Using an Energy Lens


What do we mean by a prosperous way down? Most economies in our current civilization have experienced over a century of rapid growth due to surplus energy inputs in the form of fossil fuels. As a result, our worldview magnifies our impression of our exceptional capabilities to develop technology and grow our economy without limits, through use of power. This worldview diminishes the role of nature in supporting us, replacing that role with high quality fossil fuels. For over a century, this worldview has been unchallenged, especially in economies that use a lot of fossil fuels such as the United States. Viewing the world through an energy lens at the largest scale, or macroscope can help clarify the nature of power, formalizing its role, and unifying principles about energy with observational data from the real world about systems to explain a coherent worldview. Discoveries about ecological systems provide new insights and principles that can be extrapolated to how economic systems work. General systems principles can be used to recommend changes in public policy.

“Truth is a state of mind in which there is no contradiction. A person perceives his idea as true because he has heard no contradiction. The less one knows, the easier it is to be dogmatic and to be sure that what one knows is true. We tend to defend dogmatically as true the things we are taught, whereas the things we learn from experience and experiments tend to be properly couched in sometimes-contradictory reality . . . ‘Scientific Truth’ requires that one place together in one’s mind both the ideas and observational data from the real world, expanding concepts until there is no contradiction” (Odum, 1995, p. 366).

Currently contradictory evidence is encroaching on our worldview of endless growth. Economic growth is faltering, standards of living are diminishing, and monetary policies are in disarray. Prices of resources are inflating. Pollution and environmental degradation are reaching a crisis. Sharp failures and setbacks in national policies are becoming clear to most. The trends we are currently observing suggest real limits, and people are confused by the change, and are searching for answers and perhaps for new world views.

At the root of our quandary is the treasure trove of fossil fuels that we discovered two centuries ago. These dense, high quality forms of energy included coal production at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and continued with the tapping of oil later on. Great prosperity has come from the production of fossil fuels, but we have produced the easy half of the oil available to the planet, and we will be producing less in the future since we have peaked. By the way, peak oil is an assumption of this website. If you want to know more about the issues, the 77-minute video, The Crisis of Civilization is a good place to start. For a shorter introduction to what happens when resources for a rapidly growing system diminish, click on Stuart McMillen’s very brief cartoon at right.  The Reindeer of St. Mathew Island serve as an apt analogy for what peak oil could mean for us if we are not proactive about our quandary, because it’s all about the oil.

The reason for our impending crisis is that the abundant concentration of resources on earth is decreasing. Most of our economic growth results from the non-renewable consumption of the storage of fossil fuels, which then allows us to tap the other resources of the earth.  Consumption has expanded, the balance is upset, and food and fuels are becoming more scarce. Each year more effort is needed to give to a growing population the fuels, water, wood, fish, soil, food, electric power, and minerals on which everything else is based. Since energy, the environment, and the economy are inextricably linked, our era of surplus energy and economic growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. A climax and contraction of our global economy will occur. More and more leaders who are concerned with the future are warning us of the impending economic crisis and of possible collapse. But while history records the collapse of countless civilizations, some societies and ecosystems have managed to escape collapse by descending in orderly stages. Can we do the same?

Matisse, 1912, The Goldfish Pushkin Museum Moscow It is very clear to these fish that there is nothing outside their fishy world within the bowl

Most people are unaware of our quandary, as we attribute our successes to technology and not the power (the flow of energy over time) that drives the technology. Are we like goldfish living in a bowl of water, where we are immersed and unaware of the water that we live in? So that when endless energy comes to us at the flick of a switch on the wall or the swipe of a card at a gas pump, the process is so effortless and reliable that we never really see, question, or understand the energy? Can we continue on the path that we are on, and if so, for how long? If we are not proactive, how quickly can we change our systems to work with less energy throughputs, and does that modification need large amounts of fossil fuels to rebuild infrastructure? Is there another world out there where we might live happily within the limits that nature sets for us, as our treasure trove of fossil fuel starts to wane? As the 18-minute video from Iain McGilchrist suggests, there are two world views in opposition in our western society. The view sponsored by fossil fuels has become dominant. Have we lost our ability to view the world through a macroscope?

Consider the future with less fossil fuel. How can a lower energy lifestyle be peaceful and prosperous? Much thinking has already been done. Our civilization can thrive in a future where we live with less. Decisive, proactive changes in attitudes, policies and practices could divert a destructive collapse, leading instead to a prosperous way down, if we choose to do so?


HT Odum’s science of Emergy Synthesis is the basis for our thinking about the prosperous way down (PWD). Emergy synthesis is a biophysical approach to measuring human activities that 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. PWD advocates propose that policy decisions can be more deliberate by basing the decisions on environmental accounting through quantitative Emergy Evaluation/Synthesis.