A systemic perspective on life

By Torbjörn Rydberg

Some of the ideas in this post were originally published in the report, Agroecology in practice: Walking the talk (2014).

During my period as a teacher, my main interests have been open system thermodynamics and general systems theory for any system, including ecosystems, agricultural systems, energy systems, and economic systems. The method and theory for dealing with thermodynamics of open systems can be hard for many people to digest, but for natural scientists, classical thermodynamics with an analytical mechanistic worldview is still the dominating paradigm, which perhaps makes understanding general systems easier. The goal of this essay is to explain the shift from a quantitative mechanistic system perspective to a qualitative understanding of the web of life.

First we need to change our systems view from a mechanistic engineering view to an open systems perspective. We must broaden our view to include the world as one system full of processes interdependent upon each other, which works on different time scales as well as different size and spatial scales. This essay explains how I introduce fundamental concepts of self-organizing systems to students who are new to the discipline:

  1. Energy transformation and energy hierarchical organization, suggested as the fifth law of thermodynamics
  2. Maximum power and maximum empower, suggested to be the fourth law of thermodynamics for open self-organizing systems.

We need to use both of these concepts to understand sustainability of qualitative complex systems. These concepts impact how we measure and test systems performance such as productivity and efficiency. Continue reading A systemic perspective on life

Renewable Power Rhythm

The Rhythm of Power Availability in the Post-Prosperous Way Down World

by David Tilley, University of Maryland

Dr. H.T. Odum and his wife Betty spent much of their careers developing thoughts on what became the book, A Prosperous Way Down (PWD). Others, like Richard Heinberg, have been successful at bringing the seriousness and reality of a PWD to a larger audience. There is a small and growing amount of thinking and talking about doomsday or armageddon scenarios that many think will prevail as fossil fuels become scarce.

Hunger Games Capitol City (Collins, Ross, Lionsgate) http://thecapitoltour.pn/

National Geographic has given us the TV reality program Doomsday Preppers. Its presence and popularity reflects the public’s perception that change is on its way. I think the success and impetus for Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games is a response to the reality of a PWD. Rather than cover what the way down will be like in this post, I wanted to share my thoughts on what one important aspect of life might be like once we reach “down”. That is, the time after decline is finished, when the fossil fuels are gone and society is running almost completely on renewably sourced energies. I explore how peoples’ behaviors may change once they are driven by flow-limited energy sources rather than storage-driven sources in the post carbon world? Flow-limited sources cannot be controlled and stored easily so society will be more effective if it adapts to the rhythm and availability of energy. Continue reading Renewable Power Rhythm

What is Special about “A Prosperous Way Down”

by Thomas Abel

What does A Prosperous Way Down add to the many current discussions of Peak Oil, Transition, and Collapse?  What does it say that is different?  What unique contributions does it make?  And how does it jive with positions of others who are writing under the three topics listed above?

When I raised this question in our PWD workshop I did not honestly know the answer.  I assumed it would take some careful reading and distilling.  But I had forgotten that the Odums attempted to directly answer that question for us in Chapter 1.  I will summarize their answer, but first a general comment.

The ideas in this book are not ‘peak oil’ ideas.  It is not a book about fossil fuel extraction and diminishing returns, though those issues are there.  What immediately sets A Prosperous Way Down apart from other books about peak, transition, or collapse is its big ideas about all systems of nature—about air, sea, and land, about life, about energy, about culture and people.  The Odums’ recommendations for a prosperous descent are one outcome from a general theoretical understanding of all living and non-living systems and processes of the Earth in our Universe.  As the Odums say, Continue reading What is Special about “A Prosperous Way Down”