“If, when they came out of camp, they found hostility and their house vandalized, their tenancy cancelled, then this, despite its evidently traumatic nature, was a survivable change of fortune.”
— Simon Winchester, speaking of the Japanese internment experience during WWII, in Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, chapter 4 (2021).
In May 2000, the distinguished ecological systems thinker Howard T. Odum presented a paper at the international workshop, “Advances in Energy Studies,” in Porto Venere, Italy, that turned out to be the final contribution of his life. Two years after he died, it was published in the scientific journal Energy as “The Prosperous Way Down.” The paper has since influenced countless students of ecosystem ecology and general systems theory and inclined more than a few to become preppers. In that final paper, Odum laid out a number of his driving theories, fixed our position on the long cycle of history, and gave some advice about what he thought we needed to be doing, urgently.
It is entirely forgivable that he got a number of things wrong, because it is only now, 20 years later, that we know more of things he could only speculate about, but in broad stroke he got both the problem and its solution correct, as will become clearer as this century progresses.
Odum said that ecosystems follow the laws of thermodynamics. In any system there “is an alternation between slow production, growth and succession followed by a pulse of consumption, descent and decession. Pulsing on each scale is an accumulating build up of products converged to centers, followed by descent with sharp, short diverging dispersal.”
There are four main stages of the pulsing cycle:
- growth on abundant available resources, with sharp increases in a system’s population, structure, and assets, based on low-efficiency and high-competition (capitalism and monopolistic overgrowth);
- climax and transition, when the system reaches the maximum size allowed by the available resources, increases efficiency, develops collaborative competition patterns, and prepares for descent by storing information;
- descent, with adaptations to less resources available, a decrease in population and assets, an increase in recycling patterns, and a transmission of information in a way that minimizes losses;
- low-energy restoration, with no-growth, consumption smaller than accumulation, and storage of resources for a new cycle ahead.
Odum compared where we are now to the peak of the Roman Empire; a climax and transition. He said it took one thousand years for the whole cycle to run and about 300 years for the descent phase, which is known in systems theory as the Seneca effect, after the Roman psychohistorian who first forecast the pattern. Odum reminded his readers that Joseph Tainter in his Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) provided many examples of “once-proud and enormous civilizations that remain only as stones under desert sands or the vegetation of jungles.”
Odum also understood the significance of data storage, perhaps the defining technology of our time:
When essential information is broadly shared on a large scale, it becomes a long-lasting, unifying mechanism. Information sharing can replace the restrictive information competition of growth capitalism. Television and the internet have the capability of changing the global organization away from military territorialism. If global ethics for equitable trade and sharing information can prevail, global empower and peace can be protected by the information mutualism that maximizes empower. The dangerous alternative is fragmenting societies warring for residual resources.
The problem here is that the global sharing of information takes substantial resources to develop. It may be restricted to those ideals that are important at the global level. Examples of important messages that need to be shared globally are: protecting the purity of the global atmosphere, maintaining cordiality and trade between neighboring countries that are culturally different, and sharing technologies that are useful anywhere.
It has been called a paradox that there is a spread of global information and economics and at the same time an intensification of separate efforts by local groups to hold on to their special languages, heritages, cultures, arts, and religions. There is no paradox, just properties of a developing hierarchy in which people can be effective by being different about what is small scale but united about what is large scale.
Biological architecture — indeed evolutionary biology — entails information management. The genetic code is often called a library for good reason. We can micro-forensically trace our origins back to the conjoining of single cell organisms. Whenever our bodies retrieve a genetic “book,” our epigenome picks which chapter to read.
Information seems ethereal and remote from biological and industrial processes. But because information requires many energy transformations, there are limits to the amount sustainable. Even when isolated in compact form, information requires some form of energy as a carrier, such as that in the DNA of seeds, the paper of books, the electromagnetic waves of radio transmission, or the neuroelectrical processes of the brain. Significant resources are needed to copy, store, disseminate and test the existing information, in order to support patterns for generation of new information.
Therefore, information capacity declines with diminishing resources. Also, information loses utility and retrievability as it accumulates. Information may be characterized as something that requires fewer resources to save and copy than to make anew. Like the brain, society has to select and condense the clutter of short-term memory into fewer items of long-term memory. The universities are the main institutions with this capability, if enough resources (emergy) are provided to this purpose.
The reservoirs of data storage may be in the ivory towers of Academia today but after the burning of the Library of Alexandria they came to reside in the palaces of Constantinople and Cairo and later, the monasteries of medieval Europe and Tibet. Safety of the collection was a more important consideration than whether it was being used. While woodcuts, paper and papyrus were no match for the flames set by Caesar in 48 BCE that consumed the Alexandrian library — incinerating nearly the entire corpus of Greek literature and half a million other records of antiquity, with many of the surviving texts later destroyed by Christian zealots in 391 AD — today we are busily translating the accumulated knowledge of the ages to ones and zeros stored on magnetic surfaces with known half-lives measured in years, not decades, as long as the gigabytes can be periodically renewed by gigawatts.
As we peer over the edge of a Seneca cliff for a reason Odum had not grasped but which I will presently get to, frantic information gathering surrounds us. Consider recent announcements from Google and Apple about the information ecosystems they are building in the VR/AR space. The latest headsets have external cameras that augment reality but also scan rooms using LIDAR 3-D imaging while simultaneously downloading information from your retinas to record for posterity your age, sex, race, diet, wellness, genetic lineage, education, ADHD, where you grew up, mental stability, drug use, experiences, PTSD, likes and dislikes, fears and hopes.
What Facebook gathers from your clicks and posts is child’s play compared to Google’s Library of Alexandria. As autonomous robot cars, drones and eyewear ubiquitously LIDAR-scan not just the exteriors of buildings but their interiors and occupants, a model of the present transfers to coded ones and zeros stored in data vaults in the Dalles of the Columbia River powered by increasingly torrential rains or in football-field-sized deep undersea habitats powered by ocean currents derived from the spin of the Earth as it circumnavigates its star. Information thus gathered requires “fewer resources to save and copy than to make anew” but is nonetheless exceedingly fragile.
Later this year it will be likely that someone on Instagram or TikTok in Kuala Lumpur will happen upon some product video posted by an influencer they follow, click a button on their watch or phone screen, and within an hour or two that product will arrive at their door. In a few more years that item might be a digital wearable, coded as an NFT, delivered instantly, but which can only be viewed with Apple iContact lenses. If you don’t own those lenses, the Emperor has no clothes.
This is how the storage of information is being paid for — how emergy is being allocated — but it is also what a peak is like — in Roman times captives of conquest chained to yokes, serving as handmaidens, or dying in amphitheaters for the entertainment of patricians; in our times battlebots, robot go-fers, and smart homes — armies of unseen energy cyberslaves working tirelessly to make our inexhaustible desires possible. Normalcy and confirmation biases have us wired to cling to this pleasant moment and reject all contrary expectations. Odum predicted that as the nonrenewable fossil spigot slowed to a drip, our robots would tire, their ability to recharge compromised. Instead, the robots are building their own solar power systems for shrinking mills per watt, a la the Waldo F. Jones’ Synchronous Reduplicating Pantograph.
Still, do not imagine any of this can be saved in Default World. The math is uncompromising. We can only electrify so much. We can only substitute so much. After that there must be reduction.
Odum well understood the threat of climate change, but he did not conceive that only a decade after he died the climate emergency would supplant peak oil as the driver of the transition from growth capitalism to rapid degrowth in the fashion foretold by Seneca. Our acquisition of knowledge of climate change has outpaced even our development of technology to squeeze oil from rocks in order to sustain the headlong growth and waste part of the cycle. Climate scientists won their race with petroleum engineers, they just don’t know it yet.
Where Odum got it wrong, besides imagining that cessation of fossil pollution would arrest the climate juggernaut, was in not fully appreciating the diabolic power of modern monetary theory to enable Ponzi schemes like the Bakkan, Eagle Ford, and similar gas fracking grifts, or in Moores Law migrating from computer chips to solar cells, such that in Odum’s time an installed watt of PV power might have cost around $100 compared with one cent today (and likely one-tenth that, one mill, in just a few years). He could not have foreseen that direct solar and wind electricity would rapidly substitute as baseload for both fossil fuels and nuclear power, or that “peak oil” (the crash following depletion of energy) would be receding as a popular meme. Oil, coal and gas have become stranded assets for their owners, who are being told, not very nicely, they must shut themselves down now, or else.
In a recent interview, one of the race’s unheralded victors, the Tyndell Centre’s Kevin Anderson, attempted to place a timeline on the descent phase of civilization, saying:
If you want to hit the 1.5°C target, the world would need to stop emitting any CO2 from about 2029…. You have to draw a straight line from 2022 to 2029 and eliminate all CO2 emissions — that would just barely keep you in the budget.
If we start in the wealthier part of the world, we’d need 10 percent reductions every single year starting from now. But given that it takes us 2 or 3 years to reach 10 percent, even if we were serious about it, which we’re not, because our emissions are so high in the near term, the 2 or 3 years it takes us to get to 10 percent actually means you need to aim more likely at 20 percent per year by 2030 to get to zero by 2035.
The curtailment of the global economy in 2020 from the effects of the Covid pandemic was in the 6 to 7 percent range. So, we would need about two Covids per year for the next 10 years or so (probably to the end of the century) just to hold to 1.5 degrees above normal. And of course, 1.5 degrees above normal would be truly catastrophic, as we can imagine just from considering what has been happening from the effects of less than a one degree rise to 2020.
At any temperature above 3 degrees, no organized human civilization would be possible. We would retreat to our caves. Agriculture will not work. Our sweat glands will not cool us outdoors. Superstorms will wreak havoc on wind farms, solar arrays, and hydroelectric dams. Fires and floods will take down our cities. Unaltered, present business as usual is on track to take us past 3 degrees in the second half of this century.
Storing information seems like a good thing to be doing. So are a decrease in population and assets, an increase in recycling patterns, no-growth, consumption smaller than accumulation, and storage of resources for a new cycle ahead. Good advice, H.T.. Thanks.
Bardi, Ugo, The Seneca Effect, New York: Springer Publishing (2017).
Bardi, Ugo, Sara Falsini, and Ilaria Perissi. “Toward a general theory of societal collapse: a biophysical examination of Tainter’s model of the diminishing returns of complexity.” BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality 4, no. 1 (2019): 3.
Odum, Howard T., and Elisabeth C. Odum. “The prosperous way down.” Energy 31, no. 1 (2006): 21–32.
Tainter, Joseph, The Collapse of Complex Societies. London: Cambridge University Press (1988).
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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