The Prosperous Way Down*
By Howard T. Odum, University of Florida and Elisabeth C. Odum, Santa Fe
Let's start with the premise that resource scarcity and
rising costs cause the global economy to contract. Let's not be concerned here
with the timing, but consider what can be expected and what our adapting
strategies should be to conditions that force descent. There are many new words
being used for this future scenario, such as decession, the opposite of
The expectation of general systems concepts of self
organization for any system is a rhythmic alternation between slow production,
growth and succession followed by a pulse of consumption, descent and
decession. Pulsing on each scale is an accumulating build up of products
converged to centers, followed by descent with sharp, short diverging
Many assume that the only way down is to crash and restart.
But many systems program orderly descent and decession that is followed later
by growth and succession again. For example, in the past, ecosystems and human
cultures in northern latitudes expanded and contracted seasonally. They
decreased populations, stored information, and reduced function with such
mechanisms as spore and seed formation, hibernation, migration, and staging
inactivity and rest.
The following are changes that accompany descent. Either we
adapt with deliberate process or have these changes forced on us with damaging
repercussions. Although we can't predict how societies will react, we can use
quantitative resource evaluations to characterize what is possible. For each of
these changes, some suggestions are made that could make descent less traumatic
and more prosperous. Many of the changes are in progress.
Population and Relocation
Necessary Population Reduction: To sustain a
reasonable standard of living (emergy per person), population has to be reduced
at the same rate as the rate of resource use. Since population growth momentum
may overshoot the time of descent, to sustain the emergy per person requires
rapid decrease in population. Either people reproduce less or be reduced by
starvation and disease like that evident in Africa.
In most developed countries couples are limiting their
families to one or two children. This decision is made by each family on the
basis of the cost of raising and educating children. Multiplied by many
families this decision adds up to a nation-wide reduction in reproduction.
Populations in these developed countries would be decreasing except for
In the underdeveloped world populations are still
increasing. It has been found that the most effective population control in
poorer nations is to give women the rights to property, employment, and the
means to start their own small businesses. Of course, the distribution of birth
control devices is also necessary.
Decrease in Urban Concentration: The extreme
concentration of economic enterprises and people in cities is based on cheap
fossil fuels. Concentrations and populations are many times greater than can be
supported by the surrounding landscape alone. As fuels become less available
and cost more, cities have to diminish, eventually to the size compatible with
their support area. Some industries are already moving to areas where there is
more space, cleaner air and water, and land for workers' housing.
To deal with the changes expected, the governments of cities
and counties need to be combined so that an area and its population centers are
managed and taxed as a single system. Private and public enterprises may
develop that use the abandoned urban structure to reconstruct smaller less
Policy on Fuels
Eliminating Wasteful Consumption without Reducing
Empower: To simply limit resource use, is not a useful policy since it goes
against the maximum empower principle of self organization. But limiting luxury
and wasteful uses, allows resources to go into productive functions and is
adaptive. Thus, measures to limit unnecessary horsepower stimulate the economy,
whereas taxing or limiting useful resource uses is not a viable option.
Declining Dominance of Automobiles: Rising fuel costs
and general pressure for greater economic efficiency is likely to reorganize
the automobile cultures of the developed nations. First there can be reduction
of unnecessary horsepower, followed by reduction of autos. Private cars save
individual time, but other measures can substitute including more use of
communication in place of transportation, people moving closer to work, and
more shopping on line.
Global Greenhouse Climate Changes: There are current
efforts now to reduce greenhouse gases that are changing the climate. Immediate
ways to help without reducing economic activity include reducing private car
horsepower in developed countries and pushing a global effort to reforest the
depleted lands of undeveloped countries. As soon as global fuel consumption
begins to decrease (as its scarcity and costs increase), the earth processes of
carbon-dioxide uptake will start to restore a balance between carbon-dioxide
release from fuel consumption and carbon-dioxide uptake by eutrophic plant
photosynthesis, the carbonate buffer of the ocean, the alkaline soils, and the
weathering of rock.
Environment and Agriculture
Increase of Lower Intensity Agriculture: Rising fuel
costs forces agriculture toward a lower intensity with less technology,
fertilizer, and pesticide and more labor, provided by people leaving the cities
where employment is decreasing. Diverse crop varieties that are more self
sustaining will have to be restored, even though their unit productivity may be
Changed Role of Environment: During the time of
fossil fuel based growth, there was matching use of environmental resources,
water diversion, soil loss in industrial agriculture and stripping of old
growth forests. Overfishing, forest losses, and depleted soils are already
widespread. As the use of fossil fuels decreases, the economy has to shift once
again to a smaller, agrarian base. However, during the transition and turn-down
there could be frantic, competitive stripping of the environmental stocks
needed for maximum production. To prevent collapse, demand on environment has
to be reduced and reorganized during descent.
Soils and forests are renewable, but only with slower
rotations than operated by our present economy. We can let fields go fallow for
seasons, cut and replant forests on renewable cycles, and let swamps build peat
and filter to sustain water quality. These are ways to keep slowly-renewable
Information and Electric Power
Peace and Maximum Empower by Global Sharing of
Information: When essential information is broadly shared on a large scale,
it becomes long-lasting, a unifying mechanism. Information sharing can replace
the restrictive information competition of growth capitalism. Television and
the internet have changed the global organization away from military
territorialism. If global ethics for equitable trade and sharing information
can prevail, global empower and peace can be protected by the information
mutualism that maximizes empower. The dangerous alternative is fragmenting
societies warring for residual resources.
Selected Saving of Civilized Culture: Information
seems ethereal and remote from biological and industrial processes. But because
information requires many energy transformations, there are limits to the
amount sustainable. Information capacity declines with diminishing resources.
Also, information loses utility and retrievability as it accumulates. Like the
brain, society has to select and condense the clutter of short term memory into
fewer items of long term memory. The universities are the main institutions
with this capability.
Priority Use of Hydroelectric Power: To continue the
essentials of the world's civilization requires that global information
networks be sustained. But this requires a priority in allocating electric
power at a time when electric power from fossil and nuclear fuels becomes more
expensive. Strip mining for coal will conflict with the need for agrarian
production of food and fiber. It seems likely that centers of civilization will
reorganize around the foot of mountains with hydroelectric power, thus using
the high net emergy contributions of the earth.
Full development of hydroelectric power reduces the food
potentials of salmon and other migratory fisheries at a time when there may be
overpopulation and shortages of protein foods. One of our watershed evaluations
found greater empower in a river's hydroelectricity than in its salmon runs.
Since the prosperous way down depends on sharing a global information network,
electricity must have high priority. The prosperous way down may well depend on
society's ability to give priority to the greater need for geographic coherence
of the larger scale.
Decrease in Growth Capitalism: When there are
resources to develop, rapid competitive growth of a few enterprises prevails.
In ecosystems this is called eutrophic overgrowth by weeds. In the economy,
this is growth capitalism. Those developments with investment loans outgrow
those without the more rapid start. When there are few undeveloped resources, a
no growth system of higher diversity prevails because it is more efficient and
better at recycling materials. Enterprises with loans to repay are then at
Descent Capitalism: During descent, new versions of
capitalism may appear. Enterprises may be initiated to organize the contraction
of the economy using the stored assets as the resource for organizing a smaller
economy. There are already some specialists at downsizing. In analogous
equivalents in ecosystems, new generations are fueled with the storages of a
previous annual cycle.
Decrease in Unearned Income: During growth, capital
earns high interest as enterprises pay back loans and dividends. People with
money have large incomes for which they did no work for the system. After
growth, unearned income decreases. A system is more efficient if money is paid
for real work.
Change in Development Policies: When unused resources
were available for development, laws developed that maximized competitive
capitalism and growth (because monopolistic overgrowth maximizes empower at
that stage of succession). Examples are sale and use of public lands for
profit; priority rights for mining over surface land use; and corporations
given the same constitutional rights as individuals to exploit economically.
After growth, such development accelerating laws are likely to change.
As efficiency becomes a recognized priority, measures to
eliminate luxury and waste may be recognized in law and policy. One proposal is
to establish a limit to personal income at about $150,000 per year. A policy
suggested for downsizing reduces income of all personnel in place of the common
practice now of reducing the number of employees.
Stock Market Transformation: When most growth is over
and the public realizes the fundamental change, a destructive stock market
crash is possible. Some mechanism is needed to program a gradual,
non-catastrophic deflation of the money held in stocks and bonds. For example,
an economy-wide stepwise limitation of interest and dividend rates could shift
money from stocks and bonds to ownership and efficient operation of those
productive enterprises with good annual yields.
Private Enterprise with Public Control: To maximize
system prosperity, private production must include public benefit needs in its
operation and pricing (not only make the most for the lowest cost to sell for
the highest price). Private business can be required to add the costs of
environmental protection and social equity costs of recycling materials,
restoring land, and replacing destruction. Minimum wages and benefits need to
be included in the costs. These costs are not a burden to an individual company
if required of all competitors.
Developing Trade Equity: Because the money from
developed countries buys more real wealth in trade with more rural countries,
the present free trade is not equitable (because of differences in emergy/money
ratio). It accelerates the weedy over-growth of developed countries, which is
appropriate only in early growth stages. Developing equity (equal emergy in
international exchanges) allows more countries to make maximum contribution to
global empower. Trade treaties can be used to adjust prices, subsidies, foreign
aids, information and other types of exchange to be equal.
Structure and Materials
Replacing Flimsy Housing with Fewer Buildings of
Quality: In ecological succession where there are unused resources
available, the initial structures are flimsy and temporary but effective at
maximizing growth. Later they are replaced by larger, substantial, longer
lasting, slow turnover assets. A similar evolution of buildings is expected and
can be planned. Trailers and frame buildings with short life times will be
replaced by those with substantial permanent structure and less maintenance
cost, a process that is more advanced in Europe. As soon as populations
decrease, there will be excess building space which can be converted into
fewer, more permanent structures,
Reuse, Recycle of Materials, and Recycle to
Ecosystems: Efficient, maximum production requires that everything be
reused or recycled (not accumulating in dumps). The kind of recycle of
materials depends on the concentration and quality (transformity). The free
market can deal with high quality and concentration, but the ecosystems are
required for the low concentrations. To encourage conservation and reuse of
materials, some manufacturers are being required to take back the materials
they used in the packaging of their products. This plan saves materials and
reduces waste dumps.
Communication Replacing Transportation: We can save
the resources and costs of transportation by using more email, phone mail and
fax in place of personal trips and standard mail. More jobs can be done on
computers at home. These too have extensive energy requirements, but less than
transportation with automobiles.
Minimum Standard of Living: Systems principles
suggest there is a natural hierarchy in the distribution of wealth that is
functional. However, there is a minimum basic standard of food, shelter,
education, health care and other necessities for each person to be productive.
Women, Children, and Work: During descent fewer
children are needed but more people will be required to do the work that is
less aided by the more expensive fossil fuels. Women can have fewer children
and more education for longer careers of productive employment. Societies
making these changes promptly will prevail because of their greater efficiency.
Flexibility Regarding Sex: The powerful sex drives of
the human species are genetically inherited and thus not easily changed.
However sex can be decoupled from reproduction and used more for satisfying the
emotional needs for close personal relationships. The rigid mores channeling
sex into children are already being replaced with attitudes and laws that allow
flexibility in sexual relationships and programs of birth control.
Education for the Future: To prepare children for
their lower energy future, we must describe and explain it to them. They need
to know why it's happening and how they can fit into it. A course on how to see
the world as a functioning system should be required. They will need to know
how to manipulate information and computers. But, they will also need
experiences in practical living, like how to grow edible food, how to repair
rather than throw-away, and how to make housing more permanent.
Family Values: Some values and lifestyles have to
change with the need for fewer children, decreased family resources, and fewer
cars. Children continue to need stable family relationships. Communities can
reorganize around smaller neighborhood schools. The ethics of large scale unity
needs to be added to the small scale ethics of traditional religions.
Local Societies and Pluralism: With less
transportation there is opportunity for more social organization locally and
cultural diversification as viewed globally. Developing more separate local
cultures is not incompatible with global coherence providing all groups retain
the ethic of global awareness, cooperation, and mutual respect.
Principles that appear to govern all systems including human
societies were used to consider the time of economic descent ahead. These
include the energy laws, the maximum empower principle, the universal energy
hierarchy, the conservation and hierarchical distribution of materials, the
spatial organization of centers, and the pulsing paradigm. We expect much of
the culture and public policy appropriate for the growth period to be replaced
with a new set of ethics and policies affecting each scale of time and space
during descent. Decisive changes in attitudes and practices can divert a
destructive collapse, leading instead to a prosperous way down.
*Presentation at the International Workshop on Advances in
Energy Studies, Porto Venere Italy, May 2000; extracts from a book in press,
"The Prosperous Way Down". The University Press of Colorado, Boulder, Colo. ;