The day I heard my father had died

[originally written for Naked Capitalism]

On November 25, 2013, I heard that my father, Charles Sereno, had died suddenly and unexpectedly in his home at the age of 82. He was an extremely creative and original thinker who, with his wife, Rena Bianucci, raised a family of six well-respected academics.

Charles regularly read and commented at Naked Capitalism. Since I also have an acute interest in the intersection of energy and economics, I thought that it might be interesting for readers to visit some of the wide ranging strands of thought he introduced me to, and where I went with some of them.

Perhaps the most important discipline is history in all its forms, starting with earth history before the origin of life, then paleontology up to the great extinction at the end of the Permian when life almost went extinct, then dinosaurs, then mammals and flowering plants, then paleoanthropology and archaeology, then ancient and medieval history, then the industrial revolution and the last century. My respect for history came directly from my father.

Of course, most of this interest is fundamentally human centered, and strongly focussed on finding out why we are such different animals. One of the biggest contrasts with other animals is that humans help each other a lot more. Even our nearest cousins the apes will rarely go out of their way to help a genetically unrelated animal. In chimpanzees, the father never even knows who his offspring are and the mother doesn't know who the father is. This probably functions to protect her offspring from infanticide because a foreign male won't kill a female's child because it might be his.

There are just a few notable exceptions to this pattern of every one out for themselves, and secondarily their offspring, that biologists have found. For example, in social insects, most of the 'workers' are sterile females, who have made the evolutionarily extremely rare sacrifice of foregoing reproduction for the good of the colony, which is so integrated that it bascially functions as a super-organism. Similarly, in dogs, the pack will defend the offspring of an unrelated animal -- which is a common situation, since hormones arrange for only one female in the pack to come into estrous at a time.

The super-organism of human civilization -- in all its lovely and violent forms -- would be utterly impossible without an unprecedented degree of cooperation between unrelated humans, despite what sociopathic corporation heads -- or their armies of sychophants in the giant echo chamber of the web -- will try to tell you.

From when I was a boy, my father pushed me to look at the critical history of humans around the time of the advent of large scale civilization in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. One striking motif of the myths and religions from many of these cultures is that a male sky god (Marduk, Zeus, etc) strikes down a female earth goddess (Tiamat, Demeter) and banishes her to the underworld. This he pointed out was likely to have been a metaphor for something that happened near the origin of high civilization, roughly coincident with the discovery of better weapons technology in the bronze age. Or think of Cain the farmer killed by Abel, the nomadic barbarian.

That explained my father's great interest in the Minoan civilization of the first half of the second millenium BC, which in contrast to the surrounding cultures, seemed to have passed through the bronze age while still retaining many unbanished and unabashed chthonic symbols (women, snakes, grain), and with an unusual absence of military figures in art, and without large king-centered palaces. The tiny 'throne room' in the so-called 'palace' at Knossos, installed by the Mycenaeans after the gigantic Thera earthquake, was situated above the Minoan foundry.

Throughout his life, he wondered whether it was possible that large scale human civilization might have simply gotten off on the wrong foot because military technology (bronze) was first acquired by nomadic 'barbarian' animal herders, who got hold of it by geological accident -- perhaps because the nomadic people were more likely to have frequented the mountains where metal deposits are more common than they are on fertile plains and river valleys that are better for cultivating plants and domesticating animals. He always held out hope that we might someday be able to reboot high industrial civilization in a more humane mode, through better education of children.

In all of this, he lived through what will probably turn out to have been the greatest expansion of human energy use and human knowledge in the 20th century, which included the discovery of nuclear weapons, advertising, and the internet, virtually the embodiment of a Teilhardian 'noosphere' (NSA sphere?) encircling the geological globe.

As I grew older, I studied history, humanities, biology, and geology, eventually ending up in neuroscience. Over the years, the awareness of the common mythical narrative of the male sky god killing the female earth god came to be written about in more mainstream places, which made me realize how forward looking he was.

But starting around 9/11, I began to think a lot more carefully about energy and fossil fuel depletion (PDF on peak energy here). Fossil fuel energy was the new bronze, squared. It allowed humans to vastly increase their reach, their numbers, their roads and buildings, their knowledge, and their differentiation and interdependence. When my father was born (in the Hawaiian islands before they were a state), farmers predominated in the US, and all the other occupations fit into the other half. Now, farming is done by less than 2% of the population. We casually drive oil-powered multi-ton 100,000 watt vehicles over pavements of asphalt (oil) and concrete (limestone mined and cooked into cement using large amounts of other fossil fuels). The amount of energy used to power our road vehicles roughly equals the amount of power we distribute across our electric grid. We pump our diminishing fresh water supplies out of the ground with fossil fuel. We have gotten down to the dregs of oil and gas -- for example, extracted from super-rapidly depleting fracked wells, a 30 year old technology that has only been recently dusted off because the price got high enough to fund it, then 'subprime' it (!) (excellent PDF here), then have the high prices nearly crash the world economy. We have emptied the oceans of large fish using fossil fuels. We fertilize our exhausted soils with fossil fuels -- nitrogen fertilizer made using fossil fuel energy from fossil fuel methane feedstock, and phosphates mined using fossil fuel. One barrel of oil provides as much useful physical energy as a human slave working hard for an entire year -- and even at $90/barrel, it is still considerably cheaper than the cheapest human slave available today. This explains why we have been able to make so many more roads than the Romans -- or how China has managed to construct roads equivalent to the entire US interstate highway system in the last 10 years.

In a long-standing debate with my father, I began to see the uptake of fossil fuel energy as another kind of bronze age revolution, and perhaps one equally off on the wrong foot. Like bronze, fossil fuel provided an uptick in power and but also growth that utterly transformed the landscape, now extending to most of the earth's surface and even to the very composition of the atmosphere and the pH of the oceans.

In his later years, along with his interest in education (e.g., he designed a simple phonetic script that better represents where sounds are made in the mouth in order to aid children learning to read), my father became more interested in economics, money mechanics, and money psychology, avidly and expertly following the economy on a daily basis. To the very end, he retained a sunny hope for the future of humanity, despite the slings and arrows of growing inequality, which he detested. Harking back to what he had taught me about Earth history and human history as a boy, I argued the unique importance of energy for economic growth, and pointed to the fearful and relentless decline in energy return on energy investment (EROEI). Tar sands are now only 3 to 1 (3 units returned for 1 invested, meaning 2 net units for 1 invested), which is a far cry from the days of my father's youth, when an investment of 1 unit of energy could return 100 units of oil energy. The energy supply game -- and economic growth, already staggering -- will be utterly over when one unit of energy invested returns less than one unit.

My father -- like many from his generation, and many on Naked Capitalism who read more about economics than geology and physics -- was convinced that scientists would eventually come up with something when the fossil fuel chips were all played, and the right price signals were there.

Though I strongly doubt this is possible, I sincerely hope that my father was right, and that I am wrong. May he rest in peace.

Marty Sereno
20 Jan 2014