A fourth proposed law of energetics, the Maximum Power Principle states that “in the competition among self-organizing processes, network designs that maximize empower will prevail” (Odum, 1996). “Systems develop variety as choices and the system retained by natural selection is the one that develops more power and channels this power into adaptive mechanisms” (Odum, 1977). “Because designs with greater performance prevail, self-organization selects network connections that feed back transformed energy to increase inflow of resources or to use them more efficiently” (Odum, 2000).
The earliest formulation of this idea of Maximum Power using Alfred J. Lotka”s 1922 articles on the energetics of evolution was stated as the theory that natural systems tend to operate at an efficiency that produces the maximum power output rather than the maximum efficiency (Odum & Pinkerton, 1955). Lotka’s thesis was an energy codification of Darwin’s principle of natural selection, which describes how complexity is built in systems. Termed by Odum as the Maximum Power Principle and a corollary, Maximum Empower, this idea explains why systems such as civilizations can 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 maximized available energy acquisition.
The later reformulation, Maximum (Em)Power, describes the maximum rate of emergy acquisition. “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 diagram above, conditions favoring growth exist because of the addition of non-renewable storages or stocks (the purple storage tank in the middle of the economic system green box). Constant force from the large measure of high quality surplus energy allows the products of growth to be recycled as positive feedback (autocatalysis) to accelerate the capture of more energy so that growth goes faster and faster. Some of those positive feedback changes may include dismantling of economic regulations through competitive exclusion. The math of this kind of system results in exponential growth, in contrast to logistic growth.
How do we instill (or allow to develop) a new critical culture better adapted to maximizing empower through efficiency? How do the two cultures interact during transition? How do we “reinstall” regulations when there is a power imbalance? What is the impact on renewable resources during a transition with a population in overshoot with respect to those resources?
What is technology, and how does it relate to energy? How does technology impact our culture? Can we selectively choose to adopt technologies that help us to descend prosperously, or must we continue to absorb all technology for promotion of growth? How do we decide which technology is useful and which is harmful to the system at large? Do advances in technology allow improved efficiency?
“Particularly during times of growth, when resources are still plentiful, what is economically competitive is increased rate of resource use rather than efficiency” (Odum, 1987).
Can technology solve our renewable energy problems? The common claim is that if the work done is valuable enough, then inefficient energy sources can be justified. Odum states that “it takes a lot of low quality available energy to make a few joules of high quality energy of another kind (valuable in this sense) . For example, meteorologists have often said that the earth was inefficient in converting solar energy into wind kinetic energy at around 4% (using the word inefficient might imply someone could do better).
earth does is not only convert energy from solar but it spatially concentrates, creating something that can drive oceans and windmills. The transformity of wind ranges from 500 (circulation under cumulus) to >4000 solar emjoules per joule (hurricanes). Self organization optimizes efficiency to maximize power(empower). One seeks to maximize the efficiency that is consistent with maximum power loading” (Odum, 2000).
In our journey down the path between two worlds, we are fast approaching a place where the path forks. We got to this fork through a long history dominated by two great and related struggles–the struggle against scarcity and the struggle to subdue nature. To win in these struggles we created a powerful technology and forged an organization of economy and society to deploy that technology extensively, rapidly, and if need be ruthlessly. And we succeeded at subduing nature and ceasing wealth far beyond our ancestor’s imaginings. So successful were these systems and accomplishments that we were swept up in them, mesmerized by the, captivated, even addicted. We thus continued pell-mell ahead–ever grander, ever-larger, ever-richer, doing what once made sense but no longer did. There were warning signs along the way, but we did not notice them, or when we did, we paid them no heed. These signs said things like:
being, not having
giving, not getting
needs, not wants
better, not richer
community, not individual
other, not self
connected, not separate
ecology, not economy
part of nature, not apart from nature
dependent, not transcendent
tomorrow, not today
We ignored these warnings to the point that, as we now approach the fork ahead, we are perilously close to losing the most precious things of all. We are rapidly hollowing out nature, ourselves, and our society. . . . But there is the other path, and it leads to a bridge across the abyss. . . . “Another world is not only possible. She is on her way,” says Arundhati Roy. “On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing” (JG Speth, 2008, pp. 236-7).