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Energy, Ecology, and Economics, by Howard Odum (Part 5)

Part 5, and the Conclusion of this Series

Part 1 here
, and Part 2 here, and Part 3 here
, and Part 4 here.


Odum's Original 1973 article here: Energy, Ecology, and Economics


Saving the most important points for last:


  1. During periods of expanding energy availabilities, activities that spur more growth and competition are successful in increasing the flow of energy beyond their cost. Institutions, customs, and economic policies sometimes become self-sustaining by accelerating energy consumption.

Fast growing economies contain many pump priming properties that become embedded in procedures of government and culture. Urban concentrations, high use of cars, economic stimulus measures to subsidize growth, advertising, high rise buildings, etc. are all costly in energy, but they can stimulate economic vitality as long as they can be successful in increasing the flow of energy beyond their cost.  They accelerate the system’s growth during a period when new energy resources are available to exploit.


  1. During periods when expansion of energy sources is not possible, then the high density and growth promoting policies and structures become an energy liability because their high energy cost is no longer accelerating an energy yield.

“The pattern of urban concentration and the policies of economic growth simulation that were necessary and successful in energy growth competition periods are soon to shift. There will be a premium against the use of pump priming characteristics since there will be no more unpumped energy to prime. What did work before will no longer work and the opposite becomes the pattern that is economically successful. All this makes sense and is commonplace to those who study various kinds of ecosystems, but the economic advisors will be sorely pressed and lose some confidence until they learn about the steady state and its criteria for economic success.”


  1. Systems in nature are known that shift from fast growth to steady state gradually with programmatic substitution, but other instances are known in which the shift is marked by total crash and destruction of the growth system before the emergence of the succeeding steady state regime.

The terrible possibility that is before us is that there will be the continued insistence on growth with our last energies by the economic advisors that don’t understand, so that there are no reserves with which to make a change, to hold order, and to cushion a period when populations must drop…

Man will survive as he reprograms readily to that which the ecosystem needs of him so long as he does not forget who is serving who. What is done well for the ecosystem is good for man. However, the cultures that say only what is good for man is good for nature may pass and be forgotten like the rest.

…Perhaps this is the main question of ecology, economics, and energy: Has the human system frozen its direction into a…path toward cultural crash, or is the great creative activity of the current energy rich world already sensing the need for change? Are alternatives already being tested by our youth so they will be ready for the gradual transition to a fine steady state that carries the best of our recent cultural evolution into new, smaller, more dilute, and more delicate ways of human-nature?

What is the general answer? Eject economic expansionism, stop growth, use available energies for cultural conversion to steady state, seek out the condition now that will come anyway, but by our service be our biosphere’s handmaiden anew.

[Note: David Holmgren was 18 years old when Odum’s article was written, and “as a youth” was already testing alternatives with Bill Mollison and working toward developing what would come to be known as Permaculture, a system for “gradually transitioning to a fine steady state” using “smaller, more dilute, and more delicate ways of human-nature.”]

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