World Energy Relationships and the Failures of the Human Economy

Seven points about current world energy relationships and the instability of our current energy practices, by Howard T. Odum. Reprinted with permission, 1974.
By Howard T. Odum, PhD.
May/June 1974
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Howard T. Odum, PhD has many environmental credits to his name and offers a consideration of energy as a net product that incorporates the biosystem, humanity and our inventions, and our efforts to produce more conventional forms of energy, such as electricity and gasoline.
HOWARD T. ODUM


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Note: The following notes are reprinted with the permission of Dr. Howard T. Odum, PhD. In addition to his other credits (including the book Environment, Power and Society, first published in 1971 and revised in 2007), Professor Odum was a Graduate Research Professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville and Director of the Center for Wetlands in 1974.

Twenty points about the current world energy situation are made Net Energy, Ecology and Economics, an article that uses simple models to show some fallacies in many proposed responses to energy needs. Additional points follow: 

1. U.S. policy relative to other countries is dangerous to its survival as an independent entity. 

The countries that hold back their richer fuel reserves while others are spending their last reserves end up with more relative power in military and economic affairs. The recent actions to use our reserves of fuel and other energy costing and amplifying strategic reserves for business as usual is bordering on treasonous and yet was adopted by an ignorant Congress.

Rich energies get more energies if they are used in amplifier actions (example: machinery for using other resources). As rich fuels get scarce they become more and more limiting in such activities and their energy amplifier effect gets larger. Thus, the countries that save energy until later get more energy out of secondary amplifier actions. One should not spend our reserves now.

Fuels don't actually run out except where price fixing is attempted, since holding prices down causes oils to go elsewhere for sale. Money costs rise as energy cost of getting energy rises, since a higher percentage of the human economy gets involved in energy getting. The long-range energy effect is the diversion of many current aspects of our so-called standard of living back to energy collection and concentration work.

Those that advocate use of current remaining reserves in order to be internationally independent are thinking backwards. In the first place, if one uses up one's own reserves rather than those available to economic and military competitors, one makes his last situation worse. If you go far enough at this, you will ultimately become a colony, invaded either economically or militarily. To maintain independence, keep reserves in storage to help control prices and prevent attack, and use up everyone else's fuels first, even if one has to pay more and take a temporary cut in living standard. In the second place, using one's own oil reserves causes one to get to low-grade oils, spending more and more of one's economy on getting energy and lowering one's balance of payments and standard of living anyway.

2. Present U.S. policy has some war risks. 

Large war may be prevented if all potential combatants have a realistic understanding of their energy condition, so that they will truly know what the outcome would be if a war was conducted at a particular boundary, considering its distance from respective power centers.

If the boundary between two competing power centers is located appropriate to the energy sources available to the defense, and both sides understand their strength, then large war may be prevented. If, however, there are shifts in relative energy and the boundary is not shifted, a situation is set up where the system with lesser energy can be defeated and driven well back from its former position. The U.S. is now in that role relative to its position in the 1940s, since it has on-third or less of the world's energy expenditure, whereas it used to have half.

There is a great danger that the U.S. might attempt to exert military action in the eastern Mediterranean, as it once did in Eisenhower times, with inadequate power to do so as compared to Russia and other countries with greater energy proximity and greater energy resources. If the U.S. is induced into wars that it hardly has the energy to support while other nations with oil reserves do not become so much involved, the relative energy position of the U.S. will deteriorate until it becomes so energetically weak that it cannot handle its own hemispheric defense. For world stability, energy differentials need to be evened out and the richer sources used first so that balance of energy resources is maintained.

As oil-producing countries and associates get full industrial technology, which they can readily buy as their relative richness so exceeds that of existing technological countries, their total military and economic power will grow into a new colossus. If there is a large difference in actual energy post of getting energy between the U.S. and the producers of richer oils, the latter can determine which countries will have economic edge by sale at slightly lower prices. There is no way the U.S. can organize the non-oil-producers into a counterpower with inferior energy sources. There might be enough storage of high-energy capability in the industrial countries to try for an oil conquest if they were quick about it, but they are probably blocked by the greater Soviet energy and equivalent power at that distance. It would probably mean World War III. The U.S. alone could not do it. The European countries can get their needs by joining the Arab block.


3. Energy cost of some activity must include all its inputs. 

A bad error is being made in much public forum discussion and in many economics papers that attempt to determine the energy use of a given process. The error arises in calculating the energy use of an activity as only that directly observed to be used by the activity, while ignoring the energy that makes possible all the other goods and services that go into that activity. For example, the energy utilization in transportation is not just the fuels used by the cars, but is also the energy spent all through the economy subsidizing the making of the cars, the roads, and the maintenance. One way of estimating the energy spent in support of such a complicated activity is to obtain the money cost and convert to the average energy expenditure per dollar as calculated from the total economy, such as a figure of 17,000 kilocalories to the dollar.

4. Let's face decline in tourism and not sweep it under the rug. 

If we may judge by the increase in tourism that followed the increased energy subsidy of our culture, tourism is a property that depends on high energies. As net energies go down in the U.S., so must tourism. Political attempts to keep its priority over endeavors such as getting more food and fuel energies will fail (unless there is some rich source of excess energy culture to draw tourists from). Whereas efforts to make transitions slow and non-disruptive are needed, no one is doing anyone a favor by implying that tourism will not be declining. Florida must plan for a change. One temporary step to help during an interim is to set up an airline shuttle from green, lush Florida for African and Arab tourists to spend their new excess monies.

5. Humans of all ages will be needed more. 

As energies for machines decline, many functions may take more human labor, instead, for the simple development of food and fiber. Thus, the young and the old will be more needed in the work force. Ultimately, displacement unemployment will be temporary as machines are replaced by people. The rising energy cost of energy will so inflate the value of money that pension plans and other savings will depreciate until the amount of money that retirees can bring to Florida will decline, so that these retirees will be less an income source. We need to help them find a low-energy lifestyle without becoming a public drain.

6. Temporary high profits show up during energy decline. 

During the decline in money value, those with businesses can be misled about their future by temporary prosperity, since goods and storages done under one energy level will be sold as the price goes up; but increased money profits will be more than undermined by the inflation. The public will think the temporary profit is a conspiracy.

7. The following may be industries that will drop out, and which we should encourage to recognize their need to diversify and transfer their skills to other activity. 

A. Urbanization construction will be replaced for smaller projects, most of which will be replacements.

B. Artificial vegetation will be replaced by more use of self-maintaining vegetation (natural). Thus, work will decline that concerns lawns, plant nurseries, tree surgeons, manicuring parks and rights of way, golf courses, astroturfs.

C. Air conditioning will be replaced by architecture that fits human settlement into trees and microclimates of moist vegetation shade, uses winds, etc.

D. Eutrophication problems will decline as farmers bid for sewage use; ecological engineering will replace some other kinds of environmental engineering. Lowered energies will take the pressure off the environment in many situations.

E. Universities will be less occupied and will need to organize among themselves to keep society from losing valuable information accumulated during our recent energy-rich periods. Creative activity will be less and knowledge custodial service may be more. Computer use will be less.

F. Farms may use more land but their functions and cycles will be more intact and their external environmental action less.

G. Tourism will be less and will operate with energy attractions, using less artificial lures and a higher percentage of selfmaintaining natural ones.

H. The scale of activities may be reduced and decentralized with more small units replacing large unified ones. This may apply to cities' sewage handling, cars, and even utilities. Agriculture will develop more local use and variety.

I. Religions concerned with adaptation and satisfaction with an uneven continued pattern will increase and religious unrest will decrease. Mental health should improve once the shock of change from growth to more level economy is passed.

J. Advertising and communications will be reduced.

K. Properties of high energy concentration will decrease: crime, wrecks, police, noise, central services and their tax costs.

L. Pine plantations for paper may decrease in favor of food production and forest management for lumber for buildings.

M. Exotic medical services will decline.


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