Integral Energy: Uniting Mulitple Perspectives on our Thermodynamic World

Obviously the title of this discussion is a playful plagiarism of the book on Integral Ecology by Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman. I do believe that the subject of gross physical energy has been woefully under-discussed in the integral community.

A great place to begin is a recent essay by Richard Heinberg that has been received to high acclaim over on the website, which is operated by the Post Carbon Institute, for which Heinberg is a senior analyst. Heinberg has been writing about energy for 12 years, and is the author of books such as Cloning the Buddha: The Moral Impact of Biotechnology; The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies; Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World; Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines; Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis; The End of Growth: Adapting to our New Economic Reality.

In his latest essay, Our Renewable Future, Heinberg demonstrates that he is what I would call an energy realist. He does not demonize the fossil fuel industry, but he clearly lays out the formidable challenges we face as the climate crisis worsens and as easy access to these fuels continues to recede.  Nor does he communicate as would a lobbyist for the renewable energy industry, hyping the benefits and downplaying the problems in this field.

Instead, Heinberg approaches the problems from multiple perspectives and honestly conveys his own biases, and encourages us to broaden our thinking:

I consider myself a renewable energy advocate: after all, I work for an organization called Post Carbon Institute. I have no interest in discouraging the energy transition—quite the contrary. But I’ve concluded that many of us, like Koningstein and Fork, have been asking the wrong questions of renewables. We’ve been demanding that they continue to power a growth-based consumer economy that is inherently unsustainable for a variety of reasons (the most obvious one being that we live on a small planet with finite resources). The fact that renewables can’t do that shouldn't actually be surprising.

What are the right questions? The first, already noted, is: What kind of society can up-to-date renewable energy sources power? The second, which is just as important: How do we go about becoming that sort of society?

As we’ll see, once we begin to frame the picture this way, it turns out to be anything but bleak.

I believe this to be an extremely important essay, and the embedded links provide even more depth, providing a great resource for essential 21st century energy literacy.

- David

Our Renewable Future

Or, What I’ve Learned in 12 Years Writing about Energy

(7000 words, about 25 minutes reading time)

Folks who pay attention to energy and climate issues are regularly treated to two competing depictions of society’s energy options.* On one hand, the fossil fuel industry claims that its products deliver unique economic benefits, and that giving up coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources like solar and wind will entail sacrifice and suffering (this gives a flavor of their argument). Saving the climate may not be worth the trouble, they say, unless we can find affordable ways to capture and sequester carbon as we continue burning fossil fuels.

On the other hand, at least some renewable energy proponents tell us there is plenty of wind and sun, the fuel is free, and the only thing standing between us and a climate-protected world of plentiful, sustainable, “green” energy, jobs, and economic growth is the political clout of the coal, oil, and gas industries (here is a taste of that line of thought).

Which message is right? Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts.

If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, “How we use energy is as important as how we get it.”...

Read the full essay here.

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That's one hell of a discussion going on over there on that post at Resilience David! It reminds me of my younger days when I had the audacity to withstand -40 degree temps out in the woods ; so cold it froze chickens, although my homemade moccasins held up to the task. Alas, though, I've gotten old, and I imagine, after much talk on the issue with my current partner, that we will opt for the suicide solution if and when it all goes to pieces. Something I don't hope for but which may be inevitable. One of the posters over there brought it up in the context of what happened over in Russia during the worst of some times; people choose to check out. I've long gotten over my fear of dying and there is not a lot of retro-romantic left in me. But pragmatically, I will built a tiny house in the coming few years and carry on with my low maintenance life style which I've been remarkable consistent in keeping over the last 30 years. 

A couple of points: 

-his addendum on the nuclear is certainly a wild card that may need more attention than he gave it in his article. 

-I doubt the 1% are as blind to this issue as some make out. I'd be shocked if they didn't have full contingency protocols in place in the event of worst case trajectories. 


Yes, the discussion over there is pretty wide ranging, including the discussion of "it all going to pieces." In that scenario, it's good to keep the Shinzen Young/Josu Sasaki Roshi question in mind: "So, what are you gonna do when the earthquake comes?" in the discussion on Impermanence, from The Science of Enlightenment series. 

The tiny house is a good choice.  In Heinberg's article, he brings up the controversy on how expensive and difficult it will be to handle the intermittency problem with renewable energy, citing Ted Trainer on one end of the spectrum who's overall position on energy is summed up thusly:

"The general “limits to growth” analysis of the global predicament identifies energy as only one of several accelerating problems that are insoluble unless the fundamental commitments of such societies to affluent “living standards” and economic growth are abandoned. A radically different “Simpler Way” could be viable and attractive. This vision embraces frugal lifestyles, small and highly self-sufficient local economies, and participatory and cooperative ways in an overall economy that is not driven by growth or market forces."

- from "A Critique of Jacobson and Delucchi's Proposals for a World Renewab..." by Ted Trainer

I'm reminded of Rifkin on thermodynamics from The Third Industrial Revolution, commented upon here:

He also explored the context in which Adam Smith proposed an economy. Smith looked to Newton for guiding principles and the latter’s three laws became the template.  The market, once set in motion, operated on the same principles of motion. Though instead of God being Newton’s prime mover it was for Smith enlightened self-interest, with supply and demand making the necessary adjustments. However the laws of economic motion gives us limited data and doesn’t take into account time and irreversibility. Both Newtonian math and Smith’s economics are completely reversible and both lack the insights of thermodynamic laws. We’ve seen this same scenario play out with quantum mechanics itself, with the earlier versions also not taking into account thermodynamics and irreversibility (193-95). All of which is due to the modernist paradigm and the assumptions inherent to it.

Yes, exactly. That was my favorite part of that Rifkin book, and I xeroxed a number of pages from the "Retiring Adam Smith" chapter for future reference before returning the book to the library (p. 194-211).

Regarding irreversibility, Rifkin writes:
"The question that comes immediately to mind is "Why can't all of the dispersed energy be recycled?" Some of it can, but it would require using additional energy in the recycling process. That energy, when harnessed, increases the overall entropy." (p. 196)

Rifkin then explains that thermodynamics systems can be either open (exchanging both energy and matter with it's environment; or closed (exchanging only energy, but not matter with its environment), or isolated (exchanging neither energy nor matter with its environment).

The earth is functionally a closed system, in that it takes in energy from the sun, but virtually no matter (aside from the occasional meteorite). 

Our current economy, however, operates as an open system, and as if the earth is also an open system. This is a problem.  We can convert matter to energy, but we do not have effective means of converting energy back to matter - hence the irreversibility problem.

At a later point I will bring economist Peter Pogany into this discussion. He argued that it would be useful (if not literally accurate) to consider the world, for all intents and purposes an isolated system ("From the perspective of its evolutionary potential, the world is indeed Under the Dome.")

In terms of multiple perspectives, Heinberg's book "The Party's Over" (2003) is a nice book to read in parallel to Rifkin's "The Hydrogen Economy" (2002), and his book "The End of Growth" (2011) is good beside "The Third Industrial Revolution" (2011)   Heinberg had some interesting (mixed) comments about Rifkin in his book "Powerdown" (2004), which might be a book to read alongside "The Zero Marginal Cost Society" (2014).

Let me take a shot at distilling what you guys are saying:) Correct me where I am wrong please. The dominant economic paradigm today (neoliberal capitalism ) has reached the end of it useful function when you line it up with what we now know about reality thus far in the right quadrants.  That this roughly 1850 view of seeing the world that was right and correct for its time is no longer sustainable based on all the new data. And just as the church had to concede some of its mythologies the new apostles of Ka$h will have to concede their myths or suffer some serious consequences for distorting reality. That people like Habermas intuited the limits of the rational stage and posited a way forward. What was right and necessary for its time with a population of ! billion will lead to certain disaster if the way we trade goods and services is not radically altered. Is that close? If it is, then my question is how do we make this move when a dialectic has been set up that says one is being a marxist or left wing socialist, etc., when one posits these new realities. Now to me, that gambit should have been played out by now but it is always useful card to play when one controls the stings of global policy. Of course, not every religion came to terms with its mythological core and Islam today is easily exploited by these same string pullers ( or at least this is one aspect of why Islam has become a focal point of contention). This seems to be the soft science explanation for current events with the hard science still needing to solve sustainable energy. 

Oh, by the way, one of the funniest things I've read in a while over at the resilience blog was when one of the post collapse folks cautioned about allowing anyone into your camp if such a person believes in pixies and such! LOL Oh, the horror! The distortions that will corrupt our rationalism :)


Yeah, that's pretty close. I wouldn't use the word "neoliberal" to describe capitalism in its entire history, but rather use that term to describe it's late, deficient phase.

Here I'll attempt to outline Peter Pogany's analysis. He calls classical capitalism Global System 1, stemming from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations in 1776 to the beginning of WWI in 1914. “Laissez faire/metal money/zero multilateralism” – a free market system with little if any regulation, based on the gold standard, and zero collaboration between different nation-states.  

"An ideological conviction took root that blossomed into the following general view: Scientific progress and the magic power of the market are destined to make man (the subject) the master of nature (the object). The free market credo effectively locked the repertoire of socioeconomic behavior into the narrow closet of calculative, money-metric self-interest and turned the past into the prehistory of a rationally assessable, eternally valid, equilibrium-centric order."

Much like the idea of the earth itself as a self-organizing system (Lovelock and Margulis’ “Gaia hypothesis), Pogany sees the development at this time of world socio-economic systems that come to be self-organizing, hence "GS1").  What did it take for GS1 to emerge? A chaotic transition, otherwise known as the French revolution.

Much success ensued. The free market was right for its time and improvement compared to what came before. By the early 20th century, however, GS1 came into what would in Gebserian terms be called its "deficient" stage. Every stage concludes with a deficient stage, and we do not see smooth transitions that evolve to the next stage. For this reason Gebser did not like the term "evolution," but rather spoke of mutation. Each period of mutation was accomplished by breakdown and crisis before the new system would emerge. GS1 lasted until the outbreak of WWI in 1914 (Pogany, 2009).

 And so we see the chaotic transition of 1914 to 1945, between which were experienced two world wars and the great depression.

Emerging from that crisis was what Pogany called GS2 – Global System 2, where Roosevelt's New Deal and the Keynesian economic model was predominant. Pogany characterizes GS2 as "mixed economy/minimum bank reserve money/weak multilateralism." Until the fall of the communist governments in the 1980s, socialism remained an unsuccessful alternative to GS2. Both GS1 (unfettered market capitalism) and socialism influenced GS2, as it navigated its way between these two polarities.

GS2 performed very admirably for about 60 years, and an improvement on what came before. Some of the signs of deficiency, however, have been around a long time now, evident at least since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the Meadows, et al Limits to Growth books, and the first American oil crisis. Real deficiency came with policies that were put in place with Reagan and Thatcher (a regressive move reaching back to the ideas of GS1).  And the global crisis of mutation/transition began with 9/11 and marked again with the collapsing economies of 2008.

Andrew, you then ask, "how do we make this move when a dialectic has been set up that says one is being a marxist or left wing socialist, etc., when one posits these new realities?"

This is the same question Pogany asks: "What will it take to go from the current hostile disgust with the dystopia of tightened modes of multilateral governance to people around the world on their knees begging for a planetary guild? It will take nothing less than a mutation in consciousness, as outlined in the oeuvre of Jean Gebser (1905-1973).” (quoted from his 2013 paper on Thermodynamic Isolation and the New World Order).

And that mutation in consciousness, he believes, will only take place after a chaotic transition - likely more chaotic than the great depression and two world wars. "The current world order," he said, "cannot deliver long-term sustainability on a planetary scale. By design, it is incapable of recognizing humanity’s thermodynamic reality." The new world order, GS3, will likely be characterized as "two-level economy/maximum bank reserve money/strong multilateralism." Micro-activities would be subject to globally-determined and nationally allocated macro-constraints; money creation would be curbed and disciplined." [Perhaps parallel to Rifkin's 3rd revolution, or Morin's dictum that "we must globalize and deglobalize."] 

Thus "The grand and painful path of consciousness emergence" (Gebser's EPO, p. 542).

andrew said:

Let me take a shot at distilling what you guys are saying:) Correct me where I am wrong please. The dominant economic paradigm today (neoliberal capitalism ) has reached the end of it useful function when you line it up with what we now know about reality thus far in the right quadrants... 

Hi David, yes, I agree, neoliberalism in its present incarnation is of the latter variety premised on The Chicago School theories of Friedman et al. Wilber's orange, even if Wilber is dismissive of the mean aspects of that view ( not that he is but he seems to downplay the consequences , IMO) . Also, in my view, neoliberalism economically, has blurred the left/right dichotomy in that both ideologies participate in economy in the same way. What I see is that the conservatives still maintain mythic views of god ( not that god doesn't exist) and they hold pre-conventional/conventional moral stances. A word on the French Revolution here since you mentioned it: I am of the persuasion that the French went too far in their dismissal of god and religion in that they became hostile to all forms of religion and god; I much prefer the English direction that maintained a space for religion and god framed within the goalposts of reason and logic ( as far as they take us). This error in judgment is very much in play today. Towards that end I see Liberal theology being a possible bridge or olive branch to neoconservatives: Liberals could concede rational theism while neoconservatives could grow up into mature perspectives on god that dispel ethnicity; privileged access; pre-conventional morality, etc. 

Here is a good article on the disintegration of green in Europe:

It will be interesting to see if Integral can keep Humpty Dumpty together. 

On the apostles of the fossils: How can they still earn a living while not releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere? How  can they sell their product where it doesn't do irreversible damage? How do we loosen the hegemonic grip of the PC cartels on world geopolitics ? Coincidentally, there have been many interesting events since half a million people marched against climate change. Many of these events look to pit various groups against each other.

I posted this graphic over on the Ken on Supermind thread, borrowed from Dave Pollard's How To Save the World blog:

Some of the discussion about it seems to be moving away from the topic on that thread, so I thought I'd move it over here:

Reply by Ambo Suno:
Hi David - I think that this illustration is poignant, interesting, and it puts a smile on my face as often happens with rather comprehensive pluralistic renderings. In this case there is a little bit of integration as well.

The accompanying article is also appreciated, particularly his acknowledgment of his context-dependent resonance with difference views.

At a glance, the website looks interesting. Thx.

My Response:

Ambo, thanks. I've been following Dave Pollard's blog off and on for a number of years now, and had the pleasure of meeting him last year when mutual friends Janaia and Robyn of Peak Moment TV did an interview with him and Tree Bressen in my front yard. 

Seems fairly accurate. Kennilingus, both the man and the model, are seen as the savior from the most evolved level on the planet. However salvation is offered on a personal basis to only those who kowtow to the system and achieve certain states (disguised as elevated stages beyond relative measurement). That is all that is offered on a social basis as well via paid seminars, a model and some states, since consciousness per se is the Reality and the only thing worth working on. By edict any other form of social activism is green and ineffective from a lower order of consciousness. So yes, "God will save us" in our little in-group and the rest can go to hell where they belong.

I'd say Rifkin's Integral Commons is in the transition group, realistic about the dangers and possible collapse, yet willing to do something about it in actual terms of not just personal but socio-economically ecological action. And to hell with being called green or other derogatory names by the effete and narcissistic elites.

PS: There is also an element of Technotopian in Rifkin as well, but it's not tech per se that prepares us; it's the shift in consciousness brought about by the necessary but not sufficient techno-economic base. The latter is necessary for this shift, as well as providing the base conditions of communication and energy needed to unite us in a global commons. But as he notes, that infrastructure can be and is being abused by the capitalist meme, so we also need the shift in consciousness to use that tech appropriately. Though without the tech it's questionable whether we can achieve the global commons. Regressing back to an earlier meme is not the answer either, nor is tech per se the problem.

My Response:

theurj, I'm not that extreme in the characterization of Integral, but do see some of the same dangers, esp. in the context of Ken and Supermind, and the discussion around that in the other thread.  

I think your characterization of Rifkin is about right, straddling Transition/Resilience and Technoutopian.

I put my own center of gravity/orienting generalization most strongly in the Transition category (I was a co-founder of Transition Whatcom and am still heavily engaged). I tend to react against technoutopians (because it seems that most greens fall into this category, and I want them to consider different perspectives), and against Deep Green Activists (because I see dangers inherent in destructive activism, which could turn the majority of the population against environmentalism of any kind). Other than that, I can resonate along the continuum between E (Integrals) and J (Existentialist/Dark Mountaineers). The more time that passes, and the stronger climate change news that comes along, the more likely the collapse oriented scenarios.

I would question your last two sentences. I don't believe higher tech is necessary to achieve the global commons, and I don't believe those like myself who question it are necessarily doing a regressive move.

This week John Michael Greer addresses this question, as he proposes that the only way forward is to take steps backward - embracing a 1950s level of technology, and then if necessary, continuing to move backward technologically as necessary.  Just as we agree it is not wise to put all of our eggs into the one integral basket represented by Ken Wilber's ideology, I believe we also need to widen our sustainability perspectives beyond those of Jeremy Rifkin.  I also don't buy everything that Greer says, but do appreciate his take and his perspective as valuable.  Here's how he ends this week's article on The One Way Forward:

Does that last option seem unbearably depressing? Compare it to another very likely scenario—what will happen if the world’s industrial societies gamble their survival on a great leap forward to some unproven energy source, which doesn’t live up to its billing, and leaves billions of people twisting in the wind without any working technological infrastructure at all—and you may find that it has its good points. If you’ve driven down a dead end alley and are sitting there with the front grill hard against a brick wall, it bears remembering, shouting “We can’t go back!” isn’t exactly a useful habit. In such a situation—and I’d like to suggest that that’s a fair metaphor for the situation we’re in right now—going back, retracing the route as far back as necessary, is the one way forward.

Here is a link to the top wealth earners in the world; overwhelmingly petrochemical :

The magnitude of their reach answers my previous question. Too big to downsize. It's arguably true that all nation states have had to capitulate to the whims of this group; the method of control being neoliberal policy which puts all decision making into their hands. 

On a somewhat related topic this week: research into the brains of psychopaths! It may not have been humanities best move to allow this demographic to steer events on this planet! ( see the doc. The Corporation, etc).


Interestingly, two of the top three, and 4 of the top ten are state owned energy companies. Also, this list is based on revenue rather than profit.

In point of fact, many of the fossil fuel energy companies are now struggling financially. Because we are past the peak of easy energy - which means we've already harvested the majority of the low hanging fruit that is easy to get, costs less to get, and has the greatest energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). The remaining resources (such as tar sands, offshore oil, shale oil) are not nearly as profitable.  Add to this situation that the world economy cannot afford the more expensive energy, resulting in recession, which results in less consumption, which results in lower prices as the more expensive to get oil gluts the market.  I wrote about this almost a year ago last March: Oil Company Woes: This is what Energy Depletion Looks Like, and An Energy Renaissance?

More recently, with oil selling at $44/barrel on Thursday before "surging" to $48 on Friday, the situation is becoming more pronounced. The Wall St. Journal lately is riddled with articles like "Falling Oil Prices Spread Pain Across the Oil Patch," "Chevron Earnings Hit New Low," "ConocoPhillips Records Loss, to Further Slash Capital Budget," and one that's not behind a paywall: "Price Impact Ripples Through Oil Patch."  This kind of economic whipsaw effect of rising and falling oil prices is what some peak oil theorists expected as a possible scenario that we are now experiencing.

Hi David, I appreciate your scholarly adherence to detail and find your attitude towards generalized laypersons refreshing :) It's true that the wests neoliberal's have not succeeded in privatizing the whole globe as of yet. But, I don't think there is a place they haven't tried to colonize. It appears at this time, that Vlad and Xi want much more say about how financial/petrochemical hegemony plays out. My grim prediction is that this new stand-off may lead to WWW3, but I certainly could be wrong there. 

On the mental condition of those who run these massive industries whether state or private: from all the info I have Gazprom and such have devastated ecosystems in their countries in the same way that B.P. et al devastate ecosystems in neoliberal run countries. In all instances the denial, lack of empathy , utter ecological and personal damage is dismissed; and business as usual must be maintained . By definition, this is psychopathic behaviour. 

One does wonder though, how this resource might have played out if it was managed with skillful means with consideration to the people and the planet given equal weight in decision making over the last 200 years. In stead we have had a pornographic orgy of greed and destruction perpetrated upon the planet and its inhabitants who are now the victims of massive social control mechanisms.

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

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