Understanding and Planning A Prosperous Way Down

A Prosperous Way Down (2001, paperback 2008) by Howard and Elisabeth Odum may be the essential book for our coming age.  When the book was written 10 years ago the subject of collapse was still far from most people’s minds.  However, today it has become mainstream (re: numerous academic books, websites, and Hollywood's recent flood of related films).  Now most of us are forming opinions, and many expectations have turned darkly apocalyptic.  The Odum’s did not shy away from the dangers of this time of transition.  At several points in the book the dark undercurrent of the book’s subject pierce the surface.  But the point of the book is to give us hope; not to despair.  Howard Odum had been chewing on these ideas since the 1970s.  He had seen the darker ways that the collapse narrative could be told.  The Odum’s purposely chose not to follow that path.  Instead, they offer their usual (too deep for some) analysis of the state of the world, dangers to avoid, recipes for action, and through it all an inkling of hope.

Today, a decade after the Odum's penned A Prosperous Way Down, a number of the ‘dangers to avoid’ have become ominous realities.  Especially the continued borrowing by the U.S., thanks mainly to two unnecessary wars.  The economic meltdown of 2008 was predictable, since you cannot make money from money without emergy growth (although most people have
already forgotten that it was preceded and arguably precipitated by tight oil supplies and related skyrocketing oil prices).  But still, it is not time to run for the exits.  Instead, what we all need is carefully conceived and sound advice.  This is what the Odum's give us in A Prosperous Way Down.

In A Prosperous Way Down, the Odum's relate our history to this characteristic 'pulsing' diagram.  The current state of the world is located at the point at which growth becomes transition. 

After a review of systems principles and competing views, the Odum’s offer policies for transition and descent. They begin in Chapter 9 by reprising the globalized state of the world, but with eyes ever-fixed to systems principles of the ways of energy, materials, and information that were developed and refined by Howard Odum over 40 years of research. 

The scale of economic production, environmental stress, information sharing, trade, and the movement of people are all today global, a state that they trace back to the beginnings of the fossil fuel economies 200 years ago.  Indeed, it is the jump in power harnessed by humans with fossil fuels that is understood to have gradually stretched the spatial scale of human systems from village and region to nation and today global scales.

The new global network is said to be “distorted and unstable with uneven surges of population, information, economic exploitation, environmental destruction, and military threats.”  The authors have numerous recommendations for improving this state of things and preparing the world for descent, each based upon the principles of energy systems. 

The following bullets are largely my understandings of their position, sometimes stated more bluntly than would the Odum's perhaps, though I believe true to their intent.  My purpose is to strike at the most engaging and provocative issues in order to draw attention to the book and its compelling and highly substantive content.

Our current world and its energy sources

  • Post-industrial information societies are not possible – no society can exist without basic energy, food and materials provisioning
  • ‘Sustainability’ is not possible if that means holding the world at a fixed state of energy use – all systems oscillate or ‘pulse’ as energy sources and storages are consumed and replenished
  • Oil, natural gas, and coal production will peak and decline – oil now, natural gas soon, and coal in the next century or two
  • These fossil fuels currently continue to be superior as energy sources in quantity, quality, and net emergy
  • All renewable energies are currently supporting existing systems of nature, weather, geology, ocean, etc.
  • Renewable energy technologies are not capable of matching the current energy use of the global society, and their use as energy sources for humans reduces support to existing systems
  • Fossil fuels will continue to be burned (by some nations if not all) until their availability or net emergy become less than other energy sources, dispite the dangers presented by global climate change, because the existing world system in its current state is thoroughly dependent upon the work they perform

Human societies and cultural information

  • The pulse of fossil fuel use has allowed us to create large ‘storages’ of material assets (roads, buildings), human population, structural complexity, and cultural information
  • As fossil fuel availability shrinks and their net emergy decreases the global society will be forced to reduce its energy use and all human ‘storages’ will contract
  • These human storages have different turnover times: material assets depreciate more quickly, while shared cultural information will last the longest
  • The 'storage' of global population will be forced to shrink, but because of its 70 year turnover time, and the size of this storage, it is a serious threat to a prosperous descent.  We must reduce global population as quickly as possible.  There are many signs that people feel the stress and are reducing their fertility.  There are also examples in the world of violent depopulation.

The function of information

  • Information (cultural and genetic) functions to sustain self-organized systems (human society and life) through space and time
  • The geobiosphere builds and maintains structural storages with productive work.  When inputs decrease, nonliving structures dissipate, and later if energy inputs are again available, self-organization has to start over. 
  • With information the products of self-organization carry over from one episode of growth to another, making life, progress, and evolution possible.

The maintenance of information

  • After being selected for utility, duplicated, and shared, information can have great impact
  • To sustain any useful information, it must be continuously processed through an information cycle
  • In transition and descent, society must/will select useful information from the sea of popular culture, advertisement, education, ritual, and other information sources.
  • Useful information functions to reinforce and control useful energy flows and processes, which together maximize empower

Money and emergy as measures of ‘value’

  • Money is a technology that improves the efficiency of market exchange
  • Beyond markets, money is not an adequate measure of value because it fails to measure the work of nature
  • Emergy is a better measure of value for use in most forms of policy decision-making, including international trade agreements

Fundamental principles

  • Through self-organization, systems develop those parts, processes, and relationships that maximize the useful uptake of emergy
  • A useful flow of emergy (empower) does work that increases system production and efficiency (it does not simply dissipate energy as quickly as possible, but in a way that is self-reinforcing)
  • Prevailing systems are those whose designs maximize empower by reinforcing resource intake at the optimum efficiency
  • Self-organization generates units in a hierarchy, which are on different levels of energy use
  • Units in hierarchical series provide a division of labor
  • Each level in a hierarchy can do something to reinforce the processes of the system that the previous levels could not do
  • Ecosystems are the archetypical example of hierarchy, but self-organization generates an energy transformation hierarchy that extends to all scales

Highlights of A Prosperous Way Down

  • Energy fuels our human societies
  • Fossil fuels now supply more emergy to the world than all the global renewable sources
  • Energy gradients lead to self-organization
  • Two centuries of fossil fuel energy have resulted in a huge human presence in the world
  • No renewable energies can match the quantity, quality, or net yields of fossil fuels
  • Peaking oil production with shrinking net yields means that the past 200 years of growth will now transition into descent
  • The components of global human society will peak and contract at different rates
  • As growth becomes transition there are some positive signs
  • There is much that we can do to sustain our nations during transition
  • There is much that we can do to sustain ourselves during transition
  • There is much that we can do to make descent ‘prosperous’
  • During descent we will need to reorganize cities and reintegrate them with their surrounding regions
  • Policies can be recommended for cities in descent
  • The earth’s landscape and human settlements must be reorganized around the hydrological cycle of water
  • During descent we need to refresh the biotic cover, productivity, diversity, and human settlement of the landscape
  • We will need to transmit knowledge through descent to assist in new pulses of growth in the future

PowerPoint Summary

  • Below is a link to a detailed PowerPoint summary of the Odum's book, A Prosperous Way Down, that I have produced.  You are free share this presentation.
  • PWD_Summary
(I can be reached here for comment: Thomas Abel)