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Energy, Ecology, and Economics by Howard Odum (Part 1)

The reading for next week's Folk School class on Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability is a "classic" article by Howard T. Odum.   Although they had never met or corresponded, Odum has been Holmgren's primary intellectual inspiration.  Footnote number 1 and  Item #1 in the List of Main References for the 1978 "Permaculture One" co-authored by Holmgren and Mollison, was Odum's 1972 book "Environment, Power, and Society."  Holmgren's 1994 article "Energy and Permaculture" is structured around Odum's work, and he comments that all Permaculturists need to read Odum's 1976 book "Energy Basis for Man and Nature."   In his 2002 book "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability," Holmgren dedicates the entire book to Odum, and recommends Odum's last book, "A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies" (2001). 


Some students in the class have mentioned that reading this Odum article is challenging, especially trying to decipher the graphs. I personally have found Odum to be extremely helpful in understanding how the world works in a fundamental way.


Over the next few days, I'm going to attempt to provide my take or interpretation of Odum's 20 points.  I hope at least some of you will find this to be helpful.  The original article is here (online) and here (nicely formatted pdf).


First, some introductions.


Howard Odum’s article, “Energy, Ecology and Economics” was originally published in the special energy edition of Ambio (No. 6, 1973) by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden.  Copyright 1973 by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

In 1974, the article was reprinted by Mother Earth News with the following introduction: 

“In early November of 1973—during a visit to MOTHER's new home in the mountains of western North Carolina—New Alchemist John Todd gave the magazine's editors about the 14th-generation Xerox copy of what can conservatively be described as a dynamite paper.

We had only to glance at this extraordinary document to realize that the paper (originally written at the request of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) is one of the most concise—yet most sweeping—examinations yet made of the real problems of the world. Read it and see for yourself...

The man who produced this work is Howard T. Odum, Ph. D. . . . Director of the Center for Wetlands and a Graduate Research Professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In the past, he has been Professor of Ecology at the University of North Carolina, Chief Scientist for the Puerto Rico Nuclear Center and Director of the Institute of Marine Science of the University of Texas at Port Aransas. Professor Odum has many other environmental credits to his name including the book, Environment, Power and Society (John Wiley, 1972).”

Excerpt of the Royal Swedish Academy Introduction:

“Many are beginning to see that energy, ecology, and economics form a single, unified system, states the author, who gives twenty points to explain the energy control of our economy and the relationship to the environment…He offers a general answer to the present world situation, where ‘boom and bust’ economies may soon be forced toward a steady state: reject economic expansionism, stop growth, use available energies for cultural conversion to steady state, and seek out the condition now that will come anyway.”

Odum’s Introduction:

As long-predicted energy shortages appear, as questions about the interaction of energy and environment are raised…, many are beginning to see that there is a unity of the single system of energy, ecology, and economics. The world's leadership, however, is mainly advised by specialists who study only a part of the system at a time.

Instead of a single system's understanding, we have adversary arguments… Many economic models ignore the changing force of energy, regarding effects of energy sources as an external constant; ecoactivists cause governments to waste energy in unnecessary technology; and the false gods of growth and medical ethics make famine, disease, and catalytic collapse more and more likely for much of the world. Some energy specialists consider the environment as an antagonist instead of a major energy ally in supporting the biosphere.

Instead of the confusion that comes from the western civilization's characteristic educational approach of isolating variables in tunnel-vision thinking, let us here seek common sense overview which comes from overall energetics…

With major changes confronting us, let us consider here some of the main points that we must comprehend so we may be prepared for the future.”



Odum’s 20 points

Modified / Interpreted / Plagerized by David MacLeod

1.      The true value of energy to society is the net energy. ..

Net energy is the Energy Returned on the Energy Invested (EROEI). It takes some amount of energy to get more energy, and you have to carefully account for all of the energy expended to make sure you actually “Obtain A Yield” (Permaculture Principle #3).

For example, conventional crude oil is a very dense energy source.  In the past all you had to do was put a hole in the ground in the right place, and up came “the bubblin’ crude.”  The International Energy Agency now tells us that conventional crude peaked in 2006, so now we have to go after more “unconventional” sources, such as drilling in deep ocean water, and converting tar sands into oil.  We have to expend much more energy upfront to capture these unconventional resources, therefore the net  yield of these resources is less than it was for conventional oil.  As Odum says, “Much energy has to be used directly and indirectly to support the machinery, people, supply sytems, etc. to deliver the energy. “ For alternative technologies such as solar photovoltaics and wind turbines, we need to account for the fossil fuels used to mine the materials, to construct and maintain the manufacturing process, and to deliver and install the systems. We often tend to just measure the yield and value of the amount of energy obtained from these sources, but Odum is telling us that we really need to pay attention here to the fact that it is the net yield after accounting for all of the energy expended that is the true value to society.   


2.      Worldwide inflation is driven in part by the increasing fraction of our fossil fuels that have to be used in getting more fossil and other fuels.

As we expend more and more energy to get energy, the net yield declines (point #1).  Expending more energy also means spending more money. Spending more money, even as the net yield is declining results in a decrease in value of that money, which is basically the definition of inflation. It is easy to be misled here, and miss the forest for the trees – the economy and the total energy use may be expanding, even as net yield is declining, and more money might therefore be allowed to circulate, which results in us digging a deeper hole.  The number one rule when you’re stuck in a hole is to stop digging (as Matt Simmons used to say), but that is a problem if we don’t realize we’re in a hole.  

As we attempt to Catch and Store Energy (Permaculture Principle #2), we again need to make sure we are Obtaining A Yield (Principle #3).


  1. Many calculations of energy reserves which are supposed to offer years of supply are as gross energy rather than net energy and thus may be of much shorter duration than often stated.

Fossil fuel reserves tend to be overstated for a variety of reasons.  Many of the publicly stated reserves will never be economical to actually extract.  If these reserves were calculated as units of net energy, the numbers would be much lower and closer to the reality of what could actually be useful.

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