Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism

7 12 2019


Nate Hagens has written a substantial paper, four months in the writing, ten years in the making he tells me….


  1. Overview
    Despite decades of warnings, agreements, and activism, human
    energy consumption, emissions, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations
    all hit new records in 2018 (Quéré et al., 2018). If the global economy
    continues to grow at about 3.0% per year, we will consume as much
    energy and materials in the next ∼30 years as we did cumulatively in
    the past 10,000. Is such a scenario inevitable? Is such a scenario possible?
  2. Simultaneously, we get daily reminders the global economy isn’t
    working as it used to (Stokes, 2017) such as rising wealth and income
    inequality, heavy reliance on debt and government guarantees, populist political movements, increasing apathy, tension and violence, and ecological decay. 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.

    With this backdrop, what sort of future economic systems are now
    feasible? What choreography would allow them to come about? In the
    fullness of the Anthropocene, what does a hard look at the relationships between ecosystems and economic systems in the broadest sense suggest about our collective future? Ecological economics was ahead of its time in recognizing the fundamental importance of nature’s services and the biophysical underpinnings of human economies. Can it now assemble a blueprint for a ‘reconstruction’ to guide a way forward?

    Before articulating prescriptions, we first need a comprehensive
    diagnosis of the patient. In 2019, we are beyond a piecemeal listing of
    what’s wrong. A coherent description of the global economy requires a
    systems view: describing the parts, the processes, how the parts and
    processes interact, and what these interactions imply about future
    possibilities. This paper provides a brief overview of the relationships
    between human behavior, the economy and Earth’s environment. It
    articulates how a social species self-organizing around surplus has
    metabolically morphed into a single, mindless, energy-hungry
    “Superorganism.” Lastly, it provides an assessment of our constraints
    and opportunities, and suggests how a more sapient economic system
    might develop.
  3. Introduction
    For most of the past 300,000 years, humans lived in sustainable,
    egalitarian, roaming bands where climate instability and low CO2 levels made success in agriculture unlikely (Richerson et al., 2001).
    Around 11,000 years ago the climate began to warm, eventually plateauing at warmer levels than the previous 100,000 years (Fig. 1).

  1. This stability allowed agriculture to develop in at least seven separate locations around the world. For the first time, groups of humans began to organize around physical surplus – production exceeding the group’s immediate caloric needs. Since some of the population no longer had to devote their time to hunting and gathering, this surplus allowed the development of new jobs, hierarchies, and complexity (Gowdy and Krall, 2013). This novel dynamic led to widespread agriculture and large-scale state societies over the next few thousand years (Gowdy and Krall, 2014).

    In the 19th century, this process was accelerated by the large-scale
    discovery of fossil carbon and the invention of technologies to use it as
    fuel. Fossil carbon provided humans with an extremely dense (but finite) source of energy extractable at a rate of their choosing, unlike the highly diffuse and fixed flow of sunlight of prior eras.

    This energy bounty enabled the 20th century to be a unique period
    in human history:
  2. more (and cheaper) resources led to sharp productivity
    increases and unprecedented economic growth, a debt
    based financial system cut free from physical tethers allowed expansive credit and related consumption to accelerate,
  3. all of which fueled resource surpluses enabling diverse and richer societies. The 21st century is diverging from that trajectory: 1) energy and resources are again becoming constraining factors on economic and societal development, 2) physical expansion predicated on credit is becoming riskier and will eventually reach a limit, 3) societies are becoming polarized and losing trust in governments, media, and science and, 4) ecosystems are being degraded as they absorb large quantities of energy and material waste from human systems.
    Where do we go from here?
  4. Human behavior
    Humans are unique, but in the same ways tree frogs or hippos are
    unique. We are still mammals, specifically primates. Our physical
    characteristics (sclera in eyes, small mouth, lack of canines etc.) are the products of our formative social past in small bands (Bullet et al., 2011; Kobayashi and Kohshima, 2008). However, our brains and behaviors too are products of what worked in our past. We don’t consciously go through life maximizing biological fitness, but instead act as ‘adaptation executors’ seeking to replicate the daily emotional states of our successful ancestors (Barkow et al., 1992). Humans have an impressive ability to process information, cooperate, and discover things, which is what brought us to the state of organization and wealth we experience today. But our stone-age minds areresponding to modern technology, resource abundance and large, fluid, social groups in emergent ways. These behaviors – summarized below – underpin many of our current planetary and cultural predicaments (Whybrow, 2013).

    3.1. Status and relative comparison Humans are a social species. Each of us is in competition for status and resources. As biological organisms we care about relative status. Historically, status was linked to providing resources for the clan, leadership, respect, storytelling, ethics, sharing, and community (Gowdy, 1998; von Rueden and Jaeggi, 2016). But in the modern culture we compete for status with resource intensive goods (cars, homes, vacations, gadgets), using money as an intermediary driver (Erk et al., 2002). Although most of the poorest 20% in advanced economies live materially richer lives than the middle class in the 1900′s, one’s income rank, as opposed to the absolute income, is what predicts life satisfaction (Boyce et al., 2010). For those who don’t ‘win’, a lack of perceived status leads to depression, drinking, stockpiling of guns and other adverse
    behaviors (Katikireddi et al., 2017; Mencken and Froese, 2019).
    Once basic needs are satisfied, we are primed to respond to the comparison of “better vs.worse” more than we do to “a little” vs. “a lot.”

    3.2. Supernormal stimuli and addiction In our ancestral environment, the mesolimbic dopamine pathways were linked to motivation, action and (calorific) reward. Modern technology and abundance can hijack this same reward circuitry. The brain of a stock trader making a winning trade lights up in an fMRI the same way a chimpanzee’s (and presumably our distant ancestors’) does when finding a nut or berry. But when trading stocks, playing video games or building shopping centers, there is no instinctual ‘full’ signal in modern brains – so we become addicted to the ‘unexpected reward’ of the next encounter, episode, or email, at an ever increasing pace (Hagens, 2011; Schultz et al., 1997). Our brains require flows (feelings) that we satisfy today mostly using non-renewable stocks. In modern resource rich culture, the ‘wanting’ becomes a stronger emotion than the ‘having’.Overview

    3.3. Cognitive biases
    We didn’t evolve to have a veridical view of our world (Mark et al.,
    2010). We think in words and images disconnected from physical reality. This imagined reality commonly seems more real than science, logic and common sense. Beliefs that arise from this virtual interface become religion, nationalism, or quixotic goals such as terraforming Mars (Harari, 2018). For most of history, we maintained groups by sharing social myths like these. Failure to believe those myths led to ostracism and death. Beliefs usually precede the reasons we use to explain them, and thus are far more powerful than facts (Gazzaniga, 2012).

    Psychologists have identified hundreds of cognitive biases whereby
    common human behaviors depart from economic rationality. These
    include: motivated reasoning, groupthink, authority bias, bystander
    effect, etc. Rationality is from a newer part of our brain that is still
    dominated by the more primitive, intuitive, and emotional brain
    structures of the limbic system. Modern economics assumes the rational brain is in charge, but it’s not. Combined with our tribal, in-group nature, it’s understandable that fake news works, and that people resist uncomfortable notions involving limits to growth, energy descent, and climate change. Evolution selects for fitness, not truth (Hoffman, 2019).

    We typically only value truth if it rewards us in the short term. Rationality is the exception, not the rule.

    3.4. Time bias (steep discount rates)
    For good evolutionary reasons (short life spans, risk of food expropriation, unstable environment, etc.) we disproportionately care
    about the present more than the future, measured by economists via a
    ‘discount rate’(Hagens and Kunz, 2010). The steeper the discount rate,
    the more the person is ‘addicted to the present.’ (Laibson et al., 2007).
    Drug users and drinkers, risk takers, people with low I.Q. scores, people who have heavy cognitive workloads, and men (vs. women) tend to more steeply discount events or issues in the future (Chabris et al., 2010).

    Unfortunately, most of our modern challenges are ‘in the future’.
    Recognition that the future exists and that we are part of it springs from a relatively new brain structure, the neocortex. It has no direct connection to deep-brain motivational centers that communicate urgency. When asked to plan a snack for next week between chocolate or fruit, people chose fruit 75% of the time. When choosing a snack for today, 70% select chocolate. When choosing a movie to watch next week 63% choose an educational documentary but when choosing a film for tonight 66% pick a comedy or sci-fi (Read et al., 1999). We have great intentions for the future, until the future becomes today. Our neocortex can imagine them, but we are emotionally blind to long-term issues like climate change or energy depletion. Emotionally, the future isn’t real.

    3.5. Cooperation and group behavior Group behavior has shaped us as much as individual behavior (Wilson and Wilson, 2008). Humans are strongly ‘groupish’ (Haidt, 2013), and before agriculture were aggressively egalitarian (Pennisi, 2014 Boehm, 1993). Those historic tribes that could act as a cohesive unit facing a common threat outcompeted tribes without such social cohesion. Because of this, today we easily and quickly form ingroups and outgroups and
    behave favorably and antagonistically towards them respectively. We are also primed to cooperate with our in-group whether that is a small
    business, large corporation, or even a nation-state – to obtain monetary (or in earlier times, physical) surplus. Me over Us, Us over Them.

    3.6. Cultural evolution, Ultrasociality and the Superorganism
    “What took place in the early 1500s was truly exceptional, something
    that had never happened before and never will again. Two cultural experiments, running in isolation for 15,000 years or more, at last came face to face. Amazingly, after all that time, each could recognize the other’s institutions. When Cortés landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theatre, art, music, and books. High civilization, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the earth.” Ronald Wright, A
    Short History of Progress (2004, pp50-51)

    “Ultrasociality refers to the most social of animal organizations, with full time division of labor, specialists who gather no food but are fed by others, effective sharing of information about sources of food and danger, self-sacrificial effort in collective defense.” (Campbell, 1974; Gowdy and Krall, 2013).

    Humans are among a small handful of species that are extremely
    social. Phenotypically we are primates, but behaviorally we’re more
    akin to the social insects (Haidt, 2013). Our ultrasociality allows us to
    function at much larger scales than as individuals. At the largest scales, cultural evolution occurs far more rapidly than genetic evolution (Richerson and Boyd, 2005). Via the cultural evolution that began with agriculture, humans have evolved into a globally interconnected civilization, ‘outcompeting’ other human economic models along the way to becoming a defacto ‘superorganism’ (Hölldobler and Wilson, 2008).

    A superorganism can be defined as “a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective”(Kelly, 1994). Via cooperation (and coordination), fitness transfers from lower levels to higher levels of organization (Michod and Nedelcu, 2003). The needs of this higher-level entity (today for humans; the global economy) mold the behavior, organization and functions of lower-level entities (individual human behavior) (Kesebir, 2011). Human behavior is thus constrained and modified by ‘downward causation’ from the higher level of organization present in society (Campbell, 1974).

    All the ‘irrationalities’ previously outlined have kept our species
    flourishing for 300,000 years. What has changed is not ‘us’ but rather
    the economic organization of our societies in tandem with technology,
    scale and impact. Since the Neolithic, human society has organized
    around growth of surplus, initially measured physically e.g. grain, now measured by digital claims on physical surplus, (or money) (Gowdy and Krall, 2014). Positive human attributes like cooperation have been coopted to become coordination towards surplus production. Increasingly, the “purpose” of a modern human in the ultrasocial global economy is to contribute to surplus for the market (e.g. the economic value of a human life based on discounted lifetime income, the marginal productivity theory of labor value, etc.) (Gowdy 2019, in press).

    3.7. Human behavior – summary
    Our behavioral repertoire is wide, yet informed, and constrained by
    our neurological heritage and the higher level of organization exhibited by our economic system. We are born with heritable modules prepared to react to context in predictable ways. “Who we are” as a species is highly relevant to issues of ecological overshoot, sustainability and our related cultural responses.





You won’t like downsizing

7 12 2019

Or maybe you will.....

Norman Pagett
Aug 24, 2018 · 7 min read

‘Downsizing’ isn’t going to be a gradual shift into a state of bucolic peasantry where life carries on as it always has, with a few minor changes.
The slightest slowdown of our current economy by just a few percentage points brings an immediate chaos of unemployment and global destabilisation.

Transport

In the face of imminent global chaos, whether through climate change, overpopulation or energy depletion, vast amounts of money are being poured into development of alternative methods of transportation. Elon Musk, though producing a first class electric car, proposes it to be a vehicle for the ‘post oil’ age.

The basic reality is ignored, that no road vehicle in the context of modern usage can function without an infrastructure that is itself a construct of hydrocarbon. But the electric car adds to the socio-economic complexity of our over-stressed life support system, it does not simplify it.

Yet our focus on such dead ends as the electric car shows that humankind does not have the means to rid itself of dependence on the wheel. While the electric car might appear to be a bright shiny symbol of continuing wealth and prosperity, it is in fact a block of embodied energy, as subject to the laws of thermodynamics as any other construction.

No industrialised nation can maintain its road transport system without the constant input of oil.

And there are no alternatives.

Healthcare

When advocating downsizing, there is rarely, if ever, any mention of the healthcare we currently enjoy, which has given us a reasonably fit and healthy 80 year average lifespan.

A prime safeguard for the health of citizens throughout the developed world is the ability to remove and dispose of human waste and provide an inflow of fresh water. But to do it there must be constant availability of cheap energy. Electricity will enable you to pump water and sewage but it cannot provide the infrastructure needed to build or maintain a fresh water or waste treatment plant; for that you need oil, coal and gas.

Modern domestic plumbing systems are now made largely of plastic, which is manufactured exclusively from oil feedstock, while concrete main sewer pipes are produced using processes that are equally energy intensive. In a downsized society fresh water will have to be carried from its source, and sewage will not be moved.

MY COMMENT: This is why we don’t do sewerage, and all our water will be off the roof into ‘last forever’ stainless steel tanks. There’s no plastic in our plumbing, it’s all copper, and expensive too in this age of near peak copper… even the hot water cylinder is stainless steel.

Doctors

But we are even more deluded when it comes to the medical profession and all the advanced treatments and technologies it has provided to keep us in good health and make our lives as comfortable as possible.

While ‘downsizing’ — a somewhat bizarre concept in itself — might affect other aspects of our lives, it is not supposed to apply to doctors, medical staff, hospitals and the vast power-hungry pharmaceutical factories and supply chains that give them round the clock backup. Without that backup, your medical practitioner might know what ails you, but unlikely to be able to offer you any more help than a tribal witch doctor.

Like our forebears, we also will not have the means to make it otherwise.

Since the introduction of modern drugs and the availability of products that can kill bacteria, we have set out to do just that. Bacteria have had a bad press, but they keep us alive, if only to serve their own ends.

In our haste to kill off or control almost every microscopic form of life, as well as larger species, we have forgotten that bacteria have been around in one form or another for about 2 billion years and possess a collective survival capacity that is far in advance of ours.

MY COMMENT: as someone who relies on blood pressure pills and eye drops to stave off glaucoma, I’m well aware that if I live long enough I’ll probably go blind, or I’ll die of a stroke or heart attack. But no one gets out alive in any case. Looking at the old cemetery in Geeveston, it appears the locals lived to incredibly ripe old ages, 80’s and 90’s, without modern medicines, hot and cold running water, or sewerage…..

The Top Predator

(It’s not us)

On that basis, which is the dominant species? Our attempts at eradication have merely caused them to retreat for a while and given them the means to mutate into new and more deadly forms.

Humanity, at least our ‘western’ developed segment of it, is enjoying a phase of good health and longevity that is an anomaly in historical terms. There is a refusal to recognize that our health and wellbeing will only last as long as we have cheap hydrocarbon energy available to support it. While there are those who profess to welcome a return to the freedom of a frontier society with minimal or non-existent law enforcement, the ravages of the diseases that were an everyday part of frontier life will not be accepted as part of it.

Emergency services

Nor does downsizing appear to apply to the other emergency services we might want to call on if our home is on fire or those of criminal intent wish to relieve us of what is rightfully ours. We might put solar panels on the roof, and banks of batteries to supply power, but a downsized society will not have the engineering complexity available to manufacture a single lightbulb, heating element or the basic components of an electric motor.

Without those, any electricity production system is useless. A downsized lifestyle means a dark lifestyle, or put more bluntly a naked flame society.

Alternative lifestylers seem to have blanked out the detail that fire engines, ambulances and police cars need fuel, and the people who man them need to get paid, fed and moved around quickly. They will not have time to indulge in the fantasy of self sufficiency. In other words ‘we’ might reduce our imprint on the environment, as long as those who support our way of life do not.

The deniers will vent their frustration and anger, and apportion blame and demand that diseases be cured. But there are just too many humans to allow the possibility of a human solution. On a planet with 7 billion people, which has a carrying capacity of around 1 billion, we may not want to admit to an impending die off, but it will come, and within this century.

MY COMMENT: make no mistake, during the last bushfires, with helicopters everywhere lifting water out of dams including ours it quickly occurred to me that next time, there may well be no fuel. Hence building a fireproof house….

Without oil our food sources will end.

And with it the sustenance of six billion people, and the hopes of billions yet unborn.

The infrastructure of modern healthcare hasn’t given us immortality, but it has provided the next best thing: long, safe and comfortable lives. But it relies entirely on hydrocarbon energy, and in the future a range of problems will make it progressively more difficult for us to exert control over disease as that energy source goes into irreversible decline. Disease will become more prevalent, not only in localized outbreaks, but at epidemic and even pandemic levels. Modern healthcare systems cannot downsize, they are either there or they are not.

Democracy

The greatest loss in a downsized economy will be our democracy.

You don’t think much about the democratic state you live in. A few gripes about it sometimes, but other than that, things coast along reasonably well. You vote one lot of useless politicos in, and another lot out. Or maybe don’t vote at all. They never change anything, being swept along by the tide of circumstance just like everybody else.

Your democratic state is an unnatural state.

Through almost all of recorded history mankind has lived under autocratic rule to a greater or lesser degree, always enforced by the threat of violence, either on a personal or collective level.
In the sense that we know it democracy has been selectively planted only during the last 2 centuries, with universal suffrage appearing in different places at different times. But it has not in any sense taken root. It is a fragile concept that we are going to lose as our environment alters and degrades with climate change and energy depletion. Before the industrial revolution, the concept of democracy and human rights did not exist. It may not seem immediately obvious that our democratic state is dependent on surplus energy, but it is.

We look to Ancient Greece, or more specifically Athens itself for the origins of our democracy, but while Athens in the 4th century BCE had a population of 100,000, living in what we think of as democratic harmony, they also had an underclass of about 150,000 slaves who supported their economy. Slaves had no part in the Athenian democratic process, but they allowed the free time for their owners (men only, women were not part of it) to go about their leisurely democratic business.

Our time differs only through the surplus energy of fossil fuel that has allowed us to enjoy the luxury of democracy.

Democracy is a fragile concept and we cannot claim this as a fundamental human right.
When our coal, oil and gas has finally been used up, our comfortable environment will vanish with it, together with our democratic niceties as we strive to survive.

An energy depleted economy will mean a downsized state and a breakup of established law, because no government can exist outside the boundaries of its own energy range. In that situation you can have no control over your position within your future state or nation, and the way in which you will be governed. The individual details might be open to question, but millennia of past history supplies the outline of our future: weakened states submit to whichever despot can hold power. We will not only have a downsized economy, we will have autocratic rule by someone who has seized the opportunity of weakness and used it for his own ends.

It doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to see that happening right now.