Monday, September 26, 2022

#270 / An Important Article (But Hard To Read)


N.J. (Nate) Hagens has written an article I would like to recommend. I think the article is important. I didn't find the article easy to read, however, and I doubt you will, either. 
Here is a link to the article I am talking about. It is titled, "Economics for the future - Beyond the superorganism." Hagens' article was published in Ecological Economics in 2020 [169 (2020) 106520]. 
Scholarly articles are often hard to read. All those footnotes! The academic nature of the article is one of the difficulties with "Economics for the Future."

But there is another reason, too, that this article is hard to read. As the point Hagens is making in the article begins to sink in, the article illuminates the reality that underlies the palpable sense of discouragement and doom that hangs over all of us who are alive today. Our worst fears are being confirmed, in rather neutral, scientific language.

So, be advised. 
Hagens is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota, and he teaches an Honors Seminar titled: "Reality 101 - A Survey of the Human Predicament." Hagens describes the class as "an interdisciplinary overview of: anthropology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, energy, economics, population, ecology, systems thinking, [and] environmental science." The objective of the class, according to Hagens, is for "students to see through the cultural blindspots on energy, behavior and the future, [and thus] to see the general shape of the 21st century. This allows for greater personal clarity for future decisions, and insights into the leverage points to be effective at larger scales."
Hagens lists three "main conclusions" that he hopes his students will take away from his class. They are:

1) That human population combined with our aspirations and consumption function akin to a giant superorganism, and that our aggregate actions are directly causing the 6th great extinction. 
2) That nature - and human systems - are based on quality energy and natural resources, 98% of 'labor' in human economies is now done by machines, with 85% of that via fossil slaves (coal, oil and natural gas) - the cost of finding, extracting and delivering these -in addition to rebuildable tech like PV/wind to a complex societal infrastructure is so high as to limit further growth. 
3) Most importantly, [that] we don't have an energy or environmental problem so much as a human brain mismatch - we evolved to be 'wrong', and our reflexive responses to our problems are really responses that were formed in the Pleistocene. Until we acknowledge who we are, where we came from, what we're doing and what really motivates us/makes us happy etc, we will continue on current trajectory. But...we are the first generation of our species - of any species to know these things, and our neural plasticity + cultural evolution gives reason for hope.  
This three-point list, which comes from Hagens' self-description on his LinkedIn profile, is pretty much the message of the article I am recommending. Read the article and you won't have to take Hagens' course. In essence, Hagens is advising us - in fact, he is demonstrating to us - that the social, political, and economic realities that define our current world are profoundly unsustainable, and that the world in which we live, and which most of us take for granted, and which we want to continue to take for granted, is (to use that word again) "doomed." 

The last point in Hagens' three-point list is a rather general message of hope, offered to offset that sense of "doom" that might otherwise prevail. We are smart, says Hagens, and our reasons for hope are not just "wishful thinking." Human beings have overcome many past difficulties, and we can do that again. In providing this counsel, Hagens is agreeing with my friend Richard Charter, whose recent book outlines the same kind of problems Hagens discusses, and concludes that "hope is our most promising antidote." 
I would like to take just one step beyond "hope," though, and make two specific points. 
First, the "superorganism" that Hagens describes makes that "superorganism" sound like some kind of "blob." In fact, the way I'd put it, Hagens is really claiming (in using that "superorganism" description) that we are all "in this life together," and on a global scale. That is one of my consistent contentions, as those who read my blog on a regular basis certainly know. Becoming aware of our ultimate connection, beyond all the boundaries and divisions that seem more "real" than the actual reality of our interconnection, is critically important. If we don't embrace our global interconnection, then the "doom" that we can see coming becomes a near certainty. Division and difference, as problems arise (as they certainly will, if Hagens is correct), leads us directly into conflicts and contentions that will destroy the world. Frequent readers of my blog postings will remember my not infrequent introduction of pictures like the one below, to underscore this point: 

The other thing to say in response to Hagens' three-point list - my "second" point - is that we are not simply the objects of our own observation. We are "actors," too, not simply observers, and nothing that exists in the human world that we have constructed, from neolithic times till now, makes that world inevitable, or impossible to change. In fact, hard to read though it is, Hagens is telling us that the time in which we live is a time in which we will (because we must) create a giant transformation of the world we currently inhabit. Everything can be changed. 

And that's not impossible, either. My favorite Bob Dylan song, Mississippi, puts it poetically: 

Everybody movin’ if they ain’t already there
Everybody got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now
"Where are we going?" Nate Hagens asks. We're moving. We have "got to move." We have got to move, "somewhere." Hagens' paper makes that very, very clear. That's "Reality 101." 
So where are we going? We can hope it will be good, but I am talking about something different from hope. Let's not discount "hope," but we should be shooting for "joy."
Image Credits:
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