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"The Great Simplification" Podcast Review by The Eco-Worrier

with Nate Hagens

A former Wall Street trader may seem an unlikely candidate for The Eco-Worrier’s attention. Fortunately for us, Nate Hagens, an acute observer both of the natural world and of human nature, moved on. As one example, he noticed in that first career how clients unfailingly said that once they had made $100m they would retire. They never did. They always spotted their fellow-investors making $200m or $500m so a mad, competitive compulsion relentlessly drove them on.

Hagen’s main investment speciality area was oil. His vigilant financier’s eye for market trends and geopolitics led to a fascination with the concept of ‘Peak Oil’.  It argues that, because oil is a finite resource, at some stage production must reach a peak and logically fall into a terminal  decline. The consequences for an ever-growing global economy to which oil is the vital lifeblood are unimaginable. The theory had originated with petroleum geologist M King Hubbert, who had predicted as early as 1956 that US oil production would reach maximum output in 1970. Despite all of his critics, Hubbert was right and for 38 years onshore production in the US declined. 

The day was saved by new oil discoveries around the world; in Alaska and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, Brazil and elsewhere. These allowed production to continue to rise and the world economy to grow on an increasingly unsustainable scale until a new ‘peak’, this time globally, arrived in 2010. Any chart of North Sea production illustrates its rise and decline. Hagen’s enquiring mind and disillusion with the blinkered obsessions of Wall Street led him to leave and move to Vermont where he gained a PhD in Resource Management. He then taught a radical university course for 9 years, focusing on the contradictions, limitations and false assumptions of mainstream growth-obsessed economic theory on this obviously-finite planet. He is today the Director of The Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future (ISEOF).

Since global conventional oil production began to decline, its growth over the last few years has relied on Canada’s tar-sands and the application of ‘fracking’ in certain areas of the US. These are different to the usual ‘reservoirs’ of oil contained in porous rock, where a well can be drilled and once a pump is installed, can operate for years. In contrast, fracked wells, which mainly produce natural gas, are short-lived. Drilling has to be constantly repeated into the relatively dense rock.  A mixture of water, sand and chemicals are pumped down the new well at such extreme pressure that the rock deep underground is shattered; the sand disperses into the cracks, holding the pores open so that the chemicals can release the gas and its associated oil. 

As in all human activities, the ‘low-hanging fruit’ is tackled first, so ever-increasing investment and energy have to be employed to keep the gas and oil flowing. Hagens argues that global production, including fracking, has today reached its ultimate maximum and that decline is soon inevitable. It should be remembered that half of the oil burned in history has been consumed in the few years since 1995 and also that, despite the gradual introduction of renewable electricity sources and electric cars, global oil demand is still rising.

Hagens argues that we are not only facing the crises of global warming, biodiversity loss, water and farmland shortages, mass-migration and political instability, but that a wider energy shortage is in the offing too. One of the more positive claims he makes is that the coming restraints on affordable oil will make the worse-case scenarios of ever-rising global heating unlikely, but with the proviso that we must not go back to burning coal.

After years of research he has concluded that the best description of the sheer scale of today’s human activity with its insatiable demands for energy and resources is a ‘Superorganism’ which is overwhelming the planet’s life-support systems. He argues that the solution cannot lie in a ‘Green Transition’ or ‘Net Zero’, both based on the vain hope of continuing today’s vast and destructive consumer society by simply replacing fossil-fuels with renewables through yet more ‘economic growth’. He explains that economic growth has historically only ever risen in lock-step with growing consumption of cheap fossil fuels. Without them we will move into a ‘post-growth’ era.     

Instead, he argues that we must dramatically reduce our expectations in terms of, for example, energy use, travel and buying ‘stuff’, none of which are actually making us happier as individuals or as a society. Hagens believes that the world has been led by two-dimensional economics into a dangerous cul-de-sac and that the sooner we adopt more rational values than ever-rising GDP the easier the transition will be.  He laments the fact that our selfish consumer society and modern communications with their ‘virtual’ and online ‘communities’ have caused huge, yet unacknowledged damage to the real world and its real, living communities.

It was the result of these carefully-weighed concerns which led Hagens to develop his Podcast. Its purpose is to widen public awareness of the breadth and depth of the multiple challenges which have been created for humanity during the relatively brief ‘Carbon Pulse’ during which we gained temporary access to the unprecedented power contained in fossil fuels.  How many of us realise that a single barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of 11 years of manual labour?

The Podcast involves a solid discussion with some of the world’s leading experts on a vast array of  topics and explores how their specialism relates to the bigger picture. His guests are not only world-respected scientists and academics in their respective fields, but they are also aware of the world’s broader predicament. Each episode takes the form on an online one-to-one discussion lasting around 90 minutes. Their international scope means that some are speaking English as a second language. A few also talk very fast , so a PDF transcript conveniently accompanies each broadcast. Some are audio-only, while others also use YouTube. There are now well over 100 of these in-depth conversations covering everything from Anthropology to Zoology, including leading Economists, Psychiatrists, Sociologists, Astronomers, Geologists and Oceanographers. 

Some of Hagens’ discussions, perhaps especially those with Psychologists and Neuroscientists are challenging, but almost without fail they are lively, enlightening and thought-provoking. In a smaller number of short 15 minute monologues he ponders on specific issues. He labels these his ‘Franklys’.  There is also a handful of short, animated films.

There is a vast amount of information contained in this website, yet, time after time, the frequently-occurring thread is the need to show respect for and even sense the sacredness of the ‘real, living world’ whether in the form of human communities, other species and the natural cycles which support all life.  An earlier ecological economist, Howard Odum nicely describes this awe-inspiring process;

With the turning of the Earth, the Sun comes up on the fields, forests and fjords of the biosphere, and everywhere within the light there is a great breath as tons upon tons of oxygen are released from the living photo-chemical surfaces of green plants which are becoming charged with food storages by the onrush of solar photons. Then, when the Sun passes in shadows before the night, there is a great exhalation as the oxygen is burned and carbon dioxide pours out, the net result of the maintenance activity of the living machinery.  During the day while the oxygen is generated, a great sheet of new chemical potential in the form of new organic matter lies newborn about the Earth, but as the oxygen is consumed in the darkness, the organic matter disappears like firewood in a bonfire and releases heat through the night”.

By The Eco-Worrier



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