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The Wave/Pulse of Human History

What I am aiming to explore in this post is the pattern of the pulse – a pattern that seems to occur in all natural systems. I want to look at how it has flowed through human history in the form of energy production and consumption, and how it relates to a number of my interests.

What I want to do is to look at how different forms of available energy have been used in different periods of human history, how they relate to the structure of those periods, and how they can be seen as pulses or waves. I also want to share a favorite chart from a favorite systems thinker, Howard T. Odum, and how I think this chart can represent an integration of a number of my different interests in different ways, but all in this context of wave/pulses of energy through human history.

But first, let’s back up a bit. I thought it might be helpful to tell the story of how and why I became interested in the Pattern of the Pulse.

Draw a line five miles long to represent the millions of years during which solar energy has been captured and laid down in the earth’s crust in the form of coal, gas and oil. Then put a blip in it. That blip represents the time we have taken to extract and use this embodied energy. We are halfway through that blip.

- James Bruges (The Little Earth Book, 2004)

Back in late 2004, I saw a movie called The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream. It was a wake up call to the idea that we are about halfway through that blip of oil, and that the first half we used was the cheap, easy, high quality oil, and that the second half would be increasingly difficult to extract, expensive, and of lower quality. I came to understand that timing wise, the important point wasn’t when we “run out,” but when we reach the peak – the all time high of production. The peak is the important thing, because our whole society is built around the idea of continual growth. Continual growth is dependent upon reasonably cheap energy resources, and we tend to just take for granted that they’ll always be there, and growth (with a few inconvenient ups and downs here and there) will always continue. After all, it’s all we’ve known…that is, until we get a bigger perspective than just the industrial/informational ages of the past 200 years.

Which brings us to this principle:

The principle of peaks: the enduring health of any system depends on the appropriate balance and integration of the rate of increase in resource flows and exchanges pre-peak and the rate of decline in those flows and exchanges after the peak, for a given context.

- Tim Winton, Pattern Dynamics

The above is an important principle, because I gradually became more and more aware that there is actually a lot more that is peaking than just oil supplies. I found out that some believed seafood may have peaked in 1994. In 2007 I wrote an article titled “Peak Everything“: “I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories as well about the dramatic decline of bees, and the slower but long term decline of many birds. Washington state alone has at least 39 endangered plant and animal species. …It becomes a bit overwhelming to think about and comprehend all of these problems at once and together, but it is quite important to do so. As long as we keep thinking about the problems we’re seeing with the world’s “resources” as isolated problems to be dealt with individually, the more likely we are to turn to technological band-aid solutions.” When I googled the phrase “Peak Everything,” I found that Richard Heinberg was working on a book with that exact title: Peak Everything: Waking Up To a Century of Declines. Another way to say it is that we are now in ecological overshoot and have reached the limits to growth.

As part of my own preparations for making a transition to this century of declines, I enrolled in a Permaculture Design Course in 2009. One of our instructors, David Zhang, led a session on common patterns observed in nature. One of these was the Pattern of the Pulse. Pulse, he said, is a pattern observed in time. It is a burst of stored up energy. Some examples include salmon runs, seasonal floods, the heartbeat, monsoons, lightning, forest fires, earthquakes, volcanic activity, and even plagues. When he started showing graphics and pictures of some of these pulses, suddenly I made the connection in my mind – peak oil is a pulse! Of course, this seemed so obvious in retrospect, but at the time when I made the connection, it seemed to clarify so many things, put so many things in perspective, and help me to realize this is a very natural process.

We tend to think of our human systems as being some how outside of nature and its processes, but when we realize that we are nature, then that kind of implies that our systems are in a very real sense natural as well. Where we really get in trouble is when we don’t acknowledge this and let our hubris gain the upper hand. When we think that things like the 2nd law of thermodynamics don’t necessarily apply to us, and that infinite economic growth is a real possibility. As one of Nixon’s advisers once said so succinctly, “things that can’t go on forever, don’t.”

Things that can’t go on forever, don’t

- Herb Stein, adviser to President Richard M. Nixon

All of this brings us up to the present interest in the pattern of the pulse, and how it has flowed through human history in the form of energy production and consumption, and how it relates to a number of my interests.

Tim Winton has spent a lot of time developing a new integral sustainability pattern language he calls PatternDynamics™, which will come up again later in this piece as one of my interests. Hundreds of patterns have been observed in nature, and it’s probably not a good idea to look at any one of them in total isolation, so let’s take a quick look at several patterns that Winton has identified that are relevant to this post.

We’ve already mentioned our main theme, the pattern of the pulse, which “signifies the repeated rhythmic surges of activity related to resource flows and exchanges.” Systems ecologist Howard Odum was of the opinion that all systems on all scales pulse. Storages gradually accumulate, consumers consume and develop, and eventually decline, and then dispersing materials that will be used in the next pulse. Winton wisely comments, “The capacity to maximize the rate of growth of flow exchanges needs to be balanced with minimizing the adaption required after the peak when decline sets in. The role of Pulse is to maximize exchange flows sustainably.” The pattern of the pulse demonstrates the principle of peaks, which is where the quote from Winton nearer to the top of this article comes in.

Other patterns that are important to our discussion are patterns of Energy (provides the ability to do work in dynamic change and transformation processes), Cycle (“rhythmic, repeated sequence of actions”), Flows/Stores (energy resources can be stored for future use, or they flow out in dynamic exchange processes), and Transformity (“the process whereby matter/energy resources are transformed through systemic processes into lesser amounts of matter/energy but higher qualitative complexity within the system”).

With all of that as background, we are almost ready to look at one of my favorite graphs. If you’re anything like me, you might not usually get very excited by graphs. And I don’t want to over sell this – it’s not that I find the graph exciting, I just think it’s very interesting, and encapsulates a lot of ideas. I’ll begin explaining in a minute why I find this particular graph so interesting, but first a word about the creator of the graph.

I came to Howard T. Odum by way of Rob Hopkins, by way of David Holmgren. Because I was active in community organizing around preparedness for energy depletion, I had been following the work of Rob Hopkins and the Transition Culture he was writing about. I found out he was a permaculture teacher and was heavily influenced by David Holmgren (read Hopkins’ review of Holmgren’s book here). So I began studying the work of David Holmgren, which I found to be utterly compelling – some of the best ideas about sustainability I’d seen anywhere. And I found out Holmgren was heavily influenced by Howard T. Odum, who had pioneered the field of systems ecology (Excellent short summaries of Odum’s work can be found here and here). So from there, I began looking at his more accessible books, Energy Basis for Man and Nature, and A Prosperous Way Down.

We should now be ready to look at one of my favorite graphs from Howard and Elizabeth Odum’s 2001 book, A Prosperous Way Down. I can see in this image elements of a number of my interests. Energy Descent, Permaculture, Integral Theory, Spiral Dynamics, Gebser’s “Ever Present Origin,” Pattern Dynamics, and the Transition Towns movement.

H.T. Odum’s Zonal Empower chart of the history of human development

The Odums write, “The development in the last two centuries has been a wave of ascendancy moving up the energy hierarchy. We can represent the wave by showing the relative empower in each stage. First there was a predominance of agrarian agriculture, then use of fuels and minerals for the industrial revolution, next a population explosion, then a concentration of emergy [embedded energy] in the cities, and finally highest emergy in the worldwide sharing of information. The wave may be expected to generate more population and information than it can support. As the emergy flows of the fuels and their matching resources falter, we expect the climax to turn down, either crashing or descending prosperously depending on how well the world shares common purpose. How do we go from the pattern in graph (f) to a new kind of future consistent with the limitations of graph (c)?”

How all of this relates to my above list:

1) Energy Descent: The chart shows inputs of 2 energy sources – “Local Energy Sources,”which are the renewable energies available and then, beginning in the era of Industry, the additional “Fuels and Minerals” (Fossil Fuels and the additional minerals we’ve been able to extract due to fossil fuels). Progress has not resulted simply as the result of human ingenuity. The waves of development are made possible by increasing availability and use of energy. Fossil fuel energy is finite in terms of the scale we are concerned with, and at some point soon we can expect the wave to climax and then descend, likely back to the agrarian level (c).

2) Permaculture: David Holmgren, co-initiator of Permaculture has closely followed H.T. Odum’s work throughout his career; hence Holmgren’s Permaculture is built on the foundation laid by Odum, especially in regards to Energy Descent and the Pulsing paradigm. Holmgren, writing about the large scale pulse of fossil fuels:

The rebuilding of social and cultural capital must occur within a context of declining net energy availability… While global capitalism has been like a fire converting green forests to ashes, it has likewise released potential and information from the constraints of cultural norms and institutions that were hopelessly inappropriate for dealing with a world of declining energy. The ashes of the consumed forest provide opportunities for the seeds of pioneering species to reform the forest in a way that better reflects large-scale realities, such as fertility or climate change. Similarly, globalisation provides the opportunities for social seeding to create new bioregional cultures adapted to energetic realities…

Thus the permaculture aphorism ‘the problem is the solution’ is not some naive optimism in the face of terrible prospects, or the delusion of those with all the opportunities, but a simple idea with powerful relevance to our time. If we view global capitalism as releasing the earth’s accumulation of renewable and non-renewable resources according to Holling’s Four-Phase Cycle, then permaculture is the new potential of the Reorganisation phase.

3. Integral Theory: First, the Integral Theory of Ken Wilber’s AQAL model, of which one important part is the Quadrants. The Lower Right Quadrant is where we see the Exterior of the Collective, which includes the Techno-Economic base of civilization as it developed from foraging to horticulture to agrarian to industrial to informational – matching Odum’s chart.

The important thing to note here is that when we keep in mind that the Techno-Economic base is fully dependent upon the Ecological/Energetic base – again, that available energy determines what is possible – that provides a solid foundation for the Integral framework. Without this acknowledgement, we can get lost in a world of technological fantasy and ideas about infinite growth. If we root ourselves in what the ecological base can support in the LR quadrant, we will rest on a realistic foundation.

4. Spiral Dynamics: Spiral Dynamics was first formulated by Clare Graves, and later refined and popularized by Don Beck and Dave Cowan, and has also been incorporated into Wilber’s Integral Theory. SDi (Spiral Dynamics integral) sees the stages of social development corresponding with levels of cultural development. Some within the integral movement question “whether notions like development and in particular progress make sense when applied to culture.”

5. Jean Gebser’s Ever Present Origin: I’m new to Gebser’s thinking, but if I understand correctly, he looked at human history in terms of Epochs with wave like movements, very much like Odum’s model. In mythic, oceanic reasoning, there was always a return, never a progression. More like cycles and less like development. Gebser saw Epochs developing through four stages from Defficient to Latent to Efficient back to Defficient. Perhaps there are parallels to Holling’s Four Phase Model of Ecosystems, from Pioneer to Conservation to Collapse/Release to Reorganization. Odum, following Holling, spoke of Four Stages of the Growth Cycle: 1) Growth; 2) Climax and Transition; 3) Descent; and 4) Low Energy Restoration.

Pulses of ecological systems

Howard Odum, in A Prosperous Way Down:

What is appropriate during one stage may be poor policy in another stage,” he wrote. “For example, for a system in a stage of descent, it will not be good policy to foster growth that is no longer possible.

…Although history and ecosystems give us clues, we really don’t know what the policies should be for the period of turndown from our complex, intensive, locally affluent, urban civilization…

In some systems, the mature stage is abruptly terminated by catastrophic removal due to pulses on a larger scale…In some other ecosytems such as a temperate forest approaching a winter season, decline is more orderly…

After repeated cycles of growth and decline, ecosystems develop means for carrying forward information, in seeds, eggs, and spores, for the next growth cycle. Something similar is needed in downsizing of civilization.

Jeremy Johnson wrote a Beams and Struts post on The Integral Philosopher – Jean Gebser and Time, and shared the following insight:

Gebser foresaw a Western crisis that we’re experiencing now (and probably more so in the coming years). Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he was deeply optimistic about what could emerge from humanity. He foreshadowed the ecological-oriented worldview, as well as the complexity sciences of the 70′s. Although such ideas are now over 40 years old, they aren’t yet actualized. The world is still rushing forward in technological and industrial growth—a growth that’s not going to be sustainable forever. In some sense, we are captured by our own ironic limitation of progress–unable to switch gears until the train is at the edge of the cliff. Gebser’s book studies past civilizations and their worldviews, noting how each particular “structure” of consciousness (he called them “mutations”) both helped and eventually limited a human society. Only through transforming our relationship to reality (time and space, inner and outer, etc) do we have a chance to rise above our own limitations. With all this in mind, it’s a wonder why Gebser’s work is not spoken about more today. In an age where human civilization seems to be bursting at the seams, Gebser’s work is ever-more relevant.

6. PatternDynamics: Tim Winton, steeped in both Permaculture and Integral Theory, has deveolped a new Integral Sustainability Pattern Language to communicate principles of sustainability.

According to Winton,

PatternDynamics™ is a simple tool that can be learned by anyone to overcome the challenges posed by complex systems–at any scale. Here’s how it works:

  • The key to complexity is systems thinking;
  • The key to systems thinking is Patterns; and,
  • The key to using Patterns is to form them into a language.

Winton’s language of visual patterns to teach systems thinking is similar to Odum’s realization that he needed a way to get people to see the big picture (he called it the Macroscope) of how energy flows in systems. Odum developed his own pattern language he called an energy circuit language.

Similar to my thinking that an Integral Permaculture will be rooted first in Ecological/Energy understanding, Winton’s Pattern Dynamics is rooted in the enduring patterns found in nature, but with the idea of effectively making these ideas meaningful to culture. Rather than pushing ‘the arrow of progress,’ Winton argues for “a shift to a more second person orientation, to build meaning, values and the culture that support effective embodiment and application.”

So, we’re back to a similar train of thought that we observed when discussing Gebser. As Chris Dierkes relates, “the conscious choice to incorporate these patterns, leading to a fully integrated sphere of mind (noosphere) and sphere of life (biosphere). That, to me, would be a more developed culture but that had developed by going deeper (not higher).”

More specifically, Pulse is one of the 56 common patterns that Winton has identified.

The Pulse Pattern signifies the repeated rhythmic surges of activity related to resource flows and exchanges. Pulse is one aspect of the more foundational First Order Pattern, Rhythm. Pulse demonstrates the increase, peak and decline in the rate of resource recovery and exchanges within systems. The capacity to maximize the rate of growth of flow exchanges needs to be balanced with minimizing the adaption required after the peak when decline sets in. The role of Pulse is to maximize exchange flows sustainably.

7. Transition Culture: The Transition Initiative movement is a worldwide grassroots effort to rebuild community resilience in response to concerns about energy depletion, climate change, and economic instability. Rob Hopkins writes in the Transition Handbook:

The amount of energy needed to maintain the average US citizen is the equivalent of 50 people on bicycles pedalling furiously in our back gardens day and night. We have become dependent on these pedallers – what some people refer to as ‘energy slaves’. But we are, it should also be acknowledged, extremely fortunate to live at a time in history with access to amounts of energy and a range of materials, products and possibilities that our ancestors couldn’t even have imagined…

Oil has allowed us to create extraordinary technologies, cultures and discoveries, to set foot on the Moon and to perfect the Pop Tart. But can it go on forever? Of course not. Like any finite material, the faster we consume it, the faster it will be gone. We are like Asterix and Obelix realising, with a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, that the cauldron of potion they have in front of them is the last one. We can see the possibility of life without potion looming before us.

The key point is that it is not the point when we use the last drop that matters. The moment that really matters is the peak, the moment when you realise that from that point onward there will always be less magic potion year-on-year, and that because of its increasing scarcity, it will become an increasingly expensive commodity.

What the Transtion movement acknowledges is that we have come to a point where we need to begin making other arrangements; as Odum asked, How do we begin the transition away from the high energy arrangements of our industrial/information society and toward levels of energy use that are sustainable on the back end of the energy pulse?

Transition connects the dots between fossil fuel energy use and it’s affect on the climate, as well as it’s relationship to a ‘peak economy’, ‘peak debt’ and the over-arching conclusion that we may have reached The End of Growth. Hopkins wrote about the relationship to the economy in 2009:

Chris Martenson again put it well in the Crash Course: “Our economy must grow to support a money system that requires growth, but is challenged by an energy system that can’t grow, and both of these are linked to a natural world that is rapidly being depleted.”

The Transition model assumes a re-localisation of life and work due to the end of cheap fuels for food production, transport and energy generation, but today almost everyone is part of a globalised economic system highly dependent on imports. Politicians and business leaders have recently distanced themselves from the worst extremes of the weakly regulated financial activities, but whether it’s credit crunch, energy crunch or climate crunch the biggest employment crisis ever seen is already unfolding across international boundaries.

As I write this post, Rob Hopkins has just published another well argued piece on the validity of engaging the transition (by whatever name):

The important question for me is where are we now? Where do we go from here? The idea that our only option if we want to avoid a rapid collapse is an orgy of extracting unconventional oils by any means necessary is a logical idea when viewed from the perspective of the industrial growth system. This is the same myopic mania that has redefined sustainable development as ‘sustainable growth’ and is hell-bent on a return to growth at all costs. It is rather like an abusive husband who cannot see any option for his partner other than himself, while psychologically denying to himself the damage he’s doing.

…Embracing the hydrocarbons that will define the second half of the oil age will, as Monbiot puts it, “fry us all”. Climate change is hardly the only impact though. …one consequence of our moving into the “second half” of the age of fossil fuel extraction is that, in our desperation, we create even more difficult challenges for us and for our descendants.

…Transition has stated from the outset, “if we wait for governments it will be too late”. I believe more than ever that the drive for change will need to come from communities, from citizens, from ordinary people coming together and getting on with it. I am thinking about calling the next book I do “The Thrill of Just Doing Stuff” because I think that is ultimately what it’s about.

Fracking, shale oils, heavy oils, are the path to a world where power, resources and control continue to be taken out of the hands of ordinary people and into the hands of those that would ruin the world. Transition offers a different story, one that is about living more within our means, connecting to place, returning power to people and communities, building resilience at the local level.

Hopkins' Transition Culture logo

An aspect of the Transition movement that circles back to point number 5 above on Jean Gebser’s worldview, is the idea that descent needn’t be a bad thing. Vanessa Fischer in a comment at Beams and Struts:

I love Gebser because his notion of the Integral “stage” is not a linear development. He actually never used the word evolution because he thought it was too bound into rational thinking and linear views of time and progress. Gebser argued that time radically changed at the integral level, and past and present all became transparent and available in the now.

This is why the constant emphasis on transcendence and needing to push people to integral never really resonated with me. Energetically, I feel much more of a falling quality~ falling into transparency and beauty with all that is and being able to access multiple-streams of intelligence and knowing all at once.

Chuckanut Transition’s “Energy Descent” logo

Transition found it’s initial inspiration in Permaculture, and David Holmgren’s book, where Holmgren writes:

“Having been on the mountain so long, we can barely remember the home in a far-off valley that we fled as it was PROGRESSIVELY destroyed by forces we did not understand. But we know that each step brings us closer to a sheltered valley where we can make a new home.”
- David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

And now back to Rob Hopkins, closing this post with last thoughts from the Transition Handbook:

Central to this book is the proposition that the future with less oil could be preferable to the present, if we are able to engage with enough imagination and creativity sufficiently in advance of the peak…Emerging at the other end, we will not be the same as we were; we will have become more humble, more connected to the natural world, fitter, leaner, more skilled and, ultimately, wiser.

We will emerge blinking into a new way of living, yet it will feel more comfortable and familiar than what we left behind. If we are to trade mobility, growth and affluence for something else, we need to be able to articulate something preferable and more nourishing to put in its place.

And more recently from Richard Heinberg:

Is economic growth ending? Yes. Is it the end of the world? No. It’s just the beginning of the end for a utopian project that started as the dream of miners, manufacturers, bankers, advertisers, salesmen, investors, and inventors, and that has turned to a nightmare for just about everyone else. Trends reach their culmination and wane, and new trends arise. Nature adapts, sometimes with slow and incremental change, sometimes in fury and destruction, and life goes on.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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