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.





Why Climate Change Isn’t Our Biggest Environmental Problem, and Why Technology Won’t Save Us

27 11 2019

Richard Heinberg

August 17, 2017


Our core ecological problem is not climate change. It is overshoot, of which global warming is a symptom. Overshoot is a systemic issue. Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption; and these in turn led to population increase, pollution, and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity. The human system expanded dramatically, overshooting Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans while upsetting the ecological systems we depend on for our survival. Until we understand and address this systemic imbalance, symptomatic treatment (doing what we can to reverse pollution dilemmas like climate change, trying to save threatened species, and hoping to feed a burgeoning population with genetically modified crops) will constitute an endlessly frustrating round of stopgap measures that are ultimately destined to fail.

The ecology movement in the 1970s benefitted from a strong infusion of systems thinking, which was in vogue at the time (ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments—is an inherently systemic discipline, as opposed to studies like chemistry that focus on reducing complex phenomena to their components). As a result, many of the best environmental writers of the era framed the modern human predicament in terms that revealed the deep linkages between environmental symptoms and the way human society operates. Limits to Growth (1972), an outgrowth of the systems research of Jay Forrester, investigated the interactions between population growth, industrial production, food production, resource depletion, and pollution. Overshoot (1982), by William Catton, named our systemic problem and described its origins and development in a style any literate person could appreciate. Many more excellent books from the era could be cited.

However, in recent decades, as climate change has come to dominate environmental concerns, there has been a significant shift in the discussion. Today, most environmental reporting is focused laser-like on climate change, and systemic links between it and other worsening ecological dilemmas (such as overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water) are seldom highlighted. It’s not that climate change isn’t a big deal. As a symptom, it’s a real doozy. There’s never been anything quite like it, and climate scientists and climate-response advocacy groups are right to ring the loudest of alarm bells. But our failure to see climate change in context may be our undoing.

Why have environmental writers and advocacy organizations succumbed to tunnel vision? Perhaps it’s simply that they assume systems thinking is beyond the capacity of policy makers. It’s true: if climate scientists were to approach world leaders with the message, “We have to change everything, including our entire economic system—and fast,” they might be shown the door rather rudely. A more acceptable message is, “We have identified a serious pollution problem, for which there are technical solutions.” Perhaps many of the scientists who did recognize the systemic nature of our ecological crisis concluded that if we can successfully address this one make-or-break environmental crisis, we’ll be able to buy time to deal with others waiting in the wings (overpopulation, species extinctions, resource depletion, and on and on).

If climate change can be framed as an isolated problem for which there is a technological solution, the minds of economists and policy makers can continue to graze in familiar pastures. Technology—in this case, solar, wind, and nuclear power generators, as well as batteries, electric cars, heat pumps, and, if all else fails, solar radiation management via atmospheric aerosols—centers our thinking on subjects like financial investment and industrial production. Discussion participants don’t have to develop the ability to think systemically, nor do they need to understand the Earth system and how human systems fit into it. All they need trouble themselves with is the prospect of shifting some investments, setting tasks for engineers, and managing the resulting industrial-economic transformation so as to ensure that new jobs in green industries compensate for jobs lost in coal mines.

The strategy of buying time with a techno-fix presumes either that we will be able to institute systemic change at some unspecified point in the future even though we can’t do it just now (a weak argument on its face), or that climate change and all of our other symptomatic crises will in fact be amenable to technological fixes. The latter thought-path is again a comfortable one for managers and investors. After all, everybody loves technology. It already does nearly everything for us. During the last century it solved a host of problems: it cured diseases, expanded food production, sped up transportation, and provided us with information and entertainment in quantities and varieties no one could previously have imagined. Why shouldn’t it be able to solve climate change and all the rest of our problems?

Of course, ignoring the systemic nature of our dilemma just means that as soon as we get one symptom corralled, another is likely to break loose. But, crucially, is climate change, taken as an isolated problem, fully treatable with technology? Color me doubtful. I say this having spent many months poring over the relevant data with David Fridley of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Our resulting book, Our Renewable Future, concluded that nuclear power is too expensive and risky; meanwhile, solar and wind power both suffer from intermittency, which (once these sources begin to provide a large percentage of total electrical power) will require a combination of three strategies on a grand scale: energy storage, redundant production capacity, and demand adaptation. At the same time, we in industrial nations will have to adapt most of our current energy usage (which occurs in industrial processes, building heating, and transportation) to electricity. Altogether, the energy transition promises to be an enormous undertaking, unprecedented in its requirements for investment and substitution. When David and I stepped back to assess the enormity of the task, we could see no way to maintain current quantities of global energy production during the transition, much less to increase energy supplies so as to power ongoing economic growth. The biggest transitional hurdle is scale: the world uses an enormous amount of energy currently; only if that quantity can be reduced significantly, especially in industrial nations, could we imagine a credible pathway toward a post-carbon future.

Downsizing the world’s energy supplies would, effectively, also downsize industrial processes of resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and waste management. That’s a systemic intervention, of exactly the kind called for by the ecologists of the 1970s who coined the mantra, “Reduce, reuse, and recycle.” It gets to the heart of the overshoot dilemma—as does population stabilization and reduction, another necessary strategy. But it’s also a notion to which technocrats, industrialists, and investors are virulently allergic.

The ecological argument is, at its core, a moral one—as I explain in more detail in a just-released manifesto replete with sidebars and graphics (“There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss”).  Any systems thinker who understands overshoot and prescribes powerdown as a treatment is effectively engaging in an intervention with an addictive behavior. Society is addicted to growth, and that’s having terrible consequences for the planet and, increasingly, for us as well. We have to change our collective and individual behavior and give up something we depend on—power over our environment. We must restrain ourselves, like an alcoholic foreswearing booze. That requires honesty and soul-searching.

In its early years the environmental movement made that moral argument, and it worked up to a point. Concern over rapid population growth led to family planning efforts around the world. Concern over biodiversity declines led to habitat protection. Concern over air and water pollution led to a slew of regulations. These efforts weren’t sufficient, but they showed that framing our systemic problem in moral terms could get at least some traction.

Why didn’t the environmental movement fully succeed? Some theorists now calling themselves “bright greens” or “eco-modernists” have abandoned the moral fight altogether. Their justification for doing so is that people want a vision of the future that’s cheery and that doesn’t require sacrifice. Now, they say, only a technological fix offers any hope. The essential point of this essay (and my manifesto) is simply that, even if the moral argument fails, a techno-fix won’t work either. A gargantuan investment in technology (whether next-generation nuclear power or solar radiation geo-engineering) is being billed as our last hope. But in reality it’s no hope at all.

The reason for the failure thus far of the environmental movement wasn’t that it appealed to humanity’s moral sentiments—that was in fact the movement’s great strength. The effort fell short because it wasn’t able to alter industrial society’s central organizing principle, which is also its fatal flaw: its dogged pursuit of growth at all cost. Now we’re at the point where we must finally either succeed in overcoming growthism or face the failure not just of the environmental movement, but of civilization itself.

The good news is that systemic change is fractal in nature: it implies, indeed it requires, action at every level of society. We can start with our own individual choices and behavior; we can work within our communities. We needn’t wait for a cathartic global or national sea change. And even if our efforts cannot “save” consumerist industrial civilization, they could still succeed in planting the seeds of a regenerative human culture worthy of survival.

There’s more good news: once we humans choose to restrain our numbers and our rates of consumption, technology can assist our efforts. Machines can help us monitor our progress, and there are relatively simple technologies that can help deliver needed services with less energy usage and environmental damage. Some ways of deploying technology could even help us clean up the atmosphere and restore ecosystems.

But machines won’t make the key choices that will set us on a sustainable path. Systemic change driven by moral awakening: it’s not just our last hope; it’s the only real hope we’ve ever had.





Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part IV: The Way Forward

7 11 2019

Kim Hill

Having published parts I II and III of Kim Hill’s excellent XR Rebellion unpacking series, I’ve really been hanging out for part IV which seemed to take forever to get published…… well, was t ever worth waiting for, it’s a rip roaring article, easily the best of the series. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Image: Roseanne de Lange

Part IPart IIPart III

As we’ve seen from the first three parts of this series, the current goals and tactics of Extinction Rebellion and the climate movement are leading us in the wrong direction. An entirely different strategy is needed if we are to have any hope of building an effective movement to end corporate control and the industries destroying the planet and all who live here.

More effective solutions

A movement that is serious about extinction and climate change needs to address the root problems: capitalism, the industrial system, a culture that sees life as a resource to be exploited, and the infrastructure that holds it all together. It needs to have clear goals, that can’t be diluted or used to manipulate and misdirect the movement. It needs to take action immediately, not in several years’ time. And it needs to target the weak points in the system, where it can have the most impact for the least effort.

The misdirection of Extinction Rebellion has come about because most urban dwellers have only an abstract idea of nature, as they don’t depend on it directly for their food, water and shelter. Their relationship with nature is mediated by the economic system, which provides for their needs by stealing resources from elsewhere and selling them on for profit. The rebels are led to believe that the extractive economy is necessary for survival, and that new industries and investments offer benefits to humans and wild nature. So city folks are more than willing to take to the streets to defend the very system that is crushing the life out of us all. It’s a form of collective Stockholm syndrome, on a global scale.

Effective solutions require rebels to have a direct relationship with the natural world. To defend nature requires love, which is a constant, reciprocal relationship, which means listening, observing, giving and receiving, and being in communion on a daily basis.

To be effective, rebels need to identify not as a citizen, consumer or worker, demanding action from business and government, but as a living being, interdependent with all life. To identify with the living world is to see the entire planet as an extension of the self, so action taken to defend nature is an act of self-defence.

Demanding that governments and corporations change will only lead (and has already led) to changes that give them more power. The entire social and legal structure that puts them in a position of power needs to be dismantled. This violent arrangement is not deserving of the respect of polite demands and peaceful protest.

Being effective requires a healthy mistrust of anyone offering technological or market-based solutions, and requires asking a whole lot of uncomfortable questions. The capture of this rebellion has depended on the lack of questioning (and probably more to the point, lack of answers) as to what net-zero emissions actually means, what the rebellion aims to achieve, and what the proposed solutions really entail. Always respond to any proposal with ‘what does this mean in practice? and who benefits from this?’

The burning of fossil fuels needs to stop. Not because it is releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but because it is powering an industrial economy that is wiping out all life. The impacts of industrialism cannot be offset, decarbonised, decoupled from economic growth, exported to the third world, or made sustainable. Fossil fuels power mining, agriculture, shipping, aviation, road and rail transport, land clearing, manufacturing, plastics, the electricity grid, and imperialist wars. Dismantling the infrastructure of oil and gas would drastically reduce the impacts of these industries. Some possible approaches to achieve this are offered by Stop Fossil Fuels, which “researches and disseminates strategies and tactics to halt fossil fuel combustion as fast as possible.”

The goal needs to be not to Make Your Voice Heard, or cause a temporary, symbolic disruption to industrial activity, but to permanently shut down the industries that are causing harm. A single drone attack on a Saudi oil processing facility this September reduced Saudi Arabia’s oil production by 50%, an action which has had more impact on the fossil fuel industry than the environmental movement ever has. No-one was harmed. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), by sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure in Nigeria, have been able to reduce the country’s oil production by half. Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, in burning holes in the Dakota Access Pipeline, were 1000 times more efficient in terms of material impact on oil production than the entire #NoDAPL campaign. And to demonstrate that government and business will never be on board with efforts that genuinely reduce fossil fuel extraction, they are facing more than 100 years in prison, despite harming no-one.

Principles for effective action

Be on the side of the living. The biosphere, endangered species, indigenous cultures and the third world don’t need development, investment, technology, corporate ambition and sustainable infrastructure. They don’t need business opportunities and economic growth. They need all these things to stop. Those on the side of industry advocate for sustainability, aiming to sustain the destructive system for as long as possible, and have brought environmentalists across to their side. The industrial system is a war on people and planet, and taking the side of the living means being willing to fight in defence of life, and oppose efforts to sustain industry and growth.

Learn from history. The rebellion has become disconnected from the struggles of the past, which has limited its tactics to civil disobedience, cutting off the possibilities of using tactics that have been successful in historical campaigns for justice. The book Full Spectrum Resistance offers lessons from movements of the past, and principles and strategies that can be applied to current struggles for social and ecological justice.

Ancient wisdom offers ways to live in harmony with the natural world. Learning about the traditional cultures of your ancestry, as well as those of the land where you live, can provide guidance towards rebuilding a genuinely sustainable land-based culture, and strategies for land and community defence.

Drop the attachment to nonviolence. The culture of industrial capitalism is based on systemic violence. To adhere to individual nonviolence in this context is to be complicit in the ongoing violence of imperialism, patriarchy, and resource extraction. The primary goal of an effective environmental movement needs to be to stop the violence.

Nonviolence is a tactic that is only available to the privileged, those who are not personally experiencing the effects of ecocide. Those who are directly under attack from destructive industries don’t have that option, and need to defend themselves and their land with weapons. Solidarity means being willing to fight alongside them, to follow their leadership and support their tactics.

Adults need to take the lead. The targeting of young people by the corporate-led climate movement has been deliberate. It is easier to manipulate their fears, and they can be convinced that the campaigning tactics used in the past have been ineffective, and that the new way of campaigning is better. This creates a separation between the generations, and interferes with any learning about historical movements. It also presents adults as incapable of taking action themselves, requiring young people to take responsibility for guiding them.

This is not the way to build a healthy culture of resistance. Adults need to take responsibility, and create a world that nurtures the next generation. Teaching young people about all the world’s problems and expecting them to take it all on is morally awful, and also repeating this same tactic for generations is clearly not going to work, if everyone just keeps passing their problems down the line. Children need to enjoy their childhood in a healthy culture. Young people are of course welcome to get involved in resistance work, and their energy and new ideas are essential, but they shouldn’t be made to feel it is their responsibility to guide adults.

Get political. Creating meaningful change requires a solid foundation of understanding of how political power works, and how change happens. By adhering to a principle of being non-political, XR shuts down any discussion of the politics influencing the movement, and prevents rebels from engaging in any political change. Rebels who engage in political discussion or advocate for political goals or strategies get excluded, which of course serves the interests of those who are manipulating the rebellion for their own political goals. Goals that no-one is allowed to talk about, because that would be political. See how this works? Only people with limited awareness of politics can realistically comply with the principle of remaining non-political, and these are the people who are most easily led into supporting goals that oppose their interests.

Set clear goals. Having vague goals that can appeal to a wide range of people is useful if the only purpose of the movement is to appeal to a wide range of people, but those who actually want to get things done need to be specific on what they want to get done. The goals need to be clear so that they can’t be used to redirect the movement, and there needs to be a realistic strategy for how they will be achieved.

You don’t have to include everyone. The principle of inclusion is promoted by the corporate campaigners because it prevents any real change. When all political views are included, there is no possibility of forming shared goals or effective strategies. Serious activism requires people who are dedicated and willing to take risks for the cause, and should only include people who have integrity and can take on the responsibilities. Everyone is of course welcome to support and contribute, but including people who are not fully committed will only hold back those who are.

Being included in the climate movement has set back indigenous struggles, as indigenous people are expected to set aside their own causes to focus on the goals of climate action, which are often in opposition to their interests. Rather than aiming to include indigenous people, third world movements, and other marginalised groups, predominantly white movements would do well to instead offer support and solidarity to autonomous struggles, to avoid co-opting or reinforcing existing power dynamics. A principle of inclusion is embraced by the white middle-class people leading the rebellion as it makes them feel good about their identity as inclusive people, but this comes at the expense of those being included. Inclusion of marginalised people in white-led capitalist movements is colonisation. White people need to position themselves as the back-up rather than the centre.

It should go without saying that the inclusion of corporations, the World Economic Forum, banks, and the military and police force that exist to defend them, is a barrier to forming a movement that can dismantle these institutions. When ‘we’re all in this together’, those who are being exploited by capitalism are required to align themselves with those who are profiting from their exploitation. This arrangement only serves the interests of those in power, and perpetuates the system. XR claims that “we live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame”, which renders invisible the industries and structures of power that created the toxic system, and refuses to acknowledge that there are individuals who benefit from keeping it in place. Which leaves ordinary people identifying with the destructive economic system and blaming themselves, rather than collectively detoxifying by eradicating the entire capitalist economy.

Noticeably absent from all this performative inclusivity are the billions of living beings under threat of extinction, those whose interests XR claims to represent, yet whose names and needs for defence I’ve never heard mentioned in any of the rebellion’s discussions.

Abandon climate as an issue to rally around. Climate change is an effect of capitalism and the industrial system, and only one of many. It is not a separate issue that can be addressed on its own. Effective action needs to address the root causes. The climate issue has been thoroughly obfuscated by those who seek to benefit from manipulating the discussion. Studying and debating climate change is distracting us from taking action to address the underlying structural causes of ecological collapse.

Organise, not mobilise. XR’s strategy is predominantly based on mobilising — getting large numbers of people to come together in mass actions as individuals, rather than organising collectively on creating change on issues that directly affect them in their own neighbourhoods. The majority of rebels are simply part of a crowd at an action, rather than participating in political education, developing personal agency and leadership skills, and engaging with the wider community. Mobilising has some value as a tactic, but needs to be just one part of a broader strategy, and is unlikely to be effective on its own. Focusing exclusively on mobilising reinforces power structures and doesn’t lead to the necessary social changes.

Engage in decisive rather than symbolic actions. Standing in the street holding a banner and shouting slogans at no-one is not going to change the world. XR’s strategy of civil disobedience by blocking traffic has the effect of disrupting the lives of ordinary people on their way to work to earn a living. Effective action needs to target not working people, but the corporations and industries that are causing environmental and social devastation. Capitalism is already making people’s lives difficult enough without the rebels’ contribution. Making people aware of the issues doesn’t lead to change in itself. Decisive action means directly targeting the physical infrastructure of the industrial system, and undermining the legal and social structures that sanction it.

Create the future. Stopping the destructive system and creating a better world starts with believing that things can get better, and collectively we have the power to make that happen. Grieving the future is not going to get us there. Grieve for what has been lost, sure, but getting stuck in negativity about the future can create a global nocebo effect: if enough people genuinely believe we’re all going to die, then that’s probably what will happen. We don’t have to stay trapped in a culture of violence, isolation, suburbia, employment, junk food, debt, electricity, toxicity, traffic jams, social media and antidepressants. We can envision and create a world without these things, where humans live in healthy communities within their natural environments, not separate and imposed over top of them.

The way forward

Many people involved in XR are seeing the cracks in the green façade. There are some in the rebellion who support the goals of economic growth and the fourth industrial revolution, and don’t care about the natural world. But there are many more who care deeply, and are willing to take direct action and risk their own lives in defence of the greater web of life.

Every rebel needs to make a choice: are you on the side of the industrial economy, or on the side of the living planet? Because you can’t have both, and if you choose the economy, you’re taking away the future of every living being (including yourself), and that’s really not very nice. And there’s no room for half measures. More than 90% of the world’s rainforests have been lost to deforestation. Over 300 tons of topsoil are lost every minute. Corporations dump five million gallons of toxins into the ocean every day. One species goes extinct every 15 minutes. More than 90% of large fish in the oceans are gone, and there is 10 times as much plastic as phytoplankton in the oceans. There’s definitely no space here for economy-saving Climate Action.

The movement is already huge, and momentum is building. The economy is failing, and on the brink of collapse. An organised, committed, strategic movement that targets the critical nodes of the economic system has the potential to take it down completely.

We have millions of years of evolution on our side. Our ancestors have fought off predators and forces that could have destroyed them, and survived long enough to reproduce. Every person reading this has this heritage. We can fight for our lives and survive this. We’ve been doing it for millions of years, and with a collective act of self-defence, we can keep on for millions more.

Be guided by the courage of your wild heart, not the fears of your domesticated mind. Ask the wild creatures what they would do if they had your resources. And listen. Then act. Always, always, speak and act on behalf of those who can’t. Those who would take down all the structures that stand in the way of life.

No expectations that the government or business will save us. No demands. No compromise. No shiny illusions of net-zero, carbon-neutral, future-proofing, renewable, climate-friendly bullshit. No green capitalism, clean growth, decarbonised economies or whatever other meaningless marketing slogans corporations use to sell fake protests.

An effective movement to reverse the trend of ongoing extractivism that’s leading us toward total extinction won’t be dependent on governments and businesses taking action in response to street protests. It will require communities to work together to take down the infrastructure of the extractive industries in their own neighbourhoods, and rebuild a culture based on living in harmony with the land that sustains us. It requires an allegiance to the living world, not to the system of laws and proper channels that exist to protect those who benefit from extraction, exploitation and extinction.

The path to a better world won’t come from a fear of atmospheric gases, and demands for investment in infrastructure and industry. It needs to come out of a place of love for the natural world, and from ancient wisdom. It will come from listening to the land where you live, and taking action to defend it. Let the Earth and those who maintain relationships with their land be our teachers and guides.





Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part I: Net-zero Emissions

17 09 2019

Kim Hill

Sep 13 · Originally published by Medium, a very important article needed to be read very widely……..

The Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement has taken off around the world, with millions of people taking to the streets to demand that governments take action on climate change and the broader ecological crisis. The scale of the movement means it has the potential to have an enormous impact on the course of history, by bringing about massive changes to the structure of our societies and economic systems.

The exact nature of the demanded action is not made clear, and warrants a close examination. There is a long history of powerful government and corporate interests throwing their support behind social movements, only to redirect the course of action to suit their own ends, and Extinction Rebellion is no exception.

With the entirety of life on this planet at stake, any course of action needs to be considered extremely carefully. Actions have consequences, and at this late stage, one mis-step can be catastrophic. The feeling that these issues have been discussed long enough and it is now time for immediate action is understandable. However, without clear goals and a plan on how to achieve them, the actions taken are likely to do more harm than good.

Extinction and climate change are among the many disastrous effects of an industrial society. While the desire to take action to stop the extinction of the natural world is admirable, rebelling against the effects without directly confronting the economic and political systems that are the root cause is like treating the symptoms of an illness without investigating or diagnosing it first. It won’t work. Addressing only one aspect of the global system, without taking into account the interconnected industries and governance structures, will only lead to worse problems.

Demand 2: net-zero emissions

The rebellion’s goals are expressed in three demands, under the headings Tell the Truth, Act Now and Beyond Politics. I’m starting with the second demand because net-zero is the core goal of the rebellion, and the one that will have enormous political, economic and social impact.

What does net-zero emissions mean? In the words of Catherine Abreau, executive director of the Climate Action Network: “In short, it means the amount of emissions being put into the atmosphere is equal to the amount being captured.” The term carbon-neutral is interchangeable with net-zero.

Net-zero emissions is Not a Thing. There is no way to un-burn fossil fuels. This demand is not for the extraction and burning to stop, but for the oil and gas industry to continue, while powering some non-existent technology that makes it all okay. XR doesn’t specify how they plan to reach the goal.

Proponents of net-zero emissions advocate for the trading of carbon offsets, so industries can pay to have their emissions captured elsewhere, without reducing any on their part. This approach creates a whole new industry of selling carbon credits. Wind turbines, hydro-electric dams, biofuels, solar panels, energy efficiency projects, and carbon capture are commonly traded carbon offsets. None of these actually reduce carbon emissions in practice, and are themselves contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, so make the problem worse. Using this approach, a supposedly carbon-neutral economy leads to increased extraction and burning, and generates massive profits for corporations in the process. Head of environmental markets at Barclays Capital, Louis Redshaw, predicted in 2007 “carbon will be the world’s biggest commodity market, and it could become the world’s biggest market overall.”

The demand for net-zero emissions has been echoed by a group of more than 100 companies and lobby groups, who say in a letter to the UK government: “We see the threat that climate change poses to our businesses and to our investments, as well as the significant economic opportunities that come with being an early mover in the development of new low-carbon goods and services.” Included in this group are Shell, Nestle and Unilever. This is the same Shell that has caused thousands of oil spills and toxic leaks in Nigeria and around the world, executed protesters, owns 60 per cent of the Athabasca oil sands project in Alberta, and intends to continue extracting oil long into the future; the same Nestle that profits from contaminated water supplies by selling bottled water, while depleting the world’s aquifers; the same Unilever that is responsible for clearing rainforests for palm oil and paper, dumping tonnes of mercury in India, and making billions by marketing plastic-wrapped junk food and unnecessary consumer products to the world’s poorest people. All these companies advocate for free trade and privatization of the commons, and exploit workers and lax environmental laws in the third world. As their letter says, their motivation is to profit from the crisis, not to stop the destruction they are causing.

These are XR’s allies in the call for net-zero emissions.

The nuclear industry also sees the net-zero target as a cause for celebration, and even fracking is considered compatible with the goal.

Net-zero emissions in practice

Let’s look at some of the proposed approaches to achieve net-zero in more detail.

Renewable energy doesn’t reduce the amount of energy being generated by fossil fuels, and doesn’t do anything to reduce atmospheric carbon. Wind turbines and solar panels are made of metals, which are mined using fossil fuels. Any attempt to transition to 100% renewables would require more of some rare earth metals than exist on the planet, and rare earth mining is mostly done illegally in ecologically sensitive areas in China. There are plans to mine the deep sea to extract the minerals needed for solar panels, wind turbines and electric car batteries. Mining causes massive destruction and pollution of forests and rivers, leading to increased rates of extinction and climate change. And huge profits for mining and energy companies, who can claim government subsidies for powering the new climate economy. The amount of fossil fuels needed to power the mines, manufacturing, infrastructure and maintenance of renewables makes the goal of transitioning to clean energy completely meaningless. Wind and solar ‘farms’ are installed on land taken from actual farms, as well as deserts and forests. And the energy generated is not used to protect endangered species, but to power the industries that are driving us all extinct. Not a solution. Not even close. In the net-zero logic of offset trading, renewables are presented as not an alternative to fossil fuel extraction, but instead a way to buy a pass to burn even more oil. That’s a double shot of epic fail for renewables.

Improving efficiency of industrial processes leads to an increase in the amount of energy consumed, not a decrease, as more can be produced with the available energy, and more energy is made available for other uses. The industries that are converting the living world into disposable crap need to be stopped, not given money to destroy the planet more efficiently.

Reforestation would be a great way to start repairing the damage done to the world, but instead is being used to expand the timber industry, which uses terms like ‘forest carbon markets’ and ‘net-zero deforestation’ to legitimize destroying old-growth forests, evicting their inhabitants, and replacing them with plantations. Those seeking to profit from reforestation are promoting genetically engineered, pesticide-dependent monocrop plantations, to be planted by drones, and are anticipating an increase in demand for wood products in the new ‘bioeconomy’. Twelve million hectares of tropical rainforest were cleared in 2018, the equivalent of 30 football fields a minute. Land clearing at this rate has been going on for decades, with no sign of stopping. No carbon offsets or emissions trading can have any effect while forest destruction continues. And making an effort to repair past damage does not make it okay to continue causing harm long into the future. A necessary condition of regenerating the land is that all destructive activity needs to stop.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is promoted as a way to extract carbon dioxide from industrial emissions, and bury it deep underground. Large amounts of energy and fresh water are required to do this, and pollutants are released into the atmosphere in the process. The purpose of currently-operational carbon capture installations is not to store the carbon dioxide, but to use it in a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), which involves injecting CO2 into near-depleted oil fields, to extract more fossil fuels than would otherwise be accessible. And with carbon trading, the business of extracting oil becomes more profitable, as it can sell offset credits. Again, the proposed solution leads to more fossil fuel use, not less. Stored carbon dioxide is highly likely to leak out into the atmosphere, causing earthquakes and asphyxiating any nearby living beings. This headline says all you need to know: “Best Carbon Capture Facility In World Emits 25 Times More CO2 Than Sequestered”. Carbon capture for underground storage is neither technically nor commercially viable, as it is risky and there is no financial incentive to store the carbon dioxide, so requires government investment and subsidies. And the subsidies lead to coal and gas becoming more financially viable, thus expanding the industry.

Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a psychopathic scheme to clear forests, and take over agricultural land to grow genetically modified fuel crops, burn the trees and crops as an energy source, and then bury the carbon dioxide underground (where it’s used to expand oil and gas production). It would require an amount of land almost the size of Australia, or up to 80% of current global cropland, masses of chemical fertilizers (made from fossil fuels), and lead to soil degradation (leading to more emissions), food shortages, water shortages, land theft, massive increase in the rate of extinction, and I can’t keep researching these effects it’s making me feel ill. Proponents of BECCS (i.e. fossil fuel companies) acknowledge that meeting the targets will require “three times the world’s total cereal production, twice the annual world use of water for agriculture, and twenty times the annual use of nutrients.” Of course this will mostly take place on land stolen from the poor, in Africa, South America and Asia. And the energy generated used to make more fighter jets, Hollywood movies, pointless gadgets and urban sprawl. Burning of forests for fuel is already happening in the US and UK, all in the name of clean energy. Attaching carbon capture to bioenergy means that 30% more trees or crops need to be burned to power the CCS facility, to sequester the emissions caused by burning them. And again, it’s an offset, so sold as a justification to keep the fossil fuel industry in business. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (in the three most likely of its four scenarios) recommends implementing BECCS on a large scale to keep warming below 2°C. Anyone who thinks this is a good idea can go burn in hell, where they can be put to good use as an energy source.

This is what a decarbonised economy looks like in practice. An enormous increase in fossil fuel extraction, land clearing, mining (up to nine times as much as current levels), pollution, resource wars, exploitation, and extinction. All the money XR is demanding that governments invest in decarbonisation is going straight to the oil, gas, coal and mining companies, to expand their industries and add to their profits. The Centre for International Environmental Law, in the report Fuel to the Fire, states “Overall, the US government has been funding CCS research since 1997, with over $5billion being appropriated since 2010.” Fossil fuel companies have been advocating net-zero for some years, as it is seen as a way to save a failing coal industry, and increase demand for oil and gas, because solar, wind, biofuels and carbon capture technologies are all dependent on fossil fuels for their operation.

Anyone claiming that a carbon-neutral economy is possible is not telling the truth. All of these strategies emit more greenhouse gases than they capture. The second demand directly contradicts the first.

These approaches are used to hide the problem, and dump the consequences on someone else: the poor, nonhuman life, the third world, and future generations, all in the service of profits in the present. The goal here is not to maintain a stable climate, or to protect endangered species, but to make money out of pretending to care.

Green growth, net-zero emissions and the Green New Deal (which explicitly states in its report that the purpose is to stimulate the economy, which includes plans to extract “remaining fossil fuel with carbon capture”) are fantasy stories sold to us by energy companies, a shiny advertisement sucking us in with their claims to make life better. In reality the product is useless, and draws us collectively into a debt that we’re already paying for by being killed off at a rate of 200 species a day. With exponential economic growth (a.k.a. exponential climate action) the rate of extinction will also grow exponentially. And the money to pay for it all comes directly from working people, in the form of pension funds, carbon taxes, and climate emergency levies.

The transition to net-zero

There are plans for thousands of carbon capture facilities to be built in the coming years, all requiring roads, pipelines, powerlines, shipping, land clearing, water extraction, pollution, noise, and the undermining of local economies for corporate profits, all for the purpose of extracting more oil. And all with the full support of the rebellion.



To get a sense of the scale of this economic transformation, a billion seconds is almost 32 years. If you were to line up a billion cars and run over them (or run them over) at a rate of one car per second, you’d be running for 32 years non-stop. That’s enough cars to stretch 100 times around the equator. You’d probably need to turn entire continents into a mine site to extract all the minerals required to make them. And even that wouldn’t be enough, as some of the rare earth metals required for batteries don’t exist in sufficient quantities. If all these cars are powered by renewables, you do the math on how much mining would be needed to make all the wind turbines and solar panels. Maybe several more continents. And then a few more covered in panels, turbines, powerlines, substations. And a few more to extract all the oil needed to power the mining and road building. Which all leaves no space for any life. And all for what? So we can spend our lives stuck in traffic? It’s ridiculous and apocalyptic, yet this is what the net-zero lobbyists, with the US and UK governments, and the European Union, have already begun implementing.

Shell’s thought leadership and government advisory schemes appear to be going great, with the US senate passing a number of bills in recent months to increase subsidies for oil companies using carbon capture, and a few more, to subsidise wind, solar, nuclear, coal, gas, research and development, and even more carbon capture, are scheduled to pass in the coming months.

The UK government, with guidance from the creepy-sounding nonprofit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, is implementing a transition to net-zero, involving carbon capture, nuclear, bioenergy, hydrogen, ammonia, wind, solar, oil, gas, electric cars, smart grids, offset trading, manufacturing and the obligatory economic growth. And offering ‘climate finance’ to third world countries, to impose this industrial horror on the entire planet. All led by their advisors from the fossil fuel and finance industries, with input from the CCS, oil, gas, bioenergy, renewables, chemical, manufacturing, hydrogen, nuclear, airline, automotive, mining, and agriculture industries.

The European Union, advised by the corporate-funded European Climate Foundation, are implementing a similar plan, aiming to remain competitive with the rest of the industrialised world. The EU intends to commit 25% of its budget to implementing so-called climate mitigation strategies. Other industrialised countries also have plans to transition to a decarbonised economy.

Net-zero emissions is also the goal of the councils that have declared a climate emergency, which now number close to 1000, covering more than 200 million citizens.

This is the plan the rebellion is uniting behind to demand from the world’s governments.





THE WAKING UP SYNDROME

2 08 2019

By Sarah Anne Edwards PhDLinda Buzzell, originally published by Hopedance May 1, 2008

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” — T. S. Eliot

Just dealing with our daily lives keeps most of us too busy to worry about whether or not the sky is falling. We focus on getting to and from work, paying our bills, doing our errands, and, if our time-stressed schedules allow, enjoying a little time to relax with friends and family.
 
But we’re deluged of late with dire pronouncements from high-profile newscasts, documentaries, and scientific reports about global warming, melting ice caps, dwindling oil supplies, and a looming imminent economic collapse. Closer to home, we’ve experienced climate-related disasters: floods, wildfires, hurricanes, wildfires, and severe droughts.

While the sky may not be falling, this day-after-day onslaught of alarming news is making it more difficult simply to overlook the triple threat of environmental, climatic and economic concerns. It’s leaving many of us feeling like Alice in Wonderland, being sucked down a Rabbit Hole into some frighteningly grotesque and unfamiliar world that’s anything but wonderful.

Few of us are eager to contemplate, let alone truly face, these looming changes. Just the threat of losing chunks of the comfortable way of life we’re accustomed to (or aspiring to) is a frightening-enough prospect. But there’s no avoiding the current facts and trends of the human and planetary situation. And as the edges of our familiar reality begin to ravel, more and more people are reacting psychologically. A noticeable pattern of behavior is emerging.

We call this pattern the Waking Up Syndrome, and it unfolds in six stages, though not necessarily in any particular order.

Stage 1 – Denial. 
When we first get an inkling of the shifting environmental reality and its potential impact on both the national economy and our daily lives, most people begin by denying it. We slip into one of four common ways to discount things we’d rather not deal with:

“I don’t believe it.”  
We simply deny the existence of any such concerns and refuse to consider them. This might include latching eagerly onto any few remaining naysayers for confirmation and comfort. But as the number of reputable naysayers dwindles, more people are forced to face the fact that “something” is happening.

“It’s not a problem.”  
We may admit there’s a change taking place, but deny that it’s significant, seeing such things as climate change and economic fluctuations as part of a normal pattern that is nothing to concern ourselves with. Or we may incorporate the changes we see happening into our spiritual and religious beliefs, regarding them not as a problem, but a test of faith, a sign of a global spiritual awakening, or evidence of a long-awaited Apocalypse. Some may believe focusing on such problems makes them worse and that we should instead visualize, meditate, or pray for the world to be as we want it to be.

“Someone will fix it.”  
We may admit major problematic changes are underway but conclude that there’s nothing we personally can do about them and we needn’t worry because technology, scientists, the government, or some expert authority will come up with a solution in time to save us.

“It’s useless.”  
We may believe there’s nothing anyone can do about macro-problems, so why do anything, except perhaps eat, drink and be merry. What will be, will be.

Stage 2 – Semi-consciousness.  
In spite of the various ways we may try to discount what’s happening to our environment (and consequently to our economy and whole way of life), as evidence mounts around us and the news coverage escalates, we may begin to feel a vague sense of eco-anxiety. Some express this as virulent anger at all this discussion about global warming. Others dissociate from their growing concern and misdirect their feelings toward other things in their lives, perhaps blaming family members or jobs for their undefined discomfort.

Stage 3 – The moment of realization.  
At some point we may encounter something that breaks through our defenses and brings the inevitability and severity of the implications of our collective problems into full consciousness. We might read a particularly compelling article, learn more about the aftermath of Katrina, hear a news broadcast about polar bear deaths or rampant fires and flooding, see a documentary like “An Inconvenient Truth” or “The End of Suburbia.” Or — most dramatically – we might experience a natural disaster ourselves with all its personal and economic costs.

At such moments, suddenly we realize no matter how we try to explain away the changes that are happening, they are and will be accompanied by huge challenges to life as we know it and cause considerable pain and suffering for many, including ourselves and those we love.

Even if we believe all these disruptions are leading to a global spiritual awakening or a long awaited Apocalypse— even if we think some helpful new technology is going to emerge (hopefully soon)— we nonetheless begin to understand on a visceral level that the changes taking place will have dramatically unpleasant implications beyond anything we’ve faced in our lifetimes. In fact, we realize many of these uncomfortable changes are already underway and will be growing in coming months and years, affecting most of the things we love and cherish.

But like the character Neo in the 1999 movie The Matrix, even at this point we still have a choice. We can choose to swallow the metaphorical red pill and find out just how deep this rabbit hole goes and where it leads. Or we can take the soothing metaphorical blue pill and choose to “escape” from the nightmarish Wonderland of the rabbit hole we’ve fallen into by slipping back into the comfort of our favorite form of assuring ourselves that all is well.

But if, like Neo, we take “the red pill,” we wake up to the reality of our individual and collective situation. We get that the triple threat challenge facing us is a real Medusa monster. Once we’re awake, the problem is full-blown in our consciousness. It’s right in our face. It won’t let us turn away, and the force of it makes “waking up” incredibly painful.
 
The moment we realize — even briefly — that we’re slipping into a dangerously threatening new world that no longer makes sense according what we’ve always believed, our genetic wiring kicks in with predictable physiological and emotional threat responses that can take many forms.

Some of us become obsessive newswatchers, documentary filmgoers, internet compulsives or book readers, wanting to know more and more about what’s really happening. Loved ones may think we’ve gone nuts. Spouses may consider divorce; kids may decide mom and dad are hopeless cranks. 

The more fragile or vulnerable among us may get depressed or experience panic attacks. If something about this current eco-trauma retriggers earlier traumas in our lives, we may have a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) reaction. Even the more resilient may throw themselves obsessively into save-the-planet and other activities, soon to become exhausted and weary from trying to do what no one person can.

Others, once they realize what’s happening, see it as a new business or political opportunity. These green business ventures can sometimes be helpful and productive, but at other times can actively circumvent or sabotage the efforts of those who are trying to solve the problems.
 
Stage 4 – A Point of No Return.
Once awakened, especially as economic and environmental changes intensify, most of us find there is no turning back. We find ourselves traveling deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. Whatever methods we’ve used to avoid facing the coming changes is no longer successful to quell our personal concerns. We can no longer help but notice the continuing rapid progress of the bad trends – more expensive energy, higher costs of living, a weaker economy, more species in trouble, rising temperatures, more devastating severe weather events, increasing political, economic and military competition (wars) over remaining resources, etc.  It all starts to make a dreadful sort of sense as we let in the enormity of the situation.

One of the most difficult aspects of this stage is the profound but unavoidable sense of isolation and disconnection we may feel when living in a different world from most of those around us, a world we can no longer escape from, but one few others seem to notice. The result is a bizarre sense of surrealism. Interaction and communication can become a challenge. How do we relate to a world that’s no longer real to us, but is business as usual to most? Do we try to reach out to others about the ugly new reality and endure their defenses? Is it better to indulge those who don’t yet see the reality we’ve stumbled into and act “as if” nothing has changed just to get along? Or might it be easier to withdraw from life as we’ve known it and turn into a hermit? 

5. Despair, guilt, hopelessness, powerlessness. 
The realization sets in that one person or even one group or community can’t stop the effects of such things as climate change and peak oil and their economic consequences from impacting millions of people around the planet and at home. We see this thing spiraling out of control and realize that our species, and even we individually, are responsible for much of what’s happening!  As the mayor of Memphis said to the Los Angeles Times when a major heat-wave hit his city and most of the Midwest and South last summer, “This is pretty akin to a seismic event in the sense that there is no solution that we here in this room can come up with that will take care of everybody.”
   
Some have suggested that this stage is similar to the traditional grief process, and indeed, this is a time of grieving. But there is a significant difference between this awakening and the normal experience of grief. Grief that occurs after a loss usually ends with acceptance of what’s been lost and then one adjusts and goes on. But this is more like the process of accepting a degenerative illness.  It’s not a one-time loss one can accommodate and simply move on. It is a chronic, on-going, permanent situation that will not only not improve, but actually continue to worsen and become more uncomfortable in the foreseeable future, probably for the entire lifetime of most people living today.  This is what author James Howard Kunstler calls “The Long Emergency.”

Our grief and sorrow are also amplified by having to bear the pain of upbeat acquaintances who go merrily along in their denial, discounting their own uneasiness about what’s happening and wondering why we’re so “negative.”

Stage 6 – Acceptance, empowerment, action. 
As we come to accept the limits of our general powerlessness, we also find the parameters of the power we do have in this strange new situation. We discover we no longer need to resist our current and emerging reality. We don’t need to feel compelled to save the entire world or to hold onto a world that no longer makes sense. We are freed, instead, to pursue what James Kunstler calls “the intelligent response, ” seeking and taking whatever creative, constructive action will best sustain those aspects of life that are truly most important to us in the context of the changes unfolding around us.  At this point our curiosity and creativity kick in and we can begin following our natural instincts to find what is both feasible and rewarding to safeguard ourselves, our families, our communities and the planet.

 And indeed, growing numbers of people are beginning to respond with a plethora of creative, socially and personally responsible actions along four paths that are similar to those identified by Joanna Macy in her book World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal and Richard Heinberg in Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Declines. We are finding individual and collective ways to:

Resist making matters worse. 
What’s going on may or may not be inevitable, but we don’t have to speed it along. We can do at least one thing to ease or lessen the negative impact of these changes. We can join an environmental action group, plant a tree, bike to work, help with a protest march or write letters to our congressperson. Just doing our little bit to limit the damage eases the psychological distress we’re feeling, even if we’re not “saving the whole world.”  Taking even a small stand for what Macy calls “the life-sustaining society” (as opposed to the life-destroying one) gives us back our dignity and sense of agency.

Raise our level of consciousness so we can maintain some serenity and not burn out in the midst of all this change. We might adopt a spiritual practice of some kind, take up meditation, expand our understanding of ecology or history, or spend time reconnecting with nature, learning to live our lives in harmony with the rest of the earth.

Build a lifeboat for ourselves and our loved ones. 
Many people are already taking steps to create a richer yet more sustainable way of life better suited to weathering the new economic and environmental realities. Some are moving to less vulnerable or expensive locales. Others are simplifying their lives, starting to lower their energy use, or creating personal and community permaculture gardens. Still others are changing into more sustainable careers, joining relocalization efforts to safeguard their local economy, or adopting alternative ways to exchange needed goods and services. Learning more about these positive possibilities is vital. Until we can see that there are options, there’s no way out of despair except to return to dissociating or denying, which only makes us more vulnerable to the difficulties around us.

Join with others in small communities 
for support and understanding. Don’t try to cope with this enormous challenge alone!  Find others who share your concerns and views. Some people have formed reading or study groups around books like David Korten’s The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, Richard Heinberg’s Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, Cecile Andrews’ Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life, or Middle Class Life Boat by Paul and Sarah Edwards. Others are becoming active in relocalization efforts like those described on www.relocalize.net . Still others are joining together to turn their neighborhood into a sustainable “eco-hood” or exploring options for co-housing or eco-villages.

Taking some action in each of these four areas prevents us from getting stuck in panic and paralysis. It energizes us and re-establishes a sense of confidence and security in life. Does it mean we will no longer be plagued with concerns, doubts or even fear at times? No. The threat of what we face is huge and relentless. There’s never been anything like it in human history.  All who awaken to the enormity of the challenges before us still slip and slide somewhere along this continuum at times. One day we may feel encouraged with our forward action, the next we may be back to despairing. Or we many need to take a mental holiday altogether for a few days or weeks so we can come back refreshed and reinvigorated, ready to work again on the survivable future we’re creating for ourselves and our loved ones.

When asked in an interview with The Turning Wheel if there are times when she ever thinks “Oh, no! This is impossible,” even Joanna Macy, who has been a leader in championing ways to address these changes, replied, “Every day.” But she goes on to explain that while she does think this at times, such times pass because she can’t think of anything more engaging and enjoyable than addressing the most pressing issues of our time.
 
Such wisdom seems to be the secret to living positively while navigating the painfully difficult stages of awakening until we get to the point where we can enjoy the daily challenges our dismaying situation presents to our imagination, our creativity and our deep and abiding love for the most valuable aspects of life.

 
To Learn More

Books

Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life by Cecile Andrews.

World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal by Joanna Macy.

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community by David Korten.

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change and other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century by James Howard Kunstler.

Middle-Class Life Boat, Careers and Life Choices for Staying Afloat in an Uncertain Economyby Paul and Sarah Edwards.

Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren

Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Decline by Richard Heinberg.

Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World by Richard Heinberg.

Reconnecting with Nature by Michael J. Cohen.

Documentary DVDs

The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dreamwww.endofsuburbia.com/previews.htm

Escape From Suburbia: Beyond the American Dream

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

What a Way to Go: Life at the End of the Empire. www.whatawaytogomovie.com/

Crude Impact

Organizations

The Post-Carbon Institute www.postcarbon.org

Sarah Anne Edwards, Ph.D., LCSW, is an ecopsychologist, author, and advocate for sustainable lifestyles. She is founder of the Pine Mountain Institute (www.PineMountainInstitute.com ), a continuing education provider for professionals seeking to empower their clients to respond to today’s challenging economic and environmental realities.

Linda Buzzell, M.A., M.F.T. is a psychotherapist and career counselor in private practice in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, California.  She is the founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy (http://thoughtoffering.blogs.com/ecotherapy ) and the co-editor of Ecotherapy: Psyche and Nature in a Circle of Healing (in press, Sierra Club Books).





Eight essential steps to transform our economy

30 07 2019

We’re running out of time. There’s spreading awareness of the institutional failure that is driving humans toward self-extinction, and related calls for a deep transformation of our economy. This is happening in every quarter, from college campuses to the Vatican to the U.S. presidential debates. Everywhere we hear calls for an economy that serves the well-being of people and Earth.

David Korten wrote this opinion piece for YES! Magazine as part of his series of biweekly columns on “A Living Earth Economy.” David is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine and president of the Living Economies Forum. Follow him on Twitter @dkorten and on Facebook. As do all YES! columnists he writes here in his personal voice.

Pope Francis has spoken of the social and environmental failures of an economy devoted to the idolatry of moneyWorkers and their unions are joining in with the wrenching observation that, “There are no good jobs on a dead planet.”

There is a related rising awareness of the need for a serious update to how we study and think about economics and prepare our future leaders. With few exceptions, economics, as it’s taught in universities, relies on the same badly flawed theories and ethical principles that bear major responsibility for the unfolding crisis. It values life only for its market price; uses GDP growth as the defining measure of economic performance; assures students that maximizing personal financial return benefits society; recommends policies that prioritize corporate profits over human and planetary well-being; and ignores the natural limits of a finite planet.

Here are eight guiding principles for a reformed economic theory to guide our path to a new economy for the 21st century.

Principle 1: Evaluate the economy’s performance by indicators of the well-being of people and planet; not the growth of GDP.

Growing GDP serves well if our goal is only to increase the financial assets of the rich so they can claim an ever-growing share of the remaining real wealth of a dying Earth. If our priority is to meet the essential needs for food, water, shelter, and other basics for all the world’s people, then we must measure for those results so that we can get the outcomes we really want.

Principle 2: Seek only that which benefits life; not that which harms life.

We should seek to eliminate war, financial speculation, consumption of harmful or unnecessary products, and industrial agriculture that pollutes the soil, air, and water and produces food of questionable nutritional value. We can eliminate most driving by designing infrastructure to support people living close to where they work, shop, and play. We can eliminate most global movement of people and goods by keeping production and consumption local, using recycled materials, and substituting electronic communication for global business travel.

The labor and resources thus freed up can be redirected to raising and educating our children, caring for the elderly, restoring the health and vitality of Earth’s regenerative systems, rebuilding the social infrastructure of community, and rebuilding physical infrastructure in ways that reduce dependence on fossil fuels and simultaneously strengthen our beneficial connections with one another and nature.

Principle 3: Honor and reward all who provide beneficial labor, including nature; not those who exploit it to get rich.

Life depends on the labor of nature and people. Too often, the current economic system rewards those claiming ownership rather than those performing useful labor. Instead we should follow the model set by traditional societies, in which we earn our share in the surplus of the commons through our labor in service of it. Much of the current economy’s dysfunction can be overcome by eliminating the division of society between owners and workers—a problem corrected throughworker ownership combined with an ethical frame that recognizes our well-being depends on much more than just financial return.

Principle 4: Create society’s money supply through a transparent public process to advance the common good; not through proprietary processes that grow the profits of for-profit banks.

In a modern society, those who control the creation and allocation of money control the lives of everyone. It defies reason to assume that society benefits from giving this power to global for-profit banks dedicated to maximizing profits for the already richest among us. The system of money creation and allocation must be public, transparent, and accountable to the people. It must reside in democratic governments and be administered by public banks supplemented by individual community-owned, cooperative banks whose lending supports local home and business ownership.

Principle 5: Educate for a lifetime of learning in service to life-seeking communities; not for service to for-profit corporations.

Most university economics courses currently promote societal psychopathology as a human ideal and give legitimacy to institutions that serve only to make money, without regard for the common good. We must prepare youth for future leadership that builds on a moral foundation that recognizes our responsibility for one another and Earth, favors cooperation over competition, and prioritizes life over money and community well-being over corporate profits.

No one knows how to get where we now must go, and education cannot provide us with answers we do not have. Education can, however, prepare us to be lifelong learners, skilled in asking the right questions and in working together to find and share answers.

Principle 6: Create and apply technology only to serve life; not to displace or destroy it.

Technology must be life’s servant. Deciding how to apply technology based solely on what will produce the greatest short-term financial return is madness. Humans have the right and the means to assure that technology is used only to serve humanity as a whole, such as by eliminating destructive environmental impacts, restoring the regenerative capacity of Earth systems, facilitating global understanding, and advancing social justice, cooperation, and learning.

Principle 7: Organize as cooperative, inclusive, self-reliant, regenerative communities that share knowledge and technology to serve life; not as incorporated pools of money competing to grow by exploiting life.

We can meet our needs through constant cyclical flows of resources. That was our standard way of living until less than 100 years ago. We can do it again. Urban and rural dwellers can rediscover their interdependence as cities source food, timber, fiber, pulp, and recreational opportunities from nearby rural areas and rural areas regenerate their soils with biowastes from nearby urban areas and enjoy the benefits of urban culture. Suburbs can convert to urban or rural habitats.

Principle 8: Seek a mutually beneficial population balance between humans and Earth’s other species; not the dominance of humans over all others.

The health of any natural ecosystem depends on its ability to balance the populations of its varied species. This means maintaining free access to reproductive health care options and removing barriers to women in education and the workplace. Only starting from this point can we both maintain a free society and manage our population size.

The basic frame of 21st century economics contrasts sharply with that of the 20th century economics it must now displace. The new frame is far more complex and nuanced. Yet most people can readily grasp it because it is logical, consistent with foundational ethical principles, and reflects the reality that most people are kind, honest, find pleasure in helping others, and recognize that we all depend on the health of our Mother Earth.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.





Why stimulus can’t fix our energy problems

11 07 2019

If EVER you needed proof there is no energy transition happening, and that growth in fossil fuels consumption is increasing, or that without de-industrialization there is no way known we’ll avoid catastrophic climate change, then this article by Gail Tverberg is it……..

The years during which the quantities of material resources cease to grow correspond almost precisely to recessionary years.

Furthermore, Gail’s “2% lag” mentioned below proves the global economy is in serious trouble. Here in Australia for instance, car sales have been dropping for fourteen months straight……

Posted on July 10, 2019 by Gail Tverberg

Economists tell us that within the economy there is a lot of substitutability, and they are correct. However, there are a couple of not-so-minor details that they overlook:

  • There is no substitute for energy. It is possible to harness energy from another source, or to make a particular object run more efficiently, but the laws of physics prevent us from substituting something else for energy. Energy is required whenever physical changes are made, such as when an object is moved, or a material is heated, or electricity is produced.
  • Supplemental energy leverages human energy. The reason why the human population is as high as it is today is because pre-humans long ago started learning how to leverage their human energy (available from digesting food) with energy from other sources. Energy from burning biomass was first used over one million years ago. Other types of energy, such as harnessing the energy of animals and capturing wind energy with sails of boats, began to be used later. If we cut back on our total energy consumption in any material way, humans will lose their advantage over other species. Population will likely plummet because of epidemics and fighting over scarce resources.

Many people appear to believe that stimulus programs by governments and central banks can substitute for growth in energy consumption. Others are convinced that efficiency gains can substitute for growing energy consumption. My analysis indicates that workarounds, in the aggregate, don’t keep energy prices high enough for energy producers. Oil prices are at risk, but so are coal and natural gas prices. We end up with a different energy problem than most have expected: energy prices that remain too low for producers. Such a problem can have severe consequences.

Let’s look at a few of the issues involved:

[1] Despite all of the progress being made in reducing birth rates around the globe, the world’s population continues to grow, year after year.

Figure 1. 2019 World Population Estimates of the United Nations. Source: https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Standard/Population/

Advanced economies in particular have been reducing birth rates for many years. But despite these lower birthrates, world population continues to rise because of the offsetting impact of increasing life expectancy. The UN estimates that in 2018, world population grew by 1.1%.

[2] This growing world population leads to a growing use of natural resources of every kind.

There are three reasons we might expect growing use of material resources:

(a) The growing world population in Figure 1 needs food, clothing, homes, schools, roads and other goods and services. All of these needs lead to the use of more resources of many different types.

(b) The world economy needs to work around the problems of an increasingly resource-constrained world. Deeper wells and more desalination are required to handle the water needs of a rising population. More intensive agriculture (with more irrigation, fertilization, and pest control) is needed to harvest more food from essentially the same number of arable acres. Metal ores are increasingly depleted, requiring more soil to be moved to extract the ore needed to maintain the use of metals and other minerals. All of these workarounds to accommodate a higher population relative to base resources are likely to add to the economy’s material resource requirements.

(c) Energy products themselves are also subject to limits. Greater energy use is required to extract, process, and transport energy products, leading to higher costs and lower net available quantities.

Somewhat offsetting these rising resource requirements is the inventiveness of humans and the resulting gradual improvements in technology over time.

What does actual resource use look like? UN data summarized by MaterialFlows.net shows that extraction of world material resources does indeed increase most years.

Figure 2. World total extraction of physical materials used by the world economy, calculated using  weight in metric tons. Chart is by MaterialFlows.net. Amounts shown are based on the Global Material Flows Database of the UN International Resource Panel. Non-metallic minerals include many types of materials including sand, gravel and stone, as well as minerals such as salt, gypsum and lithium.

[3] The years during which the quantities of material resources cease to grow correspond almost precisely to recessionary years.  

If we examine Figure 2, we see flat periods or periods of actual decline at the following points: 1974-75, 1980-1982, 1991, and 2008-2009. These points match up almost exactly with US recessionary periods since 1970:

Figure 3. Dates of US recessions since 1970, as graphed by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

The one recessionary period that is missed by the Figure 2 flat periods is the brief recession that occurred about 2001.

[4] World energy consumption (Figure 4) follows a very similar pattern to world resource extraction (Figure 2).

Figure 4. World Energy Consumption by fuel through 2018, based on 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Quantities are measured in energy equivalence. “Other Renew” includes a number of kinds of renewables, including wind, solar, geothermal, and sawdust burned to provide electricity. Biofuels such as ethanol are included in “Oil.”

Note that the flat periods are almost identical to the flat periods in the extraction of material resources in Figure 2. This is what we would expect, if it takes material resources to make goods and services, and the laws of physics require that energy consumption be used to enable the physical transformations required for these goods and services.

[5] The world economy seems to need an annual growth in world energy consumption of at least 2% per year, to stay away from recession.

There are really two parts to projecting how much energy consumption is needed:

  1. How much growth in energy consumption is required to keep up with growing population?
  2. How much growth in energy consumption is required to keep up with the other needs of a growing economy?

Regarding the first item, if the population growth rate continues at a rate similar to the recent past (or slightly lower), about 1% growth in energy consumption is needed to match population growth.

To estimate how much growth in energy supply is needed to keep up with the other needs of a growing economy, we can look at per capita historical relationships:

Figure 5. Three-year average growth rates of energy consumption and GDP. Energy consumption growth per capita uses amounts provided in BP 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy. World per capita GDP amounts are from the World Bank, using GDP on a 2010 US$ basis.

The average world per capita energy consumption growth rate in non-recessionary periods varies as follows:

  • All years: 1.5% per year
  • 1970 to present: 1.3% per year
  • 1983 to present: 1.0% per year

Let’s take 1.0% per year as the minimum growth in energy consumption per capita required to keep the economy functioning normally.

If we add this 1% to the 1% per year expected to support continued population growth, the total growth in energy consumption required to keep the economy growing normally is about 2% per year.

Actual reported GDP growth would be expected to be higher than 2%. This occurs because the red line (GDP) is higher than the blue line (energy consumption) on Figure 5. We might estimate the difference to be about 1%. Adding this 1% to the 2% above, total reported world GDP would be expected to be about 3% in a non-recessionary environment.

There are several reasons why reported GDP might be higher than energy consumption growth in Figure 5:

  • A shift to more of a service economy, using less energy in proportion to GDP growth
  • Efficiency gains, based on technological changes
  • Possible intentional overstatement of reported GDP amounts by some countries to help their countries qualify for loans or to otherwise enhance their status
  • Intentional or unintentional understatement of inflation rates by reporting countries

[6] In the years subsequent to 2011, growth in world energy consumption has fallen behind the 2% per year growth rate required to avoid recession.

Figure 7 shows the extent to which energy consumption growth has fallen behind a target growth rate of 2% since 2011.

Figure 6. Indicated amounts to provide 2% annual growth in energy consumption, as well as actual increases in world energy consumption since 2011. Deficit is calculated as Actual minus Required at 2%. Historical amounts from BP 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy.

[7] The growth rates of oil, coal and nuclear have all slowed to below 2% per year since 2011. While the consumption of natural gas, hydroelectric and other renewables is still growing faster than 2% per year, their surplus growth is less than the deficit of oil, coal and nuclear.  

Oil, coal, and nuclear are the types of energy whose growth has lagged below 2% since 2011.

Figure 7. Oil, coal, and nuclear growth rates have lagged behind the target 2% growth rate. Amounts based on data from BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The situations behind these lagging growth rates vary:

  • Oil. The slowdown in world oil consumption began in 2005, when the price of oil spiked to the equivalent of $70 per barrel (in 2018$). The relatively higher cost of oil compared with other fuels since 2005 has encouraged conservation and the switching to other fuels.
  • Coal. China, especially, has experienced lagging coal production since 2012. Production costs have risen because of depleted mines and more distant sources, but coal prices have not risen to match these higher costs. Worldwide, coal has pollution issues, encouraging a switch to other fuels.
  • Nuclear. Growth has been low or negative since the Fukushima accident in 2011.

Figure 8 shows the types of world energy consumption that have been growing more rapidly than 2% per year since 2011.

Figure 8. Natural gas, hydroelectric, and other renewables (including wind and solar) have been growing more rapidly than 2% since 2011. Amounts based on data from BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy.

While these types of energy produce some surplus relative to an overall 2% growth rate, their total quantity is not high enough to offset the significant deficit generated by oil, coal, and nuclear.

Also, it is not certain how long the high growth rates for natural gas, hydroelectric, and other renewables can persist. The growth in natural gas may slow because transport costs are high, and consumers are not willing/able to pay for the high delivered cost of natural gas, when distant sources are used. Hydroelectric encounters limits because most of the good sites for dams are already taken. Other renewables also encounter limits, partly because many of the best sites are already taken, and partly because batteries are needed for wind and solar, and there is a limit to how fast battery makers can expand production.

Putting the two groupings together, we obtain the same deficit found in Figure 6.

Figure 9. Comparison of extra energy over targeted 2% growth from natural gas, hydroelectric and other renewables with energy growth deficit from oil, coal and nuclear combined. Amounts based on data from BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Based on the above discussion, it seems likely that energy consumption growth will tend to lag behind 2% per year for the foreseeable future.

[8] The economy needs to produce its own “demand” for energy products, in order to keep prices high enough for producers. When energy consumption growth is below 2% per year, the danger is that energy prices will fall below the level needed by energy producers.

Workers play a double role in the economy:

  • They earn wages, based on their jobs, and
  • They are the purchasers of goods and services.

In fact, low-wage workers (the workers that I sometimes call “non-elite workers”) are especially important, because of their large numbers and their role in buying many items that use significant amounts of energy. If these workers aren’t earning enough, they tend to cut back on their discretionary buying of homes, cars, air conditioners, and even meat. All of these require considerable energy in their production and in their use.

High-wage workers tend to spend their money differently. Most of them have already purchased as many homes and vehicles as they can use. They tend to spend their extra money differently–on services such as private education for their children, or on investments such as shares of stock.

An economy can be configured with “increased complexity” in order to save energy consumption and costs. Such increased complexity can be expected to include larger companies, more specialization and more globalization. Such increased complexity is especially likely if energy prices rise, increasing the benefit of substitution away from the energy products. Increased complexity is also likely if stimulus programs provide inexpensive funds that can be used to buy out other firms and for the purchase of new equipment to replace workers.

The catch is that increased complexity tends to reduce demand for energy products because the new way the economy is configured tends to increase wage disparity. An increasing share of workers are replaced by machines or find themselves needing to compete with workers in low-wage countries, lowering their wages. These lower wages tend to lower the demand of non-elite workers.

If there is no increase in complexity, then the wages of non-elite workers can stay high. The use of growing energy supplies can lead to the use of more and better machines to help non-elite workers, and the benefit of those machines can flow back to non-elite workers in the form of higher wages, reflecting “higher worker productivity.” With the benefit of higher wages, non-elite workers can buy the energy-consuming items that they prefer. Demand stays high for finished goods and services. Indirectly, it also stays high for commodities used in the process of making these finished goods and services. Thus, prices of energy products can be as high as needed, so as to encourage production.

In fact, if we look at average annual inflation-adjusted oil prices, we find that 2011 (the base year in Sections [6] and [7]) had the single highest average price for oil.1 This is what we would expect, if energy consumption growth had been adequate immediately preceding 2011.

Figure 10. Historical inflation-adjusted Brent-equivalent oil prices based on data from 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

If we think about the situation, it not surprising that the peak in average annual oil prices took place in 2011, and the decline in oil prices has coincided with the growing net deficit shown in Figures 6 and 9. There was really a double loss of demand, as growth in energy use slowed (reducing direct demand for energy products) and as complexity increased (shifting more of the demand to high-wage earners and away from the non-elite workers).

What is even more surprising is that fact that the prices of fuels in general tend to follow a similar pattern (Figure 11). This strongly suggests that demand is an important part of price setting for energy products of all kinds. People cannot buy more goods and services (made and transported with energy products) than they can afford over the long term.

Figure 11. Comparison of changes in oil prices with changes in other energy prices, based on time series of historical energy prices shown in BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy. The prices in this chart are not inflation-adjusted.

If a person looks at all of these charts (deficits in Figures 6 and 9 and oil and energy prices in general from Figures 10 and 11) for the period 2011 onward, there is a very distinct pattern. There is at first a slow slide down, then a fast slide down, followed (at the end) by an uptick. This is what we should expect, if low energy growth is leading to low prices for energy products in general.

[9] There are two different ways that oil and other energy prices can damage the economy: (a) by rising too high for consumers or (b) by falling too low for producers to have funds for reinvestment, taxes and other needs. The danger at this point is from (b), energy prices falling too low for producers.  

Many people believe that the only energy problem that an economy can have is prices that are too high for consumers. In fact, energy prices seemed to be very high in the lead-ups to the 1974-1975 recession, the 1980-1982 recession, and the 2008-2009 recession. Figure 5 shows that the worldwide growth in energy consumption was very high in the lead-up to all three of these recessions. In the two earlier time periods, the US, Europe, and the Soviet Union were all growing their economies, leading to high demand. Preceding the 2008-2009 Great Recession, China was growing its economy very rapidly at the same time the US was providing low-interest rate rates for home purchases, some of them to subprime borrowers. Thus, demand was very high at that time.

The 1974-75 recession and the 1980-1982 recession were fixed by raising interest rates. The world economy was overheating with all of the increased leveraging of human energy with energy products. Higher short-term interest rates helped bring growth in energy prices (as well as food prices, which are very dependent on energy consumption) down to a more manageable level.

Figure 12. Three-month and ten-year interest rates through May 2019, in chart by Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

There was really a two-way interest rate fix related to the Great Recession of 2008-2009. First, when oil and other energy prices started to spike, the US Federal Reserve raised short term interest rates in the mid 2000s. This, by itself, was almost enough to cause recession. When recession started to set in, short-term interest rates were brought back down. Also, in late 2008, when oil prices were very low, the US began using Quantitative Easing to bring longer-term interest rates down, and the price of oil back up.

Figure 13. Monthly Brent oil prices with dates of US beginning and ending Quantitative Easing.

There is one recession that seems to have been the result of low oil prices, perhaps combined with other factors. That is the recession that was associated with the collapse of the central government of the Soviet Union in 1991.

[10] The recession that comes closest to the situation we seem to be heading into is the one that affected the world economy in 1991 and shortly thereafter.

If we look at Figures 2 and 5, we can see that the recession that occurred in 1991 had a moderately severe effect on the world economy. Looking back at what happened, this situation occurred when the central government of the Soviet Union collapsed after 10 years of low oil prices (1982-1991). With these low prices, the Soviet Union had not been earning enough to reinvest in new oil fields. Also, communism had proven to be a fairly inefficient method of operating the economy. The world’s self-organizing economy produced a situation in which the central government of the Soviet Union collapsed. The effect on resource consumption was very severe for the countries most involved with this collapse.

Figure 14. Total extraction of physical materials Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, in chart by MaterialFlows.net. Amounts shown are based on the Global Material Flows Database of the UN International Resource Panel.

World oil prices have been falling too low, at least since 2012. The biggest decreases in prices have come since 2014. With energy prices already very low compared to what producers need, there is a need right now for some type of stimulus. With interest rates as low as they are today, it will be very difficult to lower interest rates much further.

Also, as we have seen, debt-related stimulus is not very effective at raising energy prices unless it actually raises energy consumption. What works much better is energy supply that is cheap and abundant enough that supply can be ramped up at a rate well in excess of 2% per year, to help support the growth of the economy. Suitable energy supply should be inexpensive enough to produce that it can be taxed heavily, in order to help support the rest of the economy.

Unfortunately, we cannot just walk away from economic growth because we have an economy that needs to continue to expand. One part of this need is related to the world’s population, which continues to grow. Another part of this need relates to the large amount of debt that needs to be repaid with interest. We know from recent history (as well as common sense) that when economic growth slows too much, repayment of debt with interest becomes a problem, especially for the most vulnerable borrowers. Economic growth is also needed if businesses are to receive the benefit of economies of scale. Ultimately, an expanding economy can be expected to benefit the price of a company’s stock.

Observations and Conclusions

Perhaps the best way of summing up how my model of the world economy differs from other ones is to compare it to popular other models.

The Peak Oil model says that our energy problem will be an oil supply problem. Some people believe that oil demand will rise endlessly, allowing prices to rise in a pattern following the ever-rising cost of extraction. In the view of Peak Oilers, a particular point of interest is the date when the supply of oil “peaks” and starts to decline. In the view of many, the price of oil will start to skyrocket at that point because of inadequate supply.

To their credit, Peak Oilers did understand that there was an energy bottleneck ahead, but they didn’t understand how it would work. While oil supply is an important issue, and in fact, the first issue that starts affecting the economy, total energy supply is an even more important issue. The turning point that is important is when energy consumption stops growing rapidly enough–that is, greater than the 2% per year needed to support adequate economic growth.

The growth in oil consumption first fell below the 2% level in 2005, which is the year some that some observers have claimed that “conventional” (that is, free flowing, low-cost) oil production peaked. If we look at all types of energy consumption combined, growth fell below the critical 2% level in 2012. Both of these issues have made the world economy more vulnerable to recession. We experienced a recession based on prices that were too high for consumers in 2008-2009. It appears that the next bottleneck may be caused by energy prices that are too low for producers.

Recessions that are based on prices that are too low for the producer are the more severe type. For one thing, such recessions cannot be fixed by a simple interest rate fix. For another, the timing is unpredictable because a problem with low prices for the producer can linger for quite a few years before it actually leads to a major collapse. In fact, individual countries affected by low energy prices, such as Venezuela, can collapse before the overall system collapses.

While the Peak Oil model got some things right and some things wrong, the models used by most conventional economists, including those included in the various IPCC reports, are far more deficient. They assume that energy resources that seem to be in the ground can actually be extracted. They see no limitations caused by prices that are too high for consumers or too low for producers. They do not realize that affordable energy prices can actually fall over time, as the economy weakens.

Conventional economists assume that it is possible for politicians to direct the economy along lines that they prefer, even if doing so contradicts the laws of physics. In particular, they assume that the economy can be made to operate with much less energy consumption than is used today. They assume that we collectively can decide to move away from coal consumption, without having another fuel available that can adequately replace coal in quantity and uses.

History shows that the collapse of economies is very common. Collectively, we have closed our eyes to this possibility ever happening to the world economy in the modern era. If the issue with collapsing demand causing ever-lower energy prices is as severe as my analysis indicates, perhaps we should be examining this scenario more closely.

Note:

[1] There was a higher spike in oil prices in 2008, but averaged over the whole year, the 2008 price was lower than the continued high prices of 2011.