GLOSSARY

agro-industrial culture

Pollution from today’s agricultural practices include confined animal facilities, plowing, pesticide spraying, irrigation, fertilizing, and harvesting. During the rapid evolutionary period of fossil-fuel-based hyper-growth and expansion, agriculture transformed from an agroecosystem culture of relatively self-sufficient communities to an agro-industrial culture of many separate, interdependent, distant actors linked by global markets and fueled by the burning of massive quantities of cheap hydrocarbon fuels. This form of agriculture brings the whole supply chain—from seed to supermarket—under the centralized control of a few very large corporate players.

American mind

An odd, awkward blend of old European values—with their long history of aristocratic social hierarchies, stratification, and dominance over Nature—alongside a respectable dosage of rugged Native American independence with its defiance of authority, reverence for Nature, and egalitarian social structures. The Native American religion was less harsh and its social structures were essentially classless and egalitarian and emphasized sharing. There was much less surplus accumulation of things and therefore less material inequality. As a consequence, no one was rich or powerful enough to capture the government and steer it toward their own individual, selfish ends. Of these two value sets, the classic European values with their Nature-dominating, technology-focused notions of societal progress and stratified social hierarchy clearly won out. People feel the need to work hard to fit into this model and climb the ladder of wealth and social status. It is a core element of the ‘American Dream.’ Traditional Native American cultures—with their ethics of simplicity, sharing, egalitarianism, reverence for Nature and that most fragile of assets, mutual trust—have generally been despised and ridiculed by the white European conquerors for their poverty and social equality.

animal nature

Humans are clever, unique, and very capable. We are special. But we are still a part of the animal kingdom—part of the mammal and ape lineage. Though our behavioral repertoire is truly amazing, it is still constrained and informed by our primitive genetic heritage. So on the spectrum of competition vs cooperation, we are generally looking out for #1—ourselves and our families and relatives over others.

atmospheric sink

Using the atmosphere an an open-access dump for industrial waste products, like carbon dioxide. The market price to polluters for using atmospheric sink capacity for carbon dioxide disposal is either zero or minimal, though cap-and-trade schemes and carbon taxes are beginning to be implemented in some communities and countries across the globe to factor in the environmental costs.

beliefs

The human brain can imagine many feel-good fantasies to replace current realities. The virtual world in our minds can seem more real to us even in the face of science, logic, and common sense. And since we custom-construct our own individual virtual worlds to meet our psychic needs, we prefer them over the virtual worlds in the minds of others, including experts in their fields. Which is why beliefs tend to be far more powerful than facts. In fact, beliefs usually precede the reasons used to explain them (i.e., I want it, therefore I believe it). This also explains why fake news can be very effective and why it is extremely difficult to convince people about ‘inconvenient truths’ such as anthropogenic climate change, peak oil and energy descent, the limits of technology, etc. Reassuring lies or fantasies are preferred over inconvenient truths. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” ~ Upton Sinclair

biodiversity

The variability among living organisms from all sources, including terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems. Biodiversity forms the foundation of the vast array of ecosystem services that critically contribute to human well-being and the health and resilience of natural ecosystems. Unfortunately, biodiversity is not adequately protected because its value is not included in the market signals that guide the economic decisions of producers and consumers and thereby guide the overall operation of the current myopic and linear take-make-use-lose economic system. Biodiversity has two major roles in the self-organization of large-scale ecosystems: it provides the units, energy flow pathways, and nutrient cycling through which energy and materials flow, giving the system its functional properties; and it provides the ecosystem with the resilience to respond to unpredictable surprises. It is not simply the diversity of species that is important, it is how that diversity is organized into a coherent whole system.

biomass of wild animals

A number that has been catastrophically reduced, especially over the past 10,000 years, while human and livestock numbers have skyrocketed. By mass, humans and our livestock now make up 97 percent of all animals on land. Wild mammals and birds (elephants, mice, kangaroos, lions, raccoons, bats, bears, deer, wolves, moose, chickadees, herons, eagles, etc.) have been reduced to a mere 3 percent. The biomass of chickens (livestock) alone is more than double the total mass of all other birds combined. Before the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago, humans made up just a tiny fraction of animal biomass, and domesticated livestock did not exist.

bliss point

Many food manufacturers, restaurants, and fast food chains carefully combine fats, sugar, and salt in precise ratios to reach a ‘bliss point,’ which triggers brain systems that increase the desire to eat more—even with a full stomach! And these tend to be energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and are relatively cheap to produce.

business-as-usual (BAU) economics

Today’s GDP-growth-at-all-costs economics. BAU economics will only increase existing stresses along fault lines of ethnic and religious divides, especially in areas with dense, resource-constrained populations, that could easily rupture and cause widespread social unrest, violence, and widespread suffering. Any new economic system must focus on qualitative improvements through more efficient use of energy and materials, cooperative alliances, and recycled ‘closed loop’ cradle-to-cradle waste flows. It must favor a developing economy—in contrast to a growing economy—an economy that is getting better—with more efficient use of energy, materials, and knowledge. A developing economy is one where the overall well-being of a relatively stable population is clearly improving.

carbon pulse economics

We often mistake a trend for a reality—a short-term, temporary pattern for an axiom of nature. For example, we have constructed rules and ‘economic laws’ around a long-by-human-lifespan, but short-by-human-history unique period of time, where because of one-time inputs on geologic time scales—a carbon pulse—we’ve experienced continued economic growth for over a century. The constant growth we’ve experienced was correlated with human inventions and economic theories, but the root cause was finding and exploiting that energy treasure vault of fossil sunlight (aka fossil fuels). Because of this, we behave like squirrels living in a forest where a truck full of hazelnuts crashed, living off the freight and thinking it will last forever. So we use technology to convert cheap (for now), abundant energy and materials into products and services measured in dollars, then we turn the dollars/products into temporary feel-good purchases + waste/impact, then we repeat this cycle at ever larger scales. Economic theories have—until recently—been right about describing our trajectory but for the wrong reasons: they largely ignore the physical and biological underpinnings of the human endeavor and will have to be reworked. We cannot know the future, but we have reasonable confidence of what it will not be. The peak in-flow rates from one-time cheap fossil carbon energy stocks and subsequent inexorable rise in energy 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 steadily decline in coming decades.

casino economy

An economy where financial gambling and predatory lending schemes benefit clever ‘insider’ one-percenters who thrive on privatizing gains and socializing losses. The financial crisis of 2008 revealed the nature of a casino economy when that tide of false wealth finally went out. Bailouts from the unproductive and demoralizing money games of a casino economy divert massive amounts of financial capital that could be used more effectively to transition from a dirty, dead-end, fossil-fueled endless growth economy teetering atop a crumbling physical infrastructure to a steady-state, clean-energy, regenerative economy with meaningful jobs retrofitting, restoring, and rebuilding for a better future for all.

change by design, not disaster

Many people are promoting campaigns for what our society ‘should’ do to solve our many economic and environmental problems. But most of these recipes are either incompatible with our physical reality or with behavioral patterns evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Banking on ‘sudden insight’ into the greater good by a majority of people is something environmental activists have done since the 1960s, and climate activists for almost 2 decades, yet we’re still emitting more CO2 every year. It is unlikely we will en masse prepare for the what’s ahead because the cultural, behavioral, and systemic barriers are too large. Rather than planned and orderly ‘change,’ we will instead most likely react/respond to a series of disasters. We are capable of much more, but are unlikely to alter our current trajectory until we have to.

civilizational limits

Imagine a world with 7.6 billion humans and no laws: no speed limits, no taxes for public infrastructure, no rules, no courts, etc. It would not work very well because humans instinctively have problems with self-imposed limits. So, via social contracts and reciprocity, we have learned to recognize the importance of such institutions, and as a result, society is better off overall. Though we have recognized the importance of rules and constraint on personal behavior and impact, we have not yet matured enough to recognize limits for human civilization at large.

climate change/destabilization

Accelerated climate change rates and climate shifts triggered by massive scale of global human industrial activities—as explained in the video Friendly Guide to Climate Change.

climate refugees

Migration of millions of refugees from low-lying coastal areas and areas suffering from extreme droughts, heatwaves, disrupted rainfall patterns, increases to storm intensity and higher frequencies of extreme weather events, damage to agriculture from loss of natural water reservoirs like glaciers, release of trapped Arctic methane from thawing permafrost, ice melt acceleration from positive ice-albedo feedback loops, degradation of forest and marine ecosystems, and loss of biodiversity.

community

The habitat for cohesive, vital, life-affirming culture. Culture used to be at the center of community life as the shared story and celebration that reminded us of who we were and who was there with us to help ease our burdens during trying times. Culture in communities had a much deeper purpose than just being the passive and discretionary form of ‘entertainment’ it has become today. Rituals like carnival pointed to spiritual depths and complexity, established or reinforced the identity of a community or institution, and gave recognition to the implicit functions and reciprocal obligations which make up the fabric of social order.

comparative status

Fitness in nature is correlated with caloric intake per unit of effort. We each follow this simple ‘foraging algorithm,’ mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine, to get more for less (ultimately, a free lunch means winning). But after basic needs are met, this algorithm shifts to caring significantly more about our comparative performance, income, status, or ranking against others than we do about absolute measures of same.

conscious breathing

Directing the awareness to one’s breathing. Human respiration is controlled both consciously and unconsciously. Different schools use conscious breathing techniques for stress reduction, improving breath related diseases, and training in mindfulness.

consciousness industry

The increasingly monopolized private sphere of the media that diverts and distracts attention away from important political and social issues, insulating existing networks of power and domination from any serious challenges. Television and Madison Avenue are telling most of the stories most of the time to most of the people. Mass media organizations have essentially become the culture producers in modern society.

consumer culture

The post-war creation of mass consumer culture—consumerism—was a deliberate response to overproduction from cheap fossil fuels and innovation and fueled by a global annual advertising budget in the hundreds of billions of dollars, along with the expansion of easy credit. In 1955, marketing guru Victor LeBow proposed a solution to excess post-war industrial production that would determine how we live our lives today: consumption as a way of life! The goal was to exalt the buying and use of goods into semi-sacred rituals and to seek spiritual and ego satisfaction in consumption. Material wealth and consumption have become the generic cultural source of value and identity for most people in industrialized countries, and Western consumer culture has spread virally to industrializing high-population countries such as China, India, and Brazil. It has been a boon to many and thus shielded the dominant growth-based political economy from meaningful social criticism. But consumerism, unlike the ordinary consumption levels humans beings require to live well, is a deliberate organizing principle of a linear and wasteful take-make-use-lose economy based on abundant cheap fossil fuels and overcapacity of production. With 70 percent of the U.S. economy dependent on the retail sector, collapsing consumption would have severe economic and social consequences.

contracting economy

As of 2018, a 30% drop in material wealth per capita (for those in the United States and Canada), though sounding draconian, only brings economy back to level of affluence in 1993 while a 50% drop would bring economy back to 1977 level. Neither period was economically challenging. How we respond to a contracting economy (from energy descent) as individuals and as a culture will be a deciding moment in history.

corporate social responsibility

The ethical obligation of corporations to do no harm to the communities in which they operate. Historically, acts of corporate social responsibility have been, more often than not, about reducing harm rather than about producing net social benefits. Indeed, U.S. corporations pursuing a public purpose at the same time as making a private profit can invite lawsuits over liability for failure to pursue the maximum of shareholder value. Curiously, given just a brief list of their fundamental traits and the fact that they both enjoy legal personhood status, one could easily confuse a corporation with a psychopath. Consider what they both share: a callous disregard for the feelings of other people, the incapacity to maintain human relationships, reckless disregard for the safety of others, deceitfulness in order to maximize gain, incapacity to experience guilt, and failure to conform to social norms and respect the law.

cultural adaptation

In the short term, human nature does not change much. Humans living 200 years from now will be subject to basically all the same drives and constraints. But culture can manifest emergent behaviors—both positive and negative—that can happen on much shorter timelines, even less than a decade in some cases. Our genes tell us what we need, but culture dictates what we want and how we get it. (Thankfully, we can get a good portion of ‘what we want and need’ using less stuff and with less damage.)

debt-based fiat money system 

Most people believe that money—a trust-based claim on past or future products or services of human labor—is backed by some real wealth somewhere else. But in fact money is mostly derived out of thin air as loans by private banks—it is literally loaned into existence. This act is totally divorced from any real value being created anywhere on the planet that backs up that new money (as a marker of ‘value’). When the Federal Reserve—a federally sponsored private banking cartel licensed to loan money into existence—writes a check to purchase a ‘debt instrument’ such as a U.S. treasury bond or a mortgage-backed security, it is literally creating money from nothing.

denial and nihilism

The future exists as a probability distribution of very bad, bad, so-so, benign, and very good futures. But people dislike thinking in terms of probabilities and uncertainty. When confronted with all of the energy and environmental concerns, people typically either reject or deny the facts or use rationalizations that technology will solve it somehow or it’s too late—there’s nothing that can be done so might as well enjoy the day. These reactions seem the opposite on the surface but have two things in common: they create dissonance resolving ‘certainty’ in our minds and they obviate the need for personal response and engagement (which would be uncomfortable emotionally and physically). The reality is that future is not yet determined and exists as a constantly shifting probability distribution based on events, technology, wisdom, risk, and the actions of individuals and communities. More people need to avoid the two poles of denial and nihilism and stay in the center, own a bit of dissonance and discomfort, and engage.

diminishing returns on needs/wants

Once our basic needs (food, water, basic services, social inclusion) are met, we get very little additional life satisfaction from increased consumption. Recent studies suggest well-being tends to correlate strongly with health, level of education, family time, time in Nature, and engagement in community. Happiness does not increase appreciably with increasing income beyond a fairly low threshold. The added stress of high-income lifestyles erases many gains and even results, in some cases, in dramatically lower levels of overall health and well-being.

 

disaster capitalism

A brutal tactic from the pro-corporate economic playbook that exploits wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes, or natural disasters to advance the private interests of corporations and authoritarian governments over the public sphere and the public interest.

 

dominance of human species

Humans now appropriate between 30-40% of the annual productivity from sunlight interacting with soil/land on our planet. Additionally, we (and our livestock: cows, pigs, goats, dogs, sheep, etc.) outweigh the sum total of all other terrestrial vertebrates by a ratio of over 50:1. The balance between human civilization and Earth community has been shifted heavily in one direction.

 

doughnut economics

In several videos on her site, renegade economist Kate Raworth makes the strong case that humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century:

doughnut-economics.jpg

The environmental ceiling consists of nine planetary boundaries beyond which lie unacceptable environmental degradation and potential tipping points in Earth systems. The twelve dimensions of the social foundation are derived from internationally agreed minimum social standards, as identified by the world’s governments in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. Between social and planetary boundaries lies an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.

ecoliteracy

Using principles of organization of ecosystems to serve as a guide when designing intelligent sustainable human communities. An ecologically literate society has a heightened awareness of its impact on the environment and therefore less likely to inadvertently destroy the natural world on which it depends. Ecoliteracy offers an integrated approach to addressing environmental challenges. In essence, it represents a new educational paradigm emerging around the core concepts of complexity, holism, sustainability, and systems thinking—essential for a proper understanding of the complex interdependence of ecological systems, social systems, and other systems on all levels.

 

ecological citizens

The democratic hope of the future consists of self-directed citizens who use their freedom and agency in the service of a sense of ecological trusteeship and responsibility. Privatized selves who today concern themselves narrowly with who gets what, when and how, need to be reoriented to become deliberative democratic citizens who are attentive to the common good and to obligations of trusteeship for the health of the planet—our fragile lifeboat in the cosmos. Personal flourishing is inextricably linked to the flourishing of others and to the flourishing of the natural world. The 20th century saw construction of societal infrastructure and expectations on rules from finance and economics, but the language of the natural sciences and ecology (e.g., primary productivity, trophic cascades, carrying capacity, overshoot, bottlenecks, phase shifts, succession, pulses, etc) are going to be the language of the 21st century.

 

ecological civilization

Social order of humanity that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production. In an ecological civilization local, self-reliant communities would be the basic building blocks of society and face-to-face interactions would become, once again, a crucial part of human flourishing. Each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Most importantly, the core driving principle of enterprise would be based on the fundamental and undeniable fact that we are all interconnected in a grand, beautiful, mysterious, and fragile web of life and that long-term human prosperity is inextricably linked to a balanced, healthy, thriving planet-wide ecological system.

 

ecological economics

Economics that speaks in the language of living systems using terms familiar to biologists and ecologists: balance, biodiversity, closed-cycle, coevolution, complex adaptive systems, limits, organization, thresholds, tipping points, renewal, and resilience. It values community, compassion, and environmental stewardship. It heeds the ancestral wisdom of indigenous island cultures living in ecological balance with their local surroundings. A growing ecologically aware culture ensures that individual economic actors are no longer simply responding to the narrow profit incentive that, in aggregate, orients the economy towards unbridled growth. The fiduciary principle applied to the economy as a whole—managing the economy within planetary boundaries in trust for future generations—guides economic actors and individual transactions. Awareness that the social license to operate as an economic actor must also include a globally applicable test for the withdrawal of that license when externalities are generated that transgress planetary boundaries. Ecological economics recognizes that the human economy is actually a subsystem of the global ecology, not the other way around, and that there are clear limits to biophysical throughput of resources from the ecosystem, through the economic subsystem, and back to the ecosystem as wastes.

 

ecology

The broad field of ecology emerged in the mid-twentieth century as a science centered around the ideas of holism and system integration and away from the reductionist Newtonian physics model in order to develop a more accurate worldview that is adapted to deal with actual complex living systems; not abstracted linear, separable, mechanical subsystems that operate independently. In fact, ecology should really be thought of as the dominant scientific paradigm of our time, as it is an inherently interdisciplinary, ‘systems’ perspective where groups of interacting, interdependent parts are linked together by complex exchanges of energy, matter, and information. Ecological thinking recognizes that wholes are much more than just the sum of their parts. The foundation of real living wealth are healthy ecosystems. These are naturally complex adaptive systems because they are evolutionary rather than mechanistic in nature and exhibit a rather limited degree of predictability.

 

education (for systems thinking)

Our education system is becoming less and less relevant for the future we are facing. Primary and secondary education are a product of energy surplus. Paradoxically, they also are one of the few investments that can contribute to ‘future surplus’. Education with intelligent foresight should focus on science synthesis, understanding our own minds, on ecological principles, dealing with uncertainty, and on the problem-solving skills which will be increasingly needed in a lower energy-throughput society. Less specialization and more systemic understanding would be of greater value going forward. Education itself is insufficient for major change, but it is still a necessary first step so that prosocial engaged citizens work towards feasible and desirable goals and react to events in more rational ways.

 

electric bicycles

Efficient, affordable, electric-motor assisted bicycles have a low carbon footprint, and can be charged using renewable energy. They effectively flatten hills and provide the same exhilarating boost one feels with a strong tailwind. Commuters on electric bikes travel faster, farther, and have more fun getting to work or to the local grocery store or coffee shop. Utilitarian riders can carry larger loads using powerful motor-assist cargo bikes. Traveling 2500 local miles in a year on an e-bike costs only about $10 in electricity and $150 in maintenance!

 

empty-world ego-nomics

The grow-or-collapse economics model of the last two centuries that was fashioned during a singular time when the world was relatively empty of humans, abundant in natural resources, and when growth and development held infinite possibilities. This economic model could be thought of as ‘empty-world ego-nomics’—because it was heavily influenced by personal, regional, and national self-interest and by fierce—and very often bloody and cruel—competition for economic resources and regional dominance. The great challenge of our time calls for an evolution of the dominant logic and operating system of human societies from one that is based on narrow ego-system awareness to one that is based on broad eco-system realities. The trouble with today’s short-term extremist corporate capitalist culture is that we are trying to solve large and complex eco-system level problems with the same narrow and limited ego-system levels of consciousness and awareness that created them. Shifting the state of awareness from ego- to eco-consciousness will begin by awakening the intelligence of the heart—by connecting.

 

energy, net

Net energy, not gross energy, is what is used to grow industrial economies and satisfy human wants. But as we access the deeper, harder to find, and more environmentally damaging energy resources (e.g., deep water drilling, fracking, tar sands); we spend an increasing amount of those same key energy resources to get new resources (i.e., diminishing returns on energy investments). For example, unlike conventional oil, decline rates for US shale oil fields are 30-40% per year. So output from these fields is largely a function of how many new wells are drilled. This has a huge energy cost compared to conventional oil field production. We have now left the era where ~5% of our energy was spent on finding and delivering energy, to one where ~10% or even ~15% to 20% is now needed. This all manifests in higher energy costs and lower benefits for people and economies due to less net energy availability. As more energy is redirected back into the energy sector itself, which non-energy economic sectors will suffer? Also, the absolute amount of a resource, stock, or reservoir is usually what is measured, not the amount of it that can be technically or economically extracted.

 

energy primacy

Human wealth and productivity is commonly attributed to our collective cleverness (math/science/technology/productivity), existing wealth (capital), and hard work (labor). These inputs are important but in turn are all completely dependent on surplus energy. Modern human societies eat fossil carbon like animals eat food. Every product and service first requires an energy input to convert raw materials into something useful. So $1 of energy (like petroleum) should actually have orders of magnitude more value to society than $1 worth of pencils, paper clips, or pastries. But energy, other than perhaps its dollar cost, is effectively invisible, infinite, and ubiquitous in our society.

 

energy quality

Energy can only be substituted by other energy, not by technology. Technology and energy are not the same thing. Conventional economic thinking on most depletable resources considers substitution possibilities as essentially infinite. But with energy, all joules are not created equal—there are profound differences in energy quality. And there is a large difference between potential energy and kinetic energy. Energy properties such as: intermittence, variability, energy density, power density, spatial distribution, energy return on energy invested, scalability, transportability, etc. make energy substitution a complex prospect. The ability of a technology to provide energy (joules) is different than its ability to contribute to ‘work’ for society.

 

energy stocks (vs energy flows)

Currently, we are massively dependent on high-density energy stocks from fossil carbon: coal, oil, and natural gas. From a long-term perspective, we are living during what might be called the ‘Carbon Pulse’ era, where a one-time bonus of fossil-energy productivity has been injected into the human ecosystem. Almost all physical labor in the modern world today (around 90%) is done by machines which in turn are almost all (85%) powered by energy-dense fossil carbon compounds. Our culture effectively treats all these geological fossil carbon inputs as ‘flows’ (like rivers, rain, sunlight, tree growth) but they are, in fact, rapidly depleting stocks. Stocks of natural resources are not renewable (on human time scales). Our cultural stories do not differentiate between energy stocks and flows.

 

environment health vs GDP growth

A list of the top ten best ways to improve the environment, (e.g. carbon tax, protecting international fishing zones, driving curfews etc.) would probably be a list of ten bads for economic growth. Similarly, a list of 10 best ways to grow the economy (e.g. baby subsidy, tax rebate) would all likely make either the micro or macro environmental situation even worse. This century, we are going to be regularly making decisions on a spectrum between what’s best for economic growth and what’s best for the health of planetary ecosystems and our own long-term wellbeing/survival.

 

ethical treatment of farm animals

Human-animal relationships and how animals ought to be treated. Includes animal rights, animal welfare, animal law, speciesism, animal cognition, wildlife conservation, the moral status of nonhuman animals, the concept of nonhuman personhood, human exceptionalism, the history of animal use, and theories of justice.

 

eutrophication

A special case of environmental pollution from the sudden unintended introduction of very high levels of nutrients into formerly lower nutrient systems. The species of primary producers adapted to the lower nutrient conditions are outcompeted by faster growing species adapted to the anomalous high-nutrient conditions. The suddenness of the shift only affects the primary producers, resulting in a disorganized and out-of-balance collection of species with much internal disruption—like plankton blooms and mass fish die-offs. Eutrophication from human inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus has caused abrupt shifts in lakes and marine ecosystems. Human activities now convert more nitrogen from the atmosphere into reactive forms—mostly to enhance food production via fertilizers—than all of the Earth’s terrestrial processes combined. The majority of it ends up in waterways and coastal zones. The inflow of phosphorus into oceans exceeds natural background levels by eight to nine times and may be the key driver behind global-scale anoxic events causing dead zones of marine life.

 

evil collective behavior

Humans are not evil, not any more than wolves or wildebeest. However, at 8 billion strong, pursuing surplus correlated with finite source and sink capacity, our actions have ‘evil outcomes’. It is important to not conflate our collective impact with who we are as individuals. What is happening is no one’s fault, but we are all complicit in the process.

 

externalized costs

In the modern formulation of the market system, we internalize profits and externalize costs. The costs of pollution and negative social impacts are borne by the ‘commons’ and the public, which includes future generations and other species. No industry in the world would be profitable if full-cost pricing were to include all externalized costs. (e.g. damaging impacts of coal ($0.38 kWh full cost instead of $0.04 cost of generation). As we become socially aware of our downstream effects, we are doing more to respond to the externalized costs. Examples include DDT, chlorofluorocarbons, polluted rivers, and unleaded gasoline. Unfortunately, CO2 emissions can’t easily be ‘internalized’.

factory farms

Unlike the farms of yesteryear where animals roamed freely, today most farm animals are products of factory farms where they are inhumanely crammed into small cages. They can barely move and are fed a diet tainted with pesticides and antibiotics. When living creatures are treated like nothing more than widgets in a factory, the industrial system has reached a pinnacle of perversion. Some animals spend their entire lives in crates or stalls so small that they can’t even turn around. Astonishingly, farmed animals are not protected from cruelty under the law—in fact, the majority of state anti-cruelty laws specifically exempt farm animals from basic humane protection!

 

Federal Reserve

A federally sponsored private banking cartel licensed to loan money into existence. When it writes a check to purchase a ‘debt instrument’ such as a U.S. treasury bond or a mortgage-backed security, it is literally creating money from nothing.

 

fossil slaves

Few think about it, but one barrel of crude oil, at 5.8 million BTUs, for which we currently pay about $70, contains the work equivalent of 4.5 years of human labor, for which we pay (on average, in USA) $140,000. The average American uses 54 of these barrel-equivalents per year directly, with an additional 10-20 barrel-equivalents via imported goods, equating to about 300 ‘fossil slaves’ that are supporting our lifestyles. In effect, though we eat ~2,500 calories via food, we each consume, through products/services and lifestyle, over 200,000 calories per day overall (~1:100 ratio). Our culture effectively treats all these geological inputs as ‘flows’ (like rivers, rain, sunlight, tree growth) but they are, in fact, rapidly depleting stocks. Natural resource stocks are not renewable (on human time scales). Our cultural stories conflate stocks with flows.

 

fractional-reserve banking

The practice whereby a bank accepts deposits, makes loans or investments, but is required to hold reserves equal to only a fraction of its deposit liabilities. Reserves are held as currency in the bank or as balances in the bank’s accounts at the central bank. Fractional-reserve banking is the current form of banking practiced in most countries worldwide. Because banks hold reserves in amounts that are less than the amounts of their deposit liabilities, and because the deposit liabilities are considered money in their own right, fractional-reserve banking permits the money supply to grow (as interest-bearing debt) beyond the amount of the underlying base money originally created by the central bank.

 

frontier economics

The historically unique fossil-fueled period over the last two centuries characterized by hyper-growth, competition, conflict, and rapid expansion. Frontier economics has radically transformed human economies in a relatively short time period.

 

future discounting

We are biological creatures with finite lifespans. And for good evolutionary reasons we disproportionately care about the present (and local) far more than the distant future (and global) and are prone to completely ignore the possible future effects of choices made today. Explains our collective failure to adequately respond to the most likely negative future consequences of the disturbing trends we are observing today from our unbridled pursuit of products, profits, power, and the theology of GDP growth. Unfortunately, most of our greatest collective challenges and their painful consequences are in the future.

Great Simplification

According to Professor of Ecological Economics Nate Hagens, the next doubling of the scale of the global economy is highly improbable. At 50 times the income of humans 200 years ago, it is no wonder the average American today is so distracted by convenience and lulled by false narratives as to be asleep to the real issues. People aren’t idiots nor are (most of them) liars. But we are so often seduced and misinformed by simple narratives that those warning about the converging macro crises are generally considered crazy by the mainstream. But to be ‘woke’ to the hidden issues of the day is perhaps the only route for sanity. Owning a bit of grief and dissonance about what’s happening is eminently rational, even if it feels bad at times. If worrying about the 6th mass extinction, energy descent, and limits to growth makes one crazy, well perhaps the world needs a whole lot more crazy. We have temporarily confused crazy and sane. In the coming decade we are going to have to collectively deal with the a Great Simplification. This will mean less physical throughput and fewer economic benefits to the average citizen in the developed world than has been the case in the past 2 decades. If managed, the Great Simplification could result in positive outcomes and a saner system with very high quality of life compared to most other periods in human history. But our current institutions and plans are far from realistic, suggesting tectonic cultural shifts are necessarily on the near-term horizon.

 

Gross Domestic Burning (GDB)

To a reasonable approximation: GDP (Gross Domestic Product – a measure of output, not outcomes) could be renamed as GDB (Gross Domestic Burning) because underpinning almost every single economic transaction is a small fire happening somewhere on Earth. From a birds-eye view, modern human society is thus collectively functioning as an energy dissipating structure. With a collective focus on short term profits, we tacitly assume the best futures will naturally arrive. But viewed from a perspective of GDB, the market itself cannot use intelligent foresight, only march forward, one quarter at a time. In modern human culture we cooperate at various scales (individuals, corporations, nations) to maximize representations of surplus (monetary profits). Once we understand that 1) all goods and services leading to economic output first require a primary resource conversion, 2) GDP is highly correlated with energy, 3) to provide feel-good ‘brain services’ to as many people as possible, governments and institutions do whatever they can to keep access to energy growing. (credit/debt creation, government policies, guarantees, etc.).

 

Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

The market value of all goods and services produced within a nation’s borders in a year. It has long been used as the leading indicator of the economic health of a country.

hedonic treadmill

The hedonic treadmill, also known as 'hedonic adaptation', is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. At 80 times more energy than our bodies need, possessing the metabolism of 30-ton primates, even average Americans live material lifestyles above most kings and queens from centuries ago. And yet many people are miserable, over-fed, over-medicated, and unsatisfied. Perhaps what we lack amidst this smorgasbord of riches is a feeling of community and a true sense of meaning and purpose.

 

homo economicus

The rather cartoonish and absurd abstraction of ‘economic man’ as a self-contained unit of methodological economic individualism. In reality, our actual non-abstracted psychological and social experiences suggest that we are all, in fact, persons of community. Our individual identity and feelings of well-being are very much defined by the quality of our social relations. We are, in fact, related not only by our individual desires to pay for satisfying our wants (as homo economicus), but also by relations of trusteeship and compassion for the poor, future generations, and for other species. To its credit, the free market system does channel individual greed of homo economicus to the common good without coercive social institutions. But the value and contributions of community life that markets ignore are necessary at different geographic scales to define the social good, adapt the social order, and manage environmental systems collectively. Sadly, the current culture of excessive individualism and conspicuous consumption exists primarily to impress, to intimidate, and to generate envy. This is why we buy stuff we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know, for feelings that don’t last.

 

hope (versus despair)

Feelings of hope or despair depend on expectations. If there is the expectation that 12 billion people in the year 2100 will live lifestyles like the average American, with flying cars and all climate and ocean issues solved via tech fixes, then the future might look quite dark indeed. If instead one can envision 5-6 billion humans, living a lower-consumption society with renewable systems, where we’ve only lost 1,000 of our remaining 5,500 mammalian species, climate has stabilized under 2C, and we’ve avoided nuclear wars; then there is a great deal to be hopeful about as that future and many like it are still very possible.

 

human overpopulation

Physics professor Albert Bartlett regarded overpopulation as a monumental challenge facing humanity given that one of the greatest shortcomings of the human race was its inability to understand the exponential function—where modest initial growth mutates into runaway growth over time. Exponential growth in a finite environment simply cannot be sustained. More specifically: a positive exponential growth rate (no matter how limited) of any organisms (like human beings) in a closed, bounded system (like Earth) will eventually overpower the system (like cancer). Natural growth in the populations of organisms develops a characteristic momentum where, put simply, more produces more.

 

human rights (on a ‘full’ planet)

There have been many social contracts in recorded human history. From the Code of Hammurabi 3500 years ago to the Magna Carta and U.S. Constitution, humans have often created rules and guidelines to properly delineate the needs and circumstances of the time. We now live on an ecologically full planet—and are aware of what we are, where we came from, what we need, what we want, and what we are doing—to each other and to our surroundings. With this backdrop there is a distinction between ‘right’ and ‘rights’. This distinction will grow in significance over the coming years.

illth

Un-economic growth. Contrast to wealth. Economies growing in throughput are mainly getting bigger, exceeding limits, and damaging the self-repairing capacity of the planet resulting in clearly undesirable un-economic growth—or ‘illth,’ the opposite of wealth.

 

interdisciplinary wisdom

Human history is replete with quite intelligent and otherwise successful cultures which simply got something about the big picture crucially wrong. Easter Islanders believed that resources flowed from the good will of their ancestors, so it was perfectly reasonable to cut down all the trees to aid in the construction of ever-bigger stone heads in their honor. Their behavior was clever, but not very wise. Our culture similarly rewards reductionist viewpoints and expertise in solving problems. But as we increasingly reward vertical expertise within a discipline, we lose the wisdom that comes from crossing disciplines. Simply put, cleverness and wisdom work best in synergy. Modern humans, with ample knowledge but a dearth of wisdom risk becoming idiot-savants, metaphorically pushing levers in increasingly clever ways, for building modern versions of the stone heads on Rapa Nui.

 

interesting time to be alive(?)

We like happy, carefree stories with wonder and imagination. But part of us knows that things aren’t quite right, and we strive to deny that fear in things that cocoon us in comfort. Alas, the stage of our current world, approaching social limits to growth, while squeezing out the natural world a species at a time does not lend itself to a happy, carefree demeanor. It is acceptable and even appropriate to carry with us some grief and dissonance about our situation, because it is a perilous one. Accompanying this grief perhaps also will be resolve, anger, and creativity to direct towards future related goals. This requires some balance. While holding the grief, we have to find time to replenish our spirits with, for example: music, Netflix, craft beer, pizza, puppies, night skies, old growth forests, and deep friendships. It is a both a wonderful and a perilous time to be alive.

 

island cultures

Local, self-reliant communities characterized by broad and deep ecological intelligence, acknowledgement of clear environmental limits and boundaries, and cognizant of their embeddedness in Earth’s web of life and their direct connection to the natural world—and to its fate.

lifelong learners

Creative people who cherish new experiences, sensations, and states of mind. This openness is a significant predictor of creative output. Education and learning should ideally be a neverending, organic process of discovering and developing natural talents and abilities to make one’s way confidently, effectively, and joyously in the world. It is about continuously gaining knowledge and skills for understanding the past, navigating the future, and developing the capacity to contribute novel solutions to challenging problems. One should live as if this day could be your last, but learn as if you were going to live forever.

‘living-wealth’ informal economy

An economy that does not focus on how to best allocate money to maximize financial returns, but on how best to allocate human time and talent to maximize living returns to people and to Nature. Exchange of money is not the rule, but the exception. Involves properly managing and balancing the many things that are valuable and useful including human, natural, social, intellectual, and built ‘capital’—and the sustainable trust shared between members of the community. Adheres to the viewpoint that money, markets, and corporations are useful servants; but monstrous masters.

local economies

Social activity and commerce will most likely return soon, by necessity or by deeper wisdom, to local and regional scale as global culture transitions away from growth economies and toward more desirable and sustainable community-centered local economies that are resilient and mostly self-supporting. Strong local economies composed of many small locally owned businesses are healthier, more prosperous, more committed to place, and more resilient—like natural ecosystems. They also have the advantage of being less dependent on the corrupting (but legal) government ‘attract and retain’ bribes than economies dependent on a few large, shareholder beholden publicly traded global corporations that have weak commitments to local people, places, and community prosperity. Local economies are also unique expressions of particular places; value diversity, self-reliance, and resiliency; and are more interested in what is practical and feasible rather than some bland, universal Utopian ideal.

local sourcing (of food)

Local food (local food movement or locavore) is a movement of people who prefer to eat foods which are grown or farmed relatively close to the places of sale and preparation. Local food movements aim to connect food producers and food consumers in the same geographic region, in order to develop more self-reliant and resilient food networks; improve local economies; or to affect the health, environment, community, or society of a particular place. Local food initiatives often promote sustainable and organic farming practices, although these are not explicitly related to the geographic proximity of producer and consumer. Local food represents an alternative to the global food model, a model which often sees food traveling long distances before it reaches the consumer. A local food network involves relationships between food producers, distributors, retailers, and consumers in a particular place, where they work together to increase food security and ensure economic, ecological and social sustainability of a community.

meditation

A mode of paying attention to your attention. Being completely present in the ‘now.’ A state of clear, nonjudgemental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness—pleasant or unpleasant. The character of our everyday experiences are largely determined by how we pay attention to the present moment. This, in turn, directly affects the quality of our lives. Though mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages, a growing body of scientific knowledge is now affirming it. The reality of our lives is always in the present—in the now. Experiencing that directly and profoundly is very liberating. Meditation is a quieting of the mind that can be deeply restful. It sharpens the senses, especially your appreciation of your surroundings. It keeps life fresh by cultivating openness, relaxation and awareness—which especially includes an awareness of one’s chaotic and confused ‘monkey mind’—very common in today’s restless, noisy world. Meditation has many health benefits: it lowers stress levels, improves academic performance, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, reduces depression, helps to regulate blood sugar levels, helps improve memory, helps protect against heart disease, and stabilizes emotions and calms nerves by bringing the entire nervous system into a unified field of coherence. For those who practice seriously and regularly, meditation means diving deep within, beneath the surface of thought, to the source of thought, to pure consciousness. There, the conventional sense of ‘self’ drops away—the feeling that we call “I” is revealed as an illusion—and the positive emotions of patience and compassion are nurtured and strengthened. The experience makes clear that the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.

mega-monocrop farming

A farming practice that has caused the majority of the nutrients in the world’s agricultural soils to become deeply degraded by industrial farming practices such as mega-monocrop farming that our farmlands are effectively on life support: they require a continuous supply of chemical fertilizers just so plants can still grow. And these manufactured fertilizers are derived from rapidly depleting fossil fuels creating an obvious long-term thorny existential challenge—a real predicament: how to grow more food for ever more people using less fossil fuel energy.

mindfulness

Clear awareness. Active attention to what is subjectively real in the present moment. It is a mode of consciousness that is undistracted, accepting, and non-conceptual. It is not about thinking more clearly about subjective events—thoughts, sensations, moods—but rather about experiencing those events more directly with accepting or rejecting them. It demands that we pay close attention to the flow of experience in each moment.

narrow cultural perspectives

Each issue we encounter has different correct answers depending on how wide a perspective is used. We can look at the impact of a policy on e.g. the taxi driver, on the taxi company, on New York City transport system, on New York City itself, on USA, on the world today, on future generations, on ecosystems etc. Most current predicaments are a concern from a wider boundary perspective, but most cultural decisions are made using narrow boundaries.

nature deficit disorder

A phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods meaning that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems. Louv has stated nature-deficit disorder is not meant to be an actual medical diagnosis but rather to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world. Louv claims that causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the addictive lure of electronic devices.

neoliberalism

A deliberate turn several nations took in 1980s that brought deregulation of the corporate sphere, privatization of the public sphere, and corporate-friendly ‘free-trade deals’ on a grand scale to all regions of the world—and in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, brought severe structural adjustments in debtor nations like Ireland, Greece, Italy, and Spain. This ‘free-market revolution’—with its veneration of greed, individualism, and competition—has starved states of revenue to support public works and the social wage, precipitated several financial crises, and hastened ecological destruction globally. At its core, neoliberalism is simply a rationale for unfettered greed. So not surprisingly, intended or not, neoliberalism has restored processes of capital accumulation and wealth concentration to pre-1930s levels.

ocean acidification

The oceans currently absorb about 25 percent of human-emitted carbon dioxide through dissolution into the seawater and through uptake of carbon by marine organisms. But this process has the destabilizing side effect of increasing the acidity of surface seawater, making it more corrosive and threatening to normal ecosystem functionality. The rate of ocean acidification is at least 100 times faster than at any time in the last 20 million years, and surface ocean pH has decreased by about 0.1 units relative to pre-industrial times. Corals are sensitive to pH levels and warming waters, and stressed reefs are undergoing negative shifts in dynamics, productivity, and species composition.

organic produce

Food produced by methods that comply with the standards of organic farming that generally feature practices that strive to cycle resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Organizations regulating organic products may restrict the use of certain pesticides and fertilizers in farming. In general, organic foods are also usually not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or synthetic food additives. For the vast majority of its history, agriculture can be described as having been organic. Only during the 20th century was a large supply of new products, generally deemed not organic, introduced into food production. The organic farming movement arose in the 1940s in response to the industrialization of agriculture.

phantom wealth

Money created solely through the manipulation of financial markets, as it does not result in anything of real value in the process. It becomes a baseless and fundamentally unjust claim against society’s real wealth. When the markets ‘correct,’ that virtual wealth quickly evaporates. In fact, the world’s total financial assets greatly exceed the market value of the world’s real physical assets. There are too many ‘paper claims’ on the world’s wealth and far too few tangible resources backing those claims. This creates expectations of entitlement by those few who hold these outsized financial assets—expectations that can never be realized.

planetary environmental boundaries

Climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus loading, freshwater withdrawal, land conversion, biodiversity loss, air pollution, and ozone depletion all threaten the delicate balance that must be maintained if we are to continue to live safely, justly, and sustainably on this finely tuned life-rich planet.

political ineffectiveness

Other than perhaps climate change, both Democrats and Republicans are both sharply divorced from the realities of our coming challenges. Resource depletion, credit overshoot, and the accompanying systemic risks are absent from any political conversations. Instead, substantial energy (and vitriol) are expended on the things an increasing polarized society disagrees on. We will one day soon appreciate (and hopefully engage with) the issues that most of us agree on: basic needs, family/friends, healthy food, peace, respect, meaning, and a safe and clean environment for our grandchildren to grow up in. As such the current arguments between Republicans and Democrats is akin to arguing about which mosquito repellent is best, while the boat we are on is sinking.

population boom

We are 7.6 billion en route to 9-10 billion. The UN (and other international institutions) don’t seem to fully appreciate the energy primacy underlying human economies. Does a carbon-pulse-based worldview imply substantially lower populations this century? Not necessarily. By far, the more likely scenario is a maintained high population level, but with less resources per capita (maybe considerably less). Malthus was right but missed the ‘vertical revolution’ of fossil carbon. Ehrlich was right but missed globalization and the birth of credit markets, that shift time by pulling resources forward in time. Perhaps someone today hearing this story immediately expecting large population die-offs based on resource constraints will also be ‘right’ but miss the more obvious trajectory of consumption decline rather than population decline. In the developed world, where people consume 50-100x their food consumption for other things, there is a lot of room to go down without affecting general well-being. So less consumption is still viable, and maybe even desirable. With 350,000 new babies born each day globally but, more notably, 350,000 people/families per day also entering the global middle class (with ~5:1 higher throughput than the average), the ‘population problem’ is not so clear.

reassuring lies (vs inconvenient truths)

A full accounting of the severity of our predicament will never be popular. It’s much more comfortable (and profitable) to be entertained, marketed, and promised various contrived solutions, usually with some unproven or physically unscalable technology, or based on hard-to-detect fantasy ignoring natural science. We should recognize that glib solutions, typically aren’t solutions. But acknowledging that would be distressing, and unpopular. We must redirect what is accepted in our cultural conversation so that it is more reality based.

relational liberty

Liberty that is redefined in the context of a responsible and just human-Nature relationship—individual agency and responsible self-direction with an ecological awareness. Relational liberty implies freedom through interdependence. It internalizes the freedom and well-being of all (both human and non-human) into the freedom and well-being of each. It means living life in one’s own way, but only after embedding that way of life in a tradition—a civic life of shared purpose—and rooting that life in a sense of ecological place and in a sensibility of care for Earth’s life support systems. Relational liberty rejects the exclusive privileging of individualistic values over communal ones and leads away from the control of the natural world as a source of ‘wealth’ defined as material accumulation, relative social status, and ‘utility maximization.’ It leads toward a notion of artistry, craftsmanship, and appreciation of the beauty of natural forms. It emphasizes participation, engagement, and capacity for creative agency. A new ethics of relational liberty can justify and motivate the kinds of economic and social change needed nationally and globally in the next generation. It is a recipe for rich lives in a socially and naturally interconnected and interdependent world.

Resource Curse

When globally mobile financial capital tends to erode any well-intended benefits and ‘free-trade agreements’ then only serve to facilitate and legitimate the unjust liquidation and appropriation of the high-quality natural resources found in forests, farms, and fossil fuels of ‘lesser’ countries.

resource wars

Historically in times of fewer resources per capita, earlier human societies (and tribes before them) went to war. We will go to war again if we don’t manage to cooperate collectively to solve the future constraints in a constructive way. This time, war would be much more devastating than ever before in human history.

sea-level rise

Rise of sea levels from thermal expansion of warming ocean water and from melting of land ice (like ice in a glass of water, melting sea ice does not add to overall volume of water). Sea-level rise poses threats to the value of all coastally located and climatically dependent capital like agriculture, human-made capital like port and coastal cities, wharves, beach resorts, and natural capital such as estuarine breeding grounds for fish and shrimp.

self-knowledge

The fruit of lifelong learning and education. Begins with an awareness of the origins of one’s own thoughts and feelings.

social trap

Where local or individual incentives that guide behavior are inconsistent with overall long-term goals. Cigarette and drug addiction, overuse of pesticides, economic boom and bust cycles, privatization of information, and overfishing are all good examples of social traps. They all have this in common: by following short-term feel-good road signs, over the long term resources get exploited or a system is weakened to the point of collapse. The elimination of social traps require intervention—the modification of the reinforcement system.

solar energy

The prime driving force of ecosystems, enabling the cyclic use of materials and compounds required for system organization and maintenance. Solar energy is captured through photosynthesis by plants. It is necessary for biogeochemical cycling—the conversion, cycling, and transfer of energy to other systems of materials and critical chemicals that affect growth and production. Energy flow and biogeochemical cycling set an upper limit on the sustainable number of organisms and on the number of trophic levels that can exist in an ecosystem.

supernormal stimuli

Modern technology conveniently offers supernormal stimuli that is orders of magnitude higher than our ancestors seeking similar feelings ever experienced. For them, a simple berry found on their path was a rare sweet surprise, while we today buy boxes of cheap, convenient, artificial sweets at the grocery store, or shipped via Amazon. So we easily become hijacked/addicted to things that ‘feel’ great (for evolutionary reasons) but are ultimately just ephemeral action-potentials in the brain, not in the real world. Of all the supernormal stimuli in modern culture: social media, twitter, Overwatch, slot machines, meat-lovers pizza; perhaps the largest and most pernicious is ‘dollars.’ We have managed to parse the entire inventory of what made us function in tribal conditions over tens of thousands of decades into one variable: digital/linen markers of status and success. We certainly need currency for transacting and storing wealth, but our culture has taken it to an extreme, gradually but almost completely financializing the entire range of human experiences.

sustainable well-being

Development and priorities that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and seeks to allow all living organisms to attain their full expected life spans. It emphatically rejects the perverse dominance-based logic that treats many ‘other’ people, things, and the Earth itself as conveniently disposable.

tribal instincts

Our formative times were in small nomadic tribes on the African savannah. The success of our tribe—in hunting, resource acquisition, and defense against other tribes—dictated, and often trumped, our own individual success. This intense favoring of ingroups and ostracizing of outgroups—be they different religions, different political groups, different sports teams, or even just different opinions about the future—remains with us today.

ultimate explanations

There are proximate or ‘surface’ explanations for behaviors, but there are also ‘ultimate’ deeper explanations based on our ancestral past. These ultimate explanations can predict and make sense of much of modern human behavior. Why do we want that job? Why do we waste time on Facebook? Why do we love stock market returns? Why do we dislike that person? Why do we want to play with puppies? Why do we go to war? Ultimately, we go through our daily lives seeking ‘brain services’—activities, experiences and behaviors in the modern world that provide the same biological ‘feelings’ (via neurotransmitters such as dopamine) that our successful ancestors experienced while living/surviving in a very different environment.

unseen trends

Many of the ‘externalities’ of human commerce we don’t sense directly, only read about. Today looks very similar to yesterday. But consider that France (and other countries) lost 1/3 of bird population in the last 15 years across the board due to fewer insects (presumably due to pesticides). Sea creatures 10km deep are found to have more toxic chemical concentration than in polluted Chinese rivers. We have lost 50% of animal populations since the 1970s. Human sperm count in the developed world has dropped ~50% in past generation. The ocean has lost 2% of its oxygen in the last 50 years. We focus (naturally) only on the seen—but the unseen is currently telling a disturbing story.

unsustainable economic growth

Following two momentous ‘phase transitions’ over last 10,000 years of human history—the agricultural and industrial revolutions—we find ourselves approaching 8 billion people, all seeking freedom, new experiences, and material wealth from physical surplus on energy, resources, products, and services. Unfortunately, the procuring of this ‘surplus’ is also impacting the larger biosphere outside our homes in increasingly negative ways. Yet, at an annual global growth rate of 3%, which most governments and institutions expect, humans would practically double the size of energy and materials it took us 10,000 years to amass—just in the next 25 years. Under current trends, a college student today would see over 2 such ‘doublings’ in her lifetime. Is this possible? Is this desirable? What are the variables that will influence this trajectory? What would be the impacts if it happens? And if it doesn’t? Unfortunately, there currently is no organization in society charged with such questions. Perhaps there should be. A systems synthesis which integrates four aspects of energy, the economy, the environment, and human behavior is a prerequisite to understanding what is possible, what is unlikely, what’s at stake, and ultimately what we may need to worry about.

vegan

Dietary vegans (aka ‘strict’ vegetarians) refrain from consuming animal products such as meat, eggs, dairy products, and other animal-derived substances. The term ethical vegan is often applied to those who not only follow a vegan diet but extend the philosophy into other areas of their lives and who oppose the use of animals for any purpose. Environmental veganism refers to the avoidance of animal products on the premise that the industrial farming of animals is environmentally damaging and unsustainable.

vegetarian diet

A healthful diet that includes less animal fat and cholesterol than a typical western diet (vegans consume no animal fat or cholesterol) and more fiber and antioxidant-rich produce.

 

wanting trumps having

Our impulses to want and then acquire something new—a pair of shoes, a toy, a car, a toy, a house—feel more intense in our brains (via neurotransmitters like dopamine) than the satisfaction we get from possessing that thing on an ongoing basis. Which is why our basements and storage units are full of the ghosts of dopamine past. But our physical world is based on limited stocks, and our brains and behaviors prefer ongoing flows. Therein lies a challenge to human happiness and fulfillment.

wealth, absolute (versus ‘relative’ wealth)

The human experience has been broadly financialized. Everything of substance, depth, and meaning from our tribal past has been parsed into money—electronic/linen markers. Also, once our basic needs are met, we don’t really want more—we just want to keep up with the guy/gal next door, otherwise known as ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ But we are headed for a world with less physical throughput whether we choose it or not. This does not, however, mean we have a world of ‘less’ experiences, happiness, meaning, and good lives. For example, the average Guatemalan makes under $10,000 per year but has life satisfaction and quality the same as countries with 5-10 times as much income. Less and more need to be unpacked beyond their monetary labels and the gut reaction to hearing them. As individuals we can strive to be happier and be grateful for absolute wealth and focus less on relative wealth (this takes training and effort and psychological self-reliance).

wealth, virtual

The vast ecological riches (real wealth) of our natural world: mineral deposits, millions of species, vibrant ecosystems, lush rainforests, etc. are only counted as having value to human economies once they are converted to dollars (virtual wealth). Stocks of these real, tangible wealth like natural resource assets (oil, copper, phosphorus) typically follow predictable (gaussian) curves that rise, peak, and decline. The quantities of these stocks that we access has generally been increasing for over a century but has now started to decline in many cases (oil quality, iron ore grade, copper overburden, etc). But our supply of money and debt continues to increase with no reference to remaining quantities of these one-time natural stock endowments. (Globally it took over $4 of new debt to add $1 of additional GDP in 2017). We can print money (virtual wealth), but we cannot print fossil-fuel energy or other natural resources, only extract it faster with borrowed money (virtual wealth). In our quest for treasure, we have plundered our riches, and the default plan is to continue to do so.

western diet

Also called Standard American Diet (SAD). A modern dietary pattern that is generally characterized by high intakes of red and processed meat, butter, fried foods, high-fat dairy products, eggs, refined grains, potatoes, and high-sugar drinks. The modern standard American diet was brought about by fundamental lifestyle changes following the Industrial Revolution. By contrast, a healthier diet has higher proportions of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole-grain foods, poultry, and fish.

​© 2020 Rich 'Rico' Leon