Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Concerning Energy Return On Investment (EROI)

Dr. Homer-Dixon presents powerful arguments for the coming energy crisis, arguments with which I agree for the most part, although again I believe the picture he paints is overly pessimistic. He argues that oil provides very high energy return for a modest amount of effort required to extract,harvest, refine and distribute it, while other energy sources provide much lower EROI. He suggests that ethanol production, if it can be tuned to guarantee a positive EROI, may provide a low EROI renewable energy resource that competes, however, with land needed for farming. Coal, especially the new technologies that are somewhat less harmful to the environment, may be useful for a time. Hydrogen provides a high EROI, but is difficult to produce, while solar energy has low power density, and hence cannot be used to support industrial processes that require high energy density.

Overall, he argues that the alternatives will not sustain our current industries, which assume high power density, nor will they support our current concentrated living arrangements, such as found within cities. Essentially, he is saying that we cannot continue to function under our current socio-economic arrangements for much longer.

There we agree. His fear, of course, is that the result will be catastrophic breakdown of social structures. He argues that our societies have little built in "resiliency" against such failures. This is where we disagree. I believe that we, humanity, is engaged in a vast process of developing new ways of functioning within a changing world, and that these new ways of functioning essentially provide the needed resiliency. I suggest that the two processes are matched - on the one hand, the old ways of functioning of the environment is changing in dramatic ways, and on the other, we are changing along with it.

Homer-Dixon draws an analogy with the collapse of ancient Rome, and suggests that we are in a similar situation. I disagree, despite the apparent similarity of contexts. I believe that what is different is that we are operating at the limits of what the planet can sustain, that the world is no bigger than we are. Although the Roman empire was huge, it was still a centrally organized society, and one that operated in a much larger world. We are not in the same situation - there is no place on the planet that is not also part of our dilemma, the paradox we face. I believe that places us in a situation in which no alternative but change is possible, and that we WILL change, as a consequence.

Humanity is in a systems interaction with our environment, to the extent that each determines the other, and both have to change together. The ancient Roman empire had other alternatives, bad ones perhaps, from the perspective of a centrally organized civilization, but alternatives nonetheless. We do not. We're the only game in town. Either we succeed, or we die. And while dying is a possibility, it is not an option.

The way forward must therefore be, that we change the way we do business, the ways in which we live, the ways in which we make things. The energy alternatives we face are inevitable, inescapable. We must reinvent ourselves, in such a way that as a society we can function with low power density and lower EROI energy sources. Already we are moving away from a centrally-oriented society, to one that expects to function more peripherally, more fragmented, less uniformly at the local scale. Social upheaval will occur, but not at levels that exceed our capacity to deal with them.

Although i think there has been a "dearth of ingenuity", rather than a death, I believe that our current (receding) socio-economic arrangements are the source of the problem, and that the newer arrangements coming into being will act to correct the problem.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Upside Of Down, by Thomas Homer-Dixon

Although I have not finished reading The Upside of Down, I must say that while many of the global arguments presented in the book parallel my own arguments, I disagree rather strongly with many of the nuances, details, principles and, especially, the overall tone of the book. I don’t, in general, like doomsday books, even though I recognize that they serve a valid purpose, and even though Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book tries to lift things out of the doldrums to some extent.

Like Homer-Dixon, I am a systems theorist in training. However, my systems theory has been heavily influenced by Buddhist traditions and modern psychoanalysis theory, especially Jungian. Homer-Dixon argues that complex systems are characterized by unpredictable behaviour, and then uses this argument as an almost self-evident proof that we are headed for a system-wide breakdown. He then mitigates the argument by admitting that “good things” can emerge from breakdowns, that renewal is possible… if we do things right. If we make the right choices.

I have many, many problems with this approach. First of all, what does it mean to choose? We are not talking about individuals here, we are talking about societies or large groups of people. Large groups of people don’t “choose” in the same way that individuals do, nor do they act in similar ways. While I recognize the need to use analogies and metaphors to discuss these issues, it is important not to slide unconsciouslessly from one metaphor to another, especially when dealing with issues as important as these. He discusses the emergent behaviours of complex systems on the one hand, but then suggests that our current societies may act as if we were “in control” of our destinies on the other.

This raises issues of control, another area of subtle traps. He indicates that we need to stop being “passengers” and become “drivers”. This argument made sense in the 1980’s and 90’s, when we were still struggling with the issue that we needed to get off our buts as individuals and act in our own lives. Remember, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”? Remember, too, “think globally, act locally”. In the days of our early awareness of systems theory and its importance for our interaction with the environment, there was a need to assert the power of the individual to change things. But now, I believe, I hope, we are at a different level of awareness of systems theory. And we should be wary of any argument that favours “control”.

The issue is not one of a need to “take control over our destiny”, to “choose correctly” in a series of mini-crises which we will face. That is not how complex systems operate, and as Homer-Dixon himself underlines, both as societies and as individuals, we are complex systems.

Instead, we must remember that complex systems contain emergent behaviours that exceed our capacity to understand and know them. This is true about ourselves as individuals and about our communities. This does not mean that these complex systems will exhibit surprising behaviours that may sometimes be “good” for us, and sometimes “bad” for us, as Homer-Dixon suggests. It means that more is going on than meets the eye, that larger forces are in play. We shall never fully understand these forces, but we can delve into them deeper than we have.

I believe that the source for optimism lies in the “self-regenerative” capacity of complex systems, part of their behaviour that escapes our day-to-day awareness. It is easy, too easy, to predict doom and gloom. The tendency, even the need to do so, comes from our individual psyches, especially in a society that suppresses all acknowledgement or open recognition of our shadow selves. But our capacity for regeneration also emerges from our shadow side, both as individual and as society.

The huge blooming of expression of all and sundry through the blogosphere is a part of our emerging capacity for regeneration, and there are many other instances of this occurring around us. While I agree that some form of major crisis is in gestation, for reasons discussed by Homer-Dixon and others in response to his arguments, that is, that crisis is a means of engendering a major shift in behaviour, I do not believe this will be destructive, although it may have destructive elements. But I don’t think whether it happens or not is a matter of “choice” in any simple way. A major change in how we, as humans, function is underway, and this change will itself drive us towards such a crisis.

We are not yet at a point in our evolution where we, as a planetary community, can “choose” our destiny, although we are getting closer to a stage where we will have a greater influence over what happens. The planetary crisis in which we currently live is not a crisis that results from our choices… but rather from the unfolding of our own being through history. The possibility to act only emerges when we acknowledge and accept our unknowable parts… and for our planetary community, these parts may include the ecosystems of the planet as a whole… when all this comes into alignment, then, perhaps, we will be in a position to act, but the word “act” will not mean what it does today.

We are in a time of transformation. There is as much, perhaps much more, that is positive and life-enhancing that is going on as that is negative and life-destroying. I thank Thomas Homer-Dixon for raising issues of importance for our collective understanding – he is one of the few such voices in the world today that dares address these issues in such a global way – but I profoundly disagree with the focus on reductive systems thinking I find in his work.

He mentions personal temperament as one of the limitations of future thinking. I think this understates something very important. The changes in our understanding that are going on involve a reconnection of our understanding of the individual psyche and its desires, needs and organization, with the communal consciousness. Understanding the role of doomsday predictions within this reconnection is part of what needs to occur, to bring ourselves into alignment with our own underpinnings.

There is a need to move beyond fear, and beyond the need for fear. Fear is a survival instinct, but on its own it paralyzes our ability to innovate and change. It is time to develop a discourse for change that is neither fearsome, nor overly optimistic, but rooted in the regenerative nature of human beings and their societies.

Sunday, June 3, 2007


As an addendum to my previous post, I feel it is important to say that while I expect to be critical of other thinkers and writers, I do this out of the utmost respect for their work. Within the larger scheme of things, there is a role for doomsaying.... it's just that I want to see both a more positive, more enabling focus given more space than just doomsday predictions, and also I believe there is a need to be critical of doomsday pronouncements.

I imagine someone will have to develop a similar critique for arguments such as mine, the empowerment, enabling point of view, and I rely on someone to do this ;)

I am expecting to develop postings dealing with some of the "classics" in doomsaying, including Rachel Carson, Paul Erlich and some of the other early environmentalists, as well as more contemporary figures such as Thomas Homer-Dixon, Jane Jacobs, and others. I also expect to enjoy myself at this enterprise... in my professional life, I have spent most of my career building rather than critiquing. This is a new role for me, but one I find, somewhat to my surprise, that I enjoy.

The Argument

This blog is focussed on the task of challenging and critiquing those writers who choose to predict and announce disaster, as well as on and their writings. The primary argument I present against these writings is that they aim to promote change by raising fear, and fear is the least motivating of all our emotions, the least useful as a source of empowerment. Most people stay frozen by their fears, most of their lives. It is not fear that drives us forward, it is desire, and need, and action, and identity, it can be greed, and love, and anger, but almost never, fear!

A second argument against doomsaying is that it is usually an argument that predicts chaos and announced the need to re-establish order. And with order comes orthodoxy, and doctrine, and ways of coralling people to "behave". The doomsayer argument is an argument for increasing control, it is an argument that predicts the ills when control is lost and argues in favor of a re-establishment of control. But the world is not structured in terms of control, but rather in terms of complex interlocking and interacting systems. Any attempt to take control of this structure is not only doomed to failure, it will become the source of the failure of the system as a whole, it is how we have gotten into trouble with the planet in the first place.

However, the systems that make up the world are larger than are the systems that can be controlled, and eventually, compensatory mechanisms come into play, bringing the global system back to a level of functionality. These checks and balances are, ultimately, what prevents the doomsayers from being right. Not that the world and its life forms cannot suffer enormously from unwise activities on the part of humans, but rather that it will eventually find new grounds for re-establishing some form of harmony.

The same can be said of individual human beings - we are larger than our control systems (those under conscious control are, fortunately, only a tiny fraction of the whole system), and we have checks and balances in our own makeup that prevent, most of the time, our own self destruction. And it can be said of human societies. All this does not suggest that disaster is not possible, only that a viewpoint that sees disaster as the result of lack of control is of low utility.

If one understands the way a system operates, especially a very large one that operates at least in part outside of any control networks that can be put into place, one does not seek to change the operation of the system by promoting a doomsday message... instead, one seeks to become cognizant of the different and contradictory parts of the system and their interaction, and one uses this knowledge to change elements of one self and one's interaction with the world, for all changes propagate from such individual actions (see my blog on orthodoxy and paradoxy).