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Self-organising societies

“If the future is to remain open and free, we need people who can tolerate the unknown, who will not need the support of completely worked out systems or traditional blueprints from the past.” –Margaret Mead

Modern societies have developed as adaptations to a high-energy world by producing surpluses of non-renewable energies, especially in the United States. These complex, crumbling societies have developed a powerful system of centralized, top-down control system, with a widening gap in power and wealth from the mainstream, as the balance of power diverges even further between the haves and have-nots, with a hollowing out of the middle class. If we are to have any future society, it will be a more cooperative and self-organizing one. What are self-organizing societies, and why should you be hoping for one as an alternative to the current emphasis on centralized control? How can we develop them?

What are self-organizing societies?

Self-organizing designs in both living and non-living systems evolve through trial and error, over time, which have the properties of reinforcing the pathways that allow more resource intake and transformation into products. Simply stated, energy of different kinds form a hierarchy of quality. Why? Because this design maximizes empower, or energy flow through the system and entrained upwards. Each level reinforces the one below, and the reinforcement mechanism at one level controls and sets goals for the one below. Components that contribute are reinforced and retained. Maximizing energy flow maximizes power, which is the primary goal of any system. Maximum power thus explains the growth and development of systems, societies, and evolutionary change. Hierarchies are the fundamental way that energy gets entrained into systems, and complexity develops. Hierarchies are thus an inherently normal part of healthy systems, as energy quality and complexity increase as a function of the length of the hierarchy and the scales.

This process can be summarized as a proposed 5th energy law of energy hierarchy or Transformity, which states that the energy quality factor increases hierarchically. From studies of isotopes in ecological food chains, Odum proposed that energy transformations form a hierarchical series measured by an increase in Transformity. This transformation can be measured as the amount of energy of one type required to make a unit of energy of another type. Feedback amplifiers, or autocatalysis, creates amplifying flows of increasing energy that creates pyramids of complexity such as food chains, which then extend into complex human economies. Transformity thus measures the place of each kind of energy in the universal energy hierarchy. A shortened explanation of the excessive stages of Transformity is that “you shorten the cumulative length of the game the more you steal,” since growth of the hierarchy eventually out runs sustainability via overshoot and resource extraction. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and adding complexity at the top of the hierarchy is not a solution to disappearing resources at the bottom.

Reinforcement occurs by:

  • use of by-products
  • material recycling
  • develops reinforcement of feedbacks from the next larger scale to increase energy flows
  • develops exchanges with other systems for needed inputs
  • development of information, and information storages
  • uses storages and eliminates any factor more limiting than others
  • retention of transformed work only if it reinforces feedback
  • high quality energy used to amplify larger flows of lower quality
  • the higher the available energy the longer hierarchy that can be supported and the greater the complexity in time and space
  • maximizing growth while increasing energy intakes with self-selection using competition
  • maximizing efficiency when all available energy sources are in use (Odum Collection, 1987-88, Box 41).

Maximum Empower

Self-organization in nonliving and living systems

We can use the example of a thunderstorm as a non-living system that maximizes power. Hot air rises, condenses, and falls as rain or snow, creating downdrafts. Evaporation enhances downdrafts, and gust fronts cause more hot air to be entrained. This process continues until the engine of warm, moist air is halted, either through wind shear, dry air, obstructions, or no more available warm, moist air. The dissipation stage can also occur when downdrafts choke off updrafts, or the gust front diminishes or out runs the thunderstorm.


The non-living system example of a thunderstorm parallels our complex economic financial system. Odum compared fossil-fuel driven overgrowth as a supercell information storm, in an analogy to atmospheric storms. The system perpetuates as long as resources are fed into the system. In thunderstorms, sustained overshooting tops are signs of rapid ascent of hot air, instability, and likely future severe weather. Our financial system is in the same sort of overshoot, with rapid change, intense feedbacks to the rest of the world, and an inherently temporary existence. Both thunderstorms and financial storms owe their existence to excess energy inputs that need to be dispersed somehow, either through development of low-diversity growth if energy is available, or through other means. Our current financial system is of very high transformity, so until it dissipates, our world views and system will be dominated by its control. Money is an information system, but it is symbolic, and it is not the real system. All fiat currencies in history have failed, and our current currencies will be no different. Currency failure does not mean failure of the underlying economy; businesses that are no longer relevant go bankrupt, a new currency system develops, and life goes on, perhaps in a more locally-oriented fashion.

Why should we be hoping for some of this global finance to fail or be reordered? As an American, I know that the inequities in global trade and the environmental destruction are building to such an extent that irreversible destruction of the environment or the breakout of war would be devastating to both the biosphere and to humanity as the capstone species. The decision to bail out the banks in 2008 in the United States, then followed by most other countries, was a pivotal moment from which there may be no change in policy direction.

Money is only circulated in the human economy, so as the hierarchy grows, more resources are extracted from nature without pay, and the monetary system increasingly devalues nature. Odum proposed the Hierarchy of Money as a 7th law of thermodynamics (Odum, 2000, p. 12). Money is coupled to energy transformation series (energy hierarchy) and is constrained by the properties of the hierarchy. Its properties change in passing to higher centers of concentration, the cities. At the low levels on the left are free environmental transformations with no money (see diagram below). At each higher step there is value added, and thus the money concentration increases as does the energy/money ratio. The energy per unit money decreases, and vice versa, the money per unit energy (price) rises. In the centers such as large cities, the circulation of money is more concentrated but the buying power of money is less. At one of Odum’s short courses in the 1980s, some wag summarized this proposed law as “the money for the game is counterfeit,” since its valuation is backwards from the real basis of wealth, with more emphasis on the higher levels of hierarchy and no valuation for the environmental base which the entire pyramid rests on.

Odum, 2000, Energy Hierarchy and Money (PDF)

Odum, 2000, Energy Hierarchy and Money (PDF)

When excess energy is funneled into systems, autocatalytic feedback loops potentiate growth and competition, creating longer chains, with less diversity, and less resilience, with more and more wealth concentrated at the top. Maximum power with excess inputs makes for a long, spindly bureaucracy with too much power at the top, and a hollowing out of the lower levels. The more power that accumulates at the top, the more certain we can be that the hollowed out structure will collapse, as vested interests fight hard to support the system’s stability. Power begets control, and control begets power. How much top-down control can be maintained in descent as energy inputs wane?


What happens if control from the powerful top of the economy is kept too long in trying to keep up the status quo in the face of changing system dynamics? That is when revolutions occur, due to heat dispersal of excess power, or complete collapse as the incoming energy dissipates, overloads, or short circuits. The longer we try to hold back the tide, the faster change rushes in when it breaks free, and greater the potential for catastrophic collapse. Wars have historically helped organize the landscape into units that are proportional to available resources. But global wars at this point with 7 billion people on the planet could lead to extinction. Current imbalances in international trade are based on market valuations and unfair international exchange. Perhaps emergy valuation can rate products, goods and services for trade to balance the equity and energy as we descend, to avoid world war (Odum, 1987).


Theories about self-organization can also explain the dissipation of that overshoot. What combination of dissipative events will topple the global financial system, so that more realistic societies can take root underneath? Will it be the choking off resources that feed the system, or wind shear from global trade, or a gust front of hyperinflation or too much disparity between rich and poor that causes the system to break down? There is a general sense of anxiety and hopelessness about the financial system and climate change, and what can be done from a personal or community perspective, since political action is perceived to be hopeless against the powerful corporations and government actions at the larger scale. In general people tend to view the financial system as the real economic system. If the financial system collapses, we will pick ourselves up, and dust ourselves off, and create a new system–the same thing we’ve done throughout history when fiat currencies collapse. The real question is, what do we want that new system to look like, and how do we begin planning for it, at a proper level of scale where people can make real change?

Odum, 1987, Crafoord Lecture, p. 60

Odum, 1987, Crafoord Lecture, p. 60

“Living with complexity is easier if we understand the principles of self-organizing systems and information storms in progress. Then we can make our personal and public policies consistent with future trends” (Odum, 1989). Our information storm needs to be redirected from a focus on global derivative financial wealth, to nurturing and supporting local real sources of wealth. We need to maximize power for long-term survival. What is the highest and best use of the full flowering of information and resources that we now have in designing a new system that is adapted to less energy? When voices rise and join in dissent and in creating a new world, anything is possible in turning things around, albeit at a smaller scale than we presently have.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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