Three Life Saving Books

SUBHEAD: These books will help making a livable future even as the civilization we have known crumbles around us. Image above: Permaculture garden from "Heroes of the Environment"film series ( By George Mobus on 21 November 2010 in Question Everything - (

In this blog I want to rekindle my theme from an earlier series of posts regarding the future of a sapient society — the village of the future (see: “What is a feasible living situation for future humans?”).

The world is at or near the peak of fossil fuel energy extraction. The modern industrial civilization is run primarily using those fossil fuels. Hydroelectric and nuclear generated electricity run as very distant runners up. Alternatives, like solar and wind, are barely perceptible. Even though their rates of growth had been substantial prior to the impacts of the global recession, the base from which they started was so small that even a 100% year-to-year growth still produces an insubstantial amount of energy from those sources, compared with demand (see: Euan Mearns, “Renewables to the rescue?”).

There are many reasons to believe that the industrial economy based on free market capitalism is coming to an end (c.f. “Peak Energy - Peak Economy” and “The Future of Capitalism - Profits and Growth”). There is, also, evidence that that same economic system has been instrumental in causing the acceleration of resource depletion (not just fossil fuels). It must share responsibility (or blame) with two other major factors that have caused depletion, which is population growth (my essay: “The Hardest Moral Dilemma of All”) and the general lack of wisdom (sapience, c.f. my series of working papers on this subject) in the population. The latter factor shows up in the greed-is-good mentality that supports capitalism today.

My own conclusion is that there is a very high likelihood that global industrial civilization is going to collapse as the flows of fossil fuel-based energy declines, quite likely at an accelerating rate in the decades to come (e.g. see my book review of William Catton's, “Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse”).

If this is true, then we should be asking questions about how will society react to such a collapse, and how will whatever society emerges find ways to survive. It is unfortunately extremely likely that there will be a significant decline in the population. From many different studies on the issue of ecological footprint analysis (space, resource, and energy-based) the general consensus is that there are far too many people on the planet compared to the planet's natural capacity to produce life-support services (such as food). What has made this overpopulation (overshoot) possible is the tremendous power gained from fossil fuels, especially in the last 200 years. The worst-case scenario is an evolutionary bottleneck in which the global population may crash significantly. In that case there will be a tremendously smaller population facing possibly extreme challenges just to survive (e.g. the impacts of climate change on food production).

Are there people wise enough to prepare for this possibility? What would they do to prepare? For one thing I would guess that they would consider the kind of knowledge and skills they will really need to survive and possibly, eventually, thrive in that future world.

The wise, who tend to also be somewhat meek(!), shall inherit the Earth.

What are the Most Fundamental Needs of People?

Human life is not about individuals; it starts with families. And as the fuel-based mechanisms of transportation become increasingly constricted, it is likely that we will once again be looking at extended families vs. the extant nuclear family model that dominates now. Indeed we are already seeing the trend toward increases in extended family units as younger people are not finding meaningful employment and staying with parents further into young adulthood. We are seeing more senior adult (parents/grandparents) care being provide in private homes as those seniors are unable to afford to live in adult care facilities.

What does a family absolutely need? Food, of course. And it has to be nutritious to support the general health of the family members. What happens when the grocery stores can no longer get shipments of processed foods? How will people feed their families?

Clothing is essential in the temperate climates. What happens when the clothing retail stores no longer have clothing to sell. Of course, many families are already strapped for cash to buy clothing so what happens when most people no longer have employment?

Shelter is necessary too. Building and even maintaining a house requires energy. It requires energy for extracting and modifying the natural resources (wood, concrete, etc.), delivering them to the site, labor for construction, and so on. As the energy supplied gets more expensive houses and their maintenance will also get more expensive. The energy needed to keep the interiors of houses warm enough for human activity will become increasingly expensive.

Transportation is currently a crucial part of the developed world's societies. People have to get to their jobs (if they have one). They have to travel to get food from the markets. In the US and Canada suburban sprawl means that people living far from work and services need to drive (usually in single-occupant cars) longer distances to survive. When the gasoline gets above a certain threshold price, many of those people will be unable to afford to even get to work.

And these are just the basics. This does not include the play time, entertainment, aesthetics, etc. that make life more enjoyable. It doesn't dig too deeply into the problems associated with just having these basics available in the first place (my last blog, “The Economy is Energy” dug more deeply).

Systems Science Applied to Meeting Those Needs

Most regular readers know that I am an advocate of systems science as the basis for knowing and understanding the world and how it works. I advocate it as the modern version of liberal studies for providing both a breadth of view and the means to conduct deep critical thinking in all areas of human endeavor.

Systems science, or systems thinking, has been around a long time in various dilute forms. I even claim it is inherent in the way the human brain works (see the sapience series, esp. “Components of Sapience Explained”), even if only weakly. Over the last fifty years or so, systems science has become more formal and, well, systematic. Today there is a coherent body of knowledge that is meta to all of the sciences. That is, systems science is actually applied to all other sciences and has even shown up is some aesthetic fields.

This brings me to the three books that I have found extremely valuable for their perspectives on the application of systems science to the human condition and especially that condition in a possible future. All three, two by one major author, show how systems thinking can be applied to economics and, in particular, to the support of human life in balance with the non-human Ecos in a world where we no longer have the advantages of powerful fossil fuels to drive machines. I think these books represent the kind of knowledge that wise people will heed in making a livable future even as the civilization we have known crumbles around us.

BOOK ONE Howard T. Odum (1924-2002) is considered the father of systems ecology. He had spent his life studying the subsystems of ecological systems, and in particular the flows of energy through those systems. He identified numerous important principles of energy, work, efficiency, cycles, etc. Today, systems ecologists are still finding verification in their field studies of models suggested by Odum's theories. Some of the best advances in understanding ecological systems has come from those theories. Then Odum turned his attention to human social systems as another form of ecology. Indeed he showed how to understand human systems as embedded in and supported by the non-human Ecos, or what we have called the natural ecosystem. One of his many must-read books that summarizes his thinking along these lines is “Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy” (2007, Columbia University Press).

BOOK TWO The second book by Odum, along with his wife, Elisabeth C. Odum, is “A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies” (2001, University Press of Colorado). In this book he and Elisabeth take on the situation regarding social ecology under the conditions of diminishing energy flows. Taking principles from systems ecology involving systems suffering from the decline of energy (e.g. deciduous forests in fall), showing how such systems have adapted or respond to those conditions, they have applied these to the human social system. The Odums argued that if we humans were wise enough to apply these principles through policy decisions to ourselves, we might find similar ways to adapt with much less suffering than is potentially implied by sudden and drastic social collapse.

I'm afraid I do not share the optimism of the Odums', that we humans will, in fact, adopt any of these policies as sociopolitical bodies. I have a much more cynical view of human behavior based on what I think is a general lack of sufficient sapience in the average human brain to be able to understand and act on the situation we put ourselves in. However, I do feel there are a fair number of very sapient individuals in the world who are developing much greater wisdom, especially in a world so full of challenges and lessons to learn. The knowledge of systems ecology and general systems science that Odum has explicated can still be of value to those who are able to grasp it and turn it into actionable ideas for the future.

BOOK THREE Which leads me to the third book I think you should read, “Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability”, by David Holmgren. The ‘culture’ in permaculture is often misunderstood to refer to the growing of food, as some kind of variation on organic gardening. In fact it means culture as in the total culture we adopt to support human life. That is, everything we do to provide for a sustainable but aesthetically pleasing living situation. I began exploring the permaculture concept after think about what that feasible living situation for sapient beings (the village) might look like. After digging into David Holmgren's book I see that permaculture and the feasible situation are along parallel paths.

Indeed, once I recognized the essence of permaculture as developed by David I was inspired to write about a possible plan to solve two problems at once. I proposed the creation of a new Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) devoted to redeeming our depleted agricultural soils up to the standards of permaculture applied to food production. This goes way beyond simply plowing manure and compost into the soils. It requires systems thinking and a lot of science to do the job right.

Permaculture is the application of systems science, and in particular the systems ecology principles that Howard Odum wrote about, to the design and construction of human habitats, meaning not just food, but shelters, clothing and all of the essential necessities (see above). Permaculture is not a regression to how the farms of the 1800s were managed, though some appropriate low-energy technologies developed in that era may be adopted in the future. It fully supports the use of technology at an appropriate scale and complexity in order to make life more than just subsistence living. This is exactly some of the ideas I tried to promote in my series on feasible living (see: “Toward a Better Understanding of a Feasible Living Situation”, which contains links to the other posts in that series).

Having now seen how the concepts and principles of permaculture are the application of systems ecology (and general systems science) to the organization of human society I am more convinced than ever that the wisest among us may yet find ways to find one another and aggregate in locales where their chances of surviving the bottleneck are greatly enhanced. The coming selective forces will favor only those who are prepared. And unlike so many scenarios that people generally argue (when thinking about collapse) involving the survival of the most brutal, or most aggressive, of essentially a devolution of Homo sapiens, I suspect that these forces will favor cooperation rather than competition. A permaculture based on the cooperation among a smaller group of very sapient human beings has the best chances to survive and adapt to whatever climate changes take place (if any living species have such capacity). I have no doubts that there will be brutality as part of the collapse itself. But once the availability of energy declines past a certain point those who rely on technologically sophisticated weapons and modes of transportation to go after the isolated pockets of human resources will be stuck and unprepared to deal with what nature metes out.

My Ideology!

I have trashed the way blind ideologies have destroyed critical thinking and political thought throughout history and the world. So I might be a bit chagrined to admit that I have an ideological stance! I have to believe that knowledge and understanding will trump mindless reactivity. Humans evolved to be knowledge generating machines as well as life experiencing beings. That evolution worked out pretty well until our capacity to generate usable knowledge overtook our capacity to use knowledge wisely.

The link between wisdom and knowledge is understanding. That is individuals and society need to understand the consequences of using knowledge for various purposes, say, of economic importance. That has been sadly lacking. But given that there are potentially some members of our species who carry the mental machinery for both generating new knowledge and understanding that knowledge in context, then it seems to me that evolution hasn't finished with humanity.

Typically, ideologies develop not as scientific theories do, based on evidence and attempts to disprove hypotheses, but based on what ‘feels’ right to an individual. Ideologies grow in strength within the individual mind because of the way confirmation bias works. I have tried to be vigilant in this regard (as the blog claims, I do try to question everything) and not only look for confirmation of a pet theory (i.e. that humanity has a chance to evolve to a more sapient species). But, of course, I am only human! So while I believe that I have amassed evidence without bias I remain open to the possibility that it isn't so.

I welcome reader comments on this. But please make sure you have done your homework before blasting me with your opinions. I have now, over 200 posts in which I have provided the evidence I look at when trying to ask and answer questions about our human condition. Those who want to engage in debate might want to make sure they have examined that evidence and then bring on their own if they think it differs. Thanks to all readers for their considered comments.


1 comment :

Unknown said...

cool, very, very cool! when can u run for president? politics-crap! theyre always gettin in the way, takin their damn time, and gettin fat im 48 yr old i read as much as i can, do my part livin NO PLASTIC, givin my time and sweat to cleanin up and recyl, but really, i mean really, r they ever gonna get it? maui, kauai plastic banned 2011! soon, my home Oahu, 2012 the consumers r gonna end up paying for it", they say. i say, bring it on! ive been paying the high cost of paradise all my life- if its gonna get cleaner for ALL human and animals- and politicians, arent we ALL WINNERS! KOKUA KA AINA....AND grow sOMETHING gREEn!! ALOHA, susann

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