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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Very interesting Daniel to bring in the quantum wave function, and I think this is consistent with systems ecologist H.T. Odum and his focus on energy flow, and the patterns of PatternDynamics, both of which are topics in my ITC 2015 paper.

Three of the relevant patterns that you are recognizing are the Patterns of Flow and of Transformity (your word - transmutation), and Feedback.

As David Holmgren points out, we do need to "Take a Yield" from our processes to support our ability to sustain useful work, but when we hyper-prioritize this, as capitalism is wont to do, we risk "collapsing the wave function" in that our systems are dependent upon the Flow of Feedback to go back into supporting the whole system. We can't continue to just partition off the "particles" because we live in a finite world with finite resources.

Here's one of Odum's Flow charts ("Recycle" is the Feedback pattern):

Good short video that challenges assumptions and asks the right questions!

theurj said:

This video though is more in line with your last post DM:

Here's a very good essay by Erik Lindberg: One and a Half Cheers for Bernie: Decision 2016 and the (Deep) Sust....

Erik's answer to a question regarding his thoughts on Bernie Sanders, with sustainability in mind.The articles is about far more than Bernie.

An excerpt:

"The American Dream is a dream, in short, about what life might be like were there not distinct ecological and resource limits.  But there are, and we are approaching them quickly.

This is heresy, of course--abandoning the American Dream.  It will be perceived as turning our backs on the most basic principles of human dignity, of telling people that they cannot have a life worth living.  These common progressive assumptions, I would counter, are indicative of a limited imagination over the many paths to a good life that actually exist--as if only greater prosperity, separation from nature, and freedom from manual labor as more and more machines do our difficult work for us, are the only possible goals that might guide humanity.  But for the past three or four hundred years, now, we have been increasingly taught to limit our imagination in the name of the progress that we now accept as normal and as an exclusive domain of human good.  All of this needs to be questioned.  Before continuing with this difficult questioning, let me admit that I am asking a lot during this sacred time (Presidential elections) when we turn reverently to our slogans and images and bask in their repetitious meaninglessness.  This is our time of absolute thoughtlessness, our time of disgust and blame, searching for scandal, exposing half-understood idiocies maintained by the other side.  And I am asking this—not only that we think but that we step outside our deepest assumptions and imagine something truly different, something we have been told is impossible, ridiculous, or that represents the depths of defeat.  But, as we will see, I am asking for this, because in needs to be done.

But let us return to my suggestion that sustainability and the American Dream in any of its currently conceivable versions are incompatible.  If one gets beyond initial moral shock, and looks at the requirements of sustainability and compares them to the requirements of the American Dream, my position speaks pretty well for itself, though I will review some evidence shortly.  But it does fly in the face of the elegant ways in which modernity, liberalism, and the American way of life have, throughout its early history, presented us with very few difficult decisions where we are forced to choose between two or more incompatible goods.   Not “this or that,” we have come to believe, but “this and that.”  As Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously declared, as his progressive programs were gaining slow traction against the weight of the Great Depression, “we have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”  And that’s the secret beauty of Liberalism—the promise that one needn’t ever choose between what works and what is good, between prosperity and morality.  The proper sort of enlightened thinking, Roosevelt insisted, would “wipe out that line that divides the practical from the ideal”: as it is in the minds of today’s progressive, Roosevelt held that “science and democracy together offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual.”  As Roosevelt summed it, “we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.”

It is this same sort of faith, and with the same sort of elegant symmetry, that progressives assume that a progressive environmental/energy policy will of course be good for the economy as well.  Solar panels and wind turbines can (our progressive faith assures us) certainly replace fossil fuels; this innovation, investment, and the manufacturing of solar panels and wind turbines will certainly create hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs; these new jobs will certainly put the economy back on track.  As Paul Krugman has exclaimed at the prospect of repeating the post-war economic miracle, “If they could do it then, we should be able to repeat their achievement.”[i]

The logic is graceful but fallacious.  None of this is necessarily true.  At best, its falsehoods were held at bay for a couple of hundred years by vast ecological margins.  As I will later suggest, these liberal and progressive fixtures of faith are true only when society is in a growth or expansion phase, when energy and resources are so abundant as to appear limitless.  It only seems like it must be true if you don’t look at the way energy, and a certain kind of energy, powers all economic activity.  As critics of today’s economic models are beginning to realize, an entire wing of contemporary economics has devoted itself to the silly view that at some level economic growth doesn’t really depend on energy, never mind the fact that it takes the equivalent of over 200 million barrels of oil each and every day to keep the global economy running (compare this to the measly 5 million barrels spilled into the gulf of Mexico in the 2010 BP spill).[ii]  There is, moreover, no reason why a prosperous economy will automatically be a moral one, nor that it will be a sustainable one.  The fact that prosperity, as currently understood, has always been fueled by fossil fuels (and before that by slaves working on stolen land) and therefore never was sustainable long into the future, suggests just the opposite.   Prior to 1820, when the coal-powered industrial revolution began to hit its stride, economies did not grow in any meaningful sense.  Without the sudden unleashing of half a billion years of fossilized sunlight, technology, much of which had been available for hundreds of years, alone doesn’t get one very far."

It's a good article but long and I've only read about half of it so far. And I agree with most of what he's saying, that we do have to let go of the American Dream. And that progressives, while better, are still stuck in it. And that Sanders only gets 1.5 cheers because he's on the right track but still doesn't go all the way into the reduction of consumption needed to avert disaster. I've said all of this all along, that Sanders isn't the final answer, but that his policies are the necessary predecessor to making the incipient neo-Commons available on a larger scale. It's the neo-Commons that will get many more of us to reduce our consumption and live more sustainable lives. But the likes of Sanders will set the stage unlike any other candidate. I'll not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

It seems that Limitlessness is now one of the primary themes of Hollywood; no doubt inspired by Kenny! 

But on this I have this to say: where is any repeatable; empirical, observable evidence that humanity has developed any type of 'super' that will solve the complexities of the coming century?  Don't get me wrong,the  movie Lucy was okay; but we shouldn't really be thinking this stuff is real unless it can be shown repeatably to be true ......

Side note: if anyone on this planet is open to supernaturalism it would probably be me ! But faking it will get us no where . Being dishonest and deluded about that possibility is even worse . If in reality there were such things i am of the opinion that no one would need convincing; it would ALL just be revealed.......

Sense8 was pretty cool though :) Ok., slightly off topic ......

Ironically, right now I'm watching the season premier of the new tv series Limitless.

That's not surprising to me Ed. This stuff is everywhere now . I don't necessarily have a good feeling about why that is .....

Sanders on consumerism. The only major candidate breaching this subject.

Since I don't have cable TV (what Toby Hemenway calls a Zone 1 entrance of corporate influence into the household), I don't know anything about the show 'Limitless,' but the title implies techno-fantasy. I'm more interested in the implications of the show "Under the Dome." Will have to check that one out, based on Pogany's comment.

Regarding not letting the perfect be the the enemy of the good, Lindberg agrees.  At the very end of this long (but totally worth it) essay, he writes:


As I’ve been writing this essay, I’ve revisited many of Bernie Sanders’ speeches, op-eds, and policy papers.  I’ve got to admit, I really like the guy.  I also think a good number of his policies could be useful in an America suffering catabolic collapse.  In order for us to create a just, fair, and peaceful society, we will need to share equally in our material decline.  This doesn’t mean that we all can’t eat, find shelter, and enjoy basic health-care.  It does, however, mean that we need to have a broad social orientation as we determine how much each of us might get.  Previously, America has operated under the view that demand creates supply so the demand for (and receipt of) limitless benefits might help us all.  This Earth-killing fantasy is a dead-end that will lead to civic violence.  I understand why Sanders is not emphasizing his previous self-description as a socialist, but it is still visible in many of his policies, as well as his political temper.   On a finite planet, we need to focus on the fact that we are all in this together, and Sanders has the potential to move us in this direction.  I’ll certainly vote for him, and I may plant a “Bernie” sign in our yard, amongst the unkempt weeds and rubble that symbolize my own catabolic slide out of the middle class.

While Sanders does, as I have mentioned, still talk about the American Dream, he doesn’t emphasize economic growth.  The demand for growth is the greatest threat to our environment, so I support this subtle change in emphasis.  But, I would note, the fact that he does not separate his policies from economic growth could lead to frustration and confusion—because the American Dream had never thrived without economic growth.  But, I would also note, the lack of emphasis on growth does indeed give him space to emphasize other economic values, such as fairness and the necessity of sufficiency rather than constant increases.  Most impressive to me, on the level of policy proposals, is the idea of guaranteed employment, where the federal government is the “employer (rather than lender) of last resort.”  Everyone, in other words, would be put to work doing something useful and productive.   I love this focus on people, rather than the loan requirements of a fractional-reserve growth-based economy.  Detractors are correct, I think, that this sort of orientation will not actually help the economy as currently designed, which above all requires a yearly increase of the supply of money, people be damned.  Because we have harnessed so much of our daily needs to this economic system, it can’t however, simply be ignored without a great deal of planning and  preparation.

Therefore, if Sanders were actually elected and if, miracle of miracles, Congress actually passed his bills into law, I think he would have a riot on his hand.  That is another reason why the American Dream must undergo a public execution.  We need a crash-course in expectation management.  It is largely for this reason, then, that I reserve the third cheer for someone who will talk openly about the end of the American Dream without blame, but with a call for middle (and upper) class accountability and responsibility. 

The other reason has to do with how we define progress and with what sorts of hopes inhabit our dreams.  I have been talking about the “decline” of America without questioning what I mean by “decline.”  While the many good possible futures I can envision are not “successful” in the way nearly everyone defines success, one can imagine a peaceful, prosperous, and dignified way down.  My third cheer is most of all reserved for a leader who will help us redefine success and failure, progress and decline.  The big challenge will be managing the violence and unrest of a major American change in course.   But beyond that, our current way of life with its individualistic and competitive spirit has created stress, while the constant desire for more and more stuff with the daily prospect of overwhelming choices has perhaps led to our crisis of depression and our dependence on 25% of the world’s mind-altering drug supply.  As followers of Transition and Permaculture already understand, as (I think) do those who follow strict spiritual discipline, there is a far better life awaiting us after our ceremony of progressive innocence is drowned, one that is devoted to care for the Earth and care for each other.  I hope, perhaps in vein, for a leader who can shout this from the mountain-top and be heard."

Continuing a recent theme, see this article on the UN's sustainable development goals. An excerpt:

"Given all the fanfare, one might think the SDGs are about to offer a fresh plan for how to save the world, but beneath all the hype, it’s business as usual. The main strategy for eradicating poverty is the same: growth. Growth has been the main object of development for the past 70 years, despite the fact that it's not working. Since 1980, the global economy has grown by 380%, but the number of people living in poverty on less than $5 (£3.20) a day has increased by more than 1.1 billion. That’s 17 times the population of Britain. So much for the trickle-down effect."

"Orthodox economists insist that all we need is yet more growth. More progressive types tell us that we need to shift some of the yields of growth from the richer segments of the population to the poorer ones, evening things out a bit. Neither approach is adequate. Why? Because even at current levels of average global consumption, we’re overshooting our planet’s bio-capacity by more than 50% each year. In other words, growth isn’t an option any more – we’ve already grown too much. Scientists are now telling us that we’re blowing past planetary boundaries at breakneck speed. And the hard truth is that this global crisis is due almost entirely to overconsumption in rich countries."

On a personal note, I'm moving into an 'efficiency' apartment soon that is only 250 square feet. I'll reduce my cooling and heating footprint significantly, especially using an inexpensive, portable and efficient mini oil radiator and the same type of mini swamp cooler.

Contemplating this new Hollywood meme of 'super' this and 'super' that . I'd concede that there is some kind of predictive phenomenon happening with Hollywood . After 50 years i now have a Captain Kirk like device in my hands . I think Minority Report might be the closest predictive film . Here's the thing though and it's premised that this new 'meme' is not accidental . Whatever is going on here is very far from being accurate/foolproof  per se.  Now is it possible that there could be a human or humans beings that develop 'super' powers in the next 50 years and that these 'powers ' solve some or most of the serious issues we face at this time ? Yes, i concede that and even the Right Hand said, 'greater things shall you do '. But, here is the thing : This seems like a wishful thinking long-term gambit to me ; whether humans can 'evolve'/ develop into modes of being that allow them to alter fixed laws and processes is something we should be skeptical of IMO . I certainly don't think that this should be the hope of humanity and another excuse to keep keeping on with the status quo . Theoretically , in my view , only god could possibly counteract fixed laws but only because god is theoretically not bound by these laws . But even that notion I find problematic . IMO, it would be far far better for humanity to find realistic healthy solutions to the problems we face and come to terms with the fixed laws and processes that we need to live in harmony with . 

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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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