Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism

7 12 2019


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


  1. Overview
    Despite decades of warnings, agreements, and activism, human
    energy consumption, emissions, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations
    all hit new records in 2018 (Quéré et al., 2018). If the global economy
    continues to grow at about 3.0% per year, we will consume as much
    energy and materials in the next ∼30 years as we did cumulatively in
    the past 10,000. Is such a scenario inevitable? Is such a scenario possible?
  2. Simultaneously, we get daily reminders the global economy isn’t
    working as it used to (Stokes, 2017) such as rising wealth and income
    inequality, heavy reliance on debt and government guarantees, populist political movements, increasing apathy, tension and violence, and ecological decay. To avoid facing the consequences of our biophysical reality, we’re now obtaining growth in increasingly unsustainable ways. The developed world is using finance to enable the extraction of things we couldn’t otherwise afford to extract to produce things we otherwise couldn’t afford to consume.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

27 11 2019

Richard Heinberg

August 17, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part IV: The Way Forward

7 11 2019

Kim Hill

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

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Image: Roseanne de Lange

Part IPart IIPart III

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

More effective solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principles for effective action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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.





Why stimulus can’t fix our energy problems

11 07 2019

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

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

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

Posted on July 10, 2019 by Gail Tverberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The situations behind these lagging growth rates vary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workers play a double role in the economy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observations and Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note:

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





A Green New Deal Must Not Be Tied to Economic Growth

7 07 2019

By Giorgos Kallis, originally published by TruthOut

  • March 12, 2019

The Green New Deal bill is an audacious 10-year mobilization plan to move the U.S. to a zero-carbon economy. Bold and ambitious interventions like it are necessary, in the U.S. and elsewhere, if we are to unsettle the current complacency with climate breakdown. Academics like economist Robert Pollin, who kept alive the idea of a Green New Deal in the past years and provided the science to back it up, are to be congratulated for their efforts.

Pollin has for years now proposed his simplified version of a Green New Deal — an investment of between 1.5 to 2 percent of global GDP every year to raise energy efficiency and expand clean renewable energy. This would be the moment for him to celebrate that his cause has been taken up, and contribute to working out the specifics. Instead though, he chooses to focus on the differences between his proposal and a “degrowth agenda,” which he finds “utterly unrealistic” — a waste of time for the Left at best and dangerously anti-social at worst. Whereas this is not the moment to split hairs, Pollin’s insistence on degrowth is inadvertently productive. It lets us see a sore point in the Green New Deal narrative, and this is that it risks reproducing — unless carefully framed — the hegemonic ideology of capitalist growth, which has created the problem of climate change in the first place.

To begin with, Pollin never explains why growth is a necessary ingredient for his proposal. It is not clear why he has to argue that a Green New Deal will be good for growth instead of simply advocating cutting carbon while meeting needs and fostering wellbeing. The only reason he provides for his preference for growth is that “higher levels of GDP will correspondingly mean a higher level of investment being channeled into clean energy projects.” If Pollin seriously means that he shares “the values and concerns of degrowth advocates,” then he could simply tweak his model and come up with a fixed amount of investment (independent of GDP) that would produce the same decarbonization. Higher levels of GDP will not only lead to higher levels of clean investment, but also higher levels of dirty investment — and the majority of investment is dirty. One percent growth in GDP leads to a 0.5 to 0.8 percent increase in carbon emissions, and this is as statistically robust a relation as it gets (clean energy investment has no statistically significant effect on emissions yet, though, of course, this could and should change in the future). If we continue to grow at 3 percent per year, by 2043, the global economy will be two times larger than it is now. It is difficult to imagine creating a renewable energy infrastructure for our existing economy in a short time span, much less doing so for an economy that is two times bigger. The smaller our economic output is, the easier the transition will be.

Pollin may well have chosen to emphasize growth because new deals are about growth. But a Green New Deal does not have to be like the old New Deal. Pollin does not suggest that his investment program should be financed by deficit spending, nor that it should be a short-lived stimulus, repaid by growth. An investment at the level of 2 percent of GDP does not need deficit spending — assuming there is the political will for such a program, it could be financed by replacing dirty or socially useless investments (and there are many, starting with armaments). If there is no extra spending and debt, then there is no need to stimulate growth to pay it back.

Now, at some points in his article for the New Left Review, Pollin seems to suggest that growth is an outcome of his proposal, not a goal or pre-condition. He claims that “for accounting purposes,” growth in renewable energy investments “will contribute towards increasing GDP.” But even in accounting terms, without deficit spending, there is no reason why a clean investment program will cause growth, since the 2 percent that will go to renewables would go to some other investment instead.

The economy moreover is not an accounting convention. We could just as well imagine spending lots of money on digging and filling in holes — this could serve as a temporary stimulus in a period of low liquidity and low demand, but is obviously not a recipe for sustained growth. Pollin writes in his text that “building a green economy entails more labor-intensive activities” and that the private sector does not invest in renewables because they have low profit margins. Shifting financial resources from high-productivity and high-profit sectors to low-productivity ones is not a recipe for growth. The energy productivity of renewables is also lower than that of fossil fuels. An economy of low productivity, low profits and low energy returns is unlikely to be a bigger economy that grows. And this is fine, since our priority right now should be to decarbonize, not grow the economy. But Pollin unnecessarily links the former to the latter.

Maybe Pollin is right, and I am wrong. Maybe a massive clean energy program would end up stimulating growth. However, it would be wrong to sell a program for stabilizing the climate with the promise of growth. What happens if it doesn’t produce growth? Do we abandon decarbonization? And since climate change is not the only problem with growth, there are good reasons why we can’t afford more growth even if it were powered by the sun.

Economists typically justify growth in terms of poverty or stability. Pollin innovates by justifying it in the name of climate change. And this is coming from someone who otherwise sees the irrationality of perpetual growth.

Compound growth is what Marxist scholar David Harvey calls a “bad infinity.” For Harvey, capitalism’s requirement for compound growth is the deadliest of its contradictions. Harvey points to the irrationality of expecting that demand, investment and profits will double every 24 years (this is what a 3 percent growth each year amounts to), quadruple every 48, grow eight-fold every 72, ad infinitum and ad absurdum.

Consider the following: 65 percent of anthropogenic emissions come from fossil fuels. The remaining 35 percent come from things like land-use change, soil depletion, landfills, industrial meat farming, cement and plastic production. Even if the energy mix were to become 100 percent clean and we continued to double the economy every 24 years, we would be back up to our existing emissions levels in short order. This is how irrational the pursuit of compound growth is.

Climate breakdown now threatens to bring this absurdity to an end. But it is not only the climate — biodiversity loss through mass extinction, land-use change and resource extraction are all directly linked to economic growth. Despite his claims to the contrary, there is no prospect of what Pollin calls “absolute decoupling,” or a reduction of these impacts while the economy grows.

It is fanciful to think that there is one type of neoliberal growth that is bad, and another type of growth that could be inclusive, progressive, clean, etc. Growth is an integrated process, and no matter what the ideologues of growth claim, there is no proof that we can grow the economy by selectively growing the “goods” while decreasing the “bads.” Armaments, advertising, fossil fuels, planned obsolescence and waste of all kinds are integral to capitalist growth. Since its beginnings in colonial Britain, growth has been fueled by unequal exchange of labor and resources between imperial centers and internal and external peripheries. Growth requires the investment of surplus for the creation of more surplus. And this surplus is created by exploiting wage-workers and appropriating the unpaid work of women, migrant workers and nature. Shifting of costs in space and time has also been central. Access to low-cost labor and resources is vital for economic growth; if inputs become expensive, the economy slows down.

Pollin claims that growth stalled because neoliberalism prioritized the interests of the rich. The brutal cuts of structural adjustment policies and neoliberal austerity, however, were always made in the name of growth. The promise of growth bought the social peace the neoliberal project needed. Even if the real outcome was the concentration of wealth amidst anemic growth rates, this tells us something useful about the dangers of a “growth politics.”

Pollin argues that we can’t afford to dream that another world is possible, not now, because climate change is urgent and “we do not have the luxury to waste time on huge global efforts fighting for unattainable goals.” We are asked to accept that the only game in town is capitalism, and that questioning capitalism and its destructive pursuit of growth is a luxurious waste of time. If not now, then when, one might wonder?

Erik Swyngedouw has warned against the depoliticizing tendency of carbon reductionism — that is, reducing all politics down to a question of their effect on carbon emissions, especially when coupled with claims of urgency. Granted, climate change is a huge problem, but it is not the only problem in whose service we should pause other aspirations. And climate change is not a stand-alone problem with a technical solution — it is symptomatic of the broader system that is producing it. Pollin’s reduction of climate change to a question of an investment fix is appealing because it makes the problem seem manageable. But climate change is not a technical problem. Climate change is a political problem, in the real sense of the word political, meaning a problem involving competing visions of the kind of world we want to live in.

Now, Pollin has a valid concern in that a degrowth agenda would involve a reduction of GDP, which has many problems — not least, rising poverty, inequality, debts, austerity, etc. We would be fools if we were oblivious to those risks. In a capitalist economy bound to grow or collapse, growth is fundamental for the stability of the system. But growth is also exploitative and self-destructive. Should we support capitalism forever, just because a collapsing capitalism is worse for workers than a capitalism that does well?

Those of us who write about degrowth do not advocate an intentional reduction of GDP (we are the first to criticize GDP as it mixes “goods” with “bads” and doesn’t count unpaid work). Perhaps Pollin is confused because we do claim that doing the right things, ecologically and socially, will in all likelihood slow down the economy as measured by GDP. Or because we argue that certain sectors of the current economy that are central to its expansion — armament, advertising, unnecessary consumer goods, speculative financing, etc. — should contract. Given how coupled the capitalist economy is to growth, this raises the question of how, or under what conditions, we could secure human wellbeing and equality without growth. This is a huge research question, involving economic models, historical and ethnographic studies, and an assessment of potential institutional reforms, such as work-sharing, a guaranteed basic income or a maximum income tax. It is also a political agenda for the Left, to build the capacities to decouple wellbeing from growth.

Pollin claims that those of who write about degrowth do not offer a specific program to combat climate change. Speaking for myself, I do not feel I have to add more to the excellent proposals already made by Pollin himself, Naomi Klein and many, many others. The problem with climate change is not that we are short of ideas on what is to be done. The problem is that we are not doing it. What we offer from a degrowth perspective is a different diagnosis of why we are not doing it. We argue that this is because there is a fundamental clash between capitalism’s pursuit of growth and climate mitigation. Good climate policies are not adopted because of their impact on growth, and growth is outstripping the gains made from renewable energy. Our contribution is to open up the debate about alternatives to growth.

In the climate community, people have their pet ideas. Some want a carbon tax, and others want a carbon dividend (a tax returned as basic income). Some want green bonds, others a Green New Deal. It is safe to say that if we are to decarbonize the economy at the unprecedented rate required, all of these ideas will be necessary. But decarbonization is not just a matter of adding solar and wind to the energy mix — it is also a matter of taking fossil fuels out. This requires legislation and political commitment alongside struggle to stop fossil fuel projects and coal mines, and to divest from oil companies.

Pollin suggests that a 2 percent investment in clean energy and efficiency will be sufficient on its own, but there are reasons to be skeptical about such a claim. I would like Pollin to be right, but I’ve read other reputable climate scientists and engineers who are much more reserved than Pollin about the prospect of 100 percent renewables. There are the problems with the intermittency of solar and wind, and their huge storage requirements (one of the principal solutions envisaged, storage as hydroelectric energy, requires a dramatic damming of remaining rivers: an environmental nightmare). There are the emissions involved in fueling a renewable energy transition, which might be enough on their own to overshoot the remaining carbon budget. There are the rare earth minerals necessary for constructing solar panels and batteries, minerals that are scarce and extracted from areas and communities already suffering from our unquenchable hunger for raw materials. There is the question of land use and impact on landscapes. As is common in these technical debates, Pollin prefers data favorable to his argument. But he would agree, I think, that the picture is very complicated and uncertain, to say the least.

I do not like to be a skeptic in the current political context where renewables face an uphill battle against the fossil fuel and nuclear power lobbies. I wish that a 100 percent renewable future were possible and would be as harmless as Pollin thinks. But our experience with previous technological fixes suggests we should be on the side of caution, both because of unfulfilled promises, and because there are always side effects and unforeseen costs. Even if the environmental and social costs of renewable energy are not as high as some skeptics think, they are not insignificant either — and with compound growth, even an insignificant impact quickly grows toward infinity. The lower the level of energy use, and the smaller the economy, the easier it is to decarbonize, and the fewer impacts that will be caused along the way. There is no reason for someone concerned with climate and the environment to advocate economic growth.

Furthermore, Pollin provides no evidence that the scale of investment he proposes will do the job. Granted, there has been no such massive investment in the past, so it is hard to assess its potential effect. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama promised $150 billion over a period of 10 years. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided stimulus funding of $90 billion in strategic clean-energy investments and tax incentives to promote job creation and the deployment of low-carbon technologies, promising to leverage approximately $150 billion in private and other non-federal capital for clean energy investments. Fossil fuel emissions decreased 11 percent from 2007 to 2013, but this was not a result of growth in renewables (despite a tripling of wind power and a 30-fold increase in solar power during Obama’s presidency), but mostly an after-effect of the recession, high gasoline prices and to a lesser extent, a shift from coal to natural gas.

In 2009, South Korea announced a Green New Deal Job Creation Plan: $38.1 billion invested over a period of four years dedicated to environmental projects to spur slumping economic growth and create a million jobs. Korea’s emissions were 15 percent higher in 2014 than in 2008. Pollin refers to Germany as “the most successful advanced economy in developing its clean-energy economy.” German emissions in 2014 were almost unchanged since 2009. They had fallen 20 percent since 1992, and following the collapse of industry in East Germany. And even so, in per capita terms, they are 80 percent higher than the world average. If the whole world were to consume as much as the “successful” case of Germany, not only would global carbon emissions not fall, they would almost double.

Naomi Klein wrote that climate change “changes everything.” Pollin tells us that it does not have to change anything, other than 2 percent of GDP. We will keep flying, eating beef, driving cars to suburban homes, flying helicopters and jets — with the only difference being that all this will be powered by clean electricity. I won’t debate the facts and the feasibility of this vision again, so instead I’ll just point out that intuitively this doesn’t make sense to people, and it doesn’t because you don’t have to be a scientist to understand how much our current lifestyle depends on fossil fuels. Those who deny climate change know it and those who fight for climate justice know it, too. To stop climate change, we not only need to clean production, but also to reduce and transform consumption. We need free public transport, new diets, denser modes of living, affordable housing close to where the jobs are, food grown closer to where it is consumed, reduction of working time and commuting, low-energy ways of living and finding satisfaction, curbs on excessive incomes and on ostentatious consumption. It is not as though the Green New Deal is an agenda designed to fight climate change alone — it is a green Left agenda that we should pursue even if there were no climate change. And we have to pursue it independently of whether or not it is “good for the economy,” because we put people before the economy.

The Green New Deal bill goes in the right direction and its differences from Pollin’s narrower proposal are informative and much closer to what I am arguing here. The bill does not only commit funds to renewable energies, but also to health, housing and environmental infrastructures. It has provisions for economic security, akin to job guarantee and basic income schemes — provisions that will be vital if we are to secure wellbeing without growth. Granted, the bill does not talk explicitly about post- or de-growth, and does not challenge head-on prevalent patterns of consumption as much as one like me sitting in an academic chair and not involved in parliamentary politics would have liked — but consumption would surely change too if public services were expanded to the extent foreseen in the bill. Importantly, unlike Pollin, the bill does not emphasize growth or justify the plan in terms of growth.

Pollin’s insistence, then, on accentuating the differences between degrowth and the Green New Deal is outdated and unnecessary. Pollin’s article was titled “Degrowth vs. a Green New Deal.” Maybe it is time to stop inventing more internal “versus” and do the hard work of constructing some new “ands.” What about degrowth and a Green New Deal? The opponent is formidable and what we need are alliances, not divisions.

The author thanks Jason Hickel and David Ravensbergen for their comments and suggestions to an earlier draft of this essay.





2019: World Economy Is Reaching Growth Limits; Expect Low Oil Prices, Financial Turbulence

10 01 2019

Posted on January 9, 2019 by Gail Tverberg

Another incisive self explanatory article by Gail Tverberg explaining the recent volatility and what outcomes we can expect from that this coming year (and next) MUST READ.

Financial markets have been behaving in a very turbulent manner in the last couple of months. The issue, as I see it, is that the world economy is gradually changing from a growth mode to a mode of shrinkage. This is something like a ship changing course, from going in one direction to going in reverse. The system acts as if the brakes are being very forcefully applied, and reaction of the economy is to almost shake.

What seems to be happening is that the world economy is reaching Limits to Growth, as predicted in the computer simulations modeled in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth. In fact, the base model of that set of simulations indicated that peak industrial output per capita might be reached right about now. Peak food per capita might be reached about the same time. I have added a dotted line to the forecast from this model, indicating where the economy seems to be in 2019, relative to the base model.

Figure 1. Base scenario from The Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil with dotted line at 2019 added by author. The 2019 line is drawn based on where the world economy seems to be now, rather than on precisely where the base model would put the year 2019.

The economy is a self-organizing structure that operates under the laws of physics. Many people have thought that when the world economy reaches limits, the limits would be of the form of high prices and “running out” of oil. This represents an overly simple understanding of how the system works. What we should really expect, and in fact, what we are now beginning to see, is production cuts in finished goods made by the industrial system, such as cell phones and automobiles, because of affordability issues. Indirectly, these affordability issues lead to low commodity prices and low profitability for commodity producers. For example:

  • The sale of Chinese private passenger vehicles for the year of 2018 through November is down by 2.8%, with November sales off by 16.1%. Most analysts are forecasting this trend of contracting sales to continue into 2019. Lower sales seem to reflect affordability issues.
  • Saudi Arabia plans to cut oil production by 800,000 barrels per day from the November 2018 level, to try to raise oil prices. Profits are too low at current prices.
  • Coal is reported not to have an economic future in Australia, partly because of competition from subsidized renewables and partly because China and India want to prop up the prices of coal from their own coal mines.

The Significance of Trump’s Tariffs

If a person looks at history, it becomes clear that tariffs are a standard response to a problem of shrinking food or industrial output per capita. Tariffs were put in place in the 1920s in the time leading up to the Great Depression, and were investigated after the Panic of 1857, which seems to have indirectly led to the US Civil War.

Whenever an economy produces less industrial or food output per capita there is an allocation problem: who gets cut off from buying output similar to the amount that they previously purchased? Tariffs are a standard way that a relatively strong economy tries to gain an advantage over weaker economies. Tariffs are intended to help the citizens of the strong economy maintain their previous quantity of goods and services, even as other economies are forced to get along with less.

I see Trump’s trade policies primarily as evidence of an underlying problem, namely, the falling affordability of goods and services for a major segment of the population. Thus, Trump’s tariffs are one of the pieces of evidence that lead me to believe that the world economy is reaching Limits to Growth.

The Nature of World Economic Growth

Economic growth seems to require growth in three dimensions (a) Complexity, (b) Debt Bubble, and (c) Use of Resources. Today, the world economy seems to be reaching limits in all three of these dimensions (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Complexity involves adding more technology, more international trade and more specialization. Its downside is that it indirectly tends to reduce affordability of finished end products because of growing wage disparity; many non-elite workers have wages that are too low to afford very much of the output of the economy. As more complexity is added, wage disparity tends to increase. International wage competition makes the situation worse.

growing debt bubble can help keep commodity prices up because a rising amount of debt can indirectly provide more demand for goods and services. For example, if there is growing debt, it can be used to buy homes, cars, and vacation travel, all of which require oil and other energy consumption.

If debt levels become too high, or if regulators decide to raise short-term interest rates as a method of slowing the economy, the debt bubble is in danger of collapsing. A collapsing debt bubble tends to lead to recession and falling commodity prices. Commodity prices fell dramatically in the second half of 2008. Prices now seem to be headed downward again, starting in October 2018.

Figure 3. Brent oil prices with what appear to be debt bubble collapses marked.

Figure 4. Three-month treasury secondary market rates compared to 10-year treasuries from FRED, with points where short term interest rates exceed long term rates marked by author with arrows.

Even the relatively slow recent rise in short-term interest rates (Figure 4) seems to be producing a decrease in oil prices (Figure 3) in a way that a person might expect from a debt bubble collapse. The sale of US Quantitative Easing assets at the same time that interest rates have been rising no doubt adds to the problem of falling oil prices and volatile stock markets. The gray bars in Figure 4 indicate recessions.

Growing use of resources becomes increasingly problematic for two reasons. One is population growth. As population rises, the economy needs more food to feed the growing population. This leads to the need for more complexity (irrigation, better seed, fertilizer, world trade) to feed the growing world population.

The other problem with growing use of resources is diminishing returns, leading to the rising cost of extracting commodities over time. Diminishing returns occur because producers tend to extract the cheapest to extract commodities first, leaving in place the commodities requiring deeper wells or more processing. Even water has this difficulty. At times, desalination, at very high cost, is needed to obtain sufficient fresh water for a growing population.

Why Inadequate Energy Supplies Lead to Low Oil Prices Rather than High

In the last section, I discussed the cost of producing commodities of many kinds rising because of diminishing returns. Higher costs should lead to higher prices, shouldn’t they?

Strangely enough, higher costs translate to higher prices only sometimes. When energy consumption per capita is rising rapidly (peaks of red areas on Figure 5), rising costs do seem to translate to rising prices. Spiking oil prices were experienced several times: 1917 to 1920; 1974 to 1982; 2004 to mid 2008; and 2011 to 2014. All of these high oil prices occurred toward the end of the red peaks on Figure 5. In fact, these high oil prices (as well as other high commodity prices that tend to rise at the same time as oil prices) are likely what brought growth in energy consumption down. The prices of goods and services made with these commodities became unaffordable for lower-wage workers, indirectly decreasing the growth rate in energy products consumed.

Figure 5.

The red peaks represented periods of very rapid growth, fed by growing supplies of very cheap energy: coal and hydroelectricity in the Electrification and Early Mechanization period, oil in the Postwar Boom, and coal in the China period. With low energy prices,  many countries were able to expand their economies simultaneously, keeping demand high. The Postwar Boom also reflected the addition of many women to the labor force, increasing the ability of families to afford second cars and nicer homes.

Rapidly growing energy consumption allowed per capita output of both food (with meat protein given a higher count than carbohydrates) and industrial products to grow rapidly during these peaks. The reason that output of these products could grow is because the laws of physics require energy consumption for heat, transportation, refrigeration and other processes required by industrialization and farming. In these boom periods, higher energy costs were easy to pass on. Eventually the higher energy costs “caught up with” the economy, and pushed growth in energy consumption per capita down, putting an end to the peaks.

Figure 6 shows Figure 5 with the valleys labeled, instead of the peaks.

Figure 6.

When I say that the world economy is reaching “peak industrial output per capita” and “peak food per capita,” this represents the opposite of a rapidly growing economy. In fact, if the world is reaching Limits to Growth, the situation is even worse than all of the labeled valleys on Figure 6. In such a case, energy consumption growth is likely to shrink so low that even the blue area (population growth) turns negative.

In such a situation, the big problem is “not enough to go around.” While cost increases due to diminishing returns could easily be passed along when growth in industrial and food output per capita were rapidly rising (the Figure 5 situation), this ability seems to disappear when the economy is near limits. Part of the problem is that the lower growth in per capita energy affects the kinds of jobs that are available. With low energy consumption growth, many of the jobs that are available are service jobs that do not pay well. Wage disparity becomes an increasing problem.

When wage disparity grows, the share of low wage workers rises. If businesses try to pass along their higher costs of production, they encounter market resistance because lower wage workers cannot afford the finished goods made with high cost energy products. For example, auto and iPhone sales in China decline. The lack of Chinese demand tends to lead to a drop in demand for the many commodities used in manufacturing these goods, including both energy products and metals. Because there is very little storage capacity for commodities, a small decline in demand tends to lead to quite a large decline in prices. Even a small decline in China’s demand for energy products can lead to a big decline in oil prices.

Strange as it may seem, the economy ends up with low oil prices, rather than high oil prices, being the problem. Other commodity prices tend to be low as well.

What Is Ahead, If We Are Reaching Economic Growth Limits?

1. Figure 1 at the top of this post seems to give an indication of what is ahead after 2019, but this forecast cannot be relied on. A major issue is that the limited model used at that time did not include the financial system or debt. Even if the model seems to provide a reasonably accurate estimate of when limits will hit, it won’t necessarily give a correct view of what the impact of limits will be on the rest of the economy, after limits hit. The authors, in fact, have said that the model should not be expected to provide reliable indications regarding how the economy will behave after limits have started to have an impact on economic output.

2. As indicated in the title of this post, considerable financial volatility can be expected in 2019if the economy is trying to slow itself. Stock prices will be erratic; interest rates will be erratic; currency relativities will tend to bounce around. The likelihood that derivatives will cause major problems for banks will rise because derivatives tend to assume more stability in values than now seems to be the case. Increasing problems with derivatives raises the risk of bank failure.

3. The world economy doesn’t necessarily fail all at once. Instead, pieces that are, in some sense, “less efficient” users of energy may shrink back. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the countries that seemed to be most affected were countries such as Greece, Spain, and Italy that depend on oil for a disproportionately large share of their total energy consumption. China and India, with energy mixes dominated by coal, were much less affected.

Figure 7. Oil consumption as a percentage of total energy consumption, based on 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 8. Energy consumption per capita for selected areas, based on energy consumption data from 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy and United Nations 2017 Population Estimates by Country.

In the 2002-2008 period, oil prices were rising faster than prices of other fossil fuels. This tended to make countries using a high share of oil in their energy mix less competitive in the world market. The low labor costs of China and India gave these countries another advantage. By the end of 2007, China’s energy consumption per capita had risen to a point where it almost matched the (now lower) energy consumption of the European countries shown. China, with its low energy costs, seems to have “eaten the lunch” of some of its European competitors.

In 2019 and the years that follow, some countries may fare at least somewhat better than others. The United States, for now, seems to be faring better than many other parts of the world.

4. While we have been depending upon China to be a leader in economic growth, China’s growth is already faltering and may turn to contraction in the near future. One reason is an energy problem: China’s coal production has fallen because many of its coal mines have been closed due to lack of profitability. As a result, China’s need for imported energy (difference between black line and top of energy production stack) has been growing rapidly. China is now the largest importer of oil, coal, and natural gas in the world. It is very vulnerable to tariffs and to lack of available supplies for import.

Figure 9. China energy production by fuel plus its total energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 data.

A second issue is that demographics are working against China; its working-age population already seems to be shrinking. A third reason why China is vulnerable to economic difficulties is because of its growing debt level. Debt becomes difficult to repay with interest if the economy slows.

5. Oil exporters such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria have become vulnerable to government overthrow or collapse because of low world oil prices since 2014. If the central government of one or more of these exporters disappears, it is possible that the pieces of the country will struggle along, producing a lower amount of oil, as Libya has done in recent years. It is also possible that another larger country will attempt to take over the failing production of the country and secure the output for itself.

6. Epidemics become increasingly likely, especially in countries with serious financial problems, such as Yemen, Syria, and Venezuela. Historically, much of the decrease in population in countries with collapsing economies has come from epidemics. Of course, epidemics can spread across national boundaries, exporting the problems elsewhere.

7. Resource wars become increasingly likely. These can be local wars, perhaps over the availability of water. They can also be large, international wars. The timing of World War I and World War II make it seem likely that these wars were both resource wars.

Figure 10.

8. Collapsing intergovernmental agencies, such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund, seem likely. The United Kingdom’s planned exit from the European Union in 2019 is a step toward dissolving the European Union.

9. Privately funded pension funds will increasingly be subject to default because of continued low interest rates. Some governments may choose to cut back the amounts they provide to pensioners because governments cannot collect adequate tax revenue for this purpose. Some countries may purposely shut down parts of their governments, in an attempt to hold down government spending.

10. A far worse and more permanent recession than that of the Great Recession seems likely because of the difficulty in repaying debt with interest in a shrinking economy. It is not clear when such a recession will start. It could start later in 2019, or perhaps it may wait until 2020. As with the Great Recession, some countries will be affected more than others. Eventually, because of the interconnected nature of financial systems, all countries are likely to be drawn in.

Summary

It is not entirely clear exactly what is ahead if we are reaching Limits to Growth. Perhaps that is for the best. If we cannot do anything about it, worrying about the many details of what is ahead is not the best for anyone’s mental health. While it is possible that this is an end point for the human race, this is not certain, by any means. There have been many amazing coincidences over the past 4 billion years that have allowed life to continue to evolve on this planet. More of these coincidences may be ahead. We also know that humans lived through past ice ages. They likely can live through other kinds of adversity, including worldwide economic collapse.