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Energy, Ecology, and Economics by Howard Odum (Part 2)

As we continue with Part 2 of this series (read Part 1 here), I should say another word about why I think this is an important article by Howard Odum. 


We are coming out of the age of abundant and cheap energy, and entering an age of scarce and expensive energy.  I am no energy expert by any means, but I think it is extremely important that we laypeople make an effort to increase our energy literacy, and do what we can to encourage policy makers to increase their energy literacy and make wise decisions. 


An example of a poor energy decision was provided to us today, with the International Energy Agency encouraging the release of oil from strategic petroleum reserves.  Not because we need more oil on the market right now, but in order to help stimulate the economies of the world back toward more growth (my interpretation).  Like the age of cheap energy, the age of growth is on its last legs, and the sooner we change the principles of how we operate in this world, the less painful the age of energy descent will be.


John Michael Greer frequently covers similar themes, and this week's post (Santa Isn't Bringing Gigawatts) is recommended. He writes, "one of the prime necessities of sanity and survival involves unlearning the mental habits of the age of abundance, and coming to terms with the fact that all human activities are subject to ecological limits."


Now, on to part two of my interpretation of Odum's Energy, Ecology, and Economics.


  1. Societies compete for economic survival by Lotka’s “Maximum Power” principle: the system that gets the most energy and uses it most effectively survives in competition with other systems.

We learn from points 4, 5, and 6 that “survival of the fittest” competition is very natural, and useful in the development of any ecosystem.  There is no need to engage in moralistic judgments on human systems that do this.  There is a time to maximize power and to utilize available energy effectively (“Obtain a Yield”) and to be less wasteful as compared to competitors or alternatives (“Produce No Waste”).

  1. During times when there are opportunities to expand one’s power inflows, the survival premium by Lotka’s principle is on rapid growth even though there may be waste.

“Dog-eat-dog growth competition” occurs in pioneering species, whether that be new vegetation colonizing bare ground, or the last 200 years of humankind colonizing growth.   Perfectly natural, but only when energy resources are plentiful. 

  1. During times when energy flows diminish and there are no new sources, the systems that win are those that do not engage in a fruitless attempt to continue to grow. Instead, they use all available energies to develop diverse and resilient steady state systems.

When an ecosystem matures, the rapid growth specialists are replaced by a new team of higher diversity, higher quality, longer living, better controlled, and stable components.  This is the “climax team,” which is able to maximize the limited amount of energy available, becoming much more efficient than those that specialized in fast growth.

“Our system of man and nature will soon be shifting from rapid growth as the criterion of maximizing one’s work for economic survival to steady state non-growth as the criterion of maximizing one’s work for economic survival.”

It is here that the Permaculture Principles such as “Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback,” “Produce No Waste,” “Use and Value Diversity,” and “Creatively Use and Respond to Change,” become very important (as well as all of the other principles).

Most of humankind’s million year history was close to a steady state, but economists have all been trained during a rapid growth state and most don’t even know there is such a thing as a steady state. Although 200 years is a long time from our perspective, we are experiencing the tail end of a short pulse or blip in the history of the world – “a temporary use of special energy supplies that accumulated over long periods of geologic time.”


  1. High quality of life for humans and equitable economic distribution tends to be a positive characteristic of steady state periods.

During competitive growth periods instability, inequality, and poverty more commonly occur, but during steady state periods competition is controlled, and replaced with regulatory systems (“Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback“), diversity of labor (“Use and Value Diversity”), and uniform energy distributions (“Catch and Store Energy”). “Love of stable system quality replaces love of net gain.”


  1. The successfully competing economy must use its net output of richer quality energy flows to subsidize the poorer quality energy flow so that the total power is maximized.

In ecosystems, a diversity of species allows for a greater variety of energy sources to be utilized, and to varying degrees.  Some species are “subsidized” by getting some of their energy indirectly from multiple sources.  For example, leaves on top of trees get more energy than they need, and leaves lower on the tree need more energy than they are getting from the sun.  The leaves on top transport fuel to leaves lower on the tree that are more shaded, providing the “subsidy.”  The ecosystem as a whole benefits, because resources are maximized and more total work gets done.

In similar ways, fossil fuels are used in many places of our economy to subsidize activities that would otherwise not yield net energy.  Many examples could be named, from subsidizing our educational systems to subsidizing the manufacture of wind turbines and solar photovoltaics, which leads to the next point.


  1. Energy sources which are now marginal, being supported by hidden subsidies based on fossil fuel, become less economic when the hidden subsidy is removed.

Related to the previous point of using rich energies to subsidize marginal ones: marginal energies will yield less in the future when the subsidy is no longer available.  Economists often don’t recognize this change in energy quality, because the subsidy remains hidden to their view.  They will often say that a marginal energy source will be economic in the future when the rich sources become unavailable.  However, the yield from a marginal energy source will decline as the subsidy from the richer energy source declines.  An energy source is not a source unless it can contribute a net yield.

  1. Increasing energy efficiency with new technology is not an energy solution, since most technological innovations are dependent on a supply of cheap energy (a hidden subsidy) to support complex energy-expensive structures.

Much of our progress of achieving increased efficiencies over the last 100 years has been based on a subsidy from a second energy source. “We build better engines by putting more energy into the complex factories for manufacturing the equipment. The percentage of energy yield in terms of all the energies incoming may be less not greater.”


To be continued...

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