Can Ecological Economics let us Survive and Reset: Adjusting to Abrupt Climate System Change

Can Ecological Economics let us Survive and Reset: Adjusting to Abrupt Climate System Change // 3/10/23

A few years ago Nate Hagens wrote a brilliant peer reviewed scientific paper (Ref1) in the journal “Ecological Economics” titled: “Economics for the Future: Beyond the SuperOrgasm” (sic Organism).

I chat about the crucial messages of this paper, which are that energy constraints will soon result in a collapse of our present way of life. Orthodox economics does not consider energy constraints, and our Superorganism society is on its last legs as we create more and more credit (this debt) to extract dwindling fossil fuels.

One barrel of oil contains 1700 kW hr of energy. Human power can generate 0.6 kW hr with a days work. Thus, 11 years of human labour is replaced by one barrel of oil. Thus, our fossil fuels powering society do the equivalent work of an imaginary workforce of 500 billion people; meanwhile the globe has about 4 billion workers. Clearly, things will scale back enormously without fossil fuels. That’s the physics, folks.

Of course burning fossil fuels releases carbon which has changed the chemistry of our atmosphere and oceans, and we are cracking up.

We are addicted to the present.

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Ref1: Our environment and economy are at a crossroads. This paper attempts a cohesive narrative on how human evolved behavior, money, energy, economy and the environment fit together. Humans strive for the same emotional state of our successful ancestors. In a resource rich environment, we coordinate in groups, corporations and nations, to maximize financial surplus, tethered to energy, tethered to carbon. At global scales, the emergent result of this combination is a mindless, energy hungry, CO2 emitting Superorganism.

Under this dynamic we are now behaviorally ‘growth constrained’ and will use any means possible to avoid facing this reality. The farther we kick the can, the larger the disconnect between our financial and physical reality becomes.

The moment of this recalibration will be a watershed time for our culture, but could also be the birth of a new ‘systems economics’. and resultant different ways of living. The next 30 years are the time to apply all we’ve learned during the past 30 years. We’ve arrived at a species level conversation.


About paulbeckwith

Well known climate science educator; Part-time Geography professor (climatology, oceanography, environmental issues), University of Ottawa. Physicist. Engineer. Master's Degree in Science in Laser Optics, Bachelors of Engineering, in Engineering Physics. Won Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario gold medal. Also interested in investment and start-ups in climate solutions, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Avid chess player, and likes restoring old homes. Married with children.
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