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

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

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

When cow love meets car love

By Tom Abel

For an anthropologist like myself raised on stories of the Nuer and Dinka (and the other tribes in the region), the latest news from the Sudan is jarring.  These men fighting each other are not ‘soldiers’, they are warriors.  They live in ‘tribes’ or ‘local groups’ ruled by kinship.  And they fight each other in terms of historical animosities.  But they are now armed (who armed them?), and the big players (the US, China, others) have oil ‘interests’ in the region.  So the language has changed, this is a ‘state’, it should follow the ‘rules’ of international law, people can be charged with ‘war crimes’, etc.  The US has soldiers stationed nearby to protect ‘facilities’.  Thousands of UN ‘peacekeeprs’ as well as ‘attack helicopters’ are coming.  All of this, clearly, is not for the building of ‘democracy’ or for some other higher moral purpose, but to create ‘stability’. Continue reading When cow love meets car love

Culture in cycles

By Tom Abel

We want to change the world.  So we speak, we blog, we tweet.  Many academics want to make the world a better place, especially lefty social scientists or earthy ecologists.  So they research and they write.  And the media, the Fifth Estate(!), they make TV News, write articles, they are supposed to protect us from the worst of us.  Your well-meaning Pastor (if you have one) each week does his or her best to paint a picture of a better world.  So why is the world so slow to change?  Why don’t we have more control, we bloggers, reporters, academics?  We’ve said our piece.  Why doesn’t the world change?!  One answer is that culture is about learning.  It’s about evolution.  It’s about self-organization.  We say our piece, it goes into the world.  Now what?  Well, according to the paper that is the subject of this post, unless your ideas get picked up, (probably changed), cycled again, and again, and bumped ‘up’, and maybe ‘up’ again, they are done.  Say what?

Egghead Introduction

HT Odum explored systems of all types and proposed general principles that apply widely.  Earth, sea, land, air, biosphere, universe are all subjects addressed in his process theories of energy self-organization, hierarchy, pulsing, material cycling, and others.  Of these subjects of study, the Earth biosphere possesses an energy form that so far has not been found elsewhere in the universe.  Generically we call it ‘information’.  To be clear, for Odum information was not information theory.  He defined information instrumentally.  Information is a quality of genetics in life and of culture in humans.  Information is that which aids in the persistence of self-organization in time and its sharing in space.  Information allows systems to ride-out the many fluctuations in energy sources, to preserve well-tested designs through time, designs in body, in ecosystems, and, with the evolution of humans, in culture.

In Odum’s language, information is a ‘storage’ or concentration—an extremely valuable one to the process of self-organization.  It must therefore be preserved against Second Law depreciation.  The process by which information is preserved he calls the ‘information cycle’ (sometimes the ‘information circle’).  He has given us a few systems diagrams of the information cycle, this one is my favorite (Odum 1996:223). Continue reading Culture in cycles

Goodbye Faculty: What’s the point of a University anyway?

by Tom Abel

La poule aux oeufs d’or 1905 movie poster (goose with the golden eggs)

Goodbye faculty, hello neoliberal MOOCs.  I read a NY Times article last week and was clued into a recent ‘innovation’ in education which may soon be sweeping the globe.  Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs are being produced and promoted by some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as a just announced MIT-Harvard ‘nonprofit’ partnership, and another with Stanford, Princeton, UPenn, and Michigan.  MOOC courses include video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback and student-paced learning, and most so far have been produced in the areas of engineering, computers, software, etc, but courses in all fields are clearly coming.  Most of the article is techy and upbeat, but they let this quote slip in.  George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer ominously said, “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”  Get it?  This is the end of universities as we know them.  A few top universities produce coursework for the world and there’s no need for any of the rest of you out there.  Still, the reporter tries to keep it positive and ends with this quote, “What’s still missing is an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses.”  That’s right, we’ll still need you to ‘customize’ the MOOC course for your classrooms.

So I started to search for articles on MOOCs.  It’s all tech hype and whiz-bang.  I could find nary a discouraging word.  And I certainly could not find what I was really looking for, which is the corporate strategy behind all of this.  Why are the big boys interested?  I have some of my own ideas that I will try to relate and that refer particularly to issues of peak and descent. Continue reading Goodbye Faculty: What’s the point of a University anyway?

What is Special about “A Prosperous Way Down”

by Thomas Abel

What does A Prosperous Way Down add to the many current discussions of Peak Oil, Transition, and Collapse?  What does it say that is different?  What unique contributions does it make?  And how does it jive with positions of others who are writing under the three topics listed above?

When I raised this question in our PWD workshop I did not honestly know the answer.  I assumed it would take some careful reading and distilling.  But I had forgotten that the Odums attempted to directly answer that question for us in Chapter 1.  I will summarize their answer, but first a general comment.

The ideas in this book are not ‘peak oil’ ideas.  It is not a book about fossil fuel extraction and diminishing returns, though those issues are there.  What immediately sets A Prosperous Way Down apart from other books about peak, transition, or collapse is its big ideas about all systems of nature—about air, sea, and land, about life, about energy, about culture and people.  The Odums’ recommendations for a prosperous descent are one outcome from a general theoretical understanding of all living and non-living systems and processes of the Earth in our Universe.  As the Odums say, Continue reading What is Special about “A Prosperous Way Down”