Quillwood Podcast

QP6: The Great Simplification, with Nathan Hagens

March 02, 2022 Eric Garza Season 1 Episode 6
Quillwood Podcast
QP6: The Great Simplification, with Nathan Hagens
Show Notes Transcript

Nathan Hagens founded the Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future, and hosts The Great Simplification podcast. In this episode he and Eric talk about the genesis of his phrase The Great Simplification, the link between debt and growth, energy blindness, the three grand challenges facing us today, finding our people, and attending to our mental health and resilience, among other things.


  • 00:00 - 02:33 — Episode introduction
  • 02:36 - 14:24 — The genesis of The Great Simplification
  • 14:24 - 19:22 — Avoiding binary outcomes
  • 19:22 - 26:24 — The link between debt and growth
  • 26:24 - 33:44 — Energy blindness
  • 33:44 - 36:19 — Energy and power density of fossil carbon
  • 36:19 - 40:04 — Three grand challenges
  • 40:04 - 44:22 — Finding our people, talking this through
  • 44:22 - 48:09 — Attending to our mental health and resilience
  • 48:09 - 54:27 — Walking the talk and staying grateful
  • 54:27 - 55:24 — Episode wrap-up

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Eric Garza: Welcome to the Quillwood Podcast. I am your host, Eric Garza.

Today's guest is a longtime friend of mine: Nate Hagens. I first learned about him from the work that he was doing on the Oil Drum back in the early, mid 2000s. Today, he is the founder of the Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future. He's also the host of The Great Simplification podcast, and a website that goes along with that. He recently released a wonderful animation about energy blindness. I will put a link to that, as well as links to his institute and podcast, in the links and resources section of the show notes. Find those show notes by going to quillwood.org, click on Quillwood Podcast in the offerings menu, and go to this episode. You might also be able to find them in the episode description on the podcast app you use to listen as well. If you enjoy this episode, please leave me a five star review on whatever app you use to listen. Also consider sharing this episode with anyone you know who might enjoy listening, or benefit from it.

Before I transition to the conversation that I recorded with Nate Hagens know that the Quillwood Podcast is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. Through Quillwood Academy I offer educational events to help people just like you learn to navigate today's rapidly changing world. The biggest event I have coming up that I want to mention is a reading group for the book The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. I've been reading through the book—I've not finished it yet—but it's clear to me that this is a discussion worthy book and I've had a couple folks already ask me to organize a reading group around it. So that reading group will be open for registration on the Quillwood Academy website by the time this episode goes live, and it will start sometime in early to mid March. Head over to quillwood.org to learn more about this and other events that are coming up, and to register for them. And you can also sign up for Quillwood's newsletter there, too.

With that plug from Quillwood Academy out of the way, I do hope you enjoy today's conversation with Nate Hagens.

Eric: Nice to see you again, Nate. Welcome to the podcast.

Nate Hagens: Glad to be here, Eric.

Eric: Awesome. So...

Nate: Wait a minute, wait a minute. So I got my PhD 2004 to 2009, and we overlapped. So when did you get your PhD?

Eric: I matriculated in 2007 and finished in 2011. So we overlapped by two years. But I think you'd already moved back to the Midwest...

Nate: Yeah, that's true. I was finishing my PhD in the cabin in the North Woods. So I actually haven't seen you in 12 years, plus or minus.

Eric: That's not totally true, because you came back to Vermont when you and, who was it, Hans did that ag thing...

Nate: Hannes Kunz. That was 2012 or 2013, or something.

Eric: Yeah.

Nate: You look the same by the way. You look the same. Must be all that healthy living you do, jumping in Lake Champlain and eating deer fat and those things.

Eric: Yeah, I am regularly accused of looking a lot younger than I am.

Nate: How old are you?

Eric: I'm 45. I will be 46 this year.

Nate: You look 35. Congrats.

Eric: Well, I'll assume you mean that in the nicest way. But yeah, so on the topic of this podcast, I'm an educator, and I am always on the lookout for ways to invite students, and other people besides just students, to think about the future, looking for terminology that I can use to frame that discourse in a way that doesn't cause people to just outright tune out, that's not so threatening, like talking about collapse, or even dissent or decline. One of the phrases that I've come to appreciate is one that I learned from you, and that was The Great Simplification. I would love to spend some time talking about that, and what you mean by that, and also where that comes from, what the genesis of that framing was.

Nate: Absolutely. So we have just undergone a couple centuries of the greatest complexification in our species' history, where we have combined innovation and ideas with energy and materials into technology that has massively increased the scale of the human enterprise. If you consider the amount of humans on the planet, 7.9 billion times the average material throughput—how many goods and services the average person uses—the human economy is over 1000 times bigger than it was 500 years ago. And this is all on the backs of fossil energy and materials that we are extracting from the earth 10 million times faster than they were sequestered by natural systems. And our economic system is based on the idea, or the implicit reality, that these things are interest, when in reality they are principle that we're drawing down so fast.

Since you and I have been alive, we've been on this unparalleled—with the exception of a couple of recessions—period of constant economic growth, which is really an anomaly in not only the last 1000 years of human history, but for the last 300,000 years, all of human history. And yet we come to take it as take it for granted that this is something natural, due to human cleverness and technology, and that this will always happen. But our economic system, our institutions, our expectations, are fundamentally dependent not only on available energy, but on affordable energy at the scale that we have now. And right now, the human enterprises uses the equivalent of 170 billion 100 watt light bulbs turned on 24/7. That's 17 terawatts of power. And this is 85% or so fueled by fossil carbon and hydrocarbons, coal, oil and natural gas. This stuff is finite, and we have extracted the best and easiest. And there's plenty left, but it's more costly, it's deeper, it's less quality, it's more ecologically impactful to extract. And so once we start to get to the lower quality stuff, which is going to require a lot more energy and materials itself, to extract, the benefits that society gets are going to diminish, especially on the energy intensive activities like flying or concrete production or aluminum smelting.

What we did with the industrial revolution is add 1000s to 10s of 1000s of units of fossil labor to replace one unit of what was previously human or animal labor. And we did that because this stuff was so cheap, we just pulled it out of the ground. And that was the cost, not the 10 million years of geological heat and pressure it took to create. So the benefits that we get are very sensitive to the cost of energy. If energy prices double or triple, that has a huge ripple effect in our wages, our salaries, our profits and the cost of things.

So long story short, The Great Simplification will be the era of the 21st century where we unwind a lot of this complexity that has been built into our system over the last century or two. It doesn't have to be a disaster, but it's going to mean a different sort of existence. It's going to mean less material throughput per average human and again, as a scientist, you're well aware of the distinction between median and mean is kind of a big one in our society right now. On average, instead of the whole pie getting bigger every year, the whole pie, meaning as a nation, as a world, as a species, the whole pie of stuff that we have access to is going to diminish. And not only that, our relationships with the natural world, our relationships with each other, our relationships with international trade, and the six-continent supply chain that we currently have, are also going to change.

The name of my podcast is called The Great Simplification. And I call it that for three reasons. The first reason is what I just described. We are about to embark from the greatest concentration of energy and resources ever amassed on this planet by a species into something different, because we will not be able to continue to grow. And I can explain to you the reasons why that is the case. So it's this simplifying of human interactions and commerce.

The second reason I call it that is because for many people, a simplifying in this super normal stimulus, smorgasbord of technology and gadgets and deliverable items and fancy food at Whole Foods and other places from around the world, we probably could be happier and healthier if we simplified our lives because we have as a culture effectively turned hundreds of billions of barrels of fossil carbon into micro liters of dopamine in our brains. And in doing so we've a become addicted to the unexpected reward of What's going to be my excitement today? What show am I going to watch? What am I going to order? What sort of cool technology can I play with? And we've lost sight of the fact that the best things in life actually are free or close to free once basic needs are met. And so for many people simplifying their lives, having less material consumption and more time in nature, more time with normal human timescale activities, more time in social networks, could actually be a good thing.

And then the third reason I called my podcast The Great Simplification is we live in a really complex and nuanced system, the human ecosystem, and I'm trying to help simplify all the complexity that is in geopolitics and energy and anthropology and neuroscience and climate change, and all that, into bite-sized, mind-sized explanations that makes sense. So that's why I call it that.

Eric: Yeah. And to build on the complexification and fossil fuel link there, what you're basically saying is that we learned to extract more and more of these sources of fossil carbon, coal, oil and natural gas, and with that energy that we liberated we built this very complex society. And because they're finite, the production of those goes up, and then eventually it goes down. And you and I have both followed the literature on investigating when those declines might start, but it is the envisioning of when those start, or when they have started already, in the case of oil, for example, that is inviting us to think about, as less energy becomes available year after year, how does our society writ large, in the United States but also globally, adapt to that? And it is from that adaptation process to having less available energy each year that you get the idea of the undoing of that complexification, which we can frame that as simplification. Is that a good?

Nate: The world is not binary. And there's a lot of stories out there that after growth, we're going to collapse. And those are two binary outcomes. I think a collapse is a mathematical possibility. Of course it is, because of so much complexity and risk out there with nuclear war and runaway climate change and all these other factors, but it's a small possibility in my book, like 10%, or something like that. It's much more likely that we are going to come down from this extremely high exosomatic energy orgy that we've had the last century, the average American—and again, I stress the word average, which leaves out the fact that a lot of people aren't at this level—but the average American uses 100 times more energy than our bodies consume in terms of calories.

Our endosomatic footprint, how much we eat, is 3000 calories a day. Well, you're you're probably a little less than that. But our exosomatic footprint is 220,000 calories a day. And that is our share of the light in the library, in the football stadium, and the airlines, and the buses, and the hospitals, and the gas stations, and all that—the average American uses 100 times more energy than our bodies need. Europe is 50 times more. And by the way, many countries in Europe have a higher quality of life, by self-reported well being, etc., than America even though we use twice the energy. That's one example of why a simplification does not have to be a disaster. But I think a simplification is the natural progression from when we over consumed. We have to simplify.

We are not going to, as a culture, choose to do this. We are going to continue to kick any can possible to continue growth because constraint and tightening our belt are not things that get you elected. So as a society, we're going to continue to kick cans until the road is full of cans. And then we're going to be forced to consume less by some financial recalibration, or the price of things being too high that we can't afford them, or certain supply chains that have micro components made in the south of China or in Bangladesh don't make it here, those sorts of things lead to a simplification.

As individuals, however, we can choose ahead of time. We can simplify first and beat the rush, which is if you understand the things that you've been teaching people on your podcast, if you can connect the dots that we have an economic system based on individuals, families, small businesses, corporations, and nation states collaborating towards generating monetary profits, which are linked to energy, which are linked to hydrocarbons, and that hydrocarbons are getting more costly, more diffuse, harder to extract, and therefore more expensive, meaning less benefits for society if you connect it all... And we're papering over dealing with that by issuing, now the United States is approaching $30 trillion in debt. The global economy is over three, almost four to one debt to GDP. And as an individual, if you make $50,000 a year and you owe the bank $200,000 a year, that's not a good situation. But our entire global economic system is in that situation. So as an individual, if you can just quietly go for a snowshoe around Lake Champlain and think about all these things, you're not getting the emotional signals that you're going to have to simplify your life. Because stock markets are near all time highs, and you can order anything you want on Amazon and be delivered the next day. But if you think about these things and connect the dots, you can make decisions in your life not to save the planet, but to make yourself more personally resilient and flexible as events unfold in coming decades. At least that's what I tell my students.

Eric: You mentioned one of the one of the drivers, you mentioned a couple of the drivers behind this whole ordeal. One of them was the brain chemistry and the addiction side of things, and maybe we'll spend some time on that in a bit. But you also mentioned debt. You can have a debt and how that holds—just like in the mechanics of how our economic system works—that holds this impetus for growth, and compels growth on the part of policymakers who want to meet people's expectations. And yeah, I've spent a lot of time... And of course back in the day when you and I were part of the Gund Institute, there were people that were thinking about such things there. But yeah, I think a lot about what would happen if we were to alleviate that part of the urge behind economic policymaking, and and if it's even possible.

Nate: No, I don't think it's possible. I think there's something called downward causation, which is we are part of a hierarchical structure and as individuals, including policymakers, the decisions and momentum of our system are being affected at a larger scale than at individuals. And so money, as you know, comes into existence with a keystroke. 95% of our money is created in commercial banks, when people make a loan. Banks don't loan out existing capital, banks create capital with a loan. 5% is created by central banks, 95%, by commercial banks. And so all the things that we consume in our life, every single good and service that adds up to GDP, is tethered to energy. So energy and GDP are over 99% linked. So in order to continue this spigot of access to energy and goods and services, sometimes we run out of money. Or rather, some sections of society don't have enough money to pay their bills or to buy basic needs. And then we're in a recession.

Normally, if we didn't have access to the magic wand, which is the creation of credit from thin air, during those times when we have a recession or a depression, people naturally have to use less, or stop buying a $1,000 iPhone, or walk to work instead of take a car that they can't afford the gas. We behaviorally have to respond to those things. But the last couple recessions, in 2008 2009, the financial crisis, and in 2020, with COVID, the central banks of the world came to the rescue with gargantuan, bazooka, temporary measures, artificially low interest rates, too big to fail guarantees, quantitative easing, direct purchase of mortgage and corporate bonds, and all these things that are still ongoing, most of them, when they were started as temporary measures 12 years ago. So this is one of the ways that policymakers have no way to say You know what, we're not going to borrow anymore. I suppose the Republicans now since they're the minority in Congress could pitch a fit and decide not to increase the debt ceiling. But if you look at a graph of how many times we voted to increase the debt ceiling over the last 20 years, it's not even a thing really.

But from a biophysical perspective, Eric, the things that you and I studied, there is a limit to this. And we can create more money, but we cannot create more energy. By creating money or inventing some new technology, what we do is we extract the existing energy faster. And that's what happened in the decade between 2010 and now, is we accessed shale oil, which is the source rock where all the other oil originated in the United States. For instance, 80% of oil production in the United States now comes from Oklahoma, North Dakota, Texas, New Mexico, Gulf of Mexico. And those regions, if we stopped drilling right now, for whatever reason—for environmental reasons, affordability reasons, lack of credit reasons—if we stopped drilling, all that oil would decline in quantity by 40% in the first year, and another 40% the next year. So we have to keep issuing debt and keep drilling in order to keep that spigot of oil going.

What we've done, effectively... Most people are energy blind. They don't understand how important oil is, or energy is, to our economy, and they just know what they're paying at the pump. But in effect, what we've done is there's this milkshake that we're drinking. And what we've done with debt and technology, shale, fracking, and all that, is we're using a wider straw. So we're getting more out of the top of the straw, but we're sucking it out of the finite amount of milkshake faster. So when we create debt, and to paper over our economic shortfalls, it is a short-term fix, kind of like methamphetamine sort of thing. And then there's a crash later. So we are now using the oil that your children or grandchildren, if you were to have any, are not going to be able to use. So that's what I mean, by kicking the can using debt. There is an expiration date on that strategy. We can't continue to grow debt in a world that is based on energy and material throughput. So in effect, what we're doing is we're growing our monetary claims very rapidly, our claims on reality, were our underlying reality, which has energy and material throughput, is declining. And eventually the delta between those two is going to recalibrate. And that moment is what I refer to as The Great Simplification.

Eric: You use this term, and you use this term in your podcast and a lot of the other materials you put out there: energy blind. And I really have come to appreciate that as a term. I actually used it yesterday. I'm teaching a course on climate adaptation, and we spent a day talking a little bit about energy and fossil fuel depletion as a way of framing the rest of our semester. And I love showing this really short video of this Olympic cyclist on this exercise bike...

Nate: I show the same one. Yeah, he's like Austrian or something.

Eric: Maybe, he might be Austrian. I pictured him as Scandinavian, but I could totally be wrong. But I love showing that. It's like this guy with thighs that are probably as thick around as my waist. And then, I give them some framing. I let them watch the first few seconds of it and say, Okay, how many people think that this monstrous man is actually going to be able to generate enough power for a long enough period of time on this exercise bike to toast a piece of bread. Something as simple as toasting a piece of bread. And some of the students will raise their hand and say, Yes, I think he can do it. Some of them will keep their hands down, either because they don't think so or because they're utterly disengaged, and they don't want to play. And then we watch the rest of the film, and then we can talk about that.

I also showed another video that was in Finnish, but it has English subtitles, where you have a group of nine cyclists who are going to pedal hard for 20 minutes, and they want to see how many miles of range, how many kilometers of range they can add to a Tesla Model X's battery. So it's another video along the same lines. But yeah, the sense I have is, and this won't surprise you in the least, is that a lot of people just have no meaningful understanding of how powerful, literally how powerful, fossil energy is.

Nate: So I just pasted in the chat a video that will be live by the time this podcast comes out. I've made four animated videos describing The Great Simplification. The first one is called Energy Blind. When you put art and music to scientific concepts, it's potentially powerful. So no one's seen it yet, but you can you can look at that offline. But in it, I point out that the barrel of oil which cost $60 or $70 does four and a half years of our work. And anyone on the internet doesn't need to take my word for that. You can quickly find out that a barrel of oil has 5.7 million British thermal units of energy in it, and that translates to 1760 kilowatt hours of work and that if you are either dragging a deer carcass, or wheelbarrows of mulch, or pounding nails to build a barn, or whatever you generate around six tenths of one watt of energy per nine hour work day. So simple math shows that a barrel of oil does 11 years of our work. But humans are more efficient than oil. We can direct our muscle output with less waste, so then we handicap it back down and it works out to four and a half years of labor, per barrel of oil.

Now let's think about that. There are around 5 billion human beings in the labor force, excluding young people and old people. We use 100 billion barrels of oil, coal and natural gas. If we translate the BTU content of coal and natural gas into oil, per year, 100 billion times four and a half years per, is we have effectively the equivalent of 500 billion human workers, unseen, that we've extracted from the ground, that are adding to our economic output, in combination with the work of 5 billion real humans. You look at the heavy equipment, and the cranes and the airplanes and all those things would not be possible with just human labor and technology. So we are blind to that fact, first of all, because it's always been abundant and relatively cheap, since you and I have been alive. Second of all, because economic textbooks and economists are modern shaman, because they are telling stories about how things work but they have treated energy completely wrong.

And they're not bad people, and they're not dumb, they just were following a unique period in human experience, this massive growth that we've had the last 80 or 90 years, and explaining it the wrong way. So an economist, as you know, explains our riches by labor and capital, and some productivity factor. To an economist $100 worth of energy is exactly the same as $100 worth of lawn gear, or a bike tire, or a coffee pot, or anything else worth $100. Yet energy in our economic system is not replaceable by anything else, other than other forms of energy. And even then it has to be the same energy quality. We can't run a bunker ship across the ocean on electricity. It needs heavy bunker fuel, as an example.

So yes, we swim in a sea of cheap and affordable energy, like a fish swims in water. And fish don't know that they're swimming in water until they're suddenly out of water. So I would think it's the biggest fundamental misconception of our era, is that we dramatically underpay for the most important input to our economies. We don't pay for the cost of creation, which is 10s of millions of years of geological heat and pressure, nor do we pay for the externalities and the pollution, which is where the waste heat is going into the oceans, the biosphere, and all the crazy stuff we do with the energy that's impacting other people and other species and ecosystems and other generations. So we as a culture, are fundamentally energy blind.

Eric: Yeah. And one of the things that we did after I showed both of those videos is we played with some of those numbers. And you mentioned you show the video with Robert—I'm not going to remember his last name, Förstemann or something like that—who rides the bike, they say it takes one Robert to toast bread, it takes 500 Roberts to power a car—I might not be remembering these numbers exactly right—35,000 Roberts to power an airplane. But then the other question is, how can you actually get that number of people together in one place to do that work in the service of one person?

Nate: Right. So that's another aspect of it, which is energy density and power density, which is the amount of energy and power that can be produced from a unit of mass or volume. And oil is transportable at room temperature, and it's so incredibly energy dense. It's basically indistinguishable from magic on any human timescale. Yet, we pay $60, $70 for it...

Eric: For a 46 gallon barrel of it.

Nate: Right, right. And furthermore, the worst thing about it is we've used our first two wishes when we found this Aladdin's lamp of fossil magic, and it's all been wasted. We don't really have anything as a culture to show for it other than short term frills and dopamine. I was in Spain a couple of years ago, and they have these—and I can't remember the Spanish word for them—basically, like an oasis. But there were these castles that you could stay in that were made of clay, forced sand, and they'd been there for 700 years. And they were little waysides where people, travelers could go and spend a little money to rent a room, but those buildings are seven centuries old. What do we have in the United States that's going to be here seven centuries from now? Our plastic waste in the dumps.

So here's how I see it, Eric. This is a new formulation, so you have to let me know what you think of it. I think we have three grand challenges in coming decades. The first one is to change the supply side, which is how to hopefully have better prices on things that are nonrenewable, which would spur appropriate innovation for technology that fits a resource constrained future, would lead to conservation. What sort of technology would be appropriate for the coming century? It's not rocket ships that take people to Mars. It's going to be miniaturization, and efficient farm tools, and lots of other things that are conducive with a Great Simplification future where we're going to have less high-concentrated, low-entropy energy and resources.

The second category is the demand side, which is What did we use all this energy for? Does it really lead to happy, healthy people that have high levels of wellbeing? Our cultural goal so far has been GDP. And there is a biological underpinning to that, which I can talk about, if you like. We never really intended to have GDP as a measure of our success, it just kind of emerged 80 years ago to track our consumption. It's kind of de facto been a measure of our success, when it's really not all that correlated with well being. So we're going to have to change how we measure our success.

So supply side, demand side, and the third category is outside, which is a change in our value systems, both horizontally and vertically to include other species, ecosystems, other generations, other people beyond our immediate circle. And that is a value change. That's something that takes a long time. And it's the tragedy of the commons and collective action problem. Doing what's right for yourself often is not what's best for the whole system. Can we have some sort of a cultural change where people self organize around a different objective than GDP?

I don't know the answer to that. It's been very easy in this era of fossil abundance where pretty much all boats were buoyed by a rising tide, which was very cheap and abundant fossil energy. And as that reverts, what will be our goals? What will be our collective contribution? If you look at all those successful cultures in the past that were long lasting, there was this recognition of the natural world and what it provided around you as something that was important and almost sacred, whether it was true or not, based on the deities, or the animist religion. But people had a feeling of respect of nature around them, and we've totally lost that. Most of us. You haven't.

Eric: Well, I mean, in some respects I certainly wouldn't put myself on the level of Abenaki people that lived here prior to the arrival of Europeans. I struggle with all those same barriers that I think makes it hard for people to really see the sacredness in the non-built, non manmade worlds. But I certainly like the way that you framed all of that. And one of the things I think about a lot is that there are people in society who are already primed to be willing to explore these things. And there are other people in society who are so energy blind, and so blind in so many other ways, that they're going to be very resistant.

Nate: I think we have to find those people who are open to this. The people that will be resistant are going to be legion. And we need the scout team of people that are intuitive enough to know that something is horribly wrong, and our culture has a road closed sign ahead. And those people need to find the others, they need to find people in their communities that are thinking about the same things and form social networks, and trust and conversations. And even if they don't know the answers, and they're confused, just the fact that they're talking to other humans about these issues is very healthy. It reduces your cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Just the fact you're talking with someone boosts your helper T cells, which help your immune system.

So I really think one of the silver linings of The Great Simplification is our world is going to become much larger again, and more social again, and probably more local again. So as one of the arrows in the quiver of simplifying first and beat the rush, is meet more people where you live, knock on your neighbor's door and just have conversation with them, left, right, rich, poor, black, white, rural, urban, we have to get to know people as individuals, instead of getting to know the Netflix characters and the Amazon delivery people.

And it's hard. It's easy to just finish a day at work and have a pizza and watch Homeland on Netflix, which I watched last night, by the way. But the social aspect, the social necessity of community has been suppressed by a couple generations of cheap energy. When you and I were growing up, we would play kick the can and run around the neighborhood with kids, and we would have a lot of social interactions. And now there's too many higher supernormal stimuli options for people to do that. They don't do things like that anymore. So as adults, it behooves us to form social relationships with people that live close to us. You know why? Because it's healthy. And because we're gonna need it.

Eric: Yeah. You and I are recording this right at the end of January in 2022, and earlier this year, in January, I facilitated my first what I called Apocalypse Café. So it was kind of along the lines of a Death Café or a Climate Café. I've done a couple of them now. It's been really amazing to have people log on to those Zoom meetings from around the world, and just talk about this stuff, exactly as you said. And even before we're done, you could see the gratitude in their eyes. It's like a weight is being lifted off their shoulders. There was a woman who lost her home in one of the Australian wildfires a couple years ago, and she's like I don't know anyone around me who I can actually talk about this with because everyone is so on edge. It's like the topic you can't mention.

Nate: I think mental health is going to be one of the biggest things in the next decade. Because as The Great Simplification approaches, and is underway, a lot of people are just not psychologically prepared for change. And so I think finding ways to be mentally strong, having more discipline, talking about Well, what do we do given the future? I think how to be is probably a more important then then what to do.

Which is one thing—Eric, I hope this isn't too personal to say on your podcast—but you're kind of an odd duck, but I've always really respected you for traveling your own path and being true to your own values, and doing stuff the hard way, like taking cold showers, and jumping in Lake Champlain, and the things with wild game that you do. And you don't care what other people think. You know those things make you healthier, stronger, better. And I was really proud and respectful of you for that.

Eric: Well, thank you for those kind words. I would be lying if I didn't say that I do those things for a certain degree of self interest. I recognize that adapting to all the crazy stuff that is coming is not going to be easy, either on a physical level, or on a mental level. And there's a part of me that wants to build capacity for that stuff when it comes, both in terms of the physical side of things, and also the mental side. And I find that they go together.

Nate: Absolutely.

Eric: You mentioned the cold training, and jumping in the lake in February, and cold showers and ice water baths, and I don't know if I've ever mentioned this to you, maybe I have, but I'm a suicide survivor. And I attempted in 1999, February of 1999. And there were a bunch of different things that I did as I was trying to get my feet back underneath me and get my life back afterwards. One of the things, probably the single thing that I remember doing that had the most beneficial impact on me mentally—this was at a time when I lived in Northwest Indiana—was going swimming in Lake Michigan. And in the summertime, Lake Michigan might get up to 55-60 degrees. Earlier in the season, it's obviously a lot colder than that. I don't know how often it freezes over, but that was probably the thing that I remember that had the most beneficial impact on me, more than therapy. I never really stayed on any of the other drugs that they wanted me to be on for any length of time.

So there's a certain self interest in that, and I credit some of those things with helping me to be able to, if I can snatch Donna Haraway's phrase, stay with the trouble. And I think that any of the skills that we can play with that give us the capacity to stay with the trouble, I think in the way that both you and I do, I just find those to be incredibly valuable. And if anything, I try to use the media that I produce as a way of introducing people to some of those those skills, practices, whatever you want to call them, strategies.

Nate: Congratulations on your full recovery from that. You had never told me that story. I had no idea. That was 20 some years ago. I don't know if you can lump me into that category, Eric. I know what to do. I know what to tell people to do. I'm so frickin' busy with these classes, and the video production and the podcast and my job and my organization, that I don't have time to walk the talk the way that I'm espousing. I'm trying to steer things at a higher level, but there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything. And so it really is a challenge to professionally play a role in what's coming and also get your own house in order, metaphorically. It's a challenge, and it's something that I work at every day.

As soon as we're done here I'm going to go on a snowshoe with my dogs because I put that on my calendar as a thing I must do today. So I'll go for an hour and a half snowshoe until it gets dark or so. We are alive during an abnormal period in human history. Frankly, if you're a member of the species Homo sapiens there's around a 10% chance that you're alive right now. And this period is at the tail end of the most impressive, unbelievable period of economic growth and consumption ever experienced by any species on this planet. And it's a marathon not a sprint. We have to be kind to ourselves. There are no easy answers, but like with most things, the future is probably worse than most people expect, but probably much better than some people, perhaps us, fear.

And I think we have to start—and this is something that I have gotten good at—I am so thankful and grateful every day to be alive at this time, knowing what I know, having lots of friends, having my little farm with my animals here and being able to access nature, I have an immense gratitude that is a bookend to the fear and concern I have for our planet and our future. And so I don't take things for granted anymore. I want to play a role in our collective future, and that's what I'm trying to do. And that's why I'm willing to do this conversation with you is because we have to educate people, yes, but we have to inspire them to play a role and meet the future halfway. So what you and I are trying to do is we're trying to change the initial conditions of when The Great Simplification starts in earnest so there are more people that have taken steps in their personal lives to be more flexible and resilient. And if there's enough of those, they metaphorically act as rocks in the river where they slow the water flow, or even redirect the water and the rocks don't tumble down, they act as rocks and anchors and they can help other people. And you never know how emergence and positive things are going to come our way. I just think we have to wake up, open our eyes to what's happening, and try to play a role. To each his or her own abilities and passions and interest, of course, but it's not a time to passively watch what's happening in denial or dismay. I encourage people to get involved in whatever way they choose.

Eric: Yeah. And you mentioned gratitude. And I should probably add that that's another practice that has made a big difference. Maybe not quite as big of a difference as the cold water exposure. But that has been a big part of my life and balancing act to.

Nate: Well, you're probably a much stronger person than me. I cannot even imagine stepping into a cold shower, let alone jumping in a lake. I don't think you could pay me to do that, because the anticipation of the shock and the pain would cause me to come back and get on the computer or something.

Eric: A lot of it is about tempering our nervous system, and our nervous system's expectation of threat. And there was definitely a time when, the first couple of times I wanted to go into Lake Michigan, my nervous system was like, no, no, you can't do this! My autonomic nervous system's fight-flight mechanism kicked in as I was walking towards that water. And over time, I was able to retrain that nervous system to say, Yeah, this is gonna be uncomfortable, but you're not in danger.

Nate: Well, there's a parallel there, to the story that we're telling about The Great Simplification. I've been thinking about this deeply for almost 20 years, so I've already grieved that the future that our economists and politicians promise us is no longer going to happen. So I've already tempered my intellectual nervous system for different future outcomes, and therefore I don't get depressed, or scared by it, really. I don't know what's going to happen. I'm highly confident what's not going to happen, and what's not going to happen is continued economic growth beyond some time this decade. So am I nervous about it? Yeah, I am. But I'm also excited, because I want to help where I live, and our nation, and our world, our species, make better choices. So to me, it's ominous, but it's exciting. And I'm not optimistic, but I am quite hopeful. And I know that's a weird place to be.

Eric: Yeah. Just so we can give you time to rest up for your snowshoe maybe that's a good spot to stop.

Nate: Okay, well, I'm happy to talk with you, Eric. I'm sure, to be continued. I'm not going to rest up. I'm just going to put my snowshoes on and get out the door in a couple minutes.

Eric: Okay, that sounds good.

Eric: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. Nate and I never made it to our discussion of addiction and the neurochemistry that lies behind it, as I had hoped we would. Maybe next time.

Again, this podcast is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. Visit quillwood.org to learn more about the many educational opportunities you can access there.

Until next episode, this is Eric Garza, signing off. Walk softly and take good care.