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.


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5 responses

7 12 2019
Brandon Young

This is a truly superb resource, although it can only be fully appreciated after looking through the entire article, rather than the brief introduction here.

Now we have all the fully referenced argument we need to describe the problem. When and how do we get to see and challenge or support the proposed solution? Has a second part been written, published or promised? The article did say:

“Before articulating prescriptions, we first need a comprehensive diagnosis of the patient.”

OK, now what? My proposed solution is laid out in this scheme:

https://www.fixingthesystem.net.au/2018/05/15/global-carbon-sinking-fund/

It is not yet a comprehensive or persuasive proposal, but anyone with a basic capacity for systems thinking should be able to perceive the tremendous value in the model of system reform, and to suddenly become aware of how it could actually deliver any economic outcome we might collectively choose to set as a system goal.

I hope to dramatically improve the explanation of the proposal over time, and to improve the marketing so that it appeals to a broad audience who don’t necessarily have a good understanding of systems and complexity.

That improvement will only be possible if people are prepared to engage in debate about the model, both critically and constructively, so that I can begin to fill in the gaps by responding to all challenges and questions.

We have the brilliant analysis by Hagens. Can we turn it into a brilliant solution, one that delivers sustainability and prosperity for industrialised human civilisation?

8 12 2019
AJ

Interesting synopsis, have to download the entire article and spend some time reading it. Thanks for putting this up
AJ

9 12 2019
Jose G Cano

Thank you ! The article is brilliant, it sits before the deep adaptation paper of Jem Bendell and explain it. Thank you for sharing !

14 01 2020
Sad News

Hey Mike – this might be old news to you (and others), but I just discovered today that Jay Hanson, of dieoff.org infamy, sadly fell ill and died early 2019.

https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-04-09/jay-hanson-dies-in-diving-accident/
https://web.archive.org/web/20190714070324/https://candobetter.net/node/5739

I just though you and other old-school doomers might like to know – his writing had a big influence on me and I’ve long thought his Overshoot Loop piece went a long way towards getting to the root of our predicament… http://www.jayhanson.org/loop.htm

31 01 2020
mikestasse

Yeas sad, but I found out last year…….

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