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Changing society's behavior to use less oil and other resources

Post Carbon Institute board member Nate Hagens discusses conspicuous consumption as a natural behavior--one that can be changed, one that must be changed quickly if we are to create stable, resilient societies.

"Without behavioral change, without changing the carrot that the United States and the countries that follow us compete for, away from conspicuous consumption... its only going to be fingers in the dyke, temporary fixes."

Transcript

Well, I think I have a somewhat of a decent pedigree to talk about this, because I used to deal with billionaires, managing their money, and some of them had $100,000,000, and all they wanted to do was to get to $200,000,000, and then quit. And then they got to $200,000,000, and they got to $500,000,000, et cetera, and I noticed at the same time that the clerks who were making $25,000 a year were just as happy as these billionaires.

And then I started reading about evolutionary psychology. We pursue dopamine and different neurotransmitters because they feel good. And it took me a very long time to understand that it is the pursuit of resources and status that gives us the feelings of success, rather than the actual use and acquisition of the resources.

Warren Buffet is a good man, but he treats this all as a game. So, I think if people recognize that financial wealth is just a marker for real wealth, real wealth being defined as the four ecological capitals--social capital, which is our friends and our network; human capital, which is our health, our knowledge, our skills; natural capital, which is our ecosystems, our fresh water, our trees; and built capital, which is our "stuff", our wind turbines, our electric cars, our pavement.

If people can accept that finance is just a marker, and if we can compete for--as an evolved species, we are not going to allow every one on the planet to be equal. As noble a concept as that is, it will never happen. We are a competitive / cooperative species. But if we compete for things that are more benign in their throughput, for example art, or information or gardening, I think that would be a huge potential leverage point.

And I have been walking down that path myself, because I used to be an incredibly large consumer, and I've struggled with reducing that. And now I make $20,000 a year as a graduate assistant, and I spend just a little bit more than that, and I am happier than I have ever been in my life. So I know that it can happen, even though I still talk to my hedge fund buddies, and they make a lot of money, and they are worried about how to protect it and what is coming. They are missing the message. They are good people, most of them.

But we need to create examples: "Wow. Look at these people. They are using less resources. They used to use so many more, and they are happy." That is a lot different message than, "We have climate change; we have peak oil coming; you need to use less resources."

So it's a subtle shift of perspective, but I think that is important. It's going to ultimately get down to human behavior, absolutely. Without behavioral change, without changing the carrot that both the United States, and the countries that follow us compete for, away from conspicuous consumption, none of this other stuff is going to matter. It's only going to be fingers in the dike--temporary fixes.

About Nate Hagens

Post Carbon Institute board member Nate Hagens discusses conspicuous consumption as a natural behavior--one that can be changed, one that must be changed quickly if we are to create stable, resilient societies.

"Without behavioral change, without changing the carrot that the United States and the countries that follow us compete for, away from conspicuous consumption... its only going to be fingers in the dyke, temporary fixes."

+++

Nate is a well know authority on the overall resource depletion picture. He was, until recently, the editor of The Oil Drum, one of the most popular and highly-respected websites in the world for analysis and discussion of global energy supplies and their implications for the future.

His talks address the opportunities and constraints facing the coming human transition away from fossil fuels. On the supply side Nate focuses on biophysical economics (net energy) and the interrelationship between debt based financial markets and natural resources. On the demand side Nate addresses the evolutionarily-derived underpinnings to conspicuous consumption, valuing the present over the future, and habituation to resource overconsumption and offers suggestions on how we as individuals and society can better adapt and mitigate to what's ahead.

Nate has appeared on PBS, BBC, NPR and many other radio stations and has lectured around the world on issues related to resource depletion.

Nate Hagens holds a Masters Degree in Finance from the University of Chicago. He is currently completing his PhD in Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. Previously he was President of Sanctuary Asset Management and was a Vice President at investment firms Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers.

Editorial Notes: Re-posted at The Oil Drum with the transcript (Changing society's behavior to use less oil and other resources). Discussion follows the posting there. -BA

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