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Monday, 2 June 2014

*EXCLUSIVE* PWP's Power Ideas Forum: "Of Cycles for Wealth and Humanity"


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By Craig Dilworth

31 May 2014

The work of the systems-ecologist Howard Odum presages the vicious circle principle (VCP) presented in Too Smart for Our Own Good(2009).[*] As presented in Too Smart, the VCP is as follows:

Humankind’s development consists in an accelerating movement from situations of scarcity/need, to technological innovation, to increased resource availability, to increased consumption, to population growth, to resource depletion, to scarcity once again, and so on. (p. 110)

     Applying Odum’s thinking to the VCP’s interpretation of changes in the actual development/evol­ution of humankind suggests that with each technological revolution there has resulted an increase in the usable energy available to our species, which has in turn resulted in population growth and a subsequent demand for increasing quantities of energy. On the VCP this demand has to date generally been met (particularly since the industrial revolution and the near-exponential increase in our burning of fossil fuels), with the result that the vicious circle of humankind’s development has grown in both size and environmental impact.

     A second point of contact between Odum and the VCP – related to the first – is Odum’s emphasis on system-development’s involving pulses. He applies this notion to both living and non-living systems. Among the living are ecosystems, individual human civilizations, and human civilization as a whole. In Too Smart pulsing is emphasized with regard to the human species as a whole, each turn of the circle constituting a pulse.

     The pulses of the populations of non-human species tend to fluctuate about a mean (cf. Too Smart, pp. 21–22), in the case of K-selected species their growth or shrinking depending on both internal and external population checks. But, according to the VCP, in the case of the total human population these pulses have taken the form of the constantly increasing growth of the human enterprize. In each instance of humankind’s developing technology, which has taken us through the javelin, bow-and-arrow, hoe, plow, coal, and oil and natural gas phases, the problems (scarcities) have as a matter of fact in each case led to a of technological development capable of harnessing ever-greateramounts of energy from the environment, and a consequent weakening of human population checks and a growth in the human population. Here we might also note, in keeping with Tainter, that part of the vicious circle consists in the diminishing returns that eventually hit any new technology, leading to the need for its replacement.

     According to Odum, the burst in population growth is inevitable under several ‘laws, principles and rules’ described in his books. As I understand him, these laws etc. are to apply to all living things − if not all physical systems − not just humans. I further understand Odum to be saying that humans only differ from other species in their ability to invent more ways to access more energy, a view essentially in keeping with the operation of the VCP as serving to distinguish humans from other animals. However, Odum never takes up the question, as is treated in Too Smart, of internal population checks that counter his maximum power principle.

     A precondition for the vicious circle’s being able to accelerate is that new technologies have access to sufficient energy resources to be able to reap a greater harvest. Without energy resources the circle cannot turn; and without increasing resources it cannot accelerate, as it has done till now. At the time of the introduction of the javelin, for the vicious circle to turn, the availability of meat (a particular form of energy) had to be greater to the user of the javelin − perhaps together with the lance − than to the user of the lance alone; the energy that could be sucked from the earth – first using horticulture, then agrarian agriculture – had to be greater than what immediately preceded it. And so with coal, oil and natural gas. And, in keeping with Odum, we can say that, at this point in time, these ‘fortuitous’ energy circumstances are about to change.

     This is exceedingly important with regard to the question of ecological equilibrium, and the human species’ avoiding its own demise. Such losses of equilibrium have happened to many civilizations in the past; but in today’s world, such a loss of equilibrium, rather than just entail the collapse of one human society, will entail the collapse of the whole of global industrial civilization, and the Third World with it. However, despite the centrality of systems-thinking to Odum’s work, in Energy, Power and Society and A Prosperous Way Down, he does not bring out the notion of ecological equilibrium (though he may well have been aware of it), and thus its relation to sustainability.

     And the existence of internal population checks, not only amongst humans but other higher animals, suggests that Odum’s maximum power principle does not apply to certain living systems (species), at least in the short term. But it might quite possibly apply to them in the long term. In the short term, a sophisticated non-human species (manifest as a particular populationoptimizes rather than maximizes its use of free energy. But in the long term − through the whole time of the species’ existence − it may be seen as maximizing the species’ (total) use of energy. We may see its doing so, √† la Odum, as being based on the species’ self-organizing ability, as dictated by natural selection. Note however that the species’ energy originates outside the system, in the sun.

     Not only does Odum miss the role of population checks – whether internal or external – when it comes to the pulsing of human and other populations, but he conceptually includes the pulsing phenomenon of populations of species together with that of inanimate systems.

     The main thrust of Odum’s approach to human development, which says essentially that throughout our existence we humans have constantly increased our transformation of energy (in keeping with his maximum power principle), is accepted on the VCP, which accepts virtually all the findings of systems ecology. This includes the idea that power in society is constituted by the rate of flow of free energy (Odum 2007, p. 32). In this regard Odum also suggests, in keeping with Too Smart, that: “In a human society with a free economy, the mechanism of overgrowth is capitalism.” (p. 263). On the VCP, power in society is provided by the control of vital resources. When the availability of these resources grows with the turning of the vicious circle, i.e. when the rate of flow of free energy afforded by some of these resources increases, so does the power of those who control them. Another of Odum’s points that is in keeping with the VCP is that energy in systems of populations can be, and in the case of densely populated social species is, organized into hierarchies (p. 76). Odum links this to systems’ self-organization. For him, energy in the universe is divided into levels, and each level (sub-system) self-organizes to form a hierarchy,which in the case of the human species results in a maximizing of the use of energy (p. 90). According to Odum, and in keeping with the reaction and pioneering principles of Too Smart (p. 47), when a surplus of resources are available to a human population, people engage in an overgrowth frenzy that maximizes the exploitation and transformation (use) of energy, like that of colonizing ecosystems. 

(Odum’s colonizing @ pioneering in Too Smart.)

     It is through the mechanism of Darwinian natural selection that any living system – from cells to species – incapable of such self-organization would cease to exist. This self-organizing is seen in Too Smart to be possible due to living systems’ ability to acquire free energy from without. Relevant to this, Odum at one point says: “Some of the timing for pulsing is supplied by the outside energy sources. The inputs of the sun’s energy and other resources rise and fall each day, in seasons each year, and in multiyear cycles. Naturally, photosynthetic production goes up and down with these outside cadences.” (p. 156; my emphasis). He then goes on to say that a “prey-predator oscillation can serve in ecosystems as a pacemaker ... to provide an appropriate internal pulse.” (The predator-prey relationship is taken up on pp. 28–30 of Too Smart.) But he doesn’t make a clear distinction between the source of energy (e.g. the sun), which lies outside the (eco)system, and the organizing mechanism (e.g. the predator-prey symbiosis), which lies within it, in the present case taking both to function merely to determine the rate of pulsing.

Are You Sure?l     According to the VCP, it is precisely the constantly larger quantities of usable energy made available by each technological advance that have meant that humankind’s energy-pulses have constantly increased in magnitude, where those of other species tend to fluctuate about a mean. From one point of view, you could say that humans’ main difference from other species lies in our ability hitherto to constantly invent new ways to access not only more energy, but increasing quantities of energy.Perhaps most important here is the recognition on the part of both Odum and Too Smart that all this growth, dependent as it is on increases in finite-energy use, will come to an end in the near future, and the party will truly be over.

     According to Odum, self-organization occurs in all systems according to energy laws (p. 32); and for some systems at least, self-organization is transitory (pp. 38, 53). Energy is self-organized into hierarchies (p. 76). (Is this counter-entropic?) Each level in the energy hierarchy self-organizes. Self-organization maximizes empower (p. 90). All ecosystems self-organize (pp. 156, 163). Self-organization involves the recycling of materials (p. 223). Animal behavior is a mechanism for self-organizing (p. 305). The economy is self-organized (p. 332). Microcosms can self-organize (p. 340). And life organizes the biosphere for itself (Gaia; p. 357). But all this leaves one wondering what exactly self-organizing is, and how it is to be conceived in non-Darwinian terms.

     Whether the ability to self-organize should also exist in isolated systems, as Odum believes, seems more problematic due to the role played in all systems by entropy; and this question might be further investigated from a thermodynamic point of view. One might begin by asking how, in detail, Odum’s approach distinguishes between living and non-living systems, and further how it distinguishes between open and closed or isolated systems with regard to pulsing. I note only one place where he takes up the difference between living and non-living systems, and this is in an ecological flow diagram (p. 223), where the only feature distinguishing the two is the addition of an ‘information cycle’ to living systems.

Human skeleton recovered 11 months after Rana Plaza collapse     The energy available for the growth of the human economy and population presently consists mainly of fossil fuels, and the availability of these fuels is reaching or has reached its peak. Once past this peak, shrinking will necessarily set in. As I say in Too Smart, once the resources are gone – or have sufficiently dwindled – there we’ll be sitting with our useless ingenuity (read: ability to develop technology). And as the Odums together say in A Prosperous Way Down, humankind is presently going to be forced to reduce its energy use – and here we should say: whether this results in a prosperous way down or otherwise.


Dilworth, C. (2009) Too Smart for Our Own Good. The Ecological Predicament of HumankindCambridgeCambridge University Press, 2010.
Hall, C. A. S. (2004) The continuing importance of Maximum Power, pp. 107−113 of M. Brown and C. A. S. Hall, The H. T. Odum Primer: An Annotated Introduction to the Publications of Howard Odum, Ecological Modeling 78.
Hall, C. A. S. and K. A. Klitgaard (2012) Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy, Springer.
Odum, H. T. (2007) Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century, NY: Columbia University Press.
Odum, H. T. and E. C. Odum, (2001) A Prosperous Way Down,Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Department of Philosophy
Uppsala University

Many thanks to Sam Hopkins, Charlie Hall and Elliot Campbell for comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Information on Too Smart for Our Own Good may be found at:

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