Energonomic Basis

Economies are complex transformed ecosystems, fueled by fossil fuels. Ecosystems and economies have similar structures and illustrate the same principles of self-organization: energy hierarchy, metabolism, spatial concentration, material cycling, pulsing, and information (Odum, 2007). These basic mechanisms order the development and function of all complex systems through energetic processes. Economies can be considered a form of ecosystem, and all ecosystems have economies in energetic terms. Thus, the environment, power, and society are inextricably linked. Economies can be measured in energetic terms using emergy, to compare energies of differing qualities such as sunlight, fuel, electricity, and human services, thus putting them on a common basis of solar emjoules. Frederick Soddy describes the process:

Emergy Yield Ratios (Odum&Odum, 2001, p. 153) Emergy calculations are from 1996

Although, to everyone except an engineer or a physicist, energy seems to be quite a minor item in the production of wealth, if we concern ourselves with what is used up in the process of creating wealth, it is the largest and most important item. Thus in the cost of upkeep of a car the petrol is a minor item. Till lately the tires cost more. Yet, if we pursue the tires to their origin, we shall find how much of their cost is due to expenditure of energy. They call for a flow of the solar energy of a particular climate, physical labour in rubber plantations, coal for the railways and ships that transport the raw materials from the tropics, as well as for the factories where it is made into tyres. These railways and ships, again, and all the buildings and equipment necessary for their manufacture, no less than the materials they use–the iron and metals and the coal which have to be mined–are the results of the expenditure of physical energy. The armies of people these industries maintain have to be supplied with food, clothes, and houses, and energy under intelligent human direction is the first requisite for the supply of all such things. –Frederick Soddy, 1926, p. 57

Emergy Syntehsis using solar units as a basis for accounting differentiates the method from mainstream Ecological Economics, which uses mathematical Economics tools and market valuations. Maybe we should let the poets wordsmith, and call this method of energetic valuation Energonomics instead :-} Or Embergy. As the science keeps moving forward into new realms, the  e-con-omists keep purchasing the literal landscape. It is hard to stay ahead of them.

  • Structures, goods, concentrations of materials, services, information, knowledge, and culture are real values. Houses, are, iron ore, human work in a factory, computer data, educated minds, was of life learned from our parents and teachers are real values. Money and market values cannot be used to evaluate real wealth from the environment
  • All real values depreciate and disperse spontaneously, because of the 2nd thermodynamic law of entropy. A continuous flow of resources and work is required to maintain an organism, a library, or a city. Energy sources must be used in order to keep the real values maintained and concentrated. Resources are used to keep a house from deteriorating, for example.
  • Whereas materials can be reused and recycled, energy sources can only be used once. The use disperses the energy making it unavailable to drive any further work (entropy again). Money is not itself a real value in the sense above, but circulates to process the real values. You pay a forester to cut wood for you, but most of the real value is in the wood.
  • “Credit is the flow of work for which the money loopback is delayed … ecological systems operate mainly on credit … plants in spring produce for the animals from their reserves of mineral currency, whereas the payment by animals and microbes of minerals loops back to the plants … long after the harvest but in time to start a new cycle” (Odum, 1971, p. 188)
  • When resources become scarce and prices are high, so much of the resources go into getting them that little is left for anything else. The people involved in getting the resource get more money, but everyone else has a lower standard of living. When marine fisheries are overfished, the fisherman gets a high price, but everyone see can’t afford much fish.

Brown, Cohen & Sweeney 2009 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304380009006073

  • Of all the principles that suggest how the world economy behaves, the “maximum power principle” is the most general. It says that self-organizing systems have those organizational designs reinforced which gain and use the most resources for productive purpose. Productive purposes are those which increase inflows of resources and improve efficiencies. Systems with designs that maximize resource use have more means than any other systems to overcome other limitations and to adapt to change. They outgrow others during growth periods and are more efficient when resources are limited.

Brown (2004) Picture Worth Thousand Words-MPP Economic Flywheel Depiction from Odum (1976)

  • Capitalistic enterprises succeed during growth phases where energy is abundant, as competitors that begin first tend to dominate. Later, after all sources are in use, capitalistic enterprises are replaced with more diversity, more controls, and longer-lasting structures


  • A resource is generally worth more than it costs according to the calculus of emergy. –(Odum & Odum, draft of PWD, 1987; Odum 2007)
  • A newly developed energy source may be one already contributing to the economy (solar, wind, waves, tides, biomass). Industrial scale development of many renewables is not sustainable
  • BP Proven Reserves 2007

    The more the net emergy yield from an energy source, the lower the price. Each year the remaining deposits are less concentrated with lower yield of net emergy

  • Green plants are the best solar voltaic cells known, and probably can’t replace green plants as the main source for a lower energy world
  • Fresh water in rain, snow, river energy, and fresh water do work and carry chemical potential energy, providing free services to the human economy. The water cycle organizes the landscape and human commerce
  • Products of mines, agriculture, forests, fisheries and lands contribute 2 to 200 times more to the economy than their market values
  • Pollution diminishes economic wealth as we must use resources to deal with the effects
  • Waste waters can be recycled on agriculture or in wetlands; wetlands are nature’s kidneys
  • The human industrial economy has become a volcano, mining the deposits of the earth and emitting acid vapors through its smoke stacks. The overload of air pollution may soon decrease as the economy declines
  • In the future, economies with wastes will not compete
  • Accidents and disruptions may be common during transition; under competition to maintain output and competitive prices, there may be reductions in workers, losses of product quality, over-long use of old equipment, with shortcuts taken in safety measures and environmental protection (Odum, 1987)
  • “But electric power, with its transformity about 4 times that of fossil fuels, requires huge fuel flows and diversion of much of the energy of the mountain rivers that used to support other productivity. With less fuels available in the future, availability of electric power may control where the centers of information will continue. In fuel scarcer times ahead, there may be advantages in locating information centers near hydroelectric power. There may be advantages to those with proximity to mountains with high rain and snowfall” (Odum, 1995, p. 26).

from “Energy is Eternal Delight” (Snyder, 1969)

For several centuries Western civilization has had a priapic drive for material accumulation, continual extensions of political and economic power, termed “progress.” In the Judaeo-Christian worldview men are seen as working out their ultimate destinies (paradise? perdition?) with planet earth as the stage for the drama–trees and animals mere props, nature a vast supply depot. Fed by fossil fuel, this religion-economic view has become a cancer: uncontrollable growth. It may finally choke itself, and drag much else down with it.

The longing for growth is not wrong. The nub of the problem now is how to flip over, as in jujitsu, the magnificent growth-energy of modern civilization into a non acquisitive search for deeper knowledge of self and nature. Self-nature. Mother nature. If people come to realize that there are many nonmaterial, nondestructive paths of growth–of the highest and most fascinating order–it would help dampen the common fear that a steady state economy would mean deadly stagnation (Snyder, 1969, p. 104).

Our civilization can thrive in a future where we live with less