Energy ethics for survival of people in nature

by Mary Logan

“Everything and anything that takes place on earth involves a flow of potential energy, provided primarily from the sun, as it streams toward a pool of dispersed or expended heat. The pathways of the stream are shaped by a hierarchy of directive forces that have evolved under nature’s laws as by-products of the stream. These directive forces include wayside storages of energy in the material patterns and dynamic circulations of the earth’s substances, including all the elements of the biosphere from the earliest and most primitive to the latest and most civilized or spiritual elements of human feeling, thinking, and behavior in the arts, sciences, and religions” (Odum, 1977, p. 110). . . “Although most humans in the recent century of rich and rising energy have lost awareness of environmental responsibility, the role of humans is one of service. Humans provide complex control and management actions back to maximize the main power and survival of the whole system” (Odum, 1977, p. 117).

Cultural values are group norms or rules for behavior that make a culture work. Ethical values are our cultural DNA.  But our values can change in response to the conditions of the economy and environment. Our current value system is no longer working—money, science, laws, mores, politics, religion, and culture are becoming less meaningful to many. Traditional values of frugality, community cooperation, and a sense of responsibility or stewardship have been usurped by the capitalist consumption machine. The survival of the whole system is at stake, and ethics will begin to shift as old ways of doing and being endanger humanity. Eventually, those of us in developed countries will need to reduce our empower use by 80% or 90% (Odum, 2007, p. 392). Knowing what is right will consist of a process of continual change to relearn old ways and adapt to new ways of being. We need a new set of values and ethics for the future, as culture evolves to adapt to a lower energy world.

Disordering Pulse as a switch or tipping point (Odum, Zygon, 12,2; 1977)

Change theory from Lewin and others suggests that cultures will become unglued or unfrozen from the old and have to move and reattach to the new. But there are too many of us to allow the luxury to remain in the middle stage too long, unglued and rudderless, while moving to the new. Currency failures are certain, and when that happens, the security and unrealistic expectations and optimism of the growth paradigm may disappear for many. That will be disorienting for those still firmly implanted in the old paradigm. Dashed expectations could result (are resulting?) in great anger for those with failing value systems that tell us to chase wealth in the growth empire. The last three decades in America has been a dream that we’ve fallen in love with, that is morphing quickly into a nightmare. I find several useful quotes about change from another multicultural citizen and activist, James A. Baldwin: /2011/10/06/melancholia- by- von-trier-2011/ A change of direction and elements of control over nature
  • The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others.
  • Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.
  • Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
  • The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.
  • Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it. (all Baldwin quotes)

Arundhati Roy suggested that we need to relearn care of the earth using a different imagination that predates modern society. “To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past but who may really be the guides to our future” (Arundhati Roy, 2011, p. 214). One such guide to our future comes from  societies who have sustained life while living as People of Nature with less surplus energy. A local example is the Inupiat (and Inuit) peoples who live in one of the most extreme environments in the world, the arctic. Many of the cooperative, subsistence values listed below are no longer prominent values in the dominant paradigm. These are some of the values we need to regain.

The core values of the Iñupiat

Avoidance of Conflict
Hunting Traditions
Knowledge of Language
Family and Kinship
Respect for Elders and for Each Other
Respect for Nature

Instead, the values that we cherish are values more appropriate to a competitive, growth oriented system. Odum states that “especially when human societies must exist with famine, war, rapid change, and disrupted central governments, a strong religion provides a flexible focus of power, used at times for individual works and at other times for group action” (Odum, 2007, p. 315). Unity of group action has high transformity and great effect. Values allow people to act towards the greater good even though individuals may not be able to see their part in the whole. Perhaps the growth of fundamentalist Christianity in America is an attempt to stabilize value systems in the face of looming uncertainty. Odum recognized the need for new values and ethics–he included 10 commandments for a new energy ethic in his first book over 40 years ago. At the time, other scientists read these ethics and his chapter on religion and thought that they were a joke of some sort. Odum saw that  reinterpreted these energy ethics in his last book. Both versions are included at the link. What do these ethics mean, and how could we apply them in a new culture?

When the tide goes out you can see who’s swimming naked
Babe on a bike

Much of modern society is waste, luxury, and entropy. Nascar is an iconic example of this category of poor energy ethics, in corporate media circuses glorifying wasted energy by driving fast, noisy advertising displays in a circle for hours on end. Military air shows are another iconic example. We’ve borrowed from a future that is not there, which has caused failure of our monetary system. As resources wane, and the tide goes out, we can see who is swimming naked, living on borrowed time. We’re clutching at the straws of old status, even to the point of using green lawn dye as a proxy for carefully tended green lawns. The old status is the conspicuous display of use of power. Perhaps the new status will be something like this front yard garden?

A good metaphor for our fossil fuel economy; a will-o-the-wisp contrail from an airshow this weekend in Anchorage?

With less energy available in the future, systems will continue to maximize power use but in a more efficient and less wasteful way. Money is an incomplete measure of the true value of nature’s contributions, but it is the best measure that we have. Since money is a proxy for resources and goods, we need to ask ourselves, what is the highest and best use of what we have and can get? Is a new lawnmower for our pristine lawn or a new SUV to impress the neighbors the highest best use? Or is the money better spent on preparing a garden, buying an acre of land, or building a greenhouse? Once easy debt is no longer available, real wealth in terms of community home/index.htm  Emergy accounting?

relationships with a basis in could reemerge in local currencies. Status will shift, and instead of fast red sports cars or private jets, new symbols of genetic fitness may be babes on bikes, efficient homes, land ownership or silos of grain, for example. People may begin to understand the emergy signatures of their houses, gardens, and communities. Media storms will diminish as less of the middle class can afford the things being hucked in the media. Translating these feelings of values into action creates virtues, such as reverence, fairness, and courage, as Shaw points out.

Self-organization and maximum empower

All systems, including civilizations self-organize out of the universal tendency towards entropy. Energy drives complexity by transformation through work into higher and higher hierarchies of complexity and order, reinforcing production through feedback loops to maximize available energy acquisition. The maximum empower principle drives this process, since successful systems collect materials and energy effectively. “In time, through the process of trial and error, complex patterns of structure and processes have evolved…the successful ones surviving because they use materials and energies well in their own maintenance, and compete well with other patterns that chance interposes” (Odum). In the new culture with fewer resources, successful systems will use energy well in their own maintenance and restructuring to be more efficient, more cooperative, and more localized. It will be important to redefine success as something other than a compulsive, competitive drive for wealth. In descent,  In a recent commencement address, Jefferson Smith alludes to the shift in ethic from competition for wealth to satisfaction in working towards more cooperative movements:

“If we define success by the station that we reach we can’t win. But if we define success by the movements in which we participate, in what we stand for, in what we work towards, we can’t lose” (Smith, 2012, Univ. Oregon Commencement Speech).

New Critical Culture: Ortega, Gusman, Borelli, & Salek (7th Emergy Conference, Jan. 2012)

What we stand for in the future will be those efforts that promote successful relocalization in our regions, as national and global systems decline. As the new critical culture better adapted to maximizing empower through efficiency self-organizes and collides with the old dominant culture, people who select frugal, energy-efficient ways of being will increasingly thrive and prosper in contrast with those still chasing wealth. Centralized control will give way as fossil fuels wane and the national system loses its effectiveness. Inequities in well-being will eventually select for the more productive yet efficient groups–think farmers instead of wall street brokers. There are already indications that this is happening, as ivy league degrees in corporate business and finance are priced out of existence.

Sharing information

Human Value System, from Odum, Zygon, vol. 12, no. 2, June 1977 (art by Ann Odum)

Albert Schweitzer said that “the first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.” We seem to have lost that sense in our global society. Our capitalist society is increasingly placing limits on what we can share, through intellectual property laws designed to promote wealth and limit threats to the system as it exists. The flap in London over restrictive corporate control of Olympic symbols that should be a symbol of global community is an example of this. Media are tightly controlled and increasingly monopolistic. But shared information is incredibly powerful, as “shared information occupies large territories, has a slow depreciation and replacement time, and has high transformities” (Odum, 1996, p. 220). Sharing is the power of the global internet. We need to be able to decide when we must think outside traditional boundaries to maximize information through sharing.

Going with the flow?

Milo Winter, 1919 the Ant and the Grasshopper Project Gutenberg

As fossil fuel resources wane, we will need to refit our culture to the earth, as we adapt to going with the flow of energy in renewable energy-based systems. What does this mean for individuals in the short-term? Our cultural collision creates many opportunities for choosing a new way. I now ask myself a number of questions when faced with a choice between the old way and a new way. As in the old Aesop’s fable, am I the ant, or am I a grasshopper?

  • How does this initiative fit in at the larger scale? Are feedback loops operating here, and what do they do?
  • Does this behavior promote more growth or does it support descent? Is this behavior sustainable in a future with fewer resources?
  • What are the assumptions surrounding these choices, and are they valid?
  • Which choice is both efficient and resilient?
  • Am I valuing something on the basis of market value or by its true embodied emergy, including the real wealth contributions from the environment? Is this initiative worth its emergy basis?
  • Does this initiative promote cooperative behaviors?
  • Am I valuing my skills at their highest and best use to give to my community of interest?
  • If I am part of a private enterprise, does the company “achieve maximum productivity possible with maximum compatible efficiency internally, while also making a better contribution to the economy of the environment and society outside” (Odum, 1996, p. 286)?
  • Does this decision share resources and information within the community?
  • Does this behavior work with, foster, or sustain nature?
  • Am I storing wealth and behaving frugally, avoiding debt behaviors? If not, is the expenditure of energy for a good cause, since it takes energy to produce energy?
  • What is the seventh generation, long-term consequence of this action on the system and environment, and are there unintended consequences down the road?

As we learn new group values, that learning will translate into new ethics and religion. Prophet, where art thou?

  • Holger Hieronimi

    Nuevamente Gracias – me encantan estas meditaciones breves pero profundas que se basan en la ecología de sistemas y en las leyes de energía concebidas por H.T.Odum. Muy profundo, para imprimirse y leer con tiempo y tranquilidad-

    • Muchas gracias por el aliento, Holger. Me ayuda a seguir navegando.


  • Holger Hieronimi

    Siguele navegando… las aguas son tormentosas en estos tiempos de transición – Los conceptos energéticos de Odum son para ser difundidos por todos los lados…desde la escuela primaria (que buenos será…) …aqui mi reseña de “EP&S pfor the 21st century” en mi página web, de 2010…:

  • Puse un enlace a su sitio web en los enlaces de mi blog, Holger. Estoy tratando de aprender cómo hacer que el sitio web multilingüe, sino muchas soluciones son demasiado complejas.


  • Holger Hieronimi

    Gracias – en la próxima actualización pondré enlace hacia este sitio también, con mención especial. Como dije antes – me encantaría tener estos textos también en español, pero yo me tardo días en traducir uno, y su producción de articulos es muy buena… siempre digo a mis alumnos de permacultura, que no hay de otra que aprenderse el idioma del imperio – similar al latín después de Roma, el inglés va a seguir siendo una referencia por las decadas y hasta siglos que están por venir – no guste o no…

  • auntiegrav

    A few ideas for the bottom line:
    First, any species will avoid extinction because it adds more to its future than it consumes of it. I call this “net future usefulness”.
    For more direct understanding of how to accomplish this, we must understand a couple of things about humans. Humans are an ape-like creature that spends their development stage building an imagined model of the universe. Upon physical maturity, the human moves their id into the model universe and spends the rest of their life avoiding the real universe at all costs.
    In order to compensate for this behavior, we created systems of culture and education that mold the models of children to some degree of uniformity. Unfortunately, most of these functions of society have been overridden by capitalism, which breaks down commonalities because individuals that are separate and afraid are much more likely to buy redundant products which they don’t need or could manufacture locally as a cooperative group.
    In order to moderate capitalism (using money to make decisions), all costs of the consumerist behavior must be visible at the decision point. This simply means that ALL overhead costs of society (taxes, fees, pollution, education) must be applied at the point of purchase, rather than obscured with various agencies and diversionary collection systems (like corporate taxes).
    One other aspect is that the Bill of Rights is incomplete. The missing protection of most articles of human rights is the protection of FUTURE people and resources, and those include our future selves. In other words, we shouldn’t have the right to borrow money for immediate gratification unless doing so reduces the debt of our future selves, or reduces the amount of resources that will be necessary to pay off present promises. (A debt is a promise to burn resources in the future that we don’t have now. The amount required to pay back a government loan is multiplied by the reciprocal of the tax rate. In other words, it takes 4 times as many people burning up resources to pay back a government loan as for an individual’s loan.)

    • auntiegrav

      Apologies. I forgot the one other point: People do stuff. They have reasons for doing stuff. In that order.
      What we are seeing unfold in the world is the final test of human intentionality. We are in the midst of a test of whether human beings can actually change their behaviors by an overall intentional act (changing from extraction to future-serving behaviors), or whether we are going to be condemned to boom and bust cycles due to our ability to solve problems only in reaction to stimuli, and not as intentionally as we believe we do. The current state of cheap energy to replace the value of skill and thought based labors misleads us to thinking we are successful as a species of intention, rather than just lucky recipients of resources we extract in ways and quantities that are destructive to our own best interests.

  • I agree that our fossil fueled lifestyles have more similarity to the online unreality game, Second Life, than to the real universe of old, Auntiegrav. The growth model insists on uniformity, since growth has worked spectacularly well for us, the behavior of doing the same thing many times over gets reinforced.

    And we need a new measure of value that includes all of the hidden contributions of mother nature and wo/man’s labor. And I love your additional article that any debt must pay it forward.

    Must we always pulse consumption/regeneration as a result of maximum power–if there is energy to be had we must use it? We are capable of saving or storing resources for later, and that behavior translates to saving for your offspring, as the Iroquois’ 7th generation principle suggests. They are an example of centuries of cooperative, peaceful, and multi-generational sustainable behavior. This positive behavior was probably because of the low gain society, with resources were mostly renewable. The Indians had to develop a cooperative culture that lived within its budget, with a consist rate of energy flow from the renewables.

    We can’t be trusted with fossil fuels. We’ll use them until they’re gone. Hopefully we can organize a Manhattan project for learning how to live in a low gain society again, because those who are left will need to adapt quickly. You’ve added some good points, thanks. I like the “pay it forward debt” article, especially.


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