Twenty-first Century: The hierarchy of energy
Eric Lee, A-SOCIATED PRESS
TOPICS: ODUM, FROM THE WIRES, SUSTAINABLE
PROSPERITY, GROWTH CULTURE, FUTURE
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
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
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.
Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-first
Century: The hierarchy of energy, (2007), pages
The first 386 pages were an endeavor to allow readers to
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.
Borrow and loan.
Permit large differences in income and wealth.
Emphasize increasing wages by labor unions.
Maintain defense forces. expect war with other
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
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
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
Maximize empower through high-diversity, efficient
Change industries concerned with new construction to
Replace borrowing to that concerned with replacement
Hold money supply constant.
Don't expect much unearned income from interest and
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
Provide public works programs for the unemployed.
Provide part-time jobs for the retired as long as
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
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
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
Maximize empower through environmental production and
Endorse lifestyles that limit reproduction.
Control population to keep empower per person from
Downsize by reducing salaries rather than discharging
Place an upper limit on individual incomes.
Redefine progress as adaptation to earth restoration.
Restore natural capital and associated environmental
Use ecological engineering self-design for
Use agricultural varieties that need less input.
Limit the power of private cars.
Plan for more population moving from cites to
Decentralize organizational hierarchy.
Select hierarchically organized road and railroads
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
Replace plastic discard packaging with reuse-recycle
Plan for annual reduction in budgets.
Select for maintenance structures with low
Follow policies indicated by A Prosperous Way Down.
Share free information for unified cooperation.
Balance emergy trade equity to replace free
Set a priority for ecological net production over
Use capital investment for downsizing.
Redefine medical ethics that interfere with genetic
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.
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
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
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