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:
Energy transformation and energy hierarchical organization, suggested as the fifth law of thermodynamics
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
“This paper considers current concerns about resource depletion (“energy descent”) and the unsustainability of current economic structures, which may indicate we are entering a new era signaled by the end of growth. Using the systems thinking tool of PatternDynamics™, developed by Tim Winton, this paper seeks to integrate multiple natural patterns in order to effectively impact these pressing challenges. Some of the Patterns considered include Energy, Transformity, Power, Pulse, Growth, and the polarities of Expansion/Contraction and Order/Chaos. . . .
. . . . As a new flow of energy enters the system and interacts with a resource, transformation of energy can happen, where some quantity of energy is liberated from the resource and transformed into a higher quality energy. The Transformity Pattern, Winton states, “is a major structural aspect of how the universe works, and its structure is complexification” (Winton, 2012a). H. T. Odum argued that all processes entail a reduction of energy quantity as they are transformed into a higher quality energy, a new quality of energy available for use by the system to function in a new and more powerful way. The reduction in energy quantity is the 2nd law of thermodynamics at work – the energy that is dissipated out in all processes to increase entropy. This is where some amount of energy “sinks” (into the Void) in every process. The 1st law of thermodynamics is not violated, however – the total quantity of energy in the larger system is conserved, but a portion of it has now become unavailable for additional work.”
See the entire article, published at Integral Leadership Review, here.
We are in uncharted territory with the Ebola virus disease (EVD). The last time we had a plague that was this deadly was the Black Death in the 14th century, when there were only 450 million people in the world. That pandemic killed 30% to 70% of the population. There is no benchmark for EVD, which kills 3 out of 4 people it touches, and is emerging into a global population of 7 billion.
This pandemic signifies a turning point for society in response to peak oil, highlighting the problem of globalization for a planet of 7 billion people. We have lost control of a deadly outbreak, and our responses to its exponential growth are linear at best, ensuring that this plague will most likely spread further. Many in first world countries think we are immune to plagues. How might transmission of EVD change as it moves from a low-resource or low-transformity setting in West Africa to resource-rich (high-transformity) countries? How might the battle against this epidemic change as it breaks out into different environments?
“If the future is to remain open and free, we need people who can tolerate the unknown, who will not need the support of completely worked out systems or traditional blueprints from the past.” –Margaret Mead
Modern societies have developed as adaptations to a high-energy world by producing surpluses of non-renewable energies, especially in the United States. These complex, crumbling societies have developed a powerful system of centralized, top-down control system, with a widening gap in power and wealth from the mainstream, as the balance of power diverges even further between the haves and have-nots, with a hollowing out of the middle class. If we are to have any future society, it will be more cooperative and self-organizing one. What are self-organizing societies, and why should you be hoping for one as an alternative to the current emphasis on centralized control? How can we develop them? Continue reading Self-organizing societies
This is part two of a three-part series revisiting HT Odum’s classic Ambio paper on the 3Es, which was written 40 years ago for a special issue of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science’s Energy in Society issue (Ambio, 1973). The article was republished in Mother Earth News, and the reprint is still available online through Minnesotans for Sustainability. The first 10 points are covered in part one of the post series. Points 11-15 of the Ambio paper are extracted and quoted below; in this section of the paper Odum described the not-yet named field of ecological engineering, as well as energy quality (transformity), and the net energy of solar and nuclear energy. Continue reading Energy, ecology, & economics — part II
The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves. –Oscar Arias Sanchez
It is easy to get distracted when the world appears to be falling down around our heads. This week, the Emergist reports that he has gotten waylaid by intrusions at the personal scale, and relates those intrusions back to the principles of emergy and transformity. Here’s a snippet below from his blog this week about the transformity of his education, his feelings about his competing needs of parenting at the personal scale, and the urge to give to actions at the larger scale, and the relative value and costs of education in our society. The post is warm, funny, and something that I’ve been thinking about this week, too. Go read it, please, and I’ll wait right here while you do.
The Emergist Attacked by Two Toddlers
This blog has gone quiet for sometime, not that I haven’t had anymore topics to blog about, but because my oldest toddler has learned to turn off the computer. I actually have two posts fully thought out and half written. Further complicating the process is that the older one grabs the tip of my nose whenever he wants my attention, which is all the time, while his sister sneak attacks by smearing saliva on the screen with her hands. This all significantly ups the ante to write anything. Continue reading The transformity of personal action
This is a repost from TheEmergist on April 21, 2013. Brian runs the twice-monthly blog The Emergist. He is a stay-at-home dad of two young children and one very young six-acre forest garden. He became enthralled with HT Odum’s theories after reading Environment, Power, and Society in the 21st Century (EPS) and uses his blog as an outlet for the strange stream of consciousness that EPS induces in its readers.
What are the reasons civilization maybe more prone to frequent collapse? Cancer? Complexity? Something else?
What do models of autism tell us about the “disorder”?
How should/has humanity combat/ed autism?
H/T to Mary and Jan for helping me parse this post out. I don’t think they necessarily agree with this idea, but their resistance helped make it much better. Further, I apologize if anyone takes issue with my usage of the term pathology or autism. They just happen to be most succinct words I can think of for this topic.
An article on the difficulty of building truly green buildings and recent discussions about the healthcare system triggered thoughts about a major transition problem that is occurring over and over again—the problem of a complex hierarchy that demands feeding with extra energy. Previous posts about the added complexity that digitization brings are pertinent here, but this post is about the general problem of how we respond to limits by adding complexity, and what it might take to remove complexity at the top of the hierarchy without collapse. Continue reading Adding and removing complexity
The picture above is a metaphor for our contracting society in an era of declining nonrenewable energy. What is the emergy basis of an electric bike powered by a solar power battery that the bike and rider tows? How do we use technology while our horizons of available yet marginal net energy recede? The award-winning bike/solar bob is touted as every environmentalist’s dream, where I can have my cake and eat it too. If I tow a solar panel behind my electric bike, I can boost my power and range to go longer distances at higher speeds. I can even charge electronics and power LED lights. What Is the true value to society of the electric panel towed behind on a bob, and is it worth it? Is the time we save worth the expenditures of energy? Can high-tech boosters augment or be layered on top of human-powered technology in a lower energy world? How much tech is too much? In our struggle to extract usable energy from the surrounding environment to maintain our society based on high-quality fossil fuels, our highly transformed society uses energies of varying qualities in substitution for each other, without an understanding of the Transformity involved in different types of energy. Continue reading A highly transformed society
My thoughts and concern goes out to those struggling with this unprecedented American storm in the northeast. As I write this early on Tuesday morning, watching this game-changer of a storm, a myriad of thoughts go through my head. The storm event is just the beginning. Rivers will flood, and snows will accumulate. Recovery will be long and slow. Recovery will be hampered by problems with energy delivery, complexity, and density of populations. Just in time, digitized systems that are overly complex will be challenged. News will filter out slowly, with initial optimism about the extent of the damage, followed by increasingly pessimistic reports about the size and extent of the problems as communication begins to be reestablished. This post describes Sandy as a catastrophic pulse in relation to the problems of dense urban living, complexity, and digitization. Continue reading Sandy and digital snow days
How do cities concentrate energy and materials spatially? What is the relative emergy basis for modern cities, agrarian towns, and rural spaces? Do city dwellers use more or fewer resources than suburban or rural dwellers? Are big cities more sustainable in descent, as some propose, and how do we maximize empower in the future for our cities? Continue reading Spatial emergy concentration and city living
[This article is reposted with permission from Kurt Cobb’s April 5th, 2009 post on his Resource Insights website. Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites.]
This decade was the one that was supposed to usher in the era when bits and bytes would replace tons and barrels as the measure of what an economy does. The information economy would eclipse the economy of blast furnaces and railcars.
The allure of such an economy is that it was said to be less resource intense, less driven by the high-amplitude economic cycles of the industrial economy, and more driven by the need for and efficient use of information, something that is always in demand. It turned out not to be so. The tech bust of the early part of this decade highlighted the vulnerability of the so-called information economy to cyclical forces and also the reliance of that economy on the more substantial physical economy. Continue reading The Unbearable Lightness of Information