The Energy Field of Nate Hagens

Perspectives on the energy of consumption and its cost to society, from former Wall Street trader-turned-academic Nate Hagens.

Nate_Hagens-1After a decade living the “high life” as a Wall Street trader, in 2003 Nate Hagens left to become a professional hiker and student, and now enjoys living the “low life” with his dogs on a farm in Wisconsin, collaborating with people like one of the early Greenpeace strategists, and teaching an interdisciplinary honors course at the U of M called Reality 101: Or, a Survey of the Human Predicament.

Hagens has a masters in finance from the University of Chicago, and a doctorate in natural resources from the University of Vermont. He believes that measuring resources in biophysical terms — e.g., how much energy and water it takes to get a barrel of oil, as opposed to dollar terms — gives society a clearer sense of reality. At what level does cost reduce benefit? Who is measuring the costs? Who is defining the measurement?

Thanks to an interesting meeting with students hosted by the University of Minnesota Energy Club, I was able to sit in on a group discussion with Hagens. Questions included:

Hagens talked about how we don’t need more facts, but “intelligent raging” that takes a systems view to the human predicament that ultimately poses the question “How did we get here, and what do we aspire to be as a species?”

Highlights of the Conversation

  • Hagens believes more people should understand oil to be the magic pixie dust that drives our society — instead of dollars and financial measures that are just proxies for natural capital. But as nominal energy prices get cheaper – gas is under $2 a gallon today – we “won’t change until we have to” because “leaders focus their decisions on the simple story of what we pay at the pump.”
  • The TP scandal of Johnny CarsonHe told the story of Johnny Carson who joked in 1973 that a toilet paper shortage was looming. For four months after, a black market in toilet paper existed and store owners could not keep enough supply on hand to satisfy a pop-culture frenzied panic.
  • We use new technology to design solutions that maximize profits – often to displace human labor – rather than improving our long-term resiliency. One student with roots in India added that his culture has adopted solar energy more quickly than Americans partly because it is an easier way to heat water than what we’ve grown used to in the West. “Sun and wind and geothermal are great options as renewable energy sources,” Hagens said. “But not this society, not with this footprint.” Ultimately our friends in India – where 65% of the population farms compared to America’s 2% — will fare better when resiliency becomes more relevant. Their expectations are lower and they know their food comes from soil, sunlight, water and work, instead of at a grocery store.
  • Modern industries are built around 24/7 access to electricity. When as individuals we learn to re-appreciate a life that doesn’t require uninterrupted power, he believes, we might reach our stronger potential as a society. Perhaps a world in which dolphins and hummingbirds and elephants have value in a 100- or 500-year plan of our making.
  • Ultimately we are hitting social limits to growth before hard resource limits — this will manifest with crushing poverty affecting the bottom half of the population – then the bottom two-thirds. On a social health score – measured by rates of obesity, murder, suicide, prison, economic inequality – the United States compares poorly to Scandinavian countries and Japan.
  • There are smart people on all sides of the climate change issue, but it is what we are doing to our oceans that we don’t talk enough about. “We’re using our oceans as a buffer to let us burn fossil fuels for about 50 more years – and in the process acidifying ocean ecosystems and food webs, for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.” And no one even talks about that possibility.
  • The U.S. makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but we use 25% of the oil, 50% of the toys and 50% of the medical prescriptions. (See this short Scientific American article for more, or this extensive National Geographic Greendex report.)

Ours is not a battle of climate or energy so much as a “human brain problem,” he said. We’ve tackled conversation about cleaning our rivers, but the macro issues — like climate change and end of growth — go nowhere because we value fairness of process over results. We solve physical world problems using social sorting mechanisms.

In one of Hagens’ extensive writings on the topic of energy from his The Oil Drum archives, he suggests this assignment. Think of or write down the 10 things in life that you most enjoy or like to do. Then, imagine you could only choose 3 from that list. What type of things would those be? Compare the wide boundary energy/ecological expenditures of your favorite 3 versus the other 7. More or less?

Seeking Solution

Hagens believes in connecting with students, he said, because they “have the potential to be the superheroes” of this new society. “The science is already here” to create a new kind of society, he said. “It takes creative thinking to figure out how to fit it all together.” It is the challenge of the new generation to choose sides between a livable world and a Trump-like vision of society.

Individuals at the grassroots level ultimately have more power than whoever is sitting in the White House, Hagens said, because the President has no freedom, surrounded by economic advisers who are “demon gatekeepers,” he joked. It is up to individuals like us, he said, to “change what we aspire to be.”

Without evoking emotions about the loss of a natural world and a more livable, humane society, we sink into wider and deeper poverty overall. The default path is we will simply Vine and Facebook ourselves into decay, he indicated. A recent study found that the top 20 Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of our population combined.

“What do we really want?” he asked again. “If the answer is heaven and quarterly earnings, we’re screwed.”