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
Dr. Gonella is a Professor of Physics at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy, who has worked in Canada (Laval University) and Japan (Tokyo Institute of Technology). He was Director of the International School on Emergy Accounting, Venice 2013 and 2015. Research interests include nano-structured glasses, environmental Physics, systems thinking, and higher education. Other interests are Baroque Music, Shodo (1st dan at the Japanese Federation of Calligraphy), and Foundations of Quantum Mechanics.
Modern scientific illiteracy arises from a number of causes. Modern science often requires an advanced background, making it inaccessible. And many basic scientific concepts are commonly misunderstood, such as Darwin’s Evolution Theory. But since most of the present global issues such as climate change are related to complex systems, the literacy gap is related to the set of conceptual tools pertaining to Systems Theory. Global problems can be faced only with skills, languages, approaches and methodologies that come from a systemic view, using tools that are neither strictly scientific theories nor pieces of technology. This kind of science literacy is needed in all decision-making processes concerned with complex, technology-based, and environmental systems, and in general with actions inspired by concepts like Sustainable Development, or Prosperous Way Down. Furthermore, systemic concepts like emergence, non-linearity, pattern, feedback, self-organization, criticality, and chaos that have a specific role in Systems Theory, are used as well within other contexts, including the everyday life language, with different meanings, giving rise to a further functional illiteracy. As David Goodstein observes, “Approximately 95 percent of the [American] public is illiterate in science by any rational definition of science literacy”, and there is little hope that the policy makers all come from the remaining 5% who are scientifically literate. Continue reading Reflections on scientific illiteracy
Some years ago now a team of Swedish scientists proposed an interesting framework for understanding planetary environmental problems. It generated a range of responses from the environmental community, mostly positive. I had what is undoubtedly a very unusual response to their framework, and while it is perhaps old news, it may still be useful to present it here. As an anthropologist, I see planetary problems from a cultural and evolutionary perspective that could offer a different take on the subject.
First, though, I want to say that the identification of the nine interrelated environmental ‘boundaries’ has been unquestionably of great value (Planetary Boundaries). Raising awareness about the problems and emphasizing nonlinear feedbacks effects, and so the possible triggering of abrupt global environmental changes, are integral to a more sophisticated discussion of climate change and the other problems they highlight. To list them, they are climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, nutrient fluxes, global freshwater use, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution.
The nine ‘boundaries’ are concisely represented in their popular diagram. The green space in the center represents the safe operating values. If the wedge exceeds the green space then it has already crossed its threshold and become a threat of flipping to a disastrous state for our human presence on the planet. Worse, the problems are interrelated and interactions are a grave threat. As an example of dangerous interactions, loss of soil moisture, degradation of land to new land types, and biodiversity loss all reduce the ability of ecosystems to sequester CO2, and thus increase greenhouse effects.
These same issues can be found today in a number of diagrams such as the one above. The Swedish authors have called our times the ‘great acceleration’, a time of rapid growth of a number of environmental problems. They have argued persuasively that now is the time that we need to ‘bend the curves’.
“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.
The Bus Stops of Botswana took on a life of its own the first time I drove from one end of the country to the other. It wasn’t long after crossing the Limpopo River from South Africa into Botswana on my way to the Okavango Delta that I noticed these sculptures of found objects that occasionally appeared along the roadside.
Curious, I asked our guide and friend, Mike, “what’s up with the roadside sculptures?”
His answer was simple, like so much in Botswana,”It’s a competition of sorts.” Pressed, he elaborated, ”No one knows for sure how or why they got started, but it seems not long after one or two were seen here and there, the numbers suddenly increased to where there are now hundreds throughout the country.”
He went on. ”It’s thought that as more bus stops showed up along the roads, the creators were challenged to add more to existing ones, so it’s not unusual to see existing bus stops grow in complexity over time. It’s a competition. Batswana (the people of Botswana are called Batswana or Motswana) are not competitive by nature, but in this subtle way they compete.”
Pressing Mike further, he suggested that they are the places where people, who live kilometers back in the bush come to the main road to wait for a bus, or possibly a passing friend, to take them to town.
I imagined the first bus stop was constructed out of the urge to create and the time to do so. Waiting for a bus in the bush of Botswana can take some time, as they may only come once a day, or they may not come at all. Hanging around for hours, waiting, with an occasional car or truck driving by, it’s not long until you pick up that hub cap and that bumper and stack them, then rearrange them, then add something else, purposefully composing a statement from found objects. Maybe even walking down the road a ways and carting back that broken chair you saw fall off a passing truck. Before you know it, the bus stop has taken on a life–drawing you, beseeching you to add more.
Some are very elaborate, others simply a plastic jug impaled on a stick (I think of these as just getting started, as seeds, or at most seedlings just emerging from the chaos). As my understanding of the bus stop culture grew so did my desire to photograph them. Traveling anywhere in Botswana became an all day affair, no matter how short the distance. No one wanted to ride with me, as I stopped at every bus stop. Occasionally there would be someone there, waiting, and not wanting to up set them, I’d pass it by, take a GPS reading, and make a plan to return. I was obsessed.
My collection now stands at well over 100 bus stops, and almost 1000 images. I often reflect on the bus stop culture. It’s art, no question, but maybe more interesting is that it is an example of self-organization–spontaneous global order and coordination arising out of local interactions without a central agent directing or coordinating things. The feedback that results from observing another bus stop causes an artist to add to his/her own, which increases the order. In complexity theory, the bus stops are “attractors”–islands of organization in a sea of chaos. I’ve never been able to look at roadside trash in quite the same way as before, often thinking that discarded fender would make a great bus stop beginning.
“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
In 1981, H.T. Odum and Herschel Elliott taught a systems philosophy course together at the University of Florida, entitled Systems, Philosophy, Energy, and Environment. The exams from the course are filed in box 67 of Odum’s collection at UF Library. The textbooks for the course were Energy Basis for Man and Nature (Odum & Odum, 1981) and Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity (Ophuls, 1977). Some of the questions from the exams were excellent, and they offer structure for thinking about philosophical frameworks for descent. Continue reading Asking the right questions
If not a stupid paradigm, then, as previously described, what might a smart paradigm include?
Many people who live in societies that embrace the western industrial dominant social paradigm don’t subscribe to that paradigm in whole or in part. Many realize, or sense, that our current paradigm threatens our ability to survive long-term. Our current paradigm tells us that the economy must continuously grow; that the role of government is to enforce contracts and keep it’s regulatory hands off of business; that technology will save us, particularly from our environmental sins; that humans are the most important forms of life; and that competition is the best way to manage systems and people.
Because this paradigm shapes the way most people think about how the world works and even shapes our living space (for example, with an emphasis on roads and driving) it won’t be easy to change. But since not changing it will clearly impact whether we survive into the future and what future life for our children and grandchildren will look like, changing the paradigm, or trying, is a moral imperative. First we need to consider what a new paradigm should look like. Continue reading What might a smart paradigm include?
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
Recent news about Hanford leaks, a flurry of news surrounding the two-year anniversary of Fukushima, and today’s news about breast cancer rates in the US center my thoughts on blind spots in health research. I will use ionizing radiation again as an illustration of environmental linkages to disease, beginning with the trigger for this post, which was a new World Health Organization (WHO) report. Previous posts about nuclear hazards are linked here and here.
This week, the WHO published a preemptive report on Fukushima, only two years after the disaster. The WHO concluded that “for the general population inside and outside of Japan, the predicted risks are low and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated.” This conclusion is from the same organization that has been muzzled on the topic of ionizing radiation contamination of our environment since 1959, when they agreed to misinform the public in subordination to the global nuclear governing body, the IAEA, to protect civil and military nuclear interests. If you believe that Fukushima has not increased background risk and there will be no increases in cancer rates, I have a bridge to sell you. Mark Twain’s maxim about lies, damn lies, and statistics can be applied here. The point of this post is to examine western medicine’s epistemology of disease, specifically examining how we select the risk factors that are involved in cancer and other diseases. Continue reading Lies, damn lies, and radiation health
But to every mind there openeth,
A way, and way, and away,
A high soul climbs the highway,
And the low soul gropes the low,
And in between on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro.
But to every man there openeth,
A high way and a low,
And every mind decideth,
The way his soul shall go.
One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go.
Like the winds of the sea
Are the waves of time,
As we journey along through life,
‘Tis the set of the soul,
That determines the goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
By Mary Logan
We’re sailors. Sailboats have been part of our lives for decades, beginning with my husband Todd’s 17-foot sloop, the AtLast, so titled because his mother finally got her garage back when he finished building the boat in high school. Eventually we sold the small sloop when we developed competing interests such as family, and I refused to help my husband paint the wooden boat, yet again. Ever since then, we’ve had various small boats, from small catamarans, windsurfers and even a sailing canoe, to a snow-kite and an ice boat here in Anchorage. Todd built the ice boat in our garage here in Anchorage in an attempt to accommodate his need to sail in the subarctic winter–I christened it Risk for Injury, because those were the first words on page one of the design plans. The ice boat can hit speeds of up to 60 mph if unencumbered by various limits. Todd is not allowed to take the craft out alone (that’s another story). Sailing on ice in winter does not really feed our fix for sailing, and sailing in the summer up here has to compete with many other interests during a very short summer. We generally wait until we head to warmer climes to sail.
This month, we have burned through many people’s allotments of fossil fuels to come to the cruising grounds of the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) to warm up and to sail. We have done this trip many times before, typically during the off-season in the summer when we lived in Florida, in order to unplug from high-pressure jobs. But I am sensing that traditional vacations where we fly somewhere far away to go sailing may be on the way out. We have some discretionary income this year, and who knows how long it will hold its value/meaning? So this is one last fling in the BVIs, with a flotilla of two boats and thirteen sun-starved Alaskans–the winter has been grim this year in Alaska, with lots of dark but little snow.
Sailing can be a cheap vacation if we rent a boat that we share with friends while provisioning, cooking, and sailing ourselves. Americans often feel that we must buy our own things, but renting a boat for the occasional use is far cheaper than owning. We have watched many friends and family members struggle with boat ownership, and the old maxim, a boat is a hole into the water into which one pours money, is really true. Over the years, the charter boat industry has become a monopolized industry, paralleling the development in many other industries. There are fewer but larger companies to charter from. This year, during high season, the charter docks for those companies were full of boats, and it was easier to find anchorages alone. The charter industry appears to be hurting from the global economic recession.
I’m writing this post organically this time, using pen and paper, sitting with my coffee in the quiet mornings, before the trades freshen for the day in response to the heating sea and land, watching brown boobies and pelicans feed on schools of fish in quiet anchorages. My thoughts circle the idea of sailboats as a slice of life that demonstrates on the small-scale the limits of energies, materials, and wastes, the importance of teamwork, and how technology changes over time as surplus energy continues to flow. Continue reading A sailboat is a microcosm of life
Two prominent energetic systems principles that drive our complex economy are hierarchy and autocatalysis. Earlier posts highlighted the concepts of energy transformity and hierarchy. The concept of autocatalysis can be seen in many circular loops in our current society, such as current proposals for geoengineering technology to fix the problems that industrial and post-industrial technology have wrought. Autocatalysis is also known as the positive feedback loop, and it is the engine for our growth economy. Continue reading Our Rube Goldberg Economy
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
“Bruegel’s paintings of the Seasons and his Fall of Icarus celebrate peasant life for an industrious harmony with nature. This view of peasants is particularly clear in the Icarus where the sweeping panorama is anchored around the heroic figure of the plowman. . . . The husbandman was a familiar paragon of industry, moderation, and moral integrity, both in classical and early Christian writings. . . . Virgil’s account offers intriguing parallels to Bruegel with its extensive description of the peaceful, moderate plowman ignorant of the bellicose, avaricious ambitions of city dwellers seeking “kingdoms doomed to fall.” Horace, Columella, and Pliny also contrasted a past, moral country life to the present immorality of cities. In the golden age, even urban life was guided by the virtues of rural existence. Thus Pliny wrote of Republican Rome. “The agricultural class produces the bravest men, the most gallant soldiers, and the citizens least given to evil designs.” . . . The introduction of a setting sun may also suggest the timeless cycles of a golden age and a natural order indifferent to folly. See thus, the whole picture emerges as a cosmological panorama which goes on with its elemental rhythms, its husbandry and commerce, its life and death, its labor and folly, until the final day when those who have “plowed diligently” enter the harbor of God’s kingdom. With its elemental contrasts, the picture would have also suggested to its educated viewers one of the central questions of Renaissance humanism: what was human nature and how did it relate to nature’s wider orders.” (Baldwin, 1986, p. 101).
Thanks to Gail at Wit’s End for the Baldwin/Bruegel links above. The painting represents the tensions between agrarian and urban society that has occurred over and over in civilizations throughout history, as we pulse up into civilizations that later fail. Bruegel’s good plowman, sensible sailors, shepherd, and fishermen in the painting above are symbolic of a culture that harnesses earth, wind, and sun to live within the restraints of nature, in contrast to foolish, ambitious Icarus. Early scholars associated Icarus with urban technologies of “kingdoms doomed to fall.” What symbolic culture will represent us as empire wanes? Continue reading Symbolic culture clash at the end of empire
“A century of studies in ecology, and in many other fields from molecules to stars, shows that systems don’t level off for long. They pulse. Apparently the pattern that maximizes power on each scale in the long run is a pulsed consumption of mature structures that resets succession to repeat again. There are many mechanisms, such as epidemic insects eating a forest, regular fires in grasslands, locusts in the desert, volcanic eruptions in geologic succession, oscillating chemical reactions, and exploding stars in the cosmos. Systems that develop pulsing mechanisms prevail. The figure above includes the downturn for reset that follows ecological climax. In the long run there is no steady state” (Odum, 2007, p. 54).
“The aspect of resilience and panarchy that is most novel and significant concerns the “back-loop” phase when resisting structures and institutions start to break down or transform, releasing the chance for a renewed system to emerge. The many ecosystem examples are matched by many business examples where technology shapes products from sneakers, to automobiles, to electrical appliances. At that moment, novelty that had been simmering in the background can emerge and be stimulated. And new associations begin to develop among previously separate innovations. The big influence comes from discoveries that, at that time, emerge from people’s local experiments at small scales, discoveries that can emerge at times of big change, to trigger bigger changes at large scales. That process highlights the keys for the future” (Holling, 2009).
As a follow up to Dave Tilley’s article on renewable rhythms, and in celebration of summer solstice, I would like to discuss the idea that fossil fuels have allowed us to suppress or even ignore pulses of Nature and our own biorhythms. We have adopted artificial pulses of industrial production and consumption with attempts to create continuous growth. Fossil fuels allow us to create a seamlessly, climate-controlled, homogenous monoculture that blurs night into day, and summer into winter. It even homogenizes trends, with everything always improving and going up without a break in the action. This separates us from Nature and creates the impression of invincibility. How does this invincibility present in our dominant culture, and what does it mean as our culture transitions into descent? Continue reading Time and tides wait for no man
My first significant memory of big storms came as a 5 year old, as Hurricane Carla advanced on Port Aransas, Texas, where my father, HT Odum was administrator of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. That day, as we were due to evacuate, HT took me on his final rounds of the Institute before leaving. We walked out on the Port Aransas pier, and I remember that my father had to lift me over the gaps where missing planks had already disappeared from storm waves (my mother was later horrified at my proud retelling of the story). We stood there halfway out on the pier, and I received my first lesson in hurricane science and energy transport in waves. We counted wave troughs, heights, and wavelengths, and he explained the dynamics of wind energy, relating the sizes of the pulses to size and scale of storms. Local weather creates little wavelets, and large distant weather creates bigger, more powerful pulses that have higher impact on beaches. We talked about excess heat in the atmosphere, and how hurricanes act as Nature’s way of dispersing extra heat. It was my first lesson in storm/energy analogies, and I have never looked at storms the same way since.
Odum often drew an analogy between the way meteorological storms such as hurricanes disperse heat and the way that other systems do, including information systems. After Tom Abel’s excellent post last week on trends in education in a world in transition, it is a good time to share Odum’s analogy linking storms of information and weather storms. But to make that analogy, we first need a meteorology lesson, starting with the second law of thermodynamics. Continue reading Information Storms and the Limits to Information
A wide variety of blogposts roll across my Google Reader on a daily basis. There have been some great articles on Environmentalism lately, most notably one by Paul Kingsnorth in Orion magazine. The goal here is to add to that discussion by exposing the assumptions that underlie our beliefs about growth and to locate various groups on a continuum of growth beliefs. Continue reading Questioning Growth Assumptions
A previous post explored the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we fail to recognize the true energy basis for global problems such as climate change. This week’s post follows up with another example of cognitive dissonance in the sciences; the disconnect in relating the energy basis of ecosystems to that of economies. Soddy (1926) describes the essential nature of understanding the energy basis for society: Continue reading Whatever Happened to Hierarchies in Ecology?
H.T. Odum spent formative years interrupting his undergraduate study during World War II as a tropical meteorologist in the Panama Canal zone, which helped him to develop understanding of the energetic basis of global systems. He was generally less disturbed about the threat of climate change than he was about our coming bottleneck due to peak oil, proposing that the greatest and most impacting effect of climate change would would be greater extremes and wider swings in weather. On the subject of climate, he was
unsure about whether heating due to greenhouse gases would cause significant rises in sea level or not; one early hypothesis of his in the 1980s was that if heating caused more water vapor to go into the air, then more snow and ice could form in polar regions at high altitudes. Glaciers might melt at their toes at sea level, but might actually accumulate in ice fields, perhaps counteracting the relative rise in sea levels. While there is accumulating evidence that sea levels are rising, and the jury is still out on glaciers at high altitudes/latitudes, there are certainly greater extremes in weather. I ponder these questions as I write about the intersection of climate and peak oil this morning, looking out my window in Anchorage, a weather sample of n=1. We are victims of the polar jet and La Niña here in Alaska this winter, and I’m wondering when it’s all going to melt?!? Continue reading Thinking Like a System about Climate Science
[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