Some basic energetic ecological principles can be applied to understanding how systems work. These principles also explain why energetic diagrams explain general systems function so well over time, during phases of growth and contraction.
Energy is measured by calories, BTUs, kilowatt hours, and other interconvertible units, but energy has a scale of quality which is not indicated by these measures. The ability to do work for man depends on the energy quality and quantity, and this is measurable by the amount of energy of a lower-quality grade required to develop the higher grade. The scale of energy goes from dilute sunlight up to plant matter to coal, from coal to oil to electricity and up to the high-quality efforts of computer and human information processing. We can begin with Barry Commoner’s (1971) suggested with 4 laws of Ecology below, followed by many principles suggested by Odum.
- Everything Is Connected to Everything Else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.
- Everything Must Go Somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.
- Nature Knows Best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is, says Commoner, “likely to be detrimental to that system.”
- There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.
- Production, consumption, and circulation are the patterns for both ecosystems and economies
- Resources are used to the fullest extent possible
- Ecosystems (and economies) develop which use their particular combination of resources best
- Flow of energy (either alone or in association with a flow of materials) is in proportion to the populations of forces; the rate of flow of such stored energy packages as minerals, money, or work is in proportion to the number of forces acting and to their individual size. Production processes that support growth usually need more than one kind of input. One factor can be a limiting factor (shown by an interaction symbol on diagrams); some of these interactions derive their driving potential energies from their own storages and are thus autocatalytic, mutiplicative positive feedbacks
- Typically each energy transformation process has an associated storage from which the autocatalytic feedbacks originate. These storages fill and discharge as part of the accumulations and frenzied pulses of production and consumption, providing for maximum power and growth
- Energy flows can be classified as either constant flow sources that keep the current constant, such as a waterwheel that only produces one source flow independent of input energies from the river, or constant force sources (also termed stocks or storages) that deliver a constant force even though energy users demand more and more
- Unlimited resources cause systems to grow, in keeping with the maximum power principle. Constant force from storages allows the products of growth to be recycled as positive feedback (autocatalysis) to accelerate the capture of more energy so that growth goes faster and faster. The math of this kind of system results in exponential growth, in contrast to logistic growth where the main energy source for the production process is flow (source) limited and thus levels off
- When available energy levels are large enough, the system develops a self-interaction to accelerate even faster, a super acceleration, through feedback amplification in proportion to the self-interactions (mathematically termed as the square of the storage)
- Fast consumers overrun slow consumers during a surge of consumption. “We believe that self organization for maximum empower operates at all scales at the same time producing similar designs on each scale such as autocatalytic reinforcement loops, material recycle, hierarchy of concentrated centers, and pulsing. To survive each scale one must contribute to the one above as well as control the one below. Natural selection of the highest reproduction rate (competitive overgrowth by weeds, selfish genes, and capitalism) is a special case that applies temporarily in the growth stage of the alternating pulse of accumulation and pulse. In his “Descent of Man” Darwin eventually recognized that survival of the fittest reproducer was not the general principle” (Odum, 2000)
- The development of an ecosystem is a tradeoff between power and efficiency. the transformation of energy into work determines success and fitness, depending on conditions. There is a tradeoff between a high rate and high energy to maximize useful work for the system as maximum power (or empower) (Jorgensen et al. 2007, p. 116, from Hall, Odum, Brown, etc.)
- When energy supplies support accelerating growth, users with faster growth rates outgrow and displace others. Consumers prevail that get a headstart during a surge of consumption. Factors eventually become limiting and control growth. Products may accumulate in periods of excess production; then surges of consumption use accumulated products in a cyclical pulsing fashion. This idea of pulsing supplants the previous ecological idea of succession, where a mature climax stage could be held indefinitely in a steady state
- Systems win and dominate that maximize their useful total power from all sources and flexibly distribute this power towards needs affecting survival (Maximum Power Principle). Systems develop diversity that improves efficiencies
During times when there are opportunities to expand one’s power inflows, the survival premium by Lotka’s principle is on rapid growth even though there may be waste. During periods of expanding energy availabilities, many kinds of growth-priming activities may favor economic vitality and the economy’s ability to compete. Institutions, customs, and economic policies aid by accelerating energy consumption in an autocatalytic way
- During times when energy flows have been tapped and there are no new sources, Lotka’s principle requires that those systems win that do not attempt fruitless growth but instead use all available energies in long-staying, high-diversity, steady-state works. During periods when expansion of energy sources is not possible, then the many high-density and growth-promoting policies and structures become an energy liability because their high energy cost is no longer accelerating energy yield
- Catastrophes are part of normal regeneration cycles. Ecosystems adapt to varying resources without disaster
- In declining systems with limiting factors affecting growth, efficiency requires as much diversity and cooperation as possible
- Nature’s sustainable systems recycle everything; how much of modern industrial society’s output is recycled?
- Attempting to decide the energy use of a given process in calculating the energy use of an activity as only that directly observed to be used by the activity is an error; we cannot ignore the energy that makes possible all the other goods and services that go into that activity
- Even in urban areas more than half of the useful work on which our society is based comes from the natural flows of sun, wind, waters, waves, etc., that act through the broad areas of seas and landscapes without money payment. An economy, to compete and survive, must maximize its use of these energies, not destroying their enormous free subsidies. The necessity of environmental inputs is often not realized until they are displaced (Odum, 2007)
For a systems view of a single ecosystem, please click on this link illustrating the Silver Springs riverine ecosystem, in pictures, diagrams, and transformity tables.