Understanding and Planning A Prosperous Way Down

  • Highlights from A Prosperous Way Down (2001) by Howard and Elisabeth Odum



Energy fuels our human societies

  • Energy sources drive/fuel nature’s self-organization, including human sociocultural systems
  • Some energy sources are renewable (sun, wind, rain, tide, uplift); some are slow-renewable (timber, topsoil, groundwater), and some are nonrenewable (on human time scales)
  • All natural systems pulse or oscillate in their use and storage of energy

Fossil fuels now supply more emergy to the world than all the global renewable sources

  • In the last 200 years, a larger portion of every human sociocultural system has been fueled by nonrenewable energies (coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear)
  • Money does not fuel human economic systems, energy does
  • Money is a technology for improving economic efficiency
  • Different energy sources have different ‘net emergy yields’
  • Different energy sources have different ‘quality’ (flexibility, ease of use)

Energy gradients lead to self-organization

  • As all systems, human sociocultural systems self-organize with their natural context to maximize the intake and self-reinforcing use of available emergy sources
  • Increased net emergy can support societies that are more expansive in space, number of people, complexity of organization, quantity of material assets and cultural assets, in some combination, which through feedback tend to increase the intake and self-reinforcing use of those emergy sources

Two centuries of fossil fuel energy have resulted in a huge human presence in the world

  • Vast quantities of fossil fuels with high net emergies have fueled the industrial societies of the past 200 years
  • The flexibility (high quality) and net emergy yield of the coal/oil combination has proven to be extremely potent, supporting a human population of nearly 7 billion

No renewable energies can match the quantity, quality, or net yields of fossil fuels

  • No renewable energies available in large quantities have the quality or current net emergy yields of oil, coal, or natural gas
  • Net emergy yields for nonrenewable energy sources change through time, rapidly growing larger and then gradually growing smaller as the storage is consumed and more work is done to extract and process the energy
  • The net emergy yield for global oil on average has been shrinking for 50 years, but it has remained high enough to continue to drive economic growth

Peaking oil production with shrinking net yields means that the past 200 years of growth will now transition into descent

  • Today the rate of global oil extraction is peaking/has peaked
  • Today the net emergy yield of global oil continues to decline
  • Since no other energy sources exist with the same net yield, quality, and quantity, it follows that, on average, global human societies will no longer grow and will begin to contract (along many dimensions, including total population)

The components of global human society will peak and contract at different rates

  • When net emergy is decreasing to human societies (the downside of a pulse), all components of a sociocultural system will also decrease
  • The different components of a sociocultural system have different turnover times – material assets the shortest and cultural information the longest
  • The function of information (genetic and cultural) is to ‘remember’ self-organized structure and function of systems
  • Information is maintained in ‘information cycles'

As growth becomes transition there are some positive signs

  • As the growth melee strips the remaining natural capital of the Earth and civilization reaches its zenith…
    • The exclusive dominance of large-scale capitalism can be replaced with an emphasis on cooperation with the environment and among nations
  • International trade and loans can be made equitable with emergy evaluations
  • Increased efficiencies are likely to limit tourism, international waste disposal, and extremes in the distribution of real wealth
  • A major change in mechanisms for international order is evolving that can replace the old system of territorial defenses
  • Global sharing of information and increased trade are joining the centers of civilization in common enterprise
  • Declining resources diminish nations’ inclinations and military capacities to encroach on others (less likely to invade other nations)
    • Providing that the remaining fuel resources are shared in open markets, great wars of national competition, growth, and conquest may be history
    • Small conflicts and boundary disputes may be within the power of international organizations to limit
  • For a peaceful transition we need to:
    • Share information internationally rather than sell it
    • Arrange trade and loans with emergy-based equity
    • Substitute environmental mutualism for resource exploitation
  • Shared information about environmental conservation, cultural diversity, social justice, weapons, and many other issues may lead us to interconnected futures and shared aspirations and attitudes for peace

There is much that we can do to sustain our nations during transition

  • To extend the period of transition we need to sustain emergy inputs, and waste it less
  • Trade treaties can moderate inequities of free trade
  • Military costs can be shared more
  • Fuel should be made available globally
  • Changed attitudes can foster cooperation – like mature ecosystem
  • New policies should emphasize:
    • Information innovation
    • Efficiency rather than speed
    • Cooperation rather than competition
    • Diversity rather than conformity
    • Good maintenance rather than growth
    • Suppression of borrowing
  • A national condition with more security for individuals can be sustained by replacing luxury and waste

There is much that we can do to sustain ourselves during transition

  • Need new efficiency and eliminate what is unimportant
  • Place ceiling on personal income
  • Public works program at a living minimum wage
  • Ensure full employment, increase productivity, and reduce costs of welfare and crime
  • Part-time work for elders, replace early retirement, protect trust funds of social security
  • A universal public baseline health care system
  • Expensive medicine by private insurance
  • A tradition of free consumption hurts the economy by wasting emergy
  • Collective love of automobile limits other things – jobs, health, education and environment quality
  • We can sustain for some time what is most important in mature nations

There is much that we can do to make descent ‘prosperous’

  • To be prosperous, descent requires a reduced population, less money, and smaller salaries
  • Governments and banks will need to help finance initiatives for downsize and redevelopment
  • The economy will issue fewer stocks and bonds, borrow less, and develop lower interest rates
  • International treaties can control global capitalism with an international minimum wage
  • With less energy and a shortened energy hierarchy, some achievements of the climax civilization must become dormant
  • Landscapes can be expected to organize with fewer cars
  • Information and medicine can be given priority by allocation of electric power
  • A deliberate plan for change to avoid apocalypse needs global attention
  • People will need to understand the changes and share a vision of a less-intensive but better world


Guidelines for Orderly Descent

  1. Make beneficial descent the collective purpose for this century
  2. Dedicate TV drama, literature, and art to adventures about descent
  3. Accept small annual decline in empower use
  4. Maintain a stable emergy use per person by reducing populations in a humanitarian way
  5. Remove all incentives, dogma, and approval for excess reproduction
  6. Reduce salaries and wages as necessary to maintain full employment
  7. Keep the emergy-money ratio stable by adjusting the money in circulation
  8. Borrow less and reduce expectations of profit from stock markets
  9. Develop economic incentives for reducing consumption
  10. Develop public opinion, laws, and taxes to discourage unproductive resource use
  11. Sustain the production of the environment
  12. Consolidate knowledge for long-term preservation
  13. Prioritize the communication of concepts of international respect and cooperation for global sharing


During descent we will need to reorganize cities and reintegrate them with their surrounding regions

  • Reintegrating cities with their region of support and influence may help solve severe urban problems while preparing those cities for the decentralization expected in descent
  • While some cities are still growing, the reorganization to use less fuels is underway in many developed cities
  • Decentralization is aided if reduced urban populations can cluster around smaller more dispersed centers
  • Towns are already developing at the beltway-trunk line junctions, starting with the shopping centers there
  • In descent people should move closer to their jobs, use bikes more, reduce car use, parking space, and fuel use
  • A public works program can help make changes in city structure while keeping the poor and unemployed in the economy
  • We can expect decentralized cities to have:
  • Less-intense fuel consumption
  • Less transportation
  • Less strip advertising
  • A smaller percent of regional population
  • Better cycles of materials between cities and environment
  • Longer rotation of building and renewal
  • More efficient spatial patterns
  • Greens including wetlands, ponds, parks, retention basins, and play fields, can be added to depopulated areas
  • The inner city is likely to retain its roles as a center of information, serving the region through communication technology

Policies can be recommended for cities in descent

City and Regional Reorganization

  1. Help orderly decentralization of cities by adapting plans, zoning, and incentives to develop surrounding towns (secondary centers)
    1. Operate frequent public transport connecting central cities with the towns
  2. Include the central city, its suburban towns, and the daily circulation of people within the same regional government and taxing authority
  3. Adopt patterns now that will be necessary when rising fuel costs eliminate most private cars
    1. Limit strip development and unnecessary advertising
  1. Limit the land speculation that inflates prices and causes banking collapse when expected growth does not occur
  2. Adjust appraisals and property taxes to the money circulation, decreasing rates if there is deflation

Central City

  1. Keep the centers of information in the central city (libraries, schools, finance, universities, government offices, and computer centers)
    1. Use communications to connect the centers to the people of the region (television, the Internet, phone networks)
  2. Remodel and use the buildings that become vacant with decentralization
  3. Restrict cars from centers of information (high empower density)

Surrounding Towns

  1. Restructure the spatial distribution of housing, businesses, and transportation so that housing and environmental amenities can be near the jobs
  2. Provide incentives and public initiatives to reorganize housing and transportation around the towns
  3. Encourage diversity of business in smaller centers to help the one-stop shopping that uses less transportation
  4. Transfer unemployed and homeless people to public works jobs in redeveloping smaller towns


  1. Encourage people to reuse products, to recycle materials from consumers to industry, and to disperse only the dilute, low-transformity wastes to the environment
  2. Include rural wetlands as part of city operations for recycling storm waters and wastewaters back to nature (compatible with decentralization)
  3. Perforate sidewalks and parking lots to increase percolation of rain so that trees can grow larger
    1. The area of roots receiving water and nutrients needs to be the same as the crown of the mature trees

Emergy Evaluations

  1. Use emergy evaluation to select land uses with maximum public benefit (different from maximum monetary profit to individuals)
  2. Use empower density and transformity to associate activities of compatible intensity (a means of zoning)
  3. Arrange industries and business in appropriate locations according to the city and regional map of transformity and emergy investment ratio
    1. Use centers for concentrated activities and the periphery for more dispersed functions

The earth’s landscape and human settlements must be reorganized around the hydrological cycle of water

  • For prosperous descent, the economy as it self-designs can achieve more by fitting into the global hydrologic cycle
  • More empower is generated by adapting society to the multiple values of rivers, estuaries, and beaches
  • Human settlements and the ecosystems around the rivers can reorganize so that the economy better fits the water system
  • Nature’s treatments, properly used, work for the economy so that tax-driven technologies don’t have to fill the same functions
    • Use floodplains to maintain water quality
    • Restore estuarine circulation
    • Remove jetties
    • Stop pumping coastal groundwaters
    • Operate lower-intensity aquaculture ponds
    • Restore reefs
    • Set levees back from the shore
  • Coastal fisheries can recover when fishing pressure decreases and some of the nutritive discharges are restored
  • The energies of mountain waters will still be needed to produce hydroelectric power for society’s information systems

During descent we need to refresh the biotic cover, productivity, diversity, and human settlement of the landscape

  • During descent, assuming population decrease, society can reorganize rural landscapes symbiotically with decentralized cities
  • Natural capital can be restored
  • Environmental contributions based on renewable resources can be increased by rotating lands, reclaiming and reforesting bare lands, and sustaining complex forests and biodiversity
  • Less-intensive agriculture and forestry will require more lands and more labor
  • Recycling can replace most mining

We will need to transmit knowledge through descent to assist in new pulses of growth in the future

  • Part of global information is in the intellectual knowledge of society, and part is biotic information in the genes of humans and the Earth’s life-support biodiversity
  • Sustaining the biotic information depends on maintaining large areas of diverse ecosystems through critical times of transition when human populations exceed resources
  • There are resource limits to the amount of genetic and knowledge information that can be sustained
    • This is because of the great wealth (in emergy) used to develop and maintain information (which means that its transformities are high)
  • Only part of our information will be used by our civilization in descent
  • For adaptability and long range progress, we also need to preserve unused knowledge
  • To maintain knowledge, the institutions for education, communication, and technology will require large amounts of electrical power
  • Information processing by television helps develop a globally shared culture and peace ethic, but to be efficient, society has to set television priorities among serious purpose, advertisement, and entertainment
  • Education is the transmitter of knowledge
  • With the right kind of downsizing, nonacademic waste can be eliminated and the university’s intellectual functions emphasized
  • The great university, although smaller, may be the best hope for leading descent and preserving knowledge from the era of growth

Suggestions for Educational Efficiency

  • Reorganize jurisdictions, laws, taxes, and budgets to give a state-approved standard education to all children
    • Require this standard for private schools also
  • Provide day care for small children, extending through normal working hours as an automatic part of all schools
  • Provide preschool orientation and help in school to those of different languages with the goal that they can be taught in the nations’ primary language without handicap
  • Provide after-school activities for all ages
  • Replace high-energy interschool sports teams – oriented toward championships and a few stars – with intraschool sports that include all students
  • Provide a unified systems course in energy, economics, and environment taught by teachers trained to relate these fields to global change
  • Let about half of what is taught be according to standards of federal, state, and local authorities, with the goal of sharing common knowledge and achieving basic skills
    • Let the other half be left for teachers to generate innovations, creativity, and progress
  • Encourage use of new technology like computers and the Internet, experimenting with various new ways of using these in teaching
  • Organize school schedules to occupy students in learning through the whole day and year-round
    • Learning can include after-class projects, internships, and vocational experiences making use of community help
  • Let schools supplement medical care, nutrition, and job placement for students without these at home
    • Use parent-teacher activities to get more community support of all the children
  • Organize district-wide programs for racial and ethnic variety in schools