Thursday, September 2, 2021

#245 / Beyond The Superorganism #2


On July 25th of this year, I wrote a brief review of a paper published in Ecological Economics, a journal which says that its mission is to be "concerned with extending and integrating the understanding of the interfaces and interplay between 'nature's household' (ecosystems) and 'humanity's household' (the economy)." That sounds a lot like my "Two Worlds Hypothesis," the way I am reading it. 

At any rate, as I confessed in that earlier blog posting, I had a little trouble getting my head around what N.J. Hagens was really saying. His paper is titled, "Economics for the future – Beyond the Superorganism." Since my first reading, I have given Hagens' paper another try, and I continue to recommend it to anyone who is concerned about the future of life on our planet, and about what Ecological Economics calls "humanity's household," namely the human world that we most immediately inhabit.

As you can probably guess, the "Superorganism," as described by Hagens, is not our friend. Now having read his paper several times, I think I can present his argument in a way that will allow a reader of this blog posting to understand the nature of that "Superorganism." Here is my best shot:

  • Hagens begins his analysis of our current human situation with a report that focuses on economic (not environmental) issues. 
  • While ultimately concerned with the fate of the natural environment (upon which all life depends, of course), Hagens suggests that we can best understand things if we describe our relationship with the natural environment from the perspective of the economy. 
  • Our economy, says Hagens, should be understood in terms of "energy use," because all human activity - and all life, in fact - requires energy. Energy is primary. 
  • Initially (for most of the past 300,000 years), humans lived in "sustainable, egalitarian bands," as hunter-gatherers. The human world was stable because the amount of energy available to humans, through hunting and gathering, was always just enough to support the population in existence, with no significant amount of energy left over. Population growth, with its concomitant call on resources, was not a big issue.
  • However, Earth's climate changed, about 11,000 years ago, warming up to the degree that agriculture became possible. Agriculture changed the nature of human society - and the human economy. Human society, and the human economy, became organized around physical surplus, and this meant that some of the population no longer had to devote their time to hunting and gathering. The energy surplus (in the form of a surplus of food, mainly) allowed "the development of new jobs, hierarchies, and complexity," along with increased population growth, of course.
  • In the 19th Century, this process was vastly accelerated by "the large-scale discovery of fossil carbon and the technologies that allowed its use as fuel." Suddenly, we had a lot more "energy." A huge surplus of energy, made available from fossil fuels, meant that earlier constraints on growth and consumption were no longer applicable. 
  • More and cheaper energy resources led to sharp productivity increases. The invention of a debt-based financial system was also key. Basing our economy on debt and expansive credit led to increased consumption, to richer and more diverse societies, and to increased population. This was, in essence, the story of the 20th Century. "Progress," defined as growth in both production and consumption, was taken as an inevitable given. 
  • In the 21st Century, things are now changing. "Energy and resources are again becoming constraining factors on economic and societal development." "Physical expansion based on credit is becoming riskier." Societies are "becoming polarized, as people lose faith in governments, media, and science." Finally, "ecosystems are being degraded as they absorb large quantities of energy [think of greenhouse gas emissions as an example] and material waste from human systems [think of oceanic plastic waste as an example]."
At this point in his paper, Hagens turns his attention to human behavior, and makes the following points:
  • Humans are a social species and "each of us is in competition with others for status and resources, and the status we most care about is our status relative to others. In our modern society, we "compete for status with resource intensive goods (cars, homes, vacations, gadgets) using money as an intermediary driver." 
  • There is "no instinctual 'full' signal in modern brains. Our brains require flows (feelings) that we satisfy today mostly using non-renewable stocks." 
  • For good evolutionary reasons, "we disproportionately care about the present more than the future.... Emotionally, the future isn't real." 
  • In addition, humans are "ultra-social," which "allows humans to function at much larger scales than as individuals." In many ways, we are "less like other primate species and are more akin to the social insects." 
  • At the largest scales, "cultural evolution occurs far more rapidly than genetic evolution," and beginning with agriculture, "humans have evolved into a globally interconnected civilization, 'out-competing' other human economic models along the way to becoming a defacto 'Superorganism.'" 
  • The "Superorganism," in other words, is "a collection of agents which act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective. The needs of this higher-level entity (today, for humans, the global economy) mold the behavior, organization, and functions of lower-level entities (meaning individual human behavior)."
  • Based on our innate human nature that down rates the future, and that is always seeking to improve our status by acquiring more, "positive human attributes like cooperation have been co-opted to become coordination towards surplus production."
Hagens' paper, in other words, echoes that famous Pogo cartoon. WE are the "Superorganism," and WE are the problem:

The main problem, Hagens says, is that we (as the Superorganism) continue to pursue an infinite growth model on a finite planet. Since "energy" is the basis of everything, we are in deep trouble, because we are "drawing down our carbon battery ten million times faster than it was charged." Debt is a claim on future energy, and as we accumulate debt, we are transferring consumption from the future into the present; what is worse, debt is actually "fake energy," since when the future arrives, the energy is not going to be there to offset the consumption that has already occurred. Hagens puts it this way: "We can print money, but we can't print energy."

Is there a solution? Not as long as we retain growth as an imperative. "The only genuine solutions to overshoot and carbon emissions will include economic contraction, not growth." The idea of a "Green New Deal" that will produce more is doomed to failure. "We will have to change economic systems before we can meaningfully decarbonize the economy. Using renewables is "adding energy, not replacing hydrocarbons....Renewables will continue to scale, but only as part of a larger energy dissipating, CO2 emitting structure."

Hagens doesn't use the word "metanoia." That's my word. It translates as "a spiritual conversion." You can click on the link if you would like to read the definition yourself. It's the only solution that makes sense, once you understand Hagens' analysis. 
Here's how Hagens outlines it, citing to Joanna Macy
There is science now to construct the story of the journey we have made on this Earth, the story that connects us with all beings. Right now we need to remember that story — to harvest it and taste it. For we are in a hard time. And it is knowledge of the bigger story that is going to carry us through. Joanna Macy
A bunch of mildly clever, highly social apes broke into a cookie jar of fossil energy and have been throwing a party for the past 150 years. The conditions at the party are incompatible with the biophysical realities of the planet. The party is about over and when morning comes, radical changes to our way of living will be imposed. Some of the apes must sober up (before morning) and create a plan that the rest of the party-goers will agree to (emphasis added).
We are going to have to find that "bigger story!" The one that the party-goers will agree to.
I am calling it "metanoia." I think that's what we're looking for!

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