Humanity’s strength is in groups. In fact, It is our way of cooperating and communicating together in small and large groups that has allowed us to become a dominant form of life on Earth.
On the other hand, the most important thing that we share with all other living things is our need for energy.
In fact, human evolution is intimately linked to the need for energy. The development of walking millions of years ago made it easier for proto-humans to go out on the savannah and get food; The invention of stone tools for hunting and dressing meat gave access to a vital source of energy needed to support the growth and development of the larger brain size of modern human beings; The mastering of fire; and then, hundreds of thousands of years later, the domestication of plants and animals, and the development of warfare and slavery — all these major changes and innovations can be seen as ways of capturing greater and greater amounts of energy.
As the form of energy that humans have been able to access has become more and more concentrated, our power to extract from and to transform the earth has expanded exponentially.
Our present industrial civilization has grown and prospered for the last two hundred and fifty years in lock-step with our growing use of fossil fuels. The expansion of human population, industrial infrastructure, our transportation and communication and international trade systems are all dependent on the highly concentrated form of energy that comes from coal, oil, and natural gas.
Imagine our modern world without cars, trucks, buses, freight trains, heavy equipment, motorboats, ocean-going tankers, chain-saws and anything else that runs on fossil fuels. It would be a very different world. We would not be able to live in the same houses, eat the same foods, travel to the same destinations, or enjoy the same entertainment without fossil fuels.
With a global economy, for the first time in history billions of people are poised to achieve the same fossil fuel hungry life-styles that we have, here in North America. But will that actually happen?
As the easy-to-get oil has mostly gone we are rapidly reaching diminishing returns, as we turn to the extraction of tar sands oil and tight oil and gas from fracking. These unconventional forms of fossil fuels are a lot harder to get out of the ground than conventional oil and gas. They require vastly greater expenditures for infrastructure as well as bigger flows of resources like water, natural gas and condensate. And they leave a much larger ecological footprint and have a far greater output of greenhouse gases.
But the real reason that unconventionals are a dead end is that with each passing decade, the amount of net energy gained from these extraction techniques becomes smaller and smaller. In economics, this is called “diminishing returns” and it implies that as we throw more time and money at getting the oil out of the ground and refining it, we will be getting less economic product for our troubles. Because almost every contemporary economic activity is dependent on fossil fuels it is inevitable that our economies will slow down and start to contract, as a result.
We are trending towards more and more resources and effort going into extracting fossil fuels and less of these resources available for human health and welfare. As a result, we can expect to see future declines in life-expectancy and increases in chronic respiratory disease.
For two hundred and fifty years cheap fossil fuels have fueled the growth of the economy. This growth has had dangerous hidden costs. Costs that, over time, have deeply undermined our ability to survive and sustain our civilization.
Economies grow by appropriating the natural commons. Size matters — eventually the sheer amount of extracting, manufacturing, consuming, and wasting begins to overwhelm ecosystems. The probability of ecosystem collapse then raises the possibility of human extinction. This is a risk we don’t want to take.
The two most important ways to stop ecosystem collapse: stopping fossil fuel use and stopping economic growth — will happen together inevitably, because of diminishing returns.
For most people abandoning fossil fuels makes little sense. Cars and electricity are very useful. But the global economic system is locked in a spiral of self-destruction caused by economic growth itself. As economies grow, they suck up more and more fossil fuels. Over time the amount in the ground gets depleted and what is left has more impurities and is more inaccessible. We are looking at the bottom-half of the barrel.
I’m convinced that decreasing my use of fossil fuels is better for my health. Walking and cycling are fun, safe, and they help lower stress. It would obviously be healthier for everyone to use cars less often, but most of the incentives are towards using them more. After all, buying more cars and using them more often have multiplier effects on the economy.
On the other hand I believe that the global effects of fossil fuel use make a far more persuasive and powerful argument. An ever tightening series of booms and busts based on oil prices, increasing job losses, stagnant or decreasing wages, accelerated inequality, massive default on debt — that is what we are looking at when we look at the bottom of the barrel.
For the global economy there is nowhere else to go. Economic growth inevitably increases the demand for fossil fuels and causes more consumption and waste. Global economic growth is already accelerating the depletion of resources and diminishing returns from the energy sector.
What’s the answer? Is it to find another planet to exploit? Imagine the preposterous amounts of energy and materials from our own planet we would be wasting on that endeavor. But, if the economy stops growing how do we manage to survive? The answer is to stop and reverse the growth of the market and to rebuild and to reclaim the commons.
Human evolution is also linked to the development of complex forms of cooperation linked to our development and use of the commons. It isn’t our use of fossil fuels that first differentiated us from the rest of nature, it was our creation and development of rules, roles, and dispute mechanisms.
As humans we collectively create and maintain organizations that further the common good. Our way of living together, sharing, cooperating, and helping each other in families and communities is what separates us from the apes and all the rest of creation.
Marriage, extended families, clubs and associations, schools, hospitals, public councils and governments, religions and the scientific process are all created and maintained through the active participation of countless groups of people. This occurs in a social sphere of influence that can be described as a common space that humans alone inhabit.
The commons are the things that we have in common, that no one is excluded from. These are natural things like air, water, ecosystem services, climate, the ocean, etc., which we also share with all other living beings.
There are also very significant types of commons that are created from the human imagination: language, music, legal systems, and science are all systems that benefit everyone and are available or should be available to everyone.
One of the best examples of a human built commons is language. A language is a commons, because everyone in a certain locality can speak it, everyone uses it everyday, and the evolution of the language, its words, pronunciation, grammatical rules, etc., are all collectively determined.
Why did humans develop language? The obvious answer, that we are more intelligent than other animals, begs the question of how we got that way. Did we create speech because we are intelligent, or did we become intelligent because we created speech?
According to Christian theology, humans are different because God created us in God’s image. That’s a great metaphor — kind of flattering — although also pointing to our flaws as our own fault, but it’s misleading as an explanation.
I think it is important to understand what the difference between humans and our primate relatives is and how it came about. A tall order, I know, but the more we know the real reason for the difference, the more consciously we can use this knowledge to adapt to the new challenges that now face us.
Why did humans come to dominate the world? Like all other animals we have to breathe, drink water, and eat. How are we different?
By agreeing to live by rules we crossed an invisible line where we created a common space in which everyone could participate and everyone could benefit. By doing so, we left behind the Darwinian world of dominance hierarchies.
Not completely behind, mind you because dominance relationships are our default mode. It takes constant and continual vigilance to maintain a commons, otherwise people take advantage and take over. That’s what rules are for, but they must be enforced.
All other primate species are organized according to dominance hierarchies. The biggest strongest male gets the pick of the females and the choicest food.
In contrast, human nature is about the constant tension between hierarchies and egalitarianism. We have individuals who are leaders and who dominate others, but we also have rules and institutions like marriage, that help groups of people to live together peacefully.
When proto-humans developed stone tools two million years ago they also developed the means to decisively overcome dominance hierarchies. A man with a stone blade can easily kill a physically stronger man. According to the Anthropologist Christopher Boehm, evidence from various contemporary nomadic hunter-gatherers suggests that for most of human history, previous to the neolithic, we lived in small egalitarian bands where dominance hierarchies were actively suppressed by violence or the threat of violence.
It was by creating and maintaining small egalitarian societies that humans made the first rule-governed commons possible. This, more than any other factor, is the basis for human exceptionalism.
We are not descended from chimpanzees, but we share an ancestor from millions of years ago, so chimps are human’s closest relatives.
A group of humans that is rule-governed is many times more effective than a group of chimpanzees in spite of the fact that chimpanzees are physically stronger.
A dominance hierarchy, the natural state of chimpanzee life, is a lot like a corrupt political system. The dominant male has control over resources and life for subordinates is stunted and unpleasant. In a corrupt system, goods and services may trickle down to the rank and file, but the majority of benefits go to a small elite.
In a human commons, like language, the system is self-organized to benefit everyone. Everyone participates and everyone benefits from sharing information.
In contrast, in dominance hierarchies information is sequestered to serve or to avoid serving the interests of the dominant male. This results in a lot of wasted resources that are used solely to keep the majority impoverished while the dominant and his confederates get the lion’s share.
Language is representational. It can reveal what is not visible or present to others and thus it benefits the group more than it benefits any particular individual. That is why it is much more likely that it developed once humans created egalitarian societies.
Before the crucial development of human egalitarianism, sharing information was not as desired a trait. For the dominant, language would have made it harder to keep what he had to himself. And it would have been the same for the subordinate. For the subordinate to share information would have meant giving up more of what she had appropriated to the dominant.
Language, organization, education, planning, and rule-making: these are all human abilities that have enabled us to create thriving cultures and civilizations. It is significant, that all of these activities are things that people do together that do not require fossil fuels.
Even though our present civilization depends on fossil fuels, the human race has survived most of its existence without them and will do so again. Adopting renewable forms of energy will be important, but because their net energy production is much lower than conventional fossil fuels, they are unlikely to power a modern economy, let alone economic growth. Also, aspects of their production may be equally dependent on fossil fuels. Thus, there may be no choice but for society and the economy to run on less power.
The problem is in our reaction to the economic damage that this will cause. Declining pay cheques and increasing costs will fuel mass discontent and anger. Because of the amount of money riding on these issues, people will likely be misinformed by corporate and government propaganda. There is a real danger that people will be manipulated by blind prejudice and hatred to turn to authoritarian and fascist regimes.
This is all the more reason that we need to start now to increase the growth of the Commons. The more Commons we build together, the more we participate in building community. The more we participate in building community the more we are immunizing ourselves from political forms of tyranny. Participating in governing the Commons will help to inoculate ourselves from apathy and raise the level of knowledge and the quality of discourse.
In order to survive for more than the next fifty years we must leave fossil fuels in the ground. But if we were to abandon fossil fuels too quickly we would risk economic, political, and social collapse. We must gradually abandon fossil fuels and build up new commons in their place. This will help us maintain better health and welfare over future generations at the same time replacing the bipolar world of economic booms and busts with a system that serves everyone equitably.