Review of Environment, Power, and Society

for the Twenty-first Century: The hierarchy of energy



TUCSON (A-P) — It took me over three months to reread Howard T. Odum's Environment, Power, and Society, his magnum opus for the public, updated for the twenty-first century, published posthumously in 2007. Originally the book was published in 1971 and Odum was updating it prior to his death in 2002. The work includes what he, qua scientist, would want his grandchildren and their generation to know. Of necessity it had to be said before his death. I was able to get through a few pages a day only because I had chanced upon and read the original work in the early 1970's, and thus came pre-programmed to some extent. Otherwise I would not have been able to get through so much information so quickly (and actually think about it). Acquiring a 'better view' can be a stretch.

Paradigm shifts take time, may be matters of survival, and if so, sooner is better and merits the effort. There is no known law of the universe that says the universe is easy for humans to understand. Still, the endeavor to understand it is an effort worth making and if understanding life (if not the universe and everything) is you goal, then Odum is your friend.

Basically all I have to say is, "Read the book." Or Google around, consider this site or A Prosperous Way Down, or.....

Understanding planet Earth's geobiosphere without Odum would be like being in the 17th century and trying to think of ways to get to the moon having only read Cyrano de Bergerac's A Voyage to the Moon. Knowing nothing of Copernicus, Kepler or Newton, all efforts to think about going to the moon would be fantasy verging on delusion if such thinking were imagined to be reality-based. If Odum seems too sciency, like Newton or Kepler, one can but endeavor.

In the 17th century, that few could or did read Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica should be of no surprise. That few scientists have read Enviornmental Accounting is understandable, though, unlike Principia, learning a 'better view' from Odum may be a matter of species survival. We who are voyaging through the 21st century will do well to avoid fantasy. Degrowing the economy into a prosperous descent, one in which the rich will not get richer, may be unsellable in the current consumer oriented marketplace of ideas. Questioning growth may be unthinkable for most humans today much as going back to the 17th century and offering to give a lecture at Oxford University (or any university) on the God delusion to those who firmly believed in the Nature delusion would be. But to get to the moon or through the 21st century requires thinking what was once unthinkable.

I offer the last bit of his book for consideration. To understand why he says what he does you need to pay attention to the what-is around you and maybe read his book (and, yes, others) while endeavoring to follow the bread crumbs of evidence and reason. At least read his concluding words and if there is a hint that understanding what he is saying merits looking into, then do so.

Excerpt, Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-first Century: The hierarchy of energy, (2007), pages 386-393.
The first 386 pages were an endeavor to allow readers to understand:

Policies for Climax

After the centuries of growth, many people sense that civilization is leveling off and succession is reaching a climax. Public policy is already engaged in trying to sustain society at the present levels, although this is not possible on known resources. Table 13.1 summarizes growth policies that have been operating for two centuries. But societies that continue growth policies when growth is not possible will waste emergy and be displaced.

Table 13.1 Policies Appropriate During Growth

  • Maximize empower through low-diversity overgrowth.
  • Reproduce.
  • Encourage immigration.
  • Compete, displace.
  • Borrow and loan.
  • Permit large differences in income and wealth.
  • Minimize regulation.
  • Emphasize increasing wages by labor unions.
  • Maintain defense forces. expect war with other expanding centers.
  • Increase money supply.
  • Build temporary-quality construction rapidly.
  • Allow growth to absorb unemployment.
  • Encourage stocks, bonds, and other unearned income.
  • Couple environment to fuel-using economic production.
  • Accelerate centers of development with unequal exchange.
  • Set priorities for development of fuel, transportation, and water resources.

Power Control at the Mine and Wellhead

The greatest need for stabilizing climax is to gain control of the fossil fuel supplies for the public interest. There must be enough international agreement to prevent runaway growth of any country that seems temporarily good for it but becomes cancerous for all in the long run. We need to explain the energy policies needed to the citizens of the world. Religious programs need to adopt energy ethics [chapter 11]. If the economists advising our planning endeavors will incorporate the basic energy drives in energy-econometric models, as indicated in chapter 7, then we may substitute more certainty for the heretofore elusive ability to predict economic details using an incomplete model. The rising levels of education and worldwide television communication may make all this possible.

To keep an economy healthy after growth requires new policies. Recommendations that are based on energy principles from previous chapters are suggested in table 13.2. These increase the efficiency of energy processing, increase diversity and division of labor, eliminate waste and luxury, reinforce environment, and stabilize international exchanges. The United States formed its institutions while overgrowing a frontier. To remain vital, it will have to change the beliefs, laws, and constitutions that were originally reinforced by growth.

Table 13.2 Policies for Sustaining Climax

  • Maximize empower through high-diversity, efficient cooperation.
  • Change industries concerned with new construction to maintenance.
  • Replace borrowing to that concerned with replacement (not growth).
  • Hold money supply constant.
  • Don't expect much unearned income from interest and dividends.
  • Adapt a zero population growth rate.
  • Replace low-quality growth structure with structure of lower depreciation.
  • Provide incentives to eliminate luxury use of fuels, cars, and electric power.
  • Regulate foreign exchanges for emergy equity between nations.
  • Provide public works programs for the unemployed.
  • Provide part-time jobs for the retired as long as health permits.
  • Place a ceiling on individual income.
  • Share information without profit.
  • Develop a national campaign to respect people by their service, not income.

Ways of Descent

In modern history there is little precedent for a diminishing economy. The simulations of most models of society descend gradually (because the modelers leave out crash mechanisms). We know from energy principles, models, and ecosystems that a gradual descent is possible, but so is a crash. If society does not succeed in changing attitudes and institutions for a harmonious descent, the alternative is to prepare information packages for the contingency of restart after crashing. Television dramas often show pathological disintegration and violence that writers imagine will follow social disorganization.

The fossil record is full of systems that rose and fell in extinction. Biological specialization in organic body development tends to be one way, with new developments coming from the undifferentiated, unspecialized cells that are tucked away in the powerful main structures of action such as muscle and nerve. In analogy with these facts, many authors after Hegel have suggested the dangers of extinction of the main civilization that might follow any effort to decrease its activity. Can complex civilization de-differentiate? Are uncommitted youth society's means for programming change?

Gradual Descent

There is plenty of precedent in ecological systems for programmed, organized descent when resources decrease. Many ecosystems decrease without disaster each season. They reduce populations, store their critical genetic information in spores, seeds, hibernating animals, and temporarily transport some out by migration. When available energy returns, there is regrowth.

Prosperous Way Down

Policies for the prosperous way down are suggested in table 13.3. If population is reduced as quickly as available energy, the standard of living (empower per person) need not diminish. Extensive discussion of these policies is in the book A Prosperous Way Down (Odum and Odum 2001).

Table 13.3 Policies for Prosperous Descent

  • Maximize empower through environmental production and efficient use.
  • Endorse lifestyles that limit reproduction.
  • Control population to keep empower per person from decreasing.
  • Downsize by reducing salaries rather than discharging employees.
  • Place an upper limit on individual incomes.
  • Redefine progress as adaptation to earth restoration.
  • Restore natural capital and associated environmental production.
  • Restore environmental reserves, forests, fisheries.
  • Use ecological engineering self-design for environmental-economic interfaces.
  • Use agricultural varieties that need less input.
  • Limit the power of private cars.
  • Plan for more population moving from cites to agricultural towns.
  • Decentralize organizational hierarchy.
  • Select hierarchically organized road and railroads for maintenance.
  • Direct electric power for useful information processing and sharing.
  • Select and consolidate information for libraries.
  • Reinforce respect for polycultural pluralism.
  • Reduce money circulation to sustain emergy/money ratio.
  • Replace plastic discard packaging with reuse-recycle containers.
  • Plan for annual reduction in budgets.
  • Select for maintenance structures with low depreciation rates.
  • Follow policies indicated by A Prosperous Way Down.
  • Share free information for unified cooperation.
  • Balance emergy trade equity to replace free exploitation.
  • Set a priority for ecological net production over consumption.
  • Use capital investment for downsizing.
  • Redefine medical ethics that interfere with genetic selection.
  • Reduce or recycle according to transformity.

Crash and Restart

Crashes are also normal in ecosystems. Sometimes they are caused by the population pulses of control species and sometimes when the systems of the next larger scale spread catastrophic impact. Having evolved by adapting to ecosystems dynamics, the diverse pool of species supplies specialists for rapid restoration as needed. Recovery depends on the pool of species information.

After World War II, the American overseas policy known as the Marshall Plan succeeded in rapidly restarting the economies of Japan, Germany, Italy, and other countries. Available energy was cheap, and the level of education was high. With a pool of information, restart was rapid.

But what happens if descent is pathologically disorganized? Global society can learn from the epidemic diseases and social disorder in Africa and other places where society has lost its structure, information, and adequate emergy basis. The organization of global society in descent is not safe if one continent is festering with military pathology, overpopulation, rampant disease, and imperial exploitation of its resources. By helping Africa recover now, the world could learn how to treat sick societies and be prepared with tested policies for a healthy descent on all continents.

Transmitting Information

All the scenarios for saving the essence of civilization entail transfer of essential information to the future. The condensation of information from a blooming society to manageable smaller quantities is somewhat analogous to the brain's condensation of excess information of short-term memories into selected essentials to store in long-term memory. Information centers are likely to reorganize around the hydroelectric power of mountains and other renewable energy resources. There may be enough electric power to sustain the global information network and its role in the organization of society. But centers of useless power dissipation, such as the gaudy night lights of the casinos of Las Vegas, may have to give up their electric power.

Sustaining information is essential to a unified global future, and electric power is essential for sharing information through television and the internet. Consequently, hydroelectric dams may be given priority over salmon. Higher empower was found in hydroelectric geopotential in the Umpqua River in Oregon compared to it original salmon run of 400,000 fish per year (Odum 2000).

Although energies are still in excess, adequate preparation can be made for preserving and holding the needed knowledge and cultural memory in libraries and universities. Then, plans can be made for a more agrarian system, benefited by the knowledge we now have about them. We can plan for smaller cities, fewer cars, greater ratios of agricultural workers to town consumers, and fewer problems with pollution.

The times that will follow descent may be too far ahead to interest us now. However, it is important for present morale, during transition, to believe that the mission of information progress of our era can continue far into the future, albeit more slowly.

Period of Low-Emergy Regeneration

After descent may come a long period of subsisting on renewable energies with a neoagrarian economy until enough emergy is stored by earth systems to support more pulses of civilization and progress. On a global basis in 1997, the empower in renewable energy driving society was about one-third of the total budget. In the future, with less nonrenewable emergy, developed countries must adapt to nonrenewable empower that is only 10% or 20% of their present use. There will be enough emergy to support the best of the current civilization minus the wastes, luxuries, and excessive population. If essential relevant knowledge of our current civilization is carried forward, the low-energy agrarian society of the times ahead will be based on much more knowledge than the primitive agrarian cultures of earlier centuries.

Later, as in the past, small bursts of innovation and progress can occur here and there where regions have rebuilt emergy stores in soils, virgin forest, peat deposits, and so on. The geologic cycles of the earth will still be concentrating minerals and fuels and moving them upward to the earth's surface, where accumulations can support flashes of cultural innovation from time to time. Veizer used ingenious ways to estimate these rates. However, the very large concentrations of oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium ores that generated the recent era may not occur again for a very long time.


The human society of the planet is reaching the climax of its succession. Reversals of attitudes, policies, and lows are to be expected in the transition from the era of growth to a time of descent. By developing explanations and plans now for making descent prosperous, we can be ready when the shocks of change galvanize the attention of society. Some can have faith in the future that comes from understanding energy principles. Others will find faith in religions that adapt the necessary commandments for once again fitting culture to the earth. The people of Easter Island disappeared, leaving only their monuments as an example to the world of what happens when culture cannot downsize to fit its environmental production.

'The people' who put up 887 high-rise statues also devised the Rongorongo writing system. No one who could read it survived. Ergo the information content of their culture, 'the people', disappeared other than as remnant population.

I have played many roles sometimes with the majority, but more often attempting to shock the scientific establishment into a better view. — Howard T. Odum

Money and market values cannot be used to evaluate real wealth from the environment. — Howard T. Odum

The great conceit of Industrial man imagined that his progress in agricultural yields was due to new know-how... A whole generation … thought that the carrying capacity of the earth was proportional to the amount of land under cultivation and that higher efficiencies in using the energy of the sun had arrived. This is a sad hoax, for industrial man no longer eats potatoes made from solar energy; now he eats potatoes partly made of oil. — Howard T. Odum

When the resources are scarce, obtaining costs are higher… and the market puts a high value on the product. … Market values are inverse to real wealth … and cannot be used to evaluate environmental contributions or environmental impact. — Howard T. Odum

Understanding the economy requires that both money circulation and the pathways of real wealth be represented together but separately. Money is only paid to people and never to the environment for its work… Therefore, money and market values cannot be used to evaluate the real wealth from the environment. When the resources from the environment are abundant, little work is required from the economy. — Howard T. Odum

Energy is measured by calories, BTUs, kilowatt-hours ... but energy has a scale of quality which is not indicated by these measures. The ability to do work ... depends on the energy quality … measurable by the amount of energy of a lower quality grade required to develop the higher grade. — Howard T. Odum


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