Whatever Happened to Hierarchies in Ecology?

by Mary Logan

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:

We thus arrive at the conclusion that any sort of perpetual motion is impossible. A continuous stream of fresh energy is necessary for the continuous working of any working system, whether animate or inanimate. Life is cyclic as regards the material substances consumed, and the same materials are used over and over again in metabolism. But as regards energy, it is unidirectional, and no continuous cyclic use of energy is even conceivable. If we have available energy, we may maintain life and produce every material requisite necessary. That is why the flow of energy should be the primary concern of economics (p. 56).

Yet economic perspectives fail to recognize the unidirectional, limited nature of much of the energy that drives our economy. Economists consider environmental resources to be “externalities” whose only limitation is market cost.  If we do not recognize varying qualities of energy and how they contribute to the hierarchy of energy, then we do not understand the limits of what is achievable. Sewall called this “reperceving depth.” And if we do not value energetic contributions of the environment to society and recognize the limits of different types of energy sources, then we will fail to organize society in a sustainable way. A description and quantification of how energy flows through systems is essential for explaining growth, complexity, carrying capacity, and sustainability in systems.

The cognitive dissonance regarding energetics can be illustrated by examining perspectives about energy from Economists and Ecologists. How do we view the movement of energy through systems in both the environment and the economy?  E.P. Odum (1997) describes the interface between the study of ecosystems and economies:

In theory, ecology and economics should be companion disciplines. In practice, however, economists deal with human works and with market goods and services while ecologists have until recently focused on the natural environment . . . . (p. 32).

Economists focus on human production and consumption using monetary measures, while Ecologists focus on natural ecosystem production and consumption using measures such as population size or biomass. The recent trans-disciplinary field of Ecological Economics proposes to combine the two sciences using economic methodology while merging conceptual theory. Ecological economists propose that we “internalize the externalities” of Nature into human economic systems. Yet this does not go far enough, if one is to value resources properly as the basis for our survival. In one of their last papers, Odum and Odum (1999) proposed that, in order to understand sustainability issues, we should reverse the idea and “externalize the internalities” by placing the contributions of the economy on the same measurement basis as the work of the environment. This reversal requires a different type of measure than money, since Nature’s processes (from which we are all derived) do not use currencies. So neither Economics nor Ecology nor Ecological Economics sciences as they currently exist can capture the relationships and levels of hierarchy in the unified system of Man and Nature. The new science of Emergy Synthesis proposes to quantitatively measure the complexity in those relationships. The premise for this post is that the unsustainable hierarchy and complexity of our economies can be represented visually by inverted pyramids for those who are not mathematically inclined.

Abel (from Odum)

Ecologists originally described the energy basis of ecosystems in terms of a food chain. In a food chain, larger numbers of basic producers at the base of the food chain provided many calories flowing through numerous organisms to converge in a network, transforming into fewer higher level consumer units with fewer total calories but with larger size and territory over a number of trophic levels. Stable food chains were initially viewed as pyramids, with large bases of energetic support narrowing to a top. Available energy decreased through each transformation, but the energy quality increased. The largest predators were at the top, with increased ability to reinforce energy interactions both upscale and downscale through feedback loops. Theoretically humans were the top predators in the system. Odum (1987) viewed this process as a proposed fifth law of energy hierarchy; All the energy transformations known can be connected in a series network according to the quantity of one kind of energy required for the next. The representation of energy as a hierarchy allowed the pyramid to be quantified and standardized based on comparable embodied solar energy equivalence units in order to measure the real wealth generated by nature and humans on any scale of time. This then allowed comparisons of capabilities of available energy of different kinds to do work, and to properly value Nature’s contributions (Odum, 2007, p. 97).

Ecological pyramid/food chain

Yet, if one performs a google image search for the words “food chain,” none of the pyramidal images that result depict humans! So where are the humans in this big picture that the ecologists describe? Aren’t we the top carnivores and the dominant species on the planet? Ecologists turned away from food chains in favor of food webs, deeming that webs better fit the complex network of feeding relationships in systems. Interestingly enough, when food webs appeared, humans were finally added to the top of the some of the diagrams of webs, although energy hierarchy was dispensed with. Yet the concept of a chain of transformations is integral to the description of energy flows and for the quantification of energy hierarchies. So energy hierarchies are less easily explained or quantified in webs.

An Economist views Ecology http://www.econguru.com/ fundamentals_of_ecology/ecosystems .html

As an interesting historical aside, those few scientists who study isotope behavior in systems appear to consistently understand the importance of energetic hierarchy.  Frederick Soddy won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1921 for his early studies of isotope decay, and he was insistent about the importance of energy for understanding economic systems. Both Odum brothers developed their energetic theories about society using radioecology. Ecologists are showing recent renewed interest in radioisotope tracers to quantify food webs (Hebert et al., 2006) along with other, more reductionist, top-down methods. Will humans be included in those isotope surveys as a result of the rising background levels of isotopes in some countries, and will we derive a tardy understanding of the relationships between Man and Nature?

Critiques from Goldsmith (1985, 2002) suggest that ecologists may have turned away from energetically-based theories of hierarchy and succession in favor of theories focusing on genetics and evolution in order to achieve consistency with the reigning growth-oriented social paradigm of the past 30 years. Is this why ecologists gave up the food chain in favor of food “webs?” It is difficult to retain oppositional world views, and scientific theories are arguably derived from world views rather than vice versa. Most ecosystems reach a stable, pulsing successional climax, eventually being replaced over the larger scale of time. This theory does not fit our world views regarding the future of industrial society. And in an energy hierarchy that is quantified, humans must either exist within the limiting energy budget of renewable resources, or else the assumption about the temporary nature of exponential growth due to nonrenewable resources must be made explicit. Quantifying these implied assumptions would mean that we would have to either change our world view to match our inevitable energetic limits, or else change our scientific theories? In unintentional support for this idea, Rudel (2009) suggests that the ideas of succession and food chains are flawed meta-narratives that . . . “have no place for important features of human societies like globalization and the world system” (p. 90). Rudel discounts succession as a potential master narrative for environment and society, and suggests that succession may instead yield clues to sustainable development that yields both economic growth and environmental protection. Rudel appears to be discounting theories that do not support his world view. Additionally scientists focus on problems and ask questions that address their world view; Ecological studies are only recently attempting to include humans in studies of urban ecology. Kingsland notes that these recent studies used microscopic methods such as “patch dynamics”, however, that omit the energetic basis. Our ecological blindspot regarding energetic limits appears complete.

Thus, Ecology now emphasizes growth and competition among populations rather than limits and succession leading to cooperation, with less of an emphasis on balance and holism. Kingsland (2005) suggests that Ecology has diverged, with two messages to offer:

. . . one in keeping with American ideas about progress and the other subversive. The clash between these two view-points made it necessary to think more deeply about the extent to which ecology can or should be human-centered. This question in turn relates to the problem of how we view ourselves in relation to the environment, whether we are outsiders and disturbers or intrinsic parts of a system, whose health depends on our cooperation (p. 209).

Transformity Depiction (Tom Abel)

Although some subversive scientists such as Tim F.H. Allen and others are still exploring the concept of hierarchy as a unifying concept for ecology, most ecologists appear to have abandoned the idea of hierarchical energy as an explanatory theory for both man and nature. As Allen points out, the limits of what is possible in a system typically come from the lower levels of an energy hierarchy. So theoretically, humans are limited by the Transformity of the lower levels of the hierarchy.  Tom Abel’s Transformity pyramid above depicts the representation of human society as it ideally rests upon its natural resource basis, with genetic DNA and human society information at the pinnacle of transformity within the naturally-shaped pyramidal hierarchy. Due to nonrenewable energy inputs to society over the last two centuries, however, the reality is far different from the ideal society depicted above.  What would our current global industrial society look like in a qualitative representation using pyramids?

Is there a single energy hierarchy for Nature and the Economy together, or are Nature and the Economy separate entities described by disconnected sciences with separate toolkits? Can we visually marry these two seemingly oppositional energetic and economic world views as to how the world works? Kurt Cobb skirts the boundaries of this topic in his post on Upside Down Economics. When we examine the sub sectors of an economy, here is what Economists see when they look at the US Economy, for example.

Kurt Cobb Resource Insights http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2007/07/upside-down-economics.html

Yet here is what an Ecological Economist might see instead, at least in the extreme economy of the United States, if we transposed the pie chart above into a pyramid, as Mr. Cobb did.

Kurt Cobb Resource Insights http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2007/07/upside-down-economics.html
Abel&Cobb-Industrial Society as an Hourglass

The sectors of a human economy based on nature do not appear to follow the normal pyramid shape of a stable food chain. In our current economy, sectors of natural resources and basic services are a small part of our global economy, while sectors that are arguably dislocated from the real economy are dominant, such as the financial, insurance and real estate sectors. If we try to visually marry Abel’s ideal representation of Man living within limits of Nature with Cobb’s upside-down economic pyramid on top, what results is an hourglass at right, with a fuel injector made of fossil fuels between the natural and human worlds. Although the analogy is qualitative and imperfect, the images suggest that fossil fuels have allowed us to build a separate skewed society perched on the apex of the natural, sustainable energy hierarchy of Nature. The amount and degree of high quality transformities are inflated by the injections of fossil fuels, creating an exponential super-circulation of information in the human end of society, and an increasingly impoverished Natural end. This may seem obvious to many, but then why do our theoretical models do not reflect this basic understanding?

BIS Pyramid of Global Liquidity circa 2007?

We can even make analogies about the shape of our current global monetary system, which takes on the same shape of a skewed, upside down pyramid, as shown at right in the BIS Inverted Pyramid of Global Liquidity. Many other examples of upset hierarchies can be found by googling images of upside down pyramids. Inverted pyramids are inherently unstable. Is there anything natural about our current global economic system, and how far must we bend or even

Gothard http://online.wsj.com/articl e/SB123958260423012269. html

break theories about Nature to make them fit our worldview of our economic system? Dr. Abel’s naturally shaped Transformity pyramid represents how our society should be, in balance with Nature. But our society can no longer be represented by a normal pyramid with a broad base and narrow apex. The inverted shape of our society is only workable as long as we can extract an increasingly broad footprint of natural resources in order to avoid toppling our rapacious economy. In fact, if one combines the visual images of an imbalanced upside-down economy and its associated upside-down money supply spinning like an accelerating flywheel, then a spinning top results. And we all know what happens to spinning tops that stop spinning? Isn’t that what they call a “pyramid scheme?”

Sharon Kingsland (2005) summarizes ecological perspectives that view Nature as a problem isolated from society, and energy as a market commodity:

. . . Unless a human-centered perspective can be built into environmental discussions, it will be difficult to convey to ordinary people, and also to politicians, the links between environmental reforms and other issues that affect human health and societal health. This failure also creates a barrier to the teamwork that is needed to solve environmental problems (p. 262).

We have shifted our theories to fit the context and perceived reality of industrial society and capitalism. Our perceived world view lacks unifying concepts that might consider a future with less resources. We are very unprepared for the limits to growth.

And the next time that you see images of inverted pyramids, consider the nature of hierarchies, their relative inherent sustainability or stability, and their place within Nature.

http://www.redd-monitor.org/2011/03/22/munden-project-report- on-redd-and-forest-carbon-forest-carbon-trading- is-unworkable-as-currently-constructed/

5 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Hierarchies in Ecology?”

  1. Thanks, David! I’m trying to shift world views. Emergy analysis/synthesis quantifies the hierarchies nicely, but most people are more verbal or visual, so an introduction to Emergy needs to be visual? I thought the pyramid visual could help in explaining how imbalanced our society is. I see our current complex information storm much like the anvil top of a severe thunderstorm or supercell; imbalanced and sucking all the extra entropic hot air in from the cultural countryside as it moves over the landscape.

  2. Yes, it is fascinating to read your thoughts about world views in relation to “energetically based theories of hierarchy.” When I think of worldviews, the relevant competing ones are Modernism and Post-Modernism, and below is how I seem them contrast.

    Modernism – Postmodernism
    Hierarchy – Network
    Competition – Cooperation
    Obtain A Yield – Self Regulation (Holmgren)
    Food Chain – Food Web
    Microscope – Macroscope (Odum)
    Top Down – Bottom Up

    When I look at the above list, I’m no longer seeing these as either/or, but both/and. Ecosystems have all of these aspects, and we need to move to a post-postmodernism or integral worldview to work with these.

    The big problem is that for the most part, neither modernists nor post-modernists, nor integralists give needed attention to the energy basis of man and nature, as you (and your parents) have pointed out. So I absolutely agree that it is key that we “change our world view to match our inevitable energetic limits.”

  3. Hi, David. I’m just the poster girl for Emergy Synthesis. There’s an entire science out there on evaluating the energy basis for society, linked below, some of it as readily accessible PDFs. The hard, quantitative analysis has been done, especially on net emergy, which is the most important aspect at this point. We don’t have to waste time and energy heading down numerous blind alleys attempting market solutions that are not valued appropriately? How do we decide which renewables to put our efforts into, if we decide to get really serious about survival for humanity, putting it ahead of wealth acquisition in markets? As fossil fuels wane, the importance of the environment on which we subsist will become more and more evident–if we burn every last stick of furniture in the house in a desperate attempt to stay warm, there will be nothing left to fall back on.


    “Maximizing jobs and the economy requires maximizing the symbiosis of the economy with the environment and its resources” (Odum, 1995, p. 367). Emergy synthesis has the answers to how we can do this.

Comments are closed.