Greece, the Limits to Growth, and My Paper

My paper, “Patterns for Navigating the Transition to a World in Energy Descent,” to be presented at the upcoming Fourth International Integral Theory Conference on July 18th, is about resource depletion (“energy descent”) and the unsustainability of current economic structures, which may indicate we are entering a new era signaled by the end of growth. [8/24/15 update: the paper has now been published by Integral Leadership Review]

In a recent post entitled “The Limits to Growth and Greece: Systemic or Financial Collapse?“, Ugo Bardi writes, “could it be that all the financial circus that we are seeing dancing in and around Greece is just the effect of much deeper causes? The effect of something that gnaws at the very foundations not only of Greece, but of the whole Western World?

Let’s take a step back, and take a look at the 1972 study titled “The Limits to Growth” (LTG). Look at the “base case” scenario, the one which used as input the data that seemed to be the most reliable at the time…”

Bardi concludes: “If the LTG study is right and the crisis is generated by the gradually increasing costs of production of natural resources, (and there is plenty of evidence that these costs are increasing worldwide, see also here) then, collapse cannot be avoided, at best it can be mitigated by acting at the system level. By means of such measures as renewable energy, efficiency, and recycling, the system can be helped to cope with a reduced resource availability. But the economic contraction of the system is unavoidable. It is a contraction that we call financial collapse, but that is simply the result of the system adapting to lower quality (i.e. more expensive) resources.”

To corroborate, I will share an excerpt  from my paper mentioned above:

“…Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute believes we have reached The End of Growth (2011), as does energy economist Jeff Rubin (2012), who understands that “the real engine of economic growth has always been cheap, abundant fuel and resources.” However, this wasn’t the training he received as an economist:

Nearly every economics exam I wrote dealt with the idea of maximizing economic growth. It wasn’t until I had years of real-world experience under my belt as chief economist of an investment bank that I began to understand what the textbooks were missing…After watching GDP growth shrink in the face of steadily rising oil prices, I couldn’t escape the notion that growth might someday become finite. During my formal training, steeped in conventional economic theory, the idea of static growth was never even considered. It doesn’t matter which school of economic thought you subscribe to or where you belong on the ideological spectrum, the notion of growth is an unquestioned tenet of the discipline (ibid, pp. 26-27).

Thomas Piketty (2014) caused a sensation when his rigorous academic economics book was translated into English, and became a bestseller. Piketty provides good evidence that we will not likely see again the levels of growth experienced in the 20th century. One reference he cites is even less optimistic. Robert J. Gordon, economics professor at Northwestern University forecasts a 0.2 percent growth of real disposable income for the majority of the U.S. population over the next 25 to 40 years. He names four “headwinds” contributing to this self-described “gloomy forecast”: demographic shifts, educational attainment, increasing inequality, and the ratio of debt to GDP at all levels (Gordon, 2012; 2014). This projection does not include resource constraints.

“Rogue” or “heterodox” economists who recognize the validity of biophysical constraints (limits to growth) include E.F. Schumacher (1973), Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (Gowdy and Mesner, 1998), Herman Daly (Daly & Cobb, 1994), and Peter Pogany (2006). Taking a thermodynamics perspective on economic growth, Pogany argues that entropy applies to matter, not just to energy. Therefore eternal substitution and recycling among materials is an illusion in a closed system (with regards to matter) such as our terrestrial sphere of earth and atmosphere. Technology cannot, in the end, overcome entropy, which means that the Pulse of Growth ultimately hits a peak, based on the availability of quality resources not yet dissipated.

In principle, they could replace copper wires with carbon polymers and make gold from scraps of copper, but in practice they could not do it if they had to pick through the ofals of low-entropy substance in search of other material inputs…between “can be done economically” and “cannot be done physically” there is a tipping point: “Can be done physically but not economically” (Pogany, 2006, p. 123).

Of course there are many economists who strongly dispute the voices above; but more and more are questioning the status quo, with some arguing that we need to embrace a “degrowth” alternative (Caradonna, et al., 2015). Certainly there is reason to pause and to question the idea of infinite economic growth on a finite planet. This is one more “myth of the given” that should not be taken for granted. Edgar Morin referred to “development” as:

The master word…upon which all the popular ideologies of the second half of this century converged…development is a reductionistic conception which holds that economic growth is the necessary and sufficient condition for all social, psychological, and moral developments. This techno-economic conception ignores the human problems of identity, community, solidarity, and culture… In any case, we must reject the underdeveloped concept of development that made techno-industrial growth the panacea of all anthroposocial development and renounce the mythological idea of an irresistible progress extending to infinity (Morin, 1999, pp. 59-63).

Addressing this “myth of the given,” Pogany pokes fun at his own profession:

Historically, geocapital [matter ready to be used to feed cultural evolution] has registered a net increase; additions and expansions more than offset exhaustions and reductions. This long-lasting successful experience led to the culturally ingrained confidence in the possibility of its eternal continuation. Economic growth theory keeps “deriving” the same conclusion over and over again: Optimally maintained economic expansion can continue forever. Translated from evolutionary scales to our own, this is analogous to “Since I wake up every morning I must be immortal” (2006, p. 118).”


Caradonna, J., Borowy, I. Green, T., Victor, P.A., Cohen, M., Gow, A. … Heinberg, R. (2015). A degrowth response to an ecomodernist manifesto. Retrieved from:

Daly, H. & Cobb, J.B. (1994). For the common good: Redirecting the economy toward the community, the environment, and a sustainable future. 2nd, updated edition. Beacon Press.

Gordon, R. J. (2012). Is U.S. economic growth over? Faltering innovation confronts the six headwinds. Center for Economic Policy Research, Policy Insight No. 63 (September 2012).

Gordon, R.J. (2014). The demise of U.S. economic growth: restatement, rebuttal and reflections. NBER Working Paper No. 19895 (February 2014).

Gowdy, J. and Mesner, S. (1998). The evolution of Georgescu-Roegen’s bioeconomics. Review of Social Economy Vol LVI No 2 Summer 1998. The Association of Social Economics. Retrieved from:

Heinberg, R. (2011). The end of growth: adapting to our new economic reality. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

Morin, E. (1999). Homeland earth: a manifesto for the new millenium. Creskill: Hampton Press.

Morin, E. (2008). On complexity. Creskill: Hampton Press.

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. translated by Goldhammer, A. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Pogany, P. (2006). Rethinking the world. Lincoln: iUniverse.

Pogany, P. (2013a). Al Gore, Stephen King, and Jean Gebser are related. How? Retrieved from:

Pogany. P. (2013b). Thermodynamic isolation and the new world order. Retrieved from:

Rubin, J. (2012). The big flatline: oil and the no-growth economy. New York: Pallgrave Macmillan.

Schumacher, E.F. (1973). Small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered. London: Blond & Briggs.

Schumacher, E.F. (1977). Guide for the perplexed. New York: Harper & Row.

Richard Heinberg on “Our Renewable Future”

Today I would like to bring your attention to a recent essay by Richard Heinberg that has been received to high acclaim over at the Resilience is a website operated by the Post Carbon Institute, for which Heinberg is a senior analyst. Heinberg has been writing about energy for 12 years, and is the author of books such as Cloning the Buddha: The Moral Impact of Biotechnology; The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies; Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World; Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines; Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis; The End of Growth: Adapting to our New Economic Reality.

In his latest essay, Our Renewable Future, Heinberg demonstrates that he is what I would call an energy realist. He does not demonize the fossil fuel industry, but he clearly lays out the formidable challenges we face as the climate crisis worsens and as easy access to these fuels continues to recede.  Nor does he communicate as would a lobbyist for the renewable energy industry, hyping the benefits and downplaying the problems in this field.

Instead, Heinberg approaches the problems from multiple perspectives and honestly conveys his own biases, and encourages us to broaden our thinking:

I consider myself a renewable energy advocate: after all, I work for an organization called Post Carbon Institute. I have no interest in discouraging the energy transition—quite the contrary. But I’ve concluded that many of us, like Koningstein and Fork, have been asking the wrong questions of renewables. We’ve been demanding that they continue to power a growth-based consumer economy that is inherently unsustainable for a variety of reasons (the most obvious one being that we live on a small planet with finite resources). The fact that renewables can’t do that shouldn’t actually be surprising.

What are the right questions? The first, already noted, is: What kind of society can up-to-date renewable energy sources power? The second, which is just as important: How do we go about becoming that sort of society?

As we’ll see, once we begin to frame the picture this way, it turns out to be anything but bleak.

I believe this to be an extremely important essay, and the embedded links provide even more depth, providing a great resource for essential 21st century energy literacy.

– David

Our Renewable Future

Or, What I’ve Learned in 12 Years Writing about Energy

(7000 words, about 25 minutes reading time)

Folks who pay attention to energy and climate issues are regularly treated to two competing depictions of society’s energy options.* On one hand, the fossil fuel industry claims that its products deliver unique economic benefits, and that giving up coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources like solar and wind will entail sacrifice and suffering (this gives a flavor of their argument). Saving the climate may not be worth the trouble, they say, unless we can find affordable ways to capture and sequester carbon as we continue burning fossil fuels.

On the other hand, at least some renewable energy proponents tell us there is plenty of wind and sun, the fuel is free, and the only thing standing between us and a climate-protected world of plentiful, sustainable, “green” energy, jobs, and economic growth is the political clout of the coal, oil, and gas industries (here is a taste of that line of thought).

Which message is right? Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts.

If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, “How we use energy is as important as how we get it.”…

Read the full essay here.

Recommended Reading for September 19th

I haven’t posted in a while, so I thought I’d stop by and share a few posts I recommend.


“Peak Oil Demand” = Peak Oil by Richard Heinberg
A new phrase has entered our energy lexicon—peak oil demand. The essential idea: prophets of doom who warned about a looming global petroleum shortfall (“peak oil”) were wrong; instead of a downturn in supply, we’re instead seeing the shrinkage of demand for oil. A non-problem just solved itself! Nothing to see, folks; move along.

What’s wrong with this framing of our energy situation? Plenty…

Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future by Richard Heinberg
The change in our public conversation about energy is predicated on new drilling technology and its ability to access previously off-limits supplies of crude oil and natural gas. In the chapters ahead, we will explore this technology—its history, its impacts, and its potential to deliver on the promises being made about it. As we will see, horizontal drilling and hydrofracturing (“fracking”) for oil and gas pose a danger not just to local water and air quality, but also to sound energy policy, and therefore to our collective ability to avert the greatest human-made economic and environmental catastrophe in history…

Albert Bartlett might have been another obscure physics professor had he not put together a now famous lecture entitled “Arithmetic, Population and Energy” in 1969. The lecture, available broadly on the internet (Preview) , begins with the line: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

The logic is surprisingly simple and irrefutable. Exponential growth, which is simply consistent growth at some percentage rate each year (or other time period), cannot proceed indefinitely within a finite system, for example, planet Earth. The fact that human populations continue to grow or that the extraction of energy and other natural resources continues to climb does not in any way refute this statement. It simply means that the absolute limits have not yet been reached.

Bartlett, who died this month at age 90, gave his lecture all over the world 1,742 times or on average once every 8.5 days for 36 years to audiences ranging from junior high students to seasoned professionals in many fields. His ability to stay on message for so long about something so important should make him the envy of every modern communications professional…

20 Important Concepts I Wasn’t Taught in Business School by Nate Hagens

[This one is long, but it joins a short list of what I consider excellent and extremely important articles discussing the intersection of energy, ecology, and economy.  I feel it is critical to gain a certain level of energy literacy to prepare for the low energy world that I believe is our future.  – David]

Business as usual as we know it, with economics as its guide and financial metrics as its scorecard, is in its death throes. The below essay is going to appear critical of finance and the nations (world’s) business schools. But it is too, critical, of our entire educational system. However, physicists, plumbers and plowmen do not have the same pull with respect to our cultural goals and narrative that financial folk do – as such an examination of the central assumptions driving society is long overdue…

Richard Heinberg at TEDx: The Story of More

What if we aren’t about to return to economic growth? What if the economic growth era is actually behind us? Richard Heinberg’s latest landmark work, The End of Growth, goes to the heart of the ongoing financial crisis, explaining how and why it occurred, and what we must do to avert the worst potential outcomes. He describes what policymakers, communities, and families can do to build a new economy that operates within Earth’s budget of energy and resources. We can thrive during the transition if we set goals that promote human and environmental well-being, rather than continuing to pursue the now-unattainable prize of ever-expanding GDP.

Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute and is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost energy educators. He is the author of eleven books including The End of Growth (August 2011), and the upcoming Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (July 2013).

Mitt Romney’s Energy Plan

A lot of environmental organizations are pointing out that Mitt Romney laughed about climate change during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

I don’t think it’s so funny when I’m reading every day about the current reality of a warming world. See if you laugh when you read these stories about arctic sea ice reaching a record low.

In 2011, Romney himself said:

“I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that. It’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors.” Source: Reuters

Romney has also just released an Energy Policy Whitepaper, which sets a goal of “North America Energy Independence by 2020.”  Chris Nedler has a nice piece on it, “Romney’s Energy Plan Follows the Money.”

In brief, I’ll mention that one of Romney’s sources is an already discredited report by oil executive (disguised as an academic) Leonardo Maugeri. The basic idea is that we’ve got plenty of oil and natural gas in North America, and if we’ll only exploit it, we can become energy independent in a few short years.  Of course, every president since Nixon has talked about energy independence, but for some reason we never  accomplish it.

I could point to hundreds of sources demonstrating why it is impossible to continue economic growth and achieve  energy independence at the same time, but the shortest way to get the point across is to share this new short video by Richard Heinberg.

Like Romney’s position on climate change, his position on ‘peak oil’ seems to have changed as a presidential candidate.  In his 2010 book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, he made the following comment:

“Many analysts predict that the world’s production of oil will peak in the next ten to twenty years, but oil expert Matt Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, presents a compelling case that Middle Eastern oil production may have already reached its peak.  Simmons bases his contention on his investigation into the highly secretive matter of the level of reserves in the Saudi oil fields. But whether the peak is already past or will be reached within a few years, world oil supply will decline at some point, and no one predicts a corresponding decline in demand. If we want America to remain strong and wish to ensure that future generations have secure and prosperous lives, we must consider our current energy policies in the light of how these policies will affect our grandchildren.” (p. 233)

The Romney Energy Agenda is as follows:

  • Empower states to control onshore energy development;
  • Open offshore areas for energy development;
  • Pursue a North American Energy Partnership;
  • Ensure accurate assessment of energy resources;
  • Restore transparency and fairness to permitting and regulation; and
  • Facilitate private-sector-led development of new energy technologies.

Romney talks about states rights because, he points out, “it now takes a shocking 307 days to receive [a federal] permit to drill a new well.”  In contrast, a state permit in North Dakota can take 10 days, or 27 days in Colorado, or 14 days in Ohio.

Romney assures us that these processes do not impose greater environmental risks.  Instead, he argues, “states are far better able to develop, adopt, and enforce regulations based on their unique resources, geology, and local concerns.”

Am I the only one just a wee bit suspicious about that claim? Apparently not. Chris Nedler comments, “the Romney plan’s pretensions to defending states’ rights are naught but a transparent effort to break down all remaining barriers to oil and gas exploration on federal lands.”  I’ll delve into this issue of local rights vs. states rights vs. national rights a bit deeper in my next post.

To the other bullet points, opening more areas up to offshore drilling is not going to help much.  Offshore production has been expanding, and as long as we’re willing to pay more and more (including paying for the environmental and climate costs) this cannot continue for a too much longer.  High oil prices makes drilling in ever deeper waters possible, but even here there are limits. The limits may be set by the next economic downturn (likely), or by geological limits.  They work in tandem.

Pursuing a North American Energy Partnership means approving the Keystone XL pipeline, and encouraging the continued development of tar sands in Canada.  Mexico, a former oil producing powerhouse, is now past it’s own peak in oil production.  Just the fact that Romney places such an emphasis on offshore oil and Canadian tar sands speaks volumes. This is what peak oil looks like: when conventional oil sources become harder to get, we then go after the difficult, high priced oil.  As Richard Heinberg points out, “It’s high oil prices that make unconventional oil worth producing in the first place.”

“Ensure accurate assessment of energy resources” – in principle this is a great idea.  There is indeed much confusion and obfuscation about the data.  Reliable data was one of the first and primary requests of the peak oil community. However, Romney’s plan is primarily geared toward allowing more exploration anywhere and everywhere.  The plan says “There is no excuse for placing any area so far off limits that its potential cannot even be determined.” The suggestion again is that too many regulations and restrictions are to blame our lack of energy independence.  The truth is, the United States has been extensively explored, and there are unlikely to be significant new findings.  It also should be recognized that energy resources do have significant environmental and climate change consequences, and each of these consequences carries financial costs as well.

Restoring “transparency and fairness” means reforming statutes and regulations that “have been seized on by environmentalists as tools to stop development altogether.” Romney wants to reverse the meager regulatory gains accomplished in the 40 years since the first Earth Day.  See above.

“Facilitate private-sector-led development…” The detail under this bullet point comes back again to “Strengthening and streamlining regulations and permitting processes…”  It encourages permitting nuclear power, and discourages subsidizing renewables (“distorting the playing field”), yet without mentioning elimination of the huge subsidies the fossil fuel industries now receive.  It has been estimated that Congress provides the oil, coal, and gas industries between $10 and $52 billion per year.

This brings us back to Chris Nedler’s article: Romney’s Energy Plan Follows the Money.

This should surprise no one since, according to Lipton and Krauss in the Times yesterday, Romney received nearly $10 million from the oil and gas industry just this week. Romney’s chief energy adviser is shale oil baron Harold Hamm, one of his top super PAC donors, who stands to benefit handsomely if Romney takes the reins. Oil and gas employees and their families are the sixth-largest source of donations to the Republican National Committee, as Jim Snyder and Kasia Klimasinska reported for Bloomberg today, and the industry as a whole is the tenth-largest contributor to the Romney campaign. The fossil-fuel tycoon Koch brothers alone have personally contributed over $60 million to Romney’s campaign.

As I detailed in my data roundup on energy industry lobbying two weeks ago, if you want to understand U.S. energy policy, all you need to do is follow the money. That is precisely what Mitt Romney is doing.

I hope to do a post like this on Barack Obama’s Energy Plan as well.  I suspect it will look more favorable than Romney’s, but please don’t expect a glowing review for Mr. Obama.  Keep in mind that Obama had a radio ad in Ohio with “a decidedly pro-coal message.

Dirty Energy Money pervades both sides of the aisle in U.S. politics.

The Wave/Pulse of Human History

What I am aiming to explore in this post is the pattern of the pulse – a pattern that seems to occur in all natural systems. I want to look at how it has flowed through human history in the form of energy production and consumption, and how it relates to a number of my interests.

What I want to do is to look at how different forms of available energy have been used in different periods of human history, how they relate to the structure of those periods, and how they can be seen as pulses or waves.  I also want to share a favorite chart from a favorite systems thinker, Howard T. Odum, and how I think this chart can represent an integration of a number of my different interests in different ways, but all in this context of wave/pulses of energy through human history.

But first, let’s back up a bit. I thought it might be helpful to tell the story of how and why I became interested in the Pattern of the Pulse.

Draw a line five miles long to represent the millions of years during which solar energy has been captured and laid down in the earth’s crust in the form of coal, gas and oil. Then put a blip in it. That blip represents the time we have taken to extract and use this embodied energy.  We are halfway through that blip.

– James Bruges (The Little Earth Book, 2004)

Back in late 2004, I saw a movie called The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream. It was a wake up call to the idea that we are about halfway through that blip of oil, and that the first half we used was the cheap, easy, high quality oil, and that the second half would be increasingly difficult to extract, expensive, and of lower quality.  I came to understand that timing wise, the important point wasn’t when we “run out,” but when we reach the peak – the all time high of production.  The peak is the important thing, because our whole society is built around the idea of continual growth. Continual growth is dependent upon reasonably cheap energy resources, and we tend to just take for granted that they’ll always be there, and growth (with a few inconvenient ups and downs here and there) will always continue.  After all, it’s all we’ve known…that is, until we get a bigger perspective than just the industrial/informational ages of the past 200 years.

Which brings us to this principle:

The principle of peaks: the enduring health of any system depends on the appropriate balance and integration of the rate of increase in resource flows and exchanges pre-peak and the rate of decline in those flows and exchanges after the peak, for a given context.

– Tim Winton, Pattern Dynamics

The above is an important principle, because I gradually became more and more aware that there is actually a lot more that is peaking than just oil supplies. I found out that some believed seafood may have peaked in 1994. In 2007 I wrote an article titled “Peak Everything“:  “I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories as well about the dramatic decline of bees, and the slower but long term decline of many birds. Washington state alone has at least 39 endangered plant and animal species. …It becomes a bit overwhelming to think about and comprehend all of these problems at once and together, but it is quite important to do so. As long as we keep thinking about the problems we’re seeing with the world’s “resources” as isolated problems to be dealt with individually, the more likely we are to turn to technological band-aid solutions.”  When I googled the phrase “Peak Everything,” I found that Richard Heinberg was working on a book with that exact title: Peak Everything: Waking Up To a Century of Declines. Another way to say it is that we are now in ecological overshoot and have reached the limits to growth.

As part of my own preparations for making a transition to this century of declines, I enrolled in a Permaculture Design Course in 2009.  One of our instructors, David Zhang, led a session on common patterns observed in nature. One of these was the Pattern of the Pulse.  Pulse, he said, is a pattern observed in time. It is a burst of stored up energy. Some examples include salmon runs, seasonal floods, the heartbeat, monsoons, lightning, forest fires, earthquakes, volcanic activity, and even plagues.  When he started showing graphics and pictures of some of these pulses, suddenly I made the connection in my mind – peak oil is a pulse! Of course, this seemed so obvious in retrospect, but at the time when I made the connection, it seemed to clarify so many things, put so many things in perspective, and help me to realize this is a very natural process.

We tend to think of our human systems as being some how outside of nature and its processes, but when we realize that we are nature, then that kind of implies that our systems are in a very real sense natural as well.  Where we really get in trouble is when we don’t acknowledge this and let our hubris gain the upper hand.  When we think that things like the 2nd law of thermodynamics don’t necessarily apply to us, and that infinite economic growth is a real possibility. As one of Nixon’s advisers once said so succinctly, “things that can’t go on forever, don’t.”

Things that can’t go on forever, don’t

– Herb Stein, adviser to President Richard M. Nixon

All of this brings us up to the present interest in the pattern of the pulse, and how it has flowed through human history in the form of energy production and consumption, and how it relates to a number of my interests.

Tim Winton has spent a lot of time developing a new integral sustainability pattern language he calls PatternDynamics™, which will come up again later in this piece as one of my interests. Hundreds of patterns have been observed in nature, and it’s probably not a good idea to look at any one of them in total isolation, so let’s take a quick look at several patterns that Winton has identified that are relevant to this post.

We’ve already mentioned our main theme, the pattern of the pulse, which “signifies  the repeated rhythmic surges of activity related to resource flows and exchanges.” Systems ecologist Howard Odum was of the opinion that all systems on all scales pulse.  Storages gradually accumulate, consumers consume and develop, and eventually decline, and then dispersing materials that will be used in the next pulse.  Winton wisely comments, “The capacity to maximize the rate of growth of flow exchanges needs to be balanced with minimizing the adaption required after the peak when decline sets in. The role of Pulse is to maximize exchange flows sustainably.”  The pattern of the pulse demonstrates the principle of peaks, which is where the quote from Winton nearer to the top of this article comes in.

Other patterns that are important to our discussion are patterns of Energy (provides the ability to do work in dynamic change and transformation processes), Cycle (“rhythmic, repeated sequence of actions”), Flows/Stores (energy resources can be stored for future use, or they flow out in dynamic exchange processes), and Transformity (“the process whereby matter/energy resources are transformed through systemic processes into lesser amounts of matter/energy but higher qualitative complexity within the system”).

With all of that as background, we are almost ready to look at one of my favorite graphs.  If you’re anything like me, you might not usually get very excited by graphs.  And I don’t want to over sell this – it’s not that I find the graph exciting, I just think it’s very interesting, and encapsulates a lot of ideas. I’ll begin explaining in a minute why I find this particular graph so interesting, but first a word about the creator of the graph.

I came to Howard T. Odum by way of Rob Hopkins, by way of David Holmgren.  Because I was active in community organizing around preparedness for energy depletion, I had been following the work of Rob Hopkins and the Transition Culture he was writing about.  I found out he was a permaculture teacher and was heavily influenced by David Holmgren (read Hopkins’ review of Holmgren’s book here).  So I began studying the work of David Holmgren, which I found to be utterly compelling – some of the best ideas about sustainability I’d seen anywhere.  And I found out Holmgren was heavily influenced by Howard T. Odum, who had pioneered the field of systems ecology (Excellent short summaries of Odum’s work can be found here and here). So from there, I began looking at his more accessible books,  Energy Basis for Man and Nature, and A Prosperous Way Down.

We should now be ready to look at one of my favorite graphs from Howard and Elizabeth Odum’s 2001 book, A Prosperous Way Down.  I can see in this image elements of a number of my interests.  Energy Descent, Permaculture, Integral Theory, Spiral Dynamics, Gebser’s “Ever Present Origin,” Pattern Dynamics, and  the Transition Towns movement.

H.T. Odum’s Zonal Empower chart of the history of human development

The Odums write, “The development in the last two centuries has been a wave of ascendancy moving up the energy hierarchy. We can represent the wave by showing the relative empower in each stage. First there was a predominance of agrarian agriculture, then use of fuels and minerals for the industrial revolution, next a population explosion, then a concentration of emergy [embedded energy] in the cities, and finally  highest emergy in the worldwide sharing of information. The wave may be expected to generate more population and information than it can support. As the emergy flows of the fuels and their matching resources falter, we expect the climax to turn down, either crashing or descending prosperously depending on how well the world shares common purpose. How do we go from the pattern in graph (f) to a new kind of future consistent with the limitations of graph (c)?”

How all of this relates to my above list:

1) Energy Descent: The chart shows inputs of 2 energy sources – “Local Energy Sources,”which are the renewable energies available and then, beginning in the era of Industry, the additional “Fuels and Minerals” (Fossil Fuels and the additional minerals we’ve been able to extract due to fossil fuels).  Progress has not resulted simply as the result of human ingenuity. The waves of development are made possible by increasing availability and use of energy. Fossil fuel energy is finite in terms of the scale we are concerned with, and at some point soon we can expect the wave to climax and then descend, likely back to the agrarian level (c).

2) Permaculture: David Holmgren, co-initiator of Permaculture has closely followed H.T. Odum’s work throughout his career; hence Holmgren’s Permaculture is built on the foundation laid by Odum, especially in regards to Energy Descent and the Pulsing paradigm.  Holmgren, writing about the large scale pulse of fossil fuels:

The rebuilding of social and cultural capital must occur within a context of declining net energy availability… While global capitalism has been like a fire converting green forests to ashes, it has likewise released potential and information from the constraints of cultural norms and institutions that were hopelessly inappropriate for dealing with a world of declining energy. The ashes of the consumed forest provide opportunities for the seeds of pioneering species to reform the forest in a way that better reflects large-scale realities, such as fertility or climate change. Similarly, globalisation provides the opportunities for social seeding to create new bioregional cultures adapted to energetic realities…

Thus the permaculture aphorism ‘the problem is the solution’ is not some naive optimism in the face of terrible prospects, or the delusion of those with all the opportunities, but a simple idea with powerful relevance to our time. If we view global capitalism as releasing the earth’s accumulation of renewable and non-renewable resources according to Holling’s Four-Phase Cycle, then permaculture is the new potential of the Reorganisation phase.

3.  Integral Theory: First, the Integral Theory of Ken Wilber’s AQAL model, of which one important part is the Quadrants. The Lower Right Quadrant is where we see the Exterior of the Collective, which includes the Techno-Economic base of civilization as it developed from foraging to horticulture to agrarian to industrial to informational – matching Odum’s chart.

The important thing to note here is that when we keep in mind that the Techno-Economic base is fully dependent upon the Ecological/Energetic base – again, that available energy determines what is possible – that provides a solid foundation for the Integral framework.  Without this acknowledgement, we can get lost in a world of technological fantasy and ideas about infinite growth.  If we root ourselves in  what the ecological base can support in the LR quadrant, we will rest on a realistic foundation.

4. Spiral Dynamics: Spiral Dynamics was first formulated by Clare Graves, and later refined and popularized by Don Beck and Dave Cowan, and has also been incorporated into Wilber’s Integral Theory.  SDi (Spiral Dynamics integral) sees the stages of social development corresponding with levels of cultural development.  Some within the integral movement question “whether notions like development and in particular progress make sense when applied to culture.”

5. Jean Gebser’s Ever Present Origin:   I’m new to Gebser’s thinking, but if I understand correctly, he looked at human history in terms of Epochs with wave like movements, very much like Odum’s model.  In mythic, oceanic reasoning, there was always a return, never a progression.  More like cycles and less like development.  Gebser saw Epochs developing through four stages from Defficient to Latent to Efficient back to Defficient.  Perhaps there are parallels to Holling’s Four Phase Model of Ecosystems, from Pioneer to Conservation to Collapse/Release to Reorganization.  Odum, following Holling,  spoke of Four Stages of the Growth Cycle: 1) Growth; 2) Climax and Transition; 3) Descent; and 4) Low Energy Restoration.

Pulses of ecological systems

Howard Odum, in A Prosperous Way Down:

What is appropriate during one stage may be poor policy in another stage,” he wrote. “For example, for a system in a stage of descent, it will not be good policy to foster growth that is no longer possible.

…Although history and ecosystems give us clues, we really don’t know what the policies should be for the period of turndown from our complex, intensive, locally affluent, urban civilization…

In some systems, the mature stage is abruptly terminated by catastrophic removal due to pulses on a larger scale…In some other ecosytems such as a temperate forest approaching a winter season, decline is more orderly…

After repeated cycles of growth and decline, ecosystems develop means for carrying forward information, in seeds, eggs, and spores, for the next growth cycle. Something similar is needed in downsizing of civilization.

Jeremy Johnson wrote a Beams and Struts post on The Integral Philosopher – Jean Gebser and Time, and shared the following insight:

Gebser foresaw a Western crisis that we’re experiencing now (and probably more so in the coming years). Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he was deeply optimistic about what could emerge from humanity. He foreshadowed the ecological-oriented worldview, as well as the complexity sciences of the 70’s. Although such ideas are now over 40 years old, they aren’t yet actualized. The world is still rushing forward in technological and industrial growth—a growth that’s not going to be sustainable forever. In some sense, we are captured by our own ironic limitation of progress–unable to switch gears until the train is at the edge of the cliff. Gebser’s book studies past civilizations and their worldviews, noting how each particular “structure” of consciousness (he called them “mutations”) both helped and eventually limited a human society. Only through transforming our relationship to reality (time and space, inner and outer, etc) do we have a chance to rise above our own limitations. With all this in mind, it’s a wonder why Gebser’s work is not spoken about more today. In an age where human civilization seems to be bursting at the seams, Gebser’s work is ever-more relevant.

6. PatternDynamics: Tim Winton, steeped in both Permaculture and Integral Theory, has deveolped a new Integral Sustainability Pattern Language to communicate principles of sustainability.

According to Winton,

PatternDynamics™ is a simple tool that can be learned by anyone to overcome the challenges posed by complex systems–at any scale. Here’s how it works:

  • The key to complexity is systems thinking;
  • The key to systems thinking is Patterns; and,
  • The key to using Patterns is to form them into a language.

Winton’s language of visual patterns to teach systems thinking is similar to Odum’s realization that he needed a way to get people to see the big picture (he called it the Macroscope) of how energy flows in systems.  Odum developed his own pattern language he called an energy circuit language.

Similar to my thinking that an Integral Permaculture will be rooted first in Ecological/Energy understanding, Winton’s Pattern Dynamics is rooted in the enduring patterns found in nature, but with the idea of effectively making these ideas meaningful to culture.  Rather than pushing ‘the arrow of progress,’ Winton argues for “a shift to a more second person orientation, to build meaning, values and the culture that support effective embodiment and application.”

So, we’re back to a similar train of thought that we observed when discussing Gebser. As Chris Dierkes relates, “the conscious choice to incorporate these patterns, leading to a fully integrated sphere of mind (noosphere) and sphere of life (biosphere). That, to me, would be a more developed culture but that had developed by going deeper (not higher).”

More specifically, Pulse is one of the 56 common patterns that Winton has identified.

The Pulse Pattern signifies  the repeated rhythmic surges of activity related to resource flows and exchanges. Pulse is one aspect of the more foundational First Order Pattern, Rhythm. Pulse demonstrates the increase, peak and decline in the rate of resource recovery and exchanges within systems. The capacity to maximize the rate of growth of flow exchanges needs to be balanced with minimizing the adaption required after the peak when decline sets in. The role of Pulse is to maximize exchange flows sustainably.

7. Transition Culture: The Transition Initiative movement is a worldwide grassroots effort to rebuild community resilience in response to concerns about energy depletion, climate change, and economic instability. Rob Hopkins writes in the Transition Handbook:

The amount of energy needed to maintain the average US citizen is the equivalent of 50 people on bicycles pedalling furiously in our back gardens day and night. We have become dependent on these pedallers – what some people refer to as ‘energy slaves’. But we are, it should also be acknowledged, extremely fortunate to live at a time in history with access to amounts of energy and a range of materials, products and possibilities that our ancestors couldn’t even have imagined…

Oil has allowed us to create extraordinary technologies, cultures and discoveries, to set foot on the Moon and to perfect the Pop Tart. But can it go on forever? Of course not. Like any finite material, the faster we consume it, the faster it will be gone. We are like Asterix and Obelix realising, with a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, that the cauldron of potion they have in front of them is the last one. We can see the possibility of life without potion looming before us.

The key point is that it is not the point when we use the last drop that matters. The moment that really matters is the peak, the moment when you realise that from that point onward there will always be less magic potion year-on-year, and that because of its increasing scarcity, it will become an increasingly expensive commodity.

What the Transtion movement acknowledges is that we have come to a point where we need to begin making other arrangements; as Odum asked,  How do we begin the transition away from the high energy arrangements of our industrial/information society and toward levels of energy use that are sustainable on the back end of the energy pulse?

Transition connects the dots between fossil fuel energy use and it’s affect on the climate, as well as it’s relationship to a ‘peak economy’, ‘peak debt’ and the over-arching conclusion that we may have reached The End of Growth.  Hopkins wrote about the relationship to the economy in 2009:

Chris Martenson again put it well in the Crash Course: “Our economy must grow to support a money system that requires growth, but is challenged by an energy system that can’t grow, and both of these are linked to a natural world that is rapidly being depleted.”

The Transition model assumes a re-localisation of life and work due to the end of cheap fuels for food production, transport and energy generation, but today almost everyone is part of a globalised economic system highly dependent on imports. Politicians and business leaders have recently distanced themselves from the worst extremes of the weakly regulated financial activities, but whether it’s credit crunch, energy crunch or climate crunch the biggest employment crisis ever seen is already unfolding across international boundaries.

As I write this post, Rob Hopkins has just published another well argued piece on the validity of engaging the transition (by whatever name):

The important question for me is where are we now? Where do we go from here? The idea that our only option if we want to avoid a rapid collapse is an orgy of extracting unconventional oils by any means necessary is a logical idea when viewed from the perspective of the industrial growth system. This is the same myopic mania that has redefined sustainable development as ‘sustainable growth’ and is hell-bent on a return to growth at all costs. It is rather like an abusive husband who cannot see any option for his partner other than himself, while psychologically denying to himself the damage he’s doing.

…Embracing the hydrocarbons that will define the second half of the oil age will, as Monbiot puts it, “fry us all”. Climate change is hardly the only impact though. …one consequence of our moving into the “second half” of the age of fossil fuel extraction is that, in our desperation, we create even more difficult challenges for us and for our descendants.

…Transition has stated from the outset, “if we wait for governments it will be too late”. I believe more than ever that the drive for change will need to come from communities, from citizens, from ordinary people coming together and getting on with it. I am thinking about calling the next book I do “The Thrill of Just Doing Stuff” because I think that is ultimately what it’s about.

Fracking, shale oils, heavy oils, are the path to a world where power, resources and control continue to be taken out of the hands of ordinary people and into the hands of those that would ruin the world.  Transition offers a different story, one that is about living more within our means, connecting to place, returning power to people and communities, building resilience at the local level.

Hopkins' Transition Culture logoAn aspect of the Transition movement that circles back to point number 5 above on Jean Gebser’s worldview, is the idea that descent needn’t be a bad thing.  Vanessa Fischer in a comment at Beams and Struts:

I love Gebser because his notion of the Integral “stage” is not a linear development. He actually never used the word evolution because he thought it was too bound into rational thinking and linear views of time and progress. Gebser argued that time radically changed at the integral level, and past and present all became transparent and available in the now.

This is why the constant emphasis on transcendence and needing to push people to integral never really resonated with me. Energetically, I feel much more of a falling quality~ falling into transparency and beauty with all that is and being able to access multiple-streams of intelligence and knowing all at once.

Chuckanut Transition’s “Energy Descent” logo

Transition found it’s initial inspiration in Permaculture, and David Holmgren’s book, where Holmgren writes:

“Having been on the mountain so long, we can barely remember the home in a far-off valley that we fled as it was PROGRESSIVELY destroyed by forces we did not understand. But we know that each step brings us closer to a sheltered valley where we can make a new home.”
– David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

And now back to Rob Hopkins, closing this post with last thoughts from the Transition Handbook:

Central to this book is the proposition that the future with less oil could be preferable to the present, if we are able to engage with enough imagination and creativity sufficiently in advance of the peak…Emerging at the other end, we will not be the same as we were; we will have become more humble, more connected to the natural world, fitter, leaner, more skilled and, ultimately, wiser.

We will emerge blinking into a new way of living, yet it will feel more comfortable and familiar than what we left behind. If we are to trade mobility, growth and affluence for something else, we need to be able to articulate something preferable and more nourishing to put in its place.

And more recently from Richard Heinberg:

Is economic growth ending? Yes. Is it the end of the world? No. It’s just the beginning of the end for a utopian project that started as the dream of miners, manufacturers, bankers, advertisers, salesmen, investors, and inventors, and that has turned to a nightmare for just about everyone else. Trends reach their culmination and wane, and new trends arise. Nature adapts, sometimes with slow and incremental change, sometimes in fury and destruction, and life goes on.