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1 Oct 2007

ASPO 6. In Praise of…#6. Nate Hagens.

nateI very much enjoyed the presentation by Nate Hagens called “A Supply and Demand Framework for a Full Planet”. Nate, among other things, is one of the editors of the Oil Drum. What was so good about his talk was that it came at the peak oil question from a completely different angle, and delved into areas not usually considered at peak oil conferences, in particular cognitive neuroscience. He began his talk using the analogy of the Irish Elk, which, prior to its extinction, had antlers that were 12 feet across. The male Irish Elk had come to depend on the size of his horns for his sexual desirability, and in the end it needed so much phosphorous to sustain these horns, that the entire species died out. Nate’s point was that conspicuous consumption has similarly become our way of demonstrating our sexual desirability, and likewise it could well end up being the end of us.

Human beings, he said, have evolved in such a way that we place short term gains of food and sex over long term thinking. Cheap oil and other fossil fuels have allowed us to grow, but still with the same underlying evolutionary urges. We have evolved as a part of natural selection. The scale of the peak oil crisis though, means that we need to start applying some lateral thinking, and trying to get beyond our evolutionary ‘programming’. He talked about discount rates, about the desire for pleasure now rather than in the future. Lottery winners apparently have ten times the rates of depression of non-Lottery winners.

The Aspiration Gap, the difference between what we have and what we think will make us happy and what actually does, continues however much we have. The amount we think will bring satisfaction is not absolute but is relative to where we are. As with any addiction, we continually need more in order to be able to get the same ‘high’. Key to a successful transition through peak oil will be our ability to replace the need for financial capital with social capital, and learn to base social prowess on how *few* things we have rather than how *many* things we have. The concept of ‘small is beautiful’ will need to become the driver for our sense of who we are.

It was all credit to the organisers of ASPO 6 that the conference began to open out into exploring new areas such as this, rather than just focusing on depletion. To begin to delve into the area of the psychology that got us into this mess in the first place, and how we’ll need to re-wire it in order to survive out the other side was important, and will become increasingly so.

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3 Comments

Albert Bates
1 Oct 1:56pm

One of Nate’s great throwaway lines will probably not make the DVD, but came in the panel discussion, when he was asked to comment on how to bring about a response to peak oil and climate change by the mainstream (I forget the question now) and he said it will take young women selecting men for traits that favor sustainability rather than competition, speed, brawn, or whatever traits they select on now.

Nate’s talk was also a high point of the conference for me. I have heard him speak before and I am familiar with the various indices that are probing ways to measure satisfaction with life, quality of living, health and happiness, as opposed to GDP, GNP, etc. Herman Daly, Robert Costanza and others have been plumbing this realm for many years. This exploration by Nate revealed a deeper tapestry of the psychology of transition, the bumps along the road to coping with addiction and consumption, and some real hope that we might actually evolve as humans as a result of what is about to happen. This is about our way of life going through a bath and coming out much sweeter smelling. I am looking forward to ASPO making this available as a downloadable powerpoint and DVD.

I also want to encourage Nate to write a book.

Wendy Bredhold
1 Oct 8:36pm

Supposedly, women “choose” on the basis of WSP (Wealth Status and Power), while men “choose” physical traits that suggest youth and fertility.

William Lucas
2 Oct 11:22pm

My wife is doing a PhD in positive psychology. In terms of the non-association between material wealth and happiness, I remember a graph she showed me that indicated a tapering off in terms of life satisfaction as soon as basic needs are met.