Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Why do we need jobs if we can have slaves working for us?

We normally assume that anything that creates jobs is a good thing, but is it, really? Is our current prosperity related to having "jobs"? Isn't it, rather, the result of the large number of "energy slaves" working for us in the form of fossil fuels? Today, everyone of us has probably more slaves in terms of available energy output than even the richest in the ancient world could have. But, in the ancient world, the rich Roman patricians knew the source of their wealth and practiced "otium" (a term untranslatable in English) intended as the search of pleasure and knowledge free from the needs of everyday survival - with their human slaves taking care of that. In our times, instead, we tend to neglect, or even actively deny, the role of our fossil slaves. We state, and maybe even believe, that our antics ("jobs") are what makes us live and we engage with gusto in the equivalent of digging holes in the ground and filling them up again: it seems to us a good way to please the deity we call "dʒiːdiːˈpiː" (or "GDP"). And we think that if the GDP God doesn't seem to favor us so much anymore, it is because we didn't dig enough holes, or not deep enough, and so we engage in a frenzy of more hole digging and hole filling which we call "job creation". But, deep down, we know that, sooner or later, our fossil slaves are going to evaporate into thin air and leave us to do the work ourselves. (U.B.)

This is a post by Nate Hagens and DJ White. Rich in ideas and concepts, it is longer than the average post on Cassandra's Legacy but well worth the effort of reading, savoring each sentence in it.  

Working drafts copyright ©2010-2017 - Not to be reproduced in any form without the explicit permission of the authors

by NJ Hagens & DJ White, EarthTrust

First, some review of relevant points:


1. Fossil carbon compounds are incredibly energy dense, as their formation and processing was done by geologic forces over deep time. One barrel of oil contains about 1700 kWh of work potential.Compared to an average human work day where 0.6kWh is generated, one barrel of oil, currently costing under than $50 to global citizens, contains about 10.5 years of human labor equivalence (4.5 years after conversion losses).

2. As such, these ‘fossil slaves’ are thousands of times cheaper than human labor. Applying large amounts of these ‘workers’ to tasks humans used to do manually or with animals has generated a gargantuan invisible labor force subsidizing humanity – building the scale and complexity of our industry, complexity, population, wages, profits, etc.

3. GDP - what nations aspire to - is a measure of finished goods and services generated in an economy. It is strongly correlated with energy use, and given that almost 90% of our primary energy use is fossil fuels, with their combustion. 'Burning stuff' (measuring how much primary energy is consumed) is a reasonable first approximation for GDP globally.

4. Regionally and nationally this relationship can decouple if the ‘heavy lifting’ of industrialization is done elsewhere, and the goods (and embodied energy) imported. (e.g. China). The relationship between global energy use (which is ~87% fossil fuel based) and GDP remains tightly linked.


5. The common political mantra that higher GDP creates social benefits by lifting all boats has become suspect since the 2008 recession and ‘recovery.’ For the first time in the history of the USA, we now have more bartenders and waitresses than manufacturing jobs. In order to
maximize dollar profits, it often makes more sense for corporations to mechanize and hire ‘fossil slaves’ than to hire ‘real workers.’ Real income peaked in the USA around 1970 for the bottom 50% of wage earners.

6. GDP only measures the 'goods' and doesn’t measure the 'bads' (externalities, social malaise, extinctions, pollution). Actually, natural disasters like oil spills and hurricanes are ostensibly great for GDP** because we have to build and burn more stuff to replace the damaged areas. (**Note, only to a point – once a country – e.g. Haiti or the Philippines - cannot afford to replace what was lost, then natural disasters become a sharp negative to GDP as infrastructure underpinning future GDP is lost and can’t be rebuilt)

7. On an ‘empty planet,’ pursuing GDP in order to gainfully employ people (and distribute money so they could buy needs and wants) seemed to make sense. However, on an ecologically full planet pursuing GDP with no other long-term plan is using up precious natural capital stocks just to maintain momentum and provide people brain-pleasing neurotransmitters.

8. There are numerous alternative measures to GDP that incorporate well-being and happiness and subtract environmental ills. But it won’t be easy to switch objectives from GDP to e.g. G.P.I. (Genuine Progress or Happiness) because the present creditors will expect to be paid back in real GDP ($) rather than happiness certificates. Still, over time, strict metrics of success based on consumption alone are likely to change.

9. There will likely be a growing disparity between ‘jobs’ (occupations that provide income and contribute to the global human heat engine) and ‘work’ (those tasks that need to be accomplished by individuals and society to procure and maintain basic needs). However, at 2015 USA wage rates, moving from $20 per barrel (the long-run average cost for oil), to $150 per barrel, the army of energy slaves declines from 22,000 per barrel to under 3,000 – meaning the economy shrinks and therefore much more work needs to be accomplished via efficiency improvements, real humans, or making do with less.

10. Our institutions and financial systems are based on expectations of continued GDP growth perpetually into the future. No serious government or institution entity forecasts the end of growth this century (at least not publicly).


Okay. Let’s unpack all of this a bit.

Often in the news today, you'll hear people talking about job growth and job creation like it's a good thing. Everybody wants a good job, right? The more jobs we have to do, the better off we are!

Yet if you kick open an anthill or a beehive, the insects will not be grateful for the sudden boost in job creation, and they will effectively utilize the cross-species language of biting and stinging to inform you of this opinion. From this we may infer that insects don't understand economics.

Alternately, it could it be that ants - having honed their behaviors for 130 million years and having attained a total biomass we have only recently (and temporarily) matched - might be in tune with some deep realities about jobs, energy, and the embodied cost of building complexity.

Since this is Reality 101, let’s ask some basic questions. What ARE jobs, really? How do they relate to energy and wealth? How do we keep track of whether we’re richer or poorer? We all kinda feel like we know. And (as a general rule) whenever “we kinda feel that we know” is the case, we should probably take a closer look.

To do so, we’ll first need to add a few things to our story about ants. We need to revisit our invisible energy slaves, discover what “freaks out” capuchin monkeys, and think about what wealth actually is.

Energy Slaves again

As you recall - and as we’ll discuss in greater detail as the course goes on - every American has over 500 invisible energy slaves working 24/7 for them. That is, the labor equivalent of 500 human workers, 24/7, every day of the year, mostly derived from burning fossil carbon and hydrocarbons.

Every American thus has a veritable army of invisible servants, which is why even those below the official poverty line live, for the most part, lives far more comfortable and lavish with respect to energy and stuff than kings and queens of old (but obviously not as high in social status). Being long dead and pulled from the ground - and thus a bit zombie-esque - these energy slaves don’t complain, don’t sleep, and don’t need to be fed. However, as we are increasingly learning, they do inhale, exhale, and leave behind waste. Since they’re invisible, we don’t think about these fossil helpers any more than we think about nitrogen (which happens to be 78% of what we breathe in, but hey, it’s just “there”, so why think about it?) Same with our 500 energy helpers. The extent we think about them is when we fill up at the pump or pay our electric bill – and then only as an outlay of our limited dollars.

We use the “slave” metaphor because it’s really a very good one, despite its pejorative label. Energy slaves do exactly the sort of things that human slaves and domestic animals previously did: things that fulfilled their masters’ needs and whims. And they do them faster. And cheaper. Indeed, it probably wasn’t a big coincidence that the world (and the USA) got around to freeing most of its human slaves only once industrialization started offering cheaper fossil-slave replacements.

The things we value are created with a combination of human and energy-slave work combined with natural capital (minerals and ores, soils and forests, etc.). There are huge amounts of embedded energy in the creation and operation of something like an iPad and the infrastructure which makes it work. When we tap our screen to view a kittycat picture, the image is pulled from a furiously spinning hard drive which may be halfway around the planet, propelled by some fossil slaves, and routed through data centers which are likewise fueled. The internet uses over a tenth of the world’s electricity - that’s a lot of energy slaves. The infrastructure itself has taken decades to build, and requires constantly increasing energy to maintain. But we don’t think much about that either.
So the internet is infrastructure we have invested energy in, just like a built anthill has been invested in with ant labor. If the internet (or an anthill) was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt, that situation would certainly create jobs. But it would also require a lot of energy, raw materials and work. Ants don’t have energy slaves, so they don’t want more work to do. They are dealing with finite energy inputs in their ecosystem. If more energy (ant-labor) is devoted to rebuilding the anthill, less energy is then left to care for the larvae, forage for food, and defend the hive.

Energy slaves don’t care either way about job creation. (Being zombies and all). But why do we?

Everybody wants a good job.

Remember this, because it’ll come up again and again in Reality101: evolution works with what it’s got. It’s a stepwise process, and each step is based on what was available in the step before. This is true both for biological and social evolution. That’s why there are no animals on the Serengeti with wheels: there’s no viable path to evolve wheels from feet, because even if there was a way of designing animals that had wheels, there are no viable intermediate stages. Hold that thought…

Now in times past, a human’s career, their societal function, was largely about their own individual labor and skills. A blacksmith worked with metal. A cooper made barrels. A shoemaker made shoes.

Others made furniture, cloth, or other valuable commodities. Farmers created food. Preachers preached. Others did simpler labor like digging ditches or cutting down trees. The relative value of their labor was roughly set by how much other humans valued the end product of such labor, so a skilled blacksmith might be able to trade his services for more status and better accommodations than a ditch digger. Thus, it became an integral part of human culture that the products of some work were considered more valuable than others. It became a mark of social status and pride to have such a career. Hold that thought too, we’ll be coming right back to it.

Cue the Screaming Monkeys.

“Equal Pay for Equal Work” is currently the slogan for those opposed to sexual discrimination, which is usually characterized by women getting paid less than men. And it’s a sentiment which has deep roots in the ape and even simian mind.

If you give capuchin monkeys the “job” of doing a nonsense task in exchange for a reward, they will happily do it all day long as long as they keep getting a reward - cucumber slices. But if a capuchin sees the monkey in the next cage get a (better tasting so higher value) grape while it still gets a cucumber slice, it’ll go ape, throwing the cucumber slice in the face of the experimenter in a rage. It gets the same cucumber slice it has been happy to work for before, but it no longer wants it, because it no longer feels fair in comparison to its cage mate’s effort and reward. Instead, it wants the experimenter and the other monkey to be punished for this inequity (we watched this video of Frans de Waals experiment in class).

Think for a moment how central this monkey reaction is to the human world around you. We’ll come back to it later in the course, and will refer to the term “capuchin fairness” because a similar mechanism turns out to be behind a great deal of human behavior. We’re outraged at the notion of somebody getting more reward than we do for doing the same thing. Indeed, many large-scale human institutions now stress perceived fairness of process over quality of end results. (A prominent example might be the US Congress). Moreover, this monkey-business also reiterates the concept of relative wealth being more important to a monkey mind (and a human mind, it turns out) than absolute wealth, which is kind of nuts, but that’s monkeys for you.

It turns out that our brains are simultaneously trying to optimize two different, and somewhat incompatible pursuits, both of which have deep evolutionary roots in our social species. One is energy gathering and wealth creation: obtaining food, procuring clothing and shelter – basically optimal foraging theory applied to the human biological organism. The other is equitable social distribution and transparency of process. A tribe of hunter-gatherers needed to cooperate as a mini super-organism to get food and defend territory and stand together against competitors. But within the tribe, an individual’s success depended on it getting a reasonable share of what the tribe had. We’re descended from tribe-members who insisted on at least their fair share, as is every living capuchin, so it’s not surprising it’s such a strong feeling. But when both of these instincts are operating simultaneously, in an era where our species happened upon a buried treasure of fossil pixie dust, some interesting practices emerged…

Ok. Ants. Monkeys. Energy Slaves. So where did “jobs” come from?

A funny thing happened on the way to the Anthropocene. To an ever-increasing degree over the last two centuries, wealth has been created more by fossil slaves than by human labor, significantly more - and it’s at its all-time peak about now. (you’ll have the information to derive this yourself by the end of this course).

If you don’t believe that, try hiring a bunch of people to push you and your SUV around hundreds of miles per week with their own muscles and see what it costs you, and then see how little it costs you to buy the same work in a tank of gasoline. In fact, the vast majority of the tasks and stuff that used to be done by human labor is now done by fossil slaves and the infrastructure they have enabled. The slaves have also made shipping nearly free, so any actual human labor we need can also be hired in the cheapest places on earth (under essentially slave labor conditions), and shipped to us by planes, trains, ships and trucks for next to nothing. So rather than buying furniture from local artisans, we make local firms compete with furniture made halfway across the world which is cheaply shipped to a local store. To a good first approximation, the USA doesn’t make anything anymore (well, movies…).

We have amassed a huge amount of wealth, even if much of it is dumb stuff like plastic toys and salad shooters and things that quickly break. There are so many things we think we want, so we get them. We eat salads with fresh veggies which may be grown 5000 miles away and air-flown to our stores by energy slaves running the planes, refrigerators, trucks, and stores. The average dinner travels over 1400 miles to get to your plate in USA.

We increasingly buy disposable everything - used once and tossed away. Most everything is short-life these days; when your authors were young if you bought a fan, you expected it to last 20+ years. Now if it lasts 2-3 before you toss it, that’s about par for the course. Planned obsolescence exists because it’s “good for GDP.” A new dishwasher now lasts 6-8 years when it used to last 12-16, because they now have integrated cheaper electronics that fail. Our GDP has become tethered to rapid product-replacement cycles keyed to our short attention spans and our enjoyment at buying new things. This creates “jobs” for car salesmen, advertising executives, etc., but has tilted the scales in favor of “useless GDP” rather than real societal utility. We know how to make things with high quality that last, but due to time bias and the financialization of the human experience, such an objective is relatively unimportant in our current culture. Many people get a new phone every 18 months with their cell plan, and perfectly functional ones wind up in the landfills.

But how should we distribute the largesse of the energy slaves? Does everyone get equal shares? Do we take the total number of dollars (which is the way we count such things) created by energy-slave work and divide them equally among the population?

Heavens no. We haven’t even acknowledged that the energy slaves are responsible. Rather, with a bit of help from opportunism, social evolution co-opted the pre-existing “work for pay” concept into an uneven distribution system that “felt” fair.

These days there are a lot of jobs in the USA, which keep us very busy not making much of anything of long term value. We do advertising, hairstyling, consulting, writing, and a lot of supervising of the things our fossil slaves do. We don’t care all that much what we’re doing as long as we feel we’re getting paid at least as well for the same task as the other capuchins – er... people - around us, and that with our compensation we can buy things that give us pleasing brain-reward experiences. These days in this culture, a “good job” is defined by how much it pays, not by what it accomplishes. Many people would consider it an optimum situation, a great job, to sit in a room for 40 hours per week and make $100,000 per year, just pulling a lever the way a capuchin does for a cucumber slice. You know they would (would you? Think about it. Now think about how that compares to the career you’re currently planning).

And that’s where the perceived equality is: the equality of inconvenience. The 40-hour work week is a social threshold of inconvenience endured, which is now what we keep primary social track of rather than the productive output of a person’s activity. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that wealth would increase 600% in the next century (which is only 15 years away) and because of this wealth, people would only need to work 15 hours per week. He was right about our wealth increase, but paradoxically, we are working longer hours than ever! Because socially, everyone who isn’t a criminal is supposed to have a job and endure roughly equivalent inconvenience. Any segment of society which went to a 15-hour work week would be treated as mooching freeloaders, and be pelted by cucumber slices and worse.

In a society in which we’re all basically idle royalty being catered to by fossil slaves, why do we place such a value on “jobs”? Well, partly because it’s how the allocation mechanism evolved, but there also exists considerable resentment against those who don’t work. Think of the vitriol with which people talk about “freeloaders” on society who don’t work a 40-hour week and who take food stamps. The fact is, that most of us are freeloaders when it comes down to it, but if we endure 40 hours of inconvenience per week, we meet the social criteria of having earned our banana pellets even if what we’re doing is stupid and useless, and realized to be stupid and useless. Indeed, a job that’s stupid and useless but pays a lot is highly prized.

So “jobs” per se aren’t intrinsically useful at all, which is why ants don’t want more of them. They’re mostly a co-opted, socially-evolved mechanism for wealth distribution and are very little about societal wealth creation. And they function to keep us busy and distract us from huge wealth disparity. We’re too busy making sure our co-workers don’t get grapes to do something as radical as call out and lynch the bankers. Keeping a population distracted may well be necessary to hold a modern nation together.

And since most of our wealth comes from invisible, mute slaves we don’t even think about, it isn’t clear to us that what we’re actually doing in current economies is distributing the wealth they create.

That means we can now have wild disparities in pay, as long as it “feels like” others are doing something qualitatively different. The amount paid to a wall street vice president is hugely greater than that paid to a college professor, which in turn is greater than that paid to an environmental campaigner. This has pretty much nothing to do with the relative worth of each function to society, and everything to do with how well-connected such jobs are to the flow of energy-slave-created wealth. Yet if higher pay is received by someone in another “tribe” who we don’t directly interact with, we don’t feel the urge to scream and throw our paycheck. We just wish we had a “better” job.

If we reflect on the possibility that we have en-masse simply accepted the premise that the job is somehow paid what it’s worth, we arrive at some disturbing conclusions. Is a teacher, farmer, or fireman really of less value to society than a real-estate flipper? The amounts paid for jobs have been allowed to float freely, detached from actual societal value as the degree of political connectedness of those with such jobs varies. The vast majority of our wealth comes from primary natural capital in tandem with fossil slaves and from the fruit of empire; jobs are mostly an ad-hoc mechanism for distributing this wealth unequally in a way which effectively conveys the illusion of egalitarian process.

For now, are most of us just idle princes and princesses in a fossil-slave kingdom, none of us really at huge risk, and mostly doing things which have little net value? And what happens when our fossil slaves grow wings and fly away into the atmosphere? What will the princes and princesses do then?

That’s just Gross.

This leads us to the story of how we keep track of our wealth and productivity and success. How DO we keep track of that collective wealth anyways?

Well for real wealth, mostly we don’t. The value of a healthy ecosystem, clean air, seas full of fish, fresh drinkable water… love, joy, happiness and fulfillment… all these things our market system considers to be of essentially zero value. Armadillos, dolphins, hummingbirds, rainforests… you get the idea.

But our economists have a metric called “gross domestic product” GDP which is what our society uses to roughly keep track of our ‘success’. It represents the dollar value of all finished goods and services produced in a time period (typically, a year) within a nation’s borders. Since that other stuff- you know, the natural world- doesn’t consist of finished goods and services, it isn’t counted (now if you kill the hummingbirds and make them into ornaments for hats, or turn armadillos into ashtrays, they then can be added to GDP because they’re now products which are “finished”!).

The fact that parts of the environment which have been “finished” are considered more valuable than parts which are “unfinished” is one way in which GDP sets a fairly screwy default value in our current world. It’s a tacit societal value system: anything without a transacted money value isn’t part of GDP. So a nation which chops down all its trees to sell to another country for firewood has a better GDP than one which leaves its trees standing. It’s a funny way to figure wealth, but it’s what we’ve got. And oh, by the way, we’re betting everything on it.

GDP is based on money transaction (money is, roughly speaking, a claim on future energy), and since most current wealth is created by our fossil energy slaves, GDP is directly tied to the energy burned by society. Indeed, it has recently been shown that GDP is tied to fossil fuel energy, and thus CO2, in a way which may be described very simply by treating human society as essentially a giant heat engine. In other words, a very simple model which treats human civilization as an essentially mindless consumptive system - a thermodynamic amoeba in search of energy - suffices to match the GDP with the quantity of energy burned.

And over the last 100 years, our burning of energy, and thus our world GDP, has gone through the roof. The number of dollars representing the wealth created from the burning has also increased, and exponentially so in the last 50 years, and since the 2008 crisis, even faster.

It may be reasonable to reflect that during this same period, sometimes called The Great Acceleration, the planet has been largely laid to waste, a mass extinction has accelerated, the seas have been depopulated of most fish, and the systems which sustain large complex life on earth have been progressively compromised. Yet we continue to grow the scale of the heat engine to accomplish the primary objective of the modern human economy: to maximize dollars and jobs.

Bear in mind that what we’re doing - if we get right down to it - is converting trillions of watts of fossil-slave energy into a few watts of pleasing stimulation inside our brains. (alternately: tiny amounts of brain-reward chemicals) And the side-effect of this process is all around us. Mountains of waste, acidified oceans, altered climates, pollution, mass extinctions, and mischief. Here we use “mischief” as the general term for things humans do en-route to pleasing themselves, which may include building racetracks, using disposable diapers, making wastebaskets out of elephant feet, overbuilding fishing fleets, throwing out our electronics every two years to replace them with new ones, etc. It doesn’t “feel like” waste at the time. But if you ask someone in 200 years what percent of fossil magic was wasted, they will likely say “all of it,” because not much useful fossil fuel (or anything previously built with it) will likely remain.

The ubiquity of fossil slavery during our lifetimes has caused us to conflate wants and needs. Most of what we “feel like” we need these days is nothing we evolved to need. Consumerism is driven largely by social competitiveness. Most capuchins – er…, people - find it more important to have a bigger house than their neighbors, than to have an even bigger house in a neighborhood where it’s the smallest one. Relative wealth - it’s not just for monkeys (we and the monkeys like fairness, but it feels more fair if we’ve got stuff at least as good as the people we interact with).

And this signaling of status is important socially and sexually. A lot of the things we feel we need are just for show.

And do you remember the “hedonic ratchet” effect from earlier discussions on bias, heuristics, fallacies and delusion? To get the same mental stimulation we got yesterday, we require the expectations of ever-increasing reward. That means more money and more energy slaves. Or at least the expectation of same.

Happiness is not correlated with wealth beyond having the basics of life covered. Most of the things which actually make us happy, joyful, and fulfilled are in our virtual mental worlds, and not in the physical world at all. A Filipino may have only a small percent of the number of energy slaves as an American, but be every bit as happy, and surveys have shown that to be true.57 It’s quite possible to be “poor” and happy. Equally, it’s quite possible to be rich and miserable. Our brains are even primed for it, seemingly.

So where does this leave us?

Well, you already know that our amoeba-like heat-engine of an economy is wrecking the earth, acidifying the seas, melting the polar caps, causing what could become the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years, and throwing our future into doubt.

But at least we have our good ol’ energy slaves to continue creating GDP. Right?


Thing is, the energy slaves will soon be going away forever. In the last 30 years we’ve burned a third of all fossil energy that has been used since it was discovered thousands of years ago. Since your authors have been alive, humans have used more energy than in the entire 200,000 year history of homo sapiens.

We are just now passing through the all-time peak of liquid hydrocarbon availability, which is the chief driver of our economies due to its special attributes.

Each year, basically from now on, most of us will have fewer fossil energy slaves marching behind us. You’d think this wouldn’t make much difference, right? Since they’re invisible anyhow? But in fact it’ll make a great deal of difference, because we’re heading back into times – either gradually or suddenly, but inexorably - in which human labor makes up an increasing percentage of the total energy we have available. One day human (and perhaps animal) labor will again be the majority of the work done in human societies – just like it is in an anthill.

And this will happen in the context of a more used-up natural world. Rather than being able to catch dinner by throwing a hook in the nearby ocean, the nearest healthy schools of fish may be ten thousand miles away in Antarctica, and hard to get to without dirt-cheap energy slaves to make giant refrigerated ships to pursue and move them around for us. The copper mines will be mostly used up. The inorganic phosphate deposits we used to make fertilizer, mostly gone. And so on.

Or rather than “gone,” let’s use the more accurate term energetically remote. That is, there will still be loads of “stuff” underground, but it won’t be the very pure ores of yesteryear. It’ll be stuff that requires digging up a huge amount of rock for a tiny amount of whatever we’re after. Because (remember the Easter candy story) we always use the best stuff first. Yet we’ll be going after worse and worse ore with fewer and fewer slaves. And the heavy breathing of the fossil slaves will have pulled our seas and climate back towards conditions in which they were born - a hellish primordial world of toxicity.

This all raises the question - or at least should - of whether it might not be a good idea to set the fossil slaves free and let them rest, since they’re going away soon anyhow and when they do we will really need a livable planet. They don’t need jobs, and we don’t need dollars for happiness. Yet this flies in the face of capuchin entitlement and evolved mechanisms for brain reward, which – in effect - take our current societal arrangements for granted. As our fossil slaves eventually retire – childless –we might have to rediscover the difference between jobs and work, just like the ants.

On GDP, Stone Heads and Babies

“Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?” Al Bartlett

So other than using up non-renewable resources and degrading the natural world, what other consequences can there be when maximizing GDP is our plan for the future?

Well, for one thing, it can lead us to really screwy societal choices.

For instance in the infamous Easter island culture, there was an organizing belief in belief that all food, resources, and other good things came from their dead ancestors, and that the way to make your dead ancestors happy was to build giant statues for them. This was actually not that different an organizing concept from GDP, in that both exhibit a near-hallucinatory level of disconnect from physical reality and ecology.

As ecological changes on Easter island worsened due to rats cutting into food supplies, it “made sense” to vastly ramp up the production of giant stone statues, making them ever-bigger (and hence presumably more pleasing to the dead ancestors... “too big to fail”, perhaps...). This was a colossal undertaking for a stone-age people using human muscle power, and required a lot of wood for rollers and leverage. So they cut the trees down, which caused erosion to begin washing away their productive farmland.

The worse things got, the harder they worked making stone giants. The final generation of stone giants never left the quarries - they were too big to move. As a part of this process, eventually the last large tree was cut down, which made sense based on their organizing beliefs, but was in retrospect not a good plan. It not only meant their fertile soil washed away, but meant they could no longer make boats to go fishing. So they starved, fought, and suffered a lot as their populations crashed.

For the Easter Islanders, erecting these stone monuments was an example of “jobs” masquerading as “work” - basically tasks done for social-obligation reasons that did not provide actual biological or group-fitness benefits. (do you think there may be modern-day equivalents?)
Today it’s easy to joke about these islanders and their “giant stone heads” as a high point in the history of human doofus-ness. Yet our adherence to GDP is a similarly skewed metric, equally detached from the realities of ecology, from human happiness, and from the potential for future generations with decent life quality. On a much larger scale, we too are eroding farm land (which these days is largely a dead medium used to hold the seeds in place and receive industrially-produced fertilizer and pesticides), destroying the ability to get fish (by wiping out fisheries), and, because of our numbers, mucking things up to a degree the Easter Islanders never reached.

We’ve already mentioned that - due to being blind to the energy slaves who do nearly everything for us - we now tend to conflate “jobs” with “work”, where “jobs” are just a social distribution mechanism for energy-slave largesse - an entitlement entwined with social status - and “work” is what is necessary to temporarily improves an individual, tribe, nation, or species’ circumstances.

We’ve also noted that we have folded “planned obsolescence” into most built consumer devices, so they break more quickly and require replacement, tuning their life-cycle to human whims and brain rewards rather than to real utility. Mostly we don’t really even want or expect gadgets to last as long as they used to; as long as we can afford it, we want the newer, cooler, stuff. And advertising helps keep our culture primed for it.

The fact is, we have designed a social system that requires growth. Money –really a claim on future energy and resources – comes into existence irrespective of whether such future energy and resources will be available. Each year we need growth in a household/city/state/nation/world to service and pay off monetary loans that were created previously. No serious government or institutional body has plans for anything other than continued growth into the future. Growth requires resource access and affordability but starts first with population.

So, right as our energy slaves are about to start going away forever, leaving 7-10 billion humans without the things they have come to take for granted, our nations have decided the answer is to make more babies! Yep, to raise GDP you need more demand for toys, diapers, teachers, etc… more jobs, because more jobs means more transactions which means more GDP! More GDP means “growth” so growth is good! China has just reversed its 1-child policy, which prevented massive starvations and slowed the horrendous assault on China’s environment. Many other nations, such as Japan, Germany, and Sweden, are now offering bonuses for getting pregnant. In Denmark advertising firms are encouraging couples to have more babies for the good of the economy via sexy commercials.61

Paradoxically, as traditional drivers of GDP growth – development of virgin land, credit expansion, low cost fossil fuels, and groundbreaking innovation- wane in their impact, there may be renewed incentives proposed not to shrink our population as ecology would advise, but instead to grow it! Currently we are having (as a species) over 120 million babies per year. This works out to over 335,000 human babies born every day – compared to a total extant population of all the other Great Apes (bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas) of about ~200,000! Since ‘demand” is considered a quasi-magical force in current economic theory, babies are considered to be good for business (yet children brought into the world now for GDP reasons will face some real challenges in their lives. Nate and DJ decided not to do that for a host of reasons).

China is building massive empty cities now. No kidding. Cities with nobody in them, ready to be moved into by the bonus babies to grow GDP. That’s edging perilously close to building giant stone heads.

When you get right down to Reality101 and the intermediate human future, this is actually worse than building giant stone heads, because stone heads don’t suffer, reproduce, or require further degradation of the ecology to provide for. In many real ways, the world and human species would be far better off if we immediately moved from GDP to “giant stone heads” as a metric for success (and say, doesn’t that imply to you that we might even do better than giant stone heads, if we put our minds to it?).
GDP sets a money value on everything in the natural world and in human experience, and the most important things are currently valued at or near “zero.” Yet as we’ve seen, GDP is currently tied to the work of fossil slaves, who will be gradually flying away. There’s no way, even in principle, for “growth” such as we’ve recently seen to continue indefinitely, and considerable data points to it ending quite soon. GDP will begin a long decline because it’s tied to finite realities in the physical world.

The good news, of course, is that GDP is an insane metric for success, just as “giant stone heads” was (though to give the Easter islanders their just due, at the time they had no evidence their belief was nuts, while in 2016 we have demonstrable proof that the conclusions of neoclassical economics are refuted by basic science). If we decide that we value happiness, quality of life, and a healthy planet with uncounted thousands of human generations left, we could in principle jettison GDP and do things differently.

It won’t be easy, only necessary. It’ll be easier to fail than succeed, for the societal inertia of a raging amoeba hungry for growth is a hard thing to change. Nothing much depends upon it other than the human destiny and the fate of complex life on the planet.

Learn to see the giant stone heads around you, and think about them.


  1. it's funny how I look down on the lazy person who wastes his time just lying in the sun, while I am hard at work earning money to pay for my well-deserved holiday when I can just lie in the sun for a week.

  2. >we could in principle jettison GDP and do things differently.

    I am sure you realize that social structures are not planned, but evolved.

    So, no, we could not jettison GDP. Eventually this way of living will die out and (with some luck) a new one will become dominant. With new giant stone heads.

    1. IIRC, GDP was only invented in the 1940s to keep track of wartime production. Even it's inventor warned that it was not an indicator of the overall health of the economy. So the idea that capitalism always had an autistic obsession with increasing GDP to the exclusion of everything else since it's beginnings isn't true.

    2. Neither was the Roman Empire always an empire. It does not mean it could suddenly stop being an empire, once it had become one.

      Nor was Russia always Communist, but it does not mean it could reform its way out of state control.

      The GDP thing was invented to prevent revolution in the West: the Socialists could not have a real revolution, but an always-expanding economy would keep the lower classes quiet. Consumerism was the next-best thing to a Workers' Paradise.

      We cannot do without GDP growth, the social contract would collapse.

      You cannot plan social structures. No one is so powerful.

  3. Tossing around a few nuclear cucumber slices has got to be good for GDP.

  4. I would be a bit more pleased by this article, if the author wouldn't use this cheap "we". "We" get more babies. "We" value GDP above everything. "We" build giant stone heads. "We" got used to fly two to four thousand miles each year into holidays. "We" toss gigantic amounts of plastic trash into the oceans. (ok, the last 2 are from me, but they fit in well). I insist to not belong to all those "we"s.
    Everybody who does, though, has a name, an address and a face. There is no such thing as this faceless, amophous "we"!
    Also, money isn't just a means to buy energy. Think of a Rembrandt. A diamond. Even think of a Maserati. There are many ways to define money and prices, one of the best is (IMO) the one of Marx, who relates them to the amount of human work needed to produce something, measured in hours of life, not in kilowatthours.
    Also there are ways to integrate less materialistic values into the GDP and get a grip on those famous externals. Think of organic food. Think of all the money, that went into solar and wind, which was a "bad" investment for quite a time span, and is just reaching threshold. (Not even yet, because the cost of storage and distribution isn't yet fully factored in.) There is such a thing as a societal price list, a societal value system which is partly unconscious and is beeing expressed in the wages we consider to be fair for a certain kind of job, the price we consider fair for a product. Imagine the EU at last manages to put a price of 30 or 50 € on each ton of CO2 emitted.
    What I like in this article is this ape example, to look on the "keeping up with the Joneses", this is really important, but it can work in two ways: if you give an example of a more responsible life, at the same time beeing happy and fulfilled and proud, may be some others want to keep up with you.
    Then of course there is the power of advertizing. Why not cut back on advertizing? It is constantly setting an ever higher standard of consumption, it is ratching up the bar every week, as if the party will go on forever like this. I have actually no good idea what to do about it.

  5. Very confronting metaphors, GDP as 'stone statues' for status seeking monkeys, jobs as 'make-work'. The favourite election slogan in Australia has been 'Jobs and Growth' Growth in GDP seems to cause reduction in meaningful, low harm work and reduction in biosphere life carrying capacity.
    I will praise the article by creating links to it on websites, facebook etc, so don't go and change the URL now. Too bad about the internet using up so much energy, and all our communications and knowledge content becoming dependent on it.

  6. You get better all the time Nate. While you and I agree on all these issues, what I like here is the use of the language and its understandability. It flows and tells a story that must be told. Whether this story goes beyond the members of this tribe is yet to be seen and I will tell you that even among the members of my local tribe it is almost impossible to relate much of this information without receiving a bit of derision. As one person pointed out in the comments, there are folks out there who are not totally part of the we, but even I who has tried all my life to be an outlier, I revel in my energy slaves like there is no tomorrow. I find it very difficult to be too concerned when I know that every 4.5 days there is another 1 million people and there is nothing we can do to offset that one fact. I remember yeas ago talking to Al Bartlett and realizing the issue of growth was part of the agenda of the gene and mitigation was probably an illusion--but you have a hint of hope. Is Reality 101 in print?

  7. We are not in economics land any more, even further from Reality-101. We have Monkey-nomics all day, all the way.
    Scientists claim capuchins 'understand using money' - and can even sniff out a bargain

  8. throughout the history of modern humankind, there seems to have been a need to use excess energy to create pointless structures to fulfil some kind of perceived reality, which to us is recognised as a myth.

    so you have Stonehenge, a colossal feat of engineering 5000 years ago, how? Because hunter gathering consumed too much day to day energy, whereas settled agriculture left energy to spare

    Same with the pyramids. Egypt was a wealthy country because of the surplus energy it produced. That surplus could be used to convert into the necessary muscle power to build great tombs and statues..
    The Chinese terracotta army is another example.
    The great cathedrals of our own time follow the same pattern

    As an contrasting example, the Inuit do not produce monuments because their climate leaves no excess for them

    Our fossil fuel era changed the dynamic on all that. Surplus energy allowed us to build our monuments wherever we wanted, so we have cities of 10m or more sitting in locations that are unsupportable without the surplus energy of fossil fuels.

    Our belief system insists that they will last forever, just as all the other great builders did. Their economic model made perfect sense. As ours does.

    Maybe the words of Shelley fit here:

    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

  9. An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

    The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

    The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

    The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

    To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”

    “But what then?” Asked the Mexican.

    The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”

    “Millions – then what?”

    The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

    1. Yes, exactly true. I basically consider myself retired at 37, because I see nothing in America worth working for anymore. Everything one works for in America now immediately eats up all of your work.

  10. To give you an idea of what energy slaves are, here are some videos showing how many people it takes to toast a single slice of bread or power an electric shower

    How much energy does it take to toast a single slice of Bread? Olympic Cyclist Vs. Toaster: Can He Power It?

    Human Power Shower – Bang goes the theory – BBC One

    I have 7 estimates of energyslaves by various experts here:

  11. If we are are correct about all of this, and I suspect we are, what it means is that a very small percentage of us in effect become parasitic rentiers, while the masses work for a future that never arrives, because by the time it does, there's just another rentier to collect their ounce of blood.

    Look at the evidence for yourself and then make up your mind. Wages flat since 1970s. Serial asset bubbles since 1990s. Industry offshored to cheapest possible locations. Resources in terminal decline. Trillions and trillions sitting idle in the pockets of the 1%. Masses of people spending their whole lives glued to smartphones and computer screens.

    Does any of this suggest to you we are living in a renaissance, or about to build colonies on the moon?

  12. Sorry about length and Parts 1 & 2.

    I do not know how much to take myself seriously. This is the future we are talking about! First a disclaimer: it is possible that many life-systems in the environment, (carbon and other nutrient cycles and so on) have already passed tipping points. If so, we do not know yet what these could be. Some essential biology could already be systematically poisoned with xenobiotics or nano-fragments having apocalyptic potential, but really we have no idea. Evidence of our scientific ignorance of matters we thought we understood fairly well, appears every week in the research journals.

    There is stuff however that we do know more about. I am going to sound critical, even if like the authors I too am not optimistic that industrial civilisation, if we can call it that, will solve any of its obvious predicaments by technological means (‘energy slaves go away’). In my view affluent countries will not be able to sustain BAU for long, nor will the world continue ‘economic growth’. Extravagancies such as mass motoring and air travel will go extinct at some point. The advantages of economies of scale and the global reach for resources will recede. (The expansion phase to date has been well described as an historical process; ‘Globalization & the Race for Resources’, Bunker and Ciccantell, 2005.) The ‘race’ is still ongoing. I am not sure of your analogy with the greedy amoeba but I agree that we may have seen already the last ‘doubling ’: aggregate world ‘economic growth’ surely comes to an end, possibly as soon as in the next decade or so.

    I would like, however, to get down to particularities. Firstly it is perhaps a trivial point, but I searched for ‘Easter Island reassessment’. There is interesting and it seems more complete multi-disciplinary archaeology. OK, sure, a good number of agrarian civilisations in the past have run their natural course into the ground; just I wouldn’t single out Easter Island.

    I think though we should very seriously consider the United States. I am thinking of its historical and future role. Notoriously the nation has not stayed within its boundaries in the race for resources. It was neither the first nor the only country to do so, but has been preeminent in the 20th Century and continues so to date. Its colossal imports of key resources– particularly crude oil - and other goods still constitute the major fact of global trade. One has to guess this will come to an end. Disproportionate seems to be the word, by a very wide margin.

    Nearly two decades ago I did a cursory look at what were essentially still non-industrial countries ‘making do’ with as little as 2% of the modern fuel inputs per person compared with the USA. Their populations were growing at a somewhat faster rate than the US population, but in terms of fossil fuel consumption an increase of 10 million US citizens was going to take up more fossil resource than that needed by half a billion extra persons in these other countries, other things being equal, (which of course in reality they are not). The point I am making is that we should think differently about their situation and ‘ours’. (Personally I think it is worth separating out just now from our discussion the eventual industrial trajectory of for example East Asia and any future civilisation that might emerge in their more constrained world, and think harder about, particularly, the USA.) continued ...

  13. continued ... Part 2
    We never were all going to become ‘Americans’, and clearly, high consumption in the USA is going to come to an end, but ‘how and when’ I have no idea. Europe including Britain and I suppose we had better include Japan, is in a similar predicament but in general is about half as extravagant as the USA.

    I would like to take on a study of modern and future farming and soil fertility, but ‘sufficient unto the day’ just now. Yes, the relationship between available(‘labile’) soil phosphate and crop yield is tricky, but hypothetically the USA has enough natural gas (synthetic soil N) to continue farming beyond the limits of natural soil fertility for perhaps centuries – and most of the modern ‘cost’ we see, including the fossil fuels, is in the secondary food industry, not in the primary production. Nevertheless specifically thinking of the USA, one guesses, the ‘food system’ along with other BAU, will not continue for more than a few decades and, for sure, a different nation / continent will result in a century or so, but I guess there is no immediate ‘carrying capacity’ apocalypse in waiting; just more general ragged economic decline and retreat.

    I did an amateur review a few years back of the ‘methane literature’ for/with Ugo, and looked at the dangers of triggering a future equivalent to the PETM. In my view this remains a possibility, dangerous but unlikely, although we wouldn’t know for sure for perhaps many centuries, given the uncertainty of climate feed-back resulting from what must be geologically a very short heat pulse. Having said that, irrespective of climate change, it seems obvious that all-cause global environmental damage is going to be colossal and in many places irremediable. (We can imagine many kinds of ‘desertification’ and ‘extinction’, some perhaps novel). But, quote, “Nothing much depends upon it other than the human destiny and the fate of complex life on the planet.” I sincerely doubt it. Empires and even civilisations run out of road faster than that, even these days.


  14. "China is building massive empty cities now. No kidding. Cities with nobody in them, ready to be moved into by the bonus babies to grow GDP. That’s edging perilously close to building giant stone heads."

    No it isn't. This "ghost cities" scare bullshit has been debunked many times. Please do your homework.

    China is in the process of building a new civilization, and moving HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of people into cities. They are only half-done with this project. Also, they view property as an investment, versus putting the money in the bank or stock market. And they are right: it is an investment, and a very sound one, because demand is exploding and will continue to explode for at least a couple more decades. There will be ups and downs along the way, perhaps even a crash or two. BFD. The long term trend is clear and all but inevitable.

    1. It sounds like a hoax, but it is not. Not completely, at least. It seems that China's laws generate a phenomenon for which the construction of new residential areas is very rapid, while then it takes some time for them to be populated. So, you could label these areas as "ghost towns" during the transitional phase. But they are being filled with people.

      But it is also true that Nate and DJ have a bit exaggerated in saying that "China is building massive empty cities now .... to be moved into by the bonus babies to grow GDP". These towns are not supposed to stay empty until a new generation of Chinese grows up!

  15. The comparison to stone carving on Easter Island is a good comparison to the useless jobs of modern life. I liked the comparison but I have to ask. When the stone carving was happening how many islanders were lucky enough to be a stone carver and how many islanders were unemployed?

    Can you imagine being an unemployed Easter Islander? No smokes or alcohol or anything else. No women, the stone carvers have them all. Nothing at all to do but starve. I'd be a stone carver if I could. The ruler would let you eat if you could pound stone.

    Easy energy caused exponential increase in energy use. Jevon's Paradox. The energy slave is a bit misleading because many of the energy slaves are working for other energy slaves and not men directly. It is a result of untamed and unplanned growth resulting from technology serving technology, something that can't continue as energy becomes expensive.

    The end result for Americans at the present time is to consume like it or not. Conspicuous consumption can be curbed by willful action but to survive in modern times forces consumption on us all. No national health care means you have to work or not really have any. Few of us have land to feed ourselves so we must work or not eat. It is sad the world is as it is but the majority see nothing wrong at all. This forces the rest of us to go along and participate in their madness. The infrastructure consumes and most see it as the natural order of things. We confuse the artificial with the natural and from this confusion our demise will result.

    It is easy to see the stupidity and waste of men. It is also easy to forget that we act as we do because some of us have no other choice. Fit in or die. For those of us fortunate enough to do otherwise, good for you!

  16. Let's not forget what kind of masters "we" are to our energy slaves. Efficiency of incandescent light bulb is 2%. Gasoline engine 25%, at best. Diesel engine used in big ships 50%, at best. We are very extravagant masters. We waste and dissipate most of energy used. Metabolic products from IC engines are dumped into the air anyway. Before any of this energy is available as "products" for sale, it is produced also using machines that are inefficient. Isn't it a crime? When is this destructive energy spending spree going to end?

  17. In all of my born days, work is the best solution to keep from starving, everything you do is work.

    There are stone heads on Mount Rushmore. American gods that play a similar role as the Easter Island stone heads, they more or less allow everything to be exploited. The same for the Crazy Horse monument.

    I see abandoned small towns all over the place in my neck of the woods. Empty towns that were once filled with people, a place to live and work. Now all gone.

    In my opinion,this piece is plagiarism, not at all original. David Price's essay 'Energy and Human Evolution' has covered the subject matter extensively and I see no citation of his work.

    Today, the extrasomatic energy used by people around the world is equal to the work of some 280 billion men. It is as if every man, woman, and child in the world had 50 slaves. In a technological society such as the United States, every person has more than 200 such "ghost slaves."

    Have a good day.

  18. I attempted an "energy slaves" calculation independently of proper knowledge. It was easy to look up energy/unit of fossil fuel. But what is the energy output of a human worker. Based on stories of lumberjacks with crosscut saws who ate 5000 kcal/day and a rough calculation that walking 30 km takes about 6 hours and 2000 kcal, and that basal metabolism is about 2000 kcal (talking about adult male here), I thought 2000 kcal/day of work would be about right. Is that estimate too high? Would make a gallon of petrol equal about 15 days of human work output. My other insight was that with a workforce participation rate about .65, or dependency ratio .35 and the need to feed dependents (we need kids and women and old folks for a human worker to exist), that would end up with an EROI about 1/3. 2000kcal/day output for 6,000kcal/day input. So humans are not very high output machines. No wonder incomes increased by a factor of 10 or more since we began burning fossil fuels with EROI of 10/1 to 200/1. I should have left all this out and just asked: How do we do an EROI calculation for human labor? How do we compare human labor to fossil fuel energy slaves? Thanks if anybody can refer me to a good energy slaves analysis.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)