“Not everything that is faced can be changed,
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
Knowledge Within and Between Disciplines
Many organizations focus on a single issue – climate change, or poverty, or biodiversity, or renewable energy, etc. The Institute for the Study of Energy and our Future (ISEOF), with our network of scientists and systems thinkers, focuses on researching, understanding, and communicating how the full human ecosystem functions, the resulting risks, and what likely future outcomes and leverage points exist. We seek to discover the cohesion between energy, money, technology, and economic growth and how human behavior – at individual and aggregate levels – feeds our social organization and environmental impact. We face major challenges in the coming decade, but our world and societies are not yet fully broken.
We believe that a common understanding is required by many more people to find the best outcomes.
Choreography and Sequential Challenges
Choreography and Sequential Challenges
ISEOF spent over 15 years constructing a cohesive narrative on how human evolved behavior, money, energy, economy, and the environment fit together. Humans strive for the same emotional state as our successful ancestors. In a novel resource-rich environment, we coordinate in groups, corporations, and nations, to maximize financial surplus, tethered to energy, tethered to carbon. At global scales, the emergent result is a mindless, energy fed, CO2 emitting Superorganism. Under this dynamic, we have devised rules and institutions that are ‘locked in’ for the near term. Given are now behaviorally ‘growth constrained’ and will use any means possible to avoid facing this reality. The disconnect between our financial and physical reality widens as we continue to procrastinate addressing the serious predicament we face. The recalibration moment of this awakening will be a watershed time for our culture, and it will usher in new cultural norms, institutions, and resultant different ways of living. Understanding “how and why” informs likely future pathways, and where our efforts may prevail.
In every year since 1965, the USA (and the entire developed world) has grown our debt more than we have grown our economies. This ‘can kicking’ is now supplemented by repeated fiscal stimulus from governments. This model could go quite a bit further (see Japan), but there are limits – dictated by the divergence between financial/digital claims and our biophysical reality. Instead of focusing on ‘what we should do’, society now must prepare for ‘what we’ll have to do.’ This diverges from the reality of new stock market records, $40 oil, and current cultural narratives. In the next decade, our research suggests a 30-40% drop in GDP due to the inability to continue extraordinary financial support. The road ahead is blocked by all the previous kicked cans. All of our work is informed by this choreography. How society responds to this upcoming ‘Great Simplification’ will affect everyone and everything. We need vision, implementation, and bold actions, both from a top-down and a bottom-up perspective. ISEOF is ‘all-in’ on these challenges.
A Bit More Background Underpinning the Worldview…
In Reality 101, the experimental course taught by ISEOF Founder and Director Nate Hagens at the University of Minnesota, students are exposed to dozens of blindspots within our current cultural assumptions.
Here Are Some Highlights:
Our society misunderstands energy. This misunderstanding has simple explanations, but massive implications for the human future.
All life, commerce, work, and creation of order, is enabled and limited by available net energy. Humans, and our activity, don’t fall outside this reality. Despite economic theories to the contrary, energy sets our physical limits.
Industrialization combines massive amounts of fossil energy with machines to do tasks humans used to perform manually or with animals. Amazingly, one barrel of oil, for $60, does 4.5 man-years of work. The average human today consumes 14 times the goods and services as a person in 1800 – the average American consumes 48 times!
Current annual oil/coal/natural gas use equals the work of 500 billion human laborers. These ‘workers’ are the foundation of modern global economies. Transitioning away from them will mean fewer ‘benefits’.
Our money creation is not tethered to anything physical. Money is a claim on energy. Debt is a claim on future energy.
Energy is embedded in every industrial process, mineral, and material in our economies. As energy gets more costly, so does everything else.
The 21st century will be a story of decreasing energy quality and increasing energy cost. While intermittent renewable energy could power a great human civilization, it would look quite different from the one we live in currently.
Our culture is energy blind. We have conflated the dollar value of energy with work value because, in times of abundance, we couldn’t see the difference. We don’t pay for the geologic time and effort required to process and refine the main input to our economies. Nor do we pay for the cost to the environment. We only factor in the cost to extract, which is a tiny fraction of the others. All governments and institutions implicitly expect economic growth of 2-3% to continue indefinitely.
At 3% growth, our energy use will approximately quadruple in the lifetime of today’s college students. Is that possible? Desirable? What are the impacts of such an energy demand? What happens if we cannot fill that demand?
Many possibilities remain, but business as usual is probably the least likely trajectory. Energy will be essential to all futures.
Humans are special, but we are still mammals. Our primate brains and behaviors are products of what succeeded in our past just as much as our kidneys or feet. We are ‘adaptation-executors’ merely trying to replicate the emotional states of our successful ancestors. Among the relevant implications:
We intensely care about relative status. In a globalized modern culture with marketing, and advertising, we compete for resource-intensive stuff. (Status can also be linked to respect, ethics, and community, instead of things!)
We are products of competition against others for status and resources, but we are also products of cooperation with others to meet shared challenges. We are intensely group-ish. This explains why social media today is about the ‘messenger’ rather than the message.
We naturally – biologically – care about the present very much more than the future.
We make promises to change ‘tomorrow’ until tomorrow becomes ‘today’. Our neocortex can imagine them, but we are emotionally blind to issues like climate change, sea-level rise, and biodiversity loss.
Our challenges are: complex, in the future, abstract, scary, have no immediate answers, and few on TV or in politics are discussing these things. The interconnected challenges of the human predicament appear as the perfect storm for the human brain. To resolve the disturbing dissonance the brain attempts to ignore or deny the evidence of the risk.
The Consensus Trance/GroupThink
As individuals and as groups, we use ineffective social sorting mechanisms to solve complex physical world problems.
Self Blindness to Self Awareness
Our choices and future institutions can be informed by these constraints and opportunities.
Hardly any of us understand and admit that our evolutionary heritage is highly relevant to sustainability and upcoming cultural responses.
If we can engender cultural enlightenment at scale, it may well be with an eye to our past.
Recently, mass extinction has had its blindfold at least partially removed. Many people are now aware of the adverse impacts on Earth’s biogeochemistry from burning fossil carbon. We see increasing media attention (though still small relative to the magnitude of the problem) on wild animal decline, bird loss, insect loss, toxins, pesticides, phthalates, plastics, pollution, ecosystem destruction, and so forth. This web of life is ‘the real stock market’, and it is crashing.
Because of the direct linkage of human economies to ‘fire’ and fire to carbon, climate change and ocean acidification are – and will likely remain – linked to the metabolism of human economies. We are deeply caught in the ‘carbon-trap’. Throttling down our metabolism today, either volitionally (unlikely), by social upheaval (possibly), or in response to financial recalibration (likely) will benefit future ecosystems and lives – human and non-human. Letting go of growth and consumption now would benefit other species and generations but shrink current human economies. Holding on does the opposite. The middle ground starts with education – but more than education – recognizing the natural world as sacred.