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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Hi, Ambo, 'musicians, can't live with them and shouldn't shoot 'em.' Hey, what do you call a guitarist without a girlfriend? Homeless! 

Anyway, circa 1980, The Dark Side on 'A' . That's when IT REALLY hit me. These lyrics of mine will explain: you wake up in the morning and your life's wrapped tight; the curtains drawn it's as black as night; well, feel free to wash your tears with mine. It's a tragedy of epic proportions; it's a social harmonic distortion; it's a suicide investigation; it's alien propagation; well, free free to wash your tears with mine…..

Circa 1989: PoWwOw at the Stein Valley. Oh, there,  I knew there was a heartbeat at the core of existence; paradoxically, because of the dissonance of history, I also knew that no truer words have ever been spoken, ' hope, faith, and love.' We live in HIStory and man is all too fallible; and we now live in a time when arrogance and ignorance reign. 

Hey David, the archetype of birthing seems to be a theme within the P.O./ Transition movement. This is obviously a theme that runs throughout the Revelation. Hopefully there will be a better tomorrow after what's coming down the pipe, but I personally couldn't guarantee anything. Not in my job description:)

From a musicians point of view we might call these times the, 'atonal cacophony of madness.'

andrew said:

From a musicians point of view we might call these times the, 'atonal cacophony of madness.'

Indeed David! But it's Sunday morning bro and we need something a little more model: 

opps, Modal!

Ok, no more tangents here! lol Let's get back to the task at hand! Here is a search on The Second Law of Thermodynamics and Solar Power:

Here is another excellent discussion around these issues:


-are the solutions technically possible? 

-are the problems solely political? ( it is politics blocking the technical capability) . 

-could the fossil fuel industry be a part of solution if they fully admitted the problems surrounding their business?

William Catton, author of "Overshoot" passed away on Jan. 5th, hence some tributes coming out. I haven't yet read Greer's post, but Richard Heinberg posted here; perhaps of interest to Integralites, it got a reply from Michael Dowd (author of Thank God for Evolution), which I am reposting here:


Beautiful, Richard, thank you!

When I saw the simple title, "Thanks, Bill" I wept.

What an fascinating chain of events... I was sitting at Bron Taylor's kitchen table (author of Dark Green Religion) last week, in the midst of reading Overshoot, which I learned about from John Michael Greer (whom I learned about from your book, The End of Growth), and I mentioned how much I was loving Catton's book. And Bron said, "Did you know he just died? I heard about it on a list-serve I'm on."

I called John Michael Greer a few days later and told him about Catton's passing, as I had spoken with Will Catton, the physicist/meteorologist grandson of William R. Catton and lives in New Zealand, who confirmed his grandfather’s death. (Will wrote a wonderful short piece promoting his grandfather’s work a few years ago for the Otago Daily Times, “We are stealing from the future.”)

Coincidentally, on the day that William Catton died, January 5th, I was reading aloud to Connie Barlow, my science writer wife, a November 2011 post by John Michael Greer where he mentions being at a ASPO conference and meeting Catton, and feeling like a star-struck teenager. Since I hold The Archdruid in such high esteem, I bought both Overshoot and Bottleneck that afternoon. I just finished reading Overshoot yesterday.

Last week, even before finishing Overshoot (I already knew that it would be one of the most important books I’ll ever read), I reached out to University of Illinois Press and volunteered to record an audiobook version of it, which they seemed quite interested in having me do. (I recorded the Penguin audio of my own book, Thank God for Evolution.)

I predict that William Catton will be like Aldo Leopold — someone who gets more and more famous the longer he’s been dead due to the obvious correctness of his ecological wisdom. I’m surely intending to play my role in helping that vision become reality. Bringing the ecological paradigm fully and completely into western religion and the wider culture, as Catton did for sociology, is a huge part of my own sense of “calling” or life-purpose.

In any event, thanks, again, Richard, for honoring this great man.

Together for the future,

~ Michael

PS. I’ve started collecting TRIBUTE QUOTES. Here are a few that have been sent to me over the past few days…

“William Catton was a pioneering world leader in dealing with environmental issues. He was one of the few sociologists who recognized the existential nature of the crisis now facing civilization. We’re all going to miss him.” ~ PAUL R. EHRLICH

"William Catton was prescient enough to see what was coming from a long way off, and responsible enough to spend his life warning us. Peace on his soul, and heaven help our own.” ~ ALAN WEISMAN

"William Catton's Overshoot was the most important book of its time, and one of the most important of all times, in pointing out the biological fact that humans have a carrying capacity similar to other animal species, and that temporarily exceeding this carrying capacity - as we did long ago - has grave consequences for humanity and for nature. Unfortunately, we have still not heeded Catton's advice." ~ REED F. NOSS

"William Catton’s Overshoot was one of the most important books of the 20th century. I wish that everyone would read that book. As well as being a brilliant and articulate advocate for sanity in a culture gone completely insane, Catton was a good and gentle person.” ~ DERRICK JENSEN

DavidM58 said:

Ah yes, the classic "Overshoot" by William Catton (1983). 

And then there's his more recent (2009) update, "Bottleneck: Humanity's Impending Impasse," where this reviewersays "he drops the part about we can evade the worst. The subtitle says it all. Now he concludes that it is already too late to mend our ways and somehow avoid the collapse of civilization."

andrew said:

Hi, Mr. Winton, David,  here is a book review link that JMG recommends as necessary reading :

Good article on the 2nd Law, Andrew! I notice that he credit's JM Greer's book "The Wealth of Nature."

Here are my favorite collection of articles involving the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and its relationship to culture and economy, etc.

Starting with Greer is Energy Follows Its Bliss and Energy Conservation Revisited.

And the next two I can't recommend highly enough. Howard Odum's article from 1973 on Energy, Ecology, and Economics is a must read. When it was reprinted in Mother Earth News a year later, they introduced it with this comment: "We had only to glance at this extraordinary document to realize that the paper (originally written at the request of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) is one of the most concise—yet most sweeping—examinations yet made of the real problems of the world. Read it and see for yourself. " Odum was one of the pioneering systems ecologists.

20 years later, one of the pioneers of Permaculture, David Holmgren wrote a paper called Energy and Permaculture, acknowledging his great debt to the ideas of Howard Odum.  I thought this piece was so good I made it into a Powerpoint, and have presented it several times to groups.  There's a lot packed in here.

andrew said:

Ok, no more tangents here! lol Let's get back to the task at hand! Here is a search on The Second Law of Thermodynamics and Solar Power:

Okay, good, thanks for the links! I have work to do! 

For the record: I'm interested in this line of inquiry because any Integral culture will fail, I think, if these issues are not addressed. Now, from what I can gather, there seems to be plenty of energy on the good ole earth, it's that so called renewable energy is much harder to convert to work energy compared to condensed energy like fossil fuel . That indeed, the earth itself is an open system, but the timescales involved there become meaningless to human civilization.IOW., for our purposes, pragmatically, the earth is a closed system, or it's best we think of it that way. 

Here is another link that says ''no way' to renewable solutions:

Once again, with this issue, like most other issues here, there seems to be polarized opinions on core issues. One question here: there is no way the apostles of the fossils are ignorant about the 2nd law? They must know? 

At the risk of pigeonholing, it is often demonstrated that the geologists, engineers, and physicists know, but for the economists and media representatives it often seems to be the furthest thing from their minds.  As Holmgren put it,

"These laws are taught in every science course, but, in a manner typical of our fragmented society and culture, are completely ignored in the way we conduct our economic life and relationship to the natural world. The laws of thermodynamics are widely seen as true, but not very useful theoretical ideas. The second law has always represented a fundamental threat to the modern notion of progress. More traditional and tribal views of the world are in keeping with the second law. For example, the ancient Greek idea of the universe being used up by the passage of time is very pessimistic to the modern mind."

andrew said:

Once again, with this issue, like most other issues here, there seems to be polarized opinions on core issues. One question here: there is no way the apostles of the fossils are ignorant about the 2nd law? They must know? 

Thinking through this in real time: asumming one could convince a critical mass of people about the accuracy of the energy situation here; it would then, it appears, start to become a political and economic issue. It would seem to me that if Adam Smith's ideas are no longer tenable because of the population numbers, and that neoliberalism is the extension of that thinking; then, free market neoliberalism cannot solve this problem. It's at that point, I can see the move of the energy giants buying the political system; if indeed they are hostile to the 2nd law. Because the last century showed that infrastructure can be built when there is a necessity and will, and state Keynesian  would seem to be the quickest most efficient way to move quickly. If this is true, it would argue that the energy companies are indeed acting deceitfully, and have blocked the ability of the people to have political recourse. Hmmm, todays politics seem to make a lot of sense if I'm right in my assessment here. But let's assume that we could get there: at that point I would think the financial empire would have to implement a debt amnesty so as to start fresh and finance a whole new energy infrastructure. Okay, this shouldn't be hard at all…...

Here is a brief link highlighting Klein's recent talk at Oxford:

From everything that am seeing locally and paying attention to globally; I don't see global neoliberalism giving up an inch of its territory. All bets are on ITER I suppose. I hope it works because all other trajectories are pointing to the mean red meme being the dominant paradigm of the 21st century.

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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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