The Great Simplification

SIMPLIFICATION-the work of Nate Hagens presented to Columbia
Friends Meeting, on August 21, 2022 by Alice M. Wald

Nate Hagens does. He is the Director of the Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future. He holds a Master’s degree in Finance from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. He teaches an Honors course titled “Reality 101” at the University of Minnesota.

orange steel canopy
Photo by Matheus Cenali on

My remarks today are directly from his thinking. The references are a 32 minute video titled “The Great Simplification” that premiered on May 19, 2022 and a series of 7 talks via videos.

Video #1 focuses on evolutionary human behavior which is extremely relevant to our situation currently. Some important points are that our ancestors lived in bands of 50–150 people. It was a time when humans didn’t have a lot but there was enough. Our ancestors cooperated and shared what there was. They moved about with nature’s rhythms. As humans we became other regarding
and empathetic.

Then came the creation of agriculture with its major shifts for humans.

  1. they could now stay put
  2. food was produced in excess of what was needed
  3. excesses of food could be stored or traded which allowed for a focus on accumulation. This meant that some had more, and others had less. I dare say it was the beginning of inequality.
  4. it allowed for the beginning of today’s population explosion

Video #2 is titled The Carbon Pulse and had several takeaways for me:
First, with the discovery of oil under the earth’s surface, we forgot that one barrel of oil is equal to 4 ½ years of human labor. Ultimately our culture has become energy blind.

Second, we are just taking oil from the ground with no accounting for the tens of millions of years mother nature took to create it. Additionally, there has been no accounting for the pollution that is caused, nor the carbon dioxide streams that are released into the atmosphere.

Third, with this great seemingly endless carbon pulse of energy we have
financialized the human experience, making life all about money and wealth.

Video #3 focuses on the Human Condition in a Changing World and the relevance of our ancestral brain. This relevance is that we humans today have the same minds as humans 50 million years ago. Biology determines what we need, and culture determines how we get it. Right now, the average American uses 100 times more energy than is needed. Humans today are seeking the same responses via our neurotransmitters that our ancestors were seeking. These include serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and other hormone related feelings. Understanding our brains is vital to
understanding what interventions will work in the coming decades.

Video #4 focuses on the human impact on the environment. It seems to me that PBS is really engaging with this. A lot of the assumptions we have about the next 50-60 years are energy blind. Some of these include that humans will be more advanced, richer, more technology savvy. The fact of the matter is that technology just generally grows consumption.

Video #5 is titled “The Great Simplification.” What does it mean? As far as I can see, there is no 1, 2, 3 definitions. Rather it is an overall approach to life and living that comes with a shift in perspective. The need for a great simplification must register deep in our limbic system (some would say our hearts). Today we are still 99% better off than our ancestors from a wealth perspective. We have kicked the can down the road for 50 years now, wasting a lot of time. We would do well to appreciate and understand the peaking of energy very soon and the need for more conservation. As things get more expensive, we will have to make them last longer.

However, we are not getting signals of a great simplification in the next decade. Perhaps something akin to the 1930s in the U.S. We will have to navigate that shift to using less energy and materials and creating less waste. After oil declines there is going to be less which means that things will be tougher. But we have way more than we need. For example, our bodies use 100 times more energy than we need. We will have to get by with less stuff and appreciate that more broadly. We are going to have to measure our success by something other than GDP and the markets as eventually we won’t have energy and materials to keep growing.

Video #6 is about the myths that we live by. Hagens discusses 20 out of 40 that he has identified. He suggests that we need to change our cultural stories and tether them more in the bio-physical reality. A lot of these myths are leading us into dead end futures. For example, “Growth is forever.”

Hagens thinks that all futures are not equivalent. For example, an increase of 2 degrees Celsius in the next 100 years, is far better than a 2 ½ degree Celsius increase. What we are trying to do is change the initial conditions of these future events without knowing exactly what is going to happen. Any things that we can do to smooth that descent will be beneficial.

From a global perspective, in the coming decades we will have to deal with less resources per capita. However, we don’t see this because it is being papered over with financial manipulations. We need to change our expectations away from growth and stuff as signs of our success.

Hagens is pretty confident that we will have to gradually or suddenly change our cultural objectives or at least have a complimentary matrix other than quarterly earnings. Facing limits to our economic growth will carry over into the societal, political, and geophysical realms. He strongly believes we have to bend toward a gradual descent down rather than something abrupt and sharp. Collapse would be worse and could involve a nuclear exchange for example.

Hagens has concluded that 90% of people are in these two camps. The first is that technology will solve our problems somehow since it always has. So we don’t really have to do anything, and the future is rosy. The second camp is people who feel so overwhelmed with no hope and see no possibility of a way out. They don’t think there is really anything that we can do.

Video #7 focuses on “What we can do.” Hagens identifies 3 broad categories of efforts: coping, thriving, and engaging. First, unless we can cope with all the stress and anxiety and toxic information that we learn about what is going on in the world, we are not going to be able to function in these issues.

The second effort is around “How do we thrive at this time?” He suggests that we start with a serious conversation with ourselves about what we care about. What is important to you? What does it mean to you to be alive today? Let these intrinsic measures be how you measure yourself worth.

A further recommendation re: thriving is to “avoid the shallows.” As humans we will be having all of these decisions to make and over time if we are not careful, we will find ourselves choosing the easier path. And as our attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter, we don’t experience the deeper and richer aspects of being human because we are so addicted to the short-term stimuli provided by technology. A corollary to this is: don’t give up so easily and allow yourself to fall into ruts.

The third kind of effort is engaging. How do we play a role in what our culture and species is facing? How do we intervene in a leveraged, targeted way?

Once we are emotionally and physically stable and coping with what is going on, it is important to engage with what is going on, to continually make ourselves better and improve and set goals for ourselves using our cognitive minds to trump our emotions in the moments that can lead us to a weak decision.

According to Hagens the idea is to have social shifts with downward trends. However, very few people are getting the signals that this is what is needed. Are you getting them?

Hagens doesn’t think there is a linear path to the future. In fact, we are faced sim-
simultaneously with several giant hurdles:

-trust in the media
-trust in our fellow countrymen and women
-trust in institutions
-and trust in the functioning of our government with its alternative facts, deniers, etc.

As he sees it, all of these things will have to be dealt with simultaneously. Plus, in the next decade a lot of things are going to be out of our control.

It is OK to grieve and be sad for a future we thought we would have but won’t. Instead, we will likely be living thru a slow-motion tragedy. Don’t let it overwhelm you.

We will have to deal with the social polarization issue. In Hagens words, there are so many tribes right now, it is difficult to have a cohesive message like getting 12 adults together to paint a school when the government has less resources. Unless we address our societal contract; we are not going to be able to address those longer-term challenges.

One of the biggest hurdles is conversations with people who disagree with us in our communities and political governing bodies. Hagens commented about how society is swinging back and forth from the left to the right and wondered if society may have to break. He doesn’t know…

However, lots of individuals are starting to change their perspectives and networks and knowledge and their spirit of what do they do with their lives as they are living thru this crazy tumultuous time. Hagens firmly believes that different ways of living and being together are going to be at the core of adaptation.

He thinks we will have to re-localize basic things like food, textiles, tires, things that are too precious to rely on from countries that have the least cost labor-wise. We will still have international trade, especially for really important luxury products.

More things to do from a political lens include depolarizing our political discourse.
We have to have conversations with people with whom we disagree and get to a
place of: let’s roll up our sleeves and get some stuff done in a community sort of way.

Hagens also suggests some creative taxation. The first is to simultaneously remove
all taxes on human income and labor which implies a smaller economy. Politically
this could not happen now but maybe in the future.

Furthermore, it is important to have companies pay how much it costs to get nature’s resources out of the ground. That will be more costly, but it will spur innovation and conservation.

In the future, Hagens suggests a tax on non-renewable inputs not just hydrocarbons and copper for example. It is important to tax them in relation to the cost of renewable technology and energy. Of course, renewable technology and conservation will be dramatically more expensive. The broad goal here is to have less non-renewable inputs while emitting less waste.

Another intervention is to have a complementary or parallel metric to GDP which is more tethered to well-being. One of the projects he is working on is “How are” It would have metrics to measure how people are doing in their actual lives and comparing them to other states and countries.

Per Hagens, human culture is not going to change meaningfully until there is a crisis. Whatever happens, we have to prepare for it the best we can. So that when it comes, we can take the better fork in the road as individuals and cultures.
How do you prepare for that when the cultural narrative is that technology and the
markets will solve things for us?

3, 5, 7 years when growth starts to decrease, we can have a much larger chance at
influencing what happens. Another act of a coping idea is to be kind to yourself, be a friend to
yourself. We can’t do everything.
Now, more about our behavior and how we are wired: our brains are targeted to
have empathy for one human being at a time. When we are faced with a bunch of
people, it becomes “psychic numbing”.

In history when there are hard times, the vast majority of people help each other out.
Therefore, we need to maintain our systems of connecting to one another.

As humans, we have both a competitive and a co-operative aspect to ourselves.
The caveat is that lots of times in the past our cooperativeness was versus another
tribe or group.

Another behavioral concept that was new to me is that of “prepared learning.” For
example, we come prepared to be more afraid of snakes than cars. It is not
exactly hard wiring when we are influenced by our families and perhaps by Spirit.
Humans can change quite a bit but not infinitely.

The human brain hates dissonance. So we trick ourselves into having a more
certain view of the future than exists. What exactly is dissonance? As I understand
its definition, its major use is related to music. From the dictionary: “a harsh or
disagreeable combination of sounds; discord; want of agreement or consistency.”

So the human brain likes to solve dissonance. Where we need to be is somewhere
in the middle of extremes and taking responsibility for how things will be. We
need to learn how to hold dissonance in our minds.

Said another way, uncertainty feels bad. It leaves us feeling discomfort so that we
can’t focus and enjoy things when we are worried about something that we haven’t
resolved. It is hard, but important, to train yourself to accept a little uncertainty.

Another coping strategy is to recognize that certain things in our future are out of
our control. However, it is also important to recognize the things that we can control,
like growing some herbs. The things that you can do tend to lower your cortizol and
increase your t-cells which are good for your immune system and are a way of
owning a little bit of your future.

Another coping mechanism is to take advantage of our modular minds which is also called “compartmentalization”. We cannot live with grief 24/7 so we need to develop
skills for coping and thriving and then go and do things. From a biological standpoint, relative comparisons matter more than absolutes to us humans. So, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others by societal metrics. As evolved creatures, we care about relative comparisons; we care little about absolute wealth.

We need a mind shift to train ourselves to be happy with what we have and to care
less about what neighbors have that we don’t. As Friends we already know this.

Another characteristic of humans is that we discount the future. We can’t see it
and it doesn’t register in our limbic system. So it is a challenge to get to long
term thinking. As biological organisms, we infinitely care more about this weekend
than 10-50 years from now. We can conceive of the year 2050 but there is no
emotional influence on our behavior.

Hagens suggests that we cognitively imagine a future using less. Simplify
first and then train your brain to use less and need less. It means getting rid of
things that are not bringing us joy or that we don’t need. Remember, we buy
stuff because of 24/7 marketing and because we can.

We really need a change in cultural aspirations and that usually takes a long
time. Not everyone is going to buy this story of limits, making hard choices, and
a great simplification.

Hagens suggests trying to be more effective at larger scales. We have to ask
ourselves “why” we are doing these things. According to Hagens, “why” matters
more than anything. Above all, we need people who are passionate about what
matters to them. There are so many unknowns about the future.
So, find a core group of people that care deeply and begin to take action. As
Hagens likes to say: find your tribe that shares your values and goals.

Another relevant concept is that of “intermittence.” The sun doesn’t always shine.
Therefore, a renewable future is going to be a little bit different than the 24/7 access
to energy services we have come to expect. So be ready to embrace a
more intermittent kind of existence, like not eating every six hours.

Further, lean into your fear a little bit. Moving toward it in the right circumstances helps to overcome it. Hagens also sees a real risk of losing ourselves to technology, to the immediate stimulation of a tweet, for example, in this time when we are going to have to engage with the real physical and social world.

Hagens’ final thoughts:
The great simplification is not about keeping carbon in the ground but about
keeping civilization and society functioning in these cascades in the coming

MY last word comes from a recent story titled “Saving Methuselah” about a
bristle-cone pine in the American West. It is the oldest documented one, thus
its name. Methuselah was a sapling when the ancient Egyptians built
pyramids more than 4,500 years ago. The author writes and I quote:

“The secret to their survival is their ability to withstand what others cannot.”