A systemic perspective on life

By Torbjörn Rydberg

Some of the ideas in this post were originally published in the report, Agroecology in practice: Walking the talk (2014).

During my period as a teacher, my main interests have been open system thermodynamics and general systems theory for any system, including ecosystems, agricultural systems, energy systems, and economic systems. The method and theory for dealing with thermodynamics of open systems can be hard for many people to digest, but for natural scientists, classical thermodynamics with an analytical mechanistic worldview is still the dominating paradigm, which perhaps makes understanding general systems easier. The goal of this essay is to explain the shift from a quantitative mechanistic system perspective to a qualitative understanding of the web of life.

First we need to change our systems view from a mechanistic engineering view to an open systems perspective. We must broaden our view to include the world as one system full of processes interdependent upon each other, which works on different time scales as well as different size and spatial scales. This essay explains how I introduce fundamental concepts of self-organizing systems to students who are new to the discipline:

  1. Energy transformation and energy hierarchical organization, suggested as the fifth law of thermodynamics
  2. Maximum power and maximum empower, suggested to be the fourth law of thermodynamics for open self-organizing systems.

We need to use both of these concepts to understand sustainability of qualitative complex systems. These concepts impact how we measure and test systems performance such as productivity and efficiency. Continue reading A systemic perspective on life

The Asian Miracles: Free renewables made it all possible

By Tom Abel

I recently visited China for the first time. I saw that scholars are still trying to understand the China economic miracle and predict its future growth / stagnation / decline. Some time ago I considered this issue in the context of the previous Asian miracles and from the view of economy as ultimately a product of ecology. With a simple model that focuses on the need of households to provision family members, an answer becomes clear.

In the 1970s-1980s it was Japan, in the 1980s it was Taiwan (and others), and in the 1990s-2000s it has been China (and Vietnam). Each of these countries urbanized quickly as rural migrants streamed into new factories for the manufacturing of first simple products and later high-tech. In the case of Japan and Taiwan, growth peaked and has since stagnated. China’s growth may be slowing.

A rural farm in Guilin, China (source)

Something that connects them is this. Previously rural countrysides supported large populations in each country. That meant that much, if not most of the energy/emergy that supported the households was from free, renewable sources, primarily household gardens, but also the other free natural resources of the countryside that process human waste, clean drinking water, and cool households. Continue reading The Asian Miracles: Free renewables made it all possible

Responsibility for regeneration

By Mary Odum

Examples can be powerful

I’m housesitting in Alaska, and my return to a place where Mother Nature is in charge once again motivates me to express myself. The front yard of this house is a beautiful rock garden which is low maintenance, and fertilizer and pesticide-free. But the real front yard for this house is the back yard, which backs to 780 square miles of Chugach State Park and its pristine wilderness. That view is grounding, reminding me of what the world looked like before the fossil-fueled growth of the past two centuries. Can we return to that view after the fossil fuels are gone, with clear

Anchorage back yard
Anchorage back yard

air, drinkable water, and an intact food chain? Do we just throw up our hands and accept die-off? Or do we actively work towards a more balanced society? Who’s going to do that and how do we start? This post is about prosaic lawn reform as a symbol of change and personal responsibility for the environment, but first I’m going to wander in synthesis through the threads of current events, to pull that theme together.

Continue reading Responsibility for regeneration

Treatment wetlands equal cleaner water and more birds

By Debra Segal and Robert Knight

Debra Segal, M.S. is an environmental scientist who has assisted in designing, permitting, and monitoring treatment wetlands in Florida, including Gainesville’s Sweetwater Wetland Park and the Lake Hancock Outfall Wetland. She is also a volunteer for the Alachua Audubon Society.

Robert Knight, Ph.D. is co-author of Treatment Wetlands and is a pioneer of treatment wetland design, operation, and performance. He has been instrumental in incorporating productive and safe bird and other wildlife habitat in treatment wetlands and has been active in the design and/or operation of many of the systems described in this blog.

Some of the most productive birding hotspots in Florida are man-made treatment wetlands that were designed to remove nutrients and pollutants from treated wastewater and stormwater. Increasing wastewater flows and stormwater runoff are the inevitable results of increasing human populations. But a growing number of communities in Florida and worldwide, are turning this liability into an asset by initially treating this water through conventional advanced treatment technologies and then recycling the partially purified water into wetland systems designed to provide final purification cost-effectively. One ancillary benefit of these treatment wetlands is their high biological productivity that supports complex and abundant wildlife populations, including many wetland-dependent birds. With additional forethought and some additional cost, these treatment wetlands are becoming important destinations for bird watching and nature photography. Continue reading Treatment wetlands equal cleaner water and more birds

Reflections on scientific illiteracy

By Francesco Gonella

Dr. Gonella is a Professor of Physics at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy, who has worked in Canada (Laval University) and Japan (Tokyo Institute of Technology). He was Director of the International School on Emergy Accounting, Venice 2013 and 2015. Research interests include nano-structured glasses, environmental Physics, systems thinking, and higher education. Other interests are Baroque Music, Shodo (1st dan at the Japanese Federation of Calligraphy), and Foundations of Quantum Mechanics.

“Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything. Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.” –Konrad Lorenz

Modern scientific illiteracy arises from a number of causes. Modern science often requires an advanced background, making it inaccessible. And many basic scientific concepts are commonly misunderstood, such as Darwin’s Evolution Theory. But since most of the present global issues such as climate change are related to complex systems, the literacy gap is related to the set of conceptual tools pertaining to Systems Theory. Global problems can be faced only with skills, languages, approaches and methodologies that come from a systemic view, using tools that are neither strictly scientific theories nor pieces of technology. This kind of science literacy is needed in all decision-making processes concerned with complex, technology-based, and environmental systems, and in general with actions inspired by concepts like Sustainable Development, or Prosperous Way Down. Furthermore, systemic concepts like emergence, non-linearity, pattern, feedback, self-organization, criticality, and chaos that have a specific role in Systems Theory, are used as well within other contexts, including the everyday life language, with different meanings, giving rise to a further functional illiteracy. As David Goodstein observes, “Approximately 95 percent of the [American] public is illiterate in science by any rational definition of science literacy”, and there is little hope that the policy makers all come from the remaining 5% who are scientifically literate. Continue reading Reflections on scientific illiteracy

H.T. Odum on energy equality

This post was originally posted on P2P Foundation’s site on 31st December 2012. Images for this repost were added by PWD admin.

 By Michel Bauwens 

Michel Bauwens is the founder and director of the P2P Foundation and works in collaboration with a global group of researchers in the exploration of peer production, governance, and property. His recent book Save the world – Towards a Post Capitalist Society with P2P is based on a series of interviews with Jean Lievens, originally published in Dutch in 2014 it has since been translated and published in French with an English language publication expected in the near future. Michel co-authored with Vasilis Kostakis of Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy published by Palgrave Pivot in 2014. Michel currently lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Monthly Review has an in-depth analysis of the global planetary ecological crisis, which also features an introduction to the thought of energy ecologist, Howard T. Odum. First, an introduction to his work via Cutler Cleveland at Encyclopedia of the Earth: Continue reading H.T. Odum on energy equality

Greetings to the natural world

The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address (the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen) is the central prayer and invocation for the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, Longhouse People, or Six Nations — Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora). It reflects their relationship of giving thanks for life and the world around them. The Haudenosaunee open and close every social and religious meeting with the Thanksgiving Address.

Hiawatha Wampum Belt of the Iroquois Confederacy

It is also said as a daily sunrise prayer, and is an ancient message of peace and appreciation of Mother Earth and her inhabitants. The children learn that, according to Native American tradition, people everywhere are embraced as family. Our diversity, like all wonders of Nature, is truly a gift for which we are thankful.

When one recites the Thanksgiving Address the Natural World is thanked, and in thanking each life-sustaining force, one becomes spiritually tied to each of the forces of the Natural and Spiritual World.  The Thanksgiving Address teaches mutual respect, conservation, love, generosity, and the responsibility to understand that what is done to one part of the Web of Life, we do to ourselves.

Continue reading Greetings to the natural world

Living life on a curve

By Tom Abel

This is a story of energy, and how it makes our worlds go round. We’ve heard other versions of that story, but this one differs from the usual energy tale. My concern is with the swings of energy and their effects on the way we act and the way we feel about the world we live in. To start simply, a question or two:

Why are Americans out of work? Why are we all in debt? Why are the rich so rich? Why is our infrastructure crumbling? Why fundamentalism, in religion and politics? Why the anti-immigration? Why all the anti-Americanism around the world? Why is society so polarized? Why are Americans so angry with each other? Etc.!

There are surely independent answers to every one of these, but…if there is an underlying principle of social causality it might be found in self-organization, the same process that knits together ecosystems, earth systems, ocean gyres, or typhoons. Wait, people are angry because of energy?! Why not? You’ve heard far worse explanations. In the presidential debates, for example. It will take a minute to get there (my friend said, too long!). Read on, if you want. Ideas are free.

On Human Time

We all live day-to-day. I am not talking about income and expenses, where this is profoundly untrue, some with much, many with little. I mean in our minds. We live day-to-day. Or maybe hour to hour. Or as some say, in the here and now, or in the moment. Our thoughts go to our current circumstances, what we are planning to do this afternoon, what happened yesterday or last week, maybe at the most what we will do for this year’s vacation, if we are lucky enough to have one. And we have our memories, selective snips of near events that encircle each of us, not the full sweep of time.


Now, if we were all mayflies these spans of days, months, or years would be an eternity. Since the adults live for only a day or two, they must measure time in seconds or less, searching frantically for mates, laying eggs. Time is definitely a relative concept, and compared to most life forms, humans are rich in it.

But the universe is full of events in duration far greater than days or weeks or even a human lifespan. Language and literacy have helped us mark them. We tell our children about the return of comets, the drying up of once lakes or rivers, the eclipses of sun and moon. Science has added further to our perception of time with plate tectonics, radiocarbon dating, red shifts, and others. We know now of the rise and fall of ancient dynasties, the deforestation of much of the world, the growth of world population. But events at these lengths are not sensed by us. We know them intellectually, or not at all.

Most of the big slow cycles and processes of earth and humanity have no effect on our everyday lives. But some do. The relentless march of climate change is one that promises a big wallop. But there is another, one that has been slowly but surely changing the world under our feet these last hundred years. We barely sense it, but I argue it has had the power to raise us high, and bring us low.

And yet we all know the causes of human affairs. Today, there are bad people in the world. Wall Streeters, CEOs, liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, jihadists, birthers, lifers, socialists, academics, the list goes on and on. These are the ones to blame for our predicament, our predicaments. Let’s go after them.

The Pensive ‘S’

Is that it? The world is that simple? One event after another, bad people and good? The big slow process that I am hedging toward is illustrated in the curve below. People who follow this website know it well. It is the global curve of oil consumption. This big slow s-curve is over a hundred years in duration, longer than a human life. Most of us have lived in only the last third. So we have not experienced this curve in its entirety. In our day-to-day lives, in fact, we pay it no mind.

World Oil Production
World Oil Production, Source

Still, most of us know a small piece of it intellectually, that the world uses more oil today than yesterday, more than we did in the past. So what’s the point? Is this one of those peak oil, end of the world, doomsday articles? The peak is coming, run for the hills! But real incomes have been stagnant for forty years, you would say, income inequality has grown just as long, social democracy in Europe has been in trouble for decades, as has social welfare in the US. These are not new! That’s right, it is not Peak Oil that matters. It’s the pensive ‘S’. Somewhere on the big slow curve we’ve all been riding, things started to change. Where exactly on the curve, there are a few nearby candidates, the first oil inflection point, Peak energy per person, Peak emergy per person, or Peak NP. I favor Peak NP, but they are all in the same ballpark. Anyway, it is not about a ‘point’ in time, but the processes related to the sweeps of the curve. Continue reading Living life on a curve

He’s told us not to blow it


By Mary Odum

Hopefully you’ve seen the recent movie, The Martian, a film directed by Ridley Scott and adapted from the online book by Andy Weir. If you have not seen the movie or read the book, both of which I highly recommend, there will be some spoilers for the movie in this post. The movie is wonderful, featuring Matt Damon playing Mark Watney, an astronaut-botanist-mechanical engineer, “sciencing the shit” (literally) out of extreme survival in a hostile environment while accidentally left behind on Mars.

Gauld-just-jealousCultural memes in art, music, and literature indirectly reflect what’s happening in society before our conscious minds do. The explosion of zombie movies and science fiction about intrepid survivors either abandoning Earth for new planets or struggling to get back to Earth suggests that subconsciously, we know we are beyond our limits and headed in the wrong direction on this planet.

Tom Gauld cartoon
Tom Gauld cartoon

Mainstream cultural memes derived from this movie suggest the power of human technology and inventiveness through know-how and persistence. NASA may have used this movie as a rallying cry in support of more funding in general, and funding for longer-range space travel specifically. Good luck with that. It is no accident that space travel in the US peaked with the US oil peak in 1970. Viewed from my perspective of the world in descent, the movie represents something different that probably hasn’t already been said, at least in the US, where Americans’ manifest destiny still reigns supreme. I’m not sure what Andy Weir’s intentions were, beyond telling a ripping good survival yarn, but I see this movie as a symbol of what happens when we venture to the limit of what is sustainable, using extreme technology and energy. When we venture beyond the energetic limits of what is sustainable, bad things are guaranteed to happen. When they do, cascading reactions and a vacuum of Nature’s support systems for our basic needs (soil, water, air, and food) create an extreme situation where high-tech systems will not work, and we must revert to jury-rigged lower-energy tech from an earlier time to get by in an extremely hostile environment that lacks Mother Nature’s supports. Continue reading He’s told us not to blow it

Sociocultural Boundaries

By Tom Abel

Some years ago now a team of Swedish scientists proposed an interesting framework for understanding planetary environmental problems. It generated a range of responses from the environmental community, mostly positive. I had what is undoubtedly a very unusual response to their framework, and while it is perhaps old news, it may still be useful to present it here. As an anthropologist, I see planetary problems from a cultural and evolutionary perspective that could offer a different take on the subject.

Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015
Estimates of how the different control variables for nine planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015

First, though, I want to say that the identification of the nine interrelated environmental ‘boundaries’ has been unquestionably of great value (Planetary Boundaries). Raising awareness about the problems and emphasizing nonlinear feedbacks effects, and so the possible triggering of abrupt global environmental changes, are integral to a more sophisticated discussion of climate change and the other problems they highlight. To list them, they are climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, nutrient fluxes, global freshwater use, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution.

The great acceleration of the Anthropocene. Source.

The nine ‘boundaries’ are concisely represented in their popular diagram. The green space in the center represents the safe operating values. If the wedge exceeds the green space then it has already crossed its threshold and become a threat of flipping to a disastrous state for our human presence on the planet. Worse, the problems are interrelated and interactions are a grave threat. As an example of dangerous interactions, loss of soil moisture, degradation of land to new land types, and biodiversity loss all reduce the ability of ecosystems to sequester CO2, and thus increase greenhouse effects.

These same issues can be found today in a number of diagrams such as the one above. The Swedish authors have called our times the ‘great acceleration’, a time of rapid growth of a number of environmental problems. They have argued persuasively that now is the time that we need to ‘bend the curves’.

The great acceleration. Source.

Continue reading Sociocultural Boundaries

Patterns for navigating the transition to a world in energy descent

Repost by David MacLeod

“This paper considers current concerns about resource depletion (“energy descent”) and the unsustainability of current economic structures, which may indicate we are entering a new era signaled by the end of growth. Using the systems thinking tool of PatternDynamics™, developed by Tim Winton, this paper seeks to integrate multiple natural patterns in order to effectively impact these pressing challenges. Some of the Patterns considered include Energy, Transformity, Power, Pulse, Growth, and the polarities of Expansion/Contraction and Order/Chaos. . . .

MacLeod-Transformity-e1439851398679. . . . As a new flow of energy enters the system and interacts with a resource, transformation of energy can happen, where some quantity of energy is liberated from the resource and transformed into a higher quality energy. The Transformity Pattern, Winton states, “is a major structural aspect of how the universe works, and its structure is complexification” (Winton, 2012a). H. T. Odum argued that all processes entail a reduction of energy quantity as they are transformed into a higher quality energy, a new quality of energy available for use by the system to function in a new and more powerful way. The reduction in energy quantity is the 2nd law of thermodynamics at work – the energy that is dissipated out in all processes to increase entropy. This is where some amount of energy “sinks” (into the Void) in every process. The 1st law of thermodynamics is not violated, however – the total quantity of energy in the larger system is conserved, but a portion of it has now become unavailable for additional work.”

See the entire article, published at Integral Leadership Review, here.


Arguments against GMOs

By Mary Odum

I recently decided to take an epidemiology course to fill in gaps in my knowledge base. The entire online graduate certificate in Environmental Health looked interesting, so I applied for the entire certificate. Environmental Health was the first course that I took online at this flagship Florida university. The online experience would be a separate post in itself — the online course was mechanically flawless but grossly deficient in interactions and building critical thinking skills.

One of my class assignments was to argue in a paper against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Since the course and the textbook were too reductionist for my tastes, I argued using macroscopic arguments. I doubt the teaching assistants read it–like all other assignments in this MOOC, it received a grade with no comments. Various friends are asking me what I think of GMOs, and most students in the class and most of my friends think that GMOs are a great solution for our food problems, so I am reposting the paper here.

Corporations promote GMOs as the solution to world hunger through expanded global food sources. That hopeful argument is not based on evidence, and there are many arguments against widespread GMO use. Most science and policy arguments are reductionist. But Einstein said that we cannot solve problems from the same consciousness that created the problems. We must learn to see the world anew, from a larger scale to see a complete picture of the processes involved. Reductionist science is not the answer to the problems engendered by a finite biosphere with a human population in overshoot. Therefore, the arguments presented here address macroscopic arguments against GMOS, including the impact of peak oil production on the current developed countries’ system of industrial agriculture, the rapidly expanding pesticide treadmill that accompanies GMOs, replacement of natural biodiversity, water and soil loss or degradation, and expanding corporate domination, with increasing social inequity, loss of small farmers, monopolization and unsustainability of our food system, and the potential link between gut health and inadequately studied GMOs.

Continue reading Arguments against GMOs

Efficient use of water isn’t enough to save our springs

By Robert E. Ulanowicz

This is a repost of a Jan. 31st, 2015 guest editorial to The Gainesville Sun. Dr. Ulanowicz is a member of the Advisory Panel to the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.

As Americans we are understandably proud of our commitment to efficiency. It is no surprise, then, that in order to save our aquifer and springs in North Florida, we encourage ever more efficient ways of using water.

At the individual level, we endeavor to install water-saving showers and toilets or to plant drought resistant shrubs and lawns. On a larger scale we seek to develop more efficient ways of using water for irrigation, such as replacing center-pivot irrigation by “dropped-nozzle” application of water to crops.

The records show that efficiencies can indeed foster per-capita decreases in consumption, but it may come as a surprise to many that, at the community level, the drive to enhance efficiency usually results in an increase in overall water consumption!

This paradox has been documented through the outcomes of a number of projects that were intended to save groundwater by implementing more efficient ways of irrigating crops. In regions that ranged from Kansas to New Mexico and Colorado, increased water use followed in the wake of adopting greater efficiencies.

This counter-intuitive phenomenon is not new. It was described 150 years ago by British economist William Jevons. Unfortunately, this inconvenient reality, known as “Jevons’ Paradox,” has been little-heralded by economists since then.

There are many ways whereby improved efficiency can lead to greater overall consumption, but in most cases the savings gained by better efficiency are overwhelmed by an increase in total demand, spurred on either by the new technology itself or by extrinsic factors.

The implication for Florida’s programs to rescue our groundwater is clear: emphasis solely on water-saving efficiencies is destined to failure. Certainly, as individuals we need to redouble our efforts at conservation and efficient water use, but at the community level it becomes necessary that we reorder our priorities and focus instead primarily upon ways to limit total extractions.

Regulating total use was actually the intended mission of Florida’s water management districts. Toward that end, the districts issue Consumptive Use Permits (CUPs) and establish Minimum Flow Levels (MFLs) for lakes, rivers and springs.

Unfortunately, as the courts have discovered, MFLs are difficult to define, making them almost impossible to adjudicate and enforce.

Applications for CUPs, meanwhile, are almost never denied. To make matters worse, incentives that promote Jevons’ dynamics are actually written into some CUPs. The permit regulating extractions by the Jacksonville utilities, for example, rewards the reuse of wastewater (an efficiency) by allowing additional withdrawals from the aquifer without requiring any replacement!

commonspoemThe bare truth is that, aside from urban residents, use of a scarce and necessary common resource remains free to major users. This situation inevitably leads to the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” or catastrophic overuse.

At this time we do not have a firm idea of how much water is being extracted from the aquifer. To avert tragedy we need to begin to measure all that is pumped from the Floridan aquifer. A program to monitor all users — domestic (urban and rural), industrial and agricultural — must be initiated.

Secondly, we need to use water balance models, independent of developmental goals and desires, to establish a cap on what can be sustainably removed from the Floridan aquifer. While capping withdrawals might seem draconian to some in North Florida, it should be mentioned that caps restricting pumping have already been established around Orlando and Tampa. Such limits are long overdue for North Florida.

Finally, we must develop a schedule of charges to be assessed to all users commensurate with their metered use.

Once fees have been implemented (a possible referendum issue?), greater efficiencies will arise quickly and spontaneously. A convenient mnemonic for this strategy is E=mc2, or “Effective management consists of metering, capping and costing.”

We in North Florida are indeed fortunate to have our springs and lakes as visible indicators of the health of our aquifer.

calculate and internalizeElsewhere, as with the Ogallala aquifer in the Midwest, the deleterious effects of overpumping remain largely invisible, and these groundwater resources are being tapped to extinction.

Of almost equal importance to our well-being, it is extremely fortuitous that we possess our springs and lakes for recreation, scenic beauty and inspiration.

They are outstanding riches that truly deserve extraordinary efforts for their preservation.

However, if we fail to make our top management priority the capping of total extraction from the Floridan, it becomes inevitable that we will lose these irreplaceable treasures.

MaximumpowerspeedlimitWe need to redouble our efforts at conservation and efficient water use, but we must reorder our priorities and focus primarily on ways to limit total extractions.

Editor’s note: Is Jevons’ Paradox an early Economist’s observation of the Maximum Power Principle
What are the best policies for preserving precious stocks such as aquifers in our complex society in descent?

The light is returning

Happy Solstice and Happy Holidays, everyone! The light is returning now, and celebration of the changing seasons brings thoughts about transitions, and it also brings my friend Darcy’s Solstice 21 list.

cirquedupouletThe Solstice 21 List is kind of like New Year’s resolutions, but it has lower stakes and more options. Over the next two weeks when you have some reflection time, jot down a list of 21 wishes you have for the coming year.  These can be big wishes or small wishes (like learning 3 songs on the guitar) or abstract wishes (like being a better communicator) or very specific wishes that would relate only to you.  The spectrum can range from self-initiated things to “power of the universe” things that you hope will befall you in the next year.

gratitudeDon’t show your list to anyone.  Seal it up and put it in a special place that you won’t forget.  Then next year on solstice, open your list and see how you did.  It’s likely you forgot what some of them were, which can be both entertaining and a good reminder of what your hopes were a year ago and how they might have changed. It’s fun, and a unique way to celebrate the lovely glow of light returning to our lives, and a good way to think differently about our material culture. May your New Year be blessed with peace, gratitude and joy.

Header: Sheldon hut, Ruth Glacier, Denali

The Emperor’s New PPE

By Sally Sellers

SallyAnnSellersSally Speak is the effort of Sally Ann Sellers, RN, BSN, MA Ed, an old battle-ax who is just delusional enough to think her pen is mightier than a sword. Good night & good luck!

“There is no greater evil than men’s failure to consult and to consider.” ― Sophocles, Antigone

Hospitals in the US cause about 400,000 premature patient deaths each year due to preventable harm (iatrogenic causes). This equates to three jumbo jets falling out of the sky each day (James, 2013). Our dysfunctional healthcare system tolerates the carnage of preventable patient injury and death, and potential occupationally-acquired infectious diseases by healthcare workers (HCW). But with the introduction of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), we may be creating unsafe conditions that threaten communities outside of the hospital walls if our isolation protocols and personal protective equipment (PPE) do not work properly. This deadly problem may add to the list of poor outcomes of our healthcare system, spreading the disease, since caregivers are vulnerable to being infected and carrying it into communities. In West Africa, as of mid-October, WHO reports 420 HCW cases of EVD, and 239 deaths, and 2 HCW cases in the US and 1 in Spain.

The deadly outbreak of EVD has created the need for change within the U.S. healthcare system, but the leadership at the CDC and other healthcare in-groups are reacting slowly, with groupthink, creating a situation where those who set policies actively suppress dissenting viewpoints, isolating themselves from outside influences and even taking irrational stances that dehumanize other outside groups, such as “sloppy nurses” and a “panicky public.” When groups make faulty decisions that lead to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality-testing or moral judgment, they are displaying symptoms of “Groupthink”, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. What are the signs of groupthink, and how do those signs present during a crisis when we need to change healthcare standards and policies?
Continue reading The Emperor’s New PPE

Clutching our world views with a death grip

By Mary Odum

As I write, I am sitting in what might be my last airplane seat, stacked cheek to jowl with a couple with a cute but runny-nosed baby. My trip was with girlfriends on a bike tour in California, and I made the most of it, living very much in the moment. As I traveled, I wore my infection control hat, scanning the settings with new eyes for potentially dangerous situations. I was careful in public places such as airports, trolleys, and the BART, washing my hands frequently and keeping them folded in front of me. I was much more aware of impulses to touch my face. I watched a couple in the San Francisco airport who were headed to Nairobi touch their faces, many times, as they waited. Airport bathrooms were mostly hands-free, but the automatic toilets sprayed their contents powerfully in all directions when flushed. There was a new sign in the TSA line warning us to wash our hands because of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), but no mention of Ebola (EVD). TSA used gloves to pat me down, but they were not washing their hands after contact with people. Boarding passes, drivers licenses, and credit cards were swiped and exchanged, along with bills and coins. I saw a large homeless population on the waterfront in San Francisco with no access to bathrooms or handwashing, who were using the streets as open latrines. I saw prostitutes. Hotels had carpets and mattresses that would defy cleaning in an outbreak. I saw people hugging, and shaking hands, and doing all kinds of human, caring, or even loving things that would be extinguished in a pandemic.

Today the first nurse within the US healthcare system has acquired EVD. My nursing friends are worried. Are we ready for this? How do we communicate risk, or should we settle for optimistic reassurance that our system can handle this? What are our biggest needs in preparation?
Continue reading Clutching our world views with a death grip

Uncharted territory for a system in overshoot

By Mary Odum

http-:www.flu.gov:planning-preparedness:community:community_mitigation.pdf 1918 pandemic CFR = <3%. Where would Ebola’s CFR line be on this graph?

We are in uncharted territory with the Ebola virus disease (EVD). The last time we had a plague that was this deadly was the Black Death in the 14th century, when there were only 450 million people in the world. That pandemic killed 30% to 70% of the population. There is no benchmark for EVD, which kills 3 out of 4 people it touches, and is emerging into a global population of 7 billion.

Ulgiati et al., 2011, Emergy-based complexity measures in natural and social systems - Emergy flows plateau in modern Rome as an example of a high-transformity system
(Ulgiati, Ascione, Zucaro & Campanella, 2011, Fig. 1) Emergy-based complexity measures in natural and social systems – Emergy flows plateau in modern Rome as an example of a high-transformity system

This pandemic signifies a turning point for society in response to peak oil, highlighting the problem of globalization for a planet of 7 billion people. We have lost control of a deadly outbreak, and our responses to its exponential growth are linear at best, ensuring that this plague will most likely spread further. Many in first world countries think we are immune to plagues. How might transmission of EVD change as it moves from a low-resource or low-transformity setting in West Africa to resource-rich (high-transformity) countries?  How might the battle against this epidemic change as it breaks out into different environments?

Continue reading Uncharted territory for a system in overshoot

The 4S’s of surge capacity

By Mary Odum

Welcome to the arcane and short-sighted world of public health strategic planning. This post introduces the term surge capacity, a term we will hear often in the coming months of this growing Ebola (EVD) epidemic. Surge capacity is the ability to manage sudden or prolonged increases in overall healthcare demand, and the key components are the 4 S’s of staff, stuff, structure and systems, for hospital and community preparedness (Adams, 2009). During a pandemic, lack of surge capacity in all four of these areas become key limiting factors:  hospital isolation beds (structure), healthcare providers (HCP-staff), isolation gear (stuff), and an efficient, just-in-time, high-transformity system, which is an obstacle to resilience.  Continue reading The 4S’s of surge capacity

Ebola as a game-changer?

By Mary Odum

In crises, anxiety focuses attention. I continue to focus on the growing Ebola epidemic, which has no real restraints to keep it from becoming a global pandemic. Overpopulation, inequity, peak oil, and disturbed natural environment have converged with the problem of Ebola, to set up the conditions for a pandemic. If we add a slow response from complacent, frozen bureaucracies to this toxic mix, then we can expect a global pandemic to occur. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Healthcare professionals need to speak up about healthcare inequity and US readiness for pandemics. And I have a particular interest in this topic, since I am potentially most exposed as a nurse to acquiring Ebola through patients shedding the virus in body fluids, and women are at high risk as typical care givers in the home and hospital. I have studied handwashing in hospital settings, with insight as to the gaps. So I will continue to perseverate here, and add my nursing voice to the choir of concerned healthcare professionals. Continue reading Ebola as a game-changer?

A review of Barry’s “The Great Influenza”

By Mary Odum

BarryCoverThis week I finally read John M. Barry’s 2004 book, The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history. Barry explains the lessons that we should have learned from the Great “Spanish” influenza pandemic of 1918. The book is well written, albeit with a lengthy introduction of the medical researchers and their personalities. If you don’t enjoy the history of Medicine or details of early virology research, you can skip that part. In his afterword, Barry states that a future pandemic is certain to occur, and we are in no way ready for it. Since my PhD is in Nursing-Health Policy, this is a topic that interests and worries me greatly, so I will expand on my earlier post as this threat has continued to expand and evolve. This post serves as book review and comparison of similarities and differences between the Great Influenza pandemic and the current looming threat of another pandemic, Ebola (EBOV). Continue reading A review of Barry’s “The Great Influenza”

Stop growing or meet the four horsemen?

By Mary Odum

I took some time off from writing this summer, as I was busy getting unmarried and moving back to my original home, Florida. Don’t ever change your name—it’s a real hassle to change it back, from Logan to Odum. The divorce was quite amicable, after almost 40 years together, and Alaska provides few obstacles to the process. The house in Alaska sold quickly, to friends, so here I am, literally a hot mess, in north-central Florida, trying to re-acclimate to 92 degrees in the shade with 95% humidity. Instead of wolverines and bears traipsing through the yard, it is raccoons and possums. Instead of goshawks eating the chickens, I have fledgling cardinals at my feeder. And instead of glorious mountain tundra runs, I have quiet paddles along sacred springs and lakes. I have encountered enough old friends and acquaintances here that I am quickly regaining my sense of place in this sunny, hot, subtropical, watery paradise. Continue reading Stop growing or meet the four horsemen?

Go LOW for health and sustainability

by Jessica Njaa

After enduring a medical issue, Jessica Njaa became increasingly interested in researching how food affects health, and the environmental aspect of food choices. She is an Honors student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and is currently pursuing a Bachelors of Science in Environment & Society.

sadnessMost Americans are suffering from SAD– the Standard American Diet. This diet consists of highly processed, mass-produced foods grown with unsustainable practices. Processed foods generally have lowered nutritional quality and are usually not organic. Eating such foods increases the risk of a multitude of health problems. The diet is not sustainable, with a large footprint and energy basis. We are beginning to understand as a society that we have a major impact on the environment, and are using energy and fossil fuels in an unsustainable way. So what are the solutions? We have the power to make the change by Going LOW!

What are LOW foods? LOW foods are Local, Organic, Whole, and Low on the food chain. To GoLOW is to change the diet to include eating LOW foods for health and environmental sustainability. Continue reading Go LOW for health and sustainability

The bus stops of Botswana

By Mark T. Brown

The Bus Stops of Botswana took on a life of its own the first time I drove from one end of the country to the other.  It wasn’t long after crossing the Limpopo River from South Africa into Botswana on my way to the Okavango Delta that I noticed these sculptures of found objects that occasionally appeared along the roadside.

BusStop1Curious, I asked our guide and friend, Mike, “what’s up with the roadside sculptures?”

His answer was simple, like so much in Botswana,”It’s a competition of sorts.”  Pressed, he elaborated, ”No one knows for sure how or why they got started, but it seems not long after one or two were seen here and there, the numbers suddenly increased to where there are now hundreds throughout the country.”

He went on. ”It’s thought that as more bus stops showed up along the roads, the creators were challenged to add more to existing ones, so it’s not unusual to see existing bus stops grow in complexity over time. It’s a competition. Batswana (the people of Botswana are called Batswana or Motswana) are not competitive by nature, but in this subtle way they compete.”

Pressing Mike further, he suggested that they are the places where people, who live kilometers back in the bush come to the main road to wait for a bus, or possibly a passing friend, to take them to town.

BusStop2I imagined the first bus stop was constructed out of the urge to create and the time to do so.  Waiting for a bus in the bush of Botswana can take some time, as they may only come once a day, or they may not come at all.  Hanging around for hours, waiting, with an occasional car or truck driving by, it’s not long until you pick up that hub cap and that bumper and stack them, then rearrange them, then add something else, purposefully composing a statement from found objects.  Maybe even walking down the road a ways and carting back that broken chair you saw  fall off a passing truck.  Before you know it, the bus stop has taken on a life–drawing you,  beseeching you to add more.

Some are very elaborate, others simply a plastic jug impaled on a stick (I think of these as just getting started, as seeds, or at most seedlings just emerging from the chaos). As my understanding of the bus stop culture grew so did my desire to photograph them.  Traveling anywhere in Botswana became an all day affair, no matter how short the distance.  No one wanted to ride with me, as I stopped at every bus stop.  Occasionally there would be someone there, waiting,  and not wanting to up set them, I’d pass it by, take a GPS reading, and make a plan to return. I was obsessed.

My collection now stands at well over 100 bus stops, and almost 1000 images.  I often reflect on the bus stop culture.  It’s art, no question, but maybe more interesting is that it is an example of self-organization–spontaneous global order and coordination arising out of local interactions without a central agent directing or coordinating things.  The feedback that results from observing another bus stop causes an artist to add to his/her own, which increases the order.  In complexity theory, the bus stops are “attractors”–islands of organization in a sea of chaos. I’ve never been able to look at roadside trash in quite the same way as before, often thinking that discarded fender would make a great bus stop beginning.

The great migration

por la abuela

Rudolf-Mates-1929 50watts.com-A-Forest-Story-by-Josef-Kozisek-(Czechoslovakia--1929)_900It wasn’t supposed to be like this—we all expected so much more of everything. When everything has always gotten bigger, better, and faster ever since we could remember, or our fathers’ fathers could remember, then we expected things to keep getting bigger, better, and faster, because that expectation had been baked into not only our own perceptions about how the world works, but also our culture. It was our expectations that led to our downfall, as we never imagined anything different. Continue reading The great migration

Self-organizing societies

By Mary Logan

“If the future is to remain open and free, we need people who can tolerate the unknown, who will not need the support of completely worked out systems or traditional blueprints from the past.” –Margaret Mead

Modern societies have developed as adaptations to a high-energy world by producing surpluses of non-renewable energies, especially in the United States. These complex, crumbling societies have developed a powerful system of centralized, top-down control system, with a widening gap in power and wealth from the mainstream, as the balance of power diverges even further between the haves and have-nots, with a hollowing out of the middle class. If we are to have any future society, it will be more cooperative and self-organizing one. What are self-organizing societies, and why should you be hoping for one as an alternative to the current emphasis on centralized control? How can we develop them? Continue reading Self-organizing societies

Asking the right questions

answersaresimple-400x372In 1981, H.T. Odum and Herschel Elliott taught a systems philosophy course together at the University of Florida, entitled Systems, Philosophy, Energy, and Environment. The exams from the course are filed in box 67 of Odum’s collection at UF Library. The textbooks for the course were Energy Basis for Man and Nature (Odum & Odum, 1981) and Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity (Ophuls, 1977).  Some of the questions from the exams were excellent, and they offer structure for thinking about philosophical frameworks for descent.  Continue reading Asking the right questions

More cow love—carbs, carbon, and culture

By Bo Falk

Bo Falk and Limousin heifer yearlings
Bo Falk and Limousin heifer yearlings

Bo Falk is an agricultural ecologist who has learned how to live within the limits of the land over several decades. He lives on a heavily forested farm in southern Sweden, with some cattle and a pair of Belgian horses. Bo has developed a thesis on nitrogen fixation and nitrogen transfer of legumes, and he runs a small lab producing commercial rhizobia cultures. He is fond of carpentry, wood handicraft, and folkdance.

“Then she also gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel became a shepherd of a flock, but Cain cultivated the land. In the course of time Cain presented some of the land’s produce as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also presented an offering — some of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but He did not have regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was furious, and he was downcast” (The Book of Genesis, Hebrew Bible, via Wiki).

“Howard [T. Odum], through his work in Puerto Rico and with the White House Panel on World Food Supply, had become increasingly convinced that developing nations’ agricultural systems were poorly understood and might contain hidden efficiencies unknown to American experts. In particular, Howard was struck by the stability of millennial old cattle raising practices in Uganda and monsoon agriculture in India. Never one to evade a telling catch phrase, Howard quoted Gandhi’s statement that in India “cows are sacred because they are necessary” to frame his own analysis about the protein and manure returns provided by cattle in India. While experts were just beginning to study the systems of agriculture in the developing world, both Odums felt that the American agricultural system had also been largely unexamined from an energy perspective and had been widely misunderstood as a result” (Madison, Potatoes made of oil; Eugene and Howard Odum and the Origins and Limits of American Agroecology, 1997)

Early Odum diagram of a Uganda cattle system
Early Odum diagram of a Uganda cattle system

Nothing is as it seems when viewed through an energy lens. Sweden is heavily reliant on nonrenewable resources for economic function and for growing food. This becomes increasingly problematic when fossil fuel production declines past peak. What services do wild and domesticated ruminants give to the land? How can we improve the quality of the land while also returning our relationship with cows from an industrial model to an agroecological one?  Continue reading More cow love—carbs, carbon, and culture

Fitting into nature–or not

The role of this website is to interpret emergy science and ideas surrounding descent for a broader audience.  At the Emergy conference this week, the increasing problem of environmental pollution and human waste was a recurring theme, as was the difficulty of environmental stewardship and low-energy living while nested within an industrial society at the larger scale. With thoughts from the prior post about the primary importance of developing a balance between nature and society, my immediate thoughts turn to what we can do personally. Continue reading Fitting into nature–or not

Developing a future balance of nature and society

Crafoord Prize 1987 HT Odum's goals (from Box 1 of UF Library Odum Special Collection)
Crafoord Prize 1987 HT Odum’s goals (from Box 1 of UF Library Odum Special Collection)

In 1987, H.T. and Eugene Odum were jointly awarded the Crafoord Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Crafoord Prize is the Nobel equivalent for the biosciences, math, geosciences, and astronomy.

Howard Odum was one of the first to realize seriously the dangers of using fossil fuels. In his book “Environment, Power and Society” (1971) and “Energy Basis for man and Nature” (1976),he developed the theory that the processes of ecological systems are dimensioned according to the amount of solar energy reaching the earth, and that extra energy increases in various forms cause damaging disturbances.

In “Systems Ecology” (1983) he stresses man´s responsibility in the biosphere, a responsibility for what may be termed a permanent economy. The “work” that nature performs for man, for example in the production of forests, fish and clean water must in his view be made use of, not dissipated through interference that can cause unforeseeable future damage (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1987).

When asked about what he would do with the prize, H.T. Odum said,  “Perhaps we can obtain matching funds and establish the program that we have long discussed on Developing a Future Balance of Nature and Society. We could do such research projects as:

  1. finding ways to make the economy of humans and that of nature cooperative

  2. planning for the lower energy world that is coming

  3. find public policies which can maintain economic prosperity when growth is no longer possible.” (Odum, 1987)

More than twenty-five years later are we any further along as a society in our understanding or prioritization of this research need?