What exactly is energy descent, or the prosperous way down?

In 2006, Rob Hopkins asked this question, “What exactly is energy descent?” It is time to answer the question. What does the prosperous way down mean to you?

Please join us in discussing the issues by clicking on Replies to join the conversation.

12 thoughts on “What exactly is energy descent, or the prosperous way down?”

  1. Energy descent implies a diminishing of energy. Since fossil fuels are being used up faster than the earth is making them, human society has less and less energy to run its economy.

    1. To add to the question about the prosperous way down: we need to change our lifestyles to live with less energy. If many of the world’s people do this, we can enjoy a useful way to a lower steady state; if we continue to live extravagantly, our economies and environment will crash.

  2. Is the prosperous way down the opportunity to obtain at least some of your dreams?

  3. What is the goal of our current global industrial economic system? Arguably, the goal is profit in monetary terms, or wealth. The surplus fossil fuels that drive the system have allowed that pursuit of profit to overwhelm the traditional scale of sustainable human culture.

    R.F. Kennedy described our situation in 1968, when he said, “Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

    Over 40 years later, the speech has even greater relevancy to our situation. As depicted in Professor Ortega’s diagram on the home page, autocatalysis (a self-sustaining chain reaction) has occurred causing the success of economic growth to feed upon itself to create more growth in an exponential fashion. As Kennedy stated, our global measure of success, GNP (or the newer term, GDP) measures the creation of additional complexity to handle wastes and emissions as a success. It counts military proliferation, logging of old growth or virgin forests, expansion of diagnostic categories to describe medical pathologies and the drugs to treat them. GDP values the aggrandizement of phantom wealth through increasing inequities in corporate profit-making, salaries, and regulatory capture of governments. This is how we measure prosperity in our current system. And it is making us sick and unhappy. Yet our solution to being sick and unhappy is to try harder to work within the industrial system we have created to treat the symptoms of what that industrial system produces.

    To me, prosperity means well-being. Well-being means healthy, happy, loving families in vibrant, safe, engaged communities, living sustainably within their limits, as evidenced by clean water and air, a diverse ecosystem base that supports local economies, and a pace of life that makes living enjoyable and worthwhile, creating harmony and happiness. We are not going to achieve these goals within the current system, in my opinion. How do we achieve a world of well-being?

    1. Great Bobby Kennedy quote, Mary! And an excellent explanation of its current relevance.

      My sense is that the guidelines presented by H.T. & Betty tell us, broadly, what we must do to achieve a prosperous way down, and that a few people, mostly specialists but including a few strays like me, understand well enough to follow along.

      It seems to me that our first and biggest problem is to find ways to bring some of this understanding to a population steeped in a BAU/endless growth/consumerist worldview. It’s a religious worldview, really, with massive quantities of embedded energy.

      “All” we have to do is tell a convincing story that provides a new and more satisfying definition of prosperity. How might we do that, and to whom should we be speaking first?

      Also, on what scale should we be working? At what organizational level(s) could change effectively begin?

  4. It’s hard to engage people in discussions about, much less actions towards, a prosperous way down if they fail to understand that “down” is not only inevitable, but probably imminent. A critical foundation for such conversations & actions is an understanding of the science of peak oil/energy and energy return on investment (EROI). What Americans hear on the 6pm news these days are claims that “we have 100 years of natural gas in North America,” “tapping the Canadian tar sands via the Keystone XL pipeline is our road to energy security,” and “nuclear energy is clean and efficient (as long as we can avoid a pesky melt-down)”.

    So, my question is, how do we get people to understand these foundational concepts, so we can then start working towards a prosperous way down?

  5. how do we get people to understand these foundational concepts, so we can then start working towards a prosperous way down?

    People gain understanding through involvement. My recommendation is to discuss emergy with those who will listen. Inevitably the discussion will lead to connecting how the earth system works, from sunlight to DNA to cerebral learning. Many generations of people, developing in artificial environments, may possibly have forgotten the environmental support of day-to-day activities. By sharing the knowledge that emergy teaches, more alternatives and thus greater chances of success may be generated through the collective thinking of those who understand.

  6. I’m here and listening for brilliant ideas. You guys have nailed the problem.

    I can share what we are doing in our neighborhood. My neighbor John, who barters for what he needs with his chicken eggs, says we need to be the shock absorbers for the neighbors when it gets really bad. A small group of us have committed to building relationships so when/if hard times come, we know each other. We are having neighborhood get togethers about 1x a month—-we announce it on our neighborhood facebook page. 🙂

    But socialization is just the first step.

  7. Betty says live simply. Angelo suggests we might use the opportunity to wrest control of our hopes and dreams? Doug says to tell stories about a better way, and Chris wants to teach ecological intelligence regarding emergy. Todd suggests with start with the basics of the net energy concept first (where Odum started with all of this). Cindee adds a great video from Mollison exhorting us to stop running away and to become active at a larger scale to change the system. Do I have that right?

  8. Mary: I think you summarized accurately the above postings. I believe those statements are philosophically connected, likely due to the common driver behind them (a prosperous way down). I will address one of those statements below.

    Question: “All” we have to do is tell a convincing story that provides a new and more satisfying definition of prosperity. How might we do that, and to whom should we be speaking first? On what scale should we be working? At what organizational level(s) could change effectively begin?

    The four above questions are nearly identical; i.e. to whom (a group of people distributed within a spectrum, or scale of hierarchy) would conveying our message catalyze the most effective change (a feedback response).

    Systems and hierarchy theory suggest that society’s shared knowledge is the highest quality resource at human disposal (neglecting radioactive isotopes which are arguably not fully within our control). Shared knowledge feeds back controls to government, economic industry, academia, socio-culture and of course, nature. Therefore a trickle down (or cascading) effect of ideas occurs once they are firmly established in the framework of society’s shared knowledge.

    As stated in prior posts, most people with intimate understanding of the science behind ‘a prosperous way down’ are specialists, often detached from the general populous, and usually with intentions of committing their knowledge directly to society’s shared knowledge via publications, teaching and advertising. Generally this form of information circulation is kept within the circles of people with those specialties. Emergy is far from a household name due to its questionable scientific rigor and therefore its acceptance, which may never come. Additionally, the powers that be may only permit the mass (free) exchange of new and helpful ideas if they put more coin in pocket (the above stated ‘satisfying definition of prosperity’). That is, those in control wish to stay in control, and sometimes do so by feeding back control on what society knows.

    Therefore, to the original question (to whom should we be addressing?), we should address the lay man. Emergy shows us how all facets of modern society, including industry, art, science, politics, etc. are emergent of accumulations of ‘lay men’. Though systems develop hierarchies (because this maximizes empower) and higher levels feed back controls, they are ultimately under the constraints of abundant lower level support. The trickle down effect may not be possible for political reasons described, and therefore common citizens are where emphasis of information exchange should take place. This requires non-‘specialist’ language so that universal concepts such as reinforcement, quality, energy, ecosystems, …. can be understood.

    As stated in my previous post, by enlightening greater numbers of people, more alternatives may be generated thereby increasing the likelihood of successful enterprise.

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