Beyond Economics

The End of Growth and Time for a New Era

Category Archives: Philosophy

The Future of Economics and Society as We Know It

Richard Heinberg delivers a clear and powerful message on the urgent need for the world to begin the transition to a sustainable future. He takes a big picture perspective on the interconnectedness of economics, energy, the environment, and society.

We are, and will be, seeing a cavalcade of environmental and economic disasters, not obviously related to one another, that will stymie economic growth in more and more ways.

Each will be typically treated as a special case, a problem to be solved so that we can get “back to normal”.

In September 2008, the global financial system nearly collapsed. The reasons for this sudden, gripping crisis apparently had to do with housing bubbles, lack of proper regulation of the banking industry, and the over-use of bizarre financial products that almost nobody understood. However, the oil price spike had played a critical (if largely overlooked) role in initiating the economic meltdown.

The end of growth is a very big deal indeed. It means the end of an era, and of our current ways of organizing economies, politics, and daily life. Without growth, we will have to virtually reinvent human life on Earth.


Interview of Nate Higgins on ChrisMartenson.com

So I’m not necessarily calling for a stock-market crash in the next decade, but I am calling for within the decade we probably won’t have a stock market. That’s a scary thing to contemplate, but this entire system is based on more every year, and we’ve extended the system by a decade or more by little bells and whistles and allowing people to buy houses with no money down and the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

And since 2008, the crash in private and household credit has been made up by government stepping in and providing 11% of our GDP just from deficit spending. And that bullet has now been spent. So the whole thing starts to unravel once they’ve spent all the bullets they have. And I don’t know that it really matters, really; stocks go down 10% or 50% or 100%, we have to restructure the way that we think about society.

Competing for nominal, digital wealth is going to go away as the main cultural objective. 

This is a fascinating, in-depth discussion of our economic, environmental, and societal predicament. If you have the time, this really ties it all together. Until recently, Nate Higgins was lead editor of The Oil Drum, one of the most popular and highly-respected websites for the analysis and discussion and global energy supplies, and the future implications of the energy decline that we are facing. He holds a Master’s Degree in Finance from the University of Chicago and recently completed his PhD in Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. Previously, he was President of Sanctuary Asset Management and a Vice-President at the investment firm Solomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers.

Nate Higgins Web Site

Additional Resources on Peak Oil

Post Carbon Institute
Founded in 2003, Post Carbon Institute is leading the transition to a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable world.

The Oil Drum
The Oil Drum seeks to facilitate civil, evidence-based discussions about energy and its impacts on the future of humanity, as well as serve as a leading online knowledge-base for energy-related topics.

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The Internet as a Monkey Trap

The Monkey Trap

Google, Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, email, text messaging, gaming, virtual worlds…what is your banana? What so captures your attention that you can’t let go?

I saw a cartoon of a monkey trap (not this one) over 25 years ago in an article entitled Computers as Poison. The idea has stuck with me ever since. Today, I came across this explanation which describes the attention capture phenomenon quite well.

SEEKING: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that’s dangerous. Slate (8/12/09)

You can’t stop doing it. Sometimes it feels as if the basic drives for food, sex, and sleep have been overridden by a new need for endless nuggets of electronic information. We are so insatiably curious that we gather data even if it gets us in trouble….

Ever find yourself sitting down at the computer just for a second to find out what other movie you saw that actress in, only to look up and realize the search has led to an hour of Googling?

We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the brain…Thank dopamine…

But our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. “The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire,” Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore…

For more on how to balance seeking and satisfaction for optimal experience, I recommend this book:
Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
The basic thesis of the book is that we are most fulfilled when engaged in activites that challenge us at the optimal level, neither too much nor too little. The author goes on to describe how some people are able to “find flow” in almost any type of activity, even the seemingly mundane.

There can be a sense flow in losing oneself on the Internet, but the first article suggests that there is something about the nature of the Internet that makes it too easy to cross the line into unhealthy addictive behavior.

ANTHROPOCENE: A New Era of Human Civilization on Earth

From The Economist cover story of May 28, 2011:

“Humans have changed the way the world works.
Now they have to change the way they think about it, too.”

Human civilization evolved during a period of relatively stable climate over the last 10,000 years. With a rapidly developing and industrialized world, now at about 7 billion and headed for 9-10 billion, humans have become a significant driving force in changing the Earth. Here is an excerpt from the 5/28 cover story of The Economist magazine:

Humans have become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale—but at a far-faster-than-geological speed.

A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving 30 billion tonnes of earth—twice the amount of sediment that flows down all the rivers in the world in a year…

The carbon cycle (and the global warming debate) is part of this change. So too is the nitrogen cycle, which converts pure nitrogen from the air into useful chemicals, and which mankind has helped speed up by over 150%. They and a host of other previously natural processes have been interrupted, refashioned and, most of all, accelerated…

Scientists are increasingly using a new name for this new period. Rather than placing us still in the Holocene, a peculiarly stable era that began only around 10,000 years ago, the geologists say we are already living in the Anthropocene: the age of man.

The Economist article (Briefing) concludes that there is no turning back and perhaps we will be best off embracing the future.

The growing availability of solar or nuclear energy over the coming centuries could mark the greatest new energy resource since the second of those planetary oxidations, 600m years ago—a change in the same class as the greatest the Earth system has ever seen. Dr Lenton (who is also one of the creators of the planetary-boundaries concept) and Dr Watson suggest that energy might be used to change the hydrologic cycle with massive desalination equipment, or to speed up the carbon cycle by drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide, or to drive new recycling systems devoted to tin and copper and the many other metals as vital to industrial life as carbon and nitrogen are to living tissue.

Better to embrace the Anthropocene’s potential as a revolution in the way the Earth system works, they argue, than to try to retreat onto a low-impact path that runs the risk of global immiseration.


A Brief History of Human Understanding of the World

The World is Flat

The Earth is the Center of the Universe

The Earth is a Planet (in a Solar system in a Galaxy in the Universe)

The Earth’s Future is in Our Hands


Just as the average person (and even the ruling elites) initially resisted the earlier paradigm shifts, many of us, from the urban poor in the slums of Mumbai to the wealthiest of hedge fund managers on Wall Street, are too caught up in economic survival and advancement to see or care about the bigger picture. I am afraid that, until a much larger share of us come to know the world in this new way, human civilization will be unable able to really transition to a sustainable future…not sure what that will take. We don’t have the luxury or time as in earlier eras.

Public Discourse: If Socrates were alive today

Socrates in America: Arguing to death
From The Economist – 12/17/09

This article comments on the sorry state of discourse in politics and public policy in America as it might be seen by Socrates if he were around today. For those who are interested, the full article provides a primer on the life and times of Socrates (Athens of the fifth century BC).

[Socrates] life…was dedicated to the love of wisdom…It was [he] who made the momentous “turn” of Western thought away from speculation about the composition of the physical world and towards the liberal questions of morality, justice, virtue and politics.

Socrates would…interrogate America’s politicians, talk-radio and cable-television pundits in search of honest discussions that lead to truth, and thereby expose their confusion, contradictions and ignorance. He would avail himself of America’s…freedom of speech, and simultaneously be horrified by the speciousness of the speech that Americans choose to make.

Visiting America today, Socrates might have dropped in on last summer’s “town hall” meetings, in which members of the public allegedly came to debate the reform of health care with their elected representatives. Socrates would have beheld hysterical firebrands shouting that America’s president and senators were Marxists, Nazis or both.

In America today, Socrates would recognize sophists and rhetoricians in partisan spin doctors such as Karl Rove and David Axelrod or equally in talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann. [Suggesting that] a master rhetorician unqualified in medicine could get himself elected as surgeon general over a qualified doctor who is not rhetorically gifted.

What is missing in both public and private discussions of political, economic, and social issues:

Socrates’s alternative was “good” conversation or dialectic. To converse originally meant to turn towards one another, in order to find a common humanity and to move closer to the truth of something. Dialectic, in other words, is decidedly not about winning or losing, because all the conversants are ennobled by it. It is a joint search…He hoped to bring all involved to a higher state of awareness.

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