Pushing the Prosperous Way Down

By Elliott Campbell

In my experience the concept of a “prosperous way down” from the perspective of one immersed in the current cultural and economic paradigm of constant growth is anathema to some and dubious to most. I was asked to speak to two environmental groups, The Baltimore Green Forum and the Greenbelt Climate Action Network, as a result of the post I wrote for this blog last October. While the organizers of the groups, Sam Hopkins and Lore Rosenthal, of BGF and GCAN, respectively, were very supportive I was skeptical of the reception the ideas espoused by the Odums in A Prosperous Way Down would receive. This fear caused me to debate whether or not to present prosperous way in the class I taught last semester at University of Maryland, Energy and the Environment. However, I strongly believe that talking about the prosperous way down, spreading the knowledge, is one of, if not the, most important contributions I can make to society as a scientist, so agreed to both presentations and made the prosperous way down lecture the last lecture in the class.

Click this image to go to his personal site
Click this image to go to Chefurka’s personal site

When communicating these problems I find it is informative to think in terms of Paul Chefurka’s 5 stages of awareness, analogous to the Kubler-Ross model 5 stages of grief. The first stage is dead asleep, where someone has little if any knowledge or concern for environmental catastrophes, economic or social injustices, and feels that these issues can be overcome with human ingenuity. The second stage is awareness of one problem. Individuals at this stage are often times very passionate regarding their chosen cause, but tend to ignore other issues. The third stage is awareness of many problems. This is the stage I believe the majority of well-informed individuals exist, and the stage of the majority of my audience for the talks and in my class. They are aware that the world faces many fundamental problems, but may believe that the problems can be fixed within the context of traditional economic/social paradigms and do not recognize the interconnectedness of the problems the world faces. The fourth stage is the recognition of the interconnectedness of the problems and the fifth stage is awareness that these problems are persistent in all aspects of life. Chefurka states that what we face is not merely a set of problems, it is a negative state in which we inextricably exist and virtually every thing we do contributes to the worsening of this state. And essentially, he is right. The simple task at which I labor involves using electricity generated by coal, worsening the quality of the air and warming the globe, to power a computer built in a foreign nation with lax safety standards and low pay, composed of rare earth minerals mined with those same lax standards and low pay, not to mention the environmental impact of the mining process. I am a vegetarian, bike or bus to work, and attempt to eat and shop locally/ethically. And I am killing the earth, just a little more slowly than average for a citizen of the developed world.

Taking it all in

Chefurka states that upon reaching the fifth stage depression and a feeling of helplessness often sets in. I believe that placing the stages of awareness within the context of systems ecology is a good way to clarify and perhaps deal with the stages of awareness. The interconnectedness of systems is fundamental to systems ecology. Anyone familiar with the discipline is aware that the behavior of a system has effects beyond itself. For example, the study of a tundra ecosystem transitioning from permafrost to a liquid state would trigger change at a local scale (shifting of dominant species, decomposition of organic matter), and cause change on a larger scale, decreasing albedo and releasing carbon to the atmosphere, perpetuating climate change. There is no such thing as an isolated problem from a systems perspective. The Maximum Empower Principle (proposed fourth law of thermodynamics, Odum, 1996 after Lotka, 1922), stating that systems self-organize to maximize empower (the flow of emergy per time) gives us the theoretical basis and explanation for Chefurka’s fifth stage. We are complicit in the problems of the world not because we are bad people but because we are self-organizing to maximize the use of energy, in this case fossil fuels. This is not to say we cannot be more ethical in the way we self-organize or that we should not prepare for a lower energy future, but it does mean that as it is possible (the net energy/emergy of our resources is sufficient to sustain growth) we will continue the constant growth paradigm.

So, depending on where you fall on the scale, this information can be hard to take in. The presentation I gave largely followed the pattern put forth the book, A Prosperous Way Down, introducing the principles of Maximum Empower and system scale-dependent pulsing first, followed by setting up the inevitability of the exhaustion of fossil fuels and the inability of renewable resources to completely replace them (due to lower net emergy/energy return on investment). This is followed by detailing how the Odums suggest we prepare for the way down, transition from growth to descent, and finally descend to a lower energy state. The particular policies stated by the Odums (and a couple that I added) deserves more discussion and will be the subject of a future post.

The world at our fingertips

I should preface my discussion of the reaction to the presentations of the prosperous way down with the qualifier that the crowds to which I was speaking are certainly not representative of the average 1st Worlder. They were all either concerned enough with environmental issues to join an environmental group or take an environmental science course so were somewhat predisposed to the argument. However, given the extremity of what the prosperous way down calls for relative to the status quo, I was surprised at the percentage of the audience that agreed with the premise, accepting the inevitability of a lower energy future and the drastic global change necessary to get from the status quo to where we need to be. There were dissenters of course, particularly within my class, but the fact that 75% of 44 millennials, most of whom were constantly attached at the hip to a tablet, argued for the inevitability of the prosperous way down when given a choice on the final exam demonstrates that the evidence is compelling. The counter argument commonly centers around human ingenuity. This is a natural position for many, as human ingenuity has driven unprecedented growth in capital (both economic and informational) over the past century and is glorified (rightly so in most cases) in the educational system and media. Looking at the world through a systems lens (the macroscope, as Odum termed it) reveals that the unprecedented growth is, in the grand scheme, a short term trend and all systems, humanity included, are subject to period pulses of growth and descent.

Macroscopic perspective

The students that enrolled in my class are now armed with a macroscopic lens and a semesters worth of evidence that the growth paradigm is unsustainable. Of course, the presentation of Odum’s work to approximately 100 people is a long way from a paradigm shift. But the overall positive reaction and multigenerational willingness, when presented with a compelling argument, to accept the need for change gives me hope that if Odum’s work was given a larger stage real change could transpire. So, given the verisimilitude of the maximum empower principle, what can be done? How can we prepare for peak oil/coal/energy and the inevitable post-peak descent? The Odums have lain out some excellent policies in their book (most of which are also on this website, expounded upon in fine pedagogical fashion, both by Mary Odum and Tom Abel) but I have some minor contributions, to be the subject of the next post.