Nate Hagens followed up his recent talk with a very nice essay in which he explains our predicament using his rare and broad understanding of the issues.
The possible outcomes for our near-term future fall on a curve of probabilities ranging from an optimistic gentle decline to a pessimistic zombie apocalypse collapse.
Nate leans to the optimistic side of the curve and makes a good case for it here. His most persuasive argument, for me, is that we use much more energy and materials than we need to have pleasant lives, and so a 30% haircut, which Nate thinks will happen soon, need not be cause for undo concern.
I lean more to the pessimistic side because of the instability we have created by using extreme debt to kick the can, the Seneca Effect on resource depletion, accelerating decline of our ecosystem (especially but not limited to climate change), nasty human nature in times of scarcity, and our evolved tendency to deny unpleasant realities and thus near certainty we will blame the wrong actors.
I hope Nate’s right but I would not put money on it.
We cannot know the future, but we have reasonable confidence of what it will not be. The peak in fossil sunlight flow rates and resultant higher costs will mean major changes in our lifetimes. We can be reasonably sure the average energy/material throughput for Americans – and global citizens, particularly in advanced economies, will decline in coming decades. It’s important to point out that a 30% drop in material wealth per capita (for those in the United States and Canada) though sounding draconian, brings us back to 1993 levels – a 50% drop would bring us back to 1977 levels– both periods nobody considers economically challenging. How we respond to this energy descent as individuals and as a culture will be a deciding moment in our history.
All the ‘cultural’ and ‘individual’ observations above coalesce to a fine point: we are capable of much more, but are unlikely to alter our current trajectory until we have to. And when we add in the economy and environmental points: we will soon have to. Recognizing this, the next step is urgently discussing and cataloguing what initiatives might be worked on by small groups using intelligent foresight nationwide.
Given we have ~100:1 exosomatic surplus buffer, there remain a great deal of benign, and even excellent futures still on the table. But they won’t arrive without effort. The world isn’t irretrievably broken, the Great Simplification has barely started, and there are quite a few people who are discovering exactly the shape of our predicaments, and the nature of the things which could substantially change them.
NB: While I believe education itself is insufficient for major change, it is still a necessary first step so that pro-social engaged citizens work towards feasible and desirable goals and react to events in more rational ways. My own goal with this content is threefold:
- Educate and inspire would-be catalysts and small groups working on better futures to integrate a more systemic view of reality
- Empower individuals to make better personal choices on navigating and thriving during the Great Simplification coming our way
- Change what is accepted in our cultural conversation to be more reality based