Prosperous Equality

By Elliott Campbell

Frustration. That is my typical response to the news of the world. There are so many ills and so little substantive dialogue, in media or government, about real pathways to change. And for those of us concerned with peak energy and the potential collapse of civilization, there is no dialogue, no acknowledgement of even the potential of a problem. A feeling of helplessness and even resignation is a natural response to disenfranchisement. Adherent to the Maximum Empower Principle, the world is self-organizing to maximize empower. That means that energy and resource use continues to expand as long as possible and a growth based economy maximizes empower. In the current state of energy resources, stopping growth and transitioning to a steady state or dynamic equilibrium economy is simply not possible, even as we exhaust our earth’s resources and constantly increase our risk of catastrophic climate change. There is a certain fatalism to that can be demoralizing. Why bother working for change if significant deviation from the growth paradigm is not possible, due to thermodynamic law?

Figure depicting the income gap in the United States

What is possible is preparation, by creating a society that can correct its course, to adapt. The way we govern and run our economies is not now structured in a way that it would even be possible to transition successfully to a lower energy world. This is something we can change, and we will need to in the coming years. In their book, A Prosperous Way Down, the Odums laid out a pathway for preparation, transition, and descent. The policies and actions for preparation are what we should be working towards now. A recent work by Richard Wilkenson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level, provides strong evidence for action towards perhaps the most important step for adjusting society to be able to descend: reduction of inequality. They present evidence linking higher inequality to increased instances mental health issues, increased drug use, decreased physical health and life expectancy, decreased average educational performance, higher rate of teenage births, higher rates of violent crimes, higher rates of imprisonment, and fewer opportunities for upward mobility. The authors compared degree of inequality and social ills between 23 rich countries, and within the 50 US States, and found statistically significant relationships between inequality and all the problems listed above. The US has the highest degree of inequality in the world, with the gap increasing rapidly for the past 30 years.

US income distribution over time
The income gap between the rich and poor has grown over time

Wilkenson and Pickett present a compelling case that social inequality is the root cause for many of the problems we face and not just a correlation, and that high degrees of inequality negatively impact the rich as well as the poor, as the rich suffer from high health care costs, decreased community structure and trust, and higher rates of violent crime, along with the poor. It is important to note that the authors are not advocating for a communistic, total equality society. Rather they are advocating for closing the income gap to a more reasonable level. Interestingly, countries with disparate spending on social welfare had high levels of equality. Nations that have large social welfare programs such as Scandinavia and much of the rest of Western Europe share high levels of equality with Japan, which has one of the lowest levels of spending on social programs. The European countries achieved greater levels of equality by redistributing wealth while Japan has had a more even wage distribution from the beginning. The authors name these two pathways to greater equality and advocate pursuit of both paths. Moving towards a non-profit economy, increasing the prevalence of cooperatives and employee owned companies while restricting or eliminating speculative company stock trading would go a long way towards reducing the income gap. This change could be triggered by restructuring the tax code to increase taxes for higher income brackets more while giving tax breaks to employee-owned and controlled corporations/non-profits, investing in education for lower-income groups, and refocusing media around more fact-based reporting and presentation of edifying, rather than sensational, information. The bottom line can no longer be the end all be all for success. Success for a corporation should be redefined as providing a necessary good or service at a sustainable rate and maintaining employment. Stafford Beer, noted scientist in the field of operational management and cybernetics, advocated for something similar. He advocated for the capitalization of employees by involving them in decision-making and sharing in successes. Beer argued that this would increase the efficiency of the company as well. Wilkenson and Pickett suggest that all employees should be responsible for setting wages and making decisions, which would likely result in a much more even wage distribution and more ethical behavior.

Graph from the Equality Trust depicting the relationship between inequality and an aggregate measure of health and social problems

These changes will not be easy, as wealthy and corporate interests have tremendous influence on politics, particularly in the US. It will take a great effort by the populace for these changes to be made, and it may have to get worse before it gets better.  But the people know that the status quo does not work, as shown in the populist Occupy Wall Street movement, the recent protests in Brazil, and Arab Spring movements throughout the Middle East.  We know the root cause of our societal ills that so many people suffer from. With this knowledge it is irrational not to work towards reduction of inequality, difficult as that course of action may be. We must force our governments to represent the interests of everyone for the future, not merely some, for now.

adbusters occupy

One aspect of inequality that was not fully addressed by The Spirit Level, but essential for preparing for a lower energy transition, is that of inequality between nations. It is likely difficult to statistically demonstrate the relationship of inter-nation inequality to violent conflict, lower life expectancy, environmental pollution, or lack of ability to progress from a poor nation to a more developed one. More violence, health problems, environmental degradation, and lack of technology are expected in less developed nations. One very clear example of inter-nation inequality is the export of environmental impacts from developed nations to developing countries. Much of the exploitation of natural resources such as timber and minerals now occurs in less developed nations with lax environmental regulations and lower wages. This has the dual advantage of producing goods more cheaply and allowing the developed nation to avoid impacting their own environment, effectively exporting the environmental impact of consumption. The harmful working conditions and degraded environment negatively affect human health in the developing nation, again exporting impacts of consumption.

After essential needs are met increasing GDP has diminishing returns in terms of satisfaction and happiness

Reduction of global inequality is essential for energy transition because it will be difficult and unethical to ask extremely poor nations to restrict resource use and population, when survival is of primary concern to its populace. A minimum standard of living must be achieved for this request to be ethical. Developed nations who worked to aid poor nations in achieving this standard of living through technology and knowledge transfer and not the traditional avenue of material aid, would build good will and make energy and population reduction possible. Total equality between nations is not just a difficult goal, it is impossible to meet given the resource base for the world. When measured using emergy, resource use per capita is over two orders of magnitude greater in developed nations than in third world countries. Barring a nuclear fusion miracle, there is simply not enough energy in the world for all nations to have the same standard of living as developed nations. Fortunately, It has been demonstrated that once a certain standard of living has been achieved, increasing GDP (or total emergy use which is strongly correlated with GDP) does not much increase measures of satisfaction or happiness (see figure below). Achieving a high degree of life satisfaction with a minimum of non-renewable resource use should be the stated goal of the UN, World Bank and IMF, rather than simple economic development. Effective global governance and coordination of efforts is needed; the powers of the UN should be increased and the organization changed to better reflect the interests of the world as a whole rather than the most powerful nations.


Figure from www., assembled by Sweeney et al.
Emergy use in developed nations is more than two orders of magnitude greater than many developing nations. Figure from www., assembled by Sweeney et al.

No man is an island. We are all connected; the resource use of a man in China directly affects my future and my resource use affects his. We need to concern ourselves with the well-being of all global citizens, and we will need to be able to coordinate efforts to descend from peak energy. In the United States, the dominant belief may be that a high relative standard of living and technological advancement compared to much of the rest of the world will insulate us from energy collapse. In reality, we just have that much farther to fall. I firmly believe that if some people give up a degree of wealth now, making our country and the world more fair in absolute terms, it will make the future possible. In A Prosperous Way Down the Odums suggest a redefinition of “prosperous”, from success in material wealth to success in education, community, personal relationships, spirituality, and our relationship with the world around us. The redefinition of this word represents the necessary paradigm shift that will allow us to go from competition and consumption to cooperation and equality. A measure of equality will not be given easily. Let’s occupy, spring, resist, protest, strike, plan, discuss, persuade and revolt. Let us not stop until a CEO only makes 10 times that of an assembly worker, not 400. Let’s not stop until our jewelry, shoes, computers are no longer covered with the blood and sweat of the underprivileged. Let’s not stop until a woman or minority makes the same wage as a man doing the same job. Let’s not stop until a corporation no longer has the same rights as you or I. If equality will not be given, let us take it.

  • Brian

    Do you have any thoughts as to why inequality exists? The data seems to suggest that ineqaulity is bad for all individual actors, which I myself have used to try and persuade others to no avail. Considering the types of people I was talking to, I don’t think this arguement has much hope. Can it be that something bad for all individual actors maximizes overall empower of the system or is it something else? And are there any negative implications for not trying to maximizing empower? I have tried to think of current technologies that maximize present empower as well as future empower as a way forward and have come up with only four or five and most are encapsulated within permaculture. Are there such technologies or am I deluding myself? Put another way, is there anything we can do as individuals or must it be that we need to change nearly everyone on the planet for any hope?

    • Elliott Campbell

      Hi Brian,

      The MEPP is a bit different that the other laws of thermodynamics in that it is
      temporal and spatial scale dependent and applicable to overall systems, not necessarily indivduals. Individual or even large scale actions of
      entire nations or perhaps the global patterns of inequality we are experiencing,
      do not necessarily result in immediate maximization of empower. While our
      overall system is self-organizing to maximize empower, there are inevitable
      missteps along the way. In the short term temporal scale this could take the
      form of something like the introduction of an invasive species like the pine
      beetle that devastates an ecosystem. The system will eventually adapt to the
      disturbance but in the short term biodiversity and primary production decrease.
      I view global inequality as something similar. It is having deleterious effects
      on us all and we have to adapt our economic and social systems so it cannot
      thrive. Odum has an excellent paper showing how different strategies maximize empower in the long run, with the result that cooperation between nations maximizes empower when compared to competition or conflict. If I can track it down I will post it.

      • Brian

        I don’t really see any of this as a mis-step. I think that our current situation arises from maximizing empower during a pioneer highly competitive phase, but I fear instead of like most natural systems that adjust to a steady flow of energy from the sun that we are just going to fall right into a destruction phase once fossil fuel extraction reverses course that again is highly competitive and leads to inequalities. This is why I feel like we need to find policies and technologies that allow for inequality but will serve all once the current destructive phase is over and we rely on flows of energy instead of stocks of energy and become a climax system that is more equitable.

        • NormanJohn

          flow of energy is exactly the same as a flow of water.
          if you find a pool of water, you cannot make it flow and extract work output from it unless you impart energy into it. when you do that, the water begins to flow, usually down hill. When the water has drained away, you have NO MORE WATER.
          On the other hand if you leave the pool of water as it is, it will become stagnant and breed all kinds of unpleasantries
          and exactly what is a climax system?

          • Brian

            First of all you are talking about a stock of water and not a flow of water. A river is an example of a flow, where as a lake is an example of a stock. The sun is a flow of energy and we can capture it and yes it does take energy to capture it, but it is for our purposes constant and won’t run out. Fossil fuels on the other hand are for our purposes and rate of usage a stock of energy and will run out. Climax systems comes from thinking in terms of ecology. Odum developed a lot of his principles by looking at ecology. While I am not an expert in systems thinking, I believe that ecosystems follow the MEPP and so we can use that language and the way ecosystems progress to see what we would expect to see for humans using energy like ecosystems do. Since I don’t want to take up this whole comment space on what I mean, you can read what I have written on this more extensively here:

          • NormanJohn

            a sustainable use of waterflow is of course the watermill, which requires muscle energy to construct and maintain.
            But watermills need a stock of water–hence your millponds

            Fair enough –That isn’t difficult.

            but that delivers energy for our use at a level that equates with a pre-industrial society. I don’t want to labour this point ad nauseam, but you cannot support a population used to an industry-supported lifestyle on pre-industrial systems.

          • Brian

            I think we are just talking past each other. To me the Prosperous Way Down means, how do we deal with declining energy in a “moral” or “ethical” way where the least pain is experienced by the most amount of people? I don’t see it as a way to “save” industrial society or keep 7 billion people alive indefinitely.

          • NormanJohn

            then if we both recognise that we can’t keep 7 billion people alive, let’s say so and stop pussyfooting around the inevitable unpleasantness of it, and stop thinking everyone is going to be polite and well mannered about it.

            If 7 bn cant be kept alive, then it follows that several billion are going to die. There are no morals or ethics involved when you’re fighting for your life, or for the lives of your children. Because that is what we’re talking about here. I might volunteer to make room for my own grandchildren, but not for somebody else’s.

    • NormanJohn

      Social inequality exists to provide the necessary thrust to genetic advantage. Where muscle power brings in to biggest kill, most often, or leads the tribe to dominance over other tribes, the females look on that with favourable inclination to mating and breeding, because that powerful man will likely be able to provide security for their offspring. Similarly the powerful man seeks out women of a certain physical type to bear his children
      Life really is that crude I’m afraid, whether we like it or not.
      In our current era things have become slightly skewed, which is why you see a bimbo on the arm of an 80 year old billionaire, or an otherwise moronic football player, but the thinking behind it is still the same.
      If you want equality, then you must be prepared for the politics of the anthill or beehive, where individuals are expendable for the good of the commune.
      Or have we already tried that?

      • Brian

        The idea that competition is the main driver of the evolution of systems may not be the whole story. Take for instance mitochondria or chloroplasts, which were once separate organisms, but cooperated to the point of merging. Even viruses might be the origin of the nucleus. George Mobus recently did a great piece on this subject Or if you are into books you might want to check out The Way by Goldsmith or even any book written by HT Odum. My point with Elliot is not if equitable human society is possible, but when it will be possible and what happens if we try to force it early. Most of what I see today is rent seeking behaviors that does not lead to high evolutionary fitness for anyone, but it is a strategy to use when energy is in excess.

        • NormanJohn

          Agreed that we may come to live in a state of equanimity with one another, but I contend that that will not happen until it is forced upon us by circumstance. ie—we no longer have any means by which we can seek to gain advantage over our environment.
          Our brains have not had time to evolve from our hunter gatherer forebears, so until we do advance ourselves in that respect, we will pursue advantage by primitive means.
          100000 years from now things will be different, but we concern ourselves mainly with tomorrow’s dinner.

  • NormanJohn

    Instead of making sweeping generalities on this subject,
    let’s examine what is happening right now, in real time with real pain to those

    Egypt’s economy is sliding into the abyss because the
    country can no longer afford to subsidise it’s own people.

    This is resource depletion happening on our TV screens right
    now, not some theory of our future, Egypt is our future. They are rioting
    because of a future they recognize as hopeless. They have enjoyed a period of
    delusion (just like the rest of us) where they had cheap food and fuel, and the
    jobs derived from it.

    They saw the country falling apart under Mubarak—so they got
    rid of him. Morsi was equally powerless, so the mob wants his head too.

    They refuse to face facts. Egypt shows us the delusion of a
    ‘Prosperous way down’. We are seeing real people being hit by reality, while
    denying that same reality. They, like us, think prosperity can be voted for. Intellectual
    discourse might be stimulating on this blog, but hungry people don’t have time
    to wait, they want food on the table today.

    is happening in Egypt right now is the world in microcosm (though not so micro
    maybe). Their current population stands at 60 million, in 35 years time it will
    be twice that number. Their land produces enough food for 55 million at most.
    This is where their problem lies, yet they scream at elected leaders, and
    demand ‘shariah law’ as if that will it some strange way solve their
    difficulties. Much the same thing is happening throughout the middle east, and
    by definition the rest of the world. It has nothing to do with politics or
    religion, the Egyptian economy is subsidized at a rate of 30%, fuel is sold at
    about 20% of its real market value, some basic foodstuffs at a seventh of real
    cost. This is unsustainable, and there is no answer to it. Jobs also depend on
    cheap fuel. One way or another we are all living on subsidized food and fuel
    and those subsidies are normal. If food and fuel don’t appear at these prices,
    then people riot. We will riot, just like the Egyptians. The truth is the Egyptian
    government has an annual trade deficit of $20 billion, and can no longer afford
    to subsidise bread and fuel, and they have no more to offer. Things are going
    to get a whole lot worse, Egypt is just the start of it, The civil war in Syria
    is driven by resource shortage, where farmers have been forced off the land and
    into cities because of drought. Saudi can only hold itself together so longer
    as they have oil to exchange for food. Morsi is no doubt aware that this really
    is the end of the oilparty, whoever takes over from him faces the same