An alternative way down is to crash. Nature provides plenty of examples of this, such as the rapid consumption of ecosystems by fire and locusts. Archaeological studies of ancient abandoned cities record the rise and decline of earlier civilizations, such as Athens, Persepolis, and Timbuktu. But distinguished authors have many theories as to why.

The quickest way to come down, analogous to fire, would be to continue our frenzied resource consumption past the mature climax stage. Continuing the ethic to maximize profit and consumption can generate overpopulation, inflation, shortages, debt, bankruptcy, starvation, riot, local war, frustration, crime, loss of organization, loss of knowledge and libraries, and abandonment of ideals. The environment might lose the last of its reserves (its natural capital) of groundwaters, soils, forests, fisheries, minerals, fuel reserves, and biodiversity. Overpopulation can consume reserves, and stored assets rapidly until reaching bottom, with starvation and anarchy along the way.

Figure 13.2. "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" trample their victims in Durer's woodcut depicting the end of the world. Death rides a skeletal nag, famine swings his scales, pestilence lifts a sword, and war aims his arrow. Bequest of Francis Bullard, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

All this reminds us of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Figure 13.2) who come to destroy humans: death, famine, pestilence, and war. It could be argued that these are the quickest and thus most humanitarian ways to get down for a long period of rebuilding and restoration. But this book proposes that a prosperous, gradual descent is possible and better if we can learn how.

To be prosperous, descent requires a reduced population, less money, and smaller salaries. Governments and banks will need to help finance initiatives for downsize redevelopment, but 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 may 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. Table 13.2 summarizes ways to foster tranquil descent.

Table 13.2—Guidelines for Orderly Descent

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


A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Practices; Howard T. Odum & Elisabeth C. Odum; 2001; p. 205-7.

It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing high intelligence this is not correct. We have, or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.

—"Of Men and Galaxies"; Sir Fred Hoyle; 1964

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