Navigating the Human Predicament with Nate Hagens
HAPPEN FILMS PODCAST #6
Hi everyone, I’m Antoinette, welcome to the Happen Films podcast.
Today I’m speaking to Nate Hagens. Nate’s the co-founder and director of the Institute for Energy and Our Future. He has a deep knowledge of the workings of finance, having begun his career on Wall Street, but his focus changed entirely in the early 2000s. Since then he’s dedicated himself to understanding the interrelationship between energy, the environment, and finance and the implications of that relationship on human futures. Nate teaches a course at the University of Minnesota called Reality 101: A Survey of the Human Predicament and that course is available online. He also gives regular talks, which are available online and I’ll pop links to those in the show notes and in the YouTube description. I’m really excited to speak to Nate today and I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation.
Antoinette: Okay, hi Nate, thanks for taking the time to have a chat to me today, it’s lovely to meet you.
Nate: Good morning, Antoinette, nice to meet you too.
Antoinette: So there’s so many ways to approach a conversation with you because your work ranges so widely. I’ve watched a few of your Earth Day talks, I’ve watched the University course Reality 101: The Human Predicament. I’m really taken with a lot of the things that you raise – human civilisation as a superorganism; I’m personally planning to adopt a lot of the vocabulary– you talk about reframing vocabulary when we speak on these topics and I think that’s really pertinent. I’m really interested in your ideas around coronavirus recovery and in particular around the psychology of denial.
So there’s just so many things that we could talk about and we’ve got an hour so we’re not going to talk about them all but I will in the show notes and our YouTube description point people to your website and directly link to some of those because I think they’re invaluable resources, so thank you for making them available to the world.
Okay so we’ll jump in. We’re speaking – I can’t even remember when we’re speaking – it’s the 10th of June. Black Lives Matter protests are happening all around the world, this really visceral response to racism has come hard on the heels of the havoc that Covid has been creating around the world – very much still for you guys in the United States – and that in itself seemed to come right on the back of those massive bushfires in Australia last year and a general sense of the world finally maybe waking up to these compounding issues around climate change, biodiversity loss, economic and social fragility.
You’ve been saying for a long time that you don’t feel humanity will change course until it’s forced upon us in some way, that you suggested could be an economic crisis or I guess pandemic or whatever, but do you feel that that force is what we’re feeling now?
Nate: Yeah I think, you know, our culture faces a predicament as opposed to a problem; a problem has a solution, a predicament has a variety of pathways but none of them solve everything and I think the pandemic and the racism, inequality, riots in the United States, these are things that highlighted a system that had a lot of holes in it, a lot of flaws, it was broken in many regards so it wasn’t – what we’re facing right now isn’t because of a virus, it’s that the virus exposed many of the things that existed already and yes as you point out I’ve spent 15 years assembling a large story of how the pieces fit together because they do fit together.
We don’t so much face an energy problem or an environmental problem as a human behavioral mismatch with our ancestral environment that those other problems are emergent from eight billion humans trying to get the same emotional states of our ancestors in a culture that promotes conspicuous consumption and more stuff and waste and the impact on the environment is not included in our prices. So I do think this virus and the riots and the bush fires: people are starting to wake up that something is not right and I think my view is that you have to look at the whole picture, you have to fly up high enough and look down and see how the pieces fit together to get an accurate sense of what the game board looks like and which are the pathways possible forward.
Antoinette: All of your work’s focus is on the link between energy and the global economy and you state that energy underpins every single transaction we have in the global economy. How would you explain that concept to someone who’s coming to it fresh?
Nate: Right so I think we pay attention to the media and celebrities and Facebook and our education and because of that we have many giant blind spots about what’s really going on, especially television gives us a kind of an illusion of what we think our reality is. So most people think about money as what our real wealth is; how much money you have, how much money a society has, that’s what our wealth is. But from a perspective of ecology and systems, energy is the currency of life. So if you’re an animal in nature you are an investor, you invest a little bit of your calories to get some calories in return from your prey and if you get a lot of calories, like a lion gets a wildebeest, you have ample extra calories to mate and cellular metabolism and raise your young etc. Animals in nature that don’t have a lot of excess energy don’t survive.
So it’s the same way in the human system, it’s that every single thing that we do we think it costs money but underneath it, it costs a conversion of energy. For every good and service that contributes to the size of our economic system there is a conversion of energy. 85% of that energy right now is in the form of fossil carbon and hydrocarbons, coal, oil and natural gas, and we are blind to the magnitude of support that that gives modern society relative to people a hundred, two hundred, five hundred, two hundred thousand years ago.
Okay so right now I can speak to the United States, the average American consumes more than a hundred times the calories that our bodies need. So our bodies need two thousand, two thousand five hundred calories a day. We consume over two hundred thousand calories worth of coal, oil and natural gas. So if you do the math of that, one barrel of oil does four and a half years of my physical work and the world uses a hundred billion of those barrels. So when I say that our culture is energy blind we’re blind to the fact that we have de facto a five hundred billion-strong army of fossil helpers contributing to our GDP and we see that in our jet fuel for the visitors that come to New Zealand and our shopping centres and our universities, our sporting events and you fly to go see your family. All these things require energy and since all we have to do is pay for the extraction costs – mother nature provided the hundred million years plus of the pressure and the time and the heating and the cooking, we just have to pay for how much we pull it out of the ground and it provides orders of magnitude more in goods and services to us than the cost of extraction. So energy is the basis of our modern and future economic system.
Antoinette: And you’ve said, “Our real stock market is our air, our soils, our forests, our oceans and the biodiversity we share the planet with.”
Nate: So we think that money – financial capital – is what wealth is, but financial capital is just a marker, it’s just the pieces of linen in our pockets or digital electrons in our bank and that is a claim on natural capital, which is our healthy soil, our ecosystems, trees. Other things are our social capital, which is our relationships, our networks, our friends; and built capital, which is your recording studio there, my house, my car, my tractor; and human capital, which is our health and our skills and our knowledge. So those things are real wealth and unfortunately our current culture – I don’t know if this is the same in New Zealand but in America every day at all the radio stations we get updates on where the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed and they play little songs on National Public Radio, “We’re in the money, we’re in the money” as if our entire cultural goal is denominated by a stock market.
But at the same time, first of all 90% of Americans are not participating in the stock market; it’s really a measure for… the very rich are the ones who are involved in the stock market. And secondly we’ve privatised the gains from all this natural resource extraction and we’ve put the losses into the Commons, both the Commons of our current eco sphere on the planet and the future of oceans and healthy ecosystems etc. So a lot of the costs of our economic activity are not included in the price of goods that we buy and this is called, in economics it’s called an externality. Externality is something that’s not included in the price that we pay.
Antoinette: So could you elaborate a bit on externalities because I think that’s a really pivotal concept. I mean that’s what you’re talking about but could we go a little bit into more detail about that?
Nate: Yeah so we like to buy things that are cheap and that when we use them we get the same neurotransmitter cocktail of our successful ancestors. So we buy things that are cheap, that give us feelings. And so we don’t think, we don’t like to pay a lot of money, we don’t like to pay costly things, so our economic system is organised around businesses and innovation and technology that discovers and innovates cheap products that humans want. But the pollution, the CO2, the toxins, the plastics, the impact on the oceans, all these things are not included in the price.
For example coal is a big underpinning of electricity in our industrial system and the wholesale coal electric power costs three or four cents per kilowatt hour. If, and scientists have measured, if we include all the negative environmental impacts of the burning of that coal it doesn’t cost three or four cents it costs eighteen or nineteen cents. So that fifteen-cent difference, those are the externalities, that’s not included in the price of coal, and you know would you or I be willing to pay five times as much for the cost of doing this web call?
So it’s not, this isn’t really anyone’s fault, this is– the economic system has been built around cheap things so are we willing as a culture to pay the true cost of things? The true costs that includes the impact on other species, other generations and the marginalised communities in our own culture.
Antoinette: When we talk about externalities we’re not just talking about it in a monetary way we’re talking about it – and you did say this – in terms of all of what we don’t think about in terms of all of the environmental and social impacts of getting stuff and getting rid of stuff…
Nate: But we never have, right? We never really have. Does a lion think about the externalities of its wildebeest hunting? I mean, so we are a biological species and there is a link in nature between an animal’s size and its metabolism or how much energy it burns and the same link applies to the global human economy. It’s called Cleavers Law and the amount of energy use is your mass times to the 3/4 power, and human societies also follow that rule. So by including the prices of externalities into our economic system we would thus be voluntarily throttling down some natural law and I think it’s possible that we can do that. That’s why we have to understand the entire story, the entire integrated system-science picture of the human predicament, because we’re at nothing short of an epic, species-level transition moment where we have figured out who we are, how we got here, what we need, what we’re doing, what we have, what drives us, into this comprehensive picture where, yes, including the price of externalities – maybe making energy significantly more expensive than it is now, which would change behaviour dramatically.
But it’s just like someone who is overweight and wealthy and comfortable having to go on a diet and an exercise regimen. They may cognitively think that’s a good thing to do but emotionally it’s very difficult to start such a thing unless you’re forced to and it’s my belief that this pandemic is the beginning of forcing us to acknowledge some of these hard truths and redirect our economy in a different way.
Antoinette: Yeah because we’re not, we can’t stop consuming, essentially we need to think, rethink how we consume in order to be able to work within those…
Nate: Yeah well I mean no, we’re not gonna stop consuming and I don’t believe we’re voluntarily going to de-grow. We’re going to be faced with some sort of a financial recalibration and a depression and then there’s going to be some emergent pathways that come out of that; maybe some pilots of homesteading people or people that don’t care about conspicuous consumption but care about knowledge and kindness and innovation and camping and hiking and different things than, you know, watching Netflix and flying to Jamaica and watching NASCAR. I mean we need new cultural stories but no I don’t think we’re going to voluntarily go there. But I think it’s inevitable that that shrinkage is gonna happen this decade.
The other thing I’d point out is for some people consuming twenty, thirty, forty percent less is not only doable but would be healthy for them and actually a really cool adventure, but for some people, half of the people that live in my country, consuming less is not really an option because they’re consuming hardly anything already. So as we navigate this cultural transition, distribution of resources is also going to be a central question.
Antoinette: And I think the dominant thinking around this around the world is that technology will create solutions that are going to not only enable us to have cheaper power and so on, but also somehow kind of recalibrate that equality issue and all of the other issues. I personally have – the more research I do the less inclined I am to be overly confident about that. I’m really interested in the way that you talk about reframing vocabulary. You’ve said that “renewables are great and we could have a viable civilisation with renewables just not this civilisation”. I thought that was a really powerful statement. Could you elaborate on that?
Nate: Yes, so the Sun and the wind are renewable, the solar panels and the wind turbines that we build to harness the sun’s energy are no more renewable than a pickup truck. They are rebuildable, and we have to rebuild them every 20 or 30 years with very complicated machinery and poly silicon wafers and clean rooms and PhDs in metallurgy who process the things. They’re very complex equipment.
So getting back to technology, technology is in a race with depletion of our non-renewable resources and it’s very tough to replace something that’s a barrel of oil that does four and a half years of my work for 30 or 40 dollars right now. Technology has a really hard time replacing that amount of energy dense… basically it’s a substance that’s indistinguishable from magic on any human time scale. So let’s talk about technology and get to your point.
There’s really two types of technology; one type is it innovates and finds ways for humans to access and use energy more efficiently, like a new solar panel or a way to do geothermal power or a way for our power plants to use a little bit less coal to get the same amount of electricity. So that’s type 1 energy. Type 2 energy is doing things that humans used to do manually or with draft horses, with technology, like a factory or a car or an iPhone that… you know, phones and laptops – if you aggregate all the server farms and the batteries and the creation – use about 18 percent of our electricity so they are not the cloud, the cloud is very energy hungry. So this other type of technology, type 2 technology, ends up increasing the demand for energy the next period.
So if we… I mean looking around the average house in New Zealand or America versus 30 or 40 years ago yes we are much more efficient in our power plants but instead of just having a small refrigerator and a stove we have air conditioners and Xboxes and three laptops and fans and all kinds of different gadgets. So most of our technology in today’s world ends up just being spent on dopamine and comfort and things like this and increases the amount of total energy demanded in the world. And this is a problem because our GDP in the world, the size of our economy, is 99% linked globally to energy use, so when we add renewable energy, which I prefer to call rebuildable energy, it’s not replacing coal, oil and natural gas, it’s being added up on top of it. Last year the amount of electricity demand in the world that increased from 2018 to 2019, that electricity demand alone was more than twice as much as all the solar panels that had ever been installed since the beginning of their invention.
So this is… this gets into this concept that humans, by co-operating with each other and collaborating as families, as small businesses, as corporations, as nation-states towards economic output, economic surplus, we’re de facto acting like this mindless energy-hungry superorganism that can’t be satisfied, and we just sloth forward in time, mindlessly looking for more energy to give us – the 8 billion of us – these same feelings that our successful ancestors got, neurotransmitters, hormones, endocrine cascades, etc.
The very key point, which is this low-hanging fruit that we’re blind to, is we don’t need all this energy to be happy, we need a situation similar to our successful ancestors, which is community purpose, security, bonding, and small groups, and comparing ourselves to others and not finding that we’re lacking, which is why the United States uses more than 20 times the energy per capita as people in the Philippines yet on subjective well-being studies Filipinos are just as happy as Americans. How can that be that we use 20 times the energy and it’s because everyone there, most everyone there is poor but they’re around people who are poor and they compare themselves and they laugh and share stories and they work hard and some things are really hard and they suffer but they suffer together, which is very akin to our ancestral tribal environment.
You know, if you look at the places in the world that have the highest levels of depression it’s big cities in the United States, and the lowest levels of depression are small villages in Africa. Now those villages are very poor but they’re not depressed because they have a community and social interaction; you know everyone, they’re in the same boat as you, whereas in advanced economies we compete based on marketing and TV shows telling us, “Well if, you know, you suck, if you buy this product you’ll be better” and so we have these giant houses full of products and we’re still searching, we’re still wanting, the treadmill, the rat race to compete with others.
So it’s my hope, I mean there’s a good news and a bad news here: the bad news is we no longer have the amount of cheap available energy, and not only energy but other non-renewable resources like copper and phosphorus, to continue growing the size of the global economy, that’s the bad news. The good news is that when we’re in periods of privation or loss it’s stressful but we end up co-operating and humans going through shared experiences like that, shared challenges, brings out the best in humanity. I know it will also bring out the worst at nation scales if there’s wars and things like that, which I’m hoping that that doesn’t happen, but for a lot of people I think all this consumption and wealth has not made us happier or healthier and I think we’re gonna have a wide open cultural you know transition moment in the coming decade.
Well look at what’s right now happening: you and I are talking to each other using Zoom, you’re halfway around the world, you’re completely around the world, this isn’t costing us much money and we’re getting a lot of the same neurotransmitters. I would love to be with you, I’ve never been to New Zealand, but this is a good way to do things. A lot of people are instead of flying to Chicago for a one-hour meeting and flying home they’re doing this electronically now and I think eventually people will get tired of doing this because we actually need physical interaction with our friends and our peers, but I think this has made people realise, Wow, this was kind of a rat race that we were part of and is this the way that I want to live the rest of my life? So anyways, that was a 14-paragraph response to your question.
Antoinette: I find it really interesting that some people when I’m speaking about how this has felt like it’s created a window of opportunity, some people have felt really excited about that and others – and I would say probably people outside of my immediate circle – have been more inclined to: “Yeah we’ll just get back to normal now, this was a you know, it’s a nice thought it’s a romantic notion that that this is really going to change anything.” And I often find this, you know, sometimes I feel like I live in a bubble of enthusiastic people who are change makers and excited about being part of making change and then I’ll go into the city and or I’ll turn the news on and remember that the reality of the situation is that the majority of the world is not thinking…
Nate: That’s a real problem. Everyone… I mean I have a pretty strong view of how things fit together and what the future could be like and couldn’t be like and then I forget that just about everyone out there also believes in their own worldview, which is invariably different than mine and that’s a real problem as we self-assemble by people who agree with us. And if you have 30 people that totally agree with you, you trick yourself into thinking that that’s representative of the whole society, but it’s absolutely not.
As to your comment, I think there’s virtually zero chance that we return to normal and it’s not going to be because we have any grand plan of sustainable transition it’s because some of the components of our economic engine were broken the last few months and like humpty-dumpty will not be able to be put together again. Oil in particular is in a dire situation right now because oil, because of a depressed price, is actually way below the costs that it requires energy firms, and so they’re having to shut down a lot of oil production. And the underlying decline rate of oil is around 28 percent a year in the United States, so if we drilled no new wells our production would drop by 30% this year and again 30% the next year. And so we need more capital to invest in this increasingly costly thing and I think this Covid crisis locked in peak oil globally in October/November 2018; we’ll never get back to that level again.
That doesn’t have to be a disaster but I – in fact from a climate change perspective it’s good news because I think these models that show we’re going to continue burning fossil carbon in increasing amounts all the way to 2100 are just absolutely biophysically delusional; no frickin way are we gonna have that – well, we still have more than enough to continue to damage the oceans and other things but I really think that we’re in this sweet spot right now of the government– both governments and the central banks of the world have massively supported society, individuals, and businesses and so the stock markets are really high and so people think there’s no problem, that there’s a v-shaped recovery and everything’s going to get back to normal. And I really disagree with that viewpoint because it’s a v-shape recovery if the government and the central banks continue to support businesses, individuals, and the financial markets the way they have since March and they can’t do that. They could do it for a while longer but we can’t continue to kick the can forward by papering over our limits with paper right, so that’s why I think this crisis is going to lead to a more severe crisis in the next few years.
So if you think about this from a perspective of an individual, if you make fifty thousand New Zealand dollars per year and you owe the bank a hundred and eighty thousand New Zealand Dollars in debts that’s a problem, right, because you need to earn a lot just to pay the interest. Well that same math was what the global society faced before the coronavirus. We had three hundred and fifty percent debt versus the size of our economies but now because of this crisis our economies are gonna shrink by 10 to 20 percent and to keep our fingers in the dike, to keep things going, we have to increase our debt substantially. So the debt to GDP, the amount that we owe relative to our income, is gonna go over 400 percent over 450 percent, which is doable and we will go there and we should go there, but it’s not sustainable, and so eventually we’re going to not be able to kick the can by printing money because you can print money but you cannot print energy and materials.
So all these concepts of modern monetary theory that countries can just print their own money and they’ll never go bankrupt, that’s partially true but you– our productivity is based on energy and natural resources not on money; money is just the lubricant that gets out to people. I’m sorry I may be sounding a little too academic here but does that make sense you have questions about that?
Antoinette: No it’s fine, you go you go all out and be academic it’s not a problem!
Nate: I mean it’s just a bizarre situation that we’re in; we as an advanced economy and I don’t know a lot about New Zealand other than your national economy is around 200 billion and I live in the state of Wisconsin and our national economy, I mean our state economy, is 300 billion so the state I live in is 50% larger GDP-wise than New Zealand, but I think in advanced economies we’ve kicked the can and consumed beyond our means for 50 years and now a bill is coming due and on average we’re probably in the next five to seven years headed for a 30 percent drop in incomes and basically 30 percent drop in GDP divided by 330 million people in the United States.
So it doesn’t have to be a disaster, it could actually be a really good thing if managed wisely, but that’s not the conversation that we’re having, not in our political discourse – because who would be elected if they said: “In the next seven years we’re going to shrink by 30 percent”? No one would get elected with that message. So this story that I’ve been putting together – but I’m not the only one; there’s lots of people that are paying attention to how ecology, human behaviour, the economy and the environment fit together – it’s almost the perfect storm for the human brain to ignore, deny. It’s complex, it’s threatening, there’s no easy answers, no one I talk to is saying the same things, it’s in the future, it’s not this weekend and it seems kind of scary so I’d rather just go watch TV or hang out with my friends.
And yet we need leaders, we need people to take charge of their own lives first of all and then to self-assemble with other people who kind of can squint and see how this future looks and play a role together in crafting pilots, crafting new technology that might be more relevant for that future, new stories – because we’re an amazing storytelling species. And so I think we’re just being told the wrong stories about the future, because Hollywood is so ubiquitous in our lives – we get stories about humans colonising Mars and growing potatoes and that’s where we’re all headed, and on the other end we get stories about zombies who are coming to eat your brains. And there’s nothing in the middle about gardening and music and sleeping in a tent with your dogs with a light rain and reading and poetry, and I sometimes think we really need the artists and the theatrical and the creative people to envision a different future for humans and then you get the architects and the energy experts and the engineering nerds to craft how to get there, because we’re kind of rudderless right now with our stories.
I mean basically our purpose as a culture is GDP and Heaven if you’re religious and GDP is just a measure of how much stuff we burn. Every single good and service in a global economy started with a fire somewhere. Whether it was coal or oil or natural gas or renewables, which started with coal or oil or natural gas, and is that what we aspire to as a species? is one of the central questions of our time and we’re going to need people, bottoms-up, to start thinking and behaving differently, which will eventually lead to a top-down changing of our aspirations away from strict monetary representations of success, towards how people are doing – like interviewing people on the North and South islands how their lives are versus last month versus last year on issues of security and health and food and well-being and safety and social interactions and access to information.
And all these things that we could quantify as this, this actually is pretty close to what humans want to experience in their life and yet we’re all aspiring towards profits as individuals, as companies, as nations, and profits – after basic needs are met – how much stuff you have does not correlate really strongly with your happiness, your well-being.
Antoinette: Yeah absolutely with you about the storytelling and I guess that’s the motivation behind Happen Films is exactly that, to try to offer in our films a vision of a new story or a vision of a different story.
Nate: Yeah well I think imagination is really underestimated, that humans are… Well there’s a good part of this in a bad part: so if I tell you that there is a 500-foot shark that is iridescent green flying over the sky of Christchurch diving down and picking up any school bus and eating it. You have never heard that, Antoinette, in your entire life, yet you pictured it, as did all of your listeners. The human brain is an amazing device where I can create words that create pictures in your head. The problem with that is that we can’t distinguish which one of those are bio physically plausible and which ones are bullshit. So we have a problem hearing stories from others that aren’t grounded in scientific reality.
The benefit of such an imaginative mind is that if you tell someone this story, that we’re gonna have to use 30% less, that the best things in life are free, that we’re incredibly social and creative creatures, then if you give a boundary to a story people thrive with that, in other words if I say, “Antoinette tell me a story”, in the same way that we can tell a story about my dog who meets a squirrel, that’s what you’re doing with Happen Films and with your efforts is you’re painting a boundary of our future. It’s not going to be some science Star Trek, George Jetsons future on Mars, it’s not going to be brain-eating zombies, it’s going to be a lower throughput, more community, less material stuff, more social capital sort of future and you’re inviting your listeners and people that come across your materials to imagine that future in creative, pro-social ways and we need a lot of that around the world right now.
Antoinette: Well the majority of our films tend to focus, probably out of personal interest of ours, on people who are building their gardens using permaculture principles, building their life style using permaculture principles, we’ve had a lot of focus on people who’ve downsized, who’ve simplified, because that’s what we’re doing and because that’s a message that we feel is really important to put out there, to share and because it’s educating us each time we do this, and so it’s a lot about sort of those individual actions of transitioning to zero waste, of living with less, of being more conscious about our purchasing choices and so on. So these are all very individual choices and it really interested me when I was listening to your 2020 Earth Day talk that you mentioned quite briefly, and I’d love you to elaborate on it, on that having it’s space, but that it’s really important for us to maximise impact, and I think what you were talking about was working at community level. Is that right? Could you elaborate on that?
Nate: Right so I teach 19-year-olds at the university and a lot of them are getting a message from climate change that they shouldn’t eat meat, that they should drive electric cars, and that they should recycle and not use straws. And all those are good things for personal hygiene but if we try to be perfect on every little consumptive decision in our lives we will never measure up and we’re still 1/8-billionth of a smaller part of a huge global problem, so I recommend to my students that instead of focusing on minimising their impact that they should maximise their impact; do what they need to do personally in order to be effective at larger scales. And yes that means larger scales at a community level but also a national and global level.
And I think permaculturlists have one big thing going for them is they’ve already processed how to live a life more sustainable and based on less frivolous conspicuous consumption sort of things. So if we have a lot of people that can individually live in a permaculture way those people are more likely to inform our larger “How do we have permaculture as a culture?” “Permaculture as a society?” Because that’s the place that we’re at right now. And so I think the biggest thing that people can do to maximise their impact is value and befriend themselves, because we need people to cope and to thrive before they engage with these larger issues, and yeah a lot of us – I’m sure you’re very kind to the people that you come across in your life, but we have to be kind to ourselves, we have to invest in our physical and mental health and really because that is the – no one else will do that. So that’s like our biggest responsibility if we want to help the future of New Zealand or Wisconsin or the world’s oceans or our culture, we really have to support and take care of ourselves first.
And then I really think that we need leaders that are effective at larger scales. Like for me to minimise my impact and live in a little shack on my land here and not fly and not drive and not eat an occasional hamburger, I truly would be living lightly on the planet, but I also wouldn’t be doing anything meaningful on changing people’s hearts and minds and inviting people to play a role in our collective future. So we need to be effective at larger scales than our own consumption.
Antoinette: Yeah that’s a message that really resonates with me and I think it’s becoming something much more sort of in the general consciousness now. I don’t know if you would have heard in the news there but our government’s last budget was a well-being budget, so there’s much more of a focus on physical, mental well-being being something that we need to focus on. But you’re absolutely right that it needs to, that where you can start with the individual that’s where that’s where we need to start.
Antoinette: But it’s hard right, we’re all flawed. I mean I have all kinds of flaws and so I try to take baby steps like the first thing I do in the morning is I make my bed and I usually don’t but then I like celebrate that I made my bed and it just gives me a little bit of a positive boost into the rest of my life and we’re all like horribly flawed and we’re alive at this just unbelievably crazy time but it’s also a time when we can really make a difference and the future is unknown. I could tell you, Antoinette, the things that I’m pretty confident won’t happen. I don’t know what will happen. And we can participate in that story and there’s a lot of silver linings in what’s happening right now but it’s gonna be hard, it’s gonna be a big challenge, and we need a lot of people playing leadership roles, even in their own family or their neighborhood or their city and maybe some people globally as well.
Antoinette: Yeah it’s interesting because often when you – or I’ve found that when you talk about the kind of changes that we’ve sort of got in mind at both a personal and community and global level there’s a tendency in people to say, “Oh I’m not going to go back and live like a caveman or cave woman” and there’s something that you said in one of your talks which I found really interesting – I’m sorry to keep quoting you back at yourself but you say things that I want to quote – you said: “Conspicuous consumption is part of nature; displays in the wild of ornate horns and plumage confers special advantages in mating and so on, so some level of conspicuous consumption will always be part of our species in our culture.” I think that’s a really great thing to highlight because we’re not talking about doom and gloom, we’re not talking about a dry, boring lifestyle where we don’t get to thrive and experience joy and wear bright colours, we’re just talking about some simple and yet very complex – because of the complexity of the world that we live in or because of the complications we’ve brought to the complex world that we live in – we’re talking about some fundamental changes, but we don’t need to stop enjoying life do we?
Nate: No absolutely not, and I think, you know on my bike ride yesterday I passed this very small house and it hadn’t been painted in 20 years, it was basically a trailer, it was real grey and drab and there was only one window but in the backyard there was this giant live oak, which are these beautiful glorious oak trees, and there was a trail that meandered up this hillside and I looked at that and I was like no one would want to buy that house it looks like crap. But I wonder if someone living 200 years ago would see that and it would look like a palace, because it was a structure, it was big enough, it had this beautiful backyard in nature, it was kind of secluded. And so what we compete for in this biological sense has gotten extreme and shallow and unsatisfying.
I can predict that a hundred years from now, five hundred years from now, men will still be trying to impress women and women will still be trying to impress men, but how we do it will be by things different than a bunch of fancy cosmetics or a big yacht or a bank account. There’s going to be different ways that we compete and gain social status. This is something really central to who we are as humans; we’re anatomically the same species the last 300,000 years. For 290,000 of those 300,000 years we were totally equal in terms of consumption, but we were never equal in terms of status, there was always some people that had a little bit higher status in the tribe that they were better storytellers or better hunters or better… I mean we differentiate and compare ourselves to others but only in the last 10,000 years since the Agricultural Revolution, which was turbocharged in the Industrial Revolution where we have all these goods and services – and by the way our expectations culturally is that these goods and services will continue – is that we had massive wealth inequality and disparities, and it’s not so much that people don’t have enough to survive it’s that they feel like they’re losers because they have to compete with the advertising and Madison Avenue TV things, like I’m not a good human because I don’t have that stuff.
So I really think a central cultural question in the next 10 or 20 years is, “How do we compete and cooperate for things that don’t require a ton of resources to produce?” Music, storytelling, gardening, all those things are a very high neurotransmitter return on energy input and that’s what we should be striving for. So that was kind of a long answer to your question… yes conspicuous consumption is part of nature and it’s manifesting in really environmentally and socially dilatory ways now, and I think we’re on the cusp of that changing.
You know my students, they’re 19, a lot of them don’t even have a driver’s license, they don’t have cars, because they live in a city they don’t need a car. When I was in college everyone had a car because it was cheap and that’s how you got around. So a lot of this is organically happening, that people don’t need all this stuff, they value experiences over stuff. And part of that reason is because people realise the truth of that and part of it is because economic times are tough and we have to make those choices.
Antoinette: Your mention of your students brings me to one last question: I’m interested to know what kind of– whether you’re seeing a mindset shift and because it’s a, you know, really important generation that you’re educating. What kind of– is it giving you hope?
Nate: Yeah I love teaching 19-year-olds that, well of course their self-selected because they sign up for my class that’s called “Reality 101: A Survey of the Human Predicament”. But they’re so bright and they haven’t been pulled into the consumptive vortex of the superorganism yet, they don’t have jobs, they don’t have bosses, they don’t have mortgage payments, they don’t have baby strollers, so they can take this all on board and think about it and process it. And to be honest, Antoinette, the students that take my class already know about climate change and some of these problems that we face and when they take my class they even get more of a sledgehammer because energy depletion, the end of economic growth, some of these other things they’d never heard about and yet they’re not, most of them are not depressed after hearing it, because what they’ve got is a template and a roadmap for how things fit together.
So the sledgehammer of the depressing aspects of the story are offset by a new clarity of: “This is the time that I’m alive; this is how things fit together; I want to play a role in my own future and the collective future”. And, I think, I don’t purposely do this but I think it’s happened a little bit that instead of looking at the future in terms of fear a lot of my students look at the future in terms of an adventure that they want to play a part in. And that’s how I try to look at it myself because it’s the truth.
Antoinette: Yeah and I think it’s a much more positive way and when I’m in my positive mind frame I feel adventurous as well and sometimes when I’m researching the next film or the next podcast I feel myself kind of taking a bit of a dive…
Nate: Yeah the absolute best part of my class is that we sit in a circle and talk about these things and so they process these very weighty, scary, complex topics with 24 other students and me and it’s like when we share something difficult that’s like the best way to cope, when you’re depressed or sad or overwhelmed if you just talk with another human being it reduces your cortisol, which is a stress hormone, it boosts your helper t-cells, which help the immune system, just the human act of experiencing something, which is why The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit filmed in New Zealand are such absolute core popular stories because it’s a little band of, I was going to say humans but it’s really hobbits and dwarves and other things, but it’s this band of brothers, they’re men in The Lord of the Rings that go through challenges together and that’s you know with novelty and treasure and dragons and things like that, but that’s the situation that we evolved in, is small groups of people that have intense bonds collaborating through challenges.
So to your listeners or watchers you know, make sure that you find a fellowship in your community of people that you really ethically and philosophically share a future vision with and and go through life with them, you know, experiencing the ups and downs of this adventure. I think that’s who we’re meant to be, and I think it’s really good advice that individuals and small groups will change the future because it’s the only thing that ever has.
Antoinette: That’s a great note to end on. Thank you, Nate. I really appreciate the time again and I just really really value all of the resources that you’ve made available online, so I’m going to send people to watch and listen more to everything you’ve got to say and wish you well.
Nate: Thank you, you too, Antoinette, take care.
Jordan: Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode. You might have noticed that we don’t have any sponsors or ads in these podcasts and that’s because we’re supported by our listeners. So if you’d like to support the show you can do so at happenfilms.com/support. Thanks again for tuning in and we’ll see you next time.
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