Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

October 23, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

This post is about the hopeful idea that technology is going to save us from having to adapt to descent. A recent article describes an episode of geopiracy to geoengineer the ocean, so we’re back at climate again, since this example provides particular insights and illustrations into our blindspots about the limits to growth and the limits of technology. Almost all environmental articles now mention climate, whether it is warranted in the discussion or not, so it is hard to avoid the topic. We are shoehorning every environmental problem into the same size small shoe of solutions. Is it lack of ecoliteracy? I also continue to beat this drum because one of Odum’s great concerns was that misunderstandings about the interconnected nature of our problems would lead to geoengineering of the planet. He recognized the hazards of industrial scale manipulation of the biosphere, and the danger of relying on the industrial machine for fixes.

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Asking wrong questions….

Climate change is a situation where we have fastened on a subset of the real problem, which is population and economic growth. So we immediately frame the solution set in an even smaller space, which is geoengineering, or financial wizardry, or some other narrow solution to the wrong problem that benefits only a few, and further damages the environment. 

We have trained our minds to focus and analyze, thus we anxiously narrow our frame of reference when faced with big problems. Einstein said that problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them. He meant seeing the big picture, and avoiding doubling down on behaviors that got us where we are now. Or, in colloquial terms, What how fellow, thou knave, I pray thee let me and my fellow have a haire of the dog that bit us last night. And bitten were we bothe to the braine aright (, from 1546). The idea that the hair of the dog was a cure dates back to the Greek, who believed that a dog bite would heal more quickly if you ate dog hair. Is technology a hair-of-the-dog cure for our energy bender?

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We’re going to have to shift our world views to adapt. In an ongoing quest to broaden worldviews to consider the hierarchy of energy, here are some recent climate articles as examples of the limits of technology.

What is technology and are there limits?

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Les Dames Goldsmith au bois de Boulogne en 1897 sur une voiturette, 1901, Julius LeBlanc Stewart

In an earlier post I said that opting to worry about climate change instead of limits to growth allows us to believe that we can keep what we’ve got while also finding solutions for the problem through technology and markets, our two favorite religions. Technology and markets are mechanisms to harness and maximize power by entraining more and more energy into our market economy. If you doubt that statement, think about the evolution of the car over the past century. In a century autos have developed from the humble Model T into fervent symbols of power, speed, wealth, modernity, technology, personal freedom, freedom from nature, and even sexuality (Thacker, 2000). Why do we keep adding to cars’ heft and speed instead of making them more efficient? The Maximum Power Principle (MPP) dictates that

. . . 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). . . . Particularly during times of growth, when resources are still plentiful, what is economically competitive is increased rate of resource use rather than efficiency (Odum, 1987).

This means that if we can’t find a rational use for power, we will develop complex cultural obligations to entrain energy supported by advertising and other forms of status-seeking. How much energy do we waste in the US on the glorification and pursuit of status in our over-sized, over-powered cars?

Many in peak oil circles have fastened on the theory of a 19th century economist named Jevons to represent the idea that we will use any available, un-obligated energy. Jevons observed inductively that increasing the efficiency of coal led to wider uses in multiple industries, so in the long run, saving through efficiency in one place got offset by expanded uses later elsewhere. But the MPP takes it a step further deductively, explaining complexity in systems terms. If there is available energy, we will always opt to adapt ourselves and the system to maximize power inflows through self-organization of feedback loops, gathering energy and adding it to our hierarchy step by

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Pact with the devil-is that an iPhone in her hand?

step, transforming simple systems into complex ones over time. Technology is the name of the tools we build to help us to entrain more energy. If there is still surplus energy lying around available for collecting, then we will design one more iteration of software, derivatives, or iPhones to sell more stuff, create more wealth, and keep growing. Apple now suggests in ads that the laws of physics are just general guidelines that can be overcome. Perhaps there is some Faustian lesson here if we could only understand our hubris about technology.

The Science Institute for the Study of Phlogiston

Once again this week, we have an anxious article blaming future species loss and food insecurity on climate change. The report suggests that in a hundred years we’re all going to die from the effects of toasting the planet. But aren’t those and many other problems happening now, from other causes? We might as well have reporting from the Onion, given the lack of recognition of other possible causes of our problems. The report focuses

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Code Green, Stephanie McMillan Dancing around the blind spots

on the doom and gloom of future climate problems, yet suggests no solutions. I have come to suspect that climate change articles that fail to suggest solutions are avoiding the subject because any real efforts to think logically about solutions eventually unearths the root cause of climate–growth. Increasingly, public debate has become a minefield of blindspots we have to dance around. If we step on a growth bomb or a nuclear meltdown, our rhetoric about our climate war with nature blows itself up. Ask yourself, What is the cause of climate change? Ask that question several times, until you get to the root cause. Source reduction is the only effective way to deal with industrial pollution. In order to manage inputs we must first recognize that we cannot return to economic growth. Source reduction is not compatible with capitalism, so this shift in policies would need a complete retooling of our cultural, social, and political systems.

Another post that appeared this week from a recent UN report has a more balanced assessment of the causes of these problems of biodiversity loss and food insecurity, itemizing the disappearance of fishing stocks from overfishing, and desertification from over-harvested cropland and forests. The idea that these problems are happening now from causes other than climate change is borne out by a Guardian article that warns of looming worldwide food crisis in 2013. Not 100 years from now–next year.

We’ve not been producing as much as we are consuming. That is why stocks are being run down. Supplies are now very tight across the world and reserves are at a very low level, leaving no room for unexpected events next year,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). With food consumption exceeding the amount grown for six of the past 11 years, countries have run down reserves from an average of 107 days of consumption 10 years ago to under 74 days recently (Vidal, Guardian, 13 Oct. 2012).

So which is it? Is our food crisis a future problem related to desertification from climate? Or is it due to a recent pattern of declining production in our industrial food supply combined with an exponentially growing population? Aren’t climate change, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and rising water shortages all secondary to and caused by population and economic growth? Do we really have 100 years to wait for the extinction of humanity if we have food insecurity now on a planet overstuffed with 7 billion people? It seems to me that we are beginning to feel the effects of that last lethal population doubling time that will leave a mark. Exponential growth of the population is the driver that causes pollution, including climate change and other problems. If our population is reliant on a food system where potatoes are made partly (or mostly) of oil, then when oil production begins to wane, so does food production. Go figure! And if we try to fix our problems with technology, then we end up making it worse, as suggested by Limits to Growth models by Meadows et al. below.

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A. Perez-Carmona from Meadows et al., 1972 LTG Standard run on the left, or fixing our problems through the “comprehensive use of technology” on the right–you be the judge?

If you look at the original Meadows model output for the standard run on the left, you can see that we are entering a period of converging crises with declining food per capita, waning industrial output, and a rapidly growing population. Delay in dealing with our quandary only results in more overshoot, causing more risk of collapse. The model run on the right illustrates a scenario of delay, where extension of industrial agriculture, resource extraction, and industrial output are maximized through technology, resulting in rampant pollution and collapsing human populations. Pick your poison–does technology always improve our lives? Both scenarios above are bad, but which is worse?

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Orange-brown patches about 200 miles west of British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) indicate relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll in the area where Planktos Inc. dumped iron sulphate. Giovanni — Goddard Earth Sciences / NASA (Before picture here)

Another news article this week illustrates what happens when we view climate as the root cause of our ills. An American businessman cooked up a rogue geoengineering scheme to drop 100 tons of iron sulphate in the ocean to create lucrative carbon credits to trade for profit, which triggered a 10,000 square kilometer plankton bloom in the Pacific off Canada’s west coast. Ocean dead zones could result, as the plankton quickly dies off and starts to decay. The decaying organic matter uses up the oxygen and kills off marine life that depends on oxygen. But since geopiracy allows major energy, aerospace and defense enterprises to cash in on earth’s misfortunes, we will continue our global push to apply the intentional, large-scale technological manipulation of the Earth’s systems. Capitalism and the use of our power might yet be the death of us all. The more industrial-scale technology at our fingertips, the more ability we have, through markets, to wreak havoc with our life systems.

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Using carbon credits to fix climate change is like stuffing a banana up the tailpipe of your Mercury Marquis. Thanks Eddie! (From Beverly Hills Cop)

Focusing on climate change when the real problem is growth is like having an Institute for the Study of Tailpipes and Phlogiston gas that comes out of tailpipes, for the sake of this analogy. If we perceive tailpipes as the problem, then we will do complex analysis of the components of the phlogiston. We will explore how to block phlogiston in the tailpipe. We’ll use technology to change plant DNA to grow more genetically engineered crops, while at the same time burning more crops as biomass for energy to fuel the high-tech institutes. We will worry about how to bury phlogiston, or to poison the atmosphere to block phlogiston there. We will describe in detail how to tax the smog, or reflect it with giant mirrors. All of this technology will make the rich richer, and use more energy, and create more phlogiston. But we won’t look at how the car causes the phlogiston, and why riding your bike could cut the need for the Institute and its associated war on nature almost immediately. And in the worst case scenario, where we drive the car until it runs out of gas, we’ll have bigger things to worry about than our Institute. At least the phlogiston problem will be solved then.

We have a long history of misunderstandings about gases and how they interact with other processes within ecosystems. Early misunderstandings in the 1600s about the nature of Phlogiston were later corrected by Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen (or dephlogisticated air) while also helping to bring us full circle back to where we started in this essay, which is alcoholic beverages.

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Conclusions: Candles and mice produce injured air, but plants can improve injured air

Priestley lived next to a brewery and one day noticed that the gas given off from the fermenting vats drifted to the ground, implying that it was heavier than air. Moreover, he discovered that it extinguished lighted wood chips. He had discovered carbon dioxide, which he called ‘fixed air’. Devising a method of making the gas at home without brewing beer, he discovered that it produced a pleasant tangy taste when dissolved in water. By this invention of carbonated water, he had become the father of fizzy drinks! In 1772 he discovered the respiration of plants by placing a shoot of a green plant in a sealed container, in which he lit a candle that he left burning until it went out. Later, he discovered, the candle could be lit again.” (

So plants can improve injured air. Who knew? Someone needs to tell those carbon mitigation folks! So which is it–do we mitigate climate by replacing our ecosystems with high emergy solar panels, nuclear power plants, and ocean dead zones, or do we help Mother Earth protect herself by protecting what’s left of our biomes? Could someone please ask the systems ecologists?

Maximum empower and scale

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Bill Roth, A Princess visits Whittier 8-12-12

Attempts to fix our problems with industrial scale technology may impact communities due to the scale of the impacts. The picture of a cruise ship visiting a small fishing port in Alaska called Whittier is a metaphor for this process. Odum would have viewed this cruise ship as a sharp pulse from the larger scale as a pulse adaptation similar to an ecosystem adaptation to flood, fire, or earthquake. Big pulses from industrial scale impacts of pollution and its mitigation may overwhelm relocalization efforts, causing benefits to funnel upwards to the top of the hierarchy, while negative impacts fall on local environmental support systems. Industrial tourism creates damaging effects on communities, requiring adaptation to the large pulses that may not be sustainable once the pulses are removed. A sudden pulse from the larger scale required that Whittier develop methods of drawing benefit and adapting to these weekly pulses. Everyone gears up for activities resulting from the ship’s docking, and businesses come to rely on the pulse. In winter, when cruise ships don’t arrive, Whittier is pretty quiet. Similarly, large commercial enterprises impact bush communities in Alaska when they come in and hire workers at relatively higher wages to extract resources, causing disruption of culture within the communities. Some of our elders call this process Losing Focus. Aiming industrial strength fire hoses of money and influence at small communities is disruptive to traditional local cultures, and small local businesses have difficulty competing against introduction of big box stores. Global industrialization spreads harmful impacts to small communities, creating uncertainties about growing your own food, lack of resilience, and yes, even climate change. Relocalization efforts may need protective policies and laws for locales and small business–instead we are seeing the opposite, with municipal laws geared towards larger businesses and powerful corporate/federal initiatives that boost aid to dangerous experiments.

In the geopiracy experiment by the US businessman, NOAA loaned the businessman 20 buoys for an enterprise that made the gent $2.5 million from a local Haida tribe hopeful for larger salmon runs. Corporate control of powerful governments creates industrial strength tools that can create industrial strength catastrophes, that exacerbate the damage to the environment created by climate change, population overshoot, over-harvesting and other problems. When there are large available flows from outside, the scale of self-organizational processes increases. . . . If a surge of input energy of one kind is added to a system, it creates a bulge in the energy spectrum, causing energy to be propagated upscale and downscale (Odum, 2007, p. 86). How do we protect our local environments from industrial scale activities such as this one, besides a massive education initiative for ecoliteracy, which is sorely needed? In this case, additional insult comes from NOAA, a federal agency whose mission is to protect the oceans and air. Where is the ecoliteracy in this agency, and how come it is helping a businessman profit by dumping in the commons? Our education process is transforming into jingoistc behavior modification complete with stimulus response devices such as galvanic response bracelets, microchipping, and corrupted science to make us into performing monkeys, or perhaps Pavlovian dogs marching to the corporate goose-step.

While the MPP dictates that we will use available energy, we can opt for wisdom instead of waste and use energy wisely to maximize efficiency, helping to adapt infrastructure for a prosperous way down. But that will require awareness and a shift in consciousness. Eventually, the MPP will mandate that we maximize (real) world wealth and emergy by abandoning wasteful high-tech projects that funnel wealth and harm the environment. Wars and revolution will reboot world opinions about equity in resource use. The imbalances that we see cannot and will not last.

Technology is a means of harnessing more power. Technology will be useful in descent as it was in growth to harness more power. We need to assume that because of Maximum Power, we will use every last drop of oil that we can find, as quickly as we can get it out of the ground. But we can use that oil to adapt wisely, as technology in descent will need to emphasize lower gain technologies that maximize efficiency and not waste. The good news is that there is a lot of waste yet to wring out of society as we descend, especially for Americans. We just need to get started, self-organizing from the bottom up on small, local projects for descent.

Postscript: It has been 9 months since I began this website, and I feel as though I have birthed a baby. Relief is in sight; symposia on the Prosperous Way Down at the Ecosummit in Ohio last week were packed, and I have promises for posts on emergy and money and several other topics including overall impressions of the conference. Scientists, please, talk nerdy to us!

Mary Odum

Author Mary Odum is an adjunct nursing professor with a background in critical care, and a PhD in Health Policy.

Tags: complexity, geo-engineering, systems thinking