The “Game” Has Changed: Energy, Money and Technology From the Lens of the Superorganism

Hagens, Nate | February 6, 2018 | Leave a Comment

Imagine some unrecognizable pieces laid out on a checkerboard. If they were deemed to represent chessmen, then a group of Chess-Masters would be able to select and explain the best possible moves. However, what if the underlying assumption that the pieces were chessmen was itself erroneous, and some different game was afoot? In that case, the actual rules of the game and the attributes of the pieces would be unknown to the Chess-Masters, who would lose the game to anyone with even a basic understanding of the actual rules.

Keeping with that metaphor, it is becoming clear to more people that the “game” which is our modern economic system, while once resembling chess, is now clearly something else. The entire language of modern economics lacks explanatory or predictive ability for upcoming events this century and beyond because its core assumptions are entirely disconnected from energy, ecology, and our evolved behavior.

Most people are aware by now that something is wrong with the mainstream narrative but still default to the wisdom and direction of our cultural Chess-masters.  In the talk shared below, I attempt to explain why modern human society is functioning akin to a gigantic, dumb, energy seeking amoeba. As individuals, we are not trying to destroy our environment – we are merely trying to get the same ‘feelings’ that our successful ancestors got (in a completely different, more local/smaller population setting).  Getting these ‘feelings’ in a global technology-based culture is highly correlated with energy use (though it doesn’t always need to be so). And in turn, that primary energy use is highly correlated with fossil carbon.  To a good first approximation, the strength of the modern market economy is a function of how fast we extract ancient carbon and burn it.  Our ‘feelings’ (and jobs, wages, goods, services and GDP–gross domestic product) occur in the moments after the burning. GDP might aptly be renamed: GDB–Gross Domestic Burning.

With this backdrop, our situation – and what to do – is different than most of the narratives out there. To wit:

•     We have kicked the can on growth for over 40 years. The likely (but uncomfortable) implication is that a significant decline in GDP among OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations is now inevitable. This is due to a combination of: lower contributions from costlier resource inputs, declining benefits from additional credit, and more costly (total) flow based inputs like solar and wind (despite their nominal cheapness).

•     Given that the majority of ‘brain services’ (heat, electricity, transport, air-conditioning, novelty) are heavily tethered to energy use, we will not willingly ‘vote’ to keep carbon in the ground.

•     We can and should grow the percent of energy we get from renewables, but at present, most new technology is not reducing fossil carbon use, but instead growing a larger dissipative structure. A mostly renewable economy is possible but would entail lower GDP, (which could be a good thing) but this is not the conversation that is currently taking place. The focus on the drop in solar/wind/battery prices obfuscates the larger problem – the end of market based growth –which will soon have to be dealt with whether we choose to or not.

•     Governments and institutions are completely tethered to the growth narrative/imperative. Bold ideas and leadership will come from individuals and small groups trying out new ways to get our evolved neurotransmitters with less throughput. We don’t know what will work, so we have to try lots of things. We have a 70:1 exosomatic energy buffer so a great variety of benign –and even great– futures are still on the table.

The presentation below was given at a technology conference in Saudi Arabia.  Our culture and media is rife with stories about electric cars, mining of asteroids, and helpful robots, but those are peripheral narratives surrounding the core story of energy, money and human behavioral drives.  It’s time for a completely different conversation which is tethered to first principles.  Quite simply, we need orders of magnitude more people realizing the stakes of the game, and that the game is no longer ‘chess’ but something else.

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  • Rob Harding

    Excellent post, Nate. Thank you. I’m sharing it widely in response to your “orders of magnitude” call to action.

  • Suzanne

    Thank you for posting the talk from Saudi Arabia online. It was fantastic.
    I love the analogy of an ameoba. Having worked a number of years for a large multinational in corporate sustainability, it became clear that we employees (including CEOs) are powerless to effect needed rational change under the current version of capitalism. The dollar rules – and over-rules ethics and intelligent social design. We are already prisoners of the “artificial intelligence” we designed for our society, our capitalist system. No one to blame, no one at fault, and no one to correct it…we just keep driving the train forward until it falls off the cliff.
    We need to add a patch to capitalism to (1) include drivers like environmental externalities (polluters pay, extraction costs, costs of waste produced post manufacturing…) and (2) turn our job remuneration on its head, paying primary producers (teachers, farmers) and jobs for social good high wages, while reducing wages of jobs that don’t actually produce or those that produce societal harm (lawyers, bankers).