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:

“In Environment, Power, and Society, Howard T. Odum developed a systematic methodology using energy flows to analyze the combined system of humans and nature. Odum combined Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Lotka’s hypothesis of natural selection as an energy-maximizing process into a general energy law: maximization of useful work obtained from energy conversion is the criteria for natural selection. Odum coined this law the maximum power principle. The maximum power principle, while yet to be subjected to rigorous empirical testing, rests on the principles of natural selection set forth by Darwin and Lotka. Odum observed that ecological and other systems that survive and prosper used energy at some optimum rate better than competing energy utilization strategies. Since human systems are subjected to the same energy constraints as any other system, Odum suggests that any ethic for the survival of humans must meet this same logical and cultural, operated on differential rates and efficiencies of energy use by ecosystems and economies.

Two of Odum’s most important contributions to biophysical economics are energy quality and the countercurrent flow of energy and money in the economy. Energy quality refers to the relative ability of the economy to use different fuels to produce economic output per heat equivalent burned. Odum argued that because fuels differ in quality, societies with access to higher-quality fuels have an economic advantage over those with access to lower quality fuels. Odum also stressed the importance of matching economic tasks with fuels of appropriate quality. High-quality fuels such as electricity are best used to control the flow of larger, lower-quality flows in the economy. Electricity is well-suited to operating a computer which can perform tremendous amounts of work per kcal of electricity. Electricity used for space heating is a poor use of high-quality energy because space heat could also be provided by lower-quality fuels such as petroleum, coal or wood.

Odum argued that energy was the source of economic value. He pointed out that wherever a dollar flow existed in the economy, there was a requirement for an energy flow in the opposite direction. Money is used to buy goods and services, of necessity derived from energy. Each purchase operates through the economy as a feedback, stimulating more energy to be drawn from the ground and into the economy to produce additional goods and services. Money circulates in a closed loop, whereas low-entropy energy moves in from the outside, is used for economic tasks, and then leaves the economic system as degraded heat. Odum also observed that the large natural energy flows—solar radiation, water, wind, etc.—that are essential for life, have no associated dollar flows. The costs of using these energy flows do not, therefore, enter into economic transactions directly, often leading to their misuse or the mismanagement of life-sustaining environmental services” (Cleveland, 2010, in EOE).

Here is what Monthly Review published:

“Odum, who spent the last two decades of his life perfecting a devastating ecological critique of neoclassical economics in which he repeatedly emphasized the overlap between his views and Marx, provided perhaps the clearest and most comprehensive analysis of what needs to be done in the face of the planetary crisis. He argued that it was possible to find a social resolution to conditions of climax accumulation represented by ecological overshoot by altering the structure of production and consumption on a global scale and reorienting the economic system to real wealth. This meant recognizing that “a principal waste in our society is using fuels in nonproductive activity. We drive more cars than necessary, drive them too often, and drive cars with too much horsepower. We use cars for commuting because cities are not organized with alternative transportation. Because higher costs of energy do cause people to eliminate some stupid wastes, higher fuel taxes may be needed in the United States for these wasteful uses”” (Foster & Clark, 2012).

Crucial to the development of sustainable economic conditions, Odum insisted, was the elimination of unequal ecological exchange. He demonstrated that in the late 1990s the United States was gaining 2.2 times more real wealth (i.e., embodied energy) than it exported, mainly to the disadvantage of underdeveloped countries. Needed social change also required controlling global capitalism’s inherent tendency for short-term exploitation of resources, which could undermine the national/international resource basis . . . causing collapse. Capitalist growth was identified, in his conception, as a large-scale analog of weed overgrowth.

Unsustainable Foreign Trade (Ortega, Gusman, Borelli, & Salek, 2012)
(Odum, 2007, p. 274)

Globally, the exclusive dominance of large-scale capitalism should be replaced with an emphasis on cooperation with the environment and among nations.

AP: Global supermarkets selling shrimp peeled by slaves. If global trade is so inequitable, then whose slaves are they, really?
AP: Global supermarkets selling shrimp peeled by slaves If global trade is so inequitable, then whose slaves are they, really?

In order to transcend what he called a cancerous capitalism that over-drafted resources and energy, Odum insisted that it would be essential to eliminate the economic and ecological waste and luxury that did not support jobs, real productivity, and real wealth.

Hence, it would be necessary, among other things, Odum suggested, to:

  1. Change industry from a focus on construction (i.e., net investment) to maintenance (i.e., replacement investment);
  2. Place an upper limit on individual incomes;
    reduce unearned income from interest and dividends;
  3. Downsize by reducing [upper-level] salaries rather than discharging employees;
  4. Provide public work programs for the unemployed;
  5. Decentralize organizational hierarchy;
  6. Limit the power of private cars;
  7. Eliminate plastic discard packaging;
  8. Prioritize ecological net production over consumption;
  9. Promote an optimal economy through high diversity, efficient cooperation;
  10. Share information without profit;
  11. Promote equity between nations in ecological exchange; and
  12. Use agricultural varieties that need less input.

Odum was clear that this transition required a break with imperial capitalism. Socialistic ideals about distribution, he observed, are more consistent with [a] steady state than growth, while for capitalism it was exactly the opposite.

Energy Inequity among Nations (Odum, 1996, p. 217)

Ecological footprint analysis tells us that the world is in overshoot, currently using resources at a rate that would be sustainable for one and a half planet Earths. The main source of this environmental overdraft is to be found in the excesses of the rich countries, which are now, however, being duplicated throughout the globe. Indeed, if the whole world were to have the ecological footprint per capita of the United States, five Earths would be needed. The very size of the ecological footprint of a rich economy such as the United States is an indication of its heavy reliance on unequal ecological exchange, extracting resources from the rest of the globe, particularly underdeveloped countries, in order to enhance its own growth and power.

Unequal trade creates ecological benefit for US by increasing resource extraction eslewhere--to where did US smog shift in the past 40 years?
Unequal trade creates ecological benefit for US by increasing resource extraction elsewhere. If industrial growth has continued over the past 40 years globally, where did US smog shift to?

Odum was able to demonstrate concretely that while the United States received more than twice as much embodied energy from trade as it exported, Ecuador was exporting five times the embodied energy that it received [in its shrimp farms (Odum & Arding, 1991)]. Trade between the two was thus enormously disadvantageous to Ecuador in real wealth terms, while providing a massive ecological benefit to the U.S. economy.

It follows that the downsizing of ecological footprints to get the world back in accord with environmental limits must necessarily fall very disproportionately on the rich capitalist countries. The only just and sustainable solution is one of contraction and convergence, whereby global per capita carbon emissions and ecological footprints are equalized, along with the elimination of unequal ecological exchange.


Odum insisted that increasing constraints on fossil-fuel use would spell the end of today’s petro-farming system.

“The high yields from industrial agriculture generated a very cruel illusion because the citizens, the teachers, and the leaders did not understand the energetics involved . . . . A whole generation of citizens thought that higher efficiencies in using the energy of the sun had arrived. This was a sad hoax, for people of the developed world no longer eat potatoes made from solar energy . . . . People are really eating potatoes made partly of oil” (Odum, 1971).

Without the subsidy provided by the fossil fuels, today’s agribusiness system will simply collapse. As a result it will be necessary to return to more ecologically efficient forms of traditional agriculture. In this way, the knowledge system will be inverted. Rather than agribusiness corporations providing knowledge to traditional peasant farmers, it will be the latter who will be the inspiration for the most appropriate agriculture, rooted in thousands of years of cumulative knowledge of soil cultivation, supplemented by the advancements associated with modern agroecology. “Policies about population and development appropriate to low-energy restoration,” Odum wrote, “may be like those formerly found in low-energy cultures like the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela.”