Human-Carbon Nature

Who’s to blame for climate destabilization and the many other ecological crises driving us toward collapse?

Looking for the villains in the story is understandable, given the depth of human suffering and the extent of environmental destruction. Judgments of individual and institutional failures are necessary as we develop not only new policies but different economic and political systems. Penalties are just, and reparations are justified.

But changing the trajectory of the human relationship to the larger living world—that is, imagining new living arrangements consistent with the necessary worldwide down-powering—requires going beyond the obvious targets. We have to acknowledge that the dense energy of fossil fuels makes our lives easier in many ways that most people enjoy and will not want to give up, and that no combination of renewable energy sources can replace the work that coal, oil, and gas do for us.

That doesn’t mean all our uses of energy are necessary, nor is this an argument against renewable energy. But we have to accept the dramatic changes coming—a just and sustainable human future requires living within limits much more severe than affluent societies have experienced, and more severe than most people would choose.

Given dramatic differences in wealth and access to resources, not everyone is equally culpable for the crises. But we need to understand our common nature so that new systems we might devise don’t lead to the same mistakes that got us here, especially the mistake of acting as if there are no limits to human expansion and consumption.

Confronting the complexities of human nature is crucial in this process. Unless we believe humans are different in kind from all other animals, we have species propensities that must be considered in planning and setting policy. It should not be controversial to state that the possible range of behaviors for all animals is determined by their genetic code. Individual behavior varies, but within a set range.

One of those behaviors shared by all organisms is the tendency to maximize the energy they can capture. The ability to transform energy into work, to maximize the flow of energy, determines fitness and success in evolutionary terms. Evolution looks kindly on organisms that maximize their use of power. That means human nature includes a carbon-seeking nature.

People advocating for social justice and ecological sustainability are often nervous about talk of human nature. That’s at least in part due to capitalism’s success in narrowly defining our nature as inherently greedy and self-interested. Humans have the capacity to act in greedy and self-interested fashion, of course, but capitalism’s critics point out that we also have the capacity to collaborate and cooperate. That’s not only part of our nature; it has been a crucial factor in human expansion across the globe.

Even though it should not be necessary to defend the idea that human nature exists and is relevant to our inquiry, we will state the obvious: there exists something we can call human nature, just as there is hummingbird nature and wolf nature and chimpanzee nature. That simply means that every organism has a genetic endowment that makes some things possible and some things impossible. There are parameters within which all organisms, including we humans, operate. That said, everyday experience reminds us that human nature produces widely variable behavior and that there is little we can predict with certainty about any specific human’s behavior in a particular situation.

Take the example of whether violence is a part of human nature. There is no reason to believe that any human society has been completely aggression-free. We are a species capable of violence toward one another. It’s likely that all humans—even those who may never have been violent in their lives, if such a human has ever existed—have the capacity for violence against others. Under what social conditions is violence more or less likely? What individual differences, interacting with those social conditions, might increase or decrease the likelihood of violent action? Socialization shapes the expression of human variation, and there are patterns in how people respond to that socialization. We never know as much as we would like to know about these kinds of questions and are usually left to act on informed hunches based on limited evidence.

The perception of patterns in the complex way human nature plays out is the best we can hope for when trying to understand ourselves, our behavior, and the social norms that shape that behavior. We try to understand the parameters set by biology and do our best to discern the patterns within those parameters. Since anything that human beings do is, by definition, within our nature to do, the question, “What is human nature?” should be replaced with questions about which aspects of our nature tend to dominate under various conditions.

We agree with the economist Elinor Ostrom who, in her 2009 lecture accepting the Nobel Prize, observed that “humans have a more complex motivational structure and more capability to solve social dilemmas” than mainstream economists recognize and that “a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.” But to bring out the best in us requires us to know what kind of creatures we are, to not indulge the fantasy that unlike all other organisms, humans are some kind of blank slate.

Our focus here is on what we call our human-carbon nature, a phrase borrowed from our colleague Bill Vitek to remind us that we are carbon based like all other life on Earth. What is life? What is the nature of living things? Scientists list various characteristics that mark living things, such as the capacity to grow, metabolize, regulate the internal environment, respond to stimuli, adapt to the environment, reproduce, and evolve. Our answer for purposes of this conversation is one that Jackson has been offering for some time: “Life is the scramble for energy-rich carbon.”

It is our human nature, like the nature of all life, to seek out energy-rich carbon. To be alive is to go after carbon. Over time, humans have gotten exceedingly good at tapping into five major carbon pools—soils, forests, coal, oil, natural gas—and maximizing the extraction of all the carbon we can get our hands on. There are few exceptions to that pattern. Our greatest success as a species has become our most profound failure, given the many negative consequences of all that carbon grabbing. Understanding and changing our response to our human-carbon nature is a new challenge for which we have no road map. With nearly eight billion people on Earth, no existing ideology or culture is going to provide us with a template for dealing with what lies ahead, a world of fewer people consuming less energy.

Renouncing First-World dominance is a start, as is imagining a world beyond capitalism’s obsession with growth and consumption. The end of those systems is a necessary but not sufficient condition for change. We agree with the ecosocialist goal “system change not climate change,” but we disagree with that network’s claim that “the current ecological crisis results from the capitalist system, which values profits for a global ruling elite over people and the planet.” The current ecological crisis is shaped by, but not the result of, capitalism. Human degradation of ecosystems predates capitalism and will continue after capitalism, unless we develop a deeper understanding of the crisis.

As one scholar of collapse puts it, “History suggests that complexity most commonly increases to solve problems, and compels increase in resource use.” The end of capitalism won’t necessarily disrupt that pattern. Placing our hopes in non-capitalist complexity will not magically reduce resource use. We have to not only reject capitalism but also confront our own carbon-seeking nature. If we start with an awareness of the scope of the change needed and the lack of a plan for dealing with human-carbon nature, we can at least be clear about the direction in which we need to move. And that requires committing to being the first species that will have to impose limits on itself, which means a collectively imposed cap on the carbon we use and rationing to ensure fairness.

This is going to be harder than most people acknowledge, perhaps harder than anyone can imagine. Reducing wealth concentration and eliminating uses of energy that most everyone agrees are wasteful (how about yachts and private jets for a start?) would be only the first in what will have to be many more reductions.

These observations don’t require us to ignore the existing disparities in the distribution of wealth and the need to pursue redistribution policies. But while we seek equity in how existing resources are used, we also have to find ways to reduce dramatically our aggregate consumption.

It’s one thing to support the idea of a down-powering, quite another thing to power down, to give up all those uses of dense energy. But to put it as bluntly as possible: Any policy that does not understand and account for the temptations of dense energy will fail. Human-carbon nature matters.

This essay is adapted from An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity.

Wes Jackson is president emeritus of The Land Institute.

Robert Jensen is an emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Jensen can be reached at at