Cap & Share: simple is beautiful

Laurence Matthews

Cap & Share is a fair, effective, cheap, empowering and simple way to reduce emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. It could form the basis of a wider global climate framework but how realistic is it to call for its introduction?

Humanity faces many challenges in the current crisis: development issues; global poverty and inequality; security of energy, food and water supplies; and a range of environmental problems which stretches far beyond limiting carbon emissions. Maintaining greenhouse gas concentrations at safe levels is just one requirement for survival but it is a prominent, important and symbolic one. Any response to it needs to be effective and, if possible, efficient in economic terms. But in order to be effective it has to be adopted and this means it must be acceptable in terms of issues such as equity, development agendas and parochial political struggles. If a framework is simple, it can more easily be tested for alignment with these other concerns.

Simplicity has other virtues too. Simplicity is important when rallying emotional support for a measure — no matter what the economic incentives might be. Inspirational ideas are usually simple. Simplicity fosters a feeling of inclusion, rather than the alienation and exclusion that results from discussions by ‘experts’. An insistence on simplicity also forces naysayers to state clearly what they object to, which clarifies the discussion immensely. We are facing a planetary emergency here and we need to be clear-sighted if we are to solve our problems in time.

Simplicity should not be confused with naivety; indeed naivety is often displayed by concentrating on some aspects of a problem in sophisticated detail while completely ignoring others. Concocting elaborations and complications may be useful for addressing technicalities and can be useful for finessing stumbling blocks in negotiations, but this process risks getting out of hand and is prone to being blind to errors which would be elementary to others less immersed in the details. Proponents of a simple system might do well to consent to discussions on elaborations only if the basis for the simple framework is agreed first.

The next section describes Cap & Share, recently selected by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission as one of its ‘Breakthrough Ideas for the 21st Century’ (SDC 2009). Cap & Share is an example of an effective, fair, efficient and, above all, simple method for capping carbon emissions.

Cap & Share

Cap & Share (C&S) is a system for limiting the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels (Feasta 2008); it is an alternative to carbon rations or carbon taxes. It could work on a global scale, or nationally for a single country’s economy. We’ll return to this later, but for the moment imagine a national scheme. As the name implies, there are two parts to C&S:

Cap: The total carbon emissions are limited (capped) in a simple, no-nonsense way

Share: The huge amounts of money involved are shared equally by the population

There is a trick to each of these. First the cap. This is set in line with scientific advice, at a level each year that will bring concentrations (of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) down to a safe level. But how do we ensure this cap is met? The trick here is to go ‘upstream’. This is often explained (Barnes 2008) by the analogy of watering a lawn with a hosepipe connected to a lawn sprinkler, with lots of small holes spraying water everywhere. If you wanted to save water, you could try to block up all the holes one by one — but wouldn’t it be simpler to turn off the tap a bit? It’s the same with fossil fuels, where the sprinkler holes correspond to the millions of houses, factories and vehicles, each emitting carbon dioxide by burning these fuels. By controlling the supply of fossil fuels coming into the economy (corresponding to the tap) we automatically control the emissions that occur when those fossil fuels are burnt somewhere down the line. So instead of focusing on the emissions, we focus on the fossil fuels themselves. The primary fossil-fuel suppliers (e.g. oil companies) are required to acquire permits in order to introduce fossil fuels into the economy (by importing them or extracting them from the ground). A permit for, say, 1 tonne of carbon dioxide entitles the fossil-fuel supplier to introduce that amount of fossil fuel that will emit 1 tonne when burnt. The number of permits issued equates to the desired cap.

Next, the Share. Since the fossil fuel suppliers have to buy the permits, they will pass on this cost by increasing the fuel price. This flows through the economy (like a carbon tax), making carbon-intensive goods cost more. This sounds like bad news for the consumer. But the trick this time is to share out the money paid by the fossil-fuel suppliers, back to the people, which compensates for the price rises. There are two possible mechanisms for getting the money to the population. In one, the version called Cap & Dividend (Barnes 2008) in the US and based on the Alaska Permanent Fund, permits are auctioned and the auction revenue distributed to the citizens on an equal per capita basis. Under ‘classic’ C&S (Feasta 2008) each adult receives free of charge — say, monthly or annually — a certificate for his or her share. These certificates are then sold to the primary fossil-fuel suppliers (through market intermediaries such as banks) and become the permits. Under ‘classic’ C&S people thus receive certificates instead of money, so that if they should wish to, they can retain (and destroy) a portion of their certificates — and thus are able to reduce the country’s carbon footprint by that amount.

That’s Cap & Share in a nutshell.

To many people, however, the ‘obvious’ mechanism is not Cap & Share but either a carbon tax (discussed below) or a version of cap and trade applied ‘downstream’ where the emissions take place. Such a cap and trade system has two parts, as follows. The first applies to the fossil fuels we buy directly (petrol, gas, coal) and burn ourselves, causing emissions; these direct emissions account for half of our ‘carbon footprint’. For these direct emissions, some form of personal carbon trading is envisaged, typically based on ideas of ‘rationing’ familiar from petrol and food rationing during the Second World War. Personal Carbon Allowances (PCAs) typically involve giving an equal allowance to each adult citizen, and each purchase of petrol, oil or gas is deducted from the allowance (typically using swipe card technology). The other half of our carbon footprint consists of indirect emissions, the ’embedded’ emissions in goods and services, which arise when companies produce these goods and services on our behalf. These indirect emissions are controlled with an Emissions Trading System (ETS) for companies, such as the European Union ETS. (The EU ETS is already up and running, and has had its teething problems; but its faults — lax caps through too many permits being issued, free allocation windfalls to large utility companies, partial coverage only of the economy, leaks through dubious CDM projects — are now widely accepted and these shortcomings are being addressed in the next phase).

Taken together, PCAs and an ETS-like arrangement for companies can constitute an economy-wide scheme; variants have names such as Domestic Tradable Quotas or Tradable Energy Quotas (Fleming 2005). Under the scheme individuals or companies who use more than their allowance can buy extra from those who can make do on less, but the total amount in circulation is finite, set by the cap. This downstream approach is compared with Cap & Share’s upstream approach in research commissioned by Comhar, the Irish sustainable development commission, and carried out by AEA Technology and Cambridge Econometrics (Comhar 2008). C&S came out well from the comparison.

Benefits of Cap & Share

It is worth listing the benefits of C&S because they are so multi-faceted. Firstly, there are some obvious consequences of the way C&S works:


C&S delivers; it is not just an aspiration. Individual countries like the UK and blocs like the EU may have targets (and various institutional arrangements), but so far they have no mechanism to ensure that the targets are achieved. C&S guarantees a cap.


The framework clearly has at its root a simple, robust form of equity. This serves as a focal point for agreement, in the same way that one-person-one-vote serves as the basis for democracy. C&S is exactly as fair as rationing would be, or more so, given the inequity typically built in to the ETS half of such systems.


A typical country will have at most 100 or so fossil-fuel suppliers, so C&S is simple to operate and police. Meanwhile all other companies, and all individuals, are free to go about their lives without the need for swipe cards or carbon accounting, making their decisions based on price alone. Contrast this with the EU ETS, which has been described as ‘more complicated than the German tax system.’


A result of this simplicity is that the system is easy to introduce very quickly — and we don’t have the time to wait another decade before getting started.


This is also a direct result of the simple, upstream nature of the cap.


With scrutiny focused on the small number of fossil-fuel suppliers, there is much less scope for cheating than with a complex system like an ETS.

Next, there is an important political point:


This arises from looking at the winners and losers under C&S. Although the payments to people compensate them for price rises, this is only true on average. If you have a lower carbon footprint than the national average, you will come out ahead: your payments from C&S will more than compensate for any price rises. People with higher than average carbon footprints will be worse off, but the skewed nature of income distributions means that there are many more winners than losers (for the same reason that there are more people on below-average incomes than above-average incomes). There is thus a natural constituency (McKibbin & Wilcoxon 2007) in favour of maintaining a tight cap, to counterbalance the vested interests that would push for a cap to be relaxed or abandoned. Indeed, C&S could be sold politically under the slogan ‘save the world — and get paid for it.’ This gives a certain robustness in the face of shocks and political events, necessary for a scheme that will need to survive for decades. (Consider, by contrast, carbon taxes. These are also simple, and a carbon tax is equivalent to an upstream cap if the tax level is set high enough. But the robustness incentives disappear if the money disappears into general taxation, and so taxes are unpopular. So it is much less likely that the tax level would be set high enough).

Next come some technical benefits of C&S:


Because permits are subject to supply and demand, and price signals then flow through the economy, C&S uses markets to guarantee that the cap is met with optimal economic efficiency.


C&S can operate at the level of a country, a bloc like the EU, or globally. This is discussed further in the ‘Global/International’ section below.


An upstream system can easily form part of hybrid schemes (see the next section).

And last but not least, C&S has some intangible, psychological benefits:


People can relax slightly, knowing that this problem, at least, is being addressed. They no longer need to feel guilty; on the contrary, the people are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. (Even the ‘losers’ mentioned above have non-monetary compensations; for example, since everyone knows that the problem is being addressed, the rich can counter criticism from environmentalists by responding, ‘my emissions are all within the cap too, so stop criticising!’).


C&S has a lack of intrusiveness and micromanagement. People are free to get on with their lives, without any need to keep to an ‘allowance’. There is no hassle and no intrusive tracking of individual purchasing transactions. Better still, people are in control: they are controlling the system rather than the system controlling them. You have control over ‘your share of the country’s carbon footprint.’


C&S has an ‘all in this together’ feel to it, and resonates with many other movements concerned with equality (Wilson & Pickett 2009), justice and development issues; it also resonates with initiatives at a local community level, which need to have national and global frameworks in place if their work is not to be undermined.

To summarise, we have a combination of emotional appeal, psychology and hard cash.

Of course, C&S is not the answer to everything. A framework such as C&S is a complement to, not a substitute for, measures closer to home. On the ground, people will be making behavioural changes (improving home insulation, shopping more locally, etc.) for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons will be financial, driven by the economic incentives provided by the framework. But technology standards can help here, as can tax regimes (e.g. support for renewables), education, and efforts to envisage and communicate a low-carbon future as a desirable one. It will not be sufficient to put the framework in place and ‘let people get on with it’. But it is the framework that ensures that the numerical target set by the cap is met.


The basic idea of C&S is capable of embracing a number of elaborations quite easily. All these have merits, although each eats into the basic simplicity so should be undertaken with care.


C&S is based on simple equity between all adults. Now one can argue about whether or not this equity represents justice (Starkey 2008), and arguments can be made for adjustments to simple equity — allocating extra to rural households, partial shares to children, etc. Everyone can claim to be a special case, but equity is the undoubted starting point, just as it would be for food rations in a lifeboat. Recognising that special-case pleading could go on indefinitely, in practice there will be a compromise between adjustments that target particular groups and the simple guideline of equity. One could argue that the details of the distribution are less important than the fact that the cap is in place: the Cap is more important than the Share. But equity is an important factor in rendering the scheme publicly and hence politically acceptable, thus allowing the introduction of the cap in the first place. It may be better to keep it simple and tackle special needs with explicit, separate arrangements.


As mentioned above, C&S is scalable, applicable to a nation alone, or on a global scale. But instead we could introduce C&S just for personal direct emissions, or even just in a single sector (for example, an initial introduction for the transport sector only).


As an upstream system, C&S also could adopt a ‘hybrid’ approach (Sorrell 2008) to dovetail with an existing ETS as a transitional measure (Matthews 2008). It is thus flexible enough to accommodate other ideas — within an underlying simple framework.


Hybrids are one way of introducing C&S ‘gently’ to allay fears and incorporate learning from other schemes. Other pathways are possible too. For example, a government initially reluctant to impose a cap might introduce a carbon tax levied upstream; but this can easily morph into an upstream permit system with ceiling prices (see below), and then (by raising the ceiling prices) into an upstream cap.


Although leakage through spurious offset ‘projects’ should be avoided, offsets might be allowed against sequestration, either capture at the point of combustion or direct sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (by high-tech scrubbers, or low-tech methods like biochar).


C&S is presented here for carbon dioxide, but the same principle applies to other greenhouse gases (which would be hardly feasible for a downstream system). In fact any other common resource such as a fishery could be incorporated: it is easy to maintain a cap using permits, and distribute the share to the population. This has a deep resonance with emerging ‘commons thinking.’


Some of the revenue could be kept back to fund collective projects to smoothe the transition to a low-carbon economy. There could also be a fund to help specific countries (or individuals) with adaptation. Some proposals in fact, such as Kyoto-2 (Tickell 2008), commandeer all the funds for such purposes. However, hiving off a significant fraction of the revenue undermines the ‘robustness’ incentives, and there is again a strong argument for separate arrangements to tackle these issues. C&S would complement, not replace, parallel efforts to encourage R&D, set technology standards, aid with adaptation and so on.

International / Global

In an ideal world, C&S would operate as a global scheme, a single policy for the planet considered as a whole, A global scheme needs a global institution such as a Global Commons Trust, presumably run by the UN, to operate a worldwide system of permits (which in this case would apply to extraction of fossil fuels only, since there are no ‘imports’ from other planets), with the resulting revenue returned to the (world) population. Global schemes thus bypass nations, except perhaps as a vehicle for transmitting the funds to their populations.

An alternative approach is the international one, which seeks to add up and link together actions taken by sovereign nations. In this approach a global cap is apportioned using a formula agreed by all; each nation then operates its own scheme (such as national C&S). The apportionment formula is of course a thorny question: the formula might be based on Contraction & Convergence (C&C), promoted by the Global Commons Institute (Meyer 2000) and accepted at various times by various national governments, and under which national shares of a global emissions budget start at the current shares of global emissions and converge over (perhaps a short) time to equal per capita shares. If countries sign up to the general principle of a global cap, it is quite possible that the actual pathway ends up resembling the framework proposed by Frankel (2007), which is an ingenious set of elaborations on C&C performing a tricky balancing act of incentives. Or, as soon as the world recognises the extent of the emergency, we may be into Greenhouse Development Rights territory (Baer et al 2007) — an approach that also explicitly addresses inequality within nations. The negotiations might get messy, but the rallying cry must be simple.

Global C&S is equivalent to C&S in each nation with national caps calculated on an equal per capita basis, so the eventual destination of many global and international frameworks would be the same. Global C&S is just C&C with immediate convergence, and with ‘the permits going to the people.’

Now, global frameworks would require global institutions (and probably other things like monetary reform). Many authors regard this overruling of national sovereignty as hopelessly unrealistic — although others see climate change as a catalyst for wider reform, perhaps ushering in some form of global democracy (Holden 2002). Global institutions would seem to be an obvious long-term goal, but many would see the problem as simply too urgent and complex: we should not attempt to tackle too many things at once. Advocates of this view would stick with an international system. Of course, even international systems need global elements too: greenhouse gas concentrations are global entities and the cap must be set accordingly. Whatever one feels about this, it seems certain that the current emergency caused by humanity bumping up against the finite limits of the planet will force a reassessment of many of the tacit — but clearly unrealistic — assumptions underlying ‘conventional’ economics, politics and much else.

Which leads us finally to asking, ‘what is realistic?’

A choice of realisms

There is no sign of Cap & Share being introduced by any nation, never mind as a global scheme, any time soon (although Ireland has been considering C&S for the transport sector). Instead, government communication to the public concentrates on individual ‘small actions’: on doing one’s bit, with exhortations to switch off standby electrical equipment, use low energy light-bulbs, and calculate personal carbon footprints. There is a nagging tone and a strong implication that ‘people are the problem.’ This message fosters guilt, perpetuates ignorance and misconceptions (e.g. that climate change can be halted by recycling), and encourages the perception that climate change is not important (or else the government would be doing something serious about it).

It is easy to read into this a picture of governments scared of facing up to the truth and of telling that truth to the people. But there is some truth in government assertions that the public is as yet unwilling to curb its carbon emissions. Despite a blossoming Transition Towns movement in the UK and elsewhere which seeks to build local resilience ahead of climate change and peak oil, at the moment it appears that the majority of the population want to tackle climate change only if it isn’t too much ‘hassle,’ and only if it doesn’t cost too much money.

So, what can we ‘realistically’ hope for?

In the international arena, proposed international climate architectures (Aldy & Stavins 2007) lie on a rough spectrum from top-down formula-based plans aiming at universal participation by all nations, through to bottom-up arrangements of piecemeal actions taken by nations unilaterally. Let’s call proponents of these schemes ‘Builders’ and ‘Growers’ respectively (with no disrespect intended to either group). A Builder wants to plan, and suggests building a tower; while a Grower wants to let things happen, and suggests planting trees. Growers, pointing to game theory, say that building a tower is ‘unrealistic’. Builders, pointing to the urgent need to avert runaway climate change, say that waiting for a tree to grow is ‘unrealistic’. These are clearly different uses of the word ‘unrealistic’.

This Builder-Grower spectrum is correlated with another spectrum concerning transfers of wealth from rich countries to poor. Suggestions for allocation of the global ‘pie’ range from grandfathering (pegged to current emissions, that is, rich countries get more) through equal per capita allocations (everybody gets the same) to proposals ‘beyond’ equal per capita allocations that compensate for the legacy of historic emissions (rich countries get less). Planners’ frameworks typically involve transfers of funds, whereas unlinked and unilateral actions (by default based on grandfathering) typically don’t. Large transfers are dismissed by some in the developed world as utopian, unrealistic or unacceptable. But there is also hostility from developing countries to proposals that seem to limit their development, especially if these ignore ‘ecological debt’ (Simms 2005, Roberts & Parks 2007).

There is also a correlation with another spectrum concerning strength of caps. Should they be tight, quantity-based targets related to ‘safe levels’ of greenhouse gases; softer price-based targets balancing benefits and costs; or should targets be abandoned altogether in favour of encouraging unilateral ‘efforts’? A Grower might say that a quantity-based target, or cap, is unrealistic as costs must be taken into account. A Builder might say that any cost-benefit analysis that tries to put a price on a stable climate is unrealistic. Which sort of ‘unrealistic’ do we choose?

Price-based policies often involve ‘ceiling’ prices. To guard against the price of permits rising unacceptably high, governments undertake to issue more permits and sell them at the ceiling price. (The government may also agree to buy permits at a ‘floor’ price, should the demand for permits fall ‘too much’ and undermine green investment). A ceiling price offers to convert a quantity-based policy, based on ‘safe levels’ of greenhouse gases, into a price-based one, balancing benefits and costs, when the going gets tough. Ceiling prices are often described as a ‘safety valve’.

The safety valve metaphor conjures up the image of a steam engine or pressure cooker, where if the pressure builds up excessively it can be released before there is an explosion. By analogy the pent-up demand for permits might put excessive pressure on the permit price. (Even the phrase ‘ceiling price’ has a comforting ring of ‘limiting the anguish’ to it). Governments naturally seek the reassurance of a mechanism existing to release this (political) pressure, and this seems eminently sensible; after all, letting off steam is a benign image. Yet this image contains no hint of any external limits or constraints.

Consider instead the following story. Passengers are queuing at check-in at the airport; they are attending a coin-collecting convention and each wants to bring his coin collection along. Unfortunately there is a weight limit, and the passengers are unhappy about being refused their requests. The check-in supervisor nervously watches anger mounting, and worries that this might explode unless the weight limit is relaxed. Yet now we can clearly see the problem with giving in to this pressure: the plane crashes on takeoff. In hindsight it would have been better to face up to the metaphorical explosion — of anger, of tantrums at not getting one’s way — in order to avoid the literal explosion (at the end of the runway).

The analogy with the global climate is clear. Seemingly sophisticated arguments about ‘stock-pollutants’ notwithstanding, it is surely better to come to terms sooner rather than later with what a finite planet means. The view that it is naive to expect governments to agree to any scheme that does not have a ceiling price is offered as ‘realism’. But there is a choice of realisms here.

As debate continues, the problem is increasingly urgent as scientists point to feedbacks and tipping points. To avert catastrophic climate change we will need a mobilisation of resources akin to that in wartime, and if this mobilisation is to be forthcoming, we need to realise and accept that we are all in the same boat — and a sinking one at that, despite claims from some that “it’s not sinking at our end yet.” It is in the self-interest of all that the boat does not sink. Yes, it is political realism to recognise that the temptation is to ‘free-ride’ — to leave the effort of doing something about it to someone else — but pointing to this situation and shrugging is a wholly inadequate response. This type of realism is only a starting point. A tougher — and necessary — biophysical realism insists that this situation is addressed robustly.

A global cap may be agreed by policymakers, but should be based on science (for example as recommended by the IPCC); that is, it should be based on what is required to stop runaway climate change, not merely ‘what is politically feasible’ or ‘the extent of popular or political support’. In one sense it is tautological to say that the extent of popular support will set the cap, but the onus must be to change this support to align with scientific necessity. An emergency demands a scale of response commensurate with the gravity of the situation.

It is too easy to regard an acceptance of current political realities as pragmatic, and regard as utopian any insistence that they change. Human nature might be pretty fixed, but ‘political realities’ are more malleable. We need to think through which realism we are choosing. Some types of realism are not an option — at least not an option consistent with survival. As the residents of Easter Island could tell us, scientific realism will trump political realism in the end.


One of our overriding needs is for statesmanship, deploying rhetoric of the calibre of Gandhi, Lincoln, Mandela, Confucius or Churchill, to prepare the world for, and lead it into, swift and far-reaching changes. The messages are not easy, and the rhetoric will need to draw on simplicity and to extend the discussion beyond economics. Governments might engage in cool calculation, but people are inspired by rhetorical appeals to deeply held values and visceral feelings. At the moment, the populations of most countries are largely in psychological denial, ‘yearning to be free’ of the knowledge, deep down, that we are collectively on the wrong road. The abolition of slavery overrode economic arguments by appealing to basic human values. Surely averting climate chaos, and hence ensuring our survival and that of much of the natural world, is an equally inspiring goal?

Any framework such as C&S would be adopted alongside other measures, such as a push on R&D, infrastructure projects and funding for adaptation; research into geo-engineering and sequestration technologies; agreements concerning land use; and so on. We will need them all. But we will also need a dramatic change in global popular opinion — a change of world-view. Adoption of a simple, fair and realistic framework for cutting global carbon emissions — such as Cap & Share — would be inspirational, resonating with this change and with efforts to solve the other problems that face us collectively on our finite planet.


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The nutritional resilience approach to food security

Bruce Darrell

Very few soils have a perfect balance of minerals. As a result, their fertility is limited and the crops grown on them cannot provide all the nutrients people need. As people can get food from elsewhere at present, these local deficiencies do not matter too much. However, if the option of filling one’s plate from all over the world disappears, human health will likely decline unless the missing minerals are applied over the next few years.

We all talk about food but our discussions are generally confined to our own spheres of interest. So, while food links farmers to CEOs, advertisers to aid agencies, community activists to urban planners, gardeners to chemical engineers, geneticists to nutritionists, lorry drivers to commodity traders, and cooks to economists in a complex web, crucial relationships and unifying issues are missing from most conversations.

Moreover, we usually assume that the issues we don’t discuss are unrelated and unchanging. Indeed, those working on one issue usually have beliefs that preclude engagement with those working on others. For example, urban planners assume that farming yields are the same regardless of scale and context. This leads them to discount urban agriculture as a fringe pursuit rather than a productive and essential use of urban and peri-urban land. The disconnect between production and nutrition is perhaps more critical. Farmers and nutritionists rarely discuss the nutritional quality of a carrot and how it could be improved through farming practices. Farmers are more concerned with yield and appearance while nutritionists typically assume that all carrots are created equal.

At this critical point in human history it is essential that we gain a more holistic understanding of food. We need ways of thinking about food which not only encourage engagement between specialists but also allow more integrated systems-wide approaches to develop.

Food security is perhaps the most effective lens through which to see the complexity of food systems as an integrated whole. There are numerous definitions of food security but most would have a lot in common with that used by one of the world’s largest food security organisations:

The Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) is a non-profit North American organization dedicated to building strong, sustainable, local and regional food systems that ensure access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food for all people at all times. We seek to develop self-reliance among all communities in obtaining their food and to create a system of growing, manufacturing, processing, making available and selling food that is regionally-based and grounded in the principles of justice, democracy, and sustainability. [1]

Described this way, food security is a positive goal, in much the same way that financial security is. It can be approached incrementally — the numerous components of the food systems, and each of the many transformations that are made, can be evaluated to determine whether they increase or degrade food security. Alternatively, the entire food system can be evaluated holistically to identify key weaknesses or opportunities. Food security is a scalable concept, useful for a community or region, or at an individual family scale, or for the entire global population. It is also descriptive without being prescriptive, recognising that there are many ways of achieving food security and the forms that it takes could vary radically for each person, community or region.

There are two general approaches within the broader food security movement, neither of which have adequately addressed the critical issues facing us. This is because both generally assume that the broader context of economic growth, cheap energy, resource abundance and environmental stability will continue. The first approach, and the most common, focuses on achieving an advanced degree of self-reliance. This approach, which is evident in the CFSC statement, is more likely to ensure the security of a community’s food supplies in an economic collapse as well as during energy and resource shortages. The supply will be protected through greater reliance on local inputs, better relationships between producer and consumer, and the increased resilience of the local social and economic systems that results from having a local food system. However, the supply will likely falter in the event of extreme weather conditions in the region, sustained social disruption or war.

The second approach is to ensure a diversity of supply. This is often the goal of global organisations such as the FAO [2] which recognise the need to ensure “timely transfers of supplies to deficit areas” in order to respond to “harmful seasonal and inter-annual instability of food supplies” caused by climate fluctuations, drought, pests, diseases, war, as well as natural and man-made disasters. This approach is essential if regional disruptions in food security are to be mitigated but will be less useful during a global economic collapse and while energy supplies are contracting rapidly after the energy supply peaks. However, it is overly dependent on the global supply of energy-intensive inputs, stable economic and political systems, and complex financial relationships.

In view of the complexity of crises we face, we need both approaches — for now. In future, though, the global system that ensures the diversity of supply will be weakened by economic collapse and decreased fossil fuel availability and the self-reliance approach will inevitably turn out to be more effective at achieving and sustaining food security. Even so, we will need to increase the resilience of local production to make up for the fact that surpluses from other areas may not be available in times of crisis.

A resilient system is one that is able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. While several factors contribute to making food production more resilient, nutrient and water availability are by far the most important. Water is a renewable resource, at least on a global level, and in many places its availability can be managed through careful conservation and use. Water is also very visible; we can see it flow and it is relatively easy to determine when there is too little or too much.

This paper will not focus on water directly, despite its importance, but will instead concentrate on nutrients as these are essentially invisible and do not regularly fall from the sky. Although there are natural processes that renew nutrient levels, they tend to be slow, working on long time-scales. We do not see nutrients flow through our systems, nor can we easily determine through casual observation which field or food is deficient in which nutrients, or where there is toxic excess. Yet without sustainable and balanced nutrient availability, a decline and eventual collapse of the food supply is inevitable. Moreover, it is far easier to develop resilient food systems if we start by establishing high and balanced fertility in the soil.

The global industrialised food production system is very poor at managing nutrients. It relies on energy-intensive processes to pull nitrogen from the air and to mine a few other nutrients, primarily phosphorus and potassium, from depleting geological reservoirs. These concentrated fertilisers are then dumped in excess on fields, causing ecological contamination, unbalanced growth and the depletion of other nutrients in the soil. Nutrient cycling, the process of returning nutrients to the land, is virtually impossible because of the great distances between the fields and consumer, and there is inevitable contamination of the waste streams as they pass through cities and communities.

Organic farming methods are much better at sourcing and managing nutrient resources but as most organic food is produced for distant markets, nutrient cycling is just as difficult. Local food systems are more capable of developing sustainable nutrient cycles, though very few of them have done so, especially in the developed world. Instead, the small scale of many of these systems permits a reliance on relatively abundant supplies of clean organic material, nutrient reserves in the soil or imported concentrated fertilisers. The supply of many of these resources will diminish as the number and scale of these systems increase to meet the challenges we face.

There are very few examples of holistic approaches to nutrient management that incorporate strategies for increasing and balancing nutrient levels as well as developing efficient nutrient cycling. Perhaps this is not surprising when dealing with something that is essentially invisible and which has no generally recognised name as a concept. I use the term nutritional resilience for an approach that extends from ecosystem resilience and productivity, to soil health, plant health and productivity, human health, resource management, community viability and systems resilience.

There are two strategies for developing nutritional resilience whether one is dealing with the global food system, a broader community, or a small garden plot. One is a transition strategy, the other a sustaining one. The transition strategy combines aspects of the globalised, industrial food systems with those of local, predominately organic food systems to build fertility where it is most useful. The sustaining strategy focuses on balancing and maintaining fertility through nutrient cycling and would develop as the transition was completed or after the decline or collapse of the global industrial system.


We rarely think of the origins of the components of the food we consume. The bulk of what we eat is energy in a variety of forms. It was created by plants using solar energy to extract carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms from carbon dioxide and water and then to recombine them into simple sugars. These simple sugars are then further combined into more complex carbohydrates (literally carbon and water) by plants, and the fungi, bacteria and animals that consume them, all of which contain C, H and O in a wide variety of structures. Fats, which are essentially another form of carbohydrate, contain C, H and O in different proportions and structures. So are alcohols. All of these forms of energy are relatively easy for an ecosystem to produce except where air, water or sunlight are lacking.

Proteins are created by combining amino acids, which are essentially nitrogen atoms mixed in with the carbohydrates, adding an N to the C, H and O mix. N is the most important nutrient that cannot be readily added to the mix that becomes our food. Despite its abundance in the atmosphere, it takes a significant amount of energy to “fix” it to oxygen or hydrogen atoms. This can be done by industrial processes using fossil fuels, by lightning or by special bacteria that are fed a lot of sugars by their host plants. Once fixed, nitrogen is a volatile, energetic and valuable nutrient that can easily become unfixed and escape back into the atmosphere. In many natural ecosystems, productivity is limited by the amount of available nitrogen.

All the other nutrients we need can be divided into two general groups — minerals and compounds. The minerals include calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and sulphur as well as numerous trace minerals including boron, copper, iodine, manganese, nickel, silicon, tin, zinc and many more. These nutrients are needed by our bodies as basic elements, though we rarely eat them in their pure form. Over 30 different minerals or elements are need in total [3] (and perhaps over 60 [4]), some in significant quantities, some in a few parts per billion, but all of them essential for healthy life. The compounds include vitamins and other complex molecules produced by plants and animals which we need to eat in their organic compound form. These compounds contain C, H, O, N as well as the diversity of other elements.

The old saying “you are what you eat” reminds us that our bodies are composed of the reconstituted pieces of what we eat, and, more subtly, that the quality of what we eat will be reflected in our bodies. In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan takes this concept one step further with the statement that “you are what what you eat eats, too” [5], highlighting the fact that the quality of what an animal eats is reflected in the meat that we eat. The same can be said of plants. Although we generally don’t think of plants eating in the same way, plants are made up of what they ‘extract’ from the soil, water and air, and the quality of what they eat is reflected in the plant tissue that we consume directly or by eating the animals that eat the plants. We can trace this chain of consumption back to its origins and say that “we are what is in the soil or water that produced our food”.

Nutritionists and many other people working in the fields of food and health are very aware of the complexity of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and other organic compounds that we need to eat in order to stay healthy. All of the minerals needed by humans and other animals — either directly or in compound form — are also needed by plants to be healthy. Unfortunately, most farmers are unaware or unconcerned about most of the diversity of minerals that are needed, and are concerned only with supplying the major nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Calcium and occasionally other minerals are added too but only when they show up as serious deficiencies. This is the most critical disconnect in our food systems. If these minerals are not in the soil or water, in a form that the plants can use, then they can’t be in the plant and thus can’t be in our food. Deficiencies progress up the food chain. In many ways deficiencies in our diet are more critical to our health than avoiding excess consumption of sugars, fats, etc. We are told to eat our vegetables to get essential nutrients and other compounds, but if the plant cannot extract the essential nutrients from the soil because they are not there, they cannot be in our food. A different way of thinking starts to form: “you are what you don’t eat” or “you are what what you eat can’t get.”

Most farmers assume that, beyond the major fertilisers, everything that a plant needs they can get from the soil. To understand why this is rarely the case, we must understand how soils form and the processes of mineralisation. Soil is essentially ground-up rock, which is nothing more than solid aggregates of minerals. As the rock is broken down, most of the minerals remain as essentially inert chunks of smaller and smaller pieces of rock; from gravel, to sand, to silt and finally to the smallest particles of clay. Some of the minerals dissolve in water and wash away. A wide range of minerals stays in the soil either as inert elements, or chemically bound to other minerals, perhaps clinging to particles of clay; or they can be absorbed into the cycle of growth and decomposition involving microorganisms, fungi, plants and animals. This cycle of life brings additional elements, particularly carbon and nitrogen, out of the air and into the soil. The decomposition of the carbon-based life forms adds an additional component to the soil in the form of humus which plays a role similar to clay by holding onto loose minerals and compounds in the soil, as well as holding onto water.

While many microbes can extract the mineral nutrients that they need from the rock particles and complex compounds within the soil, the higher plants, the ones we eat, need a more refined diet. They generally absorb nutrients that are dissolved in water, loosely held in the soil by clay and humus, or which are fed directly by symbiotic microorganisms. This bio-availability is a critical aspect of the extent to which soil can support life.

It is important to understand that C, H, O, N and sulphur can all be found in gases in the atmosphere. This allows them to be transported easily to any ecosystem. All the other nutrients can only be transported in a solid or liquid form [6], making them more difficult for an ecosystem to obtain.

Of course, the Earth is a very dynamic place, and the extent of soil building and mineralisation is not limited to what can be extracted from the bedrock in a particular place. There are many processes that move minerals and soil particles from one place to another. The most dramatic — and the slowest — process is the advance and retreat of glaciers which grind up rock from one place and transport it long distances to where it is washed away by the melt water to form alluvial plains. Another process is the wind blowing smaller particles across continents. This has created huge deep drifts of loess soil in places such as the fertile farmlands of China and the midwestern United States.

As water falls on land as rain and flows towards the sea, it washes away dissolved minerals and silt and deposits them on floodplains as both soil and fertility. Ancient Egypt was sustained for thousands of years by the annual transportation of soil from the uplands of Ethiopia to the lower floodplains of the Nile valley. Volcanic activity brings fresh nutrient supplies from the molten core of the Earth to be deposited in the form of ash on the surrounding land, sustaining fertile ecosystems and productive farming such as those that developed in Java and Bali. Most of the early large human settlements developed in areas with significant deposits of soil and minerals.

Animals are responsible for significant movements of nutrients from one place to another. Some species of salmon make a remarkable journey from the sea to spawn and then die in the smallest tributaries inland. Their journey transports the valuable nutrients that make up their bodies from the fertile sea to points high up in the mountain. This is a substantial annual flow of nutrients on which the entire ecosystem depends. Similarly, seabirds have created huge reservoirs of fertility under their nesting grounds, bats leave huge piles of guano in caves, and numerous other animals have deposited nutrients over wide areas along their migration routes. Humans have participated in this process throughout the ages, often for their own benefit through farming and, more recently, on a much more advanced, pervasive and damaging scale.

This movement of nutrients and soil leads to concentrations in some places and deficiencies in others. However, the basic reason for most mineral deficiencies is that not all bedrock contains the full spectrum of minerals in the proportions needed by plants and animals. In addition, when rain falls on the land, many of the minerals that are there dissolve in the water and either filter deep down into the soil, beyond the reach of plant roots, or flow downstream. Floodplains and other landforms do trap and hold some of the nutrients and silt but this is only a temporary pause on the inevitable path to the sea. Unfortunately, the water cycles that evaporate from the sea and deposit rain far inland do not bring back any of the nutrients. The increasing amount of nutrients dissolved in the sea and settled on the sea floor only gets back inland through the relatively small-scale actions of animals, the rising of the sea bed and the movement of tectonic plates to create mountains of new rock to be eroded into life.

Human activities over thousands of years have accelerated the natural nutrient loss through inappropriate land-management practices such as burning vegetation cover and ploughing the soil, both of which increase erosion. Humans have also removed large quantities of organic material to use as food, fodder, fuel, wood and other materials. All this organic material contained valuable nutrients that the ecosystem had worked hard to obtain, which were then concentrated in other areas or lost to the sea. Since the development of larger communities and broad-scale agriculture, this removal process has accelerated. Now, rather than removing a small portion of material from an ecosystem, agricultural processes generally remove much of the organic matter from the land, or at least the nutrient-dense fruit, vegetables, oils, protein and seeds. Even if the soil was very deep and fertile initially, nutrients are removed with every harvest, generally much faster than they are naturally replaced. It does not take long for deficiencies to develop and the only way to stop this depletion is to add nutrients to the soil either by recycling those that were extracted or importing new ones from elsewhere.

Agronomists are confident about which minerals are required, and in what proportions. As an example, most plants use a lot of calcium, but for every six to eight measures of calcium, they’ll also need one measure of magnesium, maybe a sixteenth measure of sulfur, and one ten-thousandth measure of boron. If they have heaps of calcium but are short of magnesium, then they won’t grow any more than the amount allowed by the quantity of magnesium they’ve got. If they have adequate calcium, magnesium, and sulfur, all in the right proportions for ideal growth, but are desperately short of boron, then they will grow as poorly as though they were short of calcium and magnesium and sulfur. [7]

This passage from Steve Solomon’s book Gardening When it Counts describes why mineral balance is critically important in soils. Plants will take up unbalanced proportions of minerals, if that is what they find in the soils, but their health and productivity suffer. Plants, like humans, will struggle on in less than optimal conditions.

A natural woodland, bush or grassland ecosystem, on reasonably good soils, will generally develop a balanced but low mineral fertility level in the soil. Minerals that are in excess won’t be absorbed by the plants and as a result are more likely to wash away or otherwise become unavailable. Minerals in short supply will be sought out. Once a reasonable balance is achieved, an increase in balanced fertility develops very slowly as more of the limiting nutrients are found. David Holmgren, in his book Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, describes what happens when humans move into this landscape, disrupt the ecological processes and transform the land for agriculture. In the first stage they degrade the soil and create imbalances, producing low and imbalanced soil fertility. The second stage sees the introduction of imported fertilisers. “However, imbalances typically remain or new imbalances have been created that are reflected in the poor quality of food and the increased rates of fertility loss,” [8] he writes. Most farmland and gardens remain stuck at this stage, requiring considerable effort and resource-input to maintain a high level of fertility, but persistent and serious imbalances remain. Very few farmers attain the “Holy Grail” of balanced but high fertility.

People whose food was grown mainly on the limestone soils of Derbyshire in England suffered so frequently from goitre, which is caused by an iodine deficiency, that the complaint became known as Derbyshire Neck . Since the 1930s, a diet grown over a wider area has led to its disappearance but it could return if most food had to be grown locally again before the mineral balance of the Derbyshire soils had been improved.

In view of this, perhaps we should assume that all soils throughout the world are deficient, that all food produced on that land is therefore deficient in minerals and has minimal nutritional value, and that it is consequently very difficult for people to have a nutritionally complete diet, even if they eat all their vegetables.

Fairly similar fertility-management practices using concentrated soluble fertilisers have been used on much of the world’s farmland over the past half-century. This will have produced common mineral imbalances — excess amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but general deficiencies in minerals such as magnesium and calcium. But the bedrock and mineral reserves in the soils vary widely. As most of the food grown on these soils is distributed through the globalised system, on any given day we could be eating food that had its origins on dozens of different fields spread all over the world. While general mineral imbalances may persist, and the overall nutritional quality may be low within this system, it is unlikely that specific trace minerals will be deficient in all the food we eat. If we had an industrialised farming system without the global distribution system, then local deficiencies would become much more apparent when clusters of illness and disease developed. Soil mineral deficiencies and the effects that they have on health are currently hidden by the global trade and distribution system.

As many families and communities begin the process of developing localised food systems, and get much more of their food from a single allotment plot, a few neighbouring fields, or a broader region with similar bedrock and soil conditions, deficiencies could begin to damage the people’s health. This is a fundamental flaw in local food initiatives and the grow-it-yourself movement. Growing your own food is a great idea, and is perceived as an easy thing to do, but most people growing food do not know how to produce healthy plants, or even what a really healthy plant looks like. While the freshness and the unforced quality of the produce will convince people that they are eating truly healthy food, especially when compared to what they buy in the supermarket, in many cases they won’t be. Unless there is a fortunate choice of growing sites and fertility management, people growing their own food or producing for a local community will need to focus on the nutritional balance and fertility level of the soils if the short-term benefits of local food systems are not to create long-term difficulties.

Health of plants, people and communities

What happens when a soil has achieved the Holy Grail of soil fertility — high, balanced levels of minerals? David Holmgren describes how, in following the work of William Albrecht and others in creating an ideal balanced soil, all crops grown on this soil will produce high yields of good-quality food, and that the structure and water-holding capacity of the soil will improve, as will the processes of decomposition and nutrient cycling within the soil. Holmgren suggests that:

…this represents the biological optimum soil in which all plants will thrive. Within the constraints of climate, this balanced soil will support the most productive biological systems in terms of total energy capture and storage. Thus balanced and fertile soil is nature’s integrated and self-reinforcing design solution for maximising power of terrestrial life. [8]

In this way, balanced fertility in the soil is the key to a productive garden, farm or natural ecosystem, allowing all of the ecological processes to work effectively in producing a greater yield of better food or material. This is the primary objective in developing nutritional resilience.

Many organic gardeners and farmers believe that the best way to minimise damage by pests and disease is to provide the conditions in order for the plant to be as healthy as possible, with the purpose of strengthening the plant’s immune system and defences. Elliot Coleman approaches the issue of pests in a more direct way:

There is a direct relationship between the growing conditions of plants and the susceptibility of those plants to pests. Problems in the garden are our fault through unsuccessful gardening practices rather than Nature’s fault through malicious intent. The way we approach pest problems in the garden is to correct the cause, not treat the symptoms. The cause of pest problems is inadequate growing conditions. [9]

Taking this idea further, Francis Chaboussou, author of Healthy Crops; A New Agricultural Revolution, believes that “the relations between plant and parasite are above all nutritional in nature” and that “plants are made immune to the extent that they lack the nutritional factors that parasites require for their development. In short, what is involved is a deterrent effect not a toxic action.”[10] A pest will essentially starve on a truly healthy plant, or at least will not be able to obtain the energy needed to reproduce or develop. The basis of this theory is that most pests and parasites depend on an abundant supply of amino acids — they are reliant on an easy source of nitrogen — but in a healthy plant amino acids are quickly used to synthesise proteins, and are therefore unavailable to the pests. A fertile, balanced soil is one of the key elements to plant health (together with adequate water availability, appropriate weather, etc.) and this leads to the possible elimination of the need for pest and disease control, both chemical and organic. Reducing the risk of disease and pests also significantly increases food security.

Food from plants grown on soil with balanced minerals should therefore be nutritionally complete, in that there will be no deficiencies, and yields should be greater as less is lost to pests and disease. But there is more to the story. The overall nutritional value of the food can also be substantially increased, so that it gives higher quantities of sugars, minerals, proteins, etc. per kilogramme. Wine producers have known this intuitively for centuries, and more recently have used simple optical refractors to measure the amount of sugars dissolved in the juice, picking or purchasing grapes only when they have a certain concentration. This concentration of sugars, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins, hormones, and other solids dissolved within the juice is measured in BRIX (ratio of the mass of dissolved solids to water) and the same method can be used to determine the nutritional density of most foods, and the sap of plants. When plants are grown in soil with balanced and high fertility, the BRIX reading of the plant sap and juice of the produce is significantly higher than the same plant grown in less than ideal conditions.[11] The BRIX reading of one carrot can be more than twice as high as that of another carrot grown in poor-quality soil, and therefore it will contain at least twice the amount of sugars, vitamins, minerals etc. Given that this is what we eat a carrot for, we can eat less than half a carrot to get the same nutrition as we can get from a whole poor-quality carrot of the same weight.

This higher nutritional value can drastically increase the real yield achieved by growing on high-quality soils. Not only is it possible to achieve a higher total yield in weight, but each kilogramme can provide more nutrition. The overall nutritional yield can easily be several times higher within a given area, providing good nutrition to more people from the same piece of land. There are other advantages to high nutritional density in plants and food. The additional solids in the plant sap act as a form of antifreeze, allowing plants to better withstand frosts and deeper cold spells. This extends the growing season in many regions, and helps the crop withstand abnormal and extreme weather conditions. While low-quality food tends to begin to decompose fairly quickly, requiring refrigeration, quick delivery, and processing, food with high nutritional density tends to last much longer and is more likely to dehydrate rather than rot. This allows a significant reduction in the amount of wasted food as well as the amount of resources, energy and infrastructure needed to store and preserve food that is produced locally. But, perhaps the greatest benefit is that nutritionally dense food tastes better — you can literally taste the greater density of sugars and minerals.

If we can produce nutrient-dense food, which people (especially children) will be more likely to want to eat because of the great taste, what does this mean for their health? Many diseases and health problems are caused or exacerbated by malnutrition, and the increasing prevalence of poor health over the past few decades seems to parallel the decline in mineral content in food over the same time period [12]. How can people be healthy if their food is nutritionally deficient? Or, a more important question is: what will happen to peoples’ health if they consume food with high nutritional density and no mineral deficiencies? If poor-quality food decreases the health of the population, and food of moderate nutritional quality can sustain health, will the consumption of high-quality food make a person healthier and more resilient? Can it help heal a sick person? Beyond the personal and social benefits that come with good health, a community cannot be resilient without a population that is healthy and physically capable, or if a substantial portion of its resources is spent on health care.

Progress towards nutritional resilience

Nutritional resilience starts with mineral qualities of the soil and extends to plant health and productivity, nutritional density of food, human health and community viability, as well as incorporating sustainable resource management and the resilience of the entire food system. Nutritional resilience also extends to natural landscapes, through which we can assist ecosystems to become more resilient and productive with the benefits of greater biodiversity, ecosystem services, and carbon sequestration. Nutritional resilience is the foundation upon which broader resilience can be more easily built, and without it, the journey will be slower and much more difficult. Given the current economic context, the climate crisis, and the possibility of a systemic collapse in the near future, it is essential to prioritise anything that increases the speed and ease of transformations.

As I said earlier, there are two different strategies or processes for developing nutritional resilience. The transition strategy focuses on building and balancing fertility in key areas. The sustaining strategy focuses on developing effective nutrient cycles, fine-tuning mineral balance and expanding the areas of resilience. While these two strategies can in many ways progress simultaneously, it is important that sufficient attention is given to the first, as it is this aspect that will require most energy, resources and inputs, all of which may be of limited availability in the near future. Many local food initiatives and alternative farming projects currently fail to give the transition strategy enough priority.

The primary objectives of the transition strategy are to capture the existing material flow, to facilitate effective decomposition, to enable nutrient storage and to correct excessive mineral imbalances. The specific methods used will vary widely with each location, depending on the nature of the existing soils, as well as on existing infrastructure and cultural bias, but there are common approaches. There is a massive amount of organic material and fibre flowing through most settlements and capturing and using the nutrients available in this flow should be a key concern everywhere. All food and green ‘wastes’ are very valuable sources of nutrients and many trace minerals. Although the use of human ‘wastes’ are also important, it could be more appropriate to deal with the complexities of transforming the sewage system later in the process.

Paper, cardboard, a fair amount of other packaging and most waste wood are all valuable sources of carbon and some minerals and they should be processed and used locally. These materials are much more valuable as part of biological nutrient-management processes than they are as recycled fibre if the aim is to build local resilience. Much of this material combines well with the other, more nutrient-dense organic matter for composting, or can be used directly as mulch to facilitate the conversion and maintenance of lands, or as a substrate for beneficial fungi, or it can be converted to biochar. Through these processes, a lot of the original carbon is converted to humus, or to charcoal, which serves many of the same valuable functions as humus, but can last much longer. The processing and decomposition of this material should be done carefully to prevent the loss of minerals and carbon through leaching or off-gassing, as often happens at large municipal composting plants which treat the material as waste for disposal rather than as a resource to be valued.

This captured supply of nutrients and carbon should ideally be added to the local farmlands, fields and gardens that will be used for local food production. If the land is not available yet, then the processed material should be stored for later use in such a way that its quality can be maintained or improved over time. The lack of growing space and capacity should not prevent conversion of the easiest parts of the material flow and the building up of a store of fertility and humus. This build-up of raw material for future productivity is similar to the gradual collection of materials before you start to build a house.

The existing soil should be tested for major and trace mineral levels as well as for toxicity. Significant mineral imbalances should be corrected by importing organic or synthetic concentrated supplies. Many organic and natural farming methods emphasise more gradual processes for building fertility, primarily through composting local biomass, and tend to avoid importing concentrates as well as restricting anything synthetic. This may be the movement’s Achilles heel. Although concentrated nutrients can cause problems through inappropriate application, their continued deficiency in the soil is more detrimental in the long run. Trace mineral levels should be generally improved by incorporating rock dust, seaweed meal or sea solids, or through the use of concentrates to correct specific deficiencies (such as using borax to boost levels of boron). Nutrient accumulator plants can also be used to mine supplies of both trace and major minerals from the broader landscape and concentrate them in key areas, but this process would tend to exacerbate deficiencies and undermine the health and productivity of the surrounding ecosystem.

Excessive concentrations of some minerals can cause a detrimental imbalance in the soil and care must be taken to ensure that imported supplies do not contain significant amounts of these minerals, or the imbalances will continue or worsen. Some excessive concentrations can be reduced through the use of accumulator plants or dispersion of soils over a wider area. Toxic levels of nutrients, especially of lead and other metals, and contamination by industrial and chemical compounds, should be mitigated either through careful bioremediation or avoidance. The same testing should be done with the flow of decomposed organic matter so that it does not further disrupt the balance of nutrients or introduce contamination. Within this process, it is important to focus on key areas of productivity rather than on having a diluted impact on broader areas. It is also important to see the transition stage as a temporary process. There is little sense in developing substantial facilities to handle material flow which will not be available once this phase reaches its natural end, or is abruptly halted by collapsing economies.

The sustaining strategy can start fairly early, running in parallel to the transition phase, and would take over entirely when nutrient levels have reached a high and generally balanced level, or when economic conditions interrupt the easy flow of material or cheap energy is not available to process and transport nutrients from outside. The key focus of this strategy is to prevent the loss of nutrients through leaching, erosion, exporting products, and through sewage and waste water. Nutrient cycling systems need to be developed, including composting toilets and urine separation, as well as grey-water management systems to minimise loss of fertility and minerals. Trade restrictions may need to be put in place so that excessive amounts of minerals, especially those that are not in abundance in the local soil, do not leave the area in the form of food and material.

Land-management practices need to be developed to reduce the amount of nutrients and soil that washes away or leaches underground. Deep-rooting trees and plants should be used to pull leached nutrients and a fresh supply of trace elements from deep in the soil, and catchment basins should be established to intercept the nutrients that flow away during extreme weather events. As the overall ecosystem develops it will be important to continue to monitor and correct the mineral balance where possible, and to develop ways to increase the overall fertility levels gradually.

Once the key production sites have been adequately developed, it may be possible to gradually expand the land under management, either the adjacent fields, or the broader landscape. Focusing first on the key areas and then using these as a base for improving other areas, or for helping neighbouring communities, is a useful strategy for developing broader nutritional resilience in the uncertain future that we face.

In the future (perhaps within a hundred years), after the fossil fuel energy subsidy to agriculture has declined, the mineral fertility and balance of our farmlands and entire catchment landscapes will become one of the most important issues in resource management and economics, and yet the powerful means that are currently available to achieve this on a large scale will be very costly or simply unavailable. In this situation we will once again be dependent on the slower, low-energy processes of building and balancing fertility.[8]

I fear that, when writing the above passage, David Holmgren may have significantly overestimated the amount of time that we have.


  2. FAO, Rome Declaration on World Food Security,
  3. Mineral Information Institute, The Role of Elements in Life Processes,
  4. Folke Gunther,
  5. Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Penguin Press, 2008
  6. As [4]
  7. Steve Solomon, Gardening When It Counts, page 17-18, New Society Publishers, 2005
  8. David Holmgren, Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, page 40, Holmgren Design Services, 2002
  9. Eliot Coleman, Four-Season Harvest, page 147, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999
  10. Francis Chaboussou, Healthy Crops; A New Agricultural Revolution, page 7, Jon Carpenter Publishing 2004
  12. Anne-Marie Mayer, Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables,
    British Food Journal, Volume 99, 1997

The psychological roots of resource overconsumption

Nate Hagens

Humans have an innate need for status and for novelty in their lives. Unfortunately, the modern world has adopted very energy- and resource-intensive ways of meeting those needs. Other ways are going to have to be found as part of the move to a more sustainable world.

Most people associate the word “sustainability” with changes to the supply side of our modern way of life such as using energy from solar flows rather than fossil fuels, recycling, green tech and greater efficiency. In this essay, however, I will focus on the demand-side drivers that explain why we continue to seek and consume more stuff.

When addressing ‘demand-side drivers’, we must begin at the source: the human brain. The various layers and mechanisms of our brain have been built on top of each other via millions and millions of iterations, keeping intact what ‘worked’ and adding via changes and mutations what helped the pre-human, pre-mammal organism to incrementally advance. Brain structures that functioned poorly in ancient environments are no longer around. Everyone reading this page is descended from the best of the best at both surviving and procreating which, in an environment of privation and danger where most ‘iterations’ of our evolution happened, meant acquiring necessary resources, achieving status and possessing brains finely tuned to natural dangers and opportunities.

This essay outlines two fundamental ways in which the evolutionarily derived reward pathways of our brains are influencing our modern overconsumption. First, financial wealth accumulation and the accompanying conspicuous consumption are generally regarded as the signals of modern success for our species. This gives the rest of us environmental cues to compete for more and more stuff as a proxy of our status and achievement. A second and more subtle driver is that we are easily hijacked by and habituated to novel stimuli. As we shall see, the prevalence of novelty today eventually demands higher and higher levels of neural stimulation, which often need increased consumption to satisfy. Thus it is this combination of pursuit of social status and the plethora of novel activities that underlies our large appetite for resource throughput.


Evolution has honed and culled ‘what worked’ by combining the substrate of life with eons’ worth of iterations. Modern biological research has focused on the concept of ‘relative fitness’, a term for describing those adaptations that are successful in propelling genes, or suites of genes, into the next generation and that will have out-competed those that were deleterious or did not keep up with environmental change. Though absolute fitness mattered to the individual organisms while they were alive, looking back it was ‘relative fitness’ that shaped the bodies and brains of the creatures on the planet today.

Status, both in humans and other species, has historically been a signaling mechanism that minimised the costs of competition, whether for reproductive opportunities or for material resources. If you place ten chickens in an enclosure there will ensue a series of fights until a pecking order is established. Each bird quickly learns who it can and cannot beat and a status hierarchy is created, thus making future fights (and wastes of energy) less common. Physical competition is costly behaviour that requires energy and entails risk of injury. Status is one way to determine who one can profitably challenge and who one cannot. In our ancestral environment, those men (and women) that successfully moved up the social hierarchy improved their mating and resource prospects. Those at the bottom of the status rung did not only possess fewer mating opportunities but many did not mate at all. Status among our ancestors was probably linked to those attributes providing consistent benefits to the tribe: hunting prowess, strength, leadership ability, storytelling skills etc. In modern humans, status is defined by what our modern cultures dictate. As we are living through an era of massive energy gain from fossil fuels, pure physical prowess has been replaced by digital wealth, fast cars, political connections, etc.

It follows that the larger a culture’s resource subsidy (natural wealth), the more opportunity there is for ‘status badges’ uncorrelated with basic needs such as strength, intelligence, adaptability, stamina, etc. Though ‘what’ defines status may be culturally derived, status hierarchies themselves are part of our evolved nature. Ancestral hominids at the bottom of the mating pecking order, ceteris paribus, are not our ancestors. Similarly, many of our ancestors had orders of magnitude more descendants than others. For example, scientists recently discovered an odd geographical preponderance for a particular Y chromosome mutation which turns out to be originally descended from Genghis Khan. Given the 16 million odd male descendants alive today with this Y marker, Mr. Khan is theorised to have had 800,000 times the reproductive success than the average male alive on the planet in 1200 AD. This does not imply that we are all pillagers and conquerors — only that various phenotypic expressions have had ample opportunity to become hardwired in our evolutionary past. [1]

Mating success is a key driver in the natural world. This is all studied and documented by evolutionary research into the theory of “sexual selection”, which Charles Darwin once summarised as the effects of the “struggle between the individuals of one sex, generally the males, for the possession of the other sex.” [2] Biologists have shown that a primary way to reliably demonstrate one’s ‘quality’ during courtship is to display a high-cost signal — e.g. a heavy and colourful peacock’s tail, an energy-expending bird-song concert, or a $100,000 sports car. [3] These costly “handicap” signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of their producer’s quality, because cheap signals are too easy for low-quality imitators to fake. [4]

In this sense ‘waste’ was an evolutionary selection! Think of three major drawbacks to a male peacock of growing such a hugely ornate tail:

  1. the energy, vitamins and minerals needed to go into the creation of the tail could have been used for other survival/reproductive needs,
  2. the tail makes the bird more likely to be spotted by a predator,
  3. If spotted, the cumbersome tail makes escape from a predator less likely.

Overall, though, these negative “fitness hits” must have been outweighed by the drab female peahen’s preference for males with larger, more ornate tails. With this filter, we can understand the rationale and prevalence of Veblen goods (named after the 19th-century economist who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’) — a group of commodities that people increasingly prefer to buy as their price gets higher because the greater price confers greater status. This biological precept of signalling theory is alive and well in the human culture.


Modern man evolved from earlier hominids under conditions of privation and scarcity at least until about 10,000 years ago. The period since then has been too short a time to make a significant change to millions of years of prior neural sculpture. Nature made the brain’s survival systems incredibly efficient. The brain is based on about 40% of all our available genes and consumes over 20% of our calorific intake. Incremental changes in how our brains recognise, process and react to the world around us either contributed to our survival and thus were carried forward, or died out.

Some changes affected salience, the ability to notice what is important, different or unusual. Salience recognition is part of what’s called the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway. This pathway is a system of neurons integral to survival efficiency, helping us to instantly decide what in the environment should command our attention. Historically, immediate feedback on what is ‘new’ was critical to both avoiding danger and procuring food. Because most of what happens around us each day is predictable, processing every detail of a familiar habitat wastes brain energy. Such activity would also slow down our mental computer so that what are now minor distractions could prove deadly. Thus our ancestors living on the African savanna paid little attention to the stable mountains on the horizon but were quick to detect any movement in the bush, on the plains, or at the riverbank. Those more able to detect and process ‘novel cues’ were more likely to obtain rewards needed to survive and pass on their suites of genes. Indeed, modern experimental removal of the (dopamine) receptor genes in animals causes them to reduce exploratory behaviour, a key variable related to inclusive fitness in animal biology. [5]

We are instinctually geared for individual survival — being both reward-driven, and curious. It was these two core traits that the father of economics himself, Adam Smith, predicted in The Wealth of Nations would be the drivers of world economic growth. According to Smith, uniting the twin economic engines of self-interest (which he termed self-love) and curiosity was ambition — “the competitive human drive for social betterment”. About 70 years later, after reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Charles Darwin recognised the parallel between the pursuit of wealth in human societies and the competition for resources that occurred among animal species. Our market system of allocating resources and ‘status’ can therefore be seen as the natural social culmination for an intelligent species finding an abundance of resources.

But, as we shall soon see, the revered Scottish philosopher could not have envisioned heli-skiing, Starbucks, slot machines, Facebook, email and many other stimulating and pleasurable objects and activities that people engage in today and to which they so easily become accustomed.

The mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system

“Americans find prosperity almost everywhere, but not happiness. For them desire for well-being has become a restless burning passion which increases with satisfaction. To start with emigration was a necessity for them: now it is a sort of gamble, and they enjoy the sensations as much as the profit.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 1831

Traditional drug abuse happens because natural selection has shaped behaviour-regulation mechanisms that function via chemical transmitters in our brains. [6] Addicts can become habituated to the feelings they get from cocaine, heroin or alcohol, and they need to increase their consumption over time to get the same neurotransmitter highs. This same neural reward architecture is present in all of us when considering our ecological footprints: we become habituated via a positive feedback loop to the ‘chemical sensations’ we receive from shopping, keeping up with the Joneses (conspicuous consumption), pursuing more stock profits, and myriad other stimulating activities that a surplus of cheap energy has provided.

An explosion of neuroscience and brain-imaging research tells us that drugs of abuse activate the brain’s dopamine reward system that regulates our ability to feel pleasure and be motivated for “more”. When we have a great experience — a glance from a pretty girl, a lovemaking romp in the woods, a plate of fresh sushi, hitting 777 on a one-eyed bandit, catching a lunker pike, watching a sunset, hearing a great guitar riff etc. — our brain experiences a surge in the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. We feel warm, ‘in the zone’ and happy. After a while, the extra dopamine gets flushed out of our system and we return to our baseline level. We go about our lives, looking forward to the next pleasurable experience. But the previous experience has been logged into our brain’s limbic system, which, in addition to being a centre for pleasure and emotion, holds our memory and motivation circuitry. [7] We now begin to look forward to encores of such heady stimuli and are easily persuaded towards activities that promise such a chemical reprise. These desires have their beginnings outside our conscious awareness. Recent brain-imaging research shows that drug and sexual cues as brief as 33 milliseconds can activate the dopamine circuitry, even if a person is not conscious of the cues. Perhaps there are artistically shaped sexual images hidden in advertisements for whiskey after all…

Historically, this entire system evolved from the biological imperative of survival. Food meant survival, sex meant survival (of genes or suites of genes), and additional stockpiles of both provided success relative to others, both within and between species. There was a discrete payoff to waiting hours for some movement in the brush that signaled ‘food’, or the sound of a particular bird that circled a tree with a beehive full of honey, etc. Our pattern recognition system on the Pleistocene would have been a grab-bag of various environmental stimuli that ‘excited’ our brains towards action that correlated with resources (typically food). In sum, the brain’s reward pathways record both the actual experience of pleasure as well as ensuring that the behaviours that led to it are remembered and repeated. Irrespective of whether they are ‘good’ for the organism in the current context — they ‘feel’ good, which is the mechanism our brain has left us as a heritage of natural selection.

The (very important) mechanism of habituation

Habituation — getting used to something — and subsequent substance abuse and addiction develops because of the way we learn. Learning depends crucially on the discrepancy between the prediction and occurrence of a reward. A reward that is fully predicted does not contribute to learning. [8] The important implication of this is that learning advances only to the extent to which something is unpredicted and slows progressively as a stimuli becomes more predictable. [9] As such, unexpected reward is a core driver in how we learn, how we experience life, and how we consume resources.

Dopamine activation has been linked with addictive, impulsive activity in numerous species. Dopamine is released within the brain not only to rewarding stimuli but also to those events that predict rewards. It has long been known that two groups of neurons, in the ventral tegmental and the substantia nigra pars compacta areas, and the dopamine they release, are critical for reinforcing certain kinds of behaviour. Neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz measured the activity of these dopamine neurons while thirsty monkeys waited for a tone which was followed by a squirt of fruit juice into their mouths. After a series of fixed, steady amounts of juice, the volume of juice was suddenly doubled. The rate of neuron firing went from about 3 per second to 80 per second. But after several trials, after the monkeys had become habituated to this new level of reward, their dopamine firing rate returned to the baseline rate of 3 firings per second after the squirt of juice. The monkeys had become habituated to the coming reward! The opposite happened when the reward was reduced without warning. The firing rate dropped dramatically, but eventually returned to the baseline rate of 3 firings per second. [10]

The first time we experience a drug or alcohol high, the amount of chemical we ingest often exceeds the levels of naturally occurring neurotransmitters in our bodies by an order of magnitude. [11] No matter how brief, that experience is stored in our neural homes for motivation and memory — the amygdala and hippocampus. Getting drunk with your friends, getting high on a ski-lift, removing the undergarments of a member of the opposite sex for the first time — all initially flood the brain with dopamine alongside a picture memory of the event chemically linked to the body’s pleasurable response to it. As such we look forward to doing it again, not so much because we want to repeat the activity, but because we want to recreate that ‘feeling’.

But in a modern stimuli-laden culture, this process is easily hijacked. After each upward spike, dopamine levels again recede, eventually to below the baseline. The following spike doesn’t go quite as high as the one before it. Over time, the rush becomes smaller, and the crash that follows becomes steeper. The brain has been fooled into thinking that achieving that high is equivalent to survival and therefore the ‘consume’ light remains on all the time. Eventually, the brain is forced to turn on a self-defence mechanism, reducing the production of dopamine altogether — thus weakening the pleasure circuits’ intended function. At this point, an ‘addicted’ person is compelled to use the substance not to get high, but just to feel normal — since one’s own body is producing little or no endogenous dopamine response. Such a person has reached a state of “anhedonia”, or inability to feel pleasure via normal experiences. Being addicted also raises the risk of having depression; being depressed increases the risk of self-medicating, which then leads to addiction, etc. via positive feedback loops.

In sum, when exposed to novel stimuli, high levels of curiosity (dopamine) are generated, but it is the unexpected reward that causes their activation. If I order a fantastic array of sushi and the waiter brings me a toothpick and my check, I am going to have a plunge in dopamine levels which will create an immediate craving for food. It is this interplay between expected reward and reality that underlies much of our behavioural reactions. Ultimately, as it relates to resource consumption, repeated use of any dopamine-generating ‘activity’ eventually results in tolerance. Withdrawal results in lower levels of dopamine and continuous use is required to keep dopamine at normal levels, and even higher doses to get the ‘high’ levels of initial use. Consumers in rich nations are arguably reaching higher and higher levels of consumption tolerance. If there was such a thing as ‘cultural anhedonia’, we might be approaching it.

America and addiction

It would be pretty hard to be addicted directly to oil; it’s toxic, slimy and tastes really bad. But given the above background, we can see how it is possible to become addicted to the energy services that oil provides. Humans are naturally geared for individual survival — curious, reward-driven and self-absorbed —but modern technology has now become a vector for these cravings. Material wealth and the abundant choices available in contemporary US society are unique in human (or animal) experience; never before in the history of our species have so many enjoyed (used?) so much. Within a culture promoting ‘more’, it is no wonder we have so many addicts. High-density energy and human ingenuity have removed the natural constraints on our behaviour of distance, time, oceans and mountains. For now, these phenomena are largely confined to developed nations — people living in a hut in Botswana or a yurt in Mongolia cannot as easily be exposed to the ‘hijacking stimuli’ of an average westerner, especially one living in a big city in the West, like London or Los Angeles.

Many activities in an energy-rich society unintentionally target the difference between expected and unexpected reward. Take sportfishing for example. If my brother and I are on a lake fishing and we get a bite, it sends a surge of excitement through our bodies — what kind of fish is it? How big is it? etc. We land an 8-inch perch! Great! A minute later we catch another 8 inch perch — wow, there must be a school! After 45 minutes of catching nothing but 8-inch perch, our brain comes to expect this outcome, and we need something bigger, or a different species, to generate the same level of excitement, so we will likely move to a different part of the lake in search of ‘bigger’ and/or ‘different’ fish. (Though my brother claims he would never tire of catching fish 8-inch perch I think he’s exaggerating). Recreational fishing is benign (if not to the fish), but one can visualise other more resource-intensive pastimes activating similar circuitry. New shoes, new cars, new vacations, new home improvements, new girlfriends are all present on the modern unexpected reward smorgasbord.

The habituation process explains how some initially benign activities can morph into things more destructive. Weekly church bingo escalates to $50 blackjack tables; the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition results, several years down the road, in the monthly delivery (in unmarked brown packaging) of Jugs magazine or webcams locked in on a bedroom in Eastern Europe; youthful rides on a rollercoaster evolve into annual heli-skiing trips, etc. The World Wide Web is especially capable of hijacking our neural reward pathways. The 24/7 ubiquity and nearly unlimited options for distraction on the internet almost seem to be perfectly designed to hone in on our brains’ g-spot. Shopping, pornography, gambling, social networking, information searches, etc. easily out-compete the non-virtual, more mundane (and necessary) activities of yesteryear. Repetitive internet use can be highly addictive, though psychiatrists in different countries are debating whether it is a true addiction. For better or worse, the first things I do in the morning is a) check what time it is, b) start the coffee machine then c) check my e-mail, to see what ‘novelty’ might be in my inbox. Bills to pay, and e-mails from people who are not important or interesting, wait until later in the day, or are forgotten altogether.

There are few healthy men on the planet today who do not respond in social settings to the attention of a high-status, attractive 20- to 30-something woman. This is salient stimuli, irrespective of the man’s marital status. But here is one example of where nature and nurture mesh. Despite the fact that 99+% of our history was polygynous, modern culture precludes men from running around pell-mell chasing women; we have rules, laws, and institutions such as marriage. However, habituation to various matrimonial aspects combined with exposure to dozens or even hundreds of alternatives annually in the jet age may at least partially explain the 60%+ divorce rate in modern society.

The entire brain and behaviour story is far more complex than just one neurotransmitter but the pursuit of this particular ‘substance’ is clearly correlated with anxiety, obesity, and the general increasing of conspicuous consumption in our society. That dopamine is directly involved is pretty clear. Parkinson’s Disease is a condition where dopamine is lacking in an area of the brain necessary for motor coordination. The drug, Mirapex, increases dopamine levels in that area of the brain, but since pills are not lasers, it also increases dopamine in other areas of the body, including (surprise) the reward pathways. There are numerous lawsuits currently pending by Parkinson’s patients who after taking the drug, developed sex, gambling, shopping and overeating compulsions. [12]

Our brain can also be tricked by the food choices prevalent in an abundant-energy society. We evolved in situations where salt and sugar were rare and lacking and signaled nutrition. So now, when we taste Doritos or Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream, our reward pathways say ‘yes yes — this is good for you!!’ Our ‘rational’ brain attempts to remind us of the science showing obesity comes from eating too much of the wrong type of foods, but often loses out to the desire of the moment. Fully 30% of Americans are now categorised as obese. And, since we are exporting our culture (via the global market system) to developing countries, it is no surprise that China is following in our footsteps. From 1991 to 2004 the percentage of adults who are overweight or obese in China increased from 12.9% to 27.3%. [13] Furthermore, we can become habituated to repeated presentation of the same food type; we quickly get tired of it and crave something different. [14] We like variety — in food and in other things. Finally, when we overstimulate the brain pleasure centres with highly palatable food, these systems adapt by decreasing their own activity. Many of us now require constant stimulation from palatable (fatty) food to avoid entering a persistent state of negative reward. It is this dynamic that has led scientists to recently declare that fatty foods such as cheesecake and bacon are addictive in the same manner as cocaine. [15] And as we shall see, both what we eat and experience not only alters our own health, but also makes it more difficult to act in environmentally benign ways.

Impulsivity, discount rates and preparing for the future

Overconsumption fueled by increasing neural high water marks is a problem enough in itself, but such widespread neural habituation also diminishes our ability to think and act about the coming societal transition away from fossil fuels. Economists measure how much we prefer the present over the future via something called a ‘discount rate’. (See Mark Rutledge’s essay in this book). A discount rate of 100% means we prefer the present completely and put no value on the future. A discount rate of 0% means we treat the future 1000 years from now equally the same as 5 minutes from now.

Certain types of people have steeper discount rates than others; in general, gamblers, drinkers, drug users, men (vs. women), low IQ scorers, risk-takers, those exhibiting cognitive load, etc. all tend to show more preference for small short-term rewards rather than waiting for larger, long-term ones. [16] On average, heroin addicts’ discount rates are over double those of control groups. Furthermore, in tests measuring discount rates and preferences among opium addicts, opioid-dependent participants discounted delayed monetary rewards significantly more than did non-drug using controls. Also, the opioid-dependent participants discounted delayed opium significantly more than delayed money, more evidence that brain chemicals are central to an organism’s behaviour and that money and other abstractions are secondary. [17] Research has also shown that subjects deprived of addictive substances have an even greater preference for immediate consumption over delayed gratification. [18]

Even if we are not snorting cocaine or binge drinking on a Tuesday night, in a world with so much choice and so many stimulating options vying for our attention, more and more of our time is taken up feeding neural compulsions. In any case, facing large long-term risks like peak oil and climate change requires dedicated long-term thinking — so having neural wiring that, due to cultural stimuli, focuses more and more on the present instead, is a big problem.

The fallacy of reversibility A.K.A “The ratchet effect”

Though our natural tendency is to want more of culturally condoned pursuits, many such desires do have negative feedbacks. For instance, I can only eat about three cheeseburgers before my stomach sends a signal to my brain that I am full — and at 4 or 5 my stomach and esophagus would fill to the level I couldn’t physically eat another. However, this is not so with virtual wealth, or many of the “wanting” stimuli promoted in our economic ‘more equals better’ culture. Professor Juliet Schor of Boston University has demonstrated that irrespective of their baseline salary, Americans always say they’d like to make a little more the following year. [19] Similar research by UCLA economist Richard Easterlin (whose “Easterlin Paradox” points out that average happiness has remained constant over time despite sharp rises in GDP per capita.) followed a cohort of people over a 16-year period. The participants were asked at the onset to list 10 items that they desired (e.g. sports car, snowmobile, house, private jet, etc.) During the 16 study, all age groups tested did acquire some/many of the things they originally desired. But in each case, their desires increased more than their acquisitions. [20] This phenomenon is termed the “Hedonic Treadmill”. I believe this behaviour is at the heart of the Limits to Growth problem, and gives me less confidence that we are just going to collectively ‘tighten our belts’ when the events accompanying resource depletion get a little tougher. That is, unless we somehow change what it is that we want more of.

The Ratchet Effect is a term for a situation in which, once a certain level is reached, there is no going back, at least not all the way. In evolution the effect means once a suite of genes become ubiquitous in a population, there is no easy way to ‘unevolve’ it. A modern example of this is obesity — as we get fatter the body creates more lipocytes (cells composing adipose tissue). But this system doesn’t work in reverse; even though we can lose some of the weight gain, the body can’t eliminate these new cells — they are there to stay.

After peak oil/peak credit, the ratchet effect is likely to mean that any rules requiring a more equitable distribution of wealth will not be well received by those who amassed wealth and status when oil was abundant. In biology, we see that animals will expend more energy defending freshly gained territory than they would to gain it if it was unclaimed. In humans, the pain from losing money is greater than the pleasure of gaining it. Economists describe and quantify this phenomenon as the endowment effect and loss aversion. And, as an interesting but disturbing aside, recent research suggests that the dopamine that males receive during acts of aggression rivals that of food or sex. [20] [21] All these different dynamics of ‘what we have’ and ‘what we are used to’ will come into play in a world with less resources available per head.

Old brain, new choices

Humans have always lived in the moment but our gradual habituation to substances and activities that hijack our reward system may be forcing us, in aggregate, to live so much for the present that we are ignoring the necessity for urgent societal change. Unwinding this cultural behaviour may prove difficult. The sensations we seek in the modern world are not only available and cheap, but most are legal, and the vast majority are actually condoned and promoted by our culture. If the rush we get from an accomplishment is tied to something that society rewards we call it ambition, if it is attached to something a little scary, then we label the individual a ‘risk taker’ and if it is tied to something illegal — only then have we become an ‘addict’ or substance abuser. So it seems culture has voted on which ways of engaging our evolutionarily derived neurotransmitter cocktails are ‘good’ to pursue.

Drug addiction is defined as “the compulsive seeking and taking of a drug despite adverse consequences”. If we substitute the word ‘resource’ for ‘drug’, have we meaningfully violated or changed this definition? That depends on the definition of ‘drug’. “A substance that a person chemically comes to rely upon” is the standard definition but ultimately it is any activity or substance that generates brain chemicals that we come to require/need. Thus, it is not crude oil’s intrinsic qualities we crave but the biochemical sensations to which we have become accustomed arising from the use of its embodied energy.

Take stock trading for example. Neuroscience scans show that stock trading lights up the same brain areas as picking nuts and berries do in other primates.

I think people trade for

  1. money/profit (to compete/move up the mating ladder),
  2. the feeling of being ‘right’ (whether they ever spend the money or not) and
  3. the excitement/dopamine they get from the unexpected nature of the market puzzle.

While these three are not mutually exclusive, it is not clear to me which objective dominates, especially among people who have already attained infinite wealth. (Technically, infinite wealth is their annual expenses divided by the interest rate on Treasury bills. This gives the sum of money that would provide them with an income to buy all they want forever). When I worked for Lehman Brothers, my billionaire clients seemed less ‘happy’ on average than the $30k-a-year clerks processing their trades. They had more exciting lives perhaps, but they were not happier; that is, their reward baseline reset to zero each morning irrespective of the financial wealth they had amassed in previous days or years,. They wanted ‘more’ because they were habituated to getting more — it was how they kept score. Clearly, unless you inherit, you don’t get to be a billionaire if you are easily satisfied.

MRI scans show that objects associated with wealth and social dominance activate reward-related brain areas. In one study, people’s anterior cingulate (a brain region linked to reward) had more blood and oxygen response to visual cues of sports cars than to limousines or small cars. [22]

If compulsive shopping was a rational process, and our choices were influenced only by need, then brand-name t-shirts would sell no better than less expensive shirts of equal quality. The truth is that many shopping decisions are biased by corporate advertising campaigns or distorted by a desire to satisfy some competitive urge or emotional need. For most of us, the peak ‘neurotransmitter cocktail’ is the moment we decide to buy that new ‘item’. After a brief euphoria and a short respite, the clock starts ticking on the next craving/purchase.

Adaptation executors

There is a shared mythology in America that we can each enjoy fame and opulence at the top of the social pyramid. 78% of Americans still believe that anybody in America can become rich and live the good life [23]. Although in our economic system, not everyone can be a Warren Buffet or Richard Branson — there are not enough resources — it is the carrot of potential reward that keeps people working 50 hours a week until they retire at 65. All cannot be first. All cannot be wealthy, which makes our current version of capitalism, given the finite resources of the planet, not dissimilar from a Ponzi scheme.

Envy for status is a strong motivator. Increasing evidence in the fields of psychology and economics shows that above a minimum threshold of income/wealth, it’s one’s relative wealth that matters, not absolute. In an analysis of more than 80,000 observations, the relative rank of an individual’s income predicted the individual’s general life satisfaction whereas absolute income and reference income had little to no effect. [24] The “aspiration gap” is economic-speak for the relative fitness/status drive towards who/what is at the top of the cultural status hierarchy. For decades (centuries?), China has had a moderate aspiration gap, but since the turbo-capitalist global cues have spread across Asia, hundreds of millions of Chinese have raised their pecuniary wealth targets.

Economist Robert Frank asked people in the US if they would prefer living in a 4,000-square-foot house where all the neighboring houses were 6,000 square feet or a 3,000-square-foot house where the surrounding houses were 2,000 square feet. The majority of people chose the latter — smaller in absolute terms but bigger in relative size. A friend of mine says that when he last visited Madagascar, the 5th poorest nation on earth, the villagers huddled around the one TV in the village watching the nation’s most popular TV show Melrose Place, giving them a window of desire into Hollywood glitz and glamour, and a beacon to dream about and strive for. Recently, a prince in the royal family of U.A.E. paid $14 million for a licence plate with the single numeral “1”. “I bought it because I want to be the best in the world”, Saeed Abdul Ghafour Khouri explained. What environmental cues do the kids watching TV in the U.A.E. or the U.S. receive?

As a species, we are both cooperative and competitive depending on the circumstances, but it’s very important to understand that our neurophysiological scaffolding was assembled during long mundane periods of privation in the ancestral environment. This is still not integrated into the Standard Social Science Model that forms the basis of most liberal arts educations (and economic theory). A new academic study on relative income as a primary driver of life satisfaction had over 50 references, none of which linked to the biological literature on status, sexual selection or relative fitness. Furthermore, increasing cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology research illustrates that we are not the self-interested ‘utility maximisers’ that economists claim, but are highly ‘other regarding’ — we care about other people’s welfare as well as our own. Though high-perceived relative fitness is a powerful behavioural carrot, inequality has pernicious effects on societies; it erodes trust, increases anxiety and illness, and leads to excessive consumption. [25] Health steadily worsens as one descends the social ladder, even within the upper and middle classes [26].

When a child is born, he has all the genetic material he will ever have. All his ancestors until that moment had their neural wiring shaped for fitness maximisation — but when he is born, his genes will interact with environment cues showing those ways to compete for status, respect, mating prospects, and resources etc. which are socially acceptable. From this point forward, the genes are ‘fixed’ and the infant goes through life as an ‘adaptation executor’ NOT a fitness maximiser. What will a child born in the 21st century ‘learn’ to compete for? Historically, we have always pursued social status, though status has been measured in dramatically different ways throughout history. Currently, most people pursue money as a short-cut fitness marker, though some compete in other ways — politics, knowledge, etc. Thus, a large looming problem is that the Chinese and other rapidly developing nations don’t just aspire to the wealth of average Americans — they want to go the whole hog to be millionaires.


We are a clever, ambitious species that evolved to live almost entirely off of solar flows. Eventually we worked out how to access stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels which required very little energy/natural resource input to extract. The population and growth trajectory that ensued eventually oversatisfied the “more is better” mantra of evolution and we’ve now developed a habit of requiring more fossil fuels and more clever ways to use them every year. There also exists a pervasive belief that human ingenuity will create unlimited substitutes for finite natural resources like oil and water. Put simply, it is likely that our abundant natural resources are not only required, but will be taken for granted until they are gone.

This essay has explored some of the underlying drivers of resource depletion and planetary consumption: more humans competing for more stuff that has more novelty. The self-ambition and curiosity that Adam Smith hailed as the twin engines of economic growth have been quite effective over the past 200 years. But Adam Smith did caution in Moral Sentiments that human envy and a tendency toward compulsions, if left unchecked, would undermine the empathic social relationships that would be essential to the successful long-term operation of free markets. Amidst so much novel choice and pressure to create wealth, we are discovering some uncomfortable facts, backed up by modern neurobiology, that confirm his concerns. In an era of material affluence, when wants have not yet been fully constrained by limited resources, the evidence from our ongoing American experiment conclusively shows that humans have trouble setting limits on our instinctual cravings. What’s more, our rational brains have quite a hard time acknowledging this uncomfortable but glaring fact.

This essay undoubtedly raises more questions than it answers. If we can be neurally hijacked, what does it suggest about television, advertising, media, etc? The majority of the neuro-economic sources I used in writing this were a byproduct of studies funded by neuromarketing research! How does ‘rational utility’ function in a society where we are being expertly marketed to pull our evolutionary triggers to funnel the money upwards? How does Pareto optimality — the assumption that all parties to an exchange will be made better off — hold up when considering neuro-economic findings? Recent studies show that American young people (between ages of 8-18) use 7.5 hours of electronic media (internet, Ipod, Wii, etc) per day and, thanks to multi-tasking, had a total of 11 hours ‘gadget’ exposure per day! [27] The children with the highest hours of use had markedly poorer grades and more behavioural problems. How will these stimuli-habituated children adapt to a world of fewer resources?

Not all people pursue money, but our cultural system does. An unbridled pursuit of profits has created huge disparities in digitally amassed monetary wealth both within and between nations, thus holding a perpetually unattainable carrot in front of most of the world’s population. So it is not just the amount we consume that is unsustainable, but also the message we send to others, internationally, nationally and in our neighbourhoods.

Meeting in the middle? The arrowed circle on this Inglehart Curve represents the highest level of well-being/survival consistent with a low level of resource use. It is therefore a target at which a society should aim. (Source: N. Hagens and R. Inglehart 1997)

At the same time, traditional land, labour and capital inputs have been subsidised by the ubiquity of cheap energy inputs, and more recently by a large increase in both government and private debt, a spatial and temporal reallocator of resources. These cheap energy/cheap credit drivers will soon be a thing of the past, and this will curtail future global growth aspirations. When this happens, and we face the possibility of currency reform and what it might mean to start afresh with the same resources but a new basket of claims and assumptions, we will need to remember the neural backdrops of competition for relative status, and how people become habituated to high neural stimuli. Perhaps, given the suppl- side limits and neural aspirations, some new goals can be attempted at lower absolute levels of consumption by at least partially lowering the amplitude of social rank.

We cannot easily change our penchant to want more. We can only change cultural cues on how we define the ‘more’ and thereby reduce resource use. In the cross-cultural study referenced in the diagram above, we can see that well-being increases only slightly as GNP increases above some minimum threshold. The arrowed circle would be a logical place for international policymakers concerned about planetary resource and sink capacity to aim to reach via taxes, disincentives to conspicuous consumption and subsidies. However, I fear that nations and governments will do little to slow their consumption and will get increasingly locked into defending the status quo instead.

In a society with significant overall surpluses, people who actively lower their own economic and ecological footprint might get by very well because their relative status — which is typically above average — allows them to make such reductions without reaching limits that compromise their well-being. As these people allocate time and resources away from financial marker capital and towards social, human, built and natural capital, they have an opportunity to redefine what sort of ‘wealth’ we compete for and thus potentially lead by example. However, personal experience with people in the lifestyle section of the chart leads me to believe that they will probably continue to pursue more resources and status even if it doesn’t improve their well-being.

Put aside peak oil and climate change for the moment. Though it is difficult, we have it in us as individuals and as a culture to make small changes to the way our brains get ‘hijacked’ and, as a result, achieve more benign consequences. For example, we can choose to go for a jog/hike instead of sending ten emails and websurfing, we can choose to have a salad instead of a cheeseburger, we can choose to play a game or read a story with our children instead of making business phone calls. But most of these types of choices require both prior planning and discipline if our brains are not to fall into the neural grooves that modern culture has created. It takes conscious plans to change these behaviours, and for some this will be harder than for others But in choosing to do so, besides slowing and eventually reversing the societal stimulation feedback loop, we are likely to make ourselves healthier and happier. In neuro-speak, many of the answers facing a resource-constrained global society involve the rational neo-cortex suppressing and overriding the primitive and stronger limbic impulses.

So, ultimately, we must start to address new questions. In addition to asking source/sink questions like ‘how much do we have’ we should begin asking questions like ‘how much is enough?’ Reducing our addictive behaviours collectively will make it easier to face the situations likely to arise during an energy descent. Changing the environmental cues on what we compete for, via taxes or new social values, will slow down resource throughput and give future policymakers time to forge a new economic system consistent with our evolutionary heritage and natural resource balance sheet. We will always seek status and have hierarchies in human society but unless we first understand and then integrate our various demand-side constraints into our policies, culture and institutions, sustainability will be another receding horizon. Though there is probably no blanket policy to solve our resource crisis that would both work and gain social approval, an understanding of the main points of this essay might be a springboard to improve one’s own happiness and well-being. Which would be a start…


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