Policies for Descent


In this century, the rise of our capitalistic-driven civilization is one great frenzied pulse, transforming the world’s resources into the assets of society… what is appropriate during one stage [of the growth cycle] may be poor policy in another stage… for a system in a stage of descent, it will not be good policy to foster growth that is no longer possible… with less energy, systems can only be sustained if diminished. By one means or another, the developed system has to adapt to coming down –Odum & Odum, 2001

Guidelines for Orderly Descent (Odum & Odum, 2001, p. 207)

  • Make beneficial descent the collective purpose for this century
  • Dedicated television drama, literature, and art to adventures about descent
  • Accept a small annual decline in empower use
  • Maintain a stable energy use per person by reducing populations in a humanitarian way
  • Remove all incentives, dogma, and approval for excess reproduction
  • Reduce salaries and wages as necessary to maintain full employment
  • Keep the emergy-money ratio stable by adjusting the money in circulation
  • Borrow less and reduce expectations of profit from stock markets
  • Develop economic incentives for reducing consumption
  • Develop public opinion, laws, and taxes to discourage unproductive resource use
  • Sustain the production of the environment
  • Consolidate knowledge for long-term preservation
  • Prioritize the communication of concepts of international respect and cooperation for global sharing

General Systems principles suggest policies for descent.  Early policy recommendations for descent from Odum are found below.  Later refinements are here. Policies for Growth are found on a following page.

Pulsing Paradigm Stages

Early Recommendations for Descent (Mother Earth News & Ambio, 1973)

    • Many calculations of energy reserves which are supposed to offer years of supply are gross energy rather than net energy and thus may be of much shorter duration than often stated
    • Energy sources which are now marginal, being supported by hidden subsidies based on fossil fuel, become less economic when the hidden subsidy is removed; economists suggest that marginal energy sources will be economic later when the rich sources are gone, but the ability of marginal sources to yield actually goes down as the other sources of subsidy become poorer
    • Stephanie Mcmillan Kill it to save it Code Green

      Solar energy is very dilute and the inherent energy cost of concentrating solar energy into form for human use has already been maximized by forests and food-producing plants. Green plants are the best solar voltaic cells known. Without energy subsidy there is no net yield from the sun possible beyond the familiar yields from forestry and agriculture. The best use of the sun is for food, fiber, fisheries, and forestry

    • Nuclear energy is now mainly subsidized with fossil fuels (with high capital costs) and barely yields net energy; fission fuel is running out so net Emergy is decreasing. ““No one really knows the net yield of nuclear power because at present its use is subsidized by fossil fuels in a thousand ways that cannot be estimated until we try to run a nuclear system without them. Will nuclear power have a more concentrated value than the wood output of the solar system, or of coal, or of cheap oil from rich deposits? The new power plant seems to be more economical than the competing fossil plants as long as it is running on the accumulated storages of nuclear fuel and fuel prospecting done on fossil-fuel subsidy. Is nuclear power at this level of net power delivery possible in a culture that does not have the accompanying fossil fuels?” (Odum, 1971, p. 135)
    • Even in urban areas more than half of the useful work on which our society is based comes from the natural flows of sun, wind, waters, waves, etc., that act through the broad areas of seas and landscapes without money payment. An economy, to compete and survive, must maximize its use of these energies, not destroying their enormous free subsidies. The necessity of environmental inputs is often not realized until they are displaced
    • Environmental technology which duplicates the work available from the ecological sector is an economic handicap; man must use nature well rather than duplicating or competing with her
    • Increasing energy efficiency with new technology is not an energy solution, since most technological innovations are really diversions of cheap energy into hidden subsidies in the form of fancy, energy-expensive structures
    • The countries that hold back their richer fuel reserves while others are spending their last reserves end up with more relative power in military and economic affairs
    • The successfully competing economy must use its net output of richer-quality energy flows to subsidize the poorer-quality energy flow so that the total power is maximized; using diversity in tapping auxiliary energies and maintaining flexibility to changing sources makes marginal energy sources net yielders
    • The total tendency for net favorable balance of payments of a country relative to others depends on the relative net energy of that country including its natural and fuel-based energies minus its wastes and nonproductive energy uses
    • High quality of life for humans and equitable economic distribution are more closely approximated in steady-state than in growth periods. During growth, emphasis is on competition, and large differences in economic and energetic welfare develop; competitive exclusion, instability, poverty, and unequal wealth are characteristic. During steady state, competition is controlled and eliminated, being replaced with regulatory systems, high division and diversity of labor, uniform energy distributions, little change, and growth only for replacement purposes
    • Worldwide inflation is driven in part by the increasing fraction of our fossil fuels that have to be used in getting more fossil and other fuels; if the money circulating is the same or increasing, and if the quality energy reaching society for its general work is less because so much energy has to go immediately into the energy-getting process, then the real work to society per unit money circulated is less
    • During the decline in money value, those with businesses can be misled about their future by temporary prosperity, since goods and storages done under one energy level will be sold as the price goes up, but increased money profits will be more than undermined by the inflation; the public will think the temporary profit is a conspiracy
    • Monet 1890 Grainstacks at the End of Summer

      Substantial energy storages [two years?] are required for stability of an economy against fluctuations of economies, or of natural causes, and of military threats. If the U.S. is induced into wars that it hardly has the energy to support while other nations with oil reserves do not become so much involved, the relative energy position of the U.S. will deteriorate until it becomes so energetically weak that it cannot handle its own hemispheric defense
    • Humanitarian aid customs, modern healthcare and medical ethics contribute to overshoot and ensure that no country will starve until we all starve together
    • As energies for machines decline, many functions may take more human labor, instead, for the simple development of food and fiber; thus, the young and the old will be more needed in the work force. Ultimately, displacement unemployment will be temporary as machines are replaced by people
    • Some industries may drop out or be retooled:
    • Urbanization construction will be replaced for smaller projects, most of which will be replacements.
    • Artificial vegetation will be replaced by more use of self-maintaining vegetation (natural). Thus, work will decline that concerns lawns, plant nurseries, tree surgeons, manicuring parks and rights of way, golf courses, astroturfs.
    • Air conditioning will be replaced by architecture that fits human settlement into trees and microclimates of moist vegetation shade, uses winds, etc.
    • Eutrophication problems will decline as farmers bid for sewage use; ecological engineering will replace some other kinds of environmental engineering. Lowered energies will take the pressure off the environment in many situations.
    • Universities will be less occupied and will need to organize among themselves to keep society from losing valuable information accumulated during our recent energy-rich periods. Creative activity will be less and knowledge custodial service may be more. Computer use will be less.
    • Potthast The Milkmaids

      Farms may use more land but their functions and cycles will be more intact and their external environmental action less.

    • Tourism will be less and will operate with energy attractions, using less artificial lures and a higher percentage of self-maintaining natural ones.
    • The scale of activities may be reduced and decentralized with more small units replacing large unified ones. This may apply to cities’ sewage handling, cars, and even utilities. Agriculture will develop more local use and variety.
    • Religions concerned with adaptation and satisfaction with an uneven continued pattern will increase and religious unrest will decrease. Mental health should improve once the shock of change from growth to more level economy is passed.
    • Advertising and communications will be reduced.
    •  Properties of high energy concentration will decrease: crime, wrecks, police, noise, central services and their tax costs.
    • Pine plantations for paper may decrease in favor of food production and forest management for lumber for buildings.
    • Exotic medical services will decline.

Recommendations for Transition and later policies for Descent are within these pages.

Perhaps the goal is not to win, but to arrive together? More primitive societies with less surplus energy:

Davis 2007 Light at the Edge of the World

. . . measure wealth not by the event of their possessions but by the strength of their relationships. It is the smile result of adaptation, though the consequences are profound. In our tradition, we long ago liberated the individual, a decisive shift in orientation that David Maybury-Lewis has described as the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom, for in doing so, we severed the obligations of kin and community that, for better and for worse, constrain the individual in traditional societies. In glorifying the self, we did away with community. The consequences we encounter everyday in the streets of our cities. An American child grows up believing, for example, that homelessness is a regrettable feature of life. A child of the nomadic Penan, by contrast, is taught that a poor man shames us all (Davis, 2007, p. 140).

The triumph of secular materialism is the conceit of modernity. But what are the features of this life? An anthropologist from a distant land visiting America, for example, would note many wondrous things. But he would no doubt be puzzled to learn that 20 percent of the people control 80 percent of the wealth, that the average child has by the age of 18 spent a full 2 years passively watching television. Observing that over half of our marriages end in divorce and that only 6 percent of our elders live with a relative, he might question the values of a society that so readily breaks the bonds of marriage and abandons its aged, even as its men and women exhaust themselves in jobs that only reinforce their isolation from their families. Certainly a slang term such as 24/7, implying as it does the willingness of an employee to be available for work at all times, seems excessive, though it would explain the fact that the average American father spends only 18 minutes a day in direct communication with his child. And what of our propensity to compromise the very life supports of the planet? Extreme would be one word for a civilization that contaminates with is waste the air, water and soil; that drives plants and animals to extinction; that dams the rivers, tears down the ancient forests, rips holes in the protective halo of the heavens and does little to curtail industrial processes that threaten to transform the biochemistry of the very atmosphere (Davis, 2007, p. 200).

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