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Where to with 'Emergy' Literacy?

[No – it’s not a spelling error – even though our spell-checkers try to mark it as one or, worse still, auto-correct it to ‘energy’. Perhaps it may seem like today’s bit of jargon, but it could be tomorrow’s enlightenment! Read on. E.G.H. (CSIRO Sustainability Newsletter Ed)]

‘In 1998, Network member Mr Sholto Maud completed a two-week intensive Permaculture course with David Holmgren in Hepburn Springs (Australia). The course introduced Sholto to the concept of Energy Peak together with ‘emergy’ as a measure of value. It motivated him to pursue self-directed extracurricular research on ‘Peak Oil’ and Systems Ecology, while studying Environmental Science and Philosophy at Monash University. The results of this research helped with furnishing the material on Energy Peak used in David Holmgren’s most recent book.1

After graduating, and in the absence of any formal courses or certification in emergy methodology in Australia, Sholto researched the History and Philosophy of emergy and the Energy Systems Language for the Post Graduate Diploma in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. His thesis became the basis of the recent article, Realising the Enlightenment: H.T. Odum’s Energy Systems Language qua G.W.v Leibniz’s Characteristica Universalis (PDF - 150KB) (2004), published in a special issue of the International Journal of Ecological Modelling and Systems Ecology dedicated to the memory of H.T. Odum. Here Sholto encourages us to seek wider awareness of the EMERGY concept as fundamental to decision making in pursuit of sustainability.


‘We must beware of verbal lullabies that by melodious phrase and soothing rhythm sing to sleep our curiosity. For when curiosity sleeps, science stagnates.’ A.J.Lotka 1938

It is apparent that the Permaculture movement, and the CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems division have at least one thing in common. They both emphasise ‘emergy’ literacy. David Holmgren, co-originator of the Permaculture concept and recent contributor to this newsletter, places significant weight on the emergy methodology for evaluating human technologies, settlements, and the viability of conventional and ‘alternative’ energy resources.

Barney Foran and Franzi Poldy of the Resource Futures Program in the CSIRO Division of Sustainable Ecosystems also acknowledge the importance of emergy literacy, giving priority to emergy value theory in the assessment of Australian sustainability.

One could say, therefore, that in Australia both the small-scale, grass roots (Holmgren- Permaculture) and large-scale state institutions (CSIRO) are pointing to emergy methodology as the most reliable indicator in sustainability evaluation. In doing so, both assume the need for a sufficient level of emergy literacy among those seeking to participate in the discussion.

If this emphasis continues, it seems that those without emergy literacy will not only find it hard to participate in the sustainability discourse, but will also be unable to evaluate suggestions and alternatives that address the sustainability of environmental management techniques, energy technologies, and policies in response to Energy Peak challenges.

The underlying issue addressed by ‘emergy’ nomenclature has been a perennial one in philosophy with links to the ancient traditions 2. It seeks to provide a generalised and collaborative method for developing quantitative accounting models. These are environmental accounting models that include money and commodity flows, together with a means for putting the qualitative differences in the energy flows of our environment on a similar energetic basis.

Thus, the emergy concept is a quantitative theory of qualitative value.

As it stands today, across the spectrum from large-scale state institutions to small-scale, grass roots movements, emergy literacy appears to be very low in Australia. Consequently there are very few people in Australia who are competent to calibrate and validate emergy models or simulations. Moreover, if emergy evaluations are one of the few reliable sustainability indicators, then it also appears that very few people are actually in a position to comment on the sustainability of technologies, settlement designs, policies or principles that address issues such as Peak Oil or Climate Change, for example.

Personally, I enter the discourse from philosophy. While I am far from expert myself, I am also not aware of any emergy-literate philosophers in Australia or the world. Given that philosophers occupy a central position in formulating education theory (and thus literacy policy), this situation itself is problematic for the development of emergy pedagogy.

Such may explain, in part, why I have not been able to find funding support, or educational institutions in Australia that provide professional certification, or even approved training, in the emergy methodology. As a consequence, from my position, there seems to be a need to achieve a critical mass in emergy literacy in order to make the validation of emergy models itself a valid procedure. But how many of the stakeholders involved in construction, calibration, and validation of emergy models are we talking about – 1%, 100%? If we must all be involved in understanding the application of such models for sustainability, do we also need a 100% emergy-literate population?

Further questions suggest themselves. Perhaps each bioregion or shire needs only a few emergy-literate individuals over-viewing local emergy models and flows to ensure the sustainability of a region? If so, would these people need to report to a national emergy database in order to establish valid national sustainability estimates, and thereby help inform funding decisions and policy? Would all developments and ecological engineering designs need emergy evaluation in order to achieve planning approval for sustainability? And do ‘energy efficiency’ ratings need to be converted to emergy indices? Again, would we need a general population literate in emergy methodology in order to achieve greater compliance with such planning and indices?

In the context of an apparent agreement between pre-eminent research institutions and grassroots movements that emergy methodology is the future of sustainability evaluation, it seems there is an overwhelming need for both greater emergy literacy, and for opportunities to gain such literacy. But should it be the role of grass-roots movements like Permaculture to offer certification in emergy methodology, or is this the domain of large-scale educational institutions?

Perhaps there should be co-operative collaboration between these levels. Either way, the situation provides an opportunity to establish an Emergy Foundation or something similar among those networking for sustainability. Perhaps a Government agency or unit could act as catalyst. In the longer term, it would be helpful if the charter of such a foundation could include the implementation of educational and research programs with funding and scholarships to:

1. Estimate the requirement for emergy literacy at the range of practice levels needed to ensure sustainability across levels of policy application from bioregion to nation.

2. Disseminate emergy literacy more broadly throughout society, through secondary and tertiary education curricula and a variety of professional development opportunities, so that we reach critical mass in emergy literacy for implementation of valid and reliable sustainability measures.

3. Work with the London Group on Environmental Accounting, - - towards (1) globally recognised ISO emergy certification procedures, (2) unified chartered environmental-economic accountancy, (3) conversion of Treolar-Lenzen embodied energy evaluations into emergy evaluations, with the ultimate objectives of establishing a transparent emergy database and simple, effective public computer modeling interface within the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

4. Promote web-based emergy research and information on emergy-based sustainability indices, emergy simulation models, and evaluations of policy, technologies, resource futures, and settlement design. Only when, as a society, we truly understand the quantitative reality of qualitative energy flows through all the myriad pathways of our complex natural and socio-economic environment, will we be able to make the right decisions needed for a sustainable human future. Indeed, the enticing prospect is that greater emergy literacy might eliminate much costly legislative trial and error and help us determine ahead of time what that future should look like.


Definitions from Environmental Accounting: Energy and Environmental Decision Making by Howard T. Odum, p. 288:

Available Energy: Energy with the potential to do work (exergy).

Transformity: The emergy of one type required to make a unit of energy of another type. For example, since 3 coal emjoules (cej) of coal and 1 cej of services are required to generate 1 J of electricity, the coal transformity of electricity is 4 cej/J.

Emergy: (spelled with an "m")—all the available energy that was used in the work of making a product and expressed in units of one type of energy.

Net Emergy: The emergy yield from a resource after all the emergy used to process it has been subtracted.

Emergy Yield Ratio: The ratio of the emergy yield to that required for processing. Solar transformity: solar emergy per unit of energy, expressed in solar emjoules per joule.

Sustainable use: the resource use that can be continued by society in the long run because the use level and system design allow resources to be renewed by natural or human-aided processes.
When we use natural resources at a speed and in a manner which does not diminish them, or use them to create a way of living that can last so that we are not threatened with catastrophe as they do run out, that use can be said to be sustainable. If we do not, then we will be forced to adapt to the condition of less, either by there being less to spread around or by becoming a lesser number of people, or both.


1. David Holmgren (2002) Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Holmgren Design Services –
2. Martinez-Alier, J (1990) Ecological Economics: Energy, Environment and Society. Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford.

Further Reading
BOOK: Odum H T (1994) Ecological and General Systems: An Introduction to Systems Ecology. Colorado University Press.
BOOK: Odum H T (1996) Environmental Accounting: EMERGY and Environmental Decision Making; Wiley.
BOOK: Odum H T & E C Odum (2001) A prosperous way down: Principles and Policies; Wiley.

Odum H T. (1998) eMergy Evaluation; In: Proceedings of an International Workshop on Advances in Energy Studies: Energy flows in ecology and economy.
Odum H T (2000) Emergy Accounting. (214 Kb)

Editorial Notes: One of the most interesting aspects of H.T. Odum's work is the development of his eMergy diagrams, or Energy Systems Language. The ESL is a visual toolkit for describing energy flows which grew out of the formalities of electrical circuit diagrams, but broadened and adapted to apply to any type of energy system. It may be applied equally to energy systems such as microbiology, climate systems or renewable energy systems. With this Energy Systems Language one might begin to understand feedback patterns, nested loops, and other common but under-appreciated behaviours of energy systems, represented visually. So for those literate in the language, complicated ideas can be communicated quickly. By assigning the elements in the diagram mathematical relationships one can produce projections of the behaviour of the energy system over time. Here's an example of a simple model of the energy flows of the USA using Odum's ESL:$-emergy_diagram.html The more technically minded can begin experimenting with building emergy models by using Emergy Simulator, a free program built by Raphaël Valyi. In the following fascinating article mentioned in the intro, Sholto and his co-author Dino Cevolatti consider the implications of Odum's Energy Systems Language and the idea of a universal philosophical language. Realising the Enlightenment: H.T. Odum's Energy Systems Language qua G.W.v Leibniz's Characteristica Universalis Sholto Maud & Dino Cevolatti, Ecological Modelling. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716) is usually regarded as one of the world's greatest philosophers. If our thesis is right––that the Energy Systems Language is a Characteristica Universalis––the late Howard Thomas Odum (1924–2001) shares in this title. Moreover the work of H.T. Odum and colleagues can be considered a progression of natural science, creatively realising what contemporary German philosopher J. Habermas calls the project of the Enlightenment. As a consequence, H.T. Odum's work is worthy of far greater historical profundity and philosophical respect than many may have previously imagined. (PDF - 200KB) Sholto and Dino's respective email addresses are available within the document. Some more on Howard Odum: Pioneering US ecologist; influenced the beginning of permaculture. Known for his energy analysis. Brother of another ecologist, Eugene P. Odum, important for environmental movement. This article originally appeared in the newsletter of the CSIRO Sustainability Network based in Australia and edited by Elizabeth G Heij. As BA wrote earlier, their newsletter archives are a treasure trove of ideas about sustainability, presented in a friendly format. David Holmgren, co-orginator of the Permaculture concept, wrote on "What Is Sustainability?" in Newsletter 31 (PDF - 510 KB), and on Retrofitting the Suburbs for Sustainability (in a Peak Oil context) in last month's edition, reproduced here:
From their website:
The CSIRO Sustainability Network is a "virtual learning community of practice" dedicated to inclusive exchange of ideas and information on sustainability and sustainable development - across science disciplines within CSIRO, and across professions, disciplines and generations generally. Of our several hundred listed members, some work inside CSIRO, but the majority are in business, industry, education, government (all levels), NGOs, and the community. As you might expect for a CSIRO-led activity, the emphasis is on scientific and technological trends and resources but, since sustainable development is all about the integration of economy, environment and society, consideration goes way beyond the purely technological to encompass the socioeconomic context in which science and technology are applied.
CSIRO stands for Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Resarch Organization. -AF and BA

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