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« The Economy Is Energy | Main | A Retrospective of My Early Work on Brain Modeling »

November 21, 2010


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Nathan Chattaway

It seems to me that modifying your living arrangements in line with the principles in Holmgren's book can only stand you in good stead for whatever the future holds. Doing this sooner rather than later means you have choices and time to get the basic infrastructure established, while such mundane things as poly water piping, steel fencing wire and brass taps are readily available.
Looking at Maslow's hierarchy of needs: water, food and shelter are the top three. It's entirely possible today to build a shelter from waste products that requires no active heating or cooling energy. The epitome of this design is the Earthship perfected by Michael Reynolds in the New Mexico desert.
If you're harvesting clean rainwater, have a shelter that is warm in winter and cool in summer and you're growing healthy food, your chances of survival increase dramatically. I can't think of a better investment than one along these lines.

So, what stops us from doing this? Greed, laziness, disbelief?

Nathan Chattaway

Or should I say, three of the most important BASIC needs on Maslow's hierarchy are water, food and shelter. From a pyramid perspective, they are at the bottom, not the top. Sorry for any confusion.


I would add The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe to the list.

Phil Henshaw

It's worth noting that, as visionary as Odum was, he made the same major conceptual error in thinking about economic systems as the economists are still making, breaking all his own rules for ecological system modeling by doing so. In measuring the energy costs of businesses the standard method and Odum's both count only the energy demands of the inanimate parts, and completely exclude the energy demands of the animating ones...!

Charlie Hall resisted acknowledging that fact for some time, and still doesn't seem intrigued by the fine door it opens to understanding economies as physical systems. I think Charlie gave in, in the end, only because doing so would make my results a confirmation of his own original 1981 approach to assessing the energy demands of businesses on the environment, in which he shows the same factor of 5 increase compared to the standard method I found. He did it the same way too, counting the energy demands of the animating parts of a business as part of the business as a whole physical system.

I did the best I could with the essay, considering the considerable empty gulf in scientific methods that needed to be filled in for making scientific sense of the necessities of businesses as functioning net-energy systems that operate as a unit.


George, have you read Island by Aldous Huxley?

There is a quote in there that reminded of your bit on ideology, "Faith is something very different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalysed words much too seriously. Paul's words, Mohammed's words, Marx's words, Hitler's words - people take them too seriously, and what happens?
What happens is the senseless ambivalence of history - sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced by organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending to the victims of their own church's inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief."

If you have not read the book I think it will be of interest.

Jeremy Stocks

I've just happened across your blog and was intrigued to read of your third book choice. Holmgren as I understand him wrote mainly for the warmer climates. The book by Toby Hemenway contains more relevant information to help us all.

We're going to have to learn food growing not as a hobby but for survival in future. With that, we're going to have to learn to use small plots efficiently. To that end I have started experiments with polycultures, and 'i dis such an experiment this season. The ecology which developed in that tiny bed might lend itself ideally to a systems approach, where aspects of the polyculture are modelled such as species, cultivar, that season's weather, soil makeup (not just NPK), and timing of fruition of plant. Check out this:

George Mobus


So, what stops us from doing this? Greed, laziness, disbelief?

From my perspective and research it is the lack of sapience. Or, rather, a greatly insufficient level of sapience given the complexities of the world we have created with our cleverness.


Could you give us a little more information? I get a lot of recommendations for reading, and have a tendency to go with suggestions with some meat put on the skeleton.


Need more details (like page number where he does this). I found Odum's work to be pretty complete and would find it surprising that he left out an energy input/output relation in such an analysis. Also, perhaps you could provide a more specific reference to Charlie's acknowledgment so I can ask him about it.


George, have you read Island by Aldous Huxley?

I haven't. But the quote seems to have reversed the two definitions as far as more modern philosophical treatments of belief vs. faith. The latter is often characterized as belief without evidence (or even in the face of counter evidence). Whereas all that anyone knows is a form of belief. The question about belief (which is all a mind can do) is whether it is justified. Knowledge is sometimes defined as "justified true belief". I suppose it is a matter of which semantics one attaches to the two words.


Holmgren as I understand him wrote mainly for the warmer climates. The book by Toby Hemenway contains more relevant information to help us all.

Have you read Holmgren's book? I don't get that characterization. Though he uses examples from Australia, they aren't exclusive. And the book is about principles from systems science applied to holistic living conditions.

Thanks for the link though.


Regards all,


Nathan Chattaway

Holmgren *lives* in a cool temperate climate in Victoria, which is in the south eastern corner of the Australian mainland. His demonstration permaculture site "Melliodora" is his family home and has been for nearly 30 years. While his writings and practical work about Melliodora cover the cool temperate zones, they do include applications for other climates. The specific book that George recommended, is concerned with systems and principles rather than the mechanics "grass roots" level of permaculture tasks per se. These are universal. I did raise this blog to David Holmgren's attention, so he may choose to comment himself.

George Mobus


Thanks for the clarification. Haven't seen anything from David.


Matt Holbert


Speaking of faith, it seems to me that there should be some way to introduce the concept of systems to young people along the lines of "give me the child for his first seven years and I'll give you the man [who is wise]." The Odum brothers likely became interested in systems as the result of their father. We need to place a Papa Odum in every community. I have friends and family who are smart in a conventional sense, but do not have any concept of how the whole thing works. (One of them even wrote a commercially-successful book entitled "It's Easy Being Green.")

I'm on my way to check out your sapience papers...

Cheers, Matt in Spokane

George Mobus


Hope you get the time to get through the sapience work. And enjoy it :^)

I and two co-authors are working on an introduction to the fundamental principles of systems science (college-level introductory textbook). It looks to be the first attempt to consolidate many of the disparate sub-disciplines into one coherent (we hope) text. Our plan is to use that text to develop curriculum for systems science majors (both BS and BA degrees) as a prelude to pushing the concepts down to high school, and eventually, to K-8. In fact I already have some ideas for curriculum at that early stage based on the concepts in permaculture. It would be hands-on, practical and at the same time teach the principles of systems, connectedness, energy flow, communications, etc. I follow the work of David Holmgren in this.

The textbook is taking an inordinate amount of time as you might imagine, probably the reason no on seems to have attempted something like this. There are a number of trade-books, like Fritjof Capra's works. But no textbooks that we (or Springer) have been able to find. Wish us luck!

Perhaps one day there will be a few Papa Odum(s) out there.


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