Say M for Magic!

Simon Sinek, Underpants Gnomes and the Energy Transition

9 min readJun 12


Photo by israel palacio on Unsplash

One of the goals of this blog — beyond making an attempt at giving a technical explanation on how this iteration of a technological civilization works, and why it is inherently unsustainable — is to explore the thought patterns we humans apply when confronted with such a predicament. We have discussed the many aspects of human reactions like denial, thinking in false dichotomies as well as our two modes of operation (complacency and panic) earlier. Now, I would like to shed some light on a missing link (or rather: a black hole) in our thought processes when thinking about “solutions” to the “problems” we face. Warning, what follows turned out to be a tad bit more sardonic than I initially intended, so as usual: proceed with care.

As the somewhat (OK, brutally) over-hyped management guru Simon Sinek wrote in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action:

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”

What he meant by that, is that in order to sell a product (or in idea for that matter) and make a big bang on the market you have to have a strong sense of vision and mission as to why you are selling what you are selling. There has to be an emotional charge catching your audience’s attention, compelling them to be part of your great story.

In order to do that, you must follow Sinek’s Golden Circle theory and answer three simple questions, starting with Why. Why do you do what you do? Be careful though, the answer must give a succinct description of the ultimate purpose of your business. If you got that, then you must proceed by asking ‘how (you are about to achieve your purpose)’ and finally ‘what (you are going to do about it)’. Do it the other way around, however, or mess up the order of questions in any way, and you can easily find yourself in a situation familiar to all South Park fans:

The “underpants gnomes’ dilemma” from the famous South Park skit

Usually, this is an exercise for the corporate managerial class, as any participant to a strategy workshop can tell. However, I thought it worth a shot to see if it applies to this nice little predicament we have at hand. Who knows? We might even learn something in the end. Before we move on with that though, I have to make an exclamation. Our managerial “expert” culture, now echoing in the halls of bureaucracy as well, unfortunately doesn’t allow for the existence — let alone admission — of predicaments. Everything must have a single, one and simple solution, so I must also refer to our civilization’s ails as “problems” for now. More on that later.

Now back to Sinek’s Golden Circle. As the saying goes: “a problem well-defined is a problem half-solved”. Having this in mind and going through the three questions of ‘why, how, what’ in due order, let’s start with ‘why’. Why do we think we have a problem at hand? Why is it necessary for our technological civilization to change course? The usual answer is: because of climate change! Earth’s surface temperature rises in an unprecedented manner due to a human induced increase in CO2 (and other green house gases’) concentration in the atmosphere, and if we don’t do something about it, sea levels will rise inundating cities and droughts and heat waves will wreak havoc on civilization. OK, so far so good.

With that said, however, our single minded ruling caste’s thinking usually stops here; preventing any other answer from arising to this very important question. Hence, if all we had is a problem so poorly defined (something which should be examined in more detail), you can be sure that what follows will be ‘somewhat’ ill-advised. This is especially so, when our wise elders skip the question of ‘how’ entirely, and jump right to the conclusion: the answer to ‘what’.

Since, according to the ruling sentiment, climate change is our single biggest all encompassing problem, now what shall we do about it? I guess you know the answer by heart now… Yes, we should install solar panels and wind mills. Green the industry. Build out a hydrogen economy. Invest in fusion. Oh, and by the way call anyone questioning these goals a climate change denier and a shill for fossil fuels — simple as that.

Underpants gnomes, rejoice! We have a plan!

Still… What about the ‘how’…? ‘I mean, uh, um, it’s all good but HOW we are about to achieve this?’ Well, it depends whom you ask. It can either be “market incentives, green subsidies, tax regulations” — if you ask the finance folks — or “circular economy, recycling, technological innovation” — when the more technical minded experts got a chance at responding. I have a better proposal still. Whenever someone calls for the forces of the free market, science, human ingenuity — or something along these lines — to answer the pesky little question of ‘How’ insert the word ‘magic’ instead. It would sound hell of a lot cooler that way! Like ‘magic forces will make it happen’, or ‘magicians will surely come up with a solution’. Why bother with reality?

Folks, if we were just a tad bit more serious about climate change, we would have given the HOW much more serious thought, instead of skipping it altogether. As they say: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Like the one stating that replacing a fossil fuel energy infrastructure (and not just electricity) with a “renewable” one is both possible and desirable. If we were truly serious proving that it is indeed so, and that there is an industrial civilization after fossil fuels, we would be funding and building solar projects encompassing the entire supply chain of photovoltaic panels manufacturing: all powered by “renewable” energy. At least on a small scale.

We would be building a set of experimental mines, copper refineries, smelters, and plants manufacturing and recycling those panels — all powered by “renewables”. We would then be able to assess realistic energy and material requirements, experiment with the necessary technologies to circumvent intermittency and see if our recycling rates are good enough. Who knows, we might even see if it is possible to maintain this high energy lifestyle based on “renewables” alone.

On the other hand, if our goal were (and I’m not saying it is, just speculating) to grab as much university and research funds or government subsidies, garner as much public support and lure as many investors into this business as we possibly can, then we would make do with lousy (entirely theoretical) calculations to prove that “renewables” are better, cheaper, cleaner than fossil fuels. We would wax lyrical how recycling and the circular economy would solve all material issues. We would create all sorts of computer models (strictly bereft of material inputs), let alone considerations on how these inputs affect each other, and draw colorful charts on how transitioning to “renewables” is entirely possible.

Calling for “renewables” (the what) to solve the climate crisis (the why) without addressing the how, simply perpetuates the myth that life can go on pretty much the way it did after the transition ‘succeeds’, while making it look much easier than it actually is. Its like wishing something to happen, and presuming that the Market, Santa and the Universe (or fill in the blank) will provide all necessary inputs for cheap and make all problems go away in one fell swoop. A perfect definition of magical thinking.

magical thinking, the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world.

Of course, if we would do the physical proof of concept described above, with an entirely “renewables” based supply chain of solar panels and wind mills, together with an honest assessment of recoverable mineral reserves to see if we have enough metals to build out at least one generation, and would not shy away from estimating the pollution load their extraction would put on the environment, we could quickly discover that our initial assumptions were deeply flawed. Neither Santa, nor the Market will come to save us. (And no, collecting dirty underpants won’t do the trick either.)

Who knows, we might be prompted to revisit the first question of why, how what… So, why then do we think we have a predicament at hand, not a mere “problem”? Why it is impossible for our technological civilization to stay on course? Well, just to name a few:

  • we have an unfolding sixth mass extinction and an ecological collapse due to deforestation, destruction of wildlife and an increasing chemical pollution load — all of which would be made worse by more mining, manufacturing, transportation and consumption, no matter how we power it
  • a rapid depletion of mineral resources (including copper, uranium and fossil fuels) — resulting in an exponentially increasing energy investment needed to keep on mining the same amount of metals and fuels as yesteryear
  • an overall energy decline due to said fossil fuel depletion and a lack of suitable replacement — something which is happening right in front of our eyes, not fifty years from now
  • unsustainable debt levels threatening the entire financial system with a total collapse — not to mention a rapid geopolitical shift threatening to unsettle it all
  • and so on, and so forth.

All this is coming due at the same time thanks to our civilization’s insane attempt at infinite exponential growth on a finite planet. Something, which has predictably resulted in overshoot: using more natural and mineral resources than what is being regenerated in a given year, while releasing more pollution which could be absorbed. All of which is documented in an innumerable amount of scientific studies, and commemorated every year at an earlier date with a shrug.

Overshoot is the answer to the question why we are in a predicament, not climate change, which is but a symptom to what has been described above. Should we be able to reduce overshoot, and come back to within resource and pollution limits, then we would be able to slow (but not stop) the many related crises, including climate change. Like it or not, ice melt and a subsequent sea level rise is already baked in, together with the loss of the best of our arable lands, reliable rainfall patterns and much more.

It’s time to admit: we have already overshot the safe limit when it comes to CO2 levels.

One cannot simply walk past by the massive conflict of interest from all imaginable parties involved in this clean green utopia. The universities, research institutes and think tanks are all interested in keeping the funds flowing at an ever increasing rate from the industry and their governments. The later, with our ruling elites on top, are also deeply interested in keeping business as usual going, and could not care less if the utopia they are proposing was feasible or not. (If it turns out to be untrue later, then it better happens after they have left for another office.)

Meanwhile the rank and file public is left in the dark by corporate media, endlessly churning out articles on how this or that technology will save us. Tell me, who is not interested in keeping technological civilization going…? Who would would choose degrowth voluntarily, together with less energy or material affluence, when their neighbors seem to be doing fine? From the average citizen’s end, as long as the mining and manufacturing of “renewables” (both being highly polluting, noisy and destructive activities) happen outside their limited horizon, together with the installation of said panels and turbines, they are all in for the continuation of high tech civilization — now, according to this new belief system turned ‘sustainable’ (which it’s simply not).

No one wants (or is prepared) to give even the slightest of thought whether it is feasible or not, do we have the raw materials and energy or not, or will we destroy the last remaining ecosystems on earth digging for the finite minerals needed for this last bout of magic to happen. We are all sitting in the same theater watching a magician (innovative companies, research institutes etc.) pulling out one rabbit after another from a hat. Politicians, industry experts, mining and fossil fuel companies together with the rank and file public are all clapping their hands in joy as the newest gadget, innovative extraction technology, latest solar panel or new oil discovery hits the news. They don’t want to hear that technology, based on finite minerals and the destruction of nature is a time limited offer on any planet. No one wants the show to end. Even when the magician sets the entire stage on fire, the expectation is that the next trick would surely put it out. Why? Because we all want to believe in magic — even if it kills us — and could not care less how its delivered.

Maybe, it was not a bad idea to collect dirty underpants after all…

Until next time,





A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: