What “transition” are the Germans up to exactly?

19 02 2020

Jonathon Rutherford pointed me to this fantastic article…. Last night the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent had a piece on energy transition, making the broad argument that Germany is succeeding by comparison to Miserable old Australia. Much has been written about Germany’s Energiewende, but the real situation is a good deal more messy than the doco portrayed as shown in this piece by Jean Marc Jancovici (written in 2017, but still applicable). It will be fascinating indeed to see how the German transition, involving the planned phase out of coal by 2038 pans out, especially if it is combined with the nuclear phase out. Make no mistake though, Germany is closing down unviable mines, just like Britain had to 70 years past its Peak Coal…. As Jancovici shows, the transition to date – which, despite massive renewable investment has achieved literally no carbon reduction – has been very expensive. While the German electorate seems more willing to stomach the costs than Australia, there might be limits! I say this, of course, as somebody who, like Jonathon, wants such a transition; but doubts it can be done within the growth-consumer etc framework taken for granted and desired everywhere collapsing first…

Jean Marc Jancovic

250 to 300 billion euros, which is more than the cost of rebuilding from scratch all the French nuclear power plants, is what Germany has invested from 1996 to 2014 to increase by 22% the fraction of renewable electricity into the gross production of the country (that went from 4% to 27%). For this price tag our neighbors did not decrease their energy imports, did not accelerate the decrease of their CO2 emissions per capita, that remain 80% higher to those of a French, increased the stress on the European grid (which is not less useful when electricity production is “decentralized”, all the opposite), and it is debatable whether it allowed to create industrial champions and jobs by millions. If net exports are taken into account – they rose from zero to an average 6% of the annual production, and mostly happen when the wind blows or the sun shines – the fraction of renewable electricity in the domestic consumption is probably closer to 20%. Analysis below.

***

Seen from France, our German neighbors definitely combine all virtues: their public spending is under control, their exports are at the highest, the unemployement low, and on top of that housing affordable and mid-sized companies thriving like nowhere else. With such a series of accomplishments, why on Earth should we act differently from them on any subject? And, in particular, when it comes to energy, the French press is generally eager to underline that they have chosen the right path, when we remain blinded by our radioactive foolishness.

As usual, facts and figures may fit with the mainstream opinion in the paper… or not. In order to allow the reader to conclude his way, I have gathered below some figures that are published by bodies that are neither antinuclear nor pronuclear, neither anti-renewables nor pro-renewables, but only in charge of counting electrons depending on where they have been generated. Let’s start!

Where do the German electrons come from?

Anyone saying that German electricity is more and more renewable will indeed answer correctly. Without any doubt, renewable electricity increases in Germany.

German electricity generation coming from renewable sources since 1996, in GWh 
(1 GWh = 1 million kWh ; the electricity consumption of Germany is roughly 600 billion kWh – hence 600.000 GWh – per year).

In 12 years (1996 to 2012) the renewable production has been multiplied by 7.

Data from AGEE-Stat, Federal Ministry of Environment, Germany.

From there, anyone will conclude that if renewables increase, the rest decreases. True again!

Breakdown of German electricity generation in 1991.

Renewables amount to 4% of the total, with 3% for hydroelectricity (which amounts to 12% in France).

Data from TSP data portal TSP data portal

Breakdown of German electricity generation in 2014.

Renewables now amount to over 27% of the total, but only half of them is composed of intermittent modes (solar and wind).

Data from ENTSOE

But there is something else that is obvious when looking at the graphs above: in 2011 as in 1991, most of the electricity generation comes from fossil fuels, coal (including lignite) being the first primary energy used, and, furthermore, the amount of kWh coming from coal, oil and gas is about the same today as what it was 20 years ago. If the name of the game is to decrease CO2 emissions, then no significant progress has been made in two decades.

Breakdown of the German electricity generation from 1980 to 2014

One will easily see that the total coming from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) is roughly constant over the period, with a little less coal, a little more gas, and almost no oil anymore.

One will also notice that nuclear has begun to decrease in 2006 (thus before Fukushima), and that the “new renewables” (biomass, solar and wind) increase came on top of the rest until 2006.

Data from TSP data portal

A zoom at the monthly production for the last years (since 2005) confirms the rise of the “new renewables” (biomass, wind, solar) in a total that remains globally unchanged. Something else which is clearly visible is that fossil fuels account for the dominant share in the winter increase (France is thus not the only country with an increased consumption in winter).

Monthly electricity production in Germany from January 2005 to May 2015, with a breakdown showing fossil fuels (oilgas and most of all coal), nuclear, hydroelectricity, and “new renewables” (all renewables except hydro).

The sharp decrease of nuclear after Fukushima (March 2011) is clear, but a close look indicates that shortly after it came back to its historical trend, that is a slow decline that begun in 2006.

Data from ENTSOE

What is absolutely certain is therefore that renewable electricity has significantly increased in Germany, and that’s definitely what is focusing the attention of the French press. But… the available data indicates that before 2006 this renewable supply came on top of the rest (with no impact on CO2 emissions), and after 2006 they mostly substituted nuclear (with no more decrease of the CO2 emissions!).

If that is so, then the overall “non fossil” generation (nuclear and renewables alltogether) must be about stable. And it is indeed what is happening!

Historical monthly “non fossil” electricity generation in Germany from January 2005 to May 2015, in GWh.

This production totals renewables (including hydro) and nuclear. The trend is almost flat, and we will see below that the increase of the last two years is almost fully exported.

Author’s calculations on primary data from ENTSOE

As the global production is otherwise almost stable, it means that the share of “non fossil” must be about constant (on average), which is confirmed by figures.

Monthly share of “non fossil” electricity generation in Germany from January 2005 to May 2015.

Author’s calculations on primary data from ENTSOE

Another element that confirms that renewables substitute nuclear, and not fossil fuels, is to observe the historical energy imports of Germany and France (which has far less renewables in its electricity generation, but far more nuclear).

Reconstitution of German imports by energy, in billion constant dollars since 1981.

There is no obvious difference with France (below): the trends are exactely the same for oil and gas, and the amounts of the same magnitude. One will notice that Germany imports coal (almost 50% of its consumption).

Author’s calculations on primary data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

Energy imports in France, in billion constant dollars since 1981.

It resembles a lot to Germany!

Author’s calculations on primary data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

One might argue that we should also take into account the exports associated with domestic industries in renewable energies: wind turbines, solar panels, or biogas production units. But… for solar panels Germany is a heavy importer, as Europe. We have imported for more than 110 billion dollars of imported solar cells from 2008 to 2014, and Germany accounted for almost half of the total. For wind turbines China is also becoming a tough competitor on the international market. It is not clear whether the cumulated exports have outbalanced by far the cumulated imports!

What about money?

Another hot topic regarding the German “transition” is its cost. First, let’s recall that the “transition”, for the time being, is a change for 22% of the electricity production (but Germans also use oil products, gas and coal – the latter for their industry). Discussing money allows for a number of possibilities, and the first item that is discussed here is investments. These are absolutely indispensable to increase capacities, and one thing is sure: capacities have increased!500

Installed capacities for various renewable modes in Germany since 1996, in MW.

The total amounts to 93.000 MW, or 93 GW.

Source: AGEE-Stat, Federal Ministry of Environment, Germany.

Germans therefore had 93 GW (or 93 000 MW) of installed capacities for renewable electricity at the end of 2014, that is more than the French installed capacity in nuclear power plants, that will amount to 65 GW when Flamanville is completed. One might therefore conclude that Germany produces more renewable electricity than France nuclear. Actually, it is not the case: Germany produced roughly 160 TWh (160 billion kWh) of renewable electricity in 2014, when the French nuclear output was about 3 times more. The reason is that the load factor for the new renewable capacities in Germany is between 60% and 10%, when for nuclear the values are rather between 70% and 80%. Furthermore, the german load factor (for renewables) is rapidly decreasing for the moment.

Load factor for each renewable capacity in Germany.

This factor corresponds to the fraction of the year during which the capacity shoud operate at full load to produce what it really produces in a year.

For example, if this factor is 20%, it means that the annual output would be obtained with the capacity operating at full load during 20% of the year, and nothing the rest of the time. What really happens, of course, is that during the year the output of a given installation constantly varies between zero and full load, and when an average is done over a large number of installations and a long time (one year), then we get this famous load factor.

The higher it is, and the more electricity you get out of a given capacity.

The curve “total” gives the average factor for all renewable capacities in Germany. It has been divided by 2 since 1996, because solar (which contribued a lot to new capacities) has a much lower load factor than any other renewable capacity.

Author’s calculations on primary data from (BP Statistical Review, European Wind Association, AGEE Stat).

As a consequence, to produce as much as 8 GW of nuclear (one third of the German capacity) with a 80% or 90% load factor, it is necessary to have – in Germany – 40 GW of wind turbines, that have a load factor below 20% (as low as 14% for bad years), and even more if losses due to storage are taken into account. With photovoltaic, 65 GW are necssary (without losses due to storage). In both cases, it is more than what has already been installed in Germany.

To benefit from the production of these new capacities, investments are necessary. One should of course invest in the production units themselves (wind turbines, solar panels, etc), but also in the grid. It is obviously necessary to connect the additional sources, but also to reinforce the power transmission lines, or add some new. Indeed, the new capacities (in the Northern part of the country for wind) are located far from the regions of high consumption (which are rather in the South).

Besides, for a same annual production, the installed capacity increases when the load factor decreases. The low load factor of solar and wind lead to a high installed capacity… that will sometimes lead to a very high instant power that has to be evacuated, including through exports (see below).

The question is: how much will it cost? Figures for this part are hard to find, because the operators of low and high voltage power lines do not separate, in their financial reporting, what pertains to the “transition” from the rest. The graphs below give some hints from which we will derive an order of magnitude.

Billion euros invested yearly into the transportation network in Germany.

Source: European Parliament

One can see a strong increase after 2011, 2 years after Germany voted a “Law on the Expansion of Energy Lines”. But in 2016 Transport operators (transport is the part of the grid that operates over 90.000 volts) had completed only a third of the new lines to be built (source: same as above).

Billion euros invested yearly into the distribution network in Germany (distribution is the part of the grid that operates below 90.000 volts).

Source: European Parliament

If we sum up what is invested into the grid, both low and high voltage, we come up with something in the range of 8 billions per year, that is about what is now invested into production means. But no breakdown is available between what is just regular maintenance, and what is linked to the increase in the total power installed.

The commentary in the European report that goes with the chart on soaring investment in the transport network from 2011 suggests that there is a part of the investments that “remain to be done”. We will therefore assume, as a first approach, that investments in the grid (in the broad sense) are, or will eventually be, about 50% of what goes into production units over the period.

If we make the a additional hypothesis that unitary costs for solar, wind and biomass decrease by respectively 5%, 2% and 2% per year, and if we accept that for the period pre-2004 it was also necessary to put half of an euro into the grid when one euro was invested into new capacities, then Germany has already invested more than 250 billion euros into its “transition”.

Yearly investments, in billion euros, that Germany has made into adding new renewable capacities.

These amounts include both the sources (solar panels, wind turbines) and the rest of the electric system (grid). This amount does not include the amounts, far less important, invested into renewable heat.

Author’s calculations on primary data from BP Statistical Review, European Wind Association, AGEE Stat.

The graph below provides an estimate directly given by the German Ministry of the Economy. One can see that the order of magnitude is the same for the “production” part, with a higher peak around 2010.

Investments in renewable electricity production unites in Germany, in billion euros.

Source: Renewable Energies Information Portal

And what about a “completed” transition? If Germany was to turn to renewables all its present electricity production, it should “convert” an additional 320 TWh, or 2 times what has already been done. We can assume that the unitary cost of wind turbines and solar panels is not bound to be divided by something significant anymore (among other reasons, we might suggest that the production of turbines or panels will increasingly suffer from the growing scarcity of raw materials, that will apply here as elsewhere).

We can also assume that the unitary costs of the investments in the grid required to absorb new capacities increase with the installed capacity of intermittent sources. In other words, the integration cost of the last MW to be connected is supposed to be higher than the integration cost of any MW that came before. In practical terms, we will assume that for any euro invested into additionnal capacities, al capacities, we must put one euro into the grid “at large”: low and high voltage power lines, transformers, storage devices.

We will at last assume that the share of each mode remains the same.

With these hypotheses, we need to add:

  • 90 GW of wind turbines, and
  • 120 GW of solar, and
  • 20 GW of biomass

for a total cost of 750 billion euros, grid reinforcement included.

But then, to backup intermittence with no more coal and gas power plants (and no possibility to rely on the “dirty” plants of the neighboring countries!), such a system would require a storage capacity of 100 to 200 GW (such as pumping stations), when Germany has only 4 so far, for an investment of 500 to 1000 billion euros, for example with new dams in the German Alps, and plenty of pipes to carry water up and down from the Baltic Sea (with batteries the investment would be even higher and the lifetime much shorter).

As such a way to store electricity generates losses of 30% of the incoming electricity (the yield of a pumping station is 75%, and transporting electricity from the turbines to the storage and vice-versa adds 5% at least), it means that the installed capacity has to be increased by 20% to 40% – depending on the share used without storage – for an additionnal 250 billion euros, grid included.

The total bill should therefore amount to something close to a year of GDP, that is over 2000 billion euros. Furthermore, assuming biomass units keep the same load factor and have a yield between 30% and 45% (smaller units have a smaller yield), that any land devoted to biomass production can produce 5 tonnes oil equivalent per year of raw energy, then 20% to 25% of the country (8 to 10 million hectares) would be devoted to biomass production for electricity generation. Easier said than done!

If we try to summarize, at this point we can conclude that:

  • From 1996 to 2014, Germany has increased by 140 billion kWh (or 140 TWh) its renewable electricity, and in this total:
    • a little more than 60 TWh is an increase of electricity production (which contradicts the idea sometimes put forward that “when everyone has a solar panel on his roof and a wind turbine in the field next door, then the population becomes conscious of the true value of electricity and uses less”), that will mostly be exported at “sacrified” prices since the global consumption is decreasing,

Electricity generation in France since 1985, in billion kWh.

From 1995 to 2014 it increased by 12%.

Source BP Statistical Review, 2015

Electricity generation in Germany since 1985, in billion kWh.

From 1995 to 2014 it increased by 14% (a little more than in France). Besides the global aspect is very similar (the stability during the 80’s and the early 90’s is the reflect of the reunification, because of the poor efficiency of former East Germany).

Source: BP Statistical Review, 2015

  • Roughly 60 TWh has been used to partially offset nuclear, that decreased from 160 to 100 TWh,
  • Fossil fuels decreased by only 12 TWh, which is not significant over the period (the change of the shares of gas and coal in the total fossil is not linked to the penetration of renewables),
  • Germany has invested 300 billion euros (over 10% of its annual GDP), and should multiply this amount by 7 at least to become 100% renewable in electricity. This investment should be repeated for a large part in 25 year, that is the lifetime of wind turbines or solar panels (nuclear power plants last 60 to 80 years). Over 60 years, a “100% renewable electricity” plan would therefore require 15 to 30 times more capital than producing the same electricity with nuclear power plants (not accounting for the cost of capital).
  • This “transition”, so far, has had no discernable impact on the energy trade balance. Becoming fully renewable for electricity will avoid gas imports for electricity generation (now amounting to 160 TWh per year, or 16 billion cubic meters, for roughly 4 billion euros), but no more, since oil (which represents by far the dominant part) is almost absent from electricity generation, and coal is mostly domestic,
  • This “transition”, so far, had had no effects on CO2 emissions, and to have one it will be necessary to phase out coal, when, for the time being, our German friends are planning to add more capacities (and lignite production has been increasing for several years),

Monthly electricity generation coming from lignite in Germany since 2006, in GWh.

Not really going down!

Source: ENTSOE

Let’s recall that lignite, apart from CO2 emissions, is produced from open pit mines, that lead to a complete destruction of the environment over tens of square kilometers, heaps of ashes, water pollution, population displacement, etc, and that lignite power plants are no more virtuous than nuclear ones regarding heat losses.

A lignite mine in Germany, with a digging machine at the center of the picture.

The size of the bulldozer, at the bottom of the excavator, gives an idea of the size of the digging machine! And besides the landscape is not precisely environmentally friendly…

Photo: Alf van Beem, Wikipedia Commons

A lignite power plant in Germany (Neurath; roughly 4000 MW of installed capacity).

The difference with a nuclear power plant is not that obvious! The “answer” is in the presence of chimneys (to evacuate fumes), that do not exist for nuclear power plants, in a water treatment plant (not necessary with nuclear), and in the train terminal used to carry lignite (50 000 tonnes per day at full capacity, when a nuclear power plant will use 10 kg of U235 to provide the same thermal energy).

  • and, at last, it is absolutely certain that some jobs have been created, but if we offset those that have been destroyed elsewhere, because the end consumer cannot spend his money twice, the total is most certainly below the numbers boasted by the German government (which, like all governments, counts what is created in the sector sustained, but cautiously avoids to look at the perverse effects that might happen elsewhere for the same reason!).

Let’s now take a lookat what happened for the end consumer. The amount per kWh has indeed increased, but not only because of renewables. Gas and coal also played a role, because the price of the fuel represents 50% to 70% of the full production cost with coal and gas fired power plants.

Price per kWh for the individual cosumer in Germany, 1998 to 2012.

The increase is clear, but the main contributor is “production+distribution”, which includes transportation costs, but also the purchasing price of fossil fuels used with coal and gas power plants. One will notice that the red bar increases during the 2000-2009 period, when the price of imported gas and coal rises fast, and decreases when the price of imported gas and coal decrease (2009-2011).

Source : BDEW

Spot prices of gas in several regions of the world (Henry Hub relates to the US) and of oil, all expressed in dollars per million British Thermal Unit 
(1 million BTU ≈ 0,3 MWh).

CIF means Charged Insurance and Freight, that is the full cost with transportation and insurance.

The price of gas in Europe evolves just as the red bar in the previous graph over the period 2000 – 2012.

Source: BP Statistical Review, 2015

Spot prices of coal in several regions of the world.

Over the period 2000 – 2012, the price of coal in Europe has also evolved as the red bar in the graph giving the price per electrical kWh for the end consumer.

Source: BP Statistical Review, 2015

We might now suggest an additional conclusion: if electricity prices have increased for the individual, it is not only because of renewables, but because there remains an important fraction coming from fossil fuels!

Where do the German electrons go?

That’s a funny question: if Germans produce electricity, it is to use it, ins’t it? Well, that partially true, but also partially false. European countries are interconnected, and electricity can go from one country to another. Statistics show that imports and exports have greatly increased at the borders of Germany lately.

Monthly balance of electricity echanges (with the rest of Europe) at the border of Germany, in GWh.

One will easily notice that the magnitude increases until 2007, and remains at the same level since then. Besides, Germans used to export little amounts before 2005, and now export more, mainly in the winter.

Data from ENTSOE

As the above graph shows, exports mostly take place in the winter (and imports in the spring). It happens that it is also in the winter that there is more wind, as the graph below shows.

Monthly wind production in GWh from January 2005.

The output is highly variable depending on the year, but it always happens in December of January.

Data from ENTSOE

It is therefore normal to wonder wether there is not a link between wind and exports. And it might well be the case!

Monthly exchanges (vertical axis, positive values mean net imports and negative ones net exports) depending on the monthly wind production in Germany, from January 2005 to May 2015.

The dots clearly show that when wind production increases, exports also increase. It suggests that increased exports are directely or indirectely linked to an increase in wind production.

Author’s calculations on primary data from ENTSOE

This link between the German electricity production coming from “new renewables” and German electricity exports is also found when looking at the hourly production and exports.

German hourly production coming from solar and wind combined, in MWh (horizontal axis), vs,  for the same hour, German electricity exports in MWh (vertical axis), for the year 2013.

This cloud of points clearly shows that hourly exports increase with the hourly production coming from wind+solar.

Source: Author on data from Paul-Frederik Bach

This is, incidentally, exactly the situation in Denmark, which, even more spectacularly, manages the intermittency of its production with imports (not necessarily carbon-free) and dispatchable modes (namely fossil fuels, Denmark is a flat country with no dams!).

Danish Electricity supply in November 2017

Source: Paul-Frederik Bach

If exports have increased along with the increase of the amount of renewable electricity produced, then it might be instructive to look at the fraction of “non fossil electricity” that remains in Germany once deducted the exports that appeared since the beginning of the EnergieWende.

Non fossil electricity (renewable+nuclear) once additional exports (since the beginning of the EnergieWende) are deducted.

Surprise: what remains for Germany is about constant for the last 10 years. In other words, the fraction of renewables that does not replace nuclear is exported (and does not replace any fossil production, which is consistent with what is mentionned above).

Author’s calculations on data from ENTSOE

As production increases when the wind blows, but not consumption, a last effect generated by the 10% of electricity coming from wind is a significant decrease in spot price of electricity when wind increases.

Hourly spot price of electricity on the German market depending on the hourly wind production for 2013.

Obviously, the more wind there is, the lower the price is, with the apparition of nil or even negative prices over 10 GWh per hour. As there was roughly 30 GW of installed capacity in Germany in 2013, it means that when one third of wind turbines operate at fiull power, nil or negative prices appear (and then the producer pays the consumer to take the electricity, because the cost of stopping everything is even higher).

When there is no wind the average price is 50 euros per MWh, and when the installed capacity is operating at almost full power (24 GW) the average price per MWh falls below 20 euros.

Data from pfbach.dk

If we come back to the initial question, our dear neighbors certainly do something that is meaningful for them, but what they do not do for certain is trying to phase out fossil fuels as fast as possible. A simple reminder of the emissions per capita on each side of the Rhine will show that the “good guys” are not necessarily where the press finds them!500

Per capita CO2 emissions coming from fuel combustion in France, from 1965 onwards (in tonnes). This graph is made assuming the emission factor is constant for each fuel.

Coal contributes for a little below 1 tonne per person and per year (4 times less than in 1965), gas for about 1,5 tonne, and oil for 4 tonnes, for a total of roughly 6 tonnes in 2014.

Author’s calculations on data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

Per capita CO2 emissions coming from fuel combustion in Germany, from 1965 onwards (in tonnes). This graph is made assuming the emission factor is constant for each fuel.

Oil contributes a little more than in France, but gas is 50% higher, and coal 5 times higher, for a total of over 10 tonnes.

Since 1980 he evolution for oil is very similar to what it is for France, but the “transition” is still to come regarding coal and gas… and obviously the “EnergieWende” didn’t have any kind of “CO2 avoided” effect that is often boasted in governmental or even academic publications.

Author’s calculations on data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

If we look at Germany’s overall CO2 emissions, we can see that those arising from coal and gas – which are the two fossil fuels used for electricity generation, oil being marginal – have only decreased by 40 million tons in 20 years.

Fossil CO2 emissions in Germany from 1965, discriminated by fuel (this graph is made assuming the emission factor is constant for each fuel).

Emissions from coal have dropped by 40 million tonnes since 1996 (but this also includes the effect of improving the energy efficiency in the industry after the reunification), and those from gas have hardly changed.

Calculation: Jancovici on BP Statistical Review data, 2017

But that does not prevent our German friends from claiming more than 100 million tonnes of avoided emissions thanks to these renewable energies!

Avoided emissions claimed by the German Ministry of the Economy.

While electricity consumption is not increasing, it is extraordinary to find avoided emissions – thanks to renewable electricity – that amount to 3 times the real decrease in emissions from coal and gas, all uses combined! The “politically correct” that replaces a correct calculation (or an efficient action…) is also effective on the other side of the Rhine…

Source: Renewable Energies Information Portal

Of course, one can only wish that our Germans friends do succeed, in a short delay, to get rid of fossil fuels, in electricity generation and elsewhere. But, on the ground of the available data, a preliminary conclusion is that they have achieved nothing significant in that direction for the last 15 years. If they eventually succeed to get rid of fossil fuels in the 10 to 20 years to come, and if the population is ready to pay 10 times more (that is 3000 billion euros instead of 300) to avoid the inconvenients of nuclear, real or supposed, there is nothing to object. It is a respectable choice, only it is not the only one which is possible!

But if the Germans where to stop in midstream, that is with renewables that have substituted only nuclear, without replacing fossil fuels, then they will have spent their money on something else than the European objective (phasing out fossil fuels), and lost a precious time, which is the most serious damage in the present case, as Europe is running against time regarding its energy supply.





The Make Believe Future

6 02 2020

Put simply, there is not enough Planet Earth left

for us to grow our way to sustainability

Another brilliant post from Tim at Consciousness of Sheep…

US President John F. Kennedy began the political fad of setting targets for the future US President John F. Kennedy began the political fad of setting targets for the future when, on 25 May 1961, he persuaded the Congress to agree to the goal of landing men on the moon by the end of the decade. On 12 September 1962 he made his more famous public speech at Rice University:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

Notice that Kennedy referred to going to the moon as hard; not once did he use the word “impossible.” Even in 1962, all of the technologies required already existed. For sure they needed refining and developing. Certainly there would be hardships – including several tragic deaths – along the way. But success largely depended upon the political, organisational and economic requirements of the project rather than the creation of novel technologies.

Although largely a Cold War project, the moon landings were widely viewed at the time as a stepping stone on humanity’s journey of discovery to the stars. In hindsight, the years 1969-72 marked the apex of human progress. The oil shocks and economic crises of the 1970s removed the optimism of the previous two decades. Humans were never again to venture out beyond a low Earth orbit. The new space technologies and energy sources that might have bridged the enormous distances between us and our nearest celestial neighbours failed to put in an appearance. Closer to home, other “leading edge” technologies such as commercial supersonic flight were also being mothballed – only the Concorde, heavily subsidised by British and French taxpayers, continued to ferry the rich and famous across the Atlantic.

We have been on a downward trajectory ever since. During the boom years 1953-73, as the economies of the developed and developing states made the switch from coal to oil, energy per capita rose exponentially alongside oil production. Had it not been for the 1973 OPEC embargo, global oil production might have managed a couple more years of exponential growth before the inevitable slowdown began. As it was, 1973 – the year after the final moon landing – marks the point at which energy per capita across the developed economies went into reverse. This sounds technical, but the consequence was that productivity (essentially using more energy or using energy more efficiently to generate more economic value) began to slow. And since productivity growth is what allows wage growth, wages began to fall too. The wage-price inflationary spiral of the 1970s – exacerbated by state currency-printing and capital control policies – was the result of a battle between capital and organised labour over the relative shares of falling productivity growth.

John Michael Greer described the practical consequences when he pointed to the difference in living standards between a semi-skilled manual worker in the 1970s and a semi-skilled worker of today. In those days, a single worker on the average semi-skilled wage could afford to buy a house, support a family, run a car and enjoy annual holidays. Today a single semi-skilled worker would be lucky to avoid homelessness. The consequence of our now falling energy per capita is that productivity has ceased entirely. We now face a series of linked crises in the economy, environment and energy which severely limit our scope for action. Wages in the developed economies have been stagnant since the financial crash in 2008. Wages in the emerging market economies are now also slowing. Outside a handful of niche industries like tech and pharmaceuticals – which survive on the back of huge state subsidies – investment has switched away from technology into a series of derivative financial instruments that have no practical value and add nothing to economic development.

Even things that were once hard, but possible – like landing people on the moon – are now beyond us. But John F. Kennedy’s words continue to echo down the decades to reach the ears of contemporary politicians who mistakenly believe that we only need to set a goal and smart people somewhere else will make it happen. So it is that our political leaders have committed to decarbonising the economy by 2050 despite – unlike the Apollo Project – several of the required technologies and the resources to construct them only existing in the pages of science fiction novels.

More recently, the Prime Minister of the (increasingly un-) United Kingdom – a man who studied classics and, apparently is clueless about climate change – has decided to bring forward to 2035 the ban on new internal combustion engine cars and vans. Worse still, and to the horror of motoring organisations, vehicle manufacturers and grid engineers, he has decided to include hybrid vehicles in the ban. On the same day – and also in response to government climate commitments – the UK air industry announced plans to become “net zero carbon” by 2050. This, apparently, is to be achieved using yet-to-be-invented lean-burn engines which use yet-to-be-invented artificial hydrocarbon fuels manufactured by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide sucked out of the air.

At least electric cars actually exist. The infrastructure required to make the switch is an altogether different matter. As Will Bedingfield at Wired warned last month:

“[A] spectre is haunting the UK’s emissions targets – the spectre of nuclear retirement… By the early 2030s, just one of the UK’s seven nuclear power stations will be operational. Over the last few years, plans to construct three new power stations – Hitachi’s Wylfa Newydd nuclear plants on Anglesey in Wales and Oldbury in Gloucestershire, and Toshiba’s Moorside project in Cumbria – which together could have met 15 per cent of the UK’s future electricity demands, have been scrapped.”

Meanwhile, efforts to fill the gap with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies have stalled, as Phillip Inman at the Guardian explains:

“Britain’s green economy has shrunk since 2014, heightening concerns that the government will miss targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the decade.

“The number of people employed in the “low carbon and renewable energy economy” declined by more than 11,000 to 235,900 between 2014 and 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Green businesses fared little better, seeing their numbers drop from an estimated 93,500 to 88,500 over the same four-year period.”

There are some big offshore wind projects still to come online, but without government subsidies, these may be the last of their kind. In any case, they provide nothing like the generating capacity which will be lost as coal and nuclear plants are decommissioned.

The absolute numbers also hide the technical issues around intermittency and grid frequency which resulted in a nationwide blackout in August last year. National Grid had been relying on combined cycle gas turbine plants, which can rapidly increase and decrease production, to iron out the intermittent generation from wind and solar. However, as the percentage of renewable energy fed into the grid passes two-thirds, it appears that this solution is no longer sufficient. The temporary – and probably unsustainable – fix for this is to pay for gas power plants just to keep the turbines spinning even if the electricity generated is not needed. As Nina Chestney and Noor Zainab Hussain at Reuters report:

“National Grid’s said on Wednesday it had agreed contracts with five parties worth 328 million pounds ($431 million) over a six-year period for services to manage the stability of its electricity system in Britain…

“The key service to be provided is what is known as ‘inertia’ on the grid, which helps to keep the electricity system running at the right frequency… Under the new approach, National Grid said inertia will be achieved without having to provide electricity. This will allow more renewable generation to operate and ensure system stability at lower costs.”

The “lower costs” refers to the difference between this approach and paying for expensive storage. Paying someone to provide additional inertia is not cheaper than not having to do it at all. Even so, inertia balancing is just one of a plethora of the headaches currently stressing grid managers and engineers. As James Sillars at Sky reports:

“The UK’s electricity network needs urgent investment to prepare for an electric vehicle future or risk blackouts, a report for the government has warned.

“The Electric Vehicles Energy Task Force, commissioned by ministers, urges a ‘smart charging’ approach – utilising times of weak demand – along with a power network able to adapt to shifts in electricity use.”

Nor, apparently, is electric vehicle infrastructure easily constructed by energy engineering companies tasked with keeping an increasingly old and frail grid infrastructure operating. When it comes to public charging facilities, delays of several years are not uncommon. As Peter Campbell and Nathalie Thomas at the Financial Times reported last month:

“Britain’s electricity network is ‘not fit for purpose’ and is stifling the rollout of electric vehicle chargers along key trunk roads in the UK, say motorway services operators.

“Electric vehicles currently account for only about 2 per cent of sales in the UK, but a steep rise is expected during the next two years as carmakers strive to meet new stringent CO2 targets and as the country gears up to hit its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Motorway service areas are preparing to increase their charging provisions to meet the jump in demand. But Simon Turl, chairman of operator RoadChef, said his company’s attempts to add charging services have been held up by distribution network operators (DNOs), which own local electricity grids and demand millions of pounds and waits of up to three years, to install new power lines.”

Electric vehicles are, of course, merely one component of the fantasy zero-carbon future. The wider task is truly staggering, as another Sky News report explains:

“A mass recruitment drive involving hundreds of thousands of people is needed by the energy sector if the UK’s 2050 target for zero net emissions is to be met, a new report claims.

“The National Grid says 400,000 skilled tradespeople, engineers and other specialists are required across the industry, with at least 117,000 of them needed in the next 10 years.

“However the report says the sector is facing stiff competition for staff from other areas such as tech and finance, while a looming retirement crunch and not enough young people choosing to study science, technology, engineering and maths, are making matters worse.”

As I pointed out last month:

“An energy transition which requires this number of new skilled workers is simply not going to happen. Nor is the UK in a position to easily afford the £3.75bn per year additional wage bill for the 117,000 new workers in the 2020s; still less the £12.8bn annual wage bill in the 2030s and 2040s. In the event that government continues adding the cost of upgrading the energy grid onto household bills, this amounts to an annual increase of £667 for every household in the UK. At a time when household purchasing power – still lower in real terms than in 2008 – has fallen to the point that tens of thousands of retail jobs are being lost, it is doubtful that the economy can afford the additional cost without being plunged into recession.”

This is where our tendency to believe that since economists are on a par with astrologers and homeopaths, the economy itself doesn’t matter. However – as Henry Ford discovered in the early days of oil-powered vehicles – unless the workers can afford the technologies, the energy revolution simply isn’t going to happen. And at present, American cities have joined the third world while urban British workers shiver in the dark, as a new report from The Prince’s Trust explains:

“The research suggests that young people are skipping meals, selling items that are important to them and not putting the heating on to save money. The research reveals a gap between the confidence levels of the UK’s most and least disadvantaged young people, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds feeling less hopeful about their future prospects…

“The research shows that one in three young people aged 18 and over with an overdraft facility are regularly using it, and one in five (18 per cent) go further into their overdraft each month. Over a fifth (22 per cent) of young people in rented accommodation struggle to pay their rent. Borrowing from family and friends has also been a necessity for some, with one in four young people (26 per cent) admitting they have done this in the past year. However, six in ten young people (62 per cent) are embarrassed to ask others for financial support.”

When John F. Kennedy sold the Apollo Project to the American people, he had the luxury of an expanding economy in which all but the very poorest were experiencing rising standards of living. The energy, materials, technology and the surplus value needed for the moon shot were all available in abundance. None of those prerequisites is true of the proposed energy transition today. The energy cost of energy has risen beyond the point that developed economies can continue to grow; and is fast reaching the point at which the emerging economies which have provided at least some growth for the past decade are beginning to stall. Whereas the 1960s USA had access to the raw resources of a largely untapped planet, today we are squeezing the last accessible dregs out of our exhausted Earth. As a recent letter from scientists at the Natural History Museum warned:

“To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry…

“There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity.

“Challenges of using ‘green energy’ to power electric cars: If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.

“Solar power is also problematic – it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/ or US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.

“Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.”

Put simply, there is not enough Planet Earth left for us to grow our way to sustainability. And even if there was, the environmental damage of constructing an entirely new infrastructure would likely destroy what remains of the human habitat anyway. In any case, without further economic growth and in the absence of a radical redistribution of wealth of a kind that would have made Lenin blush, it is hard to imagine increasingly impoverished populations voting for ever more expensive energy bills. There is a reason why Luddites like Trump and Morrison are currently getting away with dismantling environmental laws and regulations – and they are the relatively benign face of a nationalist populism that will get a lot worse if current levels of inequality continue to grow.

The challenge of a zero-carbon civilisation only appears realistic when one of its elements is viewed in isolation. Once it is seen in its complete energetic, material, technological, environmental, economic and political dimensions it is an obvious fiction. There is simply no way in which we get to continue with business as usual simply by swapping one energy technology for another. And attempts at channelling the ghost of John F. Kennedy will not change this.





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.





How collective intelligence can change your world, right now

21 09 2019

Published by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, and written by my favourite journalist Nafeez Ahmed, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Please support them to keep digging where others fear to tread.

INSURGE INTELLIGENCE is the only newsfeed I actually pay for, so hopefully they won’t get upset with me republishing this outstanding article…

So you want to change the world. Then grab a drink, sit down, and buckle up for a deep dive into the dynamics of system transformation. The system out there that you’re fighting is inside you. We cannot defeat it in the world until we rewire ourselves from the ground up. It’s not easy. It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done, because it cuts across all dimensions of our life, and to the deepest recesses of our being. Because we are products of the system, until we choose not to be. But that choice, that red pill, is a lot more difficult to swallow than we might assume. It requires becoming more than what we think we are; and empowering others to do the same. The trajectory of this document is not an easy journey, not least because it’s one I’m still on. It’s dense, demanding and disciplining. Think of it as a collection of field notes attempting to distill some of the most important tools I’ve stumbled upon. The concepts, ideas and narrative that unfold below develop the foundations of a knowledge framework, a way of being, and a practice that draws on everything I’ve learned and developed as a journalist, an academic, a systems theorist, a social entrepreneur, an organisational strategist, a communications executive, a change activist, a husband, a dad, a brother, a son, a friend, an enemy, and a human being who along with some successes makes many mistakes and fails numerous times, but endeavours to learn from my mistakes and failings. This is still merely a preliminary work, which of course draws widely on and integrates the pioneering works of others. There are also gaps, and so it goes without saying that any errors, mistakes or oversights are mine and mine alone. I hope that it can help you in your own journey as a fellow traveller on spaceship earth, even if only in some small way.


We face a convergence of escalating, interlinked crises. Every day, as these crises accelerate, the capacity to address them meaningfully seems to diminish. Not only are our institutions largely incapable of understanding how these crises fit together as symptoms of a deeper overarching systemic crisis, they are increasingly overwhelmed by their impacts.

We find ourselves at the threshold of a civilisational crisis – an evolutionary crisis – the likes of which we have never experienced before, one which potentially threatens the very survival of the human species. Even without that, the mounting pressures in the form of environmental destruction, the prevalence of war, the risks of nuclear annihilation, escalating inequalities, rising xenophobia, increasing authoritarianism, dangers to supply chains, volatile markets, epidemics of mental illness, gun violence, violence against women, all represent at once flaws in our current paradigm, and opportunities to move beyond it.

These crises escalate and deepen at all scales – global, regional, national, local. They impact on us through myriad ways, on our governments, our intergovernmental organisations, our nations, our societies, our communities, our cultures, our businesses, our companies, our nonprofits, our social enterprises, our selves, our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our spirits.

And so we face an evolutionary moment: we either succumb to the converging catastrophes of civilisational decline, or we grasp an opportunity to transcend them by adapting new capacities and behaviours, that allow us to become more than what we were.

In order to respond effectively, we need an entirely different approach. This document offers a systems approach derived from my own work and experiences to articulate a way of approaching these crises through the lens of ‘collective intelligence’. It sets out a fresh way of seeing things, and an accompanying set of processes and practices, which can be adopted by any person or group, whether an individual, a family, company or organisation. It is an applied toolkit, written as a foundational resource and roadmap for anyone who is truly serious about wanting to work for a better world. If you’re not into that, this document is not for you.

Many of the themes explored here could be explained and elaborated further – and I’ll be doing exactly that in future. Many of them can be implemented in different ways – through innovative approaches to digital platforms, through journalism, through entrepreneurship, through charity and philanthropy, through organisational strategy, through mindfulness, self-development and beyond. But the upshot is that they revolve around human practice – at root, this is something that at core you have to do in your own life.

I begin by mapping out a broad systems paradigm for how we can make sense of the world around us anew in a way that captures the complexity of what is happening. I will then move into how this systems paradigm provides useful insights into the nature of intelligence and wisdom, and how those insights can be distilled into a new way of cultivating intelligence and translating that intelligence into concrete transformative actions.

1. Who we are

We are systems. To be more precise, we are complex adaptive systems.

system exists whenever multiple things exist in some sort of interrelationship with the others.

complex system exists when the relations between these things lead the system as a whole to display patterns of behaviour that are qualitatively beyond and can’t be reduced to the properties of its component parts.

complex adaptive system exists when the system as a whole is able to restructure, change – adapt – by changing the behaviour of its component parts, in order to survive.

A biological organism is a complex adaptive system. Millions of years of evolution have taken place because complex living systems were able to adapt to their environment. One of the ways they did this is by processing information from their environment and translating it through genetic mutations. The organisms that did this successfully had the greatest chance of adapting to their environment and surviving. The survival and evolution of the human species — of human civilisation — is, of course, more than just a case of generating the right set of genetic mutations. That’s because we make choices about how we organise our societies.

When a complex adaptive system is particularly challenged by its environmental conditions, it enters a stage of crisis. The crisis challenges the existing structures, the existing relationships, and patterns of behavior in a system.

If the crisis intensifies, it can reach a threshold that can undermine the integrity of the whole system. Eventually, either the system adapts by restructuring, leading to a ‘phase-shift’ into a new system, a new stable equilibrium — or it regresses.

One of the important things we do as living organisms is extract energy from our environment, which is then processed to fuel our activity. An important distinction we have with most other biological organisms is that due to our intelligence, we are capable of engaging with our environment in a quite unique way. This involves manipulating things in our environment to develop new tools which provide more efficient ways of extracting and harnessing energy to develop various structures and activities that serve our needs and wants.

An important feature of human civilisation is that its growth has been enabled by this capacity to extract increasing quantities of surplus energy – energy that is not needed to extract energy itself, but which can therefore be used for other services.

We are biological organisms which, simultaneously, are coextensive with psychological, social and spiritual experiences – that is, carrying mental lives, thoughts and memories in a social context where we make decisions and judgements based on our interpretation of the ‘values’ of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

We are also integrally interconnected with each other and other species through a complex web of life that comprises, in its entirety, the Earth System – or, drawing on chemist James Lovelock, Gaia, an amazing self-regulatory natural system which is finely-tuned for the support of life as we know it.

Going further, we also now know that on the level of fundamental particles, we and the entire universe are (meta?)physically interconnected across spacetime through quantum entanglement in a way that we still do not fully understand; and that the act of observation by measurement plays a fundamental role in the manifestation of what is real. In short, there has already been a paradigm shift in our scientific understanding of the world but relatively few are aware of it, let alone have explored its ramifications.

Evolutionary biology and the life-cycles of multiple human civilisations through history teach us that at the core of the capacity to survive is a fundamental capability: the capability to evolve on the basis of accurate sensing-making toward the environment.

While we have many disagreements about the behavioural component of moral values, we generally are incapable of operating without reference to them in some way. We tend to make decisions based on what we consider to be ‘right’ or ‘good’.

It is now clear, however, that dominant moral behavioural categories associated with the prevailing paradigm of social organisation are dysfunctional. They are in fact reflective of behavioural patterns which are contributing directly not just to the destabilisation and destruction of civilisation, along with the extinction of multiple species, but potentially to the very annihilation of the human species itself.

If we take a moral or ethical value to be indicative of a particular mode or pattern of behaviour, we can conclude from our current civilisational predicament that the predominant value-system premised on self-maximisation through endless material accumulation is fundamentally flawed, out of sync with reality, and objectively counterproductive. Conversely, values we might associate with more collaborative and cooperative behaviours appearing to recognise living beings as interconnected, such as love, generosity and compassion (entailing behavioural patterns in which self-maximisation and concern for the whole are seen as complementary rather than conflictual), would appear to have an objective evolutionary function for the human species.

This gives us a clue as to how more optimal behavioural patterns would appear to align with ethical values. More specifically, though, the key to evolutionary adaptation through new more ethical behavioural patterns is accessing information about our environment with direct ramifications for our behaviour.

Evolutionary adaptations occur on the basis of new behaviours and capacities that emerge from new genetic mutations. Genetic mutations are carriers of highly complex new information. But they can only produce the most useful information for adaptations if they reflect and adapt to challenges that emerge in the natural environment.

An organism that fails to coherently translate complex information about its environment into appropriate physical adaptations cannot evolve to meet circumstances, and will therefore be unable to survive as pressure escalates.

The first insight we can take away from this is that successful evolution cannot occur without processing accurate information from and about one’s relationship with the natural environment.

This has particularly profound implications when applied to human beings.

The human species is the only one on the planet capable of consciously adopting entirely different modes and patterns of behaviour based on our understanding of ourselves and the natural world. This conscious capability, which we might see as a core feature of human intelligence, has allowed human beings to develop a wide array of tools which extract and apply surplus energy to rapidly exert increasing dominion over the natural world over centuries, culminating in the civilisational system that exists today.

This in turn leads to the following insight: the goal of behavioural adaptation requires us to remain open to relevant new information – information that is relevant to our evolution, which can aid in our adaptations and help us avoid catastrophes that hinder our evolution.

Just as each human being is a complex adaptive system on a micro scale, different collectives of the human species whether groups, institutions and organisations are wider complex adaptive systems, all of which function as sub-systems of the macro complex adaptive system that is global human civilisation as a whole.

There is therefore an indelible interconnection between each human being and the wider global system of which they are part. Macro structures in the global civilisational system emerge from the patterns of behaviour that occur at sub-systemic (regional and national) and micro (individual) scales. In turn, those macro structures constrain and configure those patterns.

In a very real sense, then, what happens in the world ‘out there’ is not entirely separate and distinct from what happens ‘in here’ within the individual. To some extent, what is going on ‘out there’ no matter how seemingly distant or abhorrent is likely to be reflective of processes that individuals experience in themselves and in their own lives – and vice versa. Incoherencies at the global level are likely to find counterparts at regional, national and individual levels.

When we see incoherence in the world, it may well reflect or refract in some way our own incoherencies – no matter how much we might ostensibly dislike or be opposed to them.

2. Intelligence and decision-making

In order to survive and thrive, human beings need to be able to adapt to environmental change. In today’s complex global civilisation, adapting to environmental change entails adapting a wide range of social, economic, political and cultural processes, all of which are embedded in a deeper context of energy and environmental systems.

This, further, requires that we develop analytical and empathic capabilities to process information in such a way that we can separate out inaccurate, useless, dysfunctional and maladaptive information, from accurate, useful, functional and adaptive information.

In short, making sound, healthy decisions is impossible without being able to process information relevant to those decisions.

The key lesson is that full, accurate and holistic information is critical for any individual, organisation or society in order to adapt to its changing environment, survive, and thrive. The function of intelligence here is clear: wisdom – to engage with one’s environment in all its stunning complexity; to enable decision-making that underpins behavioural adaptations to that environment.

2.1 The prevalent cognitive-behavioural model: closed loops

In the twenty-first century context of modern industrial civilisation, the volume of data being produced and shared has dramatically increased, but little of this is translated into meaningful knowledge about the world that is useful and actionable.

The inability to process this avalanche of complex information into insights about the world with clear implications for action is potentially fatal, as it means the ability to adapt to real-world conditions is greatly diminished.

In the twentieth century, information flows were far more centralised, largely dominated by media and publishing conglomerates. Information flows were primarily top-down and hierarchical. While quality standards were often more stringent, well-defined and consistently applied, information was often biased by being indelibly configured by dominant structures of power.

In the twenty-first century model that has emerged in the era of Big Data and social platforms, the information playing field has transformed. While centralised fulcrums of information production still exist, they are weakening in their reach. Simultaneously, new decentralised mechanisms for the production and dissemination of information have become ubiquitous. Although decentralised in their reach, these platforms are also still subject to tightly networked concentric circles of power.

Overwhelmed by cognitive biases, humans tend to gravitate toward information flows which confirm their existing beliefs and practices. Consequently, information flows have become increasingly polarised as communities form around disparate bubbles of self-reinforcing ideological opinion, and there is no mechanism to integrate the insights across these different ideology sub-sets.

This has created festering bubbles of polarised ideology, undermining any capacity for collective intelligence. Often we like to think that we are beyond such limitations, but this is a delusion. Avoiding the constraints of ideological bias is a practice that requires constant vigilance and a strategic approach to information.

It is becoming more widely recognised that the prevailing model of information perpetuates closed loops of information that are often mutually-exclusive. This actually inhibits the capacity to receive new information.

Large incoming volumes of new information end up being processed through pre-existing closed loops, thus reinforcing the same longstanding biases and preconceptions. With no new information coming in, the ability to understand the real complexity of the world as a whole system largely evaporates.

Most media outlets do not really understand the world because they see it through a specific set of lenses, biases, or perspectives. As such the information they produce is either fragmented, confusing and overwhelming; or it is sifted through the slant of an ideological framework which consistently prefigures the outlook into the same suite of beliefs and values.

There is, consequently, a diminished capacity to grasp how particular events or incidents can have indelible impacts on other issues; on how they emerge from deeper forces and trends; and on how they are likely to impact in terms of new forces and trends.

In the end, rather than empowering people, organisations, companies or governments to take productive action in the world, the prevailing information model tends to swamp them with a sense of only two cognitive states: complete disorientation or ideological bias.

Often, the cognitive state will switch between these modes, back and forth, in a self-reinforcing fashion. Disorientation is met with a reliance on old, comfortable ideological attachments tied to familiar behavioural responses. When those fail, disorientation sets in again, until those attachments can be brought to the surface or reconstructed in a repackaged way.

News consumers often have little choice but to react in the short-term to news stimuli framed by narrow ideology or opinion. This leaves policy makers, business leaders, citizens and change activists on the perpetual back-foot, always reacting, always struggling to catch up, always behind the curve.

Reading this, you might be tempted to focus on seeing how these negative dynamics play out in organisations, consultative agencies, political parties, governments, nonprofits and companies that you believe are problematic. But while important, that’s easy. More immediately impactful, and essential before doing the former, is to discern how these dynamics play out in organisations, networks and groups that you support, or with which you’re affiliated.

If you do this properly, you will begin to see how not only those you support, but you yourself, engage in practices and behavioural patterns which reinforce closed information loops.

In turn, you will be able to see that it is such closed information loops that are responsible for negative and self-defeating cycles of behaviour which do not change, and are incapable of change.

These closed loops of information and fixed behavioural patterns are part of the same matrix of dysfunction – whether in your own mind, family, community, business or society.

3. The evolutionary model: open nodes of engagement

Those of us who retain some commitment to being the best that we can be, to the human species, and all species on earth surviving and thriving together, are required to explore different approaches.

Those approaches, to succeed, will need to involve the following features.

3.1 Discerning the known

We require from the outset a rigorous sense-making system designed to discern fact from falsehood. This requires grounding all our sense-making efforts quite consciously in an axiomatic logic system. This doesn’t have to be an explicit, visible process, though that might help – but it does need to be systematic.

An axiomatic logic system entails applying a logico-deductive method to test our own assumptions and beliefs against our experiences of the world. That requires establishing a clear sense of what our incoming data-points are, both internally and externally, to set out the factual basis and assumptions that underlie our beliefs. Behind every argument or position we hold, are the assumptions we make. By bringing them to the surface, we demand of ourselves that we do our best to validate these assumptions in real data, so that our assumptions are either irrefutably true in a logical sense or empirically-validated; and if we can’t validate them, then we become empowered to acknowledge this and respond accordingly. Ideally, we want to get to a point where our core assumptions about the world are irrefutably true from a logical point of view or empirically-validated.

In the past, we have found it helpful to refer to these data-points as ‘axioms’ (drawing on the work of early Greek mathematicians); to refer to the new information that emerges from analysis of these axioms as ‘insights’; and to then draw on these insights to scope out the possibilities for ‘actions’.

This tripartite structure in short seeks to identify what we really know, separate it out from what we don’t know or realise to be false; leverage this knowledge across the whole ‘system of systems’ to develop new insights into the system; and leverage these new insights – new knowledge – to develop a new framework to support sound decisions for adaptive action in the world.

In the same vein, we want to ensure that we develop new information about the world on the basis of systemic and holistic analysis of these axioms. That requires an approach that seeks to avoid common cognitive errors, such as making generalisations, false inferences, unjustified analogies, and other fallacies often associated with cognitive bias. As much as possible, we will want to ensure that our new insights about the world are framed so that they fit as closely as possible the axiomatic data-points that we are collecting.

Does a theory or inference have real backing in empirical data?

Does the data specifically and wholly back the inference or only partially?

Is there added speculation and assumption in deriving the inference, assumption that is not fully grounded in the available data?

Is the inference genuinely coherent, or does it contain contradictions and tensions?

How does it cohere with other areas of knowledge?

When our beliefs can no longer be directly derived from our axioms, then they have ceased to be insights at all and instead have become ideology. In that case, we need to ask ourselves where exactly these ideas are coming from, and why we insist on believing them.

3.2 An ecosystem of shared knowledge

The next thing we require from the outset is a new framework of looking at reality – whatever that reality is from our perspective – through a complex systems framework explicitly designed to engage with the reality of the world as a ‘system of systems’.

An axiomatic logic system will be of little use if applied in a closed information context – in that case it would not even be open to new information, genuinely new data outside the circumference of one’s own knowledge-loop, and even if that data came in, it would simply self-selected out of relevance. An open node of information requires, by its very nature, a multidisciplinary lens that can navigate information outside of the comfort zone of one’s own ‘expertise’ or disciplinary focus.

So our first goal is to develop our cognitive capacities to begin to sense the world as a complex system of open, interconnected systems. This framework unearths the inherent systemic interconnections between and across multiple social, economic, political, psychological, cultural, energy, ecological, technological, industrial, and other domains; as well as between key problems/challenges and relevant stakeholders.

This requires an upgrading effort to build our cognitive capacities in our own contexts. First and foremost, that means training ourselves as individuals. Secondarily, that means looking at how this can be achieved in the organisational context of the institutions we work and play in.

Developing the multidisciplinary lens to see the world as a ‘system of systems’ will have inevitable limitations on an individual level, and therefore requires constant engagement with cross-sector disciplinary expertise. It also requires holistic frameworks that are capable of actually doing cross-sector engagement in a way that works, by being grounded in an empirically-validated understanding of real world systems.

The next goal is to do the very opposite of what we do within closed loops of information. Closed loops of information are reinforced by active behaviours of individuals to self-select information according to their preconceived biases. This tends to reinforce polarised narratives. It also reinforces closed internal information loops that uphold favoured and familiar beliefs and values; blocks the capacity to accept and process new insights about the world; and locks one into a cycle of dysfunctional behavioural patterns which cannot be escaped.

The opposite approach would be to leverage and integrate multiple, dissonant perspectives as the core mechanism by which to explore disparate and often confusing streams of information about particular issues. Instead of avoiding, opposing, vilifying and excommunicating contradictory points of view, this approach requires engaging those points of view to leverage their respective insights.

This approach is premised on a fundamental axiom: that our point of view, no matter how ‘right’ we think it to be, is ultimately fallible, limited and derived from a limited data-set. No matter how much we do to correct for this, our perspective will always be limited. This means that at any time, our perspective will always be exactly that: a perspective on the world, not a true, full and accurate picture. Correcting for this requires an ongoing strategic approach to information that engages with multiple contradictory perspectives on a perpetual basis.

Therefore, we need to build in a process – whether as individuals or organisations – to navigate the dissonance between opposing points of view. Real insights can only be developed by applying an axiomatic logic system to discern fact from fakery in a way that has to be consistent across all perspectives.

In today’s model, it has become a prevailing trend for people who situate themselves within particular closed loops of information whether ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘centre’ or whatever to only call out falsehood among other closed loops of information that oppose their own. In this case, it is often even seen as disloyal to call out falsehood or lack of integrity among information producers that one is attached to. This is a symptom of deep civilisational decline in our collective capacity for information integrity.

This approach guarantees that failures and flaws within one’s own ideological framework will be systematically ignored and underplayed. Apart from anything else, this is a strategy for internal cognitive collapse whose inevitable result will be an increasing dislocation from the complex system of systems that is the real world. It will, simultaneously, represent a moral decline of the highest order, in which obsessing over the wrongs of the ‘Other’ becomes a convenient substitute for holding one’s own cognitive practices and biases to account by scrutinising the integrity of one’s own closed information loop.

The alternative approach, and the only one which can sustain the possibility of adaptive evolution while averting cognitive and moral collapse, is an open node of information engagement that specifically cultivates an authentic openness to other sense-making information loops, including those with which it fundamentally disagrees. This openness is not unconditional. It can only retain epistemological authenticity by exercising an axiomatic logic system which permits access to valid insights from other loops of information while rejecting their flaws, failures and incoherencies. Equally, this openness has to be capable of leveraging external insights to excise flaws, failures and incoherencies within its own framework.

So instead of closed, polarised and mutually-exclusive loops of information which service self-reinforcing pre-existing biases, we cultivate open, intersecting nodes of humble, critical, self-reflective engagement in which new information is able to come in from multiple perspectives, to every perspective.

3.3 Finding your power in the here and now

This enables deep, context-rich engagement across multiple disciplinary domains, across multiple issues, connecting dots. This endeavour seeks to navigate, using an axiomatic approach, the whole landscape of available data and experience to develop a whole systems body of insights that can be understood in their wider systemic context, rather than simply as disparate or haphazard issues or incidents.

The resulting body of insights is, then, held across multiple perspectives, with different insights being generated by different open nodes of information and sense-making. This total body of insights across multiple nodes and perspectives can then be leveraged to support the development of whole systems collective intelligence, underpinning the capacity for healthy decision-making and coherent action in the world that drives adaptive, evolutionary behaviours.

The imperative is to identify focal points where meaningful action can actually be taken – to work on those areas where we do retain power, rather than lamenting areas where we lack power. By leveraging insights to create change here and now, in our own bodies, minds, contexts and communities, we find our true power.

4. The ethical and spiritual dynamics of collective intelligence

Examining these contrasting approaches to closed loops and open nodes of cognition-behaviour unearths a number of critical insights. Noting that ethical values are ultimately signifiers of favourable and unfavourable behavioural patterns, and that these would reflect our ‘spiritual’ orientation, we can abstract some key ethical insights.

4.1 Inner and outer

Firstly, we remind ourselves that incoherencies at the macro scale are ultimately emergent from incoherencies at the micro scale. This means that when we see and are outraged at evil in the world – forms of deep incoherence which cause extensive suffering to other beings – these incoherencies are not simply monstrosities out there.

A major cognitive flaw is to see those incoherencies as fundamentally separate to ourselves. While they are to some extent, they also represent tendencies and traits deep within our own behaviours. While confronting and attempting to change those incoherencies out there in the world is important, doing so without simultaneously addressing our own personal parallel incoherencies, which we may well manifest in our own lives in quite different interpersonal and social contexts, would ultimately fail to produce real change.

4.2 Power in humility

The second insight we take on regards the necessity of humility. By recognising that we are deeply fallible human beings with fundamental cognitive limitations we accept and embrace the reality that we are always situated from a particular vantage point on reality that however ‘right’ in its own right, is never ‘the truth’. We are required then to resist the pull of arrogance in wanting to uphold our own certainty. Arrogance and certitude reinforce closed loops of information on the assumption that we are now acquainted with ‘the whole truth’ and no longer need to seek or engage with sources of information we are unfamiliar with.

By adopting this radical humility we become open to engaging with the unfamiliar, and seek out that which might even make us uncomfortable.

Rather than insulating ourselves in a cocoon of familiar and comfortable ideas, we seek to constantly challenge ourselves, to test our assumptions and frameworks.

Rather than simply seeking to test and refute others, our priority is to learn from others’ insights and shed the skin of our own fallacies.

If we do not adopt this radical humility, we are not really interested in what is real. We are committed, instead, to ‘being right’. This is, in fact, a form of insecure egoism. It guarantees being ultimately disconnected from what is real.

4.3 The greater struggle

A third insight is that the closed loops of information we see metastasising around the world closely parallel the internal neurophysiology of the individual. These closed loops are ultimately collective extensions of our own group thinking, communication and behavioural patterns. As such, to a large extent we can find them rooted in internal cognitive processes we often take for granted and rarely subject to scrutiny (no matter how capable we are at scrutinising the incoherencies of powerful structures in the world).

The most direct parallel is the internal endless thought stream of the inner voice that we identify with, the ‘I’. Yes, that inner voice which you call ‘me’ that never stops talking, commenting, feeling, judging, reacting and so on.

Exert a modicum of mindfulness for a few moments, watch and listen to that internal voice for a while, and you’ll notice that the endless thought stream runs like a ceaseless machine, a mental ‘Duracell bunny’ on steroids. It doesn’t stop or shut up. When you try to make it so, to focus, to direct it, it usually slithers around the obstacle and finds a way to resurface with its own internal momentum.

Welcome to your own internal closed loop of information.

The thought/emotion stream, which we usually identify with, is not ‘you’ – it’s of course a part of you but the fact that you can be conscious of it in a way that allows some degree of distance and control illustrates that you, your consciousness and sense-making capacity, are more than just the sum of your thoughts and feelings.

In any case, this internal closed loop of information essentially consists of neurophysiological output from a combination of inputs: your genetic inheritance, your mother’s experiences while you were in her womb, your social and environmental stimuli since birth, your upbringing as a child, your interactions with parents, siblings and family, and later with teachers and friends, your various life-experiences throughout these processes.

Much of how we behave and respond to relationships in the world as adults comes from learned behavioural patterns which we develop in this way. They become engrained habits. These behavioural patterns in turn are rooted in engrained patterns of thought and emotion that become established based on early responses to the specific environmental and social stimuli we experience. And so, how we related to our parents and siblings can develop deep-seated unconscious frameworks of belief and emotion about ourselves and the world, which go on to frame our behaviour for years to come, if not the rest of our lives.

Anxieties and insecurities from a young age end up determining how we behave at work, or with our partners, or in social situations, decades on – something someone says today is unconsciously interpreted in our head through the lens of a child who has experienced some form of trauma or negativity. Despite the situation being completely different, we end up bringing all that trauma and negativity from the past, into our present.

In short, we spend much of our lives living in closed loops of information, emotion and action that are dysfunctional, from which we are unable to escape. That’s often because we are rarely conscious of how our reactions are not necessarily rational, but are triggered in the context of being driven by old closed loops of thought and behaviour.

(One of the features of external closed information loops we saw previously was the tendency to see flaws in other information loops than our own really easily, while conveniently refusing to subject our own closed loops of information to similar scrutiny. We do this in our own lives routinely.)

This bundle of mental activity, which I sometimes call ‘thought-trains’, tend to function with their own unceasing volition. Propelled by their own logic, they shoot forward without stopping, driving on and on. When we identify with these ‘thought-trains’, we are no longer in control. Instead we become slaves to our own neurophysiologies, puppets of our own history, automatons whose actions unfold the same patterns and loops of behaviour time and time again. In effect, we are like zombies trapped in a familiar sequence of actions and reactions.

4.4 Becoming the Driver

The bundle of ‘thought-trains’ is widely studied across religious and spiritual traditions as well as psychological and psychoanalytic theories. It is sometimes identified as a complex structure – Freud saw it as a tripartite entity made up of the id (unconscious drives), the superego (moral consciousness) and the ego which mediates in between and which we identify with.

Those concepts are in some ways valid, but a more useful approach would be to recognise that the bundle of thought-trains represents the intersection of the ego, the consciousness we identify as ‘I’, with the internal voice that manifests a continually running train of thoughts bundled with emotions. We are conscious of the thought-trains and we usually identify with them and take them for granted as representing the ‘I’, usually without recognising their deeper drivers.

Freud’s great insight in that respect was that we have little conscious input into the making of our thought-trains – they simply keep driving, responding to external stimuli on the basis of programming that is hard-coded into us over years of genetic, social and environmental stimuli.

It is only when we begin bringing some of that programming to the focus of our consciousness, when we allow ourselves to see how our thought-trains are being unconsciously driven, that we develop the capability to be free from the old closed loops of information and behaviour, and to choose truly novel courses of action undetermined by the suffocating learned behaviours, fears, negative thought cycles and cognitive dysfunctions wired into us from our past.

For Freud, the moral consciousness of the superego simply comprised learned concepts from socialisation. The ego, he thought, ends up as the inflection point and battle ground between unconscious drives (the id) propelling an intersecting bundle of thought-trains (the ego) and the moral imperatives of society (refracted through the super ego).

4.5 Conscience and the intuitive cognition of the Real

But Freud was somewhat incorrect. While interpretations of moral precepts and categories are certainly open to socialisation, the categories themselves – of rightness and wrongness, of justice, of compassion, of generosity, and so on, are universally recognised by all human beings, throughout recorded human history, across all cultures, faiths and non-faith.

We are faced with overwhelming empirical evidence that moral consciousness — and the values of cooperation, love, compassion, kindness and so on it encompasses — reflect collaborative, synchronistic patterns of behaviour which entail a paradigm of human unity and stewardship toward the earth that is in direct contradiction to the prevailing paradigm.

The latter consists of behavioural patterns, associated political, economic and cultural structures, and a coextensive value-system and ideological assumptions which edify individualistic self-maximisation through endless material accumulation and gratification. While the ultimate business-as-usual trajectory of the latter is civilisational collapse and extinction, the former represents the only way to avert the latter.

This indicates that ethical action does indeed have an objective evolutionary function coextensive with the survival of the human species. Ethical values therefore are not merely products of socialisation.

Ethical values are reflections of a deeper ontological structure that encompasses the relationship between human beings and the natural order.

What Freud called the super ego is in fact the deeper self of the human spirit, which is inherently and intuitively cognisant of her or his direct relationship with the earth, all life, life itself and the cosmos, a cognisance partially intuited through that latent function of consciousness known as the conscience, a faculty for the apprehension of ethical value.

By allowing oneself to see one’s thought-trains for what they truly are, one sees their true drivers. The act of seeing that ‘programming’ of learned behaviour, thoughts, emotions, reactions and counter-reactions is the precondition to becoming free of that programming.

This in turn allows the self to become aware of the deeper self, whose latent conscience is aligned with the earth, life and the cosmos, and to embark on truly free action through ethical self-actualisation that is in alignment with the earth, life and the cosmos.

This of course requires more than just internal seeing, but external openness – by letting go of the old dysfunctional beliefs and habits, one is now open to a regenerative engagement with what is real: and to engage with what is real, requires a renewed, vigorous attention to what is real, that includes recognition of the individual’s deep physical and metaphysical interconnection with the earth, life and the cosmos.

The failure to see these thought-trains for what they are, conversely, leads to internal crisis and collapse.

Thought-trains are often incapable of reacting meaningfully to the real world because they respond not to the world as it is but to limited constructs and perceptions and emotions about the world rooted in past experiences. The result is that they entail behavioural patterns that do not engage with what is real, and are thus destructive and dysfunctional.

This can lead to breakdowns of all kinds – internal psychological issues, depression, other mental health challenges, as well as breakdowns in relationships, whether at home or work, with partners, parents, siblings of children.

5. No social liberation without self-liberation

You can’t free the world when your spirit, mind and body are in chains woven by your own delusions. What happens at the scale of the microcosm of the individual extends to the scale of the macrocosm of society.

When we look at the dominant apparatus of mass communications today within the human species, we can see very clearly how it operates essentially as an extension of our internal dysfunctions at the ego-level.

The closed loops of self-referential information sharing on social media are extensions of the closed, insular vortex of self-reinforcing thought-trains that comprise the ego.

Just as internally, closed information loops tend to involve repeat cycles of dysfunction, often involving crisis and collapse, externally they have similar correlates. In societies and communities, in organisations and institutions, closed loops tend to involve self-reinforcing ideological assumptions. This in turn leads to fixed patterns of behaviour in organisations and groups; and dysfunctional dynamics that tend to exclude ideas and behaviours that challenge or undermine the legitimacy of those fixed patterns and the limited frames of thought they are based on.

Closed loops offer limited opportunities for real organisational learning as anything outside what is already assumed to be ‘known’ is largely excluded. This sets up the organisation for failure when it comes up against new challenges in the real world, as it is then incapable of adapting – there is no capacity to adapt to change when the organisation lacks the fundamental cognitive openness required to understand the nature of that change and its dynamics.

Closed loops thus have a cancerous quality. They tend to lead to institutional fossilisation and stagnation. When change comes, it can lead to institutional crisis and collapse, and can also trigger the resort to familiar but limited and flawed mental and behavioural models which may well be integrally related to the causes of the crisis, but are pursued anyway. The outcome of that might be kicking the can down the road – if the real issues of deep adaptation are not addressed, this guarantees a resurgence of crisis.

An open nodal approach, in contrast, entails organisational self-awareness – a critical introspection capable of seeing the structures, interests, processes and assumptions driving status quo organisational behaviours, seeing them for what they are.

The act of seeing that structural ‘programming’ of learned organisational behaviour, thoughts, emotions, reactions, unconscious bias, unconscious trauma, and counter-reactions is the precondition to key agents in the organisation becoming free of that structural programming, and thus enabling the organisation as a collection of those agents becoming free to choose a truly new, regenerative path.

It’s not enough to simply see introspectively in this way. It’s also critical to engage with the wider environment and to truly see it and understand it, beyond the stale broken paradigm of the old organisational ideology, but now for what it is. That requires an axiomatic approach that intentionally adapts to what is real – the earth, life and the cosmos – by engaging with multiple perspectives, disciplines, lenses, paradigms, in order to see what is real as a whole system, a system of systems.

On this basis, a new regenerative capability emerges: this capability involves a renewed capacity for understanding what is real that is continually improving on the basis of disciplined and compassionate self-critique and critical external engagement; an understanding that underpins the development of new adaptive values and behaviours designed for greater alignment with what is real.

This in turn allows the organisation to become aware of its potential to manifest a deeper constitution as an expression of collective intelligence, whose latent conscience is aligned with the earth, life and the cosmos, and to thereby embark on truly free action through ethical self-actualisation that is in alignment with the earth, life and the cosmos.

5.1 A new paradigm

Adaptive responses require making new, radical commitments in thought and deed, and following through with them. This is the foundational bedrock of human integrity.

In the old closed loop paradigm, we might have all sorts of conscious commitments and intentions, but these are frequently foiled due to the runaway momentum of learned thought patterns and behavioural cycles. These can surface unexpectedly and drive our actual behaviour in ways we are not always fully aware of, even when we make conscious decisions to the contrary. Unless we become aware of those internal drivers, we cannot become free to see how we are impacted by them, and cannot then become free of them.

When we subject them to the light of awareness, we become free to rise above them. But truly rising above them is only possible by creating adaptive new thought pathways and new behavioural patterns which are aligned with what is real. This requires making new commitments to what is real. By following through with those commitments we create new conceptual pathways which reflect reality, and new behavioural patterns or habits which adapt to reality.

The precondition for this is becoming awake to the closed loop of thought-trains driving behaviour. That involves seeing and letting go of one’s delusions by recognising the commitments we have really (often unconsciously) made through our behavioural patterns and their consequences in our and other lives.

We may find that the ideals we like to believe we are committed to are part of a mask we present to others and even ourselves, a shield for internal insecurities developed from a host of past traumas. Our actual behavioural commitments might well be to simply being ‘right’; or to being powerful; to being ‘smart’ or ‘cool’; to being ‘liked’ and ‘accepted’; to being ‘safe’; or to the very opposite of these, depending on how our pasts have wired our neurophysiological make-up.

When we realise that these subliminal commitments tied to our closed loops of thought and action are in fact causing us and others destruction in numerous ways, we are empowered to let them go.

It is critical to see these for what they are and in that process to let them go. On that foundation we can be ready to freely take up genuinely new, adaptive commitments.

For organisations, the process is much the same – organisational strategy and vision needs to be recalibrated and redefined on the basis of a renewed set of goals, commitments and values which define a new mission. That mission in turn has to be grounded in a whole systems assessment that goes beyond traditional abstract SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) analysis into an approach that canvasses multidisciplinary data to make such an analysis systemic and holistic.

The foundation of integrity points to how adaptive responses require a transcending and transformation of egoism.

The ego is not abolished, but transformed into a vehicle to birth a higher and better self more attuned to that which is beyond it, and in which it is embedded.

We move from reductionism to holism, from self-absorption to mutual interconnection, from the affliction of separation and alienation to the abundance of synchronicity and cooperation, from fragmented discordant and conflictual information warfare to inclusive, synergistic and co-creative communication. We move from degenerative dynamics of chaotic collapse into complex flows of regenerative revitalisation.

The action pathways opened up through this process will need to translate a transformation in value orientation into deep structural changes.

The practice of extracting and accumulating energy to concentrate material wealth and power in the hands of a few is bound to destroy us all before century is out.

So these metabolic changes will need to reorient us from an exploitative, predatory relationship with our environment and each other, to one based on parity; from overaccumulation and centralisation of wealth and power, toward a set of clean, mutualistic, regenerative and distributive forms of resource consumption, production, ownership, and labour which move us into human-earth system energy flows that are sustainable, and which enrich all constituents.

Fundamentally, meaningful system change is about transforming our deep collective metabolic relationship with the earth, the way we extract and mobilise energy for all areas of our life through our economic, social, political, and cultural structures. If we are not talking that language, we are merely tinkering.

6. System change strategies

When systems experience a crisis due to the failure to adapt to environmental change, the crisis is existential. The system either evolves through adaptation requiring accurate environmental sense-making which mobilises behavioural adaptations; or it regresses and eventually collapses.

This stage of indeterminacy involves a phase-shift into what could become a new system, but one that either evolves or regresses. Evolution in this case consists of individual, organisational or civilisational renewal; the alternative is a form of individual, organisational or civilisational regression that comprises a step toward protracted collapse.

We are currently in the midst of a global phase-shift signalling that the prevailing order, paradigm and value-system are outmoded and unsustainable. The breakdown of the global system has led to a heightened state and speed of indeterminacy across political, economic, cultural and ideological structures and sub-systems. We experience this in the increasing confusion across all these systems, particularly expressed in the ‘post-truth’ dislocation of our prevailing information systems.

An adaptive response requires as many components of the global system as possible to embrace our evolutionary mission as individuals, families, organisations, communities, societies, nations, international institutions, and as a civilisation and species.

That entails the necessity of a multi-pronged approach involving the coordination of actors at different scales – both external ‘resistance’ pressure from below combined with high-level engagement action, calibrated with the specific goals of moving key agents toward whole systems awareness. That also entails targeting specific structures as well as aiming to shift the cognitive orientation of people whose thoughts and behaviours are the microcosmic foundations of those structures.

When a particular organisation or structure reaches a tipping point in terms of the cognitive shifting of the people that comprise it, only at that point will the wider organisational structure become vulnerable to authentic change.

A few further insights emerge here.

Firstly, the tightly coupled nature of social structures, the interconnected nature of systems, entails that the power of individual action is far more significant than often assumed.

Of course, on the one hand it’s important to adopt a pragmatic approach that accepts the limitations of one’s own power. A single individual cannot singlehandedly change the entire system. However, a single individual can act in a way that contributes to and catalyses system change, whether in the near term or, most likely, the longer term.

The interconnected nature of systems means that the consequences of one’s decisions in a social context will have a ramifying ripple of consequences with the inherent potential to impact a whole system.

How significant this impact will be depends on a number of factors:

To what extent does the action form part of a new paradigm from a systemic perspective?

To what extent does it enlist and mobilise other components of the system and nudge them into paradigm-breaking and new-paradigm modalities – and not just piecemeal actions, but wholesale transformation in conscious intent, envisioning, and behavioural pattern?

To what extent do those new, emerging patterns of thought and behaviour contribute to the emergence of new structures – new collective patterns of thought and behaviour oriented around life, the earth and the cosmos?

Having exercised the processes described so far, the task is to choose — based on the wide systemic and holistic assessment of oneself, one’s socio-organisational context, and the wider whole systems (political, cultural, economic, etc) context — the path of adaptive, transformative action.

The direction of action one chooses will be different for different people and will be entirely contingent on who one is, and the full context of environmental, social, political, cultural, economic, family and other relationships in which one is embedded.

Based on that assessment, variable paths and opportunities for action will become clear. The path chosen should be designed to mobilise the best of your skills, experiences, available resources and networks to transform (to the extent possible) your self and to then leverage that internal movement in your specific context to pursue ways to create (to the extent possible) paradigm-shifting intentions and behavioural patterns that can lay the foundation for the emergence of new-paradigm structures and systems in your particular context.

The preceding discussion illustrates a certain logic to this process, however. The groundwork requires an action pathway in pursuit of the transformation of sense-making and harnessing of information in your targeted social context as the first step. This naturally requires moving beyond abstract generalisations and focusing concretely on your existing, actual situation in a place-based context.

The next step is to leverage this to create a generative dialogue across multiple perspectives within your social, organisational or institutional context to generate an authentic awakening of whole systems awareness relevant to that place-based context.

The final step is to cast this awareness on the existing system-structure and its failures in that specific context, with a view to unearth pressure-points and opportunities for transformative action through scenario analysis:

What would a new system, a new structure, a new way of living and working and relating that is in parity with life, the earth and the cosmos look like in this locality, for this family or this community?

How do we take concrete steps to get there, to build that new paradigm through the construction and enactment of new forms of intention, reflection and behaviour?

What would happen if we fail to adopt these steps?

Among the insights that emerge from this is that system change is not possible through disengaging from said system. While applying pressure to the system can sometimes work, this too can often be counterproductive and produce unintended results in which powerful agents who benefit from the system simply react by attempting to squeeze out and neutralise the power of these ‘resistance’ efforts. Often, by triggering such militarised responses, traditional ‘resistance’ approaches alone end up in a self-defeating cycle in which they cannot win – given that ‘resistance’ can never match the overwhelming power of the militarised responses they invariably invoke.

This does not mean traditional ‘resistance’ is not without value, but it does show that as a sole strategy for change, it is likely to fail.

System change requires a full range of strategic approaches at multiple levels. Applying ‘resistance’ pressure may be one useful and appropriate lever at certain times. More broadly, also required are strategies of critical engagement. This entails moving into the structures and systems one wishes to change and applying the new patterns of intention and action within them; finding opportunities to apply our multi-staged process of sense-making, information-gathering, communicating and dialoguing, waking up (to the recognition of the need for transformation); and finally embarking on the pathway of paradigm-shifting action to move that system into a new adaptive configuration.

System change efforts need to be undertaken by people and organisations in explicit recognition that we are currently experiencing a global phase-shift, wherein exists an unprecedented opportunity to engage in the act of planting microcosmic seeds for macrocosmic change.

The goal of these efforts should be to pursue activities that reach threshold tipping point levels of impact that can push key sections in the system over into a new stable state.

That requires the likeminded to forge new levels of coordination across the system between multiple groups, organisations, institutions, classes – to plant the seeds of a new network cutting across societies and communities through which new channels of communication, sharing and learning can be developed to transmit revitalised cognitive awareness based on whole systems sense-making. On that foundation, emergent adaptive structures, institutions, practices and behavioural patterns can be shared, explored and prototyped in multiple place-based contexts.

Every single individual, group and organisation that is committed to a better world needs to build in a process for this adaptive, evolutionary practice into its internal constitution. If this is not a priority at some level, you’re committed to something else (unconsciously or otherwise) and need to do some work to find out what and why.

Needless to say, systems and structures which insist on resisting such change efforts will ultimately break-down during the phase-shift.

Another fundamental insight that emerges here is that it is utterly pointless to embark on an effort to change the world, the system, or any other social context external to you, without having begun with yourself.

This is a continual process, a constant discipline. Because the microcosm and the macrocosm are ultimately reflections of each other. The world without is a construct and projection of the worlds within.

More concretely, if you have not even begun the process of comprehending how your own self, thoughts, behavioural patterns and neurophysiology are wired by the wider system, in order to become truly free to manifest the self of your own true choosing, you will never be equipped to engage in a meaningful effort to change the system.

Instead your battle to change externalities will become a projection-field for your internal dysfunctions and instead of contributing to system change, you will unwittingly bring regressive egoic tendencies into the reinforcement of entrenched prevailing system dynamics in the name of ‘resistance’. Having unconsciously internalised the external regressive system values and dynamics you resent, you will end up promoting those very same dynamics in your ‘activism’.

Efforts to call out power are meaningless if you have not toppled the tyrant within. This requires intensive and ongoing self-training, alongside continued external engagement in your socio-organisational context.

Relinquish the closed loops to become an open node. Embrace your ontological interconnection with all life, the earth and the cosmos and discover your self as a conscious expression of them; and in that discovery, take on your existential responsibility to life, the earth and the cosmos, thereby becoming who you truly are. Hold yourself accountable. Grow up and show up in your own life and context. Accept your responsibility for the broken relationships around you, acknowledge the breakdowns in integrity in your commitments, make amends and resolve new authentic commitments. And bring that emerging integrity, humility and clear-sightedness into a renewed effort to build paradigm-shifting visions and practices within the context that you can actually reach. And you will plant a seed whose only destiny will be to inexorably blossom.

Perhaps the most immediate challenge ahead is to face up to the inevitable demise of the old paradigm, internally and externally, and to accept what that means. At first, this may appear to be something that induces tremendous grief. And indeed, the demise of the old will inevitably bring immense devastation and suffering— the dangers of this recognition are that it leads to either of two extreme emotional reactions, optimistic denialism or fatalistic pessimism. Neither is useful, nor justified by the available data, and both reinforce apathy. They are devoid of life. When properly grounded in life itself, acceptance of the demise of the old paradigm is the precondition for moving into a new life, a new way of working, playing and being that is attuned to life, the earth and the cosmos; it is the precondition for finding the power to begin co-creating new paradigms.

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Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is the founding editor of INSURGE intelligence. Nafeez is a 17-year investigative journalist, formerly of The Guardian where he reported on the geopolitics of social, economic and environmental crises. Nafeez reports on ‘global system change’ for VICE’s Motherboard. He has bylines in The Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, among other places. He has twice won the Project Censored Award for his investigative reporting; twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 list of most influential Londoners; and won the Naples Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award created by the President of the Republic. Nafeez is also a widely-published and cited interdisciplinary academic applying complex systems analysis to ecological and political violence. He is a Research Fellow at the Schumacher Institute.





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 Danger of Inspiration: A Review of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

11 09 2019

Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, has one crippling flaw—it’s inspiring. At this moment in history, inspiring talk about solutions to multiple, cascading ecological crises is dangerous. Republished from the Resilience site……

At the conclusion of these 18 essays that bluntly outline the crises and explain a Green New Deal response, Klein bolsters readers searching for hope: “[W]hen the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.” It is tempting to embrace that claim, especially after nearly 300 pages of Klein’s eloquent writing that weaves insightful analysis together with honest personal reflection.

The problem, of course, is that the statement is not even close to being true. With nearly 8 billion people living within a severely degraded ecosphere, there are many things we cannot, and will not, achieve. A decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—depends on our ability to come to terms with these limits. That is not a celebration of cynicism or a rationalization for nihilism, but rather the starting point for rational planning that takes seriously not only our potential but also the planet’s biophysical constraints.

Klein’s essays in this volume make it clear that she is well aware of those limits, but the book’s subtitle suggests that she is writing not only to inform but also to mobilize support for Green New Deal proposals. This tension runs throughout the book—when Klein reports on and analyzes the state of the world, the prose challenges readers to face difficult realities, but when making the case for those policy proposals, she sounds more like an organizer rallying supporters.

That’s not a dig—Klein is a writer who doesn’t sit on the sidelines but gets involved with movements and political projects. Her commitment to activism and organizing is admirable, but it can pull a writer in conflicting directions.

This critique should not lead anyone to ignore On Fire, which is an excellent book that should be read cover to cover, without skipping chapters that had been previously published. Collections of essays can fall flat because of faded timeliness or unnecessary repetition, but neither are a problem here. As always, Klein’s sharp eye for detail makes her reporting on events compelling, whether she’s describing disasters (natural and unnatural) or assessing political trends. And, despite the grim realities we face, the book is a pleasure to read.

Before explaining concerns with the book’s inspirational tone, I want to emphasize key points Klein makes that I agree are essential to a left/progressive analysis of the ecological crises:

  • First-World levels of consumption are unsustainable;
  • capitalism is incompatible with a livable human future;
  • the modern industrial world has undermined people’s connections to each other and the non-human world; and
  • we face not only climate disruption but a host of other crises, including, but not limited to, species extinction, chemical contamination, and soil erosion and degradation.

In other words, business-as-usual is a dead end, which Klein states forthrightly:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Firemakes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

Welcome to the third rail of contemporary political life. The question that the multiple, cascading ecological crises put squarely in front of us is, “What is a sustainable human population?” That question has to be split in two: “How many people? Consuming how much?”

It’s no surprise that political candidates ignore these questions, but progressive writers and activists should not back away. Honestly engaging these issues takes us well beyond the Green New Deal.

On the second of those questions—“consuming how much?”—Klein frequently highlights the problem, but with a focus on “profligate consumption.” She stresses the need to:

  • “scale back overconsumption”;
  • identify categories in which we must contract, “including air travel, meat consumption, and profligate energy use”; [I do wish people would get off the back of meat consumption and point the finger at industrial scale agriculture instead…]
  • end “the high-carbon lifestyle of suburban sprawl and disposable consumption”;
  • reject capitalism’s faith in “limitless consumption” that locks us in “the endless consumption cycle”; and
  • make deep changes “not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system.”

No argument with any of those statements, especially because Klein rejects the notion that simply improving efficiency will solve our problems, a common assumption of the techno-optimists. But challenging “overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy” focuses on the easy target: “The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies, but also by reducing the amount of material stuff that the wealthiest 20 percent of people on the planet consume.”

My goal is not to defend rich people or their consumption habits. However, constraining the lifestyles of the rich and famous is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability. Here we have to deal with the sticky question of human nature. Klein rightly rejects capitalism’s ideological claim that people’s capacity to act out of greed and short-term self-interest (which all of us certainly are capable of doing) is the dominant human trait. Human nature also includes the capacity to act out of compassion in solidarity with others, of course, and different systems reward different parts of our nature. Capitalism encourages the greed and discourages the compassion, to the detriment of people and planet.

But we are organic creatures, and that means there is a human nature, or what we might more accurately call our human-carbon nature. As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute puts it, life on Earth is “the scramble for energy-rich carbon,” and humans have gotten exceedingly good at grabbing lots of carbon. Not all cultures go after it with the same intensity, of course, but that scramble predates capitalism and will continue after capitalism. This doesn’t mean we are condemned to make the planet unlivable for ourselves and other creatures, but public policy has to recognize that we not only need carbon to survive but that most people—including most environmentalists—like the work that carbon can do for us when we burn those fossil fuels. And once we get a taste of what that carbon can do, it’s not easy to give it up.

As Klein points out, curbing our carbon-seeking is not merely a test of will power and matter of individual virtue; collective action through public policy is needed. I believe that requires a hard cap on carbon—limits that we can encourage people to accept through cultural advocacy but in the end must be imposed through law. A sensible approach, called “cap and adapt,” has been proposed by Larry Edwards and Stan Cox. In a forthcoming book, Cox will expand on a cap-and-ration strategy that could help in “drawing the human economy back within necessary ecological limits,” a follow-up to, and expansion of, his earlier book that made a compelling case for a rationing.

There’s no simple answer to how much energy and material resources we can consume without undermining the ecosystems on which our own lives depend, but I’m confident in saying that it’s dramatically less that we consume today, and that reducing aggregate consumption—even if we could create equitable societies—will be difficult. But that’s the easy part. Much more difficult is the first question—“how many people?”

On the question of population, On Fire is silent, and it’s not hard to understand, for several reasons. First, the Earth has a carrying capacity for any species but it’s impossible to predict when we will reach it (or did reach it), and failed attempts at prediction in the past have made people wary. Second, some of the most vocal supporters of population control also espouse white supremacy, which has tainted even asking the question. Third, while we know that raising the status of women and educating girls reduces birth rates, it’s difficult to imagine a non-coercive strategy for serious population reduction on the scale necessary. Still, we should acknowledge ecological carrying capacity while pursuing social justice and rejecting anti-immigration projects. Progressives’ unwillingness to address the issue cedes the terrain to “eco-fascists,” those who want to use ecological crises to pursue a reactionary agenda.

There’s no specific number to offer for a sustainable human population, but I’m confident in saying that it’s fewer than 8 billion and that finding a humane and democratic path to that lower number is difficult to imagine. [I’ll offer one, and it’s well below one billion – https://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/losing-our-energy-slaves/ ]

The fact that these questions are troubling and/or impossible to answer does not mean the questions do not matter. For now, my answer—a lot fewer people and a lot less stuff—is adequate to start a conversation: “A sustainable human presence on the planet will mean fewer people consuming less.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Two responses are possible from Green New Deal supporters: (1) I’m nuts, or (2) I’m not nuts, but what I’m suggesting is politically impossible because people can’t handle all this bad news.

If I am nuts, critics have to demonstrate what is unsound about the argument, without resorting to the cliché that “necessity is the mother of invention” and the faith-based claims of the technological fundamentalists.

If I am not, then those Green supporters face a quandary. When mainstream Democrats tell progressive folks that the Green New Deal is doomed to fail because it is not politically viable at this moment, supporters counter, appropriately, by saying that anything less is inadequate in the face of the crises. Those supporters argue, appropriately, that the real failure is supporting policies that don’t do enough to create sustainable human societies and that we need to build a movement for the needed change. I agree, but by that logic, if the Green New Deal itself is inadequate to create sustainability, then we must push further.

The Green New Deal is a start, insufficiently radical but with the potential to move the conversation forward—if we can be clear about the initiative’s limitations. That presents a problem for organizers, who seek to rally support without uncomfortable caveats—“Support this plan! But remember that it’s just a start, and it gets a lot rougher up ahead, and whatever we do may not be enough to stave off unimaginable suffering” is, admittedly, not a winning slogan.

Back to what I think Klein is right about, and eloquent in expressing:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.

What kind of person wants to live like that? I can offer a real-life example, my late friend Jim Koplin. He once told me, in a conversation about those multiple, cascading ecological crises (a term I stole from him, with his blessing), “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief.” He was neither depressed nor irrational but simply honest. Jim, a Depression-era farm boy who had been permanently radicalized in the 1960s, felt that grief more deeply than anyone I have known, yet every day he got up to work in his garden and then offer his time and energy to a variety of political, community, and arts groups that were fighting for a better world.

Klein speaks of this grief in On Fire, in what for me were the most moving passages, often involving her young son’s future in the face of this “planetary death spiral”:

There is no question that the strongest emotions I have about the climate crisis have to do with [Toma] and his generation—the tremendous intergenerational theft under way. I have flashes of sheer panic about the extreme weather we have already locked in for these kids. Even more intense than this fear is the sadness about what they won’t ever know. They are growing up in a mass extinction, robbed of the cacophonous company of so many fast-disappearing life forms. It feels so desperately lonely.

The escape from loneliness, for me, starts with recognizing that Jim’s “state of profound grief” was not only wholly rational but also emotionally healthy. When told that even if this harsh assessment is correct, people can’t handle it, I agree. No one can handle all this. Jim couldn’t handle it every waking minute. I don’t handle it as well as he did. At best, we struggle to come to terms with a “bleak and austere” future.

But that’s exactly why we need to engage rather than avoid the distressing realities of our time. If we are afraid to speak honestly, we suffer alone. Better that we tell the truth and accept the consequences, together.