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« Happy Summer Solstice | Main | Could We Evolve into Ants? »

July 03, 2015


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Don Stewart

It seems to me that Ellen MacArthur publications have laid out some pretty concrete issues in terms of the inefficiency with which we turn energy into work. For example, if we turn oil in the ground into the work of moving a human in an automobile, the efficiency is something like one part in a thousand. The sheer waste coupled with depleting resources should scare anyone.

You can find some writing I did on the subject (very amateurish writing) at the blog Gail Tverberg had up on July 4. I'll reprint enough of it below to give you the words to search on, if you are interested.

Good luck...Don Stewart

Here is an attempt at drawing some conclusions from the work of BW Hill and the MacArthur Foundation.

I’ll make a few assumptions:
*BW Hill’s ETp model is correctly showing that the cost of producing a barrel of oil is rapidly increasing.
*BW Hill’s GDP/ Barrel curves correctly shows what a current snapshot of our economy can produce with a barrel of oil. In addition, the cost minus value computation that Hill makes accurately predicts that oil is at the end of its economic life. With many repercussions beyond the simple price of oil.
*The MacArthur study shows that only about 1 part in 1000 parts of the energy in a oil pool is actually turned into the work of moving a human in an automobile.

Now, one of the first things we can notice is that the ETp model and the MacArthur results are both heavily influenced by physical factors which resist change. That is, we are not likely to make radically more efficient internal combustion engines anytime soon, and we aren’t likely to radically improve the efficiency of finding, producing, processing, and distributing petroleum products anytime soon. However, the GDP/ Barrel, and the proposed changes in economic structure which are contained in the MacArthur study, are more responsive to changes in human concepts and ideas…should we decide that living in harmony with Nature is what is really important, then the GDP / Barrel measurement would become either irrelevant or would change drastically. If the MacArthur prescriptions work as advertised, then GDP/ Barrel would, similarly, be quite different.

The second thing we notice is the effect of the increasing cost of the oil. The ETp model shows that the cost of producing the oil can double. If, in 5 years, we get only 1 part in 2000 of the energy which was in the oil to actually do work moving humans, then powerful forces will begin to change the system. For example, today moving a human (e.g., a dental assistant driving to work in her car) must produce the money which is required to produce a thousand times as many units of value as the cost of producing the petroleum and the car and the infrastructure. But in 5 years, we might anticipate that the dental assistant will have to produce 2000 times the energy cost. We can imagine lots of stresses to the system, but we probably can’t think of too many responses which will make it all OK. But if we consider ‘printing a physical book’, we can visualize ‘virtual books’ of the kind that MacArthur believes we should adopt. Virtual books may help.

Suppose we look at a factory worker, trying to produce value equal to 2000 times the cost of the auto-centric system which gets him to work. We can imagine the worker simply being automated out of existence. Or we might imagine a reversion to clusters of houses for the workers surrounding the factory…which was still the model when I married my wife. Her father had never lived more than 2 blocks from his work. My own father didn’t live that close, but he never drove to work in his life. Paying a workman enough to walk to work is quite a different business from paying the cost of the auto-centric system which is miserably inefficient and getting worse..

Just for purposes of thinking, let’s suppose that the clusters of workmen around the factory becomes the ‘new normal’. What would be the implications? The first thing is that GDP will go way down. The workmen will avoid spending all that money on the auto-centric system. Second, health will increase. Sitting in a car is not a good thing to do. And pollution will decrease. Life becomes more pleasant.

More subtly, the societies ability to pay more for the high cost oil increases. Presumably, society would stop producing the ruinously expensive auto-centric system and what would be left is the production of things such as tools which are used in a more human labor oriented system. For example, farm tools and blacksmith tools and such. If the big consumption items which determine petroleum demand stop, then BW Hill’s cost curve flattens drastically. Costs still go up, but only slowly as we deplete the existing reservoirs more slowly.

If many more people are involved in food production (as recommended in the Food part of the MacArthur book), then we might think of Food/ Barrel as our basic metric, rather than GDP/ Barrel. Food per barrel would go up drastically if the MacArthur recommendations were adopted. Therefore, the cost of oil in terms of food would decline.

Why didn’t Hubbert understand all this? On page 303, Capra and Luisi give us a clue:
‘To give equal importance to each of these three perspectives (pattern, structure, process) is difficult for most scientists because of the persistent influence of our Cartesian heritage. The natural sciences are supposed to deal with material phenomena, but only the structure perspective is concerned with the study of matter. The other two deal with relationships, qualities, patterns, and processes, all of which are nonmaterial. Of course, no scientist would deny the existence of patterns and processes, but most scientists tend to think of a pattern of organization as an idea abstracted from matter, rather than a generative force.’

Conversely, why are global corporations so successful? Well, many of them have broken the code on neurotransmitters and hormones. Automobiles are sold to consumers who believe that automobiles are efficient ways to move neurotransmitters and hormones.

Obviously, neither the Cartesian perspective nor the Madison Avenue perspective offer reliable guidelines for humanity in a world of Limits.

Capra and Luisi emphasize autopoiesis (self-organization) and emergence (new structures as energy levels change). However, they point out that we have only recently developed good models at the cellular level, and really don’t have much modeling experience with complex social systems. We understand pretty well what happens in a natural system, thanks to Ecology. But predicting what might happen to a human social system which is experiencing steadily increasing costs for raw materials and energy is largely unexplored territory.

For example, in her recent interview, the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer remarked that the key to ‘aliveness’ is noticing changes. She claimed that walking around your neighborhood with an eye toward change is as good as getting in an airplane in search of new adventures. Would the disappearance of most of the auto-centric and airplane-centric society turn us in the direction of ‘looking with fresh eyes’, or toward a bitter civil war for control of the remaining scraps? If there is any theory which explains it all, I don’t know about it.

Stuidies have found that ‘communities of practice’ are the keys to innovation. A group of farmers trying to figure out ways to more effectively market their crops can be a ‘community of practice’. A task force in a corporation can be a ‘community of practice’. Capra and Luisi have this to say:

‘Bringing life into human organizations by empowering their communities of practice not only increases their flexibility, creativity, and learning potential but also enhances the dignity and humanity of the organization’s individuals, as they connect with those qualities in themselves. In other words, the focus on life and self-organization empowers the self. It creates mentally and emotionally healthy working environments in which people feel that they are supported in striving to achieve their own goals and do not have to sacrifice their integrity to meet the goals of the organization. The problem is that human organizations are not only living communities but also social institutions designed for specific purposes and functioning in a specific economic environment. Today that environment is not life-enhancing, but is increasingly life-destroying.’ (Page 320)

So…fasten your seatbelt and build lifeboats and pay attention to communities of practice.

Don Stewart

George Mobus

@Don S,

Thanks for the ideas. For readers who don't already know the book Don is referring to is: Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi (2014), The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge University Press. I highly recommend it - after, of course, you read my book!!!



Try selling the book in eBooks collection sites and other platforms online.


I read your pitch. Those look like books I would like to read, having recently discovered system dynamics in my quest to understand WTF is wrong with economics. You don't really say who your target audience is, perhaps it will be implicit in your choice of publishers. The other thing I noticed is the price of your published book. If you are not dependent on snagging a fat deal to fund your retirement (or you fail to do so) how about self-publishing in ebook form and kicking them out by the million for cheap, perhaps via Amazon or even directly from here.

George Mobus


Thanks. I have a longer version that includes a description of a target audience, basically anyone who is scientifically literate and reads science trade books. I think my audience is similar or the same as Naomi Klein's audience which is pretty substantial.

I have considered the e-book option, it is on the table. And unless there is a major financial meltdown my wife tells me we are looking solid for retirement. Several people who have gone the e-book route have not been all that happy with the results because it still depends on marketing, which is not my forte. Also one tends to get more speaking engagements with a print book out. The fees would be nice but not the point. I just want to get in front of a breathing audience to tell what I hope is a compelling story.


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