The Energy Characteristics of Cooperative Culture

Mary Logan, daughter of the late pioneer of systems ecology, Howard Odum, undertook a book review of “Together; the Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation“, by Richard Sennett.   She quickly moved, however, to looking at the role energy availability plays in society and culture, and created a very helpful chart on the potential characteristics of a new culture with dramatically less energy availability. See Cooperative Culture – Energy Characteristics at A Prosperous Way Down.


Looking at a reproduction of Logan’s chart below, one can easily see why a Permaculture village like that being developed in a place called  Atamai in New Zealand makes so much sense.  According to Joanna Santa Barbara in Fleeing Vesuvius, the development of Atamail Village is a response “taking into account the need to mitigate climate change and adapt to low or zero fossil fuel use, the constraints of sea-level rise over the next century, the need to step outside, as much as possible, the mainstream financial system and the importance of a local steady-state economy within the biophysical limits of the region.” Read more about Atamai here: Design for Surviving Vesuvius – Atamai, a Permaculture Village.


Characteristic: Low Gain (Scarcity) High Gain (Surplus Resources)
Energy Mandate Efficiency more important for Maximum Empower Maximum Empower w/ less efficiency
 Less dense, less technology Increased size, more technology
Slower, less productive, more recycling Faster, wasteful of energy, high entropy, open mineral cycles
Sustainable orientation, pulsing, k-selection Growth Orientation r-selection
Zero Sum or Negative Sum Positive Sum Game
Requires stable energy base Boom and bust more common
Focus Community Needs Individual Wants
 Goal Communal harmony?, quality Wealth, quantity
 Relation to Nature  Living within Nature as stewards Separate from Nature, less stewardship
 Spatial Orientation Localized, smaller capacity, more stratification, heterogeneity Global, colonization, urbanization
 Temporal Orientation 7 Generations + perspectives Next quarter outlook
Hierarchy Shorter food chain length Longer more complex hierarchies
Diversity More diversity, parallel units, narrow niches Less diversity, less complex webs, broad niches
 Ethics Centered on Community, Justice Focused on Individual Personhood, Respect for Personhood, Autonomy
 Needs Hierarchy Focus on basic needs Focus on higher needs
More self-reliance Needs supplied by system
 Equity More equity, less division Less equity
Physical Better genetic fitness Larger mass, better health, more offspring
 Psychological Depression/vigilance OK Techno-optimism
Generalists More diversity in terms of specialties
Focused on Maintenance Focused on Expansion
 Social Extended families, guilds Nuclear families, mobility
Cooperation Competition
Altruism, Gift economies Inequality, Winner takes all
Mutual Dependence, Harmony Independence, Mobility
 Political Less freedom, more equality Capitalism (more freedom, less equal)
Increased regulation, stored info Just-in-time
Grass Roots Centralized
Network Silos, bureaucracies
Symbiosis Darwinism, Social Insurance
Externalize Internalities? Internalize Externalities
 Cultural More Ritual, myths, stories Division of labor, Information society
Stricter Values Looser Value systems, self-indulgence?
Civility, conformity Experiments, social deviance
Selflessness Self-aggrandizement
More resistance, less resilience Rapid evolution

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