Our Rube Goldberg Economy
Two prominent energetic systems principles that drive our complex economy are hierarchy and autocatalysis. Earlier posts highlighted the concepts of energy transformity and hierarchy. The concept of autocatalysis can be seen in many circular loops in our current society, such as current proposals for geoengineering technology to fix the problems that industrial and post-industrial technology have wrought. Autocatalysis is also known as the positive feedback loop, and it is the engine for our growth economy.
The energy flywheel
Production within economic systems consists of the interaction between inputs of energy flowing in one direction from a concentrated condition to dispersed, along with feedback from a storage of assets interacting to drive cycles of materials through work, round and round. Autocatalysis is the combination of the storage and a feedback loop that uses “the products of growth to accelerate the capture of more energy so that growth goes faster and faster . . . with the products of production (in storage tank symbol) being fed back (to the left) to amplify capture of more energy” producing maximum power production and exponential growth when resources are unlimited.
“Each energy transformation process within the energy hierarchy has an associated storage from which the autocatalytic feedbacks originate. . . . To have a longer period of accumulation for levels with less energy flow requires a larger storage. . . Growth and succession on any scale require and are accompanied by development of the storage necessary to maximize the energy intake with feedback pumping. When resources from transformations are stored, both energy and emergy accumulate” (Odum, 2007, p. 81). [This is how the energy hierarchy concentrates materials through successive concentration into centers of organized complexity.] ”Autocatalytic feedback [and hierarchy] are general design characteristics of self-organization” (Odum, 2007, p. 119). And ”when available energy levels are large enough, the system develops a self-interaction to accelerate even faster, a super acceleration” (Odum, 2007, p. 46).
Systems are ultimately controlled by the amounts and types of energy sources outside of it. The system “gradually fits itself, its storages, its material cycles, its feedbacks, and its design to that pattern which maximizes energy in the combination available to it. . . Surviving systems are those that feed back their stored energy to stimulate the flow of energy” (Odum & Odum, 1976, p. 46). Odum suggests that the US economy was in super acceleration until 1973, when surplus energies became less constantly available. Autocatalysis maximizes power by processing more energy, with less emphasis on efficiency and more on growth. Examples of autocatalytic loops in our economy include control of the media, science, and politics through amplification of information, to promote consumption and to lower restraints of regulation that control growth. The goals of the system shift to wealth acquisition and promotion of consumption.
During the global spread of civilization, growth economies set priorities for development of fuel, transportation, and water resources. Large stocks of different energy sources interacted, creating a flywheel effect or reinforcing feedback loop for economic growth and a chain reaction. Because storages or stocks are not flow limited, the rate of use can increase over time. Production pathways for fossil fuels generated storages, and consumption prevailed by reinforcing production. Environmental resources were coupled to fuel-using economic production. Negative feedback cues that should have controlled the rate of growth were suppressed, and amplifiers were maximized. But as stocks/storages are drawn down, surplus energy and emergy yield wanes, and growth slows and stops by lack of inputs rather than inhibition through negative feedback. The system becomes flow limited, dependent on renewable resources, as the competing feedback loops develop from flow-limited ways of living. But since feedback loops have delays, the tendency in autocatalysis is to overshoot and collapse.
So what happens when limiting factors slow or stop growth?
“Each time an environmental product is further transformed into a more highly developed product in the economy, additional Emergy is added and the transformity is increased. If the higher transformity is developed by collecting and concentrating dilute energy, using more emergy from the free environment, the emergy yield ratio (EYR) of the product is increased. If, however, the emergy for the transformations is being supplied by the economy, the net emergy yield decreases” (Odum, 1996, p. 146).
Energy cannibalism (Pearce, 2008) is the circular reasoning that occurs when we trial net negative energy sources, leading to thermodynamic limits. With each step of fuel transformation in borderline energy sources such as biofuels, net emergy decreases. It is like raising yourself by your own bootstraps against gravity, or like the ouroboros eating its own tail. It just won’t work. My brain hurts thinking about these impossible solutions. We can frame some current examples of energy cannibalism using a classic Aldo Leopold quote, “Having to squeeze the last drop of utility out of the land has the same desperate finality as having to chop up the furniture to stay warm.”
- As Smolker and Peterman illustrate, on the way up sources became sinks as we burned fossil fuels, but on the way down, sinks become sources as we burn biofuels and further degrade the biosphere’s abilities.
- On the way up, fuels become food as “potatoes are made of oil”, but on the way down, food becomes fuel as biofuels are tried as replacements.
- On the way up, our interest/debt based money system encourages wealth acquisition and expansion, but on the way down, this growth-based information system promotes dysfunctional behaviors seeking more growth, delaying feedback from the competing feedback loops representing the renewable economy. Because Mother Nature has no cash, she has no voice.
- On the way up, we add more and more complexity to bureaucratic systems, but on the way down squeezing more growth out of a system with declining resources makes it crash.
Shifting dominance in competing feedback loops eventually allows the secondary renewable based loop to take over (Meadows, 2008). In this case, emergy yield ratios and decreasing benefits of complexity are the driving factors that switches the system to a renewable emphasis and a simpler system. The relocalization movement as pushback to industrial agriculture and consumption is an example of a competing feedback loop that groups are trying in different regions, as negative feedback stabilization is too weak to be effective.
The biosphere as more than the sum of its parts
Because of our reductionist world views, we try to deal with the problems of growth through technology. We use more energy in projects such as geoengineering, creating even more resource cannibalism and environmental degradation, as we slap band aids on
a failing biosphere. We have created a Rube Goldberg economy, where engineers’ technology and a reductionist focus creates unneeded complexity. (Thanks to Albert Bates for his Goldberg cartoons that gave me the idea for the title of this post.) Instead of removing the trees to make factories to make massive widgets to vacuum carbon from the biosphere, maybe we should just leave the trees and let nature do the work, as Bates said? Instead of creating costly photovoltaic solar panels that cannibalize energy, just plant some veggies, as nature has had more practice and is more efficient at changing sunlight into energy? We are so divorced from nature that we now propose replacing plant leaves with silicone technology artificial leaves (ironically touted in a journal called Nature). Why would we do this? Here are some possible reasons.
- Reductionist views–if we think that our system can grow forever through use of technology, we will behave very differently in what we pursue. Thus, we look for high-tech solutions that maximize power for a system that rewards wealth and corporate growth.
- We equate technology with energy since technology is typically garnered to produce more energy. In this example of the artificial leaf, nature has had millions of years to perfect the most efficient method to translate sunlight into energy, yet we think we can replace or compete with nature.
- Since there are no limits, there is no need to understand or rank the relative embodied emergy of our technologies in terms of which yield the most emergy. In a contracting economy, we must use the fuels with the highest emergy yield ratio–the ones that work with nature instead of opposing nature.
- We have learned that technology grants us more power, so if we can do something, we will (maximum power).
- Our systemic goals are wealth and growth; there might be a profit in the investment, with science for sale.
- Scientists can garner some journal articles, “bringing money and attention to the field of solar fuel.”
- No one asked if this was an important priority for science or why we are doing this–is there a need for priorities in a culture with infinite growth? If we asked why, would there be an answer?
Our autocatalytic loops are firmly in place, and there is no understanding of energy basis or the big picture. Don’t these scientists realize that in a world with fewer resources, we will need to work with nature to become more efficient instead of duplicating nature’s processes at great energetic cost, waste, and pollution? This is what comes of not living within one’s means. Bryan Norton said, “the value of biodiversity is more than the sum of its parts.” Our reductionist view of both the problems and the ensuing solutions lead us to treat the biosphere as an unlimited toolbox of parts.
Decoupling from reality with circular reasoning
The prime directive of wealth subsumes all else and creates feedback loops–we chase growth to create more wealth in a chain reaction, over and over. Examples are everywhere I look. In my favorite example, healthcare, we medicalize normal conditions of living and then create complex tests, and then we medicate, operate, or otherwise treat. Even dying is now a profit center.
Medical science first leans towards big pharma solutions, and then it lunges, as “careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is.” In America, the business of health becomes a paradox, where we “spend more but get less.” Our industries eventually reach the silly endpoint of being a Rube Goldberg machine, where we add more inefficiency, bureaucracy, and features to allow more steps and more players to make more profit from the disease factory, while never removing any steps in the process.
Diminishing returns and competing feedback loops
As energy returns per investment diminish and growth peaks, some of the autocatalytic loops begin to look a little silly. We create uses for fossil fuels such as imported spoons and gym clubs for stationary biking. We attach status to the advertised object or experience, creating want and unhappiness about consumption. We hijack natural systems to create profits for elite capitalists. We have treadmills for dogs, we own massive cars and houses, and we heat sidewalks, while people go hungry. “Emergy is wasted if high transformity energy is used when energy of lower transformity will suffice” (Odum, 1996, p. 163). We cannot keep this up for long, but we will keep it up until people realize that the old growth economy is not coming back.
At some point, the law of diminishing returns on the old system dictates that we switch to the competing feedback loops of a flow-limited renewable energy based system, as the cost of importing spoons or the cost of gym membership overcomes our personal budget and we begin to behave more frugally. Eventually, after some feedback delays, the ridiculous nature of some of the autocatalytic loops in the accelerated economy starts to dawn on people, especially when compared to increasing austerity in personal budgets, and they stop the wasteful behaviors.
Holding back the tide
For those who insist on remaining in the dominant paradigm, the centralized control and manipulation of the system to try to keep and grow what we’ve got in resistance to the thermodynamic certainty of economic contraction eventually fails, as CH Smith points out. When we mask risk, and try to support the current system by holding back the tide, eventually the suppression fails and the system switches more violently than it would have if we had not suppressed it to begin with. For example, if our money managers realized how certain economic contraction is, they might be trying to accommodate it and not paper over economic contraction by printing money. If our economy is contracting, the monetary information system that guides it must contract also. How simple that fact is, yet all of our incentives are skewed towards expanding the money system instead. When the shift or tipping point comes, it will be all the more severe for the suppression and manipulation of our economic system. Time and tides wait for no man – when dams burst, the chaos that ensues is all the more powerful for the pent-up size of the pulse, more likely to cause a big mess.
So what does this mean for us? The higher and faster we grow, the farther and faster we’ll fall, because we lack balancing feedback loops to slow our growth adequately. Our powerful Rube Goldberg economy keeps adding loops to the chain reaction, creating more unnecessary overshoot. The economy is chasing its own tail, like an ouroboros, and it is now starting to catch it and eat it, not sensing the negative feedback which should ensue. We are consuming ourselves. We must restructure our system from the ground up as resources wane, since the feedback loops that drive the current system are too powerful to overcome intentionally. Those reading this post are probably part of the newly developing feedback loops for a relocalized economy. That is why I’m rooting for empire to fail sooner rather than later, before we’ve grown and polluted too much to allow for grass-roots recovery.