This is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of ‘Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution‘ by Brian Czech, published by New Society. The Chapter is also available for download. We published Part 1 of this excerpt previously here.
Early human societies, or tribes, involved kinship, a common language, a common faith, some property in common, equity among members (especially within gender), and an economy adapted to and dependent upon a particular ecosystem. Longlasting tribal societies consisted of individuals who valued their tribal identities, including their ancestors and descendents. In other words, they were concerned with the distribution of wealth not only among the living but unto future generations. Far from maximizing consumption, they monitored their use of resources and consciously conserved these resources for future generations.
Of course, not all tribes can be characterized this way, but in many parts of the world tribal institutions evolved to ensure conservation. Such institutions included totems that identified clan members with non-human species, dances that reinforced appreciation of natural resources, land-resting practices and, in almost all tribal cultures, redistributions of wealth ranging in scope and duration from the Chinook potlatch to the Mosaic Year of Jubilee. Tribal cultures that failed to develop the appropriate traits and institutions were not sustainable; they simply didn’t survive.
The point is that both conservation of resources and redistribution of wealth are essential for sustainability — ecologically, economically and ethically. As with the wealthy, there are needy people in all societies as a matter of luck, skill, age, health, inheritance and other factors often beyond their control. The needy perish without some help from society, or else turn to anti-social means of acquiring necessities. In a tribal hunting culture, the needy would have resorted to indiscriminate harvesting practices that endangered future generations of wildlife and plants, such as the killing of pregnant does. In feudal times, the needy often hid along forest paths, begging, poaching, sometimes robbing. Today’s needy tend to congregate, nameless, in big cities where food and shelter are more readily obtained. If there is no assistance, whether it be some form of workfare or pure charity, eventually violence ensues. That’s just common sense, and only an intelligent and fair approach to distributing wealth is stable and sustainable.
So in the long evolution of tribal cultures, institutions for maintaining equity and ceremonies for redistributing wealth were selected for because they were sustainable. That doesn’t mean tribal leaders said, “Let’s select these institutions because they are sustainable.”
It means that tribes which developed those institutions lasted the test of time, while others didn’t. It was natural selection operating at the cultural level.
It should be comforting and encouraging to know that sustainable economies are not an unprecedented condition for Homo sapiens, especially when we consider that we all have tribal ancestry if we search deeply enough into the past. Perhaps it is in us yet to limit consumption for the sake of society, present and future, instead of attempting (in abject futility) to satiate unlimited wants.
Perhaps posterity, the “seventh generation” in more tribal terms, will yet recapture our attention long enough to put the likes of gas-hogging Escalades and McMansions in a new light, a light not nearly so positive as it apparently is today.
Meanwhile, we face a troubling question: “If we were all tribal, and natural selection was for sustainable tribal institutions, whatever happened!?” The answer seems straightforward enough. During the Neolithic Period, or the New Stone Age, beginning in the Middle East around 7,500 bc, tribes learned to grow their own food. Agriculture spread shortly thereafter to parts of Africa, India, China and Europe, while Native American tribes developed their own agricultural techniques. Agriculture and the domestication of animals allowed a degree of separation from nature and independence from the wild animals and plants so important to tribal identity. It wasn’t long before agricultural surplus freed the hands for the division of labor and the development of numerous technologies, occupations and cultural activities such as politics and religion. A sedentary lifestyle supported by agriculture was also conducive to larger families and higher population densities.
Friction among neighboring peoples, often for resources, resulted in the development of organized warfare. Some tribes became oriented more toward raiding than hunting, gathering or farming. Post-tribal societies similarly produced a warrior class and, eventually, national armies and navies. So the world went through its stages of empires, feudalism and monarchies; a dark age here, a renaissance there, periodically punctuated by religious crusades and revolutions. By sword or plowshare, tribal societies were replaced, one by one, often unto several post-tribal stages. For example, Polans, Silesians, and other Polish tribes were subjected to Viking invasions from the north and Mongolian invasions from the east long before there was a state of Poland, which then was invaded by Turks from the south, Germans from the west, and Russians from the east. Yet the Poles retained their homeland, helped early on by sustainable tribal cultures, rooted to the land, with lasting traditions of loyalty and cooperation gradually melding with Roman Catholic ceremony. Hebrew tribes had an even longer, more intense history of persecution.
They retained their faith but lost their homelands and then their right to own land. Eventually, with no lands to co-evolve with, or to farm, hunt on, or gather from, Jewish society naturally became oriented toward commerce. Lending, especially, required almost no land. Christians were not allowed to do it, so Jews occupied, expanded and at times perfected this unique niche in the financial history of the world. Money-lending (a forced occupation) may not jump out as an icon of sustainability, but other tribal traditions do, such as the labor-and-land-resting Sabbath day, the land-and-labor-resting shmita (the Sabbath year), and the leveling of wealth known as Jubilee. These traditions were so sustainable — protecting land and spirit as one — that they lasted centuries after the lands themselves were out of reach.
All five of the world’s major religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity — have sustainable traditions, at least ideally. Hindus revere nature and eschew a materialistic lifestyle. Buddhists follow the middle path, a perfect metaphor for the balance of nature, with humans taking their share while leaving the rest for the other species of the world. Moslems establish “hima,” or nature reserves, to balance their needs with the needs of plants and animals. Jews rest the land and participate in Jubilee. Christians are stewards of nature in the mold of St. Francis of Assisi. An argument could be made that protecting the environment, out of respect for nature and concern for future generations, is the most unifying theme of the major religions. Who among the bona fide faithful would deny its importance?
I’ll never forget the day I was asked to give a talk on steady state economics to religious leaders in the Washington, DC, area. During the discussion that followed, a distinguished and pensive Unitarian minister finally revealed his thoughts by saying, “You know, the steady state economy — that’s the kingdom of God.” He elaborated to some extent on the theological basis for this statement, yet it is easy to sense how perpetual economic growth doesn’t mesh with the ideals of any major religion. Neither does perpetual recession. That leaves the steady state economy as the theologically enlightened alternative.
Perhaps the environmentally ideal aspects of mainstream religion stem primarily from the earthy spiritualism, common sense and dignity of sustainable tribal traditions. But ideals are rarely achieved, and not all tribal traditions lasted beyond the tribes themselves. Many Native American (North and South), Australian and African tribes were obliterated by imperialist European nations, who turned out not to represent ideal versions of Christianity, Islam or other religions. Some of the tribes remain in name, at least, within and among modern nation-states, but only the deepest Amazonian rainforest or the driest Australian outback still have tribal economies rooted intimately in their ecosystems.
Meanwhile an explosive convergence of science and technology, all in the midst of an intellectual “Enlightenment,” led to the Industrial Revolution of 18th-century Europe. In the evolutionary perspective of ecological economics, the very phrase “Industrial Revolution” is telling. A revolution is something that, by definition, has become unhitched from evolution. In a revolution, the pace and magnitude of change are pronounced. Industrialization happened in a flash compared to the long sweep of prehistory, and suddenly most of the world participates in globalizing, mass-marketing, manufacturing and even “service” economies. Many of us have lost our connection to the natural world and wouldn’t know a grouse from a grebe. We have lost the tribal institutions that kept us in touch with the natural resources the grandkids will depend upon.
The challenge now is to develop counterparts to tribal totems, ceremonies, land-resting rules and even distributional schemes that will work in today’s political economies.
Some such counterparts limp along in disguise already. In the United States, for example, the bald eagle has been our nation’s symbol since 1782. The identification of our populace with this majestic bird helps to explain the strong protections afforded to the eagle, dating back to the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. It’s a solid perch in the mostly unsustainable tree of American policy. Certain seasonal events evoke a touch of tribal awareness, too.
Thanksgiving is probably the closest thing in American culture to a tribally rooted celebration in which we ponder and appreciate the plenitude of the land. It is no coincidence that, of all the federal holidays, this one brings us closest to our Native American hosts.
We are thankful to the Native Americans for helping those early, vulnerable colonists. Alongside the Native Americans, we are also thankful to God or Mother Nature for the fruits of the land. It’s true that Thanksgiving has become a lot like an American Christmas — more about celebration than appreciation. The malls are open till midnight and a lot of Americans spend the day shopping for Christmas gifts. The sheer mass of this operation has become unsustainable, but at least an element of wealth redistribution lives on in the act of gift giving.
So now in the 21st century we must stand before the mirror and ask: Which of the following ladies or gentlemen will materialize? A long-evolved, tribally rooted, Homo ecologicus, or the self-interested, utility-maximizing, globe-trotting Homo economicus? Which, we might ask, would also deserve the title of Homo sapiens? Clearly we need sapience in a full-world economy.
Based on the above — our mix of tribal origins and industrial economies — I’d like to think we are Homo ecologicus, variety economicus. We are predisposed, while remaining efficient and adequately self-interested, to distribute wealth in a more sustainable fashion than the raw-boned, sociopathic Homo economicus. We’ve got just enough sapience to be vigilant, to maintain or restore our ecological and ethical fitness, to keep in mind that the unfit go extinct, with or without piles of money.
For purposes of ethical fitness, the distribution of wealth is our primary concern. For purposes of ecological fitness, the bigger issue is scale. The market may do a reasonably good job at allocating resources among competing ends, and is involved to some extent in distributing wealth, but it does nothing whatsoever to prevent the over-allocation of the entire collection of resources or even of a particular resource. Neither does neoclassical economics. In neoclassical economics, it’s unclear if land is even a factor of production (Chapter 4), technological progress perpetually increases economic capacity (Chapter 8) and population growth is required not only for long-term GDP growth, but for long term per capita GDP growth (Chapter 5)!
As with the distribution of wealth, there are tribal antecedents that enlighten our understanding of the scale issue. An oft-cited example is the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, who developed a culture obsessed with the conspicuous display of stone figures called moai. Moai often weighed more than 20 tons, and the desire to move them about the island resulted in a technology of transportation in which copious quantities of coconut palms were used as rollers.
Competition among islanders to display more and bigger moai took precedence over developing institutions for monitoring and conserving the palm, which also happened to be a crucial source of food and fiber. The Rapa Nui neglected other natural resources too, but the coconut palm was the cornerstone of their economic life. Once their island was denuded of coconut palm, disaster ensued.
The economy had become far too big for the remaining resources to support. Cultural decay set in quickly, to the point of cannibalism, until the economy was adjusted to an ecologically supportable level by a not-so-invisible hand of nature.
Anthropology is not an exact science, but it appears that prior to the Industrial Revolution many economies on continents outside Europe had achieved relatively steady states (as in steady state economies), even while others were heading down paths toward Easter Island-like outcomes. For example, several tribes in North America had developed hunting economies in balance with the bison herds roaming the Great Plains, especially before the Spaniards introduced horses. Among these noteworthy tribes were the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Comanche. (The famous Sioux tribes came later to the plains in response to European colonization, moving in from the east and adapting quickly.)
Meanwhile, a more sedentary, Anasazi culture was waxing and waning in the Southwest. In Chaco Canyon (New Mexico), then at Mesa Verde (Colorado), Anasazi economies boomed and then collapsed in the 13th and 14th centuries. Scholars think the demise of these economies was largely a result of over-population and resulting resource shortages, especially of water. Not long afterward a similar fate befell the primary tribal occupants of what is now Arizona, although their wholesale disappearance from the archaeological record is a bit more mysterious. Indeed, the Pima Indians called them the “Hohokam,” or “vanished ones.” In the case of the Anasazi, pockets survived here and there, evolving culturally into the more sustainable Pueblo tribes of today.
Clearly, there was a natural selection for sustainable tribal cultures in North America, and a similar process was underway for millennia over large swathes of the planet that had avoided the Neolithic transformation and its discontents (the proverbial Vandals, Visigoths and Vikings). Rather suddenly and very tragically, in an early episode of “globalization,” the whole process was interrupted by a lethal combination of European “guns, germs, and steel.” Many tribes disappeared, and those that survived lost a great deal of cultural integrity, including in many cases the institutions that had made them sustainable.
We should avoid, of course, a polyannaish perspective on prehistoric life. Even among the tribes that appear sustainable in hindsight, survival wasn’t fun and games, especially for women saddled with heavy domestic workloads. Nor was peace a long-lasting condition, evidently, in regions of tribal interaction. Natural hazards were ever-present and, as many economists have emphasized, the average lifespan was much shorter than today’s.
But we should also avoid the presumptions of economists who are polyannaish in their perspective of current affairs. Yes, of course life spans are longer today, but there is ample evidence that many a tribal life was lived in magnificent, vigorous health, especially in the hunting cultures of North America and Africa. We cannot know how much vigor was lost to humankind when tribal blood stopped coursing through its veins, or how much “disutility” we experience as a result of pollution, noise and the myriad other stresses of a fullworld economy. It would be ludicrous for us to claim the slightest knowledge of comparative health, happiness or general welfare. It is every bit as ludicrous for economists, à la the late Julian Simon, to conjure up such supposed knowledge.
This brings us back to neoclassical economics, which envisions the economy as a circular flow of money. Money flows from households to firms and back again in circular fashion. The circular flow of money is taught in introductory business courses but is roundly ridiculed by ecologists for its failure to reflect more than a measly amount of reality. It certainly makes tribal life look sophisticated.
The ecological critique of neoclassical growth theory begins by noting that the circular flow diagram omits a little detail called the ecosystem. The economy, as Daly pointed out, is but one subsystem functioning within the ecosystem at large. The problem with the circular flow model in neoclassical textbooks is that it fails to even mention the larger system — the ecosystem — within which the money flows. We could even argue that it is the ecosystem from which the money flows (and we will, in the next chapter).
It is true that many economics texts build upon the simplistic circular flow with additional factors and agents. For example, one common diagram incorporates the government as a major money handler, taking taxes from firms and households and doling out salaries to bureaucrats, among other expenditures. Another diagram will show not only the flow of money but also the broad categories of how the money is spent. For example, the diagram will show how firms procure the factors of production from households, while households procure finished goods and services from firms. The factors of production are sometimes referred to as capital, labor and “raw materials.” The phrase “raw materials” — natural resources coming from the land — is about as close as the neoclassical model comes to identifying the ecosystem as relevant to the economy. In a full-world economy, this is not nearly close enough. It’s akin to identifying the engine as merely “relevant” to the automobile.
The neoclassical economist might say, “Of course the economy exists within the ecosystem; it goes without saying.” The problem with this excuse is that, as we saw in the last two chapters, neoclassical economics does indeed overlook and minimize the relevance of land in the production function. The landless production function amounts to the same as overlooking the ecosystem’s role in the circular flow of money. This oversight would not have been so harmful during the classical era when the human economy was like a drop in the ecological bucket, but with bottled water, global warming and a burgeoning list of endangered species, isn’t the oversight radically and recklessly unacceptable? In a full world, it behooves our economists, students and citizens to emphasize rather than trivialize the ecosystem as the foundation, matrix and backdrop for all economies.
Just as a very basic neoclassical textbook may include the simplest circular flow diagram consisting entirely of firms and households and the money circulating among them, a very basic ecological economics textbook may include a diagram with the human economy embedded in a very simple ecosystem. Picture, for example, a brown sphere labeled “human economy” within a green sphere labeled “global ecosystem.” As the brown sphere grows, green space shrinks.
However, even the most basic ecological economics textbook will include one more extremely important component: the sun. The sun is the primary source of the energy required to fuel all economies, including the “economy of nature” and its human counterpart.
Millions of years ago it provided the energy for the photosynthesis of plants that eventually decayed their way into becoming today’s fossil fuels. Photosynthesis continues today, providing us with biomass fuels such as firewood. The sun warms the Earth, too, creating thermal currents and generating wind energy. In the process of evaporation, the sun “picks up” the water from the seas and drops it upstream of dams, thus producing hydroelectric energy. The sun also meets our energy needs more directly via solar panels, and sometimes even more directly, as with greenhouses.
The only other significant sources of constantly flowing energy are the moon and the Earth. The moon generates tidal energy with its gravitational pull, while radioactive decay (primarily) continues to generate heat energy at the Earth’s core. In a sense, we have the sun, moon and Earth feeding us energy. As the sustainability thinker David Holmgren pointed out, this is a curious fact when considered in the context of our tribal roots. It turns out that “Mother Earth, Father Sky, Sister Moon,” are apt metaphors for the nurturing support we receive from the natural world. Yet there is no need to get “New Agey” about it. The religious call of “caring for creation” is probably a more relevant development in the spiritual world for saving posterity from an environmental and economic train-wreck.
Figure 6.2. Mountaintop removal for coal encroaches on one of the few remaining homes in what was the town of Mud, in Lincoln County, West Virginia. Credits: Vivian Stockman and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (ohvec.org)
On the other hand, there is something well worth noting about the relationship of New Age philosophy to neoclassical economic growth theory. While classical philosophers and classical economists recognized limits to economic growth, the current theory of perpetual growth touted by neoclassical economists, corporations and politicians finds its spiritual counterpart in the New Age movement. The irony seems outlandish, given the tag “conservative” attached to the most adamant pro-growthers today, but judge for yourself: New Age spiritualism is a unique combination of technological optimism and a concept we might summarize as “mind over matter,” whereby “natural resources originate from the mind, not from the ground.” New Agers advocate extensive genetic engineering, “astral traveling” and wispy notions of energy transformation that are unabashedly referred to as “magic” or even “alchemy.” The New Age movement constitutes a fantasizing, expansionist philosophy of human destiny in which the limits imposed by nature are transcended through a change in consciousness.
Beautiful dreams are still dreams, no matter how beautiful. Unfortunately, there is no more scientific basis for the New Age vision than there is for the neoclassical theory of perpetual growth. We get a certain amount of energy from the sun’s rays, the moon’s pull and the Earth’s core. Various useful forms of energy are derived from each of these sources. In addition to the aforementioned wind, wave and hydroelectric energy noted above, we have geothermal energy derived from the ventilation of the Earth’s core. Ecological economists refer to these as “renewable” energy because they will flow from the sun, moon and Earth for a very long time.
There are still other, non-renewable sources, and two are significant: fossil fuels and uranium. We will consider these, but first note that they are moot for economic purposes in the absence of sunlight, photosynthesis and the resulting plants required for the existence of all animal and human economies. Fossil fuels and uranium may be used to supplement our energy needs, especially in the manufacturing and services sectors, but they cannot substitute for the solar energy that literally, through photosynthesis, powers the agricultural sector at the foundation of our economy. Energy income from the sun establishes an absolute upper limit to sustainable economic production, an upper limit to gross world product.
Some will argue that we can eventually replace photosynthesis with another process of food production, a process not requiring sunlight but, perhaps, only heat, so that nuclear power may be used instead. Such hog-wild fantasia makes even an ultra-liberal New-Age charlatan look like Charleton Heston (the late, ultraconservative president of the National Rifle Association.) There will be technological developments that increase agricultural efficiency, and probably significant ones yet, but we should not allow our society to be seduced into complacency by the lunatic fringe of technological optimism.
In addition to the sources of energy, we need to understand something of the nature of energy. For this purpose we turn to the branch of physics known as thermodynamics. We encountered the second law of thermodynamics (entropy law) earlier in the chapter; we need only consider the basics a little further to grasp what the laws of thermodynamics mean to economic growth.
Thermodynamics is a branch of physics dealing with the properties and behavior of energy, especially the movement (dynamics) of heat (thermal energy). The first two laws of thermodynamics are the important ones for our purposes. The first, phrased in popular terms, is that energy is neither created nor destroyed. Energy doesn’t disappear and the universe has a fixed amount of it.
Energy can, however, be transformed or converted in numerous ways, many of which are relevant to economic growth. For example, we use wind turbines to convert wind energy to electrical energy. We use furnaces to convert the chemical energy of coal into thermal energy. We use bongo drums to convert the kinetic energy of a moving drumstick into a form of wave energy called “sound.”
The energy transformation process ecological economists emphasize more than neoclassical economists is the process of photosynthesis, by which plants convert electromagnetic energy (light) into chemical energy with the help of a little water and soil. This is the most widespread energy transformation on Earth and supports virtually all life. Economic growth interferes with photosynthesis because it tends to replace plants with pavement (or other less-than-natural features). Not every economic activity precludes photosynthesis, but only the agricultural, silvicultural and pastoral sectors incorporate substantial amounts of photosynthesis directly in the production process. Even in many of these cases, activities like poor ranching practices in arid regions result in a negative net effect on photosynthesis.
There is another sort of energy transformation almost as profound as photosynthesis. It was identified by Albert Einstein: “It followed from the special theory of relativity that mass and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing — a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind. Furthermore, the equation E is equal to mc2, in which energy is put equal to mass, multiplied by the square of the velocity of light, showed that very small amounts of mass may be converted into a very large amount of energy and vice versa.” “Very large,” indeed. For example, there are approximately 30 grams (slightly more than an ounce) of hydrogen atoms in a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of water. Einstein’s formula tells us that converting those 30 grams of hydrogen would yield 2,700,000,000,000,000 joules of energy. This is the amount of energy emitted in the combustion of 270,000 gallons of gasoline!
Because energy and mass are “different manifestations of the same thing,” we can restate the first law of thermodynamics: “Neither matter nor energy are created or destroyed,” although matter may be transformed into energy. Apparently energy may be transformed into mass, too, such as when a high-energy photon passes near an atomic nucleus and is converted into an electron and a positron.
In any event, the first law of thermodynamics puts a cap on the global economy. The economy cannot be larger than what is made possible by the available matter and energy. At first glance this may seem like a highly theoretical point, yet it is an extremely important point, because it refutes the claim that there is no limit to economic growth. The only argument left standing that even resembles the no-limit claim is, “There may be a limit to economic growth, but it is so far off that we need not consider it for purposes of policy and management.” Hopefully, Chapter 1 sufficed to show that the time is now to get serious about the limits to growth. If not, the rest of Part 3 should do it.
There is but one other argument remotely supporting the claim of no limits, and it goes like this: “Of course there is a limit to the production and consumption of goods and services, but there is no limit to the value of those goods and services. Therefore, there is no limit to economic growth after all.” We shall deal with this reddest of red herrings in Chapter 7. For now, a few more observations on Einstein’s discovery are in order. E = mc2 opened a lot of doors, some of hope, some of horror.
Unfortunately, the doors of hope are still largely theoretical, while the doors of horror swung open immediately. If we could pry open the theoretical doors of hope, we would enter a world where the awesome potential of the atom has been harnessed to do our economic bidding and pose little risk to our health. The doors of horror, on the other hand, were blasted open in the New Mexico desert and the hallways led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is no going back, either; only vigilant effort to prevent going further. Nuclear technology may be used in peace and war alike, but we should remember the bomb came first. It wasn’t until the 1950s when peaceful purposes of nuclear fission were developed. The United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are known to have nuclear bombs. Today there are approximately 450 nuclear reactors among 30 nations.
When it comes to E = mc2, the United States can’t seem to pry open the doors of hope and it can’t seem to guard the horrible doorknobs from newcomers such as Iran and Libya. To add to the confusion, no one knows for sure what the United States hopes to accomplish with its nuclear technology. Self-defense? Or GDP growth in an economy that is 85 percent fossil-fueled? Self-defense would help justify the American government seeking out and destroying weapons of mass destruction, even if it seems hypocritical to most of the world. Nuclear-powered GDP growth in a fullworld economy, on the other hand, is actually a threat to national security and international stability.
I came to the subject of energy availability in the 1990s during my PhD research. While conducting a policy analysis of the Endangered Species Act, I was analyzing the causes of species endangerment in the United States, which turned out to be a Who’s Who of the American economy. It struck me that the constant search for more energy to fuel more economic growth would simply lead to more endangered species and less biodiversity. As I suggested in Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, when you’re riding a runaway train you’d be better off running out of fuel, not finding a more plentiful source.
But then, some will say, we could have more powerful brakes, or could more quickly straighten the tracks ahead, if only we had more fuel to power the brakes or fix the tracks. This is akin to saying that, if only the obese had a more plentiful food supply, they could devote the extra calories to studying methods of dieting. Surely all that extra food could be used to lose weight! Do you believe it? Likewise, more energy for economic growth wouldn’t be devoted to applying the brakes. To put it in less metaphorical terms, energy for economic growth, by definition, is used for increasing the production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate.
Howard T. Odum, known as “H. T.,” was a brilliant systems ecologist who passed away in 2002. He gradually focused on the energetic limits to economic growth as his career at the University of Florida progressed. His work on this topic culminated in A Prosperous Way Down, published in 2001. Despite editorial help from Charlie Hall, Odum’s one-time star pupil and a tell-it-like-itis professor at the State University of New York (Syracuse), Prosperous Way Down is esoteric and remains somewhat obscure even among ecological economists. Odum builds his theory around a concept he calls “emergy,” which opens the linguistic door to jargon such as “emcalories,” “emjoules,” and even “emdollars.” The basic concept is quite simple, however. Emergy is defined as the energy “that has to be used up directly and indirectly to make a product or service.” In other words, emergy is the sum of all energy embodied in a good or service. It is sometimes referred to as “energy memory.”
A wooden table’s emergy, for example, is equal not only to the watts of electricity that ran the table saw and lathe used in forming the wooden parts of the table, but also the solar power required to grow the tree that produced the lumber. Plus the solar power required by the ancient life that was eventually fossilized and became fuel for the chainsaw that cut down the tree and the electric plant that ran the sawmill and the shop tools. And the solar power required for growing the amount of food that gave the logger, miller and furniture-maker the calories to do the work required in the production of the table, and so on. Screws, drills and the associated miners who extracted the metals for screws and drills would all be accounted for in a thorough calculation of the wooden table’s emergy.
As with all goods and services, ultimately it is solar energy that accounts for virtually all the energy that went into the production of the wooden table. Therefore, Odum invented the term “solar emcalories” as the common currency of embodied energy. While the sun’s supply of energy may seem practically limitless to the neoclassical economist, Odum’s emergy concept helps to illuminate just how energy-intensive, and limited, today’s industrial economy is. We can’t keep pumping out higher quantities of goods such as tables, Hummers and Metrodomes, or services such as massages, love cruises and Super Bowls using only our annual allowance of solar energy. We have to go to the well — the oil well — again and again, deeper and deeper, burning up the solar energy that drenched the earth those millions of years ago, burning up emergy. What happens when the well runs down, way down? This is precisely what Odum’s “prosperous way down” addresses.
In Chapter 1 we briefly considered the “Olduvai theory” of energy production, the scary scene in which per capita energy production plummets after teetering at the edge of a steep gorge. Odum held out hope that the social and economic adjustments to a world with dwindling oil supplies could occur gradually and gracefully enough to be, in some holistic sense, “prosperous.” This “prosperous way down” would entail a gradual return of self-sufficiency and resourcefulness to the American lifestyle, with similar adjustments required in Europe, Japan and (by now) much of China, plus all of the motor-driven megalopolises of the world. For example, instead of mass markets of groceries shipped from afar, people would tend little gardens and establish little trading cooperatives.
As I write from the midst of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, where millions of people live in apartments, townhouses and condos, and knowing the Atlantic seaboard is increasingly covered by such metropoli, I have serious doubts about Odum’s hopeful scenario. What we can be certain of is this: assuming a prosperous way down is even possible, it is not going to happen as long as nations are hell-bent on economic growth. Hell-bent nations take hand-carts to hell, not prosperous ways down. Virtually by definition, the prosperous way down will require reduced production and consumption of goods and services: less trucking, less packaging, less marketing, etc. In Odum’s terms, this means less emcalories per foodstuff, less emcalories per wooden table, and certainly less emcalories spent on Hummers and NASCAR. Lest that word “spent” go unnoticed, we are talking about less GDP. Odum went so far as to propose a new monetary currency to assist in the ironically named “prosperous” way down: the “emdollar.”
The amount of emdollars paid for a good (or a service) would reflect the amount of solar energy embodied. For example, consider the amount of money paid for two tables, each identical in materials, appearance and utility. The first table is produced using chainsaws, trucks and electric lathes. The second table is produced using handsaws, horses and carving tools. In today’s American dollars, the first table costs less because with fossil fuels not yet burned up by Escalades and NASCAR, chainsaws and trucks are cheap to run. Also, much less labor is required to use such machinery than to use hand saws, horses and carving tools. We may think of this labor as being subsidized by cheap gas.
In emdollars, on the other hand, the hand-sawn, horse-drawn, carved-leg table would cost less. There may be more labor required to build this table, but the calories burned by the sawyer and horsedriver and leg-carver are trumped by the enormous amount of solar energy embodied in the fossil fuels that run the chainsaw, truck and lathe.
Economists should immediately recognize Odum’s proposal as an attempt to advance an “energy theory of value.” Philosophers will point out that such a theory proposes that goods and services have intrinsic, inherent values. Historians will add that ever since Aristotle intrinsic value has been distinguished from “value in exchange,” or the worth of a commodity in terms of its capacity to be exchanged for other commodities.
Meanwhile value in exchange is expressed as “price.” What determines price became a major topic of debate among the classical economists, as we saw in Chapter 3. Adam Smith thought the major determinant of price was utility, Ricardo thought it was labor and Marx thought it was the profit motive of the capitalist. Finally the neoclassical economists, led by Alfred Marshall, developed the theory that prices are determined in a free market by supply and demand at the margin. And for us as consumers, price is an everyday practical concern as we manage our income and budget.
Nevertheless, intrinsic properties do have a major influence on price. Gold, for example, is highly priced not only because of the high demand for it, but because it is rare. The supply is low and the effective supply is much lower yet. If all the gold on Earth consisted of large nuggets sitting on the seashore, its effective supply would be much higher than if the gold were far below the Earth’s surface.
It would cost much less, too, because it would take much less energy to extract. How much do you think an ounce of gold would cost if we had to mine a mile into the Earth to find it? Why would it cost so much? Largely because of the energy it would take to extract it.
The neoclassical scissors of supply and demand don’t quite cut it. It takes energy for the invisible hand to do the cutting. The more energy it takes, the less slicing will be done. The invisible hand wields its scissors along the paths of least resistance, but lots of supplying and demanding takes lots of energy.
In more technical terms, energy requirements are inversely related to supply. The more energy it takes to extract or otherwise produce goods or services, the lower the supply effectively becomes.
If it took no energy to produce goods or services, presumably supplies would be limited only by the amount of materials required to produce the goods and services. Because all goods or services do require energy for their production, however, we see there can be no such thing as an unlimited supply of goods and services.
What are the implications of all this to Odum’s work? The short answer is that Odum was a utopian if he thought the emdollar would be adopted as a medium of exchange in the face of free-market ideology. In a free market, energy requirements do affect prices because they influence effective supplies, but prices are also affected by demand. Emdollars would do a reasonably good job of reflecting supply but not of demand. Therefore, the emdollar would have to be foisted onto the market, past the invisible hand. It could be done if citizens really, really wanted things priced that way.
But when entire states such as Arizona require their high school students to take courses in “free enterprise” rather than ecology, the emdollar won’t make it off page one of Odum’s book.
The long answer, on the other hand, will come out of our struggles to develop the policies required for the grandkids’ security, because Odum’s work provides some of the necessary conceptual groundwork. We may never adopt the emdollar, but we will need to develop other policy tools (for example, higher energy taxes in American dollars) that do help us get the prices right. Odum a rather wise fellow, and perhaps getting the prices right — even if in regular American dollars — is what he intended all along.
But even getting the prices right isn’t going to save the day with economic growth at the crossroads. Proper pricing is a microeconomic approach to a macroeconomic problem. We’re getting there…