The transformity of personal action

By Mary Logan

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.

Now this all seems like an emergetic impossibility. There has easily been spent a hundred more times money (a possible proxy for energy) spent on my life than both of their lives combined (Fig 1 or pg 285 EPS). That means that I should have a way higher transformity. Transformity is a measure of all the organizing energy that has been invested into a person or thing. Odum says that as transformity goes up then both my influence and territory should go up. How is he so wrong?… The rest is at this link

A cat called chaos says no typing, only petting

Pretty funny, huh, that bit about the saliva on the screen? Anyone who is a parent can relate. You may even be able to relate if you have a cat. The Emergist appears to be having difficulty with some of the same issues I’ve wrestled with this week, with some of the same results. Drafts of more complex posts about principles get waylaid by competing demands and focus at the personal scale when chaos comes knocking.

What does he mean by transformity?

First of all, we should probably check the terms that the Emergist is using. He talks about the implied transformity of his education–reading between the lines, apparently a significant amount of money was spent. The money spent on education is an inaccurate proxy for the energy, materials, and information that support the changes in roles in a person’s life, as environmental resources flow upwards through the economy and its education system, to support the student from school, to college, and beyond. This process is a hierarchy, with fewer people reaching the higher stages. Energy losses at each stage dictate that those with the highest transformity (on the right in the diagram below) have the highest emergy (or energy memory). In Emergy synthesis, the process of valuation considers the indirect and direct contributions of ecological processes using equivalents of solar energy rather than monetary metrics to consider differences in quality of energy. It approaches valuation from a donor-based or supply side independent of the more usual economic demand-based approach that is dependent on subjective values of willingness to pay. So in this discussion, the word valuation reflects the inherent value of a process, irregardless of demand, societal need, or political preference.

Odum, Environment, Power, and Society for the 21st Century, 2007, p. 285 Life cycle of human beings passing through hierarchy of age and experience, with stages in which functions of higher transformity are added

In a recent paper describing Human Transformities in a Global Hierarchy, Abel (2010) makes the point that educational attainment is only one measure of value within a socioeconomic hierarchy, albeit one near and dear to the hearts of academics. There are more ways to add to the cultural information storage, such as inspirational or transformational parenting during a time of great transition and experimentation. Abel explains it thusly:

Humans possess and perpetuate cultural information, and possession of differing information, for Odum, is what differentiates people within the human hierarchy described here. He provides the simple formula, “human service is evaluated by multiplying the energy expended by a human being by the transformity of that person’s education and experience” (Odum, 1996, p. 230). Note that he used the phrase “education and experience.” In his formulations, however, he only utilized data on educational levels. This is not surprising, since this data is readily available. However, as suggested above, other cultural information beyond formal education is essential to the construction of human hierarchy. While that information is far more difficult to articulate, its existence and importance gives us reason to accept the possibility that human hierarchy is more complicated and perhaps more expansive than Odum expected. . . . Anthropologists and sociologists have critically studied the nature of human inequality. Bourdieu has demonstrated that the information of enculturation from parents and peers, not (only) formal education, provides the distinction necessary for the reproduction of social hierarchy (Bourdieu, 1984). Information about behaviors that are appropriate and defining of social status, or information about the use of power, these are the practical reasoning from which differentiation grows. As we know, many world elites are children of past elites, forming dynasties of great power (Domhoff, 1998). The transmission of cultural information from parents and role models has surely contributed to the fortunes of successive generations (Abel, 2010, p. 2115-6).

The Emergist complains that he should have a way higher transformity than his current role of parenthood, due to his education. In terms of transformity, the energy memory vested within the Emergist (the value) is there, so his transformity is what it is, from a donor-based perspective. The issue is whether that value is being used optimally by society. And the Emergist may be selling himself short regarding the relative values of his various contributions. Transformational, creative ideas that change society are of great value, and during a time of turmoil those ideas may not be generated within bureaucratic, dogmatic educational systems. They may, instead, be passed down through more informal means such as parenting of novel thinking leading to dynasties of new world views. The systems sort through the relative values, and over time and  select for the optimal empower, as I will explain below.

Tom Abel, 2010, p. 2113
Tom Abel, 2010, p. 2113

At the larger scale, the money spent on The Emergist’s education is an inaccurate proxy for a concurrent, converging transformation of energy, materials, and information from the environmental base, through the economy, into the university, where teaching processes refine knowledge, produce students, and add to short-term information such as the internet, and long-term information, such as scientific principles in books and art and literature in humanities and our culture.

Odum, 1999, p. 15
Odum, 1999, p. 15

Given the energy invoked by society in moving the Emergist through the educational process, he feels the obligation to contribute more than he does when wiping his daugher’s saliva off the computer screen. We can find one of the earliest reflections of some basic emergetic principles in the Bible’s Parable of the Faithful Servant; “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked” (Luke, 12:35-48, World English Bible)Privilege brings responsibility and that responsibility entails accountability. Many cultures have echoed that theme, and the modern-day concept of servant leadership is a modern reflection of the idea that we must put the needs of others first when we lead, before personal needs of power, fame, or material possessions.

What happened to the popularity of John F. Kennedy’s maxim for individual action that feeds back to the larger system: “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” Those were rousing words that struck a nerve in our country, and served to ignite a decade of rapid growth. Yet those words were also followed by more selfish instructions, perhaps, for our country’s behavior at the global scale. The message for national policy was a call to arms, and a subtle sanctioning of the global reach of empire, as America began to feel her power in the 1960s. “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man” (JF Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961 inaugural address). Our national pursuit of empire was triggered with these words, and we never looked back, energetically. Eventually, our actions mirrored our country’s pursuit of empire, with selfless individual actions giving way to pursuit of power and wealth, which have brought us to overshoot and decay.

How does the principle of maximum power impact the transformity of education?

The Emergist complains that, “Transformity is a measure of all the organizing energy that has been invested into a person or thing. Odum says that as transformity goes up then both my influence and territory should go up. How is he so wrong?” The operational word here is “should.” Systems that operate optimally maximize energy and emergy flows through the system, with reinforcement of pathways that optimize for maximum output. 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). “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 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, n.d.).

Therefore, efficient societies will make sure that useful education and enculturation feeds back into the system to optimize the system relative to power flows. But during rapid periods of growth, such as we have had in the United States during the past 50 years, energy may be wasted and efficiency is lower as the goal is maximum power. During descent, we will need to become much more efficient. During the transition, large mismatches between employment and the educational system that feeds it may occur.  Ideally, important principles are promoted through education, and those principles are embodied through education in students, who carry them forward in society through employment or other contributions to society that maximize empower. But there are many wasteful imbalances in society, given the complexity of society, the rates of empower, and the rapid rate of change during transition. Are we focusing on the best principles to prepare people for new jobs that will evolve in a system in descent? How long will it take for the system to change, given the time lag of a long educational pipeline, rigid tenured faculty and reductionist curriculum, and the dominance of irrelevant corporate overgrowth in our complex society? 

Odum, 1999, p. 16 Education Systems Diagram
Odum, 1999, p. 16 Education Systems Diagram

The Emergist suggests that a secure, well-educated child may be more valuable to society over the long run than either his own transformity or that of the internet. That is possible, given the role of the internet as a form of short-term memory for society of information retrieval, rehearsal, response selection, and selective attention. While the energy memory of the internet is vast, if the internet disappeared tomorrow, how would that impact society, besides a big short-term mess and accelerated descent? Which is of more value to society over the long run–a secure, well-educated child, or set of interesting blog posts that may or may not be viewed widely as shared information, and which could wink out quickly in the current environment of descent. If the Emergist places his child in daycare, and goes off to work for a living pursuing the dollar at Goldman Sachs, the GDP goes up, but what is his value to society, and how are we valuing his education? How much familial interaction is necessary to promoting healthy personhood in a complex society? Odum also suggested that pulsing maximizes empower. Perhaps optimal pulsing for humans in complex societies consists of a certain amount of familial action balanced against interactions at the larger scale? How do we balance more global actions with local as we descend?

Who’s to say amidst the chaos of rapid change in a highly complex society? The thermodynamics of the situation will sort themselves out as new ways of doing and being are trialled during transition. Maximum empower will select for a more efficient society, but what structures will evolve, and how rapidly will things change? As usual, I have more questions than answers. 

What is the transformity of my personal action?

The fall season is a time for shifting gears, reevaluation, and new action. The harvest moon yesterday, the autumnal equinox tomorrow, the sounds of geese honking as they begin their migrations, and the promise of snow trigger deep thoughts about personal meaning. Winter is coming.

The Emergist says:

Ignore those saying individual actions don’t matter.
Ignore those saying only individual actions matter.

poormuffinI would agree. Here are my thoughts on how to deal constructively with the crushing problems we face on a global scale. The focus on problems at the larger scale, which we cannot change as isolated individuals, can lead us to learned helplessness, which then leads to anxiety, and emotional/behavioral shutdown. Shutting down leads to depression and the inability to move forward either personally or on the national scale. What can we change? What are we not helpless about? What power do we have?

I am doctorally-prepared. Society and my family have contributed maximally to my education and upbringing. But I am 57 years old, and I’m weary of working the many roles and jobs that are increasingly assigned to me in those roles by systems that I do not value and that I consider irrelevant or damaging to the planet. We have the power to do and to act. We can invest our time, attention, and emotional energy where we have the power. I can divest from the old and reinvest in the new with passion and purpose if I honor my feelings and consider the highest and best use of my knowledge and skills at both the local and larger scale levels.

marleyfreemindFree your mind, and the rest will follow. Be honest about how you feel, honor those feelings, decide what you can do, at a scale of influence that you feel comfortable at. Try new things out, and if they don’t work out, don’t beat yourself up. The current era is a time of radical change, and the evolution of culture will require a lot of trial and error to sort through maximum empower for a new structure for society. Use your education and skills at what you consider to be the highest and best use for promoting positive change within the system. Keep educating yourself about the changes that we need to make in society, whether through informal or formal networks of education. Find your new niche and engage your community. Think globally, and act locally. Then, if that works, reach out and try acting at a larger scale. Just keep moving forward.

 I have never been especially impressed by the heroics of people who are convinced they are about to change the world. I am more awed by those who struggle to make one small difference after another. –-Ellen Goodman

  • “During descent, we will need to become much more efficient.”

    Isn’t this at odds with the Maximum Power Principle?

    I keep arguing with people who claim we need to be more efficient. 3.5 billion years of evolution has only resulted in solar energy collection that is about 6% efficient. What makes us hairless monkeys think we can do better, over the long term?

    • Brian

      I don’t think she means solar PV. One way we can become more efficient is by cooperating more and acting less as atomized individuals. Turn lawns into gardens, so as much food doesn’t have to be trucked in. Though I think a lot of efficiency will be someone’s job, which is where we are going to have to come up with new ways of looking at and valuing the “unemployed.”

      • Hi, Jan, good question.

        “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). In times of less energy, our system will have to reorganize–still optimizing for maximum power, but using the empower more efficiently. So in systems with limited energy inputs, the system switches to a more efficient means of operating. Efficiency and power are a seesaw, depending on available energies. “Self organization optimizes efficiency to maximize power(empower). One seeks to maximize the efficiency that is consistent with maximum power loading” (Odum, 2000).

        “If the Emergist places his child in daycare, and goes off to work for a living pursuing the dollar at Goldman Sachs, the GDP goes up, but what is his value to society, and how are we valuing his education?” When we educate people for jobs that won’t be there due to descent, the value, which is the emergy basis of all that societal work, is wasted as heat. If The Emergist’s training is highly specialized and reductionist, designed to fit a narrow niche in high tech society, his ability to shift his own world view and adapt that education to something new in descent will be less likely. He’s more likely to be sitting there like Muffin, wondering who moved all his toys under the fridge. Clearly that is not the case for the Emergist, who has got all of this figured out. All that wasted heat of really bright students getting Harvard MBAs and trotting off to Goldman Sachs. No wonder climate change is a problem.

        Below is a diagram from Mark Brown that I’m using in my next post. It illustrates the mechanisms of Maximum Empower, and where they operate within the system to promote successful self-organization for both maintenance of the system and competition with other patterns/systems. In the diagram, if you consider The Emergist’s knowledge to be that storage of information that is sitting there, developed through education over time by society, how does the system deal with the unused resources? The information and ability to use the wisdom decays over time, or the system through trial and error builds new pathways that use the empower (that would be Transition, yes?). Efficiency is invoked when Academia is informed that the kids aren’t getting jobs, and the Rent (tuition) is too darned high. The bureaucracy of the University starts to crumble, and something else self-organizes–and it won’t be MOOCs.

        • Dwig

          Mary, good to have you “back in the saddle”.

          I’m getting a bit of cognitive dissonance here about “efficiency”. Some articles I’ve read recently contrast efficiency and resilience, emphasizing the limits of the former and the need for the latter during descent. Examples of the kinds of efficiency they describe are “just in time” supply chains (eliminating large warehouses), and economic efficiency (Bernard Lietaer gives a talk about the need for an “ecology of monetary systems” to provide resilience when the “official” money starts to fail.

          Could you write a bit on the relationship of efficiency and resilience?

          • Hi, Dwig, what a great question. You’ve fastened on one of the fundamental thermodynamic principles underlying the issues we are currently facing. When Odum was developing his ideas about energy and maximum power, one of his first papers in 1955 (with Pinkerton) was on the Atwood Machine, which describes the physical relationship between power and efficiency. That 1955 article is a good place to start. It is also described at length in Odum’s last book in 2007 (pp. 35-38), and can be accessed through Costanza’s summary at the link below. You’re right, it deserves its own post as the basis for net energy, maximum power, and the issues inherent in transition/descent. Maximum power and entropy drive evolution, and “when it is necessary to transform and restore the greatest amount of energy at the fastest possible rate, 50% of it must go into the drain. . . . systems that prevail are those with loading adjusted to operate at the peak of the power efficiency curve. During self-organization, these systems reinforce (choose) pathways with the optimum load for maximum output” (Odum, 2007, p. 37). Systems adjust efficiency depending on the power coming in.


            Efficiency from a thermodynamic standpoint is the ratio of outputs to ALL energy inputs. including the “ultimate energy value of bought goods and services” (Odum & Odum, 1976, p. 4). But the contributing energies are of different qualities, and are not always readily visible from the perspective of the high tech engineer at the top of the hierarchy, especially the environmental contributions. Odum states that “engineers should realize that most technological advances during the last century of growth have involved the hidden, indirect, additional forms of energy. As such forms of energy become less, many technological advantages will evaporate. What was an advance becomes wasteful and must be discarded” (O&O, 1976, p. 4).

            In terms of maximum power, systems maximize for power first, but when energy is reduced, systems are forced to respond secondarily with increased efficiency. That efficiency, if sustainable, means more diversity, more resiliency, more cooperation, and other attributes of a steady-state, mature system. Some of those attributes are summarized in a 1969 paper by brother Gene Odum below. What they call r- and k-adapted species respond differently depending on the relative energy availability to the system, with differing outcomes. In the case of man, we’re in such overshoot that steady state is now just wishful thinking . . . .

      • I wasn’t specifically referring to “solar PV,” but to the more general case that, with the exception of nuclear and tidal, all our trophic energy comes from solar energy — which in nature, is collected at about 6% efficiency, as best I can determine.

        • Brian

          Sorry, I read too much into the question, but what I think most people are concerned with is: what is the efficiency of turning the earth’s energies into people and societal services? Which is probably a more pessimistic number between 6% to the power of negative 4 or 6 for the biosphere. Though since this is a perfect time to rehash an old argument and be a little optimistic, there are some energies on earth that are not very organizing to biosystems but are to societies. Large mechanical forces like high water flows and high wind can be limiting to biosystems but of great use to society and there are ways of using them that add Emergy to the overall system. In EPS Odum examines some dams in the Pac Northwest and finds Emergy there we should be using and I imagine the same could be said of ocean sailing and land wind mills for mechanical purposes.

          • “the efficiency of turning the earth’s energies into people and societal services… is probably a more pessimistic number between 6% to the power of negative 4 or 6 for the biosphere.”

            I don’t know. I read somewhere that North Americans use 50% more energy than the basic productivity — the sunlight harvested by photosynthesis — of North America.

            Perhaps that could be tightened up, but it tells me that the way we use “societal services” today is totally unsustainable — which, of course, we already knew!

          • Brian

            Yeah my pessimistic number was for sustainable energy harvest relying solely on the biosphere, think Native Americans pre Columbus though they were using some energy from concentrated ores the biosphere (minus humans) can’t access on mass. And even though today we use 50% more energy, not all of that makes it directly into humans and societal services. There are energetic losses with every step up the energy hierarchy. But I haven’t a clue at the efficiency we turn that 150% into people and services, only to say we will get better at it as energy resources stop growing or start declining.

            It is so hard not to completely talk past each other on this subject.

  • Holger Hieronimi

    Thanks, Mary-

    excellent & thought provoking post. And I like it very much, that you give us more questions than answers… reflects more and more our current situation…

    Although this sounds maybe too critical & arrogant, I have the feeling, that current educational systems (especially tertiary education) is a waste of energy on a gigantic scale… I went to university in my native country germany (to study languages – spanish & english), and left after only three weeks. I then started an informal & ongoing educational process, leaving germany to live in Spain in an Ecovillage (where I took my first PermaCulture Course, back in 1990), and then went on to live in Mexico, where I learned much more about permaculture, organic agriculture, and pre-industrial indigenous culture & lifesyles.

    Not only I speak, read, translate and communicate more or less fluently in english or spanish, I also learned so many other things you never learn in university, plus many practical and conceptual skills (Systems Ecology a la Odfum is one of them, which I encountered thanks to Permaculture in David Holmgrens re-interpretation of the concept from 2002)… and now, at least sometimes, I get invited to lecture in universities to natural resource managers and architects…

    I think, the embodied energy of my personal educational process is only a fraction of the EMERGY in any university graduate, but I somehow have the feeling, that this kind if practical, trans-disciplinary end generalist education has a lit of potential, that never gets explored in formal education.

    I think, most universities ar not reformable anymore… they are tapped in reductionism and segregation of disciplines, consuming too many resources compared to the return they give to society. We need new universities. My dream is (and we are taking steps to put it into practice) to found a “Green Wizards University”, or a “Barefoot University”…some kind of “Hobarts” for transdisciplinary , generalist, practical, ethical formation of students…

    muchos saludos

    • Saludos, Holger, gracias por el comentario! Yes, yes, and yes about the waste of energy on a giant scale. That would be a fascinating post, if you want to take it on–your reasons for leaving, what you’ve done since then, and how you feel about it, si? And what would the disciplines and courses in that new university look like? Please write it–I’ll be right here waiting to post it.

      How many MBAs do we need for a world in descent, especially in countries in overshoot such as the US, and especially as MBAs are trained today, with a heavy dose of economics and finance? Universities have expanded their bureaucracies (and football programs) to an unsustainable empire that students cannot afford in terms of tuition. And where are the principles (such as systems thinking and ecology) that will prepare us for descent? No, they’re not fixable. The bureaucracies are hardened into sclerotic arteries that spit students into the military-industrial complex. The feedback loops are too entrenched.

      Ecovillages, permaculture, Adbusters, and places like this comment section are where the informal exchange of a new economy take seed. You minimize the societal emergy basis of your education, because it is not formal. But what is the value of being multilingual, of speaking the cultures of different countries, of being an agent of change? Being a change agent came at great personal cost to you, I imagine. What in your background gave you the curiosity, the courage, and the doggedness to strike out in a different direction?

  • Tom Abel

    I want to briefly add my support for this post and also add a few additional thoughts. Yes I think Odum was a bit too focused on the information of science within academia as the prime form of knowledge that reinforces self-organization. Mary’s quote of my paper includes a reference to Bourdieu. I could have included his other concepts that reflect my thoughts on ‘knowledge’, that is, his social capital and cultural capital, which refer to information, but information that produces and maintains political and economic hierarchy. Of course some of that information is indeed the result of formal education. But some, perhaps much, is the result of socialization (the ‘rules of the game’) within existing networks of wealth and power by the few fortunate(?) who are born to positions at the peak of social hierarchy (the 1%, or 0.1%, or better 0.01%), measured in emergy terms. So while the emergist, and Mary, myself, and many who read these blogs are academics, in my paper anyway we are intermediate in the feedback power that we control individually.

    But that leads to my other point. You can see in this figure of mine below that Mary and I have used elsewhere in the website that the production of humans in the ‘household hierarchy’ is not the apical ‘process’ that caps the human-ecosystems of the world. Instead, we humans produce or contribute to information that outlives each of us and that may be shared widely. This ‘cultural’ information that we contribute to has the greatest territory and feedback effect. None of us ‘authors’ or ‘controls’ that storage, we are all co-authors. And that’s ok. We do our part, and see what floats.

    Now I’ll do one of those academic things and quote from a new paper of mine that is (finally) in press in the IJGS. I am here advocating for ‘science’. You may not think that science needs my help, but in the social sciences and philosophy, science has taken a beating in recent years. The point will be that science by its pragmatic and practical outcomes is valuable. Further, science has that social force by its unique properties of ‘production’. But last, finally, and of interest to all of us maybe, is that all ‘cultural’ information including science is constantly being renewed and amended. By the Second Law, all storages degrade, including information storages. Thus it is the action of all of us by which culture is continually reproduced or reconstructed. The information of science is one case. And it is not the few, those who endlessly get the ‘citations’, but it is by all of us who work in science that the information of science is renewed, and importantly re-constructed. You and I participate in this process. And we are not simply ‘copying’ culture to future generations. We are transforming it, reconstructing it, by our works. We may object that we go ‘unheard’. But it is not the individual but the chorus that matters. Here’s my too wordy quote,

    “While granting that it is one scale among many, however, science possesses characteristics of human and energy inputs, cycle time and space that result in elaborate constructions of knowledge, persistence, accessibility, and political-economic force that distinguish it. While a socially privileged information cycle with a Western history, it is the product of multitudinous cycling and perhaps millions of authors (most unknown, not the cryptic intellectual lineage we are taught in school), which has arguably produced remarkable characterizations of the world, resulting in innumerable new processes and manipulations that effect our lives, and that have come to support a global political-ecology of 7 billion people (“Culture in Cycles: Considering H.T. Odum’s ‘Information Cycle’”, I hope you’ll read it).”

    Anyway, I applaud the effort by Brian the emergist, and am dazzled by initiatives like that of Holger in the comments, or by the Transition people. These are all works in the right direction, in my opinion. Keep it up. We are sharing these
    ideas, and they will be needed. Are they needed now? Well, that’s the frustration, right? Fraking and empire building are extending the lifecycle of the US and carboniferous capitalism. But things are also changing under our feet. Again, culture and information are continually being renewed (Second Law!). Personally, I have no utopian expectations. A better world is not inevitable. But it is something we can struggle for. And so we do, for ourselves and our next generations.

    • Hi, Tom, glad to see you emerge, even briefly, out of your publication hermitage.

      Yes, we are all co-authors–we do our part and see what floats. And the internet is the wild, wild west of transition, where new ideas are churned as we approach tipping points for global attitudes about our environment, power, and society. The internet is not much use in the long run, but as the short term memory of society, it is good for information sharing, for trying to shift attitudes for a very large group of people who’ve got the bit between their teeth and are galloping pell mell down the pasture with tunnel vision.

      I thought of you when reading this set of posts above, Tom, from a blogger who emerges out of the financial literature and kind of gets peak oil and its links to money–enough so that I keep him on my reading list. But in this series of posts on the digital academy (and MOOCs) he completely misses the energy basis for digital information and courses. He complains about the supposed factory model of 1960s education in the US, not seeing that what he is proposing is an escalation of that same model. He says:

      “This is an old story: Huge labor-intensive industries with enormous fixed costs face competition from new technologies and new systemic processes. Those earning a living within the old industries resist the destruction of the institutions and cost structures that have supported them, but resistance is futile, for the new technologies and processes are faster, better, and cheaper, often by an order of magnitude.”

      We need to start painting verbal pictures of just how much energy is embedded in an online course. The online course requires material, energy, and information in the form of computers, servers, internet and communication systems, web and teaching software support, and so on. Each of those pieces, then, also requires energy, materials, and information. My individual computer, the wifi in my house, the communications companies competing heavily for profit in my town (been to the mall lately?), the expanding IT bureaucracy at the university that supports Blackboard (eyeroll), and so on. Especially all of the labor that goes into the pieces of the economy that support each of the required pieces. What is the real cost for new technologies and processes?

      This highly transformed digital college only works in advanced societies with surplus energy. The global, digital college is faster and maybe cheaper as he claims from a currency and market standpoint, but only if we fail to include all the true inputs–the emergy basis is much higher (how much would you say)? So the ultimate costs are unsustainable for a society in transition/descent.

      The author says that online courses will be better. But with MOOCs we also create an expanded hierarchy of faculty with haves and have nots, where 4 faculty in the Ivies (which have arguably been co-opted by the Corporation) get to set the agenda, the principles, and the focus for the “education” content. The rest of the faculty grade tests and essays for the masses as glorified TAs. The principles and ideas then get ossified into feedback loops that increasingly serve the profit goals of an elitist system. In a world in massive transition to energy descent, this is about the last thing we need, to create a lockstep vision that promotes the Corporation and further cements the old growth-oriented ways of being.

      This is the piece that is missing from the conversation, and this is how the CFW seminars developed the science of emergy (over 40 years). We need to be talking about what goes into the emergy basis of an online course? Paint that picture for people, verbally, in simple language, and people will begin to see the real energy basis.

      • Tom Abel

        That’s all a good idea and yes this guy is clueless and terrible. MOOCs of the future will absolutely not be free. And he ignores the science of ‘education’ that has demonstrated the importance of human beings interacting with other human beings in the education process. And yes education is way overpriced and it is overpriced for exactly one of the reasons he gives and then dismisses, that we have let our governments slash funding and opened the door the ‘privatization-hydra’, a beast so pernicious that there may be little real hope (that is until it all collapses when the rest of the economy does, post-peak oil).

        One still big problem to doing emergy analyses of something like MOOCs is the still (in my opinion) poor emergy of information. I continue to fiddle in this direction among other things.

  • cognizantfox

    Thanks for this post. I’m reminded of Aldo Leopold’s words put to print in 1948, “The price of an ecological conscious is one lives alone in a world of wounds.” I don’t feel alone these days, but I do get discouraged. When I do I remember the words of Emerson, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I have two children. I am compelled to have it make some difference that I have lived well so that they may also. People like yourself also give me hope.

    • What does the Fox say? I was home yesterday, along with many other Alaskans, sulking about the weather. I was delighted to find this Fairbanks voice.

      Here are some thoughts from Raymond Anthony, an environmental ethicist at UAA, from a panel this week in Anchorage:

      “Now, declining diversity on the planet is likewise deemed dismissible. These exclusions matter, Anthony argued, because stripping concern cancels emotion, and emotion is where action comes from.

      So where exactly does hope come in? If we mourn our losses openly, we see that we aren’t alone in our melancholy or even despair, Anthony said. From here, feelings of emotional solidarity can arise and push us to act ethically and responsibly. As David Hume, the 17th century Scottish philosopher wrote, “There is no action without an emotional impetus.”

      We’ve stripped the emotions from our science in an effort to deal with the cognitive dissonance of too much economy for the remaining environmental resources. I have a daughter, and I have an alternative view to what’s being pitched by the media. It’s time to put the emotions back in, and it’s time to speak out about these issues.

      • cognizantfox

        Thanks for the tip. I wish I had known about the session at UAA. I’m in Anchorage for the month of November! I actually read the article an hour before I got your message, and was going to recommend it to you! Please let me know if there will be similar community discussions in the next few weeks. To your point about emotions, yes. One bright spot is the film, Green Fire about Aldo Leopold and a land ethic. It is an emotional film that is becoming very popular not only in the US but around the world. It explores not only environmental “mourning” but hope too.