Adding and removing complexity

By Mary Logan

An article on the difficulty of building truly green buildings and recent discussions about the healthcare system triggered thoughts about a major transition problem that is occurring over and over again—the problem of a complex hierarchy that demands feeding with extra energy. Previous posts about the added complexity that digitization brings are pertinent here, but this post is about the general problem of how we respond to limits by adding complexity, and what it might take to remove complexity at the top of the hierarchy without collapse. Continue reading Adding and removing complexity

What might a smart paradigm include?

by Paula Williams

Dr. Williams wrote her dissertation on “The role of social paradigm in human perception and response to environmental change.“ She is the director of UAA’s Office of Sustainability. Her previous post on this topic appears here: http://prosperouswaydown.com/williams-not-economy-paradigm/

If not a stupid paradigm, then, as previously described, what might a smart paradigm include?

Many people who live in societies that embrace the western industrial dominant social paradigm don’t subscribe to that paradigm in whole or in part.  Many realize, or sense, that our current paradigm threatens our ability to survive long-term.  Our current paradigm tells us that the economy must continuously grow; that the role of government is to enforce contracts and keep it’s regulatory hands off of business; that technology will save us, particularly from our environmental sins; that humans are the most important forms of life; and that competition is the best way to manage systems and people.

Because this paradigm shapes the way most people think about how the world works and even shapes our living space (for example, with an emphasis on roads and driving) it won’t be easy to change.  But since not changing it will clearly impact whether we survive into the future and what future life for our children and grandchildren will look like, changing the paradigm, or trying, is a moral imperative.  First we need to consider what a new paradigm should look like. Continue reading What might a smart paradigm include?

A highly transformed society

www.ridethesolarwind.be:en:

by Mary Logan

The picture above is a metaphor for our contracting society in an era of declining nonrenewable energy. What is the emergy basis of an electric bike powered by a solar power battery that the bike and rider tows?  How do we use technology while our horizons of available yet marginal net energy recede? The award-winning bike/solar bob is touted as every environmentalist’s dream, where I can have my cake and eat it too. If I tow a solar panel behind my electric bike, I can boost my power and range to go longer distances at higher speeds. I can even charge electronics and power LED lights. What Is the true value to society of the electric panel towed behind on a bob, and is it worth it? Is the time we save worth the expenditures of energy? Can high-tech boosters augment or be layered on top of human-powered technology in a lower energy world? How much tech is too much? In our struggle to extract usable energy from the surrounding environment to maintain our society based on high-quality fossil fuels, our highly transformed society uses energies of varying qualities in substitution for each other, without an understanding of the Transformity involved in different types of energy. Continue reading A highly transformed society

Lies, damn lies, and radiation health

by Mary Logan

Recent news about Hanford leaks, a flurry of news surrounding the two-year anniversary of Fukushima, and today’s news about breast cancer rates in the US center my thoughts on blind spots in health research. I will use ionizing radiation again as an illustration of environmental linkages to disease, beginning with the trigger for this post, which was a new World Health Organization (WHO) report. Previous posts about nuclear hazards are linked here and here.

This week, the WHO published a preemptive report on Fukushima, only two years after the disaster. The WHO concluded that “for the general population inside and outside of Japan, the predicted risks are low and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated.” This conclusion is from the same organization that has been muzzled on the topic of ionizing radiation contamination of our environment since 1959, when they agreed to misinform the public in subordination to the global nuclear governing body, the IAEA, to protect civil and military nuclear interests.  If you believe that Fukushima has not increased background risk and there will be no increases in cancer rates, I have a bridge to sell you. Mark Twain’s maxim about lies, damn lies, and statistics can be applied here. The point of this post is to examine western medicine’s epistemology of disease, specifically examining how we select the risk factors that are involved in cancer and other diseases.  Continue reading Lies, damn lies, and radiation health

A new definition for economics


By Austin Johnson, essay written Dec. 2012 for UAA Honors 192 course, Limits to Growth

Le moulin de l'oubli (Mill of oblivion), Gilbert Garcin, 1929 Value added modern business?
Le moulin de l’oubli (Mill of oblivion), Gilbert Garcin, 1999 Value added modern business?

“There is no business to be done on a dead planet.” The legendary Sierra Club executive director David Brower spoke these words. I have found no quote that ties business and earth together with such profound simplicity. I will use the inspiration from this quote to look at our current system of business and give examples of more sustainable practices. To conclude this UAA Honors course on limits to growth, I revisit my earlier definition of our system as one based solely on the production, consumption and exchange of goods

L’atelier de Sisyphe - Sisiphus’ workshop, Garcin, 2001
L’atelier de Sisyphe – Sisiphus’ workshop, Garcin, 2001 The business cycle

tied to a free market, whereby anyone can envision, develop and deliver products as long as the end cost is competitive. In the market place, the consideration of “good” or “bad” in products is seldom distinguished. This has led us to a place where missiles and solar panels are evaluated using the same economic metrics. Both items have a purchaser and can be produced competitively within their own markets. Both count as forms of economic growth. Companies playing the economic game continually search for the edge that will maximize profit at other’s expense. We live in a society that constantly reminds us that at the end of the day the person who profits is the “winner”. When profit is of utmost importance, we ignore other values like happiness and spirituality that offer new ways to measure wealth. It is clear that this current economic system has major flaws that render it broken. Continue reading A new definition for economics


A sailboat is a microcosm of life

One Ship Sails East
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1916

But to every mind there openeth,
A way, and way, and away,
A high soul climbs the highway,
And the low soul gropes the low,
And in between on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro.

But to every man there openeth,
A high way and a low,
And every mind decideth,
The way his soul shall go.

One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go.

Like the winds of the sea
Are the waves of time,
As we journey along through life,
‘Tis the set of the soul,
That determines the goal,
And not the calm or the strife.

By Mary Logan

seagrapesWe’re sailors. Sailboats have been part of our lives for decades, beginning with my husband Todd’s 17-foot sloop, the AtLast, so titled because his mother finally got her garage back when he finished building the boat in high school. Eventually we sold the small sloop when we developed competing interests such as family, and I refused to help my husband paint the wooden boat, yet again. Ever since then, we’ve had various small boats, from small catamarans, windsurfers and even a sailing canoe, to a snow-kite and an ice boat here in Anchorage. Todd built the ice boat in our garage here in Anchorage in an attempt to accommodate his need to sail in the subarctic winter–I christened it Risk for Injury, because those were the first words on page one of the design plans. The ice boat can hit speeds of up to 60 mph if unencumbered by various limits. Todd is not allowed to take the craft out alone (that’s another story). Sailing on ice in winter does not really feed our fix for sailing, and sailing in the summer up here has to compete with many other interests during a very short summer. We generally wait until we head to warmer climes to sail.

This month, we have burned through many people’s allotments of fossil fuels to come to the cruising grounds of the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) to warm up and to sail. We have done this trip many times before, typically during the off-season in the summer when we lived in Florida, in order to unplug from high-pressure jobs. But I am sensing that traditional vacations where we fly somewhere far away to go sailing may be on the way out. We have some discretionary income this year, and who knows how long it will hold its value/meaning? So this is one last fling in the BVIs, with a flotilla of two boats and thirteen sun-starved Alaskans–the winter has been grim this year in Alaska, with lots of dark but little snow.

Sailing can be a cheap vacation if we rent a boat that we share with friends while provisioning, cooking, and sailing ourselves. Americans often feel that we must buy our own things, but renting a boat for the occasional use is far cheaper than owning. We have watched many friends and family members struggle with boat ownership, and the old maxim, a boat is a hole into the water into which one pours money, is really true. Over the years, the charter boat industry has become a monopolized industry, paralleling the development in many other industries. There are fewer but larger companies to charter from. This year, during high season, the charter docks for those companies were full of boats, and it was easier to find anchorages alone. The charter industry appears to be hurting from the global economic recession.

Sunrise, Anegada Reefs
Sunrise, Anegada

I’m writing this post organically this time, using pen and paper, sitting with my coffee in the quiet mornings, before the trades freshen for the day in response to the heating sea and land, watching brown boobies and pelicans feed on schools of fish in quiet anchorages. My thoughts circle the idea of sailboats as a slice of life that demonstrates on the small-scale the limits of energies, materials, and wastes, the importance of teamwork, and how technology changes over time as surplus energy continues to flow. Continue reading A sailboat is a microcosm of life

It’s not the economy, it’s the stupid paradigm

By Paula Williams

Dr. Williams wrote her dissertation on “The role of social paradigm in human perception and response to environmental change.” She is the director of UAA’s Office of Sustainability.

Americans’ level of concern for the environment waxes and wanes, depending on how the economy is faring, as illustrated in the 2011 Gallup chart below.  The chart shows responses to the question whether the economy or the environment should be given preference asked from 1985 through 2011. Note the trending decline in concern for the environment starting in 2001 with a precipitous drop in 2008 when the economy hit the skids. It’s a truism that our environmental behaviors and our understanding of causes of environmental degradation always lag behind the level of our environmental concern.  Why? Continue reading It’s not the economy, it’s the stupid paradigm

O Declínio Próspero em Português!

DeclinioProsperoO livro O Declínio Próspero já está disponível em Português!

The book A Prosperous Way Down is now available in Portuguese!

In paperback (65 Reais): http://www.universovozes.com.br/livrariavozes/web/view/DetalheProdutoCommerce.aspx?ProdId=8532644031

 

Também abaixo uma conversa 20 minutos sobre Emergy pelo professor Ortega.

The 6 Rs: making a sustainable impact

By Saara J. Alatervo, College of Business and Public Policy and Honors College, University of Alaska, Anchorage. Saara J. Alatervo is an undergraduate business major and honors student.

America is a disposable nation. Each person on average produces more than 1,600 pounds of trash each year. In total, over 230 million tons of trash accumulates in landfills yearly in the United States. Seventy percent of the trash that makes its way to landfills could be recycled (Annenberg Foundation, 2012). Recycling is one of the 6 Rs of sustainability. The 6 Rs include: reinvent/rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse/repair, recycle, replace/rebuy. When we apply the 6 Rs to their lives we promote sustainable practices. But we must make the conscious effort to do so.  Continue reading The 6 Rs: making a sustainable impact

A Sustainable Cuba

By Anel Quiroz, a student in UAA’s Honors 192 course on Limits to Growth

A small island in the Caribbean that people usually associate with an evil dictator is one of the most sustainable countries in the world. This little island is the island of Cuba where the people might not have it all, and they may dislike their ruler but they have a healthier environment than most third world countries or first world countries. The island of Cuba has achieved a goal that most successful countries are too developed to reach in a lifetime. Cuba has learned how to sustain its people to succeed even if that success is slow. Cuba is a role model for all underdeveloped and developed countries to follow. Continue reading A Sustainable Cuba

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!

Starting down: seven deadly sins

choices“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.” ― T.S. Eliot

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”― Mahatma Gandhi

“I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.”― John Locke

“I am not imposed upon by fine words; I can see what actions mean.”― George Eliot

By Mary Logan

For those of us who live in countries where we use many fossil fuels, we have been shielded from the consequences of living badly. But that age is ending. Now that the Mayan Baktun 13 calendar has passed, we begin the era of the Gaian calendar. We “will eventually have to reduce either our populations or our living standards (emergy use) by 80 to 90 percent” (Odum & Odum, 2001, p. 170).  And as the years go by, adaptation will become harder and harder, as the surplus energy available for the tasks wanes. There are policies for a prosperous way down, but I know that when I mention the word policy to my students, their eyes glaze over. Since we are approaching the new year and a new era, I will approach the idea of personal action by framing actions in the form of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins. Our capitalist culture values growth and wealth above all. It is time to reset our values as we start down in descent. This is a challenge to those of you who are still sitting on your hands when it comes to sustainable, local living. What are you waiting for? Consider Gandhi’s 7 Sins; how many of these are you guilty of, and how can your form personal resolutions that reframe these sins in descent? Continue reading Starting down: seven deadly sins

Avoiding a Depression ≠ Happiness

By Jeremiah Eisele

Jeremiah EiseleBio: I am a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage where I am pursuing a BS in Electrical Engineering. I was born in Alaska, and I grew up in a rural area on the Kenai Peninsula. After high school, I attended vocational school, and then began working as an electrician. I worked as an electrician for about 15 years before deciding to return to school and pursue a degree in engineering. After graduation, I plan to stay in Alaska and work towards developing sustainable sources of energy within the state.

Most Americans have probably heard the phrase – money cannot buy happiness. But Americans spend much effort in the pursuit of wealth. Of course people need money to provide for themselves and their families, but once we have secured basic needs what else can money buy? Many people see the accumulation of wealth as a status symbol. We also use money to buy almost anything we might want, including luxury items, vacations, and even companionship or love. However, once we meet our basic needs, most other purchases satisfy some emotional need. The fulfillment of emotional needs with material possessions is typically short-lived. After all – emotions are feelings, not objects, and feelings fade unless rekindled.

The success of the United States as a nation is largely measured through the eyes of an economist. Arguably, the most important measure of the country’s success is its GDP – essentially the amount of “goods” produced by the nation. Economists use GDP extensively to determine the growth rate of the country. The growth rate of the United States has a direct correlation with the financial wealth of the American people. Since the prosperity of the country and its citizens are closely related, there is a great deal of desire to keep the economy growing. Therein lies the problem, and hopefully the solution. Continue reading Avoiding a Depression ≠ Happiness

Happy Holidays!

AlaskaNightNasaThe composite photos released by NASA of “earth at night” offer a portrait of how we have electrified much of the world when the sun goes down. Judging by the lights in Alaska, you might . . . .

Via a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, Dec 15, 2012. NASA photos show Alaska at night, highlighted by lights of Prudhoe Bay, demonstrating the big picture of man’s global energy use patterns. One can readily see that cities and other areas of dense urban occupation require intensive energy and materials use. Odum described the pattern of pulsing/resting pattern of land use over the aeons as a pattern similar to a Christmas tree, where cities appearing as tree lights wink on and off over time. As resources in one area are used up, the area is abandoned, and the land goes back to fallow rest. New areas of civilization spring up elsewhere, where resources are more readily available, as organisms seek better advantage in taking in more energy. Everything pulses, even the cosmos. Peak on earth, good will to men.  Continue reading Happy Holidays!

Self-realization: from awareness to action

Swiss Alps 2011by Elizabeth Schoessler

With each topic that my University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Honors class covered on the Limits to Growth, my faith in humanity decreased, and simultaneously, my faith in myself. I have the intelligence and educational background necessary to analyze and synthesize the facts. This class, along with my sociology and anthropology courses, demonstrated that for many, ignorance is truly bliss. The characteristics instilled in me by virtue of being an American make me feel guilty. Although I have a significant amount of information at hand, I have yet to overhaul my life or spark a change in others. I cannot help but ask myself what type of future lies ahead, and why can’t we change our behaviors? Continue reading Self-realization: from awareness to action

Operation Trash the Cuddy

By Saara Alatervo, Jade Aronson, Raine Becker, Emma Digert, Jeremiah Eisele, Claire Ferree, Austin Johnson, Kristina Khang, Anel Quiroz, Elizabeth Schoessler, Salomé Scott, Alexandra Weill, and other University of Alaska Anchorage Honors 192 students. . . writeup by Jeremiah Eisele and Mary Logan, with special thanks to Paula Williams, Director of the Office of Sustainability at UAA

184November 15th is America Recycles Day in the U.S. Local communities hold events to educate citizens on the methods and benefits of recycling. We are Honors 192 students at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), and this year we “Trashed the Cuddy” as part of a class project for America Recycles Day. UAA’s Office of Sustainability hosted the event, and Dr. Herminia Din’s Art 160 Art Appreciation Class was also involved. The primary goal of our event was to help fellow students understand the importance of waste reduction through the acts of reducing, reusing, and recycling. The goal was to create visual feedback that raises awareness about the volumes of waste we create. Currently society efficiently removes and hides our volumes of trash in landfills–out of sight, out of mind. In order to illustrate how rapidly trash accumulates, campus staff bagged a single day’s worth of trash from the entire university and we placed it on display outside Cuddy Hall. We surveyed students, and invited them to visit our educational area and get a bite to eat. Our class divided into four groups to work the event by surveying attendees, promoting and publicizing the event, researching the life cycles  of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, and documenting the event through still photos and the movie at the end of this post.  Continue reading Operation Trash the Cuddy

Winter transitions

Winter solstice is a season for rest, reflection, and feasting, in celebration of the change of seasons and the deep winter ahead. Per Wiki:

The winter solstice may have been immensely important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as the famine months. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The concentration of the observances were not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the beginning of the pre-Romanized day, which falls on the previous eve. Since the event is seen as the reversal of the Sun’s ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common and, in cultures using winter solstitially based cyclic calendars, the year as reborn has been celebrated with regard to life-death-rebirth deities or new beginnings such as Hogmanay’s redding, a New Year cleaning tradition. Also reversal is yet another usual theme as in Saturnalia’s slave and master reversals.

In this season of peace and joy, I have difficulty in focusing on some of the unpleasant aspects of all of this. As the old paradigm begins to fall away, and the system reaches a tipping point,  interpretations in the media become more disjointed and surreal, and less explanatory. As I read about events of the day, it is hard to get beyond “yep, there it is.” When I reboot and begin again, where do I start? Finals week is here, and we will begin posting again starting next weekend.

Science for peace

We all need breaks. I was short of sleep, exercise, and vitamin D. I’ll be back next week. In the meantime, in this season of peace and thanksgiving, here is a woman’s voice about the American military empire. War will be part of our future as we fight over resources, and the American military empire will fade. I hope that the wars will be of the sort that do not devastate the environment using our advanced technologies.  For example, the speaker omits the depleted uranium issues in Iraq and elsewhere. If we can delay these wars until we no longer have the power to splatter deadly toxins across the landscape or implode operational chemical and nuclear plants, then perhaps future generations will have a chance.

By way of XrayMike, this is the keynote speech from the June 2012 Science for Peace Annual Meeting, by H. Patricia Hynes titled Military Culture and Climate Change.

My Haiku

This week we give thanks for home and family. There is much to be thankful for. Instead of a serious post this week, let us entertain you with something lighter.

by Sesi

The author herself, Sesi.

Today I sniffed a
dog’s behind – I celebrate
By kissing your face.

I sound the alarm!
Paperboy – come to kill us!
Look! Look! Look! Look! Look!

I sound the alarm!
Mailman fiend – come to kill us!
Look! Look! Look! Look! Look!

I sound the alarm!
Garbage man – come to kill us!
Look! Look! Look! Look! Look!

I sound the alarm!
Neighbor’s cat – come to kill us!
Look! Look! Look! Look! Look!

How do I love thee?
The ways are numberless as
My hairs on the rug.

My human is home!
I am so ecstatic I
have made a puddle.

I hate my choke chain –
Look, world, how they strangle me!
Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack!

Cities–too big to fail?

by Mary Logan

Odum, et al., 1995 Zonal Organization of Cities and Environment

Many people have the misguided belief that cities are energy efficient. Cities compared to other environments are often more efficient with respect to transportation, because fuel use actually drops off in city centers due to the availability of mass transit. But the embodied emergy as a whole in the infrastructure, people, and information in cities suggests the opposite. Cities are actually energy hogs, that concentrate energy. In a future of waning energy, are our biggest cities too big to fail? What size city is sustainable?

This post is a follow-up to last week’s post about our dialogue about big cities and descent. Examples are everywhere this week of people projecting their fears on long-deferred retribution by Mother Nature and the need to wield war using our technological tools to maintain our cities. Sandy is evidence of a heating world, with bigger swings in weather and a hurricane one week, a northeaster the next. There have been a flood of victorious articles suggesting that I told you so about climate change.  Even though Sandy was only category 1 or 2 storm, it was over a very broad area with a very high total kinetic energy because of a hot ocean, even very late in hurricane season in a season with many storms. But the impacts of Sandy were complicated by the population density in the northeast. Perhaps The Weather Channel needs to make up a new metric for landfall in complex, urban settings. The more high-tech complexity we have, the more widespread, serious, and long-term the impacts. These scenarios will be increasingly frequent in the future, as we turn the lights out in a room with too many people. Continue reading Cities–too big to fail?

Sandy and digital snow days

by Mary Logan

My thoughts and concern goes out to those struggling with this unprecedented American storm in the northeast. As I write this early on Tuesday morning, watching this game-changer of a storm, a myriad of thoughts go through my head. The storm event is just the beginning. Rivers will flood, and snows will accumulate. Recovery will be long and slow. Recovery will be hampered by problems with energy delivery, complexity, and density of populations. Just in time, digitized systems that are overly complex will be challenged. News will filter out slowly, with initial optimism about the extent of the damage, followed by increasingly pessimistic reports about the size and extent of the problems as communication begins to be reestablished. This post describes Sandy as a catastrophic pulse in relation to the problems of dense urban living, complexity, and digitization. Continue reading Sandy and digital snow days

A Sobering Report from the Eco-Summit

By Elliott Campbell, PhD

Bio: Elliott recently received his doctorate from the University of Maryland, studying with David Tilley and received a MS degree from the University of Florida under Mark Brown, both of whom studied with H.T. Odum. Elliott’s grandmother is Betty Odum, widow and longtime collaborator of H.T., and father is Daniel Campbell, a senior researcher at the EPA, so it is safe to say ecology is in his blood. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Maryland.

Dr. Elliott Campbell

I had the pleasure of attending the 4th Eco-Summit, held in Columbus Ohio and hosted by William Mitsch at Ohio State University. This was a large conference, over 1600 people, featuring preeminent ecologists from around the world including Simon Levin, E.O. Wilson, Robert Costanza, Bernie Patten, Sven Jorgensen and plenary sessions by popular authors Jared Diamond and Lester Brown. As a recent PhD graduate and nascent systems ecologist I found the Eco-Summit to be edifying, inspiring, as well as incredibly frustrating. Continue reading A Sobering Report from the Eco-Summit

Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

By Mary Logan

This post is about the hopeful idea that technology is going to save us from having to adapt to descent. A recent article describes an episode of geopiracy to geoengineer the ocean, so we’re back at climate again, since this example provides particular insights and illustrations into our blindspots about the limits to growth and the limits of technology. Almost all environmental articles now mention climate, whether it is warranted in the discussion or not, so it is hard to avoid the topic. We are shoehorning every environmental problem into the same size small shoe of solutions. Is it lack of ecoliteracy? I also continue to beat this drum because one of Odum’s great concerns was that misunderstandings about the interconnected nature of our problems would lead to geoengineering of the planet. He recognized the hazards of industrial scale manipulation of the biosphere, and the danger of relying on the industrial machine for fixes.

Asking wrong questions….

Climate change is a situation where we have fastened on a subset of the real problem, which is population and economic growth. So we immediately frame the solution set in an even smaller space, which is geoengineering, or financial wizardry, or some other narrow solution to the wrong problem that benefits only a few, and further damages the environment. 

We have trained our minds to focus and analyze, thus we anxiously narrow our frame of reference when faced with big problems. Einstein said that  problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them. He meant seeing the big picture, and avoiding doubling down on behaviors that got us where we are now. Or, in colloquial terms, What how fellow, thou knave, I pray thee let me and my fellow have a haire of the dog that bit us last night. And bitten were we bothe to the braine aright (Drunkard.com, from 1546). The idea that the hair of the dog was a cure dates back to the Greek, who believed that a dog bite would heal more quickly if you ate dog hair. Is technology a hair-of-the-dog cure for our energy bender?

We’re going to have to shift our world views to adapt. In an ongoing quest to broaden worldviews to consider the hierarchy of energy, here are some recent climate articles as examples of the limits of technology. Continue reading Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

Make Me!

By Todd Logan

No, that’s not the cry of a spoiled child.  It’s food, calling to you!

Anyone can grow, gather, or make a lot of their own food.  We do it on four fronts –  we garden, we catch a lot of fish, we raise chickens, and we make some of our favorite foods from scratch.  What have we learned along the way? Continue reading Make Me!

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

Is climate change a euphemism for growth?

by Mary Logan

I have become sensitive to the silences that come during discussions about the world with others who view the world through a microscope. Silence or a change of topic suggests either denial of my point of view or failure to grasp my frame of reference. While I am peering through an energy lens or macroscope, others may view the world through a lens where money or some other construct makes the world go round instead. One question that stops conversations cold is, “What if our greatest societal challenge is not climate but growth?” That challenge sometimes elicits a glare signifying indignation or perhaps a sense of betrayal that I’m stepping away from my supposed congregation.

Two mechanisms may be occurring when speakers frame climate change as the most important problem that the world has to face. If one’s view of the world is that energy is unlimited, and that we can grow infinitely, and that the environment has a limitless ability to absorb our pollution, then growth is not an important issue. While most people probably know in their hearts that infinite growth is not sustainable, they do not know that energy has limits. So speakers may use a euphemism to subconsciously displace the problem of growth with climate change, since we have been taught the goal of economic growth as a fundamental precept of our society. Secondly, speakers who focus on climate may fail to grasp the severity of the problem of peak oil, because of declining net energy or emergy yields. Thus we lump other assaults on ecosystems such as growth of population, growth of the economy, extraction of resources and other forms of pollution within the problem of climate change. These problems are inextricably connected, but we prioritize them differently depending on our ability to think like a system. Continue reading Is climate change a euphemism for growth?

Young Voices–Generation iDontCare

by Monsieur le docteur Ralph (un nom de plume)

 

Our university has an eccentric, bow-tied math professor who is extremely fond of the quote from Piet Hein, “Problems worthy of attack, prove their worth by hitting back.” He uses the phrase to scold students who give up on a math problem simply because it seems difficult. After surviving a fair number of quantitative courses, I have felt the type of mental bruising that accompanies more worthy assignments and the satisfaction of defeating them. The realms of blackboards and quad-ruled notebooks also make fairly safe battlegrounds, but as much as I like to hide in that world, the Real World tends to find me anyway. That reality seems to be defined by its most immediate crisis – a never-ending stream of problems. These problems have always hit me, but I generally decided I was not equipped to solve them and surrendered to a ruse of apathy. Recently, my studies have exposed me to new people and ideas, and I have retreated from current issues less often. I still feel unprepared to deal with most global problems, especially those about politics or economics. They have become divisive to the point that calm discussion tends to be uncomfortable if not impossible. I have decided I am most concerned with and optimistic about environmental issues because society is already actively developing potential strategies and solutions, but I am frustrated by the collective indifference common among my peers. Continue reading Young Voices–Generation iDontCare

Hierarchy and money in a global hall of mirrors

by Mary Logan

Many authors have written about alternative forms of money, so I don’t need to canvas the topic. But I’m still thinking about the digitization of money and its role in our current monetary predicaments.  I recently watched a movie about time as an alternative currency, and I also attended a local lecture on time-banking. These thoughts converge for this post about traditional and alternative forms of money as an illustration of the hierarchy of money. Our economic information systems evolve with increasing complexity to match the complexity of our economies. Continue reading Hierarchy and money in a global hall of mirrors

Digital snow days

by Mary Logan

Folks in the Anchorage bowl woke Wednesday morning to widespread power outages, trees down, traffic lights out, and closed schools and businesses. An early September winter storm created hurricane force winds. The power at the house was out for about eight hours, and we have a tree down in the yard. Much of Anchorage is in the same boat. Score one for Mother Nature in man’s apparent battle for control over nature. Fortunately this power outage came in early September and not the dead of winter, serving as a good consciousness-raising event and needs assessment for future power outages. So this post is both pragmatic and fanciful, covering personal, pragmatic issues related to sudden loss of complexity events and some “what if” questions about the future of digitization. I’m typing this during brownouts and occasional triggers of the generator, which got its first real test last night. We are near a trunk line, with underground power, so our power came back quickly. But close neighbors are not so lucky. Today is woodcutting day, for us and our friends, whether we need the wood or not. So this post may ramble a bit, like my thoughts, between the impacts of events at the larger scale like windstorms and regional blackouts, and personal preparation at the local scale. Continue reading Digital snow days