Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism

by Nate Hagens
Excerpted from Ecological Economics, Volume 169, March 2020

“We have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”

Industrial 0034 900x450Prologue:

Nate Hagens is a deep thinker in understanding the emergent Age of Limits. What follows is a digest of his longer article explaining the basic thermodynamics of our global predicament. Using a systems approach, Hagens examines the evolution of basic human behaviors, our  ‘unlocking’ of fossilized resources and the explosion of growth they allowed. The function of debt as a social contract that accelerates growth, the role of growth as the requirement of our industrial model, and the terminal phase of that model in negative returns on increasing complexity, resource exhaustion and climate catastrophe. This is heavy reading and not for the faint of heart. Hagens offers no easy “problems” or “solutions.’ Only the necessary first step of understanding where we are.   – Orren P Whiddon.


• We lack a cohesive map on how behavior, economy, and the environment interconnect.

• Global human society is functioning as an energy dissipating superorganism.

• Climate change is but one of many symptoms emergent from this growth dynamic.

• Culturally, this “Superorganism” doesn’t need to be the destiny of Homo sapiens.

• A systems economics can inform the ‘reconstruction’ after financial recalibration.

Ecological Economics addresses the relationships between ecosystems and economic systems in the broadest sense.– Robert Costanza

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.” – E.O. Wilson

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” – Jean Baudrillard

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin

1. Overview

Despite decades of warnings, agreements, and activism, human energy consumption, emissions, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations all hit new records in 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.

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.

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?  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.

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Fallen EmpireThe Age of Limits: Now, the Deluge

by Orren P. Whiddon

“Historically,  empires in decline invest ever-greater energy and complexity in a self-consuming cycle of diminishing returns...”

I am an unapologetic, dirt-worshippin’, now balding but once pony-tailed, back-to-the-land, never say die hippy. A child of the sixties, now pushin’ sixty. I have heated with wood since I was 22, killed my TV set in 1983, never owned a new car and spent 12 years designing clinical radioactivity detector systems in the Washington DC yeast-plex... while living in a log cabin. Can you say “cultural schizophrenia?”.

By 1994 I could no longer parse the dichotomy of these values with my deep embedment in the American Economic Hologram. I quit my career, sold my property, and purchased the rump scrap of an Allegheny mountain farm, which was to become Four Quarters. By the new millennium, Four Quarters was growing, and, armed with a 28k baud internet connection, I could return to a life-long interest: the study of the Global Industrial Model. During almost a decade of being “out-of-the-loop,” much had changed.

In 2003 I published my first article in this Wheel of The Year on the topics of Global Resource Depletion and the Limits to Economic Growth. I also made a day-long presentation of those issues to our Board of Directors that summed up with a prediction: If the church did not purchase the Land within 5 years, we would never be able to do so. That prediction was based on two observations: that we were in the midst of a real estate bubble driven by central bank lending; and that global conventional petroleum production would reach a maximum around 2005. We did succeed in transferring ownership to the church in 2005, and right on schedule the Great Recession began in 2008. I am not clairvoyant, but I can read science.

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Peak Food:
Can Another Green Revolution Save Us?

By Nicholas C. Arguimbau
31 July, 2010

Editors Note: Excellent overview article on the relationship between the "Green Revolution," and the resources required to sustain it and the global population growth it allowed. Sobering reading.

Peak Food: Can Another Green Revolution Save Us?
By Nicholas C. Arguimbau

Norman Borlaug, widely seen as the father of the "Green Revolution," was a true savior. Many have considered him misguided or worse, but it is hard for a compassionate person to argue with what he accomplished: saving "more human lives than any other person in history."2 It seems to be a professional disease among saviors, though, that only part of their message is heeded. The Green Revolution, like so many technical fixes, would only be, as he said when he picked up his Nobel Prize, "ephemeral" if we didn't deal with underlying social and economic problems, in this case, population and poverty.

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The Age of Limits

by Orren Whiddon
First published
in 2006

“To those who followed Columbus and Cortez, the New World truly seemed incredible because of the natural endowments. The land often announced itself with a heavy scent miles out into the ocean. Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 smelled the cedars of the East Coast a hundred leagues out. The men of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon were temporarily disarmed by the fragrance of the New Jersey shore, while ships running farther up the coast occasionally swam through large beds of floating flowers. Wherever they came inland they found a rich riot of color and sound, of game and luxuriant vegetation. Had they been other than they were, they might have written a new mythology here. As it was, they took inventory.”

Frederick Turner


Hydrocarbon and Natural Resource Depletion. Global Warming and Climate Change. Population Maximum. Debt Economics and Globalism. Water Wars and Permanent Drought. The Age of Limits. Peak Everything.

Over the past two decades these issues have moved from the discussion of specialists, into public consciousness and policy discourse. It would seem that we are facing “The Perfect Storm” of separate global problems, when in fact they are symptoms of a unifying core issue.

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 The Copenhagen Diagnosis


    Editors Note: This is a reprint fromn our 2010 Calendar, exerpting from "The Copenhagen Diagnosis," a ground breaking report prepared for the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference.
    As a report to aquaint the lay-person with climate science, I cannot reccoment this report more highly. Please do take a moment to download and read the full report.

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The Conversation We Need to Have

 John Michael Greer

We’ve all experienced it: the kind of conversation everyone knows has to happen sooner or later, and nobody wants to have to face. Casual talk edges around it, jokes fail to get a laugh because they brush too close to it, silences open up because there’s no way to keep talking without crossing that line and facing it openly. Then, finally, somebody draws in a deep breath and says the thing that has to be said; chairs get pulled closer around into a circle, and a sense of relief cuts through the discomfort as the conversation begins at last.

That’s the kind of conversation we need to have now, and the subject is the end of industrial society.

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Living in The Petri Dish

by Kurt Talking Stone

    As I am writing this, the Copenhagen Conference has already concluded and is widely considered a complete failure. Stymied by a resistant and sharply divided partisan Congress unwilling to pass any kind of climate legislation, President Obama came home with a just barely concealed public relations not-quite-a-disaster, no treaty and no binding agreements among the world’s industrial nations.
    As the designer of the Wheel of the Year Calendar, I am privileged to have a unique perspective in seeing “backstage” into the thoughts and ruminations of both the Board of Directors and the Editor of this publication. Over the years we have explored the subjects of Resource Depletion and Overshoot, Peak Oil, Sustainability and Climate Change, with the view of their relationship to our Earth Spirituality. When I compare the mind sets of thoughtful, observant people with the general public as reflected in the Main Stream Media, I sometimes wonder if we are living on the same planet.

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GuyMacPherson     Only Love Remains

        by Guy McPherson



         Most people would say I’m not religious. I’m not spiritually religious, although I exhibit some behaviors in a religious manner. I refer to myself as a free-thinker, a skeptic, and occasionally an indifferent agnostic or a militant atheist. So the apparently spiritual title of this essay would seem out of character for those who know me.

I’ll not wander down the road of knowing me. Even after five decades of study, much of it characterized by the serious introspection allowed those who pursue the life of the mind in the halls of academia, I barely know myself. And I know too little about love. But I’m pretty certain it’s all we have.

I’ve tried turning my back on my own emotions, and those of others. I’ve been a rationalist most of my life, and my entire career was spent as a scientist and teacher. My laser-like focus on reason precluded the expression of feelings, an attitude reinforced by the culture in which I came of age, a culture in which the only thing worse than having feelings was expressing them. For most of my life I’ve been mystified by public displays of affection and people who mourned the loss of individual lives.

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Searching For A Miracle


‘Net Energy’ Limits & the Fate of lndustrial Society

    by Richard Heinberg
    The Post Carbon Institute, September 2009

CvrSearchingMiracle    From the Editor: Since 2003 we have included in The Wheel of the Year articles examining the developing global production maximum of liquid petroleum, commonly referred to as “Peak Oil.” Other articles printed in this calendar have examined the relationship between petroleum, food production and global population, as well as industrial resource depletion in general. These are complex issues that fundamentally question our global industrial economy’s
ability to continue to grow, or even to sustain its current level of development.

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Sense of Perspective

by Kurt Griffith


For self-employed people, the sins of August, where we went to Sun Dance at Four Quarters, are visited upon September. The penance of October is not manifest ‘til November. When self-employed folk go on vacation, we pay for it twice. Once for the vacation, and again for the time not working. September was pretty darn lean in my studio. Meanwhile, with the current economic meltdown on Wall Street, I and just about everybody I know have been watching our net worths bounce like a fat kid on a trampoline with the springs coming undone one by one. Bad timing for our family, as for the first time, I got to see the “Line of Credit” line lit up on our statements. In a word, ouch. But our situation of not particularly unique, or so severe compared to many others.

As I watched the financial and economic crisis deepen, I took a long look and made a few observations.

Like most people of my generation, we grew up with savings accounts that paid 10% or more, when inflation was 3%. It was also fairly simple; most people could balance a checkbook, and the number at the bottom of the passbook was actual money that you actually had unless you spent it. Now fast forward to the 21st century, where we now have modern, sophisticated financial instruments, but bank accounts only pay 1.25%, on a good day, with a tailwind, with inflation sliding well up past 5%. For the most part, most people have recently seen their costs of living rise far more quickly than their income. So anyone above the poverty level has to be invested or suffer the Death of 1000 Mosquito Bites, one trip to the supermarket, gas station and mortgage check at a time. Most people with salaries above subsistence wages currently have a substantial portion, if not the majority, of their assets in various investments. But the tricky side is that Money Market Funds, 401k’s, IRA, Stocks, Bonds, Annuities, and the whole bestiary of many investment vehicles are all subject to market forces.

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