Working drafts copyright ©2010-2017 NJ Hagens & DJ White, EarthTrust
Ecological economist Nate Hagens and earth-advocate DJ White (of Earthtrust.org) are collaborating on a synthesis paradigm to inform and engage on the converging crises of “peak everything”, with a working project title Bottleneck Foundation. The “remedial reality” part of the paradigm has been taught by Nate for the last 3 years as an honors’ college course at the University of Minnesota, “Reality 101 – A Survey of the Human Predicament’ . The essay below is an excerpt of what is becoming a large (~1,000 pages) body of work, with an objective to be an educational platform for college students worldwide. When finished, it will be paired with a next-phase set of materials – code name R201 – on how to use this knowledge to more effectively achieve change in the human world.
First, some review of relevant points from earlier in semester:
- Fossil carbon compounds are incredibly energy dense, as their formation and processing was done by geologic forces over deep time. One barrel of oil contains about 1700 kWh of work potential.46 Compared to an average human work day where 0.6kWh is generated, one barrel of oil, currently costing under than $50 to global citizens, contains about 10.5 years of human labor equivalence (4.5 years after conversion losses).47
- As such, these ‘fossil slaves’ are thousands of times cheaper than human labor. Applying large amounts of these ‘workers’ to tasks humans used to do manually or with animals has generated a gargantuan invisible labor force subsidizing humanity – building the scale and complexity of our industry, complexity, population, wages, profits, etc.
- GDP – what nations aspire to – is a measure of finished goods and services generated in an economy. It is strongly correlated with energy use, and given that almost 90% of our primary energy use is fossil fuels, with their combustion.48 ‘Burning stuff’ (measuring how much primary energy is consumed) is a reasonable first approximation for GDP globally.
- Outside of nuclear and hydro, ~99.5% of ‘labor’ in human economies is done by oil, coal and natural gas (measured by joules of output). Due to this cheap embodied labor residing in fossil carbon compounds, the average human being in 2016 enjoys 14x the goods and services as the average human being in the year 1800. (the average American=> 49x).
- Regionally and nationally this relationship can decouple if the ‘heavy lifting’ of industrialization is done elsewhere, and the goods (and embodied energy) imported. (e.g. China). The relationship between global energy use (which is ~87% fossil fuel based) and GDP remains tightly linked.49
- The common political mantra that higher GDP creates social benefits by lifting all boats has become suspect since the 2008 recession and ‘recovery.’ For the first time in the history of the USA, we now have more bartenders and waitresses than manufacturing jobs.50 In order to maximize dollar profits, it often makes more sense for corporations to mechanize and hire ‘fossil slaves’ than to hire ‘real workers.’ Real income peaked in the USA around 1970 for the bottom 50% of wage earners.51
- GDP only measures the ‘goods’ and doesn’t measure the ‘bads’ (externalities, social malaise, extinctions, pollution). Actually, natural disasters like oil spills and hurricanes are ostensibly great for GDP** because we have to build and burn more stuff to replace the damaged areas. (**Note, only to a point – once a country – e.g. Haiti or the Philippines – cannot afford to replace what was lost, then natural disasters become a sharp negative to GDP as infrastructure underpinning future GDP is lost and can’t be rebuilt)
- On an ‘empty planet,’ pursuing GDP in order to gainfully employ people (and distribute money so they could buy needs and wants) seemed to make sense. However, on an ecologically full planet pursuing GDP with no other long-term plan is using up precious natural capital stocks just to maintain momentum and provide people brain-pleasing neurotransmitters.
- There are numerous alternative measures to GDP that incorporate well-being and happiness and subtract environmental ills. But it won’t be easy to switch objectives from GDP to e.g. G.P.I. (Genuine Progress or Happiness) because the present creditors will expect to be paid back in real GDP ($) rather than happiness certificates. Still, over time, strict metrics of success based on consumption alone are likely to change.
- There will likely be a growing disparity between ‘jobs’ (occupations that provide income and contribute to the global human heat engine) and ‘work’ (those tasks that need to be accomplished by individuals and society to procure and maintain basic needs). However, at 2016 USA wage rates, moving from $20 per barrel (the long-run average cost for oil), to $150 per barrel, the army of energy slaves declines from 22,000 per barrel to under 3,000 – meaning the economy shrinks and therefore much more work needs to be accomplished via efficiency improvements, real humans, or making do with less.
- Our institutions and financial systems are based on expectations of continued GDP growth perpetually into the future. Current OECD (2015) forecasts are for more than a tripling of the physical size of the world economy by 2050. No serious government or institution entity forecasts the end of growth this century (at least not publicly).
Okay. Let’s unpack all of this a bit.
Often in the news today, you’ll hear people talking about job growth and job creation like it’s a good thing. Everybody wants a good job, right? The more jobs we have to do, the better off we are!
Yet if you kick open an anthill or a beehive, the insects will not be grateful for the sudden boost in job creation, and they will effectively utilize the cross-species language of biting and stinging to inform you of this opinion. From this we may infer that insects don’t understand economics
Alternately, it could it be that ants – having honed their behaviors for 130 million years and having attained a total biomass we have only recently (and temporarily) matched – might be in tune with some deep realities about jobs, energy, and the embodied cost of building complexity.
Since this is Reality 101, let’s ask some basic questions. What ARE jobs, really? How do they relate to energy and wealth? How do we keep track of whether we’re richer or poorer? We all kinda feel like we know. And (as a general rule) whenever “we kinda feel that we know” is the case, we should probably take a closer look.
To do so, we’ll first need to add a few things to our story about ants. We need to revisit our invisible energy slaves, discover what “freaks out” capuchin monkeys, and think about what wealth actually is.
Energy Slaves again
As you recall – and as we’ll discuss in greater detail as the course goes on – every American has over 250 invisible energy slaves working 24/7 for them. (52 That is, the labor equivalent of 250 human workers, 24/7, every day of the year, mostly derived from burning fossil carbon and hydrocarbons (60 barrel of oil equivalents of oil, coal and natural gas, X 4.5 years of human labor energy output in each). Every American thus has a veritable army of invisible servants, which is why even those below the official poverty line live, for the most part, lives far more comfortable and lavish with respect to energy and stuff than kings and queens of old (but obviously not as high in social status). Being long dead and pulled from the ground – and thus a bit zombie-esque – these energy slaves don’t complain, don’t sleep, and don’t need to be fed. However, as we are increasingly learning, they do inhale, exhale, and leave behind waste. Since they’re invisible, we don’t think about these fossil helpers any more than we think about nitrogen (which happens to be 78% of what we breathe in, but hey, it’s just “there”, so why think about it?) Same with our 250 energy helpers. The extent we think about them is when we fill up at the pump or pay our electric bill – and then only as an outlay of our limited dollars.
We use the “slave” metaphor because it’s really a very good one, despite its pejorative label. Energy slaves do exactly the sort of things that human slaves and domestic animals previously did: things that fulfilled their masters’ needs and whims. And they do them faster. And cheaper. Indeed, it probably wasn’t a big coincidence that the world (and the USA) got around to freeing most of its human slaves only once industrialization started offering cheaper carbon labor replacements.
The things we value are created with a combination of human and energy-slave work combined with natural capital (minerals and ores, soils and forests, etc.). There are huge amounts of embedded energy in the creation and operation of something like an iPad and the infrastructure which makes it work. When we tap our screen to view a kittycat picture, the image is pulled from a furiously spinning hard drive which may be halfway around the planet, propelled by some fossil slaves, and routed through data centers which are likewise fueled. The internet uses over a tenth of the world’s electricity – that’s a lot of energy slaves.53 The infrastructure itself has taken decades to build, and requires constantly increasing energy to maintain. But we don’t think much about that either.
So the internet is infrastructure we have invested energy in, just like a built anthill has been invested in with ant labor. If the internet (or an anthill) was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt, that situation would certainly create jobs. But it would also require a lot of energy, raw materials and work. Ants don’t have energy slaves, so they don’t want more work to do. They are dealing with finite energy inputs in their ecosystem. If more energy (ant-labor) is devoted to rebuilding the anthill, less energy is then left to care for the larvae, forage for food, and defend the hive.
Energy slaves don’t care either way about job creation. (Being zombies and all). But why do we?
Everybody wants a good job.
Remember this, because it’ll come up again and again in Reality101: evolution works with what it’s got. It’s a stepwise process, and each step is based on what was available in the step before. This is true both for biological and social evolution. That’s why there are no animals on the Serengeti with wheels: there’s no viable path to evolve wheels from feet, because even if there was a way of designing animals that had wheels, there are no viable intermediate stages. Hold that thought…
Now in times past, a human’s career, their societal function, was largely about their own individual labor and skills. A blacksmith worked with metal. A cooper made barrels. A shoemaker made shoes. Others made furniture, cloth, or other valuable commodities. Farmers created food. Preachers preached. Others did simpler labor like digging ditches or cutting down trees. The relative value of their labor was roughly set by how much other humans valued the end product of such labor, so a skilled blacksmith might be able to trade his services for more status and better accommodations than a ditch digger. Thus, it became an integral part of human culture that the products of some work were considered more valuable than others. It became a mark of social status and pride to have such a career. Hold that thought too, we’ll be coming right back to it.
Cue the Screaming Monkeys.
“Equal Pay for Equal Work” is currently the slogan for those opposed to sexual discrimination, which is usually characterized by women getting paid less than men. And it’s a sentiment which has deep roots in the ape and even simian mind.
If you give capuchin monkeys the “job” of doing a nonsense task in exchange for a reward, they will happily do it all day long as long as they keep getting a reward – cucumber slices. But if a capuchin sees the monkey in the next cage get a (better tasting so higher value) grape while it still gets a cucumber slice, it’ll go ape, throwing the cucumber slice in the face of the experimenter in a rage. It gets the same cucumber slice it has been happy to work for before, but it no longer wants it, because it no longer feels fair in comparison to its cage mate’s effort and reward. Instead, it wants the experimenter and the other monkey to be punished for this inequity (we watched this video of Frans deWaals experiment in class).54
Think for a moment how central this monkey reaction is to the human world around you. We’ll come back to it later in the course, and will refer to the term “capuchin fairness” because a similar mechanism turns out to be behind a great deal of human behavior. We’re outraged at the notion of somebody getting more reward than we do for doing the same thing. Indeed, many large-scale human institutions now stress perceived fairness of process over quality of end results. (A prominent example might be the US Congress). Moreover, this monkey-business also reiterates the concept of relative wealth being more important to a monkey mind (and a human mind, it turns out) than absolute wealth, which is kind of nuts, but that’s monkeys for you.
It turns out that our brains are simultaneously trying to optimize two different, and somewhat incompatible pursuits, both of which have deep evolutionary roots in our social species. One is energy gathering and wealth creation: obtaining food, procuring clothing and shelter – basically optimal foraging theory applied to the human biological organism. The other is equitable social distribution and transparency of process. A tribe of hunter-gatherers needed to cooperate as a mini super-organism to get food and defend territory and stand together against competitors. But within the tribe, an individual’s success depended on it getting a reasonable share of what the tribe had. We’re descended from tribe-members who insisted on at least their fair share, as is every living capuchin, so it’s not surprising it’s such a strong feeling. But when both of these instincts are operating simultaneously, in an era where our species happened upon a buried treasure of fossil pixie dust, some interesting practices emerged…
Ok. Ants. Monkeys. Energy Slaves. So where did “jobs” come from?
A funny thing happened on the way to the Anthropocene. To an ever-increasing degree over the last two centuries, wealth has been created more by fossil slaves than by human labor, significantly more – and it’s at its all-time peak about now. (you’ll have the information to derive this yourself by the end of this course).
If you don’t believe that, try hiring a bunch of people to push you and your SUV around hundreds of miles per week with their own muscles and see what it costs you, and then see how little it costs you to buy the same work in a tank of gasoline. In fact, the vast majority of the tasks and stuff that used to be done by human labor is now done by fossil slaves and the infrastructure they have enabled. The slaves have also made shipping nearly free, so any actual human labor we need can also be hired in the cheapest places on earth (under essentially slave labor conditions), and shipped to us by planes, trains, ships and trucks for next to nothing. So rather than buying furniture from local artisans, we make local firms compete with furniture made halfway across the world which is cheaply shipped to a local store. To a good first approximation, the USA doesn’t make anything anymore (well, movies…).
We have amassed a huge amount of wealth, even if much of it is dumb stuff like plastic toys and salad shooters and things that quickly break. There are so many things we think we want, so we get them. We eat salads with fresh veggies which may be grown 5000 miles away and air-flown to our stores by energy slaves running the planes, refrigerators, trucks, and stores. The average dinner travels over 1400 miles to get to your plate in USA.55
We increasingly buy disposable everything – used once and tossed away. Most everything is short-life these days; when your authors were young if you bought a fan, you expected it to last 20+ years. Now if it lasts 2-3 before you toss it, that’s about par for the course. Planned obsolescence exists because it’s “good for GDP.” A new dishwasher now lasts 6-8 years when it used to last 12-16, because they now have integrated cheaper electronics that fail. Our GDP has become tethered to rapid product-replacement cycles keyed to our short attention spans and our enjoyment at buying new things. This creates “jobs” for car salesmen, advertising executives, etc., but has tilted the scales in favor of “useless GDP” rather than real societal utility. We know how to make things with high quality that last, but due to time bias and the financialization of the human experience, such an objective is relatively unimportant in our current culture. Many people get a new phone every 18 months with their cell plan, and perfectly functional ones wind up in the landfills.
But how should we distribute the largesse of the energy slaves? Does everyone get equal shares? Do we take the total number of dollars (which is the way we count such things) created by energy-slave work and divide them equally among the population?
Heavens no. We haven’t yet even acknowledged that the energy slaves are responsible.
Rather, with a bit of help from opportunism, social evolution co-opted the pre-existing “work for pay” concept into an uneven distribution system that “felt” fair.
These days there are a lot of jobs in the USA, which keep us very busy not making much of anything of long term value. We do advertising, hairstyling, consulting, writing, and a lot of supervising of the things our fossil slaves do. We don’t care all that much what we’re doing as long as we feel we’re getting paid at least as well for the same task as the other capuchins – er… people – around us, and that with our compensation we can buy things that give us pleasing brain-reward experiences. These days in this culture, a “good job” is defined by how much it pays, not by what it accomplishes. Many people would consider it an optimum situation, a great job, to sit in a room for 40 hours per week and make $100,000 per year, just pulling a lever the way a capuchin does for a cucumber slice. You know they would (would you? Think about it. Now think about how that compares to the career you’re currently planning).
And that’s where the perceived equality is: the equality of inconvenience. The 40-hour work week is a social threshold of inconvenience endured, which is now what we keep primary social track of rather than the productive output of a person’s activity. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that wealth would increase 600% in the next century (which is only 15 years away) and because of this wealth, people would only need to work 15 hours per week.56 He was right about our wealth increase, but paradoxically, we are working longer hours than ever! Because socially, everyone who isn’t a criminal is supposed to have a job and endure roughly equivalent inconvenience. Any segment of society which went to a 15-hour work week would be treated as mooching freeloaders, and be pelted by cucumber slices and worse.
In a society in which we’re all basically idle royalty being catered to by fossil slaves, why do we place such a value on “jobs”? Well, partly because it’s how the allocation mechanism evolved, but there also exists considerable resentment against those who don’t work. Think of the vitriol with which people talk about “freeloaders” on society who don’t work a 40-hour week and who take food stamps. The fact is, that most of us are freeloaders when it comes down to it, but if we endure 40 hours of inconvenience per week, we meet the social criteria of having earned our banana pellets even if what we’re doing is stupid and useless, and realized to be stupid and useless. Indeed, a job that’s stupid and useless but pays a lot is highly prized.
So “jobs” per se aren’t intrinsically useful at all, which is why ants don’t want more of them. They’re mostly a co-opted, socially-evolved mechanism for wealth distribution and are very little about societal wealth creation. And they function to keep us busy and distract us from huge wealth disparity. We’re too busy making sure our co-workers don’t get grapes to do something as radical as call out and lynch the bankers. Keeping a population distracted may well be necessary to hold a modern nation together.
And since most of our wealth comes from invisible, mute slaves we don’t even think about, it isn’t clear to us that what we’re actually doing in current economies is distributing the wealth they create. That means we can now have wild disparities in pay, as long as it “feels like” others are doing something qualitatively different. The amount paid to a wall street vice president is hugely greater than that paid to a college professor, which in turn is greater than that paid to an environmental campaigner. This has pretty much nothing to do with the relative worth of each function to society, and everything to do with how well-connected such jobs are to the flow of energy-slave-created wealth. Yet if higher pay is received by someone in another “tribe” who we don’t directly interact with, we don’t feel the urge to scream and throw our paycheck. We just wish we had a “better” job.
If we reflect on the possibility that we have en-masse simply accepted the premise that the job is somehow paid what it’s worth, we arrive at some disturbing conclusions. Is a teacher, farmer, or fireman really of less value to society than a real-estate flipper? The amounts paid for jobs have been allowed to float freely, detached from actual societal value as the degree of political connectedness of those with such jobs varies. The vast majority of our wealth comes from primary natural capital in tandem with fossil slaves and from the fruit of empire; jobs are mostly an ad-hoc mechanism for distributing this wealth unequally in a way which effectively conveys the illusion of egalitarian process.
For now, are most of us just idle princes and princesses in a fossil-slave kingdom, none of us really at huge risk, and mostly doing things which have little net value? And what happens when our fossil slaves grow wings and fly away into the atmosphere? What will the princes and princesses do then.
That’s just Gross.
This leads us to the story of how we keep track of our wealth and productivity and success. How DO we keep track of that collective wealth anyways?
Well for real wealth, mostly we don’t. The value of a healthy ecosystem, clean air, seas full of fish, fresh drinkable water… love, joy, happiness and fulfillment… all these things our market system considers to be of essentially zero value. Armadillos, dolphins, hummingbirds, rainforests… you get the idea
But our economists have a metric called “gross domestic product” GDP which is what our society uses to roughly keep track of our ‘success’. It represents the dollar value of all finished goods and services produced in a time period (typically, a year) within a nation’s borders. Since that other stuff- you know, the natural world- doesn’t consist of finished goods and services, it isn’t counted (now if you kill the hummingbirds and make them into ornaments for hats, or turn armadillos into ashtrays, they then can be added to GDP because they’re now products which are “finished”!).
The fact that parts of the environment which have been “finished” are considered more valuable than parts which are “unfinished” is one way in which GDP sets a fairly screwy default value in our current world. It’s a tacit societal value system: anything without a transacted money value isn’t part of GDP. So a nation which chops down all its trees to sell to another country for firewood has a better GDP than one which leaves its trees standing. It’s a funny way to figure wealth, but it’s what we’ve got. And oh, by the way, we’re betting everything on it.
GDP is based on money transaction (money is, roughly speaking, a claim on future energy), and since most current wealth is created by our fossil energy slaves, GDP is directly tied to the energy burned by society. Indeed, it has recently been shown that GDP is tied to fossil fuel energy, and thus CO2, in a way which may be described very simply by treating human society as essentially a giant heat engine. In other words, a very simple model which treats human civilization as an essentially mindless consumptive system – a thermodynamic amoeba in search of energy – suffices to match the GDP with the quantity of energy burned.
And over the last 100 years, our burning of energy, and thus our world GDP, has gone through the roof. The number of dollars representing the wealth created from the burning has also increased, and exponentially so in the last 50 years, and since the 2008 crisis, even faster.
It may be reasonable to reflect that during this same period, sometimes called The Great Acceleration, the planet has been largely laid to waste, a mass extinction has accelerated, the seas have been depopulated of most fish, and the systems which sustain large complex life on earth have been progressively compromised. Yet we continue to grow the scale of the heat engine to accomplish the primary objective of the modern human economy: to maximize dollars and jobs.
Bear in mind that what we’re doing – if we get right down to it – is converting trillions of watts of fossil-slave energy into a few watts of pleasing stimulation inside our brains. (alternately: tiny amounts of brain-reward chemicals) And the side-effect of this process is all around us. Mountains of waste, acidified oceans, altered climates, pollution, mass extinctions, and mischief. Here we use “mischief” as the general term for things humans do en-route to pleasing themselves, which may include building racetracks, using disposable diapers, making wastebaskets out of elephant feet, overbuilding fishing fleets, throwing out our electronics every two years to replace them with new ones, etc. It doesn’t “feel like” waste at the time. But if you ask someone in 200 years what percent of fossil magic was wasted, they will likely say “all of it,” because not much useful fossil fuel (or anything previously built with it) will likely remain.
The ubiquity of fossil slavery during our lifetimes has caused us to conflate wants and needs. Most of what we “feel like” we need these days is nothing we evolved to need. Consumerism is driven largely by social competitiveness. Most capuchins – er…, people – find it more important to have a bigger house than their neighbors, than to have an even bigger house in a neighborhood where it’s the smallest one. Relative wealth – it’s not just for monkeys (we and the monkeys like fairness, but it feels more fair if we’ve got stuff at least as good as the people we interact with).
And this signaling of status is important socially and sexually. A lot of the things we feel we need are just for show.
And do you remember the “hedonic ratchet” effect from earlier discussions on bias, heuristics, fallacies and delusion? To get the same mental stimulation we got yesterday, we require the expectations of ever-increasing reward. That means more money and more energy slaves. Or at least the expectation of same.
Happiness is not correlated with wealth beyond having the basics of life covered. Most of the things which actually make us happy, joyful, and fulfilled are in our virtual mental worlds, and not in the physical world at all. A Filipino may have only a small percent of the number of energy slaves as an American, but be every bit as happy, and surveys have shown that to be true.57 It’s quite possible to be “poor” and happy. Equally, it’s quite possible to be rich and miserable. Our brains are even primed for it, seemingly.
So where does this leave us?
Well, you already know that our amoeba-like heat-engine of an economy is wrecking the earth, acidifying the seas, melting the polar caps, causing what could become the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years, and throwing our future into doubt.
But at least we have our good ol’ energy slaves to continue creating GDP. Right?
Thing is, the energy slaves will soon be going away forever. In the last 30 years we’ve burned a third of all fossil energy that has been used since it was discovered thousands of years ago.58 Since your authors have been alive, humans have used more energy than in the entire 300,000 year history of homo sapiens.59 We are just now passing through the all-time peak of liquid hydrocarbon availability, which is the chief driver of our economies due to its special attributes.
Each year, basically from now on, most of us will have fewer fossil energy slaves marching behind us. You’d think this wouldn’t make much difference, right? Since they’re invisible anyhow? But in fact it’ll make a great deal of difference, because we’re heading back into times – either gradually or suddenly, but inexorably – in which human labor makes up an increasing percentage of the total energy we have available. One day human (and perhaps animal) labor will again be the majority of the work done in human societies – just like it is in an anthill.
And this will happen in the context of a more used-up natural world. Rather than being able to catch dinner by throwing a hook in the nearby ocean, the nearest healthy schools of fish may be ten thousand miles away in Antarctica, and hard to get to without dirt-cheap energy slaves to make giant refrigerated ships to pursue and move them around for us. The copper mines will be mostly used up. The inorganic phosphate deposits we used to make fertilizer, mostly gone. And so on.
Or rather than “gone,” let’s use the more accurate term energetically remote. That is, there will still be loads of “stuff” underground, but it won’t be the very pure ores of yesteryear. It’ll be stuff that requires digging up a huge amount of rock for a tiny amount of whatever we’re after. Because (remember the Easter candy story) we always use the best stuff first. Yet we’ll be going after worse and worse ore with fewer and fewer slaves. And the heavy breathing of the fossil slaves will have pulled our seas and climate back towards conditions in which they were born – a hellish primordial world of toxicity.
This all raises the question – or at least should – of whether it might not be a good idea to set the fossil slaves free and let them rest, since they’re going away soon anyhow and when they do we will really need a livable planet. They don’t need jobs, and we don’t need dollars for happiness. Yet this flies in the face of capuchin entitlement and evolved mechanisms for brain reward, which – in effect – take our current societal arrangements for granted. As our fossil slaves eventually retire – childless –we might have to rediscover the difference between jobs and work, just like the ants.
On GDP, Stone Heads and Babies
“Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?” Al Bartlett
So other than using up non-renewable resources and degrading the natural world, what other consequences can there be when maximizing GDP is our plan for the future?
Well, for one thing, it can lead us to really screwy societal choices.
For instance in the infamous Easter island culture, there was an organizing belief in belief that all food, resources, and other good things came from their dead ancestors, and that the way to make your dead ancestors happy was to build giant statues for them. This was actually not that different an organizing concept from GDP, in that both exhibit a near-hallucinatory level of disconnect from physical reality and ecology.
As ecological changes on Easter island worsened due to rats cutting into food supplies, it “made sense” to vastly ramp up the production of giant stone statues, making them ever-bigger (and hence presumably more pleasing to the dead ancestors… “too big to fail”, perhaps…). This was a colossal undertaking for a stone-age people using human muscle power, and required a lot of wood for rollers and leverage. So they cut the trees down, which caused erosion to begin washing away their productive farmland.
The worse things got, the harder they worked making stone giants. The final generation of stone giants never left the quarries – they were too big to move. As a part of this process, eventually the last large tree was cut down, which made sense based on their organizing beliefs, but was in retrospect not a good plan. It not only meant their fertile soil washed away, but meant they could no longer make boats to go fishing. So they starved, fought, and suffered a lot as their populations crashed.
For the Easter Islanders, erecting these stone monuments was an example of “jobs” masquerading as “work” – basically tasks done for social-obligation reasons that did not provide actual biological or group-fitness benefits. (do you think there may be modern-day equivalents?)
Today it’s easy to joke about these islanders and their “giant stone heads” as a high point in the history of human doofus-ness. Yet our adherence to GDP is a similarly skewed metric, equally detached from the realities of ecology, from human happiness, and from the potential for future generations with decent life quality. On a much larger scale, we too are eroding farm land (which these days is largely a dead medium used to hold the seeds in place and receive industrially-produced fertilizer and pesticides), destroying the ability to get fish (by wiping out fisheries), and, because of our numbers, mucking things up to a degree the Easter Islanders never reached.
We’ve already mentioned that – due to being blind to the energy slaves who do nearly everything for us – we now tend to conflate “jobs” with “work”, where “jobs” are just a social distribution mechanism for energy-slave largesse – an entitlement entwined with social status – and “work” is what is necessary to temporarily improves an individual, tribe, nation, or species’ circumstances.
We’ve also noted that we have folded “planned obsolescence” into most built consumer devices, so they break more quickly and require replacement, tuning their life-cycle to human whims and brain rewards rather than to real utility. Mostly we don’t really even want or expect gadgets to last as long as they used to; as long as we can afford it, we want the newer, cooler, stuff. And advertising helps keep our culture primed for it.
The fact is, we have designed a social system that requires growth. Money –really a claim on future energy and resources – comes into existence irrespective of whether such future energy and resources will be available. Each year we need growth in a household/city/state/nation/world to service and pay off monetary loans that were created previously. No serious government or institutional body has plans for anything other than continued growth into the future. Growth requires resource access and affordability but starts first with population.
So, right as our energy slaves are about to start going away forever, leaving 7-10 billion humans without the things they have come to take for granted, our nations have decided the answer is to make more babies! Yep, to raise GDP you need more demand for toys, diapers, teachers, etc… more jobs, because more jobs means more transactions which means more GDP! More GDP means “growth” so growth is good! China has just reversed its 1-child policy, which prevented massive starvations and slowed the horrendous assault on China’s environment.60 Many other nations, such as Japan, Germany, and Sweden, are now offering bonuses for getting pregnant. In Denmark advertising firms are encouraging couples to have more babies for the good of the economy via sexy commercials.61
Paradoxically, as traditional drivers of GDP growth – development of virgin land, credit expansion, low cost fossil fuels, and groundbreaking innovation- wane in their impact, there may be renewed incentives proposed not to shrink our population as ecology would advise, but instead to grow it! Currently we are having (as a species) over 120 million babies per year.62 This works out to over 335,000 human babies born every day – compared to a total extant population of all the other Great Apes (bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas) of about ~200,000!63 Since ‘demand” is considered a quasi-magical force in current economic theory, babies are considered to be good for business (yet children brought into the world now for GDP reasons will face some real challenges in their lives. Nate and DJ decided not to do that for a host of reasons).
China is building massive empty cities now.64 No kidding. Cities with nobody in them, ready to be moved into by the bonus babies to grow GDP. That’s edging perilously close to building giant stone heads.
When you get right down to Reality101 and the intermediate human future, this is actually worse than building giant stone heads, because stone heads don’t suffer, reproduce, or require further degradation of the ecology to provide for. In many real ways, the world and human species would be far better off if we immediately moved from GDP to “giant stone heads” as a metric for success (and say, doesn’t that imply to you that we might even do better than giant stone heads, if we put our minds to it?).
GDP sets a money value on everything in the natural world and in human experience, and the most important things are currently valued at or near “zero.” Yet as we’ve seen, GDP is currently tied to the work of fossil slaves, who will be gradually flying away. There’s no way, even in principle, for “growth” such as we’ve recently seen to continue indefinitely, and considerable data points to it ending quite soon. GDP will begin a long decline because it’s tied to finite realities in the physical world.
The good news, of course, is that GDP is an insane metric for success, just as “giant stone heads” was (though to give the Easter islanders their just due, at the time they had no evidence their belief was nuts, while in 2016 we have demonstrable proof that the conclusions of neoclassical economics are refuted by basic science). If we decide that we value happiness, quality of life, and a healthy planet with uncounted thousands of human generations left, we could in principle jettison GDP and do things differently.
It won’t be easy, only necessary. It’ll be easier to fail than succeed, for the societal inertia of a raging amoeba hungry for growth is a hard thing to change. Nothing much depends upon it other than the human destiny and the fate of complex life on the planet.
Learn to see the giant stone heads around you, and think about them.