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The transformity of personal action

The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves. –Oscar Arias Sanchez

It is easy to get distracted when the world appears to be falling down around our heads. This week, the Emergist reports that he has gotten waylaid by intrusions at the personal scale, and relates those intrusions back to the principles of emergy and transformity. Here’s a snippet below from his blog this week about the transformity of his education, his feelings about his competing needs of parenting at the personal scale, and the urge to give to actions at the larger scale, and the relative value and costs of education in our society. The post is warm, funny, and something that I’ve been thinking about this week, too. Go read it, please, and I’ll wait right here while you do.

The Emergist Attacked by Two Toddlers

This blog has gone quiet for sometime, not that I haven’t had anymore topics to blog about, but because my oldest toddler has learned to turn off the computer. I actually have two posts fully thought out and half written. Further complicating the process is that the older one grabs the tip of my nose whenever he wants my attention, which is all the time, while his sister sneak attacks by smearing saliva on the screen with her hands. This all significantly ups the ante to write anything.

Now this all seems like an emergetic impossibility. There has easily been spent a hundred more times money (a possible proxy for energy) spent on my life than both of their lives combined (Fig 1 or pg 285 EPS). That means that I should have a way higher transformity. Transformity is a measure of all the organizing energy that has been invested into a person or thing. Odum says that as transformity goes up then both my influence and territory should go up. How is he so wrong?… The rest is at this link


A cat called chaos says no typing, only petting

Pretty funny, huh, that bit about the saliva on the screen? Anyone who is a parent can relate. You may even be able to relate if you have a cat. The Emergist appears to be having difficulty with some of the same issues I’ve wrestled with this week, with some of the same results. Drafts of more complex posts about principles get waylaid by competing demands and focus at the personal scale when chaos comes knocking.

What does he mean by transformity?

First of all, we should probably check the terms that the Emergist is using. He talks about the implied transformity of his education–reading between the lines, apparently a significant amount of money was spent. The money spent on education is an inaccurate proxy for the energy, materials, and information that support the changes in roles in a person’s life, as environmental resources flow upwards through the economy and its education system, to support the student from school, to college, and beyond. This process is a hierarchy, with fewer people reaching the higher stages. Energy losses at each stage dictate that those with the highest transformity (on the right in the diagram below) have the highest emergy (or energy memory). In Emergy synthesis, the process of valuation considers the indirect and direct contributions of ecological processes using equivalents of solar energy rather than monetary metrics to consider differences in quality of energy. It approaches valuation from a donor-based or supply side independent of the more usual economic demand-based approach that is dependent on subjective values of willingness to pay. So in this discussion, the word valuation reflects the inherent value of a process, irregardless of demand, societal need, or political preference.


Odum, Environment, Power, and Society for the 21st Century, 2007, p. 285 Life cycle of human beings passing through hierarchy of age and experience, with stages in which functions of higher transformity are added

In a recent paper describing Human Transformities in a Global Hierarchy, Abel (2010) makes the point that educational attainment is only one measure of value within a socioeconomic hierarchy, albeit one near and dear to the hearts of academics. There are more ways to add to the cultural information storage, such as inspirational or transformational parenting during a time of great transition and experimentation. Abel explains it thusly:

Humans possess and perpetuate cultural information, and possession of differing information, for Odum, is what differentiates people within the human hierarchy described here. He provides the simple formula, “human service is evaluated by multiplying the energy expended by a human being by the transformity of that person’s education and experience” (Odum, 1996, p. 230). Note that he used the phrase “education and experience.” In his formulations, however, he only utilized data on educational levels. This is not surprising, since this data is readily available. However, as suggested above, other cultural information beyond formal education is essential to the construction of human hierarchy. While that information is far more difficult to articulate, its existence and importance gives us reason to accept the possibility that human hierarchy is more complicated and perhaps more expansive than Odum expected. . . .Anthropologists and sociologists have critically studied the nature of human inequality. Bourdieu has demonstrated that the information of enculturation from parents and peers, not (only) formal education, provides the distinction necessary for the reproduction of social hierarchy (Bourdieu, 1984). Information about behaviors that are appropriate and defining of social status, or information about the use of power, these are the practical reasoning from which differentiation grows. As we know, many world elites are children of past elites, forming dynasties of great power (Domhoff, 1998). The transmission of cultural information from parents and role models has surely contributed to the fortunes of successive generations (Abel, 2010, p. 2115-6).

The Emergist complains that he should have a way higher transformity than his current role of parenthood, due to his education. In terms of transformity, the energy memory vested within the Emergist (the value) is there, so his transformity is what it is, from a donor-based perspective. The issue is whether that value is being used optimally by society. And the Emergist may be selling himself short regarding the relative values of his various contributions. Transformational, creative ideas that change society are of great value, and during a time of turmoil those ideas may not be generated within bureaucratic, dogmatic educational systems. They may, instead, be passed down through more informal means such as parenting of novel thinking leading to dynasties of new world views. The systems sorts through the relative values, and over time, selects for the optimal empower, as I will explain below.

Tom Abel, 2010, p. 2113

Tom Abel, 2010, p. 2113

At the larger scale, the money spent on The Emergist’s education is an inaccurate proxy for a concurrent, converging transformation of energy, materials, and information from the environmental base, through the economy, into the university, where teaching processes refine knowledge, produce students, and add to short-term information such as the internet, and long-term information, such as scientific principles in books and art and literature in humanities and our culture.

Odum, 1999, p. 15

Odum, 1999, p. 15

Given the energy invoked by society in moving the Emergist through the educational process, he feels the obligation to contribute more than he does when wiping his daugher’s saliva off the computer screen. We can find one of the earliest reflections of some basic emergetic principles in the Bible’s Parable of the Faithful Servant; “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked” (Luke, 12:35-48, World English Bible). Privilege brings responsibility and that responsibility entails accountability. Many cultures have echoed that theme, and the modern-day concept of servant leadership is a modern reflection of the idea that we must put the needs of others first when we lead, before personal needs of power, fame, or material possessions.

What happened to the popularity of John F. Kennedy’s maxim for individual action that feeds back to the larger system: “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” Those were rousing words that struck a nerve in our country, and served to ignite a decade of rapid growth. Yet those words were also followed by more selfish instructions, perhaps, for our country’s behavior at the global scale. The message for national policy was a call to arms, and a subtle sanctioning of the global reach of empire, as America began to feel her power in the 1960s. “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man” (JF Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961 inaugural address). Our national pursuit of empire was triggered with these words, and we never looked back, energetically. Eventually, our actions mirrored our country’s pursuit of empire, with selfless individual actions giving way to pursuit of power and wealth, which have brought us to overshoot and decay.

How does the principle of maximum power impact the transformity of education?

The Emergist complains that, “Transformity is a measure of all the organizing energy that has been invested into a person or thing. Odum says that as transformity goes up then both my influence and territory should go up. How is he so wrong?” The operational word here is “should.” Systems that operate optimally maximize energy and emergy flows through the system, with reinforcement of pathways that optimize for maximum output. A fourth proposed law of energetics, the Maximum Power Principle states that “in the competition among self-organizing processes, network designs that maximize empower will prevail” (Odum, 1996). “Because designs with greater performance prevail, self-organization selects network connections that feed back transformed energy to increase inflow of resources or to use them more efficiently”(Odum, 2000). The later reformulation, Maximum (Em)Power, describes the maximum rate of emergy acquisition. “In time, through the process of trial and error, complex patterns of structure and processes have evolved…the successful ones surviving because they use materials and energies well in their own maintenance, and compete well with other patterns that chance interposes” (Odum, n.d.).

Therefore, efficient societies will make sure that useful education and enculturation feeds back into the system to optimize the system relative to power flows. But during rapid periods of growth, such as we have had in the United States during the past 50 years, energy may be wasted and efficiency is lower as the goal is maximum power. During descent, we will need to become much more efficient. During the transition, large mismatches between employment and the educational system that feeds it may occur. Ideally, important principles are promoted through education, and those principles are embodied through education in students, who carry them forward in society through employment or other contributions to society that maximize empower. But there are many wasteful imbalances in society, given the complexity of society, the rates of empower, and the rapid rate of change during transition. Are we focusing on the best principles to prepare people for new jobs that will evolve in a system in descent? How long will it take for the system to change, given the time lag of a long educational pipeline, rigid tenured faculty and reductionist curriculum, and the dominance of irrelevant corporate overgrowth in our complex society?

Odum, 1999, p. 16 Education Systems Diagram

Odum, 1999, p. 16 Education Systems Diagram

The Emergist suggests that a secure, well-educated child may be more valuable to society over the long run than either his own transformity or that of the internet. That is possible, given the role of the internet as a form of short-term memory for society of information retrieval, rehearsal, response selection, and selective attention. While the energy memory of the internet is vast, if the internet disappeared tomorrow, how would that impact society, besides a big short-term mess and accelerated descent? Which is of more value to society over the long run–a secure, well-educated child, or set of interesting blog posts that may or may not be viewed widely as shared information, and which could wink out quickly in the current environment of descent. If the Emergist places his child in daycare, and goes off to work for a living pursuing the dollar at Goldman Sachs, the GDP goes up, but what is his value to society, and how are we valuing his education? How much familial interaction is necessary to promoting healthy personhood in a complex society? Odum also suggested that pulsing maximizes empower. Perhaps optimal pulsing for humans in complex societies consists of a certain amount of familial action balanced against interactions at the larger scale? How do we balance more global actions with local as we descend?

Who’s to say amidst the chaos of rapid change in a highly complex society? The thermodynamics of the situation will sort themselves out as new ways of doing and being are trialled during transition. Maximum empower will select for a more efficient society, but what structures will evolve, and how rapidly will things change? As usual, I have more questions than answers.

What is the transformity of my personal action?

The fall season is a time for shifting gears, reevaluation, and new action. The harvest moon yesterday, the autumnal equinox tomorrow, the sounds of geese honking as they begin their migrations, and the promise of snow trigger deep thoughts about personal meaning. Winter is coming.

The Emergist says:

Ignore those saying individual actions don’t matter.
Ignore those saying only individual actions matter.

poormuffinI would agree. Here are my thoughts on how to deal constructively with the crushing problems we face on a global scale. The focus on problems at the larger scale, which we cannot change as isolated individuals, can lead us to learned helplessness, which then leads to anxiety, and emotional/behavioral shutdown. Shutting down leads to depression and the inability to move forward either personally or on the national scale. What can we change? What are we not helpless about? What power do we have?

I am doctorally-prepared. Society and my family have contributed maximally to my education and upbringing. But I am 57 years old, and I’m weary of working the many roles and jobs that are increasingly assigned to me in those roles by systems that I do not value and that I consider irrelevant or damaging to the planet. We have the power to do and to act. We can invest our time, attention, and emotional energy where we have the power. I can divest from the old and reinvest in the new with passion and purpose if I honor my feelings and consider the highest and best use of my knowledge and skills at both the local and larger scale levels.

marleyfreemindFree your mind, and the rest will follow. Be honest about how you feel, honor those feelings, decide what you can do, at a scale of influence that you feel comfortable at. Try new things out, and if they don’t work out, don’t beat yourself up. The current era is a time of radical change, and the evolution of culture will require a lot of trial and error to sort through maximum empower for a new structure for society. Use your education and skills at what you consider to be the highest and best use for promoting positive change within the system. Keep educating yourself about the changes that we need to make in society, whether through informal or formal networks of education. Find your new niche and engage your community. Think globally, and act locally. Then, if that works, reach out and try acting at a larger scale. Just keep moving forward.

I have never been especially impressed by the heroics of people who are convinced they are about to change the world. I am more awed by those who struggle to make one small difference after another. –-Ellen Goodman

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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