Pushing the Prosperous Way Down

By Elliott Campbell

In my experience the concept of a “prosperous way down” from the perspective of one immersed in the current cultural and economic paradigm of constant growth is anathema to some and dubious to most. I was asked to speak to two environmental groups, The Baltimore Green Forum and the Greenbelt Climate Action Network, as a result of the post I wrote for this blog last October. While the organizers of the groups, Sam Hopkins and Lore Rosenthal, of BGF and GCAN, respectively, were very supportive I was skeptical of the reception the ideas espoused by the Odums in A Prosperous Way Down would receive. This fear caused me to debate whether or not to present prosperous way in the class I taught last semester at University of Maryland, Energy and the Environment. However, I strongly believe that talking about the prosperous way down, spreading the knowledge, is one of, if not the, most important contributions I can make to society as a scientist, so agreed to both presentations and made the prosperous way down lecture the last lecture in the class.

Click this image to go to his personal site
Click this image to go to Chefurka’s personal site

When communicating these problems I find it is informative to think in terms of Paul Chefurka’s 5 stages of awareness, analogous to the Kubler-Ross model 5 stages of grief. The first stage is dead asleep, where someone has little if any knowledge or concern for environmental catastrophes, economic or social injustices, and feels that these issues can be overcome with human ingenuity. The second stage is awareness of one problem. Individuals at this stage are often times very passionate regarding their chosen cause, but tend to ignore other issues. The third stage is awareness of many problems. This is the stage I believe the majority of well-informed individuals exist, and the stage of the majority of my audience for the talks and in my class. They are aware that the world faces many fundamental problems, but may believe that the problems can be fixed within the context of traditional economic/social paradigms and do not recognize the interconnectedness of the problems the world faces. The fourth stage is the recognition of the interconnectedness of the problems and the fifth stage is awareness that these problems are persistent in all aspects of life. Chefurka states that what we face is not merely a set of problems, it is a negative state in which we inextricably exist and virtually every thing we do contributes to the worsening of this state. And essentially, he is right. The simple task at which I labor involves using electricity generated by coal, worsening the quality of the air and warming the globe, to power a computer built in a foreign nation with lax safety standards and low pay, composed of rare earth minerals mined with those same lax standards and low pay, not to mention the environmental impact of the mining process. I am a vegetarian, bike or bus to work, and attempt to eat and shop locally/ethically. And I am killing the earth, just a little more slowly than average for a citizen of the developed world.

Taking it all in

Chefurka states that upon reaching the fifth stage depression and a feeling of helplessness often sets in. I believe that placing the stages of awareness within the context of systems ecology is a good way to clarify and perhaps deal with the stages of awareness. The interconnectedness of systems is fundamental to systems ecology. Anyone familiar with the discipline is aware that the behavior of a system has effects beyond itself. For example, the study of a tundra ecosystem transitioning from permafrost to a liquid state would trigger change at a local scale (shifting of dominant species, decomposition of organic matter), and cause change on a larger scale, decreasing albedo and releasing carbon to the atmosphere, perpetuating climate change. There is no such thing as an isolated problem from a systems perspective. The Maximum Empower Principle (proposed fourth law of thermodynamics, Odum, 1996 after Lotka, 1922), stating that systems self-organize to maximize empower (the flow of emergy per time) gives us the theoretical basis and explanation for Chefurka’s fifth stage. We are complicit in the problems of the world not because we are bad people but because we are self-organizing to maximize the use of energy, in this case fossil fuels. This is not to say we cannot be more ethical in the way we self-organize or that we should not prepare for a lower energy future, but it does mean that as it is possible (the net energy/emergy of our resources is sufficient to sustain growth) we will continue the constant growth paradigm.

So, depending on where you fall on the scale, this information can be hard to take in. The presentation I gave largely followed the pattern put forth the book, A Prosperous Way Down, introducing the principles of Maximum Empower and system scale-dependent pulsing first, followed by setting up the inevitability of the exhaustion of fossil fuels and the inability of renewable resources to completely replace them (due to lower net emergy/energy return on investment). This is followed by detailing how the Odums suggest we prepare for the way down, transition from growth to descent, and finally descend to a lower energy state. The particular policies stated by the Odums (and a couple that I added) deserves more discussion and will be the subject of a future post.

The world at our fingertips

I should preface my discussion of the reaction to the presentations of the prosperous way down with the qualifier that the crowds to which I was speaking are certainly not representative of the average 1st Worlder. They were all either concerned enough with environmental issues to join an environmental group or take an environmental science course so were somewhat predisposed to the argument. However, given the extremity of what the prosperous way down calls for relative to the status quo, I was surprised at the percentage of the audience that agreed with the premise, accepting the inevitability of a lower energy future and the drastic global change necessary to get from the status quo to where we need to be. There were dissenters of course, particularly within my class, but the fact that 75% of 44 millennials, most of whom were constantly attached at the hip to a tablet, argued for the inevitability of the prosperous way down when given a choice on the final exam demonstrates that the evidence is compelling. The counter argument commonly centers around human ingenuity. This is a natural position for many, as human ingenuity has driven unprecedented growth in capital (both economic and informational) over the past century and is glorified (rightly so in most cases) in the educational system and media. Looking at the world through a systems lens (the macroscope, as Odum termed it) reveals that the unprecedented growth is, in the grand scheme, a short term trend and all systems, humanity included, are subject to period pulses of growth and descent.

Macroscopic perspective

The students that enrolled in my class are now armed with a macroscopic lens and a semesters worth of evidence that the growth paradigm is unsustainable. Of course, the presentation of Odum’s work to approximately 100 people is a long way from a paradigm shift. But the overall positive reaction and multigenerational willingness, when presented with a compelling argument, to accept the need for change gives me hope that if Odum’s work was given a larger stage real change could transpire. So, given the verisimilitude of the maximum empower principle, what can be done? How can we prepare for peak oil/coal/energy and the inevitable post-peak descent? The Odums have lain out some excellent policies in their book (most of which are also on this website, expounded upon in fine pedagogical fashion, both by Mary Odum and Tom Abel) but I have some minor contributions, to be the subject of the next post.

  • NormanJohn

    Can we dispense with the wish-politics
    and wish-economics and deal with some realities here.
    The gentle downsizing into some kind of
    bucolic peasantry implies a living not much different to the one we have now,
    perhaps with a few minor inconveniences, but nothing too drastic. We can all
    have nice friendly neighbours who will wish us good morning as we wend our way
    to our field to bring in the bountiful harvest.

    Get real!

    We will not enter a state of gentle
    decline, we will continue our current headlong rush until nature stops us dead
    (literally) in our tracks. Those remaining will then pick up such pieces as are
    Altruism is the fruit of prosperity, and
    without the mechanisms of modern infrastructure, we are going to know a
    grinding poverty far worse than our pre-industrial forebears. We will be too
    busy staying alive to be nice to each other. The poverty of the peasant in the
    middle ages wasn’t pleasant, but he knew no better. When we relapse into that
    state, we will know better, but lack the means to do anything about it. World
    population pre 1800 was around 1 billion. We now have 7 billion put here by
    fossil fuels. Without that fuel, 6 billion people don’t have a future. We eat
    oil, without it, we starve. It really is that simple.
    Those who adhere to this delusion of a
    future life of gentle decline into an alternative lifestyle of comfort and
    happiness assume an infinity of perfect health, ignoring the fact that our
    medical infrastructure, for all its shortcomings, is entirely dependent on the
    (hydrocarbon based) industrial system. Without it, your doctor may know what
    ails you, but will have little to offer by way of a cure. You can forget
    hospitals with their flashing screens and whirring machines. Our health is a
    product of industry, and that industry is a product of hydrocarbon energy
    So stop deluding people that things are
    going to be OK. You cannot make a vaccine from the output of a windfarm or a
    solar panel
    Our rural life is proposed to go on as
    before, yet nations are held together only by the means that created them:
    energy. It is perhaps no coincidence that the USA and the viable steam engine
    were created in the same year. Without motive power and the prosperity it
    brings states cannot hold together. This is why the EU is breaking up, and why
    the USA will eventually devolve along ethnic and geographic fault lines. Force
    will be used to prevent that of course, but force needs energy input, which
    will not be available.
    The oil age was perhaps a brief flash of
    light in the millions of years of our existence. But it was good while it

    • Bart_at_EB

      This is not my perception. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and there is only a small correlation between how benign a society is, and its level of material wealth. The problem with a comment like this is that it puts a clamp on our ability to visualize how a descent can be managed. It extrapolates from a dysfunctional system, held in place by cheap energy, and says that nothing else is possible. // In general, it is not possible to discuss the issue in this way. In general, it’s better to find people who are doing good work, who are aware, who can co-operate, rather than to convince people otherwise.

      • NormanJohn

        individuals will always do good work, my point is that 7 billion people cannot survive on means sufficient for only 1 or 2 billion. yet the mothers of the next 2 billion are alive right now, and will continue to breed and demand food. 9 billion most certainly cannot survive

        Also our health will not survive the removal of our industrialised system
        This isn’t scaremongering—it is simple logic

        • Bart_at_EB

          Thanks for the reply NJ. // I think the healthcare system is a great example. For sure, in a planned descent, the healthcare system will not resemble the current US model. But to see what the possibilities are, we really have to analyze and do research, not just have a knee-jerk reaction. At Reslience.org, we’ve been publishing the work of public health researcher Dan Bednarz on the effects of peak oil on the health system. One can identify key parts of the health system with a high return, and other parts that are expensive but low return. For example, public health and attention to infants have big payoffs. Much of the expensive high-tech equipment doesn’t have such a high return in health. So, yes, there are challenges, but it’s important to keep it in a rational framework.

        • “9 billion most certainly cannot survive.”

          I walked down a mountain yesterday after enjoying the view from a glorious summit. Instead of being sad about the loss of view, I enjoyed the relatively easy hike (gravity works) down the mountain. Most of the work was in slowing my descent and avoiding falling, while enjoying a better perspective on the downhill than I had on the walk up where I had to crane my neck.

          We’re all going to die, NJ; it’s just a matter of how we choose to go. Entropy and decay are the default, and energy is the life force that moves us in the other direction. You sound angry about loss of the summit. The trip down the mountain could be even more enjoyable in some places, depending on the makeup and emotional orientation of the inhabitants. The future will not be uniform over time, space, or scale.


          • NormanJohn

            Apologies if my anger shows through as something focused on myself, it wasn’t meant to. I think it is frustration that our elected and unelected leaders are constantly promising infinite growth, and the great majority of people find comfort in that belief, and embrace it. They, (the majority) are going to get seriously ’emotionally disoriented’ (violently annoyed) when they find out it was a lie.
            They will not have the mindset of you or I and work together for a better future.

            Very few are aware of what delivered our last century of growth and prosperity. There seems to be an absolute certainty that technology will deliver infinite amounts of energy, despite the nonsense of it.

            As for ‘choosing the way to go’ that reminds me of the old refrain, ‘everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die’. I’ve had my time at the summit, and enjoyed it, I would like my grandchildren to enjoy the views I enjoyed.
            Whereas I am comparatively well off, I realise that my financial security was created by the cheap energy inputs of my working life, plus some work on my part. The consensus of political opinion seems to be that ‘hard work’ alone will kickstart the economy. It won’t. Medeival peasants worked themselves to death, the ‘economy’ remained static.

            My grandchildren work just as hard, but they don’t seem to be able to climb the same ladder I did. The reason for that, in part, is that housing is no longer cheap relative to income. A house, for example, represents a parcel of embodied energy, I was able to buy that cheaply and have plenty of spare cash left over, they do not enjoy this privelege.

          • So true, NJ, that even in the rear view mirror, most will not understand what has happened, attributing our demise to single issue scapegoats as Elliott describes in the post. Unless we can see and understand the energy flows and the true energy basis of different parts of our society, and the limits of that energy basis, we will focus on other reasons for our failures.

            Helping our children and grandchildren to acquire different goals for life, and different expectations, may be the best gift we can give them. Is a big house a privilege or a wasteful luxury?

  • NormanJohn

    Interesting exchange of ideas Bart, and I think public health is one of the best pivots on which to turn our ideas for the future. Dan Bednarz and I have exchanged thoughts on this and he published my piece on public health http://www.endofmore.com/?p=763 (http://healthafteroil.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/guest-post-survive/) in which I set out the problems we face in that respect. I submitted it to EB/Resilience but it wasn’t used.
    While I agree that research into health in the context of our future might help, no amount of research changes the fact that human beings in constant close proximity to one another are a health hazard in numerous ways. The most obvious of course is that we drown in our own excrement unless we find ways to move it. That requires colossal amounts of energy to pump water in and flush waste out. Building sewer and water systems has always been the best investment in public health, and gave a high return even though it was and is expensive. In a ‘downsized’ environment ‘flush and forget’ will not happen.
    The alternative of course is to move ourselves to fresh pastures.
    But there are 7 billion of us, we no longer have room to move apart. We certainly do not have the knowledge to support ourselves independently even if we had the space. Mutual support for commercial and defensive reasons is now critical and there is a rejection of any other mode of living. This is shown by the growth of the mega-city and the mega-slum. We remain convinced that the city is the source of all wealth and prosperity, rather than the energy sink it really is.
    As to the ‘planned descent’ the problem there, as I see it, is that plans need planners. Human nature being what it is, no matter how benevolent the intent, resistance to change is inevitable. Therefore, for the good of all, there will have to be some kind of enforcement.
    Throughout history, there has never been a shortage of volunteers for the job of enforcer. And of course there will have to be an Enforcer in Chief.
    So we are left with the decision of what needs to be enforced. Mass birth control? That’s been tried already. Movement out of cities to agricultural labour? That sounds familiar too. Disposing of surplus people? I think that was tried 70 years ago. Professor Albert Bartlett sums up the choices we have far better than I can: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umFnrvcS6AQ
    While I agree that everything should be done to mitigate the problems we face, it’s wrong to gloss over the crude reality of human nature, and expect us to somehow forget millennia of homicidal history (where virtually all conflict has ultimately been about access to resources) and within a generation become altruistic gardeners.

  • NormanJohn

    for some reason my link to Health after oil didn’t show in my last post.


  • Elliott Campbell

    Norman, my previous post, and many of the other contributions to this site, deal with many of the issues you raise.

    Overpopulation is an obvious, huge problem that will not be solved overnight, or in a single generation. It remains to be seen whether or not the global community is capable of the cooperation and sacrifices that will be necessary for descent from peak energy. In reality, given the current political/social/economic climate, a catastrophic crash is more likely than a gradual, prosperous, descent. However, there is a non-zero chance that the way down can be “prosperous”. That is not to say the transition would be easy or without conflict.

    Given my assumption of a non-zero probability of avoiding catastrophe, I believe those of us with the knowledge and foresight to anticipate energy descent are morally obligated to work towards educating others and increasing that probability. By not acknowledging that probability you decrease it, providing an easy excuse to ignore the problem, accept inevitable catastrophe, and not work towards real change.

    In emergy analysis a transformity (emergy per joule or gram) is a measure of quality, or ability to do work. Knowledge and information have the highest transformities observed, with the ability to cause the greatest feedback to the system in the form of influence/useful work. The fossil fuel bubble has allowed humanity to build an unprecedented storage of knowledge, along with an extraordinary population and infrastructure. It remains to be seen whether or not our knowledge capital will be used in a beneficial way, feeding back to the global system and allowing the population and infrastructure storages to be reduced humanely, but the capacity does exist.

    • Tim W

      Elliot, a non-zero probability assumption is a requirement for any moral individual. Believing otherwise is a way of betraying the next generation – it’s giving up on them. If we are not to assume to a non-zero probability, then what is the point of continuing…well, anything really? Instead, responsible individuals choose a non-zero probability assumption because they might be right and that it is better than assuming that they are wrong.

  • Paul Chefurka

    Elliott, I’m sorry I didn’t see this earlier. I’m really glad my “Five Stages” perspective is useful. As I read what you wrote about the Maximum Empower Principle being the theoretical basis of the fifth stage, that I couldn’t begin to understand how the principle shapes the world (and especially the human experiment) until I’d reached the 5th stage myself through more-or-less intuitive exploration of the predicament.The MEP and Stage 5 awareness are in a sense mutually illuminating.- or at least they were for me.

    My current hypothesis is that the MEP is the basis for the appearance of life itself as a dissipative structure (per Ilya Prigogine). The process was intuited by Schroedinger, and has been well described by Schneider and Kay. There is a lot of work going on in that area these days – I’ve run into useful work by Eric Chaisson, Stanley Salthe, Martyushev and Seleznev, Bob Ulanowicz, Charlie Lineweaver, Axel Kleidon, Ralph Lorenz, Rod Swenson and others (please excuse me if I’m stepping on any scientific toes here).

    The principle of MEP obviously got encoded by the DNA it helped to shape, and so can be regarded as the nomological underpinning of the “prime directives” of evolution: to survive, to grow and to reproduce. Since DNA shapes all organisms’ behavior (in conjunction with the shifting environment of course), the influence of MEP appears to some degree in all behavior . Such behavior includes human thought processes, where MEP acts to constrain our “accessible choice domains” when we solve problems. I think the constraints are effected through the intermediary of our evolved task-specific mental mechanisms that are at the heart of evolutionary psychology. Because of our inherent “instinct blindness” we are not aware that our behavior is shaped in fundamental ways by thermodynamic principles.

    This shaping or constraint orients human behavior towards executing MEP-based programs, resulting in typically human behavior such as increasingly complex social structures, agriculture, the search for ever-more-effective energy sources to degrade, clustering into cities, the development of political systems, warfare, all types of science and (especially) engineering. Essentially, all the qualities and behaviors that we view as inherently human have as their foundation this offspring of the Second Law.

    This framework goes a long way toward explaining why degrowth is so difficult. On a personal level we can sometimes make the necessary choices, but the psychological entrainment generated by group communications leads to a reversion to the mean, and the mean in this case is whatever will execute MEP the best. I view human groups a bit like the classic “adiabatic box of gas” in thermodynamics. Each molecule can have its own position and velocity, but when enough molecules are present, statistical mechanics takes over to produce the “emergent” properties of temperature and pressure – given the overall energy of the system.

    The analogy holds for human civilizations, if we consider that human behavior is statistically deterministic in a similar manner. The more individuals/molecules there are, and the more energy that gets fed into the system, the more predictable its behavior becomes. The aggregate behavior of 7 billion people in a civilization system processing 18 terawatts of energy becomes as deterministic as anything one could ask for. And that behavior does NOT include voluntary system-level degrowth. External factors are the only effective determinant of the outcome.

    The next issue I’d like to address is “human ingenuity”. In keeping with its MEP underpinnings, the human brain evolved to be a problem-solving, limit-removal mechanism. The kinds of problems we solve are immediately recognizable imminent limits to survival, growth and reproduction. Those problems include predators like lions, food shortages, mating and status rivalries, warfare etc. the kinds of problems we don’t solve include things like atmospheric CO2, soil depletion and oceanic overfishing. and in keepimng with our

    • http://www.paulchefurka.ca/LadderOfAwareness.html

      Hi, Paul. Hopefully Elliott will comment here too. I really like your five stages. Environmentalists worried primarily about climate change are fixed at stage two or maybe three, while most peak oil aware people are leveled at stage four. I agree that until we see the energy basis for society, the hierarchical chains of energy that flow upwards through society, we don’t understand how energy impacts everything, in a hierarchy.

      Prigogine saw it looking down the pyramid, seeing the entropy flowing off of the exchanges. He was focused on the second law, entropy. He wasn’t looking at how the energy flows upwards, so much. Maximum Empower is the proposed fourth law. Yes, MEP explains the progress of evolution–competition is just a piece of the story that our capitalist society has chosen to highlight as the dominating force. But evolutionary psych doesn’t hold the answers either, IMO, as it is not energy-based, and tends towards reductionism as a result.

      “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 energy well in their own maintenance, and compete well with other patterns that chance interposes” (Odum, n.d.).

      Trial and error experiments to maximize empower depending on energy flows and system structure result in system transformations that create growth and complexity or contraction and simplification. We contrive to create ever more effective methods for maximizing the entrainment of power within the system, until the power availability changes. Then the system and individuals within the system have to retool to adapt to more constrained empower through efficiencies and restructuring. The reason why competition is so dominant in a growing system is that surplus energy encourages us to look after our own success as a means of getting ahead of other individuals and getting more energy for us and the system. In descent, competitive behaviors are like cutting off our own nose to spite our face, as hogging too much energy means the system overall fails.

      Once you see it, you can never go back to the old reductionist ways of viewing the world. Soddy saw it and described it thusly:

      “The laws of thermodynamics control, in the last resort, the rise and fall of
      political systems, the freedom or bondage of nations, the movements of commerce and industry, the origins of wealth and poverty, and the general physical welfare of the race” (Soddy, 1911?1922?)

      So yes, no system level degrowth. Bottom-up self-organization in patchy successful smaller niches. The power imbalance between bottom-up and top-down power at the end of empire is worrisome–the power imbalance between the two does not maximize empower because of the overwhelming differences in scale and energy flow.

      Getting that 5th stage where we can see the energy basis and understand empower is critical for proactive change, and for understanding what happened as we look in the rear view mirror looking for explanations. Thanks for responding.