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The Energy Characteristics of Cooperative Culture

Mary Logan, daughter of the late pioneer of systems ecology, Howard Odum, undertook a book review of “Together; the Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation“, by Richard Sennett.   She quickly moved, however, to looking at the role energy availability plays in society and culture, and created a very helpful chart on the potential characteristics of a new culture with dramatically less energy availability. See Cooperative Culture – Energy Characteristics at A Prosperous Way Down.


Looking at a reproduction of Logan’s chart below, one can easily see why a Permaculture village like that being developed in a place called  Atamai in New Zealand makes so much sense.  According to Joanna Santa Barbara in Fleeing Vesuvius, the development of Atamail Village is a response “taking into account the need to mitigate climate change and adapt to low or zero fossil fuel use, the constraints of sea-level rise over the next century, the need to step outside, as much as possible, the mainstream financial system and the importance of a local steady-state economy within the biophysical limits of the region.” Read more about Atamai here: Design for Surviving Vesuvius – Atamai, a Permaculture Village.


Characteristic: Low Gain (Scarcity) High Gain (Surplus Resources)
Energy Mandate Efficiency more important for Maximum Empower Maximum Empower w/ less efficiency
 Less dense, less technology Increased size, more technology
Slower, less productive, more recycling Faster, wasteful of energy, high entropy, open mineral cycles
Sustainable orientation, pulsing, k-selection Growth Orientation r-selection
Zero Sum or Negative Sum Positive Sum Game
Requires stable energy base Boom and bust more common
Focus Community Needs Individual Wants
 Goal Communal harmony?, quality Wealth, quantity
 Relation to Nature  Living within Nature as stewards Separate from Nature, less stewardship
 Spatial Orientation Localized, smaller capacity, more stratification, heterogeneity Global, colonization, urbanization
 Temporal Orientation 7 Generations + perspectives Next quarter outlook
Hierarchy Shorter food chain length Longer more complex hierarchies
Diversity More diversity, parallel units, narrow niches Less diversity, less complex webs, broad niches
 Ethics Centered on Community, Justice Focused on Individual Personhood, Respect for Personhood, Autonomy
 Needs Hierarchy Focus on basic needs Focus on higher needs
More self-reliance Needs supplied by system
 Equity More equity, less division Less equity
Physical Better genetic fitness Larger mass, better health, more offspring
 Psychological Depression/vigilance OK Techno-optimism
Generalists More diversity in terms of specialties
Focused on Maintenance Focused on Expansion
 Social Extended families, guilds Nuclear families, mobility
Cooperation Competition
Altruism, Gift economies Inequality, Winner takes all
Mutual Dependence, Harmony Independence, Mobility
 Political Less freedom, more equality Capitalism (more freedom, less equal)
Increased regulation, stored info Just-in-time
Grass Roots Centralized
Network Silos, bureaucracies
Symbiosis Darwinism, Social Insurance
Externalize Internalities? Internalize Externalities
 Cultural More Ritual, myths, stories Division of labor, Information society
Stricter Values Looser Value systems, self-indulgence?
Civility, conformity Experiments, social deviance
Selflessness Self-aggrandizement
More resistance, less resilience Rapid evolution

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Comment by David MacLeod on April 19, 2012 at 10:57pm

Hi Angela,

I know you do not like things presented in an either/or fashion.  For me, I automatically translate lists like this as a kind of map, with the implicit understanding that "the map is not the territory."  If we tried to put the entire territory on the map, it would just be a jumble of information, and not be very useful. The usefulness of a list like this is that it quickly provides an image I can hold in my head, distinguishing two types of societies relating to the amount of available energy flow.  

There will be exceptions and counterflows to every point on these lists, and it becomes interesting to discuss possible variations or alternative views, as we are doing here.

The primary point of Mary Logan's article is her agreement with Richard Sennett, though Sennett is looking primarily through a social lens, and she is looking through an energy lens: "A society based on grossly surplus energy creates extremes of inequity, with weakened social cohesion, psychological withdrawal, and loss of justice."

I hope people will also look at the article about the village of Atamai, which is attempting to put into practice some of these ideals, in preparation for a low energy world.

Comment by David MacLeod on April 19, 2012 at 10:38pm


Victor Frankl: Yes, books like this, and Pema Chodrin's "When Things Fall Apart," and Chris Johnstone's "Find Your Power," Dan Siegel's "Mindsight," etc., and the work that you do, and others do relating to "inner transition":  These are resources for developing skills that I think will be essential for powering down.  I think the default response might be to contract and to devolve, but there are tools available to help us learn to respond more like Frankl; but we shouldn't kid ourselves that it will be easy.  I think we need to dedicate ourselves as much to this kind of "skilling up for powering down" as we do toward learning to grow vegetables and becoming more self-reliant with our hands.

And in regards to the "Breakthrough" book - I think it has some very worthwhile elements, and the chapter on the history of the environmental movement should be required reading...BUT, they seem to be completely clueless when it comes to energetic and resource limits to growth.

Comment by Daimon Sweeney on April 19, 2012 at 7:54pm

To reframe this discussion from pro and con (is the list right or not), we can ask, "What kind of society do we want, given what we have to work with?" 

Lower energy consumption, and more community resilience, for sure.

How much community intelligence, personal integration and interpersonal skill and resilience do we want? If we value these things what can we do to build them as assets? This is one of my questions and part of my answer is the events I'll be doing monthly in Bham (and have been doing for 10 months in Mt. Vernon.) See Events for 4/22 for details.  

Comment by Angela MacLeod on April 19, 2012 at 6:35am

Hi Daimon and David,

I thought of Victor Frankl (Man's Search for Meaning) too!! A clear example of how even in situations when most basic human needs are not being met some people have the ability to grow spiritually and develop their 'higher' needs anyway.

I haven't read the books referred to in David's post. So I read this post and list, and immediately went into a  reaction.....I squirm at these types of lists that appear to present things in an 'either/or' perspective.

I have the sense that there is something wider and deeper that David is 'getting' from Odem and Logan that I don't grok yet since I haven't spent the time he has reading their works.

I will just leave it at that for now as it's getting light out and I want to go see how the chicks did on their first night out in their coop!!



Comment by Daimon Sweeney on April 18, 2012 at 11:25pm

And thanks for your replies, Angela and David,

Personally I don't think it is "only" when basic needs are met that one can think of higher needs. Think of Victor Frankl (Man's Search for Meaning) in a concentration camp, certainly a basic needs situation. I have not read their book but the argument sounds like a nice linear rationale for using more stuff and energy. I could be completely wrong on that so feel free to correct that impression. 

The degree of emotional sophistication I am talking about amounts to an advanced technology, I admit, but it is available. Compassion is always available, as is cooperation. 

No doubt you are right that a focus on how to supply basic needs will be a big feature of energy descent. We are shifting the material culture, but given only that if we hit real scarcity chances are we will go toward resource competition and fear, a self-sustaining cycle. 

How to have the best of both worlds? Gain the skills now, as you suggest. New technologies are not limited to renewable energy sources. How to be happy, how to be not anxious, how to drop counter-productive behavior patterns, how to cooperate, how to be more creative as a group rather than splitting into warring factions - this is very useful stuff as well. 

Getting to being a sustainable even if sparse material society rather one of real lack is the key, along with cultivating cultural values of sharing and that we are all in it together, using our combined resources for combined survival if not well-being. 

Comment by David MacLeod on April 18, 2012 at 10:49pm

Hi Daimon,

Thanks for the comment.  I think the key to your first statement is whether we have a survival situation or a sustainable culture.  We may have some of both.

I don't see the list as a one size fits all or black or white, but a simple map of basic features to get an overall sense of a low energy vs. high energy society.

I certainly agree that the higher needs are not being adequately met in our high energy industrial society, but there are those who make worthwhile arguments (see Breakthrough by Nordhaus and Shellinger) that its only when basic needs are met that people have the capacity to think about higher needs.  I think that a renewed focus on basic needs will be a big feature of energy descent; if people are not getting those needs met, they will have little energy to think about anything else. Hopefully, our Transition community, with our self-and community reliant skills will be meeting those needs, and we'll also be finding a lot of additional meaning and a meeting of higher needs as we learn to live closer to the land and more in community, and with less consumeristic attachments and addictions.  Like the community of Atamai linked above. 

Anyway, overall the "Low Gain" list still looks a lot more healthy than the "High Gain" society we're currently dealing with. For more detailed scenarios, see David Holmgren's Future Scenarios.

"Doing things is not contradictory to self-cultivation" - absolutely, I agree!

Comment by Angela MacLeod on April 18, 2012 at 10:27pm

Thanks Daimon for what you express here. Much the same as my thoughts on the lists.

Comment by Daimon Sweeney on April 18, 2012 at 11:51am

One place I would take issue with this list is the suggestion that in a low-gain society basic needs replace higher needs, and that depression/vigilance replaces techno-optimism. In a survival situation, yes, but in a stable, sustainable culture, no.

This list assumes that higher needs are now being met in the existing society. Among higher needs are connection, meaningfulness, self-knowledge. How much does present society support those at a deep level, beyond social media? Are those needs to be abandoned as we move to sustainability, or could they be more of a focus in an enlightened, externally powered-down society? It's a choice.

Did the ancient Greeks or Tibetan monks in their low-powered society focus on basic needs and live with depression/vigilance? The assumption in this list is that fulfilling higher human needs is dependent on high levels of energy consumption, but I think with greater efficiency, lower material demand and greater understanding of how humans work it could go the opposite way. 

And yes, Greek (Athenian) citizens and Tibetan monks lived privileged lives, supported by others to a greater or lesser degree, but we can have equivalent free time through time-efficient food production, sophisticated design (energy efficient homes, etc.), and renewable energy. Doing things is not contradictory to self-cultivation. 

The image of downgrading culture in line with energy use is linear thinking. I think this list has some good points but I wouldn't absorb it uncritically. 

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