Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2015
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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What is Special about "A Prosperous Way Down"

Thomas Abel

This article was originally published by
Prosperous Way Down, 9 February 2012

"Our civilization can thrive in a future where we live with less."


This is a book review of A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies, by by Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum, University Press of Colorado, 2008.

What does A Prosperous Way Down (PWD) add to the many current discussions of Peak Oil, Transition, and Collapse?  What does it say that is different?  What unique contributions does it make?  And how does it jive with positions of others who are writing under the three topics listed above?

When I raised this question in our PWD workshop I did not honestly know the answer.  I assumed it would take some careful reading and distilling.  But I had forgotten that the Odums attempted to directly answer that question for us in Chapter 1.  I will summarize their answer, but first a general comment.

The ideas in this book are not ‘peak oil’ ideas.  It is not a book about fossil fuel extraction and diminishing returns, though those issues are there.  What immediately sets A Prosperous Way Down apart from other books about peak, transition, or collapse is its big ideas about all systems of nature—about air, sea, and land, about life, about energy, about culture and people.  The Odums’ recommendations for a prosperous descent are one outcome from a general theoretical understanding of all living and non-living systems and processes of the Earth in our Universe.  As the Odums say,

This book is different because its explanations about society come from the general scientific concepts that apply to any system (p.5).

Topics and ideas that give this book a unique basis for explanations:

  • Self-Organization by Trial and Error
  • General Systems Principles to Understand Complexity
  • Explanation Should Be Sought at Larger Scales
  • Shared Information Makes these Times Unique and Gives Hope
  • Emergy for a Quantifiable Measure of Self-Organization and Hierarchy, and for Indices for Policy
  • Systems Diagrams Allow Us to Visualize Complex Systems
  • Mini-Models are the Right Scale for Simulating the Complexity of Human-Ecological Change
  • Ecosystem Succession Analogy

Self-Organization by Trial and Error

Nature organizes itself into patterns and cycles, some fast, some slow, close by, and over great distances.

[T]he global pattern of humanity and nature is a combination of the stormy atmosphere, swirling ocean, slowly cycling Earth, life cycles of living organisms, ecological adaptations, and the complex actions of human society and its economics (p.5).

The Odums begin with the topic of self-organization, which informs us that their view of humanity and nature is dynamic, directional, functional, and self-correcting.  The universe and all systems within are continuously self-organizing—perpetually testing and negotiating within and among themselves.  This includes systems of humans and their culture.

In the language of general science, the system of human society and its environment is self-organizing.  Through the initiatives of millions of people all sorts of things are tried daily.  Those that work are copied by others and become part of the mainstream system of society (p.5).

What ‘works’ is related to the capture and use of energy, defined in the Lotka-Odum principle of maximum empower, next section.  Self-organization, as defined by HT Odum and others, is a directional process, the result of energy and its spontaneous dissipation.  Energy thus animates the universe including all life in the biosphere.  Throughout his long career, HT Odum sought to understand the principles by which energy builds and structures self-organized systems.

General Systems Principles to Understand Complexity

HT Odum’s principles of energy and systems provide a unique basis for explanation of the growth, transition, and coming descent of human societies.  This foundation in energy principles clearly sets the Odums’ book apart from any others.  Part II is dedicated to summarizing these principles that were developed over 40 years and expounded in a number of previous publications.

Theory and research now suggest that many, if not all, of the systems of the planet (and the universe) have common properties, organize in similar ways, have similar oscillations over time, have similar patterns spatially, and operate within universal energy laws.  If so, it is possible to use these principles in advance to select policies that will succeed (p.5).

Systems are similar in structure, oscillation, and spatial organization because they are subject to universal laws of thermodynamics.  With understanding of these underlying principles and the effects they have on ecosystems, people, economies, and culture, it is possible to propose community and national policies that work with nature for a better future.

What are the general systems principles?  I will let the Odums list them, though they are too substantial to summarize.  Part II of the book is devoted to explaining them.

Our general systems principles include concepts of energy and materials, universal energy hierarchy, emergy and transformity, maximum empower, emdollars, cycles, money-emergy relationships, pulsing, spatial convergence and divergence, and population regulation (p.280).

Here I will highlight only one in this list – the maximum-empower principle – for it is the key to understanding self-organization.  When energy gradients exist (as between hot and cold) the concentrated energy will spontaneously dissipate, per the second law of thermodynamics.  Gradient reduction may be diffuse or ‘linear’.  But if gradients are significant, structures may appear that hasten dissipation – the cyclone shape of a tornado, convection cells in the Earth’s mantel, a catalyzed chemical reaction.  According to the Lotka-Odum maximum-empower principle, structure in some appropriate form can maximize the uptake and dissipation of concentrated energy.  Structure is the outcome of self-organization, and in complex, multi-scaled systems, like ecosystems, structure can take many forms (though its pattern is still recognizable in trophic chains, nutrient cycles, etc).  HT Odum rephrases Lotkas’s original principle as follows:

In the self-organization process, systems develop those parts, processes, and relationships that capture the most energy and use it with the best efficiency possible without reducing power [recall, power is the flow of energy, i.e., joules per time] (p.70).

Odum modifies this key concept with his own insights, which are related to an understanding of the multiple-scaled or hierarchical nature of the universe:

In the self-organizational process, systems develop those parts, processes, and relationships that maximize useful empower [empower is the flow of emergy] (p.71).

The concept of emergy, with an ‘m’, will be introduced below.

Again, this book is unique because it is founded on this encompassing theoretical framework, which takes energy and the self-organization related to it as its foundation of explanation.  From that the Odums hope to propose policy that can avoid the typical hardships of trial and error.  Without their advice it is believed that we may come to similar results, but much will be wasted or damaged, including ecosystem and human health, resource storages, community integrity, and social justice.  The worst case scenario, which they know very well is a possibility, is societal collapse in parts or wholes.  Their hope is that with guidelines, with the application of scientific understanding, we can avoid the worst.

[H]umans can use their intelligence and social institutions to avoid some of the wasteful mistakes caused by trial and error, doing a better job at evolving a prosperous world within the constraints of nature (p.5).

Explanation Should Be Sought at Larger Scales

The general systems principles addressed above determine the structuring and dynamics of any system.  I use the loaded term determine because the Odums do.

In this book we recognize the way the important controls on any phenomena come from the next larger scale, determining the main cycles of growth, turndown, catastrophes, and regimes of energy and material to which society must fit.  This is a type of scientific determinism.  The paradox is that most scientists restrict their deterministic beliefs to the realms of their specialties.  When it comes to society and politics, many [scientists] share the public’s view and deny that large-scale principles control phenomena (p.6).

In the emerging sciences of complex systems—climate science, landscape ecology, physical chemistry, resilience, ecosystems ecology, oceanography, meteorology, and others—new theory and methods have been required, and different measures of success are appropriate (see Holling 1998 for discussion).  Causality (from the larger scale of energy and material regimes) is imprecise, or better, multiply-scaled, with many possible manifestations.  You could say that while some sciences seek cause and effect, systems sciences expect cause to be followed by self-organization with its endless (con)testing, negotiating, and adapting simultaneously at each scale of nature-culture.

Systems sciences span disciplines, incorporating knowledge from each, and often applying integrating frameworks, such as the Odums’ energy principles (or Holling’s ‘adaptive cycle’).  The message is that final causality is often found at scales larger than academic disciplinary boundaries.

Some authors try to find causes in short-term, small-scale processes and mechanisms such as: interactions of economic markets, cultural reactions, global capitalism, national policies, atmospheric changes, religious movements, local wars, technological innovations, and so forth.  But the general systems view is that the larger-scale pattern selects what is workable from the trials and errors of the smaller scale.  The regime prevails because it maximizes the performance possible for those conditions (p.6).

General trends may be forecast, with uncertainty of course, from the trajectories of a small number of key variables and principles that structure the small scales from the larger.

Shared Information Makes these Times Unique and Gives Hope

Many authors writing about peak and collapse have looked to the past for understanding of the present.  This is a reasonable and valuable approach.  The many cases of civilization collapse, the Maya, the Romans, the Chinese dynasties, provide some valuable insights.  However, the Odums make the important point that this time the world is a different place.

Some [futurist] authors [analyze] the history of civilizations in search of repeating patterns to explain current times and trends, but our times are unique [1] in the size of the energy resources involved and [2] in the comprehensive power of the global sharing of information (p.280).

With fossil fuels, there have never been such vastly connected global systems.  I have argued that today there are essentially two ‘world-systems’, one centered on China and another centered on the US-EC-Japan, with still some few unconnected peripheries.  One world or two, fossil fuels have provided the energy that connects the whole world.  With that, there has been a new scale of shared information.  For the Odums this provides hope that our world will not follow past societies into collapse.

The new global sharing of information and ideas makes it possible for billions to learn about world pulsing, and to embrace a new faith that coming down is OK (p.6).

The sharing of ideas and beliefs takes energy, and fossil fuels have made wide sharing a reality.  The Odums decry the loss of linguistic and cultural diversity, as we all should, and indeed argue that cultural pluralism will be extremely valuable as we test and select among many possible futures.  But at the same time, it is the Odums’ hope, that certain knowledges can be widely shared, knowledge about our current state of the world, knowledge about energy’s role in the formation of that state, and scientific principles that can help guide us to a prosperous way down.

Emergy for a Quantifiable Measure of Self-Organization and Hierarchy, and for Indices for Policy

The Odums use a form of quantitative measurement that they have developed called emergy accounting.  Emergy stands for ‘energy memory’.

In this book we use a new measure—emergy—to evaluate the main inputs, products, and accomplishments of our world on a common basis.  It is a special measure of the previous work done to make something (p.6).

Emergy accounting facilitates the discovery and measurement of the key systems properties referred to above, such as self-organization and hierarchy.  At the same time, emergy accounting is useful for judging policy options for descent (for a complete treatment of emergy, see Environmental Accounting, HT Odum, 1996).

But is emergy just another ecological economic currency, like exergy, carbon credits, or the ecological footprint?  The use of emergy as a quantitative measure of value carries with it the entire theoretical framework that has been assembled by HT Odum over his career.  This includes his three additional laws of thermodynamics—maximum empower, the hierarchy principle, and the hierarchy of materials (discussed in Part II).  This is a big house of cards and not surprisingly many scientists have reservations.  Emergy researchers continue to struggle for recognition and acceptance.  Time will tell.  Without the use of emergy accounting, systems thinking and principles can still lead to needed solutions to our current world dilemmas.  Part III of the book, with its many recommendations of essential community and national policy for transition and descent, can be understood with only a rudimentary understanding of emergy as ‘energy memory.’  But a fuller understanding of emergy accounting, it is believed, greatly facilitates comprehension of our past and present, and the creation of policy for the future.

Systems Diagrams Allow Us to Visualize Complex Systems

Throughout the book, the Odums use systems diagrams to depict any system.  Diagrams are not only heuristic in value, but by their use they actively force researchers to apply systems principles to any issue.

Although the call for a systems view is widespread, most people discuss the problems and solutions with verbal concepts that don’t give the mind an understanding of connections…But understanding systems requires a language that shows how the connections work (p.7).

A systems diagram of a whale watching establishment located in a rural community of fishermen and farmers.

For example, the requirement for a heat sink in every diagram draws attention to the second energy law and its influence.  The requirement to draw a system boundary forces the researcher to consider what energies and materials from the larger scale are necessary (and determining) for the process of interest.

The Odums list some other advantages of using systems diagrams (p.7):

For human understanding the network first needs to be simplified by aggregating the complexity into the main process and parts that are important.

Getting the system view in mind helps in understanding the way structure is related to function.

You can see parts, wholes, and consequences at the same time, carrying a systems image in memory.

Since basic mini-model configurations apply to different kinds of systems on all scales, a person accumulates ways of transferring understanding to new situations. 

This last point makes the case for both systems diagramming and general systems thinking.  While the universe is a place of great diversity in object, action, and intent, it may be that in terms of energy and its self-organization there are general patterns and processes that can be discovered.  HT Odum committed himself to the discovery of such patterns and principles, and while that work was certainly never completed, he attempted to give us a framework and tools to continue his exploration.  One of those tools was the use of mini-models for simulation, next.

Mini-Models are the Right Scale for Simulating the Complexity of Human-Ecological Change

Professional modelers or climate change scientists, for example, will certainly see the Odums’ mini-models as primitive.  Indeed, HT Odum was one of the early computer simulators of ecological systems and other systems, upon which more ‘sophisticated’ modeling environments were based.

A mini-model example below demonstrates a system with two sources, and its simulation run. In this model, society is supported by two sources of energy, one that is renewable, and the other that is a finite storage (like oil).  As the simulation runs the finite energy storage is consumed and a surge of sociocultural assets are produced, which then contract to a sustainable level as the finite energy storage is depleted.

Two Source Model based on Renewable and Nonrenewable Inputs – A model for our world?

But he has continued to advocate the use of mini-models for a reason (Modeling for all Scales, Odum and Odum, 2000), which is that complex systems are inherently difficult to simulate.  This is due to the fundamental properties of complexity—countless variables, multiple spatial and temporal scales, and others.  Precise, realistic models of complex systems require the modeling of perhaps millions of variables.  One solution is to break a problem into parts, model each separately, and reassemble the solutions to produce a grand solution.

Many—if not most—people trained in science learn about separate parts and relationships, expecting computers to synthesize what the combinations will do (p.7).

But for the Odums this approach often produces a lack of understanding, and understanding is the primary goal of mini-modeling.

[C]arrying a simple mini-model of a system in mind is a different methodology from expecting computer simulation of large complex models to generate something of which the mind understands only a part at a time (p.7). 

Mini-modeling, just as systems diagramming to which it is related, forces the researcher to attempt to identify the primary agents of causality.  These will be perhaps aggregated flows of energy, materials and information.  But importantly, they are the few flows of magnitudes great enough to have a significant effect on the system.  Rather than a realistic, but ultimately incomprehensible result (because with countless variables, causality can never be obvious), mini-model simulation produces a very general graphic result whose causal implications are often crystal clear.

Better policies can result if simple mini-model diagrams are kept at hand to visualize causes (p.7).

Ecosystem Succession Analogy

I changed the order to put this last because it deserves special emphasis. While HT Odum studied thousands of systems and processes in his career, the study of ecosystems and ecosystem succession is one general type of system that he returned to over and over, frequently with his brother who wrote a definitive essay on the subject (E.P. Odum 1969).  Ecosystem succession is a well-studied example of self-organization of a highly complex living and non-living natural system, which provides a fertile analogy for the trajectories of change in human systems.

Forests, lakes, grasslands, coral reefs, sea bottoms, and so forth are ecological systems (ecosystems).  They operate on a smaller, faster scale than civilizations, and humans can more easily see the essence of their complexity in relation to the controlling principles of energy, materials and information (p.6).

Ecosystem succession is given detailed elaboration in Part II, in a section entitled ‘Policies for Each Stage of Growth’ (Pp. 82-87).  As complex systems of living and non-living parts that transform themselves in regular steps from simplicity to complexity, from fast to slow, from the few to the biodiverse, from energy reflecting to energy capturing and using, ecosystem succession provides an invaluable analogy for growth and development of human societies that have acquired some windfall of energy.  In the past this may have resulted when migrating farmers entered new forested land that they could cut for timber and farm the deep soils beneath.  Two centuries ago, the greatest windfall yet harnessed by humanity was fossil fuels, and a new burst of human expansion soon circled the globe.  The pattern of that expansion can be explored with the succession analogy.

Like civilizations, [ecosystems] have growth cycles, periods of weed-like growth, and periods of high complexity and diversity analogous to human pluralistic societies (p.6).

If ecosystem succession is a valuable model for social expansion and complexification then it can be used to understand our recent history, our current predicaments, and it can suggest future policies in times of energy contraction and descent.

Important for our purpose in this book, many ecosystems grow and decline in cycles that are repeating and sustainable…Thus we use ecosystem comparisons for insight into the larger-scale cycles of our own society (p.7).

In fact, the succession analogy provides a great deal of the historical narrative that the Odums construct as they compare, for instance, the weedy growth and sameness of the early years of oil to the expansion of economic specialization and diversity that we experience now as energy intake is peaking.

From the succession model the Odums identify four stages for our current fossil fuel age.  These are (1) Growth, (2) Climax and transition, (3) Descent, and (4) Low-energy restoration (p.83).


For the period of descent the Odums expect that human society and population will contract:

With less energy, systems can only be sustained if diminished.  By one means or another, the developed system has to adapt to coming down.  From the chronicles of history coming down can be gradual or catastrophic (p.85).

The Odums recognized that contraction, sometimes called ‘release’, is a natural part of the cycles of all ecosystems.  No ecosystems remain permanently at climax, but rather all are eventually perturbed by processes large or small, such as fire or insect outbreak.

But again, the Odums’ hope is that descent can occur without catastrophe.  They choose another ecosystem analogy to demonstrate the possibility:

In some other ecosystems such as a temperate forest approaching a winter season, decline is more orderly.  Deciduous trees lose their leaves, animals migrate or hibernate, and consumption is reduced, but the prosperity of nature is not affected in the long run.  The forests are ready to produce more leaves when the seasons change and the available energy increases again.  Storages and information are set aside to facilitate a fast regrowth when resources permit—when spring comes (p.85-86).

The Odums spend six chapters (13-18) on descent, in which they utilize the principles of this analogy to suggest policies for descent.  Again, they know the dangers of contraction, the possibility of rapid descent in parts or whole.  But they choose to offer hopeful ideas, based on years of research into the renewable systems of nature – wetlands, estuaries, agriculture, forestries, mineral cycles, and information.  Top-down or bottom-up, transition and descent can benefit from these ideas.  This is their hope.  If you wish to know more, you’ll have to read the book.


This concludes the Odums’ answer to my question, What is special about A Prosperous Way Down?  Perhaps unlike any other book on peak, transition, descent, and collapse, A PWD incorporates a grand theory of universal organization and dynamics, structured by the directional flow of energy.  Our post-postmodern world perhaps still abhors a scientific theory, and in particular a grand theory or ‘metanarrative’, as some would call it.  So much the worse for them.  Caution is indeed required in considering the value of any scientific model.  But models of general processes are no more prone to the problems identified by the critics of science than are theories of the most reduced of the disciplinary sciences.  In fact, general theory is far less politically stultified than is specific theory, I would argue, because disciplinary science divides and cuts away the connectedness of the real world.  By so doing it separates the social from the physical, the living from the inert.  But are these not all implicated in the current historical trajectories of our societies?  Does it not matter if our borders contain forest or deserts, fisheries or salt lakes, oil or sand, bauxite or clay, populations with 5000 years of shared tradition or 200, stockpiles of nuclear weapons or secondhand sidearms?  What is a science of the social without the living and material world we inhabit.  How can we hope to understand real-world, complex issues like energy use, which so thoroughly crosses every imaginable realm of science, if we are constrained to one?  General theory spans disciplines.  Yes it focuses on variables that are few and aggregated.  But what is the alternative?  What other science dares to ask the questions that we all care about?

Why Other Approaches Miss the Big Picture

I wish to close with one final quote from the Odums.  In it you can see their devotion to science and in particular the science of systems.  In recent years, a growing number of scientists have come to recognize the special features and value of a science of complex systems.  But that realization is not yet widespread.  Most of science is still conducted in relatively narrow disciplinary confines.  But, as just argued, our real world is not so neatly divided.  And a whole is always more than the sum of its parts.  The science of systems offers hope for an understanding of perhaps the most elaborate of systems yet evolved on this Earth, our human-dominated biosphere.  If we are to successfully navigate the coming years of resource scarcity, is it not better to be armed with understanding, however imperfect.

Most people don’t believe that human affairs are determined by scientific principles.  Because [most researchers and others] are embedded in the system of humanity and environment and see so much detail, they don’t realize that the human system in aggregate is following the same laws of energy, materials, and information that apply to all scales of the universe from molecules to the stars (p.279).


Thomas Abel is Asistant Professor of Anthropology at Tzu Chi University, Taiwan. His research program is described in his website on cultural evolution. He can be contacted via email:

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