A systemic perspective on life

By Torbjörn Rydberg

AgroecologyinPractice2014
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.

Abelrural
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

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

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.

Mayfly

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

impressedtechnology

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

The flap about space travel

By Mary Logan

Why is the movie Gravity so scary to some people, and why are people in both sciences and the humanities discussing the movie in a focused fashion, picking at its details? I would argue that the movie Gravity serves as a metaphor for a shift in world views about what is possible and sustainable in terms of our high-tech society. The discussion here of space travel allows me to continue my fall theme of illustrating emergy principles using science-fiction blockbuster movies. The movie also provides an opportunity to illustrate the emergy basis of space travel, and to suggest a metaphor between the failures of technology in the movie and the unsustainability of our modern civilization. Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie Gravity yet, there are spoilers ahead. Continue reading The flap about space travel

Emergy: you spelled energy wrong!

by Mary Logan

EMergy–yes, that word is spelled correctly. Emergy with an EM, means the Energy Memory of something. What is Emergy, and how do I learn more about it? I have been getting requests for suggested readings about EMergy–so here is a brief explanation and some suggested links.

Science proposes to describe, explain, predict, and control. But when we talk about global problems of the biosphere, science often fails in explanation, prediction, and problem-solving. Many scientific disciplines have reduced themselves into specialized, competitive silos, protected from each other by separate terminology and reductionist theories. The lenses through which many scientists view the world are microscopic in nature, focusing on analysis and application, using statistical tools that break things down into smaller and smaller pieces.  This focus makes it difficult to even define the problems, much less find solutions. While analysis is a useful and important subset of the overall process, synthesis and evaluation of policies requires using an instrument such as a macroscope to view the world from a systemic perspective. Our lack of synthesis prevents us from seeing and evaluating the relationships, processes and structures inherent in the whole. And our grasp of the holistic big picture is what frames our view of society’s trajectory and the problems society faces.

How does one find a coherent way to grasp the big picture of how man exists on this planet? If we use a macroscope to analyze energy flows using Emergy Synthesis, then we  can capture the essence of complex, global systems, since a continuous flow of energy is the central issue to maintaining our complex civilization (or not). Understanding the nature of our energy basis is essential to understanding where we are headed as a civilization.  Continue reading Emergy: you spelled energy wrong!

Net Energy-what Captain Cook didn’t know

By Mary Logan

In June of 1778, Captain Cook’s search for the Northwest Passage brought him to the later-named Cook inlet near my home, Anchorage, Alaska. As he sailed up the arm (fjord) and reached the end, he discovered that there was no outlet. After days of being stuck due to wind and fog, he had to TurnAgain, hence the name of the arm. Captain Cook never found the Northwest passage, and he never saw England again. He died the following year in the Hawaiian islands after picking a fight with Hawaiian Islanders.

We are not quite out of gas yet in the United States. But we keep steaming down fjords without outlets, turning randomly from one blind alley to the next in trying to adapt to our energy quandary. In Captain Cook’s case, he was exploring with zero information, so there was a good chance of failure. But when it comes to energy alternatives, we can avoid dead ends, since we have what Captain Cook didn’t have, information on the best alternatives. This post is about the science of net energy regarding those options.

We are now trialling many unworkable alternative energy sources, as a response to government subsidies and agendas promoted by various energy lobbies, often in pursuit of short-term profits for private companies. Should we be letting private energy companies with vested interests dictate future energy policy which could make the difference in continuing to exist as a country? Which so-called renewable energy sources have yielded practical returns on investment, withstanding the test of time? There is a 50-year body of research on the subject of net energy. Shouldn’t we be using science and not vested corporate interests to set energy policy?

In the last post, I suggested that if one doesn’t understand the problem of declining net energy (empower basis), then growth is not viewed as a problem. Even our oil companies now openly advertise that we have produced the easy half of the oil available to the planet, and we will be producing less in the future since we have peaked. Less oil and other resources means that our economy will have to contract in the future, since renewable energy suffers from lower energy density and quality. Since we are entering energy descent, practical energy sources are beginning to sort from the impractical. Because “the true value of energy to society is the net energy, which is what is left after the energy costs of getting and concentrating that energy are subtracted,” we must decide net yield to make proactive choices about the future (Odum, 1973). Odum developed the concept of net energy and then refined the idea over the span of 50 years. The name of the analysis changed several times beginning with the term net energy then to embodied energy and finally to the term emergy yield or net empower to account for more inclusive changes in method, so many don’t recognize that the terms were developed over time from the thinking of the same community of scientists.

The primary goal of this post is to suggest that many purported energy source predictions of net yield are overly optimistic dead ends–many of our current efforts won’t work. The second goal is to suggest more reasonable net empower estimates, and to briefly check the performance of renewables from the proving ground of time. How did these experiments in energy work out for us? Continue reading Net Energy-what Captain Cook didn’t know

Renewable Power Rhythm

The Rhythm of Power Availability in the Post-Prosperous Way Down World

by David Tilley, University of Maryland

Dr. H.T. Odum and his wife Betty spent much of their careers developing thoughts on what became the book, A Prosperous Way Down (PWD). Others, like Richard Heinberg, have been successful at bringing the seriousness and reality of a PWD to a larger audience. There is a small and growing amount of thinking and talking about doomsday or armageddon scenarios that many think will prevail as fossil fuels become scarce.

Hunger Games Capitol City (Collins, Ross, Lionsgate) http://thecapitoltour.pn/

National Geographic has given us the TV reality program Doomsday Preppers. Its presence and popularity reflects the public’s perception that change is on its way. I think the success and impetus for Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games is a response to the reality of a PWD. Rather than cover what the way down will be like in this post, I wanted to share my thoughts on what one important aspect of life might be like once we reach “down”. That is, the time after decline is finished, when the fossil fuels are gone and society is running almost completely on renewably sourced energies. I explore how peoples’ behaviors may change once they are driven by flow-limited energy sources rather than storage-driven sources in the post carbon world? Flow-limited sources cannot be controlled and stored easily so society will be more effective if it adapts to the rhythm and availability of energy. Continue reading Renewable Power Rhythm