Systems Principles

Our general systems principles include concepts of energy and materials, universal energy hierarchy, emergy and transformity, maximum empower, emdollars, cycles, money-emergy relationships, pulsing, spatial convergence and divergence, and population regulation.

By explaining the universal energy hierarchy, energies of different kinds are shown to be different in their ability to do work for the economy and environment. Energies of different kinds are made comparable by expressing each in terms of the energy of one kind that was previously required for their formation. This quantity, called emergy— spelled with an "m"—is a general measure of real wealth.

The principle of maximizing production and use of real wealth guides the self-organization of systems on all scales, including the realm of the human economy. This is the maximum empower principle used in this book to suggest policy. Production by successful designs supports consumer units that feed back their services to reinforce production.

The more work is applied in successive steps, the higher is the product on the scale of real wealth value. Transformity measures the position of something in the series of successive steps toward higher and higher value. This universal scale of value ranges from the dilute solar energy at the low-transformity end to genes and shared information at the high end. The emdollar, the monetary equivalent of emergy, puts resources, components of the environment, products of the economy, human assets, and intangible contributions of humanity on a common basis. Maximizing emdollars is the basis for choices among alternatives in the public interest.

The closed circulation of materials is described as a necessary design for sustaining any system. Using the energy of the system, any cycle of materials converges from a dilute state in one part of the cycle to a more concentrated state before recycling. Fitting the principles of cycles is the basis needed for managing materials in industry and the environment.

All systems prevail by regular pulsing. Universal oscillations are in all scales, from elementary physical particles to galaxies. The mechanisms are similar. As energy is processed, products accumulate gradually. This stage is followed by a surge of use and growth by a consuming activity. Small scales pulse rapidly; large scales slowly. The dynamic pulsing on all scales at the same time produces the noisy fluctuations we see in the real world and often misinterpret as randomness.

One of the pulsing patterns is the system of humanity and its Earth basis. The several centuries of growth of our civilization on the previous accumulations of fuels and other resource reserves is recognized as one of four stages in the pulsing cycle of global civilization. Whereas a steady state is not possible, our human system is sustainable in the long run if we learn to adapt to the appropriate stage in the alternating sequence of growth and descent. The present stage is transition, and descent is next.

In describing the economy we show that the circulation of money fits energy systems principles. The free market mechanisms add efficiency. The money-emergy relationships were shown for the U.S. economy for 1997. Emergy-money ratios for different countries show differences in the buying power of national economies. Comparisons among countries show wide differences in real wealth per person. Because money is paid only to people and not to the environment, most purchases of environmental commodities yield more real wealth than is paid for them. Emergy indices are necessary to make choices in the public interest. One ratio evaluates energy sources to see which make a net contribution to the economy. Another ratio measures economic-environment relationships to decide on the feasibility of developments and their environmental impacts.

All systems develop spatial organization according to the principles of distribution of energy and materials. Spatial organization is hierarchical, with peripheral areas converging to centers of concentration. On land, stream branches converge to the river mouth, and geologic processes and precipitation converge in mountains. Human settlements develop where these energies are most concentrated. In our fossil fuel era the cities are also centers of fuel use, with a hierarchical pattern of night lights vivid to satellite view. Circulation of money, concentrations of emergy use, and information processing are organized according to the distance from centers. Indices of money and emergy provide guidelines for planning and adapting human society to the landscape for maximum mutual benefit.

The work of the human population generates real wealth, and real wealth is required to support humans. The real wealth per person is already diminishing. The effect of increasing people on global productivity has a diminishing return, especially as available fuels diminish. More kinds of sexual outlets that do not lead to reproduction or disease will become customary. As the critical importance of reducing population becomes general policy, many kinds of birth control will be accepted. A global simulation model shows that an abrupt turnaround from population growth to sharp decrease may occur if support for public health and medicine declines. The way people depend on environmental carrying capacity is dramatically demonstrated in Biosphere 2, the glass mesocosm in Arizona.

Policies for the Present Transition

We apply the systems principles to the current time of transition at the end of growth to explain what is happening and to suggest policies for international organization, energy use, the national economy, and making people productive.

To balance global wealth and eliminate affluence and waste, priorities are needed to develop real wealth equity in international exchange and control global capitalism with such measures as an emergy-based worldwide minimum wage. Mutual and free sharing of information is economically beneficial and aided by the new communication technology, television, and the Internet. Aggressive educational programs can generate a globally shared attitude that agrees on the means for international peaceful behavior and pluralistic respect, while retaining pride in local differences in language, custom, and cultures. Emergy evaluations indicate the real power of nations and a way to assign votes in international organizations. An emerging policy of international control of resources by shared military force can help make nonrenewable fuels available to all countries through the open market. With shared international attitudes on global relations, agreements can reduce the needs and costs of military defense establishments.

Net emergy evaluation of alternative energy sources show the fallacies in many alternative energy sources claimed capable of replacing fossil fuels. Solar technology, hydrogen technology, and fusion don't yield as much emergy as they use. Other sources are too limited in quantity. The economy will use solar energy in agrarian production to its fullest, but this will only support about 10 to 20 percent of developed countries' present emergy use. Barring something not now known, economic contraction and descent are certain. The chief obstacle to a smooth transition to a lower-energy economy is the belief—valid for centuries, but no more—that there will always be a new source of energy to replace dwindling current sources. Priority must go to electric power as the basis of information networks and medical care. Beyond the time of cheap oil and natural gas, the essentials of civilization will depend on renewable hydroelectric power and the remaining coal and nuclear fission resources.

To sustain any nation during transition, priority is needed to keep a primary fuel source with a high net emergy available to its own economy. Foreign exchange should be prioritized for fuel import because of its high net emergy contribution. Policies should arrange to use the real wealth of commodities and resources instead of selling them for the smaller emergy in the money. National control is needed for financial exchanges so as to limit interest lost to outside borrowing and ensure the retention and growth of capital at home. Policies should limit the emergy losses from financial exchange with more urban countries with lower emergy-money ratios. Laws should limit unnecessary cars and horsepower so that the fuels go into useful production.

The following emergy-based policies can maintain the quality of life for people during transition and downsizing. The maximum money motivation should be replaced with the maximum empower ethic. An upper limit should be placed on income for individuals so that profits will go into reinvestment in production instead of affluence and waste. A universal policy should be developed that downsizes by cutting salaries rather than by firing people. More people should be kept at work with age-based, lower wage scales for teenagers and the elderly. Use of a permanent, minimum-wage public works program would assure full employment and help with necessary changes in infrastructure. A universal baseline health care system to include preventative medicine, pharmaceuticals, pregnancy care, and emergency treatments should be developed, but experimental medicine, luxury treatments, and long hospitalizations should be left to private insurance.

Polices for Descent

As soon as it is clear that the stage of descent has begun, urgent efforts will be needed to reduce population at the same rate as the annual emergy becomes less available. Money supplies should be adjusted to emergy use to prevent inflation or deflation. The ratio of purchased emergy to local emergy should be used to estimate the appropriate intensity of activities and their resource uses for the stages ahead. For a time of negative growth, we must expect new ways to finance reorganization with less borrowing and less use of stocks and bonds. Whereas government costs have to decrease, government roles in stabilizing descent may have to increase.

With less fuel use and fewer automobiles, cities will decentralize and more people will disperse to towns and farms. Providing population is reduced, the transition offers an opportunity to solve many critical urban problems, replace infrastructures, reintroduce green areas, cluster living closer to jobs, reduce commuting, dismantle strip developments and excess advertising, gradually develop more permanent housing structures, replace many roads with bikeways, and let information functions and their workers redevelop the central city.

To maximize the contributions of the hydrologic cycle, allowing nature's processes to reorganize patterns of streams, estuaries, and beaches will maximize the work of water. Without the cheap fuels to justify continued water diversions, floodplain levees, locks, reservoirs, nonrenewable uses of groundwater, and coastal groundwater use should be eliminated. Dams should be limited except where electric power for information has priority. All dilute wastewater should be routed through wetlands rather than into streams and estuaries. Overfishing of public waters should be limited and low-intensity aquaculture used as a substitute.

For the new conditions, productivity of lands should be maximized by developing a mosaic of land uses, each managed with appropriate cycles. The mosaic should include areas of lower-intensity agriculture, strips of complex ecosystems capable of making agricultural land rotation efficient while conserving high-diversity gene pools, areas for forestry plantations, areas for food-producing orchards and household gardens, and wetland areas for water management. Aid should be provided for the gradual substitution of fuel-using machinery, pesticide, and fertilizer by human labor and organic practices in the areas producing food, fiber, and wood.

Whereas not all the information and knowledge from the zenith of civilization can be maintained in an active state when resources are scarce, universal sharing of essential information is the great hope for a less-intense, smaller-but-prosperous economy. Knowledge should be divided into two categories: (1) essential knowledge for operating during descent, and (2) inactive knowledge to be preserved by information-conservation institutions. Universal understanding is needed of the changes and new ideals appropriate for descent. In spite of decentralization, a global network of common ideals and respect needs to be retained as part of basic education. As a society's institution for new ideas and plans, leading universities need to make the descent mission—including the consolidation of knowledge and changes in education-a primary purpose. Providing population is reduced, society can afford to educate all preschool- and school-age children with the money saved from operating fewer prisons.

The measures on several scales will be successful if they provide each person a job, baseline health care, an efficient lifestyle, a place in some kind of extended family, a cooperative relationship with diverse peoples, and a belief in the importance of his or her own opportunity to contribute to the economy and environment.

Contraction rather than expansion needs different measures, especially the belief that a decentralized civilization can be a better place to live. We end this book asserting a long-range ideal: All members of society must preserve knowledge, sustain progress, and serve the Earth in ways appropriate to the stage of its cycle.

Epilogue, the Distant Future

The general ecological model for self-organizing systems helps us think about the distant future, the fourth stage in the universal pulsing cycle (Figure 5.2). After the period of coming down, a time of Earth restoration may follow. Before another cycle of growth, consumption, and highly developed civilization can start, there has to be a restoration of the slowly renewable resources: the forests, the soils, the fisheries, and some of the wealth from geological processes. During this era the human economy has to operate on renewable resources: the sun, wind, rain, waves, tides, and geological processes, but in a restrained enough way for the biosphere to recover its natural capital and productivity. By this time population should be small enough to maintain high standards of living, as evaluated in measures of real wealth.

Information of the Roman, Greek, and Eastern civilizations was kept alive during later quiescent periods by low-energy institutions specializing in knowledge. Information stored from past glory became sacred, and human culture was programmed to become keepers of past knowledge. Perhaps, this time, keeping of past knowledge will be with a longer and larger perspective, understanding that more growth periods are to follow.

Stewardship for the Period of Restoration

If the Earth is to maximize its performance through the full cycle, a human culture will be needed that helps environmental restoration. We may expect ethics to develop in which people collectively aid net production processes that restore the resource reserves, the soils, the forests, the peat deposits, and the mineral deposits moving slowly up from below ground in the Earth cycles. As sometimes attributed to past cultures, people may find glory in being an agent of the Earth. It remains to be seen whether the social mechanisms will be conscious, logical, emotional, ritualistic, regimented, or by some means that we can't imagine.

A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Practices; Howard T. Odum & Elisabeth C. Odum; 2001; p. 280-6.

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