoid facing the consequences of our biophysical reality, we’re now obtaining growth in increasingly unsustainable ways. The developed world is using finance to enable the extraction of things we couldn’t otherwise afford to extract to produce things we otherwise couldn’t afford to consume.”
Those lectures from the University are becoming books, videos and more. We last talked with Nate on Radio in February 2016.
E.O. Wilson spoke of our antiquated minds. Nate Hagen’s work partly depends on a 1992 paper by Barkow and Cosmides who say, quote: “the evolved structure of the human mind is adapted to the way of life of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, and not necessarily to our modern circumstances.”
In several places in this interview, Nate says we will not voluntarily make the changes needed to save ourselves. We are too embedded in the fossil-powered system, as are pretty well all our institutions. Who is going to give up billions of energy slaves? Who can feed their current populations without them? No one, Hagens says, will vote for de-growth while the present system continues.
But there is one hope: a world-wide “recalibration” of the financial system, perhaps coupled with continuing climate disasters (like Australian fires) – could bring masses of people to a tipping point where they demand a big change. Until then, it sounds like Nate thinks (listen for yourself) all people in-the-know can do is organize the seeds of the next society. Transition towns, local self-reliance, and personal changes could help us prepare. I’m not sure I agree – but maybe the idea of choice and social action are a mirage. Perhaps the nature of our “superorganism” prohibits action before the crash.
Nate finds modern life acts a living thing, a “superorganism” whose cells are humans. The totality of the new human culture is not actually alive, but it has similarities to real superorganisms. When we consider our lives depends completely on tiny organisms alive in our gut, in a way each person is a superorganism.
According to Hagens, Capitalism did not choose the superorganism as a vehicle, but the other way around. With his experience at Solomon Brothers, Wall Street, Nate’s work describes a universe of financial instruments, almost beliefs, that is in the process of separating from reality. But sooner or later, reality always wins.
Does this social superorganism develop a purpose as organisms do: try to keep itself alive, to grow, and reproduce? The superorganism he says is an automaton, a life without a mind. It’s “purpose” is to burn carbon as fast as it can, in other words, to terraform Earth into a hotter planet.
We touch on the work of Dr. Tim Garrett from the University of Utah. Garrett sees this civilization as a heat engine. Hagens agrees with Garrett’s conclusion, but not the way he gets there.
You can check out my latest interview with Tim Garrett here.
Nate says energy is basic to both Nature and our systems. Nature has a “trophic pyramid” where things eat things “below” them in the food chain. He points out our economic system also has a pyramid.
Everything needs an energy input to make any product. He shows how energy runs parallel to GDP, especially since the year 2000 and now, the link is very tight. More energy, more wealth. That is what Tim Garrett also says. Fossil sunlight powers modern economies. One barrel of oil does 4.5 years of his work. Oil gives us thousands of man-years of work, it’s like magic. But he lists out many other types of human capital, like friends, homes and the like.
Meanwhile, Hagens says there is no great mind or conspiracy monitoring or organizing the super organism. It is self-organizing. We are going to keep growing until we run out of food. Then we experience “the great simplification”. And no, we can’t have a larger economy driven by renewables. We cannot grow the economy and solve climate change.
He does not believe humans are evil. We were born into this time when the great problem arose, and our world is not yet fully broken. If we simplify, with less benefit from fossil fuels, the knowledge that came from the global cloud may not be there. Perhaps we should also learn a trade or local knowledge, like growing potatoes or mending shoes. Just think of what a society without our massive bank of energy slaves would be like.
The World Bank reports our system is absolutely swollen with debt, from national governments to consumers. When do we declare national or global bankruptcy? How long do you think this illusion of separation between finance and reality can keep going?
Hagens tells us a breakdown or “recalibration” could be a blessing-in-disguise, pushing us into “the birth of a new ‘systems economics’.” Although there is a little-known book out on “Systems Economics” Hagens uses the term in his own way.
Personally, I wonder whether systems economics is a more likely future than many others, such as a return to Medieval life with warring Lords, or many other disasters like nuclear war or accidental release of a biological weapon. I suppose when we reach that social tipping point, or breaking point, things could go many different ways. One of them may actually be good for us, so we might as well plan and hope for that.
Nate Hagens produced a lot in the last year or two. There is a peer-reviewed journal paper, one book out in September of 2019, another coming, and hints of videos and free resources. His new book is “The Bottlenecks of the 21st Century: Essays on the Systems Synthesis of the Human Predicament”. Probably your best bet now for the latest from Nate Hagens is found at the web site for the Institute for the Study of Energy and our Future.
A second book is coming out soon. His latest paper is “The Future of Economics – Beyond the Superorganism“. The availability of all his work is not totally organized yet, but you can expect it will be. I predict you will hear a lot more about Nate Hagens in the coming year or two. Remember you heard it hear first.
Meanwhile, Nate says we must all “navigate the path between fantasy and doom“. He concludes “We are each alive at an amazing and perilous time. In my experience and opinion, each of you listening to this interview is capable of so much more than you can imagine at the moment. Be awake, be your best – make a difference.”
Here is a 1 hour plus presentation by Nate Hagens on the substance of the books and paper, including the superorganism. It is from WEP2018 TV: “Energy, Money and Technology – From the Lens of the Superorganism“, as posted January 26, 2018. Get a notebook and settle in for 160 slides. That’s how he rolls.
You can watch E.O. Wilson delivering our opening quote in this 2009 presentation at Harvard, captured on You tube.
COMING UP ON RADIO ECOSHOCK
Last week I promised a coming show on Australia and the climate-driven fires there. I am going to postpone that for a week or two, partly because there are so many fast-developments.
For example, the UK government’s Met Office has released a new report on wildfires. They expect the world will warm 3 degrees C by the year 2100, compared to pre-industrial levels. That is way beyond the supposed safe-line of 1.5 degrees of warming, where things are already burning, flooding, and going strange.
The Met Office warns that Australia-scale wildfires will burn in many parts of the world, including North America and Europe, as the world gets hotter, and many heavily populated zones get drier. This probably means you. It definitely means me.
Strangely, the absolute area of fire burned globally in recent years has gone DOWN from earlier decades. But that is because human incursions have mowed down so much of forests around the world, there is less to burn. However, as we have seen twice here in Western Canada, the new hot fires can burn right into cities. Cities can and do burn.
Even stranger, the world’s biggest press baron, Rupert Murdoch has been called out for climate denial in his wide-ranging media empire in Australia. Too many climate deniers, says son and Board Member James Murdoch, have been given emphasis in Murdock’s Australian newspapers, radio and TV.
The coal-friendly mainstream Australian media tries to tell the public the latest long drought and extreme heat waves are not the real cause of the fires. A few arsonist are. Or “We’ve always had fires”. The Australian public, many of them sweating through unbreathable smoke and heat, are not buying it.
While I continue to develop more on Australia, we have a presentation from Transition US coming up next week. The Transition movement joins the call for a climate emergency. Now there are tools each of us can use to push local governments, and eventually national governments, into action.
We need a plan to completely stop emitting greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels within ten years – to survive. The time for a gradual transition, reducing fossil fuels over the decades has already passed. Listen next week for news and tools from Climate Mobilization and Transition US.
My heart-felt thanks to listeners who made donations to Radio Ecoshock in the last few weeks. I need your support to keep this program going, to keep myself working for you, and the what I hope is the greater good. If you can help, here is where to do it.
Let’s get together again next week.