Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Ways of the Force

By now those of my readers who have joined me on the current Archdruid Report project – the creation of a “green wizardry” using the heritage of the appropriate technology movement of the Seventies – should have downloaded at least one of their textbooks and either have, or be waiting for the imminent arrival of, the rest. Now it’s time to get into the core principles of green wizardry, and the best way to do it involves shifting archetypes a bit. Give me a moment to slip on a brown robe, tuck something less clumsy or random than a blaster into my belt, and practice my best Alec Guinness imitation: yes, Padawans, you’re about to start learning the ways of the Force.

Well, almost. The concept that George Lucas borrowed from Asian mysticism for his Star Wars movies is an extraordinarily widespread and ancient one; very nearly the only languages on earth that don’t have a commonly used word for an intangible life force connected to the breath are those spoken nowadays in the industrial nations of the modern West. I’ll leave it to my readers to make up their own minds about what the remarkable durability of this idea might imply, and to historians of ideas to debate whether it was one of the sources that helped shape the modern scientific concept of energy; the point that needs making is that it’s this latter concept that will be central to this week’s post.

That’s understating things by more than a little. Everything we’ll be exploring over the weeks and months to come has to do with energy: where it comes from, what it can and can’t do, how it moves through whole systems, and where it goes. In the most pragmatic of senses, understand energy and you understand the whole art of green wizardry; in the broadest of senses, understand energy and you understand the predicament that is looming up like a wave in front of the world’s industrial societies, and what we can and can’t expect to get done in the relatively short time we have left before that predicament crests, breaks, and washes most of the modern world’s certainties away.

Let’s start with some basic definitions. Energy is the capacity to do work. It cannot be created or destroyed, but the amount and kind of work it can do can change. The more concentrated it is, the more work it can do; the more diffuse it is, the less work it can do. Left to itself, it moves from more concentrated to more diffuse forms over time, and everything you do with energy has a price tag measured in a loss of concentration. These are the groundrules of thermodynamics, and everything a green wizard does comes back to them in one way or another.

Let’s look at some examples. A garden bed, to begin with, is a device for collecting energy from the sun by way of the elegant biochemical dance of photosynthesis. Follow a ray of sunlight from the thermonuclear cauldron of the sun, across 93 million miles of hard vacuum and a few dozen miles of atmosphere, until it falls on the garden bed. Around half the sunlight reflects off the plants, which is why the leaves look bright green to you instead of flat black; most of the rest is used by the plants to draw water up from the ground into their stems and leaves, and expel it into the air; a few per cent is caught by chloroplasts – tiny green disks inside the cells of every green plant, descended from blue-green algae that were engulfed but not destroyed by some ancestral single-celled plant maybe two billion years ago – and used to turn water and carbon dioxide into sugars, which are rich in chemical energy and power the complex cascade of processes we call life.

Most of those sugars are used up keeping the plant alive. The rest are stored up until some animal eats the plant. Most of the energy in the plants the animal eats gets used up keeping the animal alive; the rest get stored up, until another animal eats the first animal, and the process repeats. Sooner or later an animal manages to die without ending up in somebody else’s stomach, and its body becomes a lunch counter for all the creatures – and there are a lot of them – that make their livings by cleaning up dead things. By the time they’re finished with their work, the last of the energy from the original beam of sunlight that fell on the garden bed is gone.

Where does it go? Diffuse background heat. That’s the elephant’s graveyard of thermodynamics, the place energy goes to die. Most often, when you do anything with energy – concentrate it, move it, change its form – the price for that gets paid in low-grade heat. All along the chain from the sunlight first hitting the leaf to the last bacterium munching on the last scrap of dead coyote, what isn’t passed onward in the form of stored chemical energy is turned directly or indirectly into heat so diffuse that it can’t be made to do any work other than jiggling molecules a little. The metabolism of the plant generates a trickle of heat; the friction of the beetle’s legs on the leaf generates a tiny pulse of heat; the mouse, the snake, and the coyote all turn most of the energy they take in into heat, and all that heat radiates out into the great outdoors, warming the atmosphere by a tiny fraction of a degree, and slowly spreading up and out into the ultimate heat sink of deep space.

That’s the first example. For the second, let’s take a solar water heater, the simple kind that’s basically a tank in a glassed-in enclosure set on top of somebody’s roof. Once again we start with a ray of sunlight crossing deep space and Earth’s murky atmosphere to get to its unintended target. The sun passes through the glass and slams into the black metal of the water tank, giving up much of its energy to the metal in the form of heat. Inside the metal is water, maybe fifty gallons of it; it takes a fair amount of heat to bring fifty gallons of water to the temperature of a good hot bath, but the steady pounding of photons from the sun against the black metal tank will do the trick in a few hours.

Most of what makes building a solar water heater complex is a matter of keeping that heat in the water where it belongs, instead of letting it leak out as – you guessed it – diffuse background heat. The glass in front of the tank is there to keep moving air from carrying heat away, and it also helps hold heat in by way of a clever bit of physics: most of the energy that matter absorbs from visible light downshifts to infrared light as it tries to escape, and glass lets visible light pass through it but reflects infrared back the way it came. (This is known as the greenhouse effect, by the way, and we’ll be using it over and over again, not least in greenhouses.) All surfaces of the tank that aren’t facing the sun are surrounded by insulation, which also helps keep heat from sneaking away. If the system’s a good one, the pipes that carry hot water down from the heater to the bathtub and other uses are wrapped with insulation. Even so, some of the energy slips out from the tank, some of it makes a break for it through the insulation around the pipes, and the rest of it starts becoming background heat the moment it leaves the faucet for the bathtub or any other use.

Here’s a third example: a house on a cold winter day. The furnace keeping it warm, let’s say, is fueled by natural gas; that means the ray of sunlight that ultimately powers the process came to Earth millions of years ago and was absorbed by a prehistoric plant. The plant died without being munched by a passing dinosaur, and got buried under sediment with some of its stored energy intact. Millions of years of heat and pressure underground turned that stored energy into very simple hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane. Fast forward to 2010, when the hydrocarbons found their way through pores in the rock to a natural gas well and got shipped by pipeline, possibly over thousands of miles, to the house where it gets burnt.

The furnace turns the energy of that ancient sunlight to relatively concentrated heat, which flows out through the house, keeping it warm. Now the fun begins, because that concentrated energy – to put things in anthropomorphic terms – wants nothing in the world half as much as to fling itself ecstatically into dissolution as diffuse background heat. The more quickly it can do that, though, the more natural gas has to be burnt to keep the house at a comfortable temperature. If you’re the green wizard in charge, your goal is to slow down the dionysiac rush of seeking its bliss, and make it hang around long enough to warm the house.

How do you do that? First, you have to know the ways that heat moves from a warm body to a cold one. There are three of them: conduction, which is the movement of heat through solid matter; convection, which is the movement of heat carried on currents of air (or any other fluid); and radiation, which is the movement of heat in the form of infrared light (mostly) through any medium transparent to those wavelengths. You slow down conduction to a crawl by putting insulation in the way; you slow down convection by sealing up cracks through which air can move, and doing a variety of things to stop convective currents from forming; you slow down radiation by putting reflective barriers in the way of its escape. If you don’t do any of these things, your house leaks heat, and your checking account leaks money ; if you do all of these things – and they can be done fairly easily and cheaply – the prehistoric sunlight in the natural gas you burn has to take its time wandering out of your house, keeps you comfortable on the way, and you don’t have to spend anything like so much on more natural gas to replace it.

There are four points I’d like you to take home from these examples. The first is that they’re all talking about the same process – the movement of energy from the sun to the background radiation of outer space that passes through systems here on earth en route, and accomplishes certain kinds of work on the way. At this point, in fact, the most useful thing you can take away from this entire discussion is the habit of looking everything that goes on around you as an energy flow that starts from a concentrated source – almost always the sun – and ends in diffuse heat radiating out into space. If you pick up the habit of doing this, you’ll find that a great deal of the material that will be covered in posts to come will suddenly seem like common sense, and a great many of the habits that have are treated as normal behavior in our society will suddenly reveal themselves as stark staring lunacy.

An exercise, which I’d like to ask those readers studying this material to do several times over the next week, will help get this habit in place. Draw a rough flow chart for one or more versions of this process. Take a piece of paper, draw a picture of the sun at the top, and draw a trash can at the bottom; label the trash can “Background Heat.” Now draw the important components in any system you want to understand, and draw arrows connecting them to show how the energy moves from one component to another. If you’re sketching a natural system, draw in the plants, the herbivores, the carnivores, and the decomposers, and sketch in how energy passes from one to another, and from each of them to the trash can; if you’re sketching a human system, the energy source, the machine that turns the energy into a useful form, and the places where the energy goes all need to be marked in and connected. Do this with a variety of different systems. It doesn’t matter at this stage if you get all the details right; the important thing is to start thinking in terms of energy flow.

The second point to take home is that natural systems, having had much more time to work the bugs out, are much better at containing and using energy than most human systems are. The solar water heater and the house with its natural gas furnace take concentrated energy, put it to one use, and then lose it to diffuse heat. A natural ecosystem, by contrast, can play hot potato with its own input of concentrated energy for a much more extended period, tossing it from hand to hand (or, rather, leaf to paw to bacterial pseudopod) for quite a while before all of the energy finally follows its bliss. The lesson here is simple: by paying attention to the ways that natural systems do this, green wizards can get hints that can be incorporated into human systems to make them less wasteful and more resilient.

The third point is that energy does not move in circles. Next week we’ll be talking about material substances, which do follow circular paths – in fact, they do this whether we want them to do so or not, which is why the toxic waste we dump into the environment, for example, ends up circling back around into our food and water supply. Energy, though, moves along a trajectory with a beginning and an end. The beginning is always a concentrated source, which again is almost always the sun; the end is diffuse heat. Conceptually, you can think of energy as moving in straight lines, cutting across the circles of matter and the far more complex patterns of information gain and loss. Once a given amount of energy has followed its trajectory to the endpoint, for all practical purposes, it’s gone; it still exists, but the only work it’s capable of doing is making molecules vibrate at whatever the ambient temperature happens to be.

The fourth and final point, which follows from the third, is that for all practical purposes, energy is finite. It’s become tolerably common for believers in perpetual technological progress and economic growth to insist that energy is infinite, with the implication that human beings can up and walk off with as much of it as they wish. It’s an appealing fantasy, flattering to our collective ego, and it makes use of a particular kind of mental trap that Garrett Hardin anatomized quite a while ago. In his useful book Filters Against Folly, Hardin pointed out that the word “infinite” – along with such synonyms as “limitless” and “boundless” – are thoughtstoppers rather than meaningful concepts, because the human mind can’t actually think about infinity in any meaningful sense. When somebody says “X is infinite,” in other words, what he is actually saying is “I refuse to think about X.”

Still, there’s a more specific sense in which talk about infinite energy is nonsense by definition. At any given place and time, the amount of energy that is available in a concentration and a form capable of doing any particular kind of work is finite, often distressingly so. Every ecosystem on earth has evolved to make the most of whatever energy is available to do the work of keeping living things alive, whether that energy takes the form of equatorial sunlight shining down on the Amazon rain forest, chemical energy in sulfur-laden water surging up from hot springs at the bottom of the sea, or fat stored up during the brief Arctic warm season in the bodies of the caribou that attract the attention of a hungry wolf pack.

Thus it’s crucial to recognize that available energy is always limited, and usually needs to be carefully coaxed into doing as much work as you want to get done before the energy turns into diffuse background heat. This is as true of any whole system, a garden as much as a solar hot water system, a well-insulated house, or any other project belonging to the field of appropriate tech. Learn to think in these terms and you’re well on your way to becoming a green wizard.


pasttense said...

I think a very useful thing for people to do is to figure out exactly how much energy they are using and for what purposes. This would be very useful for prioritizing projects (there are a huge number of different energy saving things one can do, many of marginal value) as well as providing a general benchmark (a year from now to be able to say "I am using 15% less energy than I was a year ago").
Could someone present a methodology for calculating this?

Bill Pulliam said...

One of the unfortunate effects of the lack in our language of a specific word for chi, "the force," etc. is that we have chosen to apply the term "energy" to that phenomenon as well. We've talked about this before, that metaphysical "energy" and real physical energy are not at all the same phenomenon. Yet, in newage-y general discourse the two are widely confused, and physical terminology is wrongly applied to metaphysical concepts. They are not the same, they come from very different conceptual formulations, they are not interchangeable, they do not have the same properties or obey the same laws, they aren't really even good metaphors for each other. I think it is very important for one to be clear on this distinction if one's intent is results in the physical world. You can raise all the "energy" you want through meditation, ceremonial magic, skillfully placed crystals, and inspired use of language, but that will still avail you nothing if your plants just are not getting enough sunlight (physical energy)! Of course one can argue the converse, that you can give your garden all the sunlight it could use but if the chi is wrong it will still not flourish. Two different things, neither will substitute for the other.

Just important to keep in mind. If your house is cold (the temperature is low), look to the thermodynamics; if your house is cold (uninviting, sad, off-putting) look to the feng shui.

Kevin said...

I have the impression that by energy doing "work" you mean "performing life support functions," or something of that nature.

It may be some time before I am able to obtain the physical books you've referenced. In the meantime I'm cataloging every post to make sure I miss no titles, and mean to read the Master Conserver documents with care.

It would be interesting to see a disquisition on the relationship between Chi or Prana on the one hand, and the Spiritus Mundi on the other. But I am hardly expecting that in this context.

Librarian of Hillman said...


: )

may i say that i was actually *checking* the net every hour or two this evening to see the new post?

(it hasn't been a great couple of days, and i was looking forward to something i could expect to be positive and active and constructive! so the boost of energy is much appreciated!)

i printed my handouts and hole-punched 'em and stuck 'em in a binder i "borrowed" from work. and i cleared a shelf on my book-case at home here for these and related materials i've been gathering for a while--that was long over-due!

i dug out two old textbooks from undergrad (BIOLOGY: Life on Earth
and Discovering the Universe, circa 1988ish.) and, being a librarian after all, i checked out what my campus library had to offer on ecosystem science/ecology textbooks--quite a lot, in fact! i thought i'd test-drive a couple of books before making any purchase (How to Do Ecology: A Concise Handbook (Karban, Huntzinger 2006)
Big Ecology: the Emergence of Ecosystem Science (David C. Coleman 2010)
Prehistoric Native Americans and Ecological Change: Human Ecosystems in Eastern North America since the Pleistocene (Paul & Hazel Delcourt 2004) and i will give a heads up if i think any of them are worth seeking!

no luck with my local used bookstores yet, though! but i'll keep checking!

(sorry for turning my "homework" in a week late!)

and SO now...a couple questions please?

1. in terms of what sorts of things move in somewhat closed circles, and which ones (like energy) move along one or many paths on their way to do you quickly recognize which kind you have on hand? does it come down primarily to matter or made things being the former, and intangibles or forces being the other?

2. what about living beings?

3. since the sun's energy sooner or later radiates out and off the planet here, wouldn't it eventually participate in some cosmic role, like making new stars, which in turn send their energy out to other planets? so that *could* also be a "circle"...except that for US, here and now, that is outside our concern really, as we can't really affect that? (just to get the most complete picture in my head.)

and THANK you so much again for trying this! it is perfect timing for me in many ways! and thanks to all who posted so many great resources last week! wow!

oh, one last thing:

Detritivores, also known as detritus feeders or saprophages, are heterotrophs that obtain nutrients by consuming detritus (decomposing organic matter).


Karen said...

Reporting back in with my progress:

Master Conserver - downloaded, printed and forwarded the link to friends/acquaintances -Check

Books that arrived this week:

One Magic Square - just started reading

Fundamentals of Ecology (Odum) - will start to read this weekend

The rest as ongoing reference books:

The Integral Urban House
The Encyclopedia of Country Living
Organic Gardening
Root Cellaring
Winter Harvest Handbook

As a side note, I just acquired a Treadle-driven antique Singer sewing machine (will be arriving this weekend). They literally go for peanuts at the moment (for which I am most thankful).

Currently on the hunt for spare parts and have set as a task for myself to become proficient in its use by the end of this year. I learn to sew many moons ago (thankful for those Home Economic classes of the 70's). I had sewn my clothes during college days and when I first entered the work world. I have a few small projects in mind that I can make this year.

I also just registered as member of a Spinning Guild to learn how to spin wool. Hope to be able to have some first classes in the fall. As I am already proficient in knitting, I want to had this to my skillset.

Due to my full-time day job, I probably will not be able to squeeze in learning how to weave until next year.

Last but not least, I am two-thirds finished with reading "The Long Descent".

Joel said...

Thanks for that.

I'm not sure it belongs in this blog series, but I'd like to read more of your thoughts about the behavior of information. Matter cycling endlessly, and energy going inexorably from source to sink, were both familiar concepts, but I hadn't imagined them side-by-side the way you describe. It's a very powerful description.

The more mystical of my friends tend to insist that information follows the same rules as energy, and media trade groups are trying desperately to require that it follows the same rules as matter. I've done just enough reading on the topic to know it isn't so simple as that, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were a simple way to compare information to energy and matter...perhaps a third shape to go with that straight line and circle?

madtom said...

So far, very well done.

I don't think I'd want to move on before specifying the identity of heat and energy and their units, and the big distinction between heat/energy and temperature, adding a discussion of the specific heat of materials (especially water) and the latent heat of fusion and vaporization (again with special reference to water).

The understanding of this shown in the opening scene of "Never Cry Wolf" kept me watching - where a drenched Farley Mowat strips despite the sub-freezing temperature, so that his fire and the atmosphere can supply the heat needed to vaporize the water in his clothing rather than hoping that his metabolism can supply so much heat, which would likely have killed him.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Absolutely masterly work, JM!

1) The First and Second Laws of TD in one brief paragraph of short, plain, vividly-clear words.

2) Likewise eukaryotic cells and endosymbiosis (after Lynn Margulis, perhaps?).

3) Likewise photosynthesis.

4) And on.

All delightful stuff, and with added crechwenu. (I love 'dionysiac' particularly).

Truly you deserve the Archdruid tag. A green one, I presume.

LLongyfarchiadau i chi, fy mrawd i dda! RhG

Luke Devlin said...

Outstanding posts, thanks John.

Stephen said...

It seems that there is still so much opportunity for integrating many of the systems we use in order to get some extra benefit..water cooled generators heating water tanks, shower drain pipes preheating water tanks...well, lots of *waste* heat anyway. I look forward to next week, but I am sure the material subtances and multiple ways they can be used down the chain to maximum entropy will save ourselves energy in the process too.

By the way, I finally got a hold of The Long Descent and am very much enjoying reading it. Thanks.

Jason said...

I went searching for ap. tech. books way back when you first mentioned them, got an interesting uk one and Homes and Other Garbage. I look forward to finding out what to do with them. George Mobus' elegant flowcharts over at Question Everything have given me some practice with the diagramming thing, although that's mostly much more macro. I got hold of a new Princeton Ecology cheap and have been wondering why seral stages didn't feature so strongly... now I know, the systemic approach fell away?

Of course the Force has got to be non-physical energy also... but when it comes to pop culture, you recently made a serious error. I hesitated about calling you on this. Rat on a Stick is Tunnels and Trolls fayre, not Dungeons and Dragons. I'm delighted you knew the smaller game, but mix them up again and a Take That You Fiend will be heading your way!!

Rat on a Stick still has many adherents to this day. The Judges' Guild website recently featured a recipe of which this is a veggie version. We should see which Green Wizard can come up with the best peak-proof RoaSt. :)

Mary said...

Beautifully written, as always, but I'd have to say yes and no. Catalytic reactions can re-conserve heat energy (or rather, Brownian motion/jiggling molecules and/or atoms with an affinity for each other can crash into each other in the just the right way can re-trap some of the heat/motion energy). And while fossil fuel energy is severely limited, there are vast reserves of very highly concentrated energy that hold any given atom together. The energy that holds molecules together -- which is what we tap when we burn fossil fuels -- is miniscule by comparison. Tapping into and channeling that energy without blowing ourselves to smithereens is another story, of course.

Yupped said...

Very helpful post. I live in a very old house in the northeast, with a flatish, aluminum-coated roof to reflect heat in the summer, and a lot of opportunity for more insulation to retain more heat in the winter. Lots of challenges, and thanks for the inspiration.

Wandering Sage said...

Great stuff, as usual John.
I can't imagine that modern scientists actually take much time to consider qi (chi, ki, etc...) energy unless their field includes quantum physics.
When all is said and done the cultivation of that 'energy' may bee what we should have been putting all of out time and effort int.

Bill Pulliam said...

Joel -- your mystical friends are making the exact confusion I mentioned above (2nd comment), Metaphysical "energy" behaves like information (in fact, I think that is what it really is): it does not disperse over time or distance according to simple laws, it is not conserved, etc. There are thermodynamic definitions of "information," related to the structure and complexity of a system. But this is not what your mystical friends are talking about when they say "information" either. Even in this thermodynamic concept, energy is a quality of energy, it is not a quantity, much as "orange-ness" is a property of matter but is not the same as matter.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

Cheers from Eastern Iowa on the banks of the Mississippi River,

I love this stuff. Thirty-three years ago this coming fall, in my first college semester, I discovered the discipline of geography and fell in love with it. Enough so to complete a BA, MA, and Ph.D. degree in the geography, the latter focusing on water resources and physical geography, and going on to teach the same for seven years at the college level, plus working in the government for five more years on related matters. Much of what you are teaching, JMG, is at the core of what is taught in the discipline of geography, which is very much an integrative discipline, particularly in that half we call physical geography, which inevitably starts with talking about the Sun, its energy, forms of energy, entropy, and the likes.

I even attempted a blog (started about four years ago and now much neglected and devolved into a place where I only very occasionally process my thoughts) with the goal and hope of actually doing just what you are now doing. My goal with PostOilGeography ( was much in the same mindset of your Green Wizardry. In my case, it was the desire at the time to develop a entire series of "open source" PowerPoint or other formatted lectures and teaching sets on what a person should know about the Sun, energy, climate, soils, etc., to exist in a Post Oil world. I had tried to ask myself that if I had one hour, one morning, one day, one weekend, one week, one month, or one semester of your time, what would I want to teach you about living within the limits of sunlight (for instance) and the world around. I had dreams of hiring myself out as a lecturer to do just that, traveling wherever I was paid to go, to give such lectures.

Alas, I never seemed to have the energy left after each day's and week's work to follow up on that hope and plan. I am thrilled to see you take it up, both because I know you will succeed better than I through both your blog and eventual publications that will follow, and as a indirect affirmation that what I had identified years ago as a needed path to follow has seen external recognition of importance.

TG said...

My thermodynamics prof, affectionately known as Doc Throck, taught an easy way to remember the two laws:

I. There's no such thing as a free lunch.
II. You can't even break even.

He believed that of all the scientific principles we think we understand, these two laws are the most likely to survive the upcoming centuries unaltered and unscathed. Although he probably wouldn't put it quite this way, it suddenly occurs to me that they're rather lovely counterspells, along the same line as "There is no brighter future ahead." They're a fundamental reality check.

On a happy note, I've found a friend who's interested in the second set of Master Conserver notes. So there will now be at least two copies of these in Hastings, Nebraska. And my experiment with keeping the solar oven at dehydrator temps was promising. I will try it for real in September, when our raspberry crop peaks. Since the oven was running about 10-15° hotter than ideal, it should work even better then. The solar rays will be less intense, and the relative humidity will be lower.

--Tracy Glomski

DC said...

@ Bill: nail on the head! great description of the differences in energy phenomenon.

@ JMG: You get the gold star in my reader today! really pleased with your explanation of energy flow in a different set of circumstances but with the same physical requirements to manipulate energy dynamics.

philip.coe said...

Using dark-colored roofs and materials in cities is a good example of sunlight being converted into damaging heat in a warming world and a good example of energy flow. Thinking in terms of energy flow allowed me to see that we need to take this sun energy that is needlessly being converted to infrared heat by dark surfaces and either bounce it back into space with light-colored materials or else convert it into more useful forms of work (ie passive and photovoltaic solar) on its way to becoming diffuse heat. The sun's energy can either be wasted on someone's hot roof doing nothing but heating up my neighborhood or can be harnessed to do the work that fossil fuels are now doing. In the end the same amount of heat ends up in the atmosphere, but the benefit is that less fossil fuel will be doing the work which means less CO2. Light-colored surfaces actually reduce the heat-load of the atmosphere by sending the sun's energy back into outer-space at the same wavelengh it came in on without converting it to the infrared spectrum (heat). Everyone should look through the eyes of a Flir infrared camera for a day to physically see energy 'flow'; a very neat and educational experience indeed.

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks for the very clear description of the basic water heater -- that totally helped me picture it! And as someone who hates to waste, your description of the energy depletion non-circle gives me a great mental picture of where to look for waste in my home systems (I believe I just added a step by now having chickens to eat the veggie plant waste, whereas it used to go on the compost directly.)

I'm reading all the books I'd found at the used book store and will draw up some energy pathways this week. I'm looking forward to more info!

Glenn said...

IIRC I learned the "three laws" as:
1. You can't win.
2. You can't break even.
3. You can't get out of the game.


Bill Pulliam said...

Oops, so much for my proofreading. I meant to say (near the end of my last commennt) that "INFORMATION is a quality of energy not a quantity" not "ENERGY is a quality of energy..." The way I wrote it makes no sense, really...

Joel said...

@Librarian of Hillman:

I'll take a shot at your questions.

1. If you look at something purely for what it fundamentally is, you'll tend to see it cycling. If you look at it purely for what it does, you'll tend to see it go from a source to some conclusion. Most of the entities in our lives are viewed (and their identities constructed in our culture) with a mix of those perspectives; you'll need to re-interpret them as bare matter or as manifestations of energy in order to see them follow one set of rules or the other in an entirely pure way.

2. Living things are complicated, and we ignore a lot of what makes them interesting if we see them either as simple matter, or as simply an energy source. Information is also tremendously important to their constitution, in my opinion.

3. The background temperature of outer space is about 3 Kelvin. That thermal energy is way too diffuse to apply to any sort of use. As time goes by, it is expected to warm up a little bit, but even if it did, there would be no way to apply that energy, beyond staying warm at night. Freeman Dyson expects that life will continue into that time, living extremely slow lives on the surfaces of exhausted stars. I commented on that scenario at Ran Prieur's blog back in early January 2007.

Joel said...

@Bill Pullman:

Yes, I was glad to discover that you see this too, when our comments were approved by Mr. Greer.

A friend of mine was trying to use the first law to prove the existence of saints. We have an acquaintance in common named Shannon, who happens to say very surprising things at irregular intervals, and I was about to use her as an allegory to explain Shannon entropy to him, but in retrospect I don't believe this would have gotten through to him.

Dave Wahler said...

As always, JMG, you demonstrate a gift for expressing complex ideas in simple and accessible language. If any of my tutoring clients need a supplementary primer on energy for their freshman science classes, I might actually steal some of this post for its readability.

One small quibble: the mathematician in me bristles at the suggestion that humans cannot think about infinity in any meaningful way. (The ghost of Georg Cantor would like a word with you.) Of course I'll be the first to agree that there's a big difference between abstract infinities (like the cardinality of a continuum) and practical infinities (like unlimited sources of physical energy), and that the latter type will never be encountered by the likes of us. If only some thoughtful mathematician had bothered to properly explain this distinction to economists...

As for the first assignment: So far I've found the Rodale Book of Composting and an old Reader's Digest guide to gardening and landscaping. I also found "The Directory of Knots" on the cheap at Barnes & Noble -- knot-tying sounds like one of those dying skills that could stand to be revived and spread.

I plan to give copies of the Master Conserver's printout to my WWOOF hosts once I start touring. I figure that they will be the most likely to put it to good use. Heck, they might even help me learn how to apply it.

Don Plummer said...

Well, here goes. I was trying to do a diagram of geo-thermal energy releases (e.g., volcanoes, thermal sprints, geysers), and I was stumped when I tried uncovering the original energy source. It isn't the sun, is it? Isn't it the same energy source that formed the solar system, including the sun?

Regarding a word for the "intangible life force," wouldn't Western languages have a word buried somewhere that originally meant something like that. Is there a proto-Indo-European and/or a Sanskrit, Old Irish, Lithuanian, Latin, or Greek, word that has cognates in modern Western languages, even if the meaning has been changed? Any English cognate must have lost that meaning a long time ago, which is why George Lucas resorted to the unimaginative word "force."

Has the concept of an "intangible life force" been so completely lost in Western thought that no trace of it remains in our vocabulary?

MisterMoose said...

I learned the 3 laws of thermodynamics as:

1. You can't win.
2. You can't even break even.
3. There's no way to get out of the game.

So, after the sun turns into a red giant and then into a white dwarf in a couple billion years or so, we'll have to move on to other star systems to keep going (I assume the NASA budget will be big enough by then). Red dwarf stars last a long time, but eventually even they burn out. And, of course, after a sufficiently long time, the universe expands until we can't even see the few stars that remain. Ultimately (after a very long time) even protons decay... Yep. There's no way to get out of the game.

The obvious solution is to create a new universe, move there, and start over. I think this is what God did when He created this one, and if we don't accidently destroy ourselves first, we will eventually become so godlike and omnipotent that we should be able to do the same thing.

Hey, that was easy!

And speaking of sunlight and photosynthesis and captured solar energy ending up in our omnivorous tummies, our tomato plants are over six feet tall now, and more and more people keep stopping to ask what our secret is. I've started telling them that we have a portrait of a very small tomato plant (named Dorian, of course) up in the attic...

Lamb said...

Count me enthralled! Lovely piece of work, this, and it pulled me in deftly and made the cells in my brain start shooting off as they haven't since college!
Bill Pulliam's comments were dead on, as usual.
I think that may be why I read here...I end up reading all the comments as well.
Consider yourself a human sun and your energy being poured down to us is being radiated in all sorts of ways, until it too, becomes a sort of diffused background heat...but with a difference. This *background heat* still can have ripple effects and major effects. I read your post, I take action and insulate my windows, my neighbor sees me and asks what I am doing. I explain the actions and the savings that will be attained by my actions.My neighbor thinks it is a good idea and does the same. Later, he is asked at work "What did you do this weekend?", he tells about insulating his windows and mentions his musings of planting a garden. A co-worker hears this and decides to insulate not only her windows, but her attic as well. She tells her cousin about it and they engage in a discussion of saving their hard earned monies by lowering fuel costs, etc. Her cousin decides to install a passive hot water system at her house....and on it goes...but yet, *I* was the only one that actually read your blog.*I* was the one most directly affected by your *beams*, yet the effects went far beyond me as the ideas *diffused*.
Fun to think about, isn't it?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Nice explanations. Thanks for ideas and inspiration.

Have now finished Ecotechnic Future.

Energy flows in our old house: fair amount of chi--also plenty of physical energy flowing in and out via radiance/convection/conduction. Am starting green wizardry at home to prepare for winter. Anti-myth husband calls it sensible frugality in the face of inevitable energy cost increases. Job one: more insulation, caulking, thick curtains for winter nights.

Will now study the Conservers handouts. Am continuing ecosystem/ecological gardening studies and practice. Have been making flow charts for awhile to understand things like trophic levels (food web) or the vicious cycle of synthetic fertilizer manufacture and use. Will now try this for my leaky house--though I know how that will turn out!

DPW said...

Read the first ~80 pages of "Basic Ecology" last night (cramming :))

Great book. Very readable, concise, enjoyable even.

But my god. It's hard to view our species as anything short of a plague when you realize we've known for 50-100 years what we're doing, what the outcome will be, etc., and we've done nothing to change.

I haven't had one of those "oh sh*t" days in a has been interesting.

PanIdaho said...

Pasttense: I don't know if this is what you meant, but for our efforts, I have created a spreadsheet where I note the amount of, say, electricity used in a billing period divided by the number of days in that billing period to get an average daily use. Then I have a formula in the spreadsheet that compares that month's average with the average for the same month of the preceding year, and then calculates the YOY percentage of increase or decrease. This simple spreadsheet helps me to know when changes we've made are having a positive impact. FWIW, we've cut our electrical consumption by an average of about 25% per month over what it was four years ago. I'm hoping to cut that even further in the coming year.

PanIdaho said...

I ordered both of the Ecology books mentioned because I wanted to have the quick intro so I could get up to speed, but have the option later of going through the more in-depth information so I could learn more. Both arrived a couple of days ago, and I'm reading through Basic Ecology now. I also picked up an interesting book on heating and cooking with wood, titled, "The New, Improved Wood Heat" by John Vivian (second printing in 1978) that has some really good information in it on everything from woodlot management to the finer points of cooking on a wood stove or with a fireplace, to what you can use the waste ashes and soot for! I would seriously recommend this book for anyone who thinks they might be heating with wood any time in the future.

Dwig said...

An interesting bit of synchronicity...

The ecology book that I've had since the '70s is "Environment, Power, and Society" by the other Odum, Howard T; I've read it a few times over the years, and was as much puzzled by the concepts as impressed by the breadth of his reach. (Old saying: "a man's reach should exceed his grasp" -- I have the impression that Odum qualifies easily.)

I recently got his updated version "Environment, Power, and Society for the 21st Century", with the appropriate subtitle "The Hierarchy of Energy". I'm in the middle of studying it to get a clearer understanding of terms like emergy and transformity, which are concepts that arise out of the overall theory of the energy hierarchy.

I wish I could give a nice summary of the concepts here, but I can't do it clearly and confidently, and don't want to pass on an inadequate or incorrect impression. Maybe later I'll post what I've learned.

(Bill, are you well enough versed in these concepts to offer a description or critique?)

sofistek said...

I couldn't find Basic Ecology anywhere in my country so I checked on and found a used copy at some ridiculously cheap price. I ordered it, the order went through but I got an email a few hours later to say that my order had been cancelled. I checked on Amazon again and all of the copies had gone (at least all of the ones that could be shipped internationally, as well as almost all the others). I guess your readers have scooped the lot. So I ordered Fundamentals of Ecology. I couldn't find any in New Zealand that weren't far more than I could afford (several hundred dollars) but managed to order one from Amazon, again. And this time it has been shipped, but with a 2 month freight period! So I won't get it until some time in September.

Good post this week. It got me thinking about the totality of life on earth. With the limited energy available from the sun, there must only be a limited amount of energy available for life forms. As human life forms have ballooned to 7 billion, surely that has inevitably led to a reduction in other life forms, through deforestation and habitat destruction.

John Michael Greer said...

Pasttense, we'll be getting to that down the road a bit.

Bill, in my experience there are several distinct things muddled up together in talk about metaphysical "energy." One -- the ch'i I work with in t'ai chi and ch'i kung practice -- does actually behave a lot like physical energy (it's closest, in some ways, to static electricity). Most of the others have much less in common with physical energy. The point that has to be kept in mind, though, is the old magical axiom -- "The planes are discrete and not continuous" -- meaning that you can't casually convert one of these things into another.

Kevin, no, think of work more broadly. Warming a rock is work; so is keeping a mouse alive; so is hauling a dead hot water heater to the dump, and so on. Anything that causes change to matter is work.

Librarian, good questions.

1. We'll be discussing that in much more detail as we proceed.

2. Living beings are composite entities that participate in flows of energy, matter, and information, each of which follows its own laws. Here again, we'll get to that in much more detail as we go.

3. If the energy that diffuses into deep space eventually goes to make new suns or what have you, that's not something we will ever know, and the crucial thing to keep in mind is that in any human perspective, energy moves from source to sink and does not cycle back.

Karen, seriously cool.

Joel, good. You're thinking ahead. Yes, we'll be discussing information as we proceed.

Madtom, one step at a time! Many of my readers -- especially those who have the disadvantage of a recent American public school education -- have had no exposure at all to the ideas I'm trying to communicate, and it's always been my sense that it's best to start with simple models that make the essential concepts clear before getting into the fine details. We'll get to the latter in good time.

Rhisiart, diolch yn fawr!

Luke, thank you.

Stephen, exactly. You're getting it.

Jason, I first encountered "Rat On A Stick" in one of the old cheaply printed Judges' Guild publications in the late 1970s, and it was set up (as most JG products were) primarily for D&D. Mind you, I played my share of most of the late Seventies fantasy RPGs, up to and including first edition Chivalry and Sorcery.

Mary, er, you're quibbling. Of course you can use the effects of catalysis and the like to make use of some otherwise wasted heat on its way to background, but that doesn't change the broader thermodynamic picture. As for nuclear energy, the vast majority of that is out of our reach -- try splitting a nitrogen atom sometime -- and what humanity can access requires huge inputs of cheap energy to mine, refine, process, and provide a reactor for the handful of very scarce and toxic substances that we can use, and what you get out the other end are wastes that are so hideously dangerous that they have to be kept separate from the rest of the biosphere for a quarter of a million years. Let's not go there.

Don Plummer said...

Proofread my own work? I still don't find my errors!

The parenthetical phrase in my last post should have been "volcanoes, thermal springs, geysers," not "...thermal sprints..."


FernWise said...

To Don Plummer - as I understand it, the source of geothermal/volcanic energy is seen as either nuclear (decay of radioactive compounds deep within the earth).

njh said...

It's interesting how people jump to spinning and weaving as a response to the threat of energy decline. Both seem poor investments to me (I should speak softly here, my wife is currently away at a fibre crafts fair). They are fun, but are only ever going to be hobbies.

Consider that a spinning machine (that draws the fibre and spins into even thickness multi-ply yarns) is something that can be built by a knowledgeable blacksmith or carpenter in a day or two. A mechanised weaving loom can be built with 18th century technology. Automated knitting is 19th century as are sewing machines. But what we still haven't made machines to efficiently do is make clothes.

So it would seem prudent, while we have a supply of cheap fabric, to learn how to efficiently make efficient clothing. And it's actually fun. What got me started is the fact that I am very long in the body, so off the shelf clothing is either baggy or midriff. I've made tee-shirts, underwear, polar fleece tops and bike riding clothes using nothing more than a bottom of the range sewing machine and some simple long life low tech tools such as the humble stitch unpicker.

Odin's Raven said...

What about the stories of Tibetan monks who had to demonstrate a certain level of meditative ability by generating lots of extra body heat to dry several wet blankets in very cold, wet and naked conditions? Where is that physical energy coming from, under the influence of mental energy? Are they breaking down their bodies to generate heat, or converting spiritual into physical energy or mastering physical laws by their intent, or what?

Mark said...

JMG-- Brilliant! I really love the way you've unfolded this information throughout the evolution of your blog. I think you will be remembered as a wise sage among those who read your writings.

Bill-- Haha, very well put! I think it was last week someone commented on how the comment section is just as informative as the actual blog post.

RPC said...

JMG: "very nearly the only languages on earth that don’t have a commonly used word for an intangible life force connected to the breath are those spoken nowadays in the industrial nations of the modern West." Um, how about "spirit," descended from the Latin spiritus (breath)? Puts an interesting spin on the first verse of the Bible!

Stacey said...

I picked up a copy of the first Foxfire Book at my local used bookstore. Wow! It's like taking a trip in a time machine. I'd never heard of this series of books before.

Interesting synchronicity: The same night I brought home Foxfire, I finished a novel I'd been reading (The Outlander by Gil Adamson). It's set in the Canadian wilderness in the early 1900s, and one of the references the author lists at the end is the Foxfire books. :)

John Michael Greer said...

Yupped, you're welcome. Does the attic have adequate venting? We'll be getting to that too.

Sage, I ain't arguing. Still, the old Chinese alchemists were very good at working with physical energy as well, and I think that's an example worth following.

Kevin, if you ever find the time or get a bug up, please do consider finishing that project -- or at least put together the more narrowly geographic dimensions of it! That's not my strong suite by any means, and it would be good to have info on the subject from somebody who knows it well.

Tracy, good! The hippie farm where I lived for a while in the early 80s had a very effective solar dehydrator -- building one to the same rough pattern is a project I have in mind, probably for next year (gotta get the cold frames and the solar oven first).

DC, thank you!

Philip, good. One of your points -- that heat's going to end up back in the atmosphere one way or the other, and it can be made to do some work en route -- is one aspect of a more general point I'll be making over and over again as we proceed.

Cathy, excellent. I'll explain next week why putting the chickens into the loop is a good idea for another reason.

Glenn, that's a fair summary!

Joel, good. As you'll see, information is the third side of the triad of principles we'll be using.

Dave, the issue of the mathematization of infinities is a very subtle point. I'm not much of a mathematician -- Pythagorean philosophical geometry is about the upper limit for me -- but the sense I've gotten is that the process of abstraction in mathematics allows human beings to manipulate abstract tokens or models of things we can't actually understand. The square root of -1 comes to mind here! We can construct an abstract representation of infinity, manipulate it, and come up with deductions that can actually tell us some of the properties of infinity, but -- at least as I see it -- that doesn't bring us any closer to being able to grapple with actual infinities, if there are any.

Don, good. You've encountered one of the very, very few energy sources here on earth that don't come from the sun. The internal heat of the earth is mostly a product of radioactive decay of unstable isotopes in the mass of the planet, combined with a little leftover heat from the original red-hot mass of contracting space dust that gave rise to the little blue ball we live on.

Bill Pulliam said...

About chi -- I think it is some sort of emergent phenomenon involving the movement of energy in several forms (radiation, heat, kinetic, etc.), materials, and whatever those fundamental entropy processes are that distinguish the living from the dead (hard science really never has gotten a handle on that one at a fundamental thermodynamic level). Just plug it all in the matrix and the Chi drops out in the eigenvectors. Or something like that.

Dwig -- H.T. is much less accessible to a general audience than E.P., of the Odum brothers. But if you are inclined, H.T. is worth the effort. His ideas are more innovative and unorthodox (though fully compatible with E.P.'s work as well). Two fundamental concepts are critical to his work; you've gotta get them or the rest of it will never really come together. First, emergy = embodied energy. He traces all energy back to the sun (Don -- your point about geothermal applies here, more later). Emergy is the number of calories of solar energy it took to make one calorie of energy stored in some other form. The most basic example is the food chain. The sunlight falls on the grass, About 3% of this energy winds up stored as energy in the biomass of the grass. So from the original 100 calories of sunlight, you get 3 calories of grass. This ratio of 100:3, or 33.333, is the transformity for grass biomass. It means that every calorie of grass has an emergy of 33.333 calories of sunlight.

Next, the caterpillar eats the grass. About 1/10th of the grass biomass winds up as caterpillar biomass. Now, your transformity for the caterpillar = 10 times what it was for the grass, so it is now 333.333. Every calorie of caterpillar has an emergy of 333.33 solar calories. Same thing for the thrush that eats the caterpillar, giving it a transformity of 3333.333. And again for the hawk that eats the thrush, until finally the vulture that eats the hawk has a transformity of 333,333. So to make one calorie of tasty Vulture meat, it takes a third of a million calories of sunlight. That's the basic idea of emergy and tranformities.

The same logic applies to other forms of energy. The wind, the rain, the coal in the ground are ultimately forms of solar energy, each with their own transformity. And in actuality it takes more than just the sunlight to grow that grass, it also takes the wind, the rain, the nutrients in the soil. So when you calculate the whole system, the transformity for the grass is gonna be a lot higher than 33. H.T.'s work extends these ideas all the way through the environment and society; at one point he even calculates the emergy of a scientific publication, I believe.

About geothermal energy... the force that drives the volcanoes and raisies the mountains is not directly solar energy. I asked H.T. about this once. The idea we came to is that ultimately both the geothermal energy and the solar energy trace back to the same primordial source, the proto-sun which created the solar nebula from which the earth and our sun and all the other planets formed. In theory one could calculate a transformity between the two; in practice I think he just used a simplifying assumption of 1:1 and takes both as equivalent primary sources of energy.

The maximum power principle is controversial and not universally accepted. His idea is that self-organizing systems will evolve in such a way as to maximize power -- maximize the rate at which energy flows through them. This is in contrast to the idea that they would maximize efficiency -- the most complete transformation of energy in to work. It is a very interesting idea; he believed it would apply to cells, organisms, ecosystems, and also human societies and global civilizations.

Thos are the basics; ponder them until you really grasp them, and E, P, & S will be much more comprehensible!

By the way, the first person I ever heard about Hubberd's Peak from was H.T. Odum, in about 1987. Some folks have been thinking about this stuff for a looooong time.

John Michael Greer said...

Don, to continue, there are plenty of older terms, but most of them have other meanings now. "Spirit" is the classic example -- Medieval Latin spiritus was an exact translation of Chinese ch'i, down to fine points of usage, and fit into the standard division of everything in the universe into anima (consciousness), spiritus (life force), and corpus (physical body) in a way very familiar to the rest of the world. Nowadays "spirit" has all kinds of connotations totally irrelevant to its old meaning.

Moose, I don't know which of your jokes was the funnier -- the picture of Dorian Tomato, or the idea that human beings can aspire to godhood and outlast the stars. Curiously, though, your tomatoes have competition; our corn plants are well over ten feet tall, now that they've flowered, and our pole beans have spectacularly overtopped their poles and are now trying to snag startled bats and low-flying planes.

Lamb, your crystal ball is working well, I see. That discussion is two weeks away, when we've covered energy and matter and start talking about information.

Adrian, tell your anti-myth husband that 90% of wizardry is applied common sense. (The other 10%? I ain't telling.)

DPW, no question, we've made a real mess of things. The sooner we start trying to repair the damage, the less ghastly the blowback is going to be.

Panidaho, thanks for the book recommendation!

Dwig, I'd be just as interested in Bill's commentary. My take on Howard Odum's book is that it's a much more challenging, and rather more technical volume, more for the specialist than the common or garden variety green wizard.

Sofistek, excellent. You get it. Once you grasp that energy is limited, a lot of other basic realities that most people miss become very sharply clear.

Don, I think thermal sprints are a great idea. I used to use hsing-yi forms, which are very fast and vigorous, to warm up before t'ai chi practice on cold winter mornings; I bet sprinting would work just as well. ;-)

Fern, mostly, yes.

Njh, that depends on just how badly disrupted public order and transport networks become. The technical ability to build a factory isn't the only issue; you also have to consider the economic viability, which depends in turn on how wide an area you can use reliably as a source of raw materials and a distribution region for your products. Below a certain geographic scale, the old-fashioned drop spindle spinning local fibers becomes a more economical way of providing yarn to knitters, crocheters and weavers, simply because you can't pay for mass production with a very limited market area. Will we get there? To judge by past examples, yes, but probably not in our lifetimes -- which makes it all the more important to preserve skills like spinning now, so they don't have to be laboriously reinvented a few centuries from now.

Raven, heck of a good question. If some of those monks would be willing to demonstrate their skills when wired up by some capable sports physiologists, we could find out.

Mark, thank you.

John Michael Greer said...

RPC, the Hebrew of which "spirit" is the translation in English versions of the Bible is ruach, which is another classic term for a life force linked to the breath (though its connotations have changed somewhat since the Torah was written down two and a half millennia ago). But I don't think you've read the Bible recently -- the verse you're thinking about is a bit later.

Stacey, there are something like twelve volumes of Foxfire at this point. Enjoy!

Bill, for what it's worth, my take on ch'i is more traditional. The idea that human beings experience several different kinds, realms, or planes of existence, none of which can be reduced to any of the others, seems to me to make more sense of the universe of our experience than any attempt to collapse the nonphysical into the physical (or vice versa, for that matter). But I see no point in being dogmatic about that assertion.

Bill Pulliam said...

More about geothermal energy -- it is a component of all ecosystems, not just those in Iceland, Yellowstone, or Hawaii. This is the force that raises the continents above the sea. You don't just feel it when the earth quakes. It is geothermal energy that has put the rocks up in the atmosphere, so that they can dissolve and release their chemical constituents, form clay minerals (some of the most profoundly important minerals, ecologically speaking), and become soil. It is what makes rivers that contiually fertilize the oceans. It is what recycles the crust and releases the water that has been chemically bound up within it, so we did not wind up like Mars with all the water locked in the rocks. The gifts of the fires within the Earth are usually not so obvious as those from the fire in the sky, but they are every bit as ubiquitous and important (if usually much less quiet).

And there's the third significant source of energy in the ecosphere: Tides. These are a down-to-earth manifestation of the kinetic energy of the solar system, as these enormous objects whip each other around in their gravitationally-bound dance. Ultimately this too is traceable to the fires of the proto-sun.

Ruben said...

People may enjoy Low-tech Magazine

@Bill--your mention of Maximum Power reminded me of Constructal theory, which has been proposed as the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics.

Constructal Theory states "For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it." Which if I understand it correctly, means that in order to battle entropy, the system must be constantly reducing loss. So, as long as the river delta provides ever easier access for the river to the sea, the delta persists. When it stops, the river changes course.

So, CT can be used to model flows of all kinds. And this is my favourite part--it does this by optimizing imperfections. I can barely grasp what that means sometimes, but it has the sound of something very important.

Bill Pulliam said...

I suppose I should add my own professional opinion on H.T. Odum's work. I consider it to be among the most important pioneering efforts to really understand ecosystems (people included) in a holistic and energetic perspective. Emergy is a simple yet fundamental concept that when you get it in your head will forever alter and continually color your understanding of energy "in the wild." Maximum Power is a harder nut; in my day it had devotees of almost religious fervor, critics who thought it was bunk, and far larger numbers of people who didn't really see much point in it. Considering the general collapse of old-fashioned scholarship in Academia in recent decades, I suspect the last group has become even more dominant (just put it all in a GIS so we can make some eye-popping figures to show the funding agencies).

Re: chi: Fortunately, one doesn't have to know where chi comes from to figure out how to work with it rather than against it. Just like understanding of the Schroedinger Wave Equation is completely unnecessary when you are building a solar water heater.

I still have a vision of someone somewhere wrangling equations trying to come up with a comprehensive accounting for the life process, from the quantum level on up, transforming the coordinates and pulling out those good old eigenvectors, and suddenly seeing a term drop out. Puzzling over it for a moment, the equation-wrangler suddenly has a flash of insight, sits back, and exclaims, "My god, it's chi!"

Of course, lately I've begun to wonder if in fact the universe exists purely because the math says it can... so I may be a bit loony myself.

Laura said...

Thanks for a very interesting post! I'll gladly listen to anyone who tells me to go to a used bookstore and buy books on old-fashioned technology! I've been visiting antiques and thrift stores for awhile now, and collecting non-electic versions of household tools. I've got a hand-crank eggbeater and wood drill, a kitchen gram scale, a washboard, and just today I found an old "heater" iron. Antiques stores can also house interesting books, BTW, especially older agriculture manuals and engineering textbooks.

Several of the comments today really got me thinking, and I wanted to respond to a few of them.

@Don Plummer about geothermal: Yeah, I was trying to do the same thing with the hydroelectric dam two blocks from my house. The potential energy of the water gets translated to electricity via the force of gravity, and at least some of the water in the river got its potential energy from the sun and then rained into the river, but what of the water that gushes out of the spring at the river's source? My geology gives out at this point.

@NJH about spinning ==> clothing manufacture: Oh, I dunno, England in the Middle Ages successfully supported an international trade in fine wool cloth with an army of housewives wielding drop spindles. IIRC, it took sixteen drop spindles, or four walking wheels once they were invented, to keep one weaver supplied. Handloom technology has improved since then, but interestingly so has handspinning technology -- we now have treadle wheels, which can replace about six drop spindles. As for the most efficient way to make clothes, that is complicated by the fact that no two humans are exactly the same shape. Efficiency of time and cloth can be achieved by making clothing out of (almost) nothing but rectangles and triangles. (The biggest non-rectangle is the crotch seam on a pair of pants.) But then your fashion choices are rather limited.

Librarian of Hillman said...

thank you Joel and JMG for addressing my specific questions, that is good enough for now!

on spinning and weaving--i think that knowing HOW things are made at that level, also helps in working with scraps or whatever is on hand, in re-purposing them. also, just good to know!

what about combining solar panels and green roofs with gardens and plants? 2 for 1? we might at least plant grasses on all such surfaces!

i love the "no free lunch" laws! (as someone with no formal science background!)

i *can* speak to "information" though! on the personal level, such as skills, it is one of the rare "magical" forces in that the more you give it away, the more you have on hand, and the better you understand it. also, it *wants* to get loose and be free to spread around.

i offer this for an indo-european "chi/prana/etc":

uisge beatha

: )

and just like information, it only grows in power when shared!

Dwig said...

Bill: Thanks for the mini-treatise on emergy, transformity, and the energy hierarchy. Quality of energy fits in there too, somewhere. I'm finding it a fun and mind-expanding trip...

Also, about "... whatever those fundamental entropy processes are that distinguish the living from the dead...": H.T.O. uses the concept of autocatalytic systems quite a bit; I suspect that might be "one of those fundamental processes". (For extra credit, describe the relationship between autocatalysis and Maturana's autopoiesis.)

JMG: "The idea that human beings experience several different kinds, realms, or planes of existence, none of which can be reduced to any of the others..." Makes sense to me too. Possibly related to that is an idea I've had that there are 3 fundamental ways of "seeing": scientific, spritual, and artistic. I vamp on this a bit near the bottom of (This isn't original with me, of course -- I keep running into various expressions of it, for example the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.)

njh said...

TAD: I think you're being pessimistic; _I_ could build a pedal powered wooden automatic spinning machine using nothing more than some wood and hand tools. My father built an automatic loom using wire and basic metal parts when he was at school. Certainly the efficiency and output will be less than a modern computer controlled system, but far better than a drop spindle and hand loom. Of course we remember Gandhi's Chakra, the rallying cry for his not entirely failed movement towards the independence of India. They were mostly made by villiage craftsmen.

Heck, a pair of bike pedals and a belt can spin a lathe, and equally a spinning wheel. Building something like that is well within the ability of a single craftsman without power tools and high speed steel.

Laura, I'm merely suggesting that those improvements will persist past any decline. And yes, making clothes is easy, though making clothes that you'd be willing to wear to a party less so. :)

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Gwe16Gor10: I have a caveat JM – or rather, an unanswered question – that seems to me very relevant to this particular discussion, this week. In a nutshell, where does ESP/PK fit into these various concepts of energy/matter?

I have hunches about this riddle (experience-derived, let me assure readers) but no settled answers. It seems that even amongst the small, scattered community of people who take the subject really seriously, and do their best to approach and investigate it with sober rationally, there are few firm answers to its mysteries. Elusiveness seems to be an inherent part of the nature of this beast.

Yet having been a visiting occasional member of K J Batcheldor’s last sitter-group, in Exeter, Devon, Britain, until his death in 1988, I have the sort of certainty which can only come from repeated, close-up actual experience of a thing: that psi-phenomena (ESP/PK; paranormalities) are as real as anything else in the real world; both the information-handling aspect and the physical-manipulation aspect (with inevitable integral energy-manipulations, one supposes). When you’ve sat with three colleagues on a table, with everyone’s feet off the ground, and felt and seen the table rise up into the air without explicable agency, it changes your scepticism about these things conclusively. And that was just one of very many comparable experiences that were elicited by Ken’s method of investigation, refined by him and helpers in his groups over a quarter-century of methodical research.

As I say, JM, I’ve no hard, fanatically-held views about the explanation for these anomalous phenomena. But neither have I any doubt that they’re real. Ken always struck me as a good example of the sort of low-profile, lonely-furrow wizard of the sort you’re now promoting – a person of knowledge and practical skills. And his subject – psi – seems to me to have been one of the particular concerns of shamans, wizards, sorcerers, druids, etc., since time out of mind. What do people think?

Robin Datta said...

Thank you, ArchDruid, for all your efforts. The importance of magic is becoming clearer to me.

The comments section is becoming almost unwieldy, and your new site is to be anticipated as helping make matters more manageable. And hopefully the opportunity to start many sub-conversations within the main discourse would be quite helpfil: a wiki &/or forum would go a long way towards this.

@Hal (from last week's comments)
Re: Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical and Agricultural:

@Wandering Sage
"I can't imagine that modern scientists actually take much time to consider qi (chi, ki, etc...) energy unless their field includes quantum physics"

Thomas Campbell - The Monroe Institute Lecture

To all:
If you are running WinDoze, PDFCreator is excellent freeware, installs like a printer and anythirg printable sent to PDFCreator is made into a *.pdf file at a location you specify.

And if the item does not seem to be suitably laid out for prinitng, if you run Firefox, the add-on Aardvark can help trim it for printing:

If you use Internet Explorer as the primary browser there is a Firefox add-on FirefoxView which puts an option in the Internet Explorer right-click menu to open the current page or link in Firefox:

Cherokee Organics said...


I was wondering where you were going all those moons ago with the discussions on energy. Couldn't see the point myself then, but now all is clear master! This weeks post was very eloquently written for such a complex matter - well done, I'm much impressed!

To me available energy is a finite thing. Take for example the energy inherent in the natural systems on the planet. As the human population expands and consumes more energy, the remaining flora and fauna contracts in both range and number. It is simply because when the sun's energy is collected by plants, it is taken by humans for their own purposes. We also maintain a broken nutrient cycle in Industrial societies which increases that loss of energy so we use more energy every year than what is replaced. Eventually there has to be a crunch time and then a correction. I only hope that some of the natural systems survive so that the ecosystem can repair itself.

When people claim that energy is infinite, I often think that they are walking around with their eyes closed. To me it seems that there can only be so much utilisation by humans of the naturally collected energy before a correction in the imbalance occurs.

Not being a great one for the metaphysical, I've sometimes felt that life force is actually an expression of the carrying capacity of the planet?

I'm in the process of building a low energy requiring house and one of the most important things I am doing (other than the fire rating requirements) is insulating it to conserve the energy that I do utilise. We're talking under the floors, in the walls and in the roof. Not to mention double glazing, veranda’s etc. The more I go down this path, the more I realise how simple it would be to retrofit these things into an existing timber framed and clad house. The stuff is fairly cheap too. Unfortunately though, insulation is not as sexy a topic as a split cycle air conditioner or central heating! It's interesting how many people treat these as a right and not a luxury. For me they are in the same category as driving a vehicle.

We're in the depths of winter at the moment and I'm constantly amazed by how much power is generated by the solar system even on cloudy days. The trick though with solar is to reduce your electricity consumption to match the generating capacity and not the other way around.

Maybe the human population in Industrial societies may learn this trick soon as well?

Good luck!

Kim said...

Great line: "At this point, in fact, the most useful thing you can take away from this entire discussion is the habit of looking everything that goes on around you as an energy flow that starts from a concentrated source – almost always the sun – and ends in diffuse heat radiating out into space."

I've been thinking about large scale Earth System processes in this sense recently: mantle convection, volcanoes, hydrothermal vents, atmospheric convection, mid-latitude storms, ocean circulation, erosion, etc. It has proven to be a power unifying schema for my work as an Earth Science educator. I outlined this idea on the Earth & Mind blog, at: "The Second Law of Thermodynamics as a Unifying Theme for Geosciences." In geosciences, the heat of the earth's interior is a second major energy source, along with energy from the sun.

Best regards,

Don Plummer said...

"Medieval Latin spiritus was an exact translation of Chinese ch'i, down to fine points of usage, and fit into the standard division of everything in the universe into anima (consciousness), spiritus (life force), and corpus (physical body) in a way very familiar to the rest of the world."

It may be off topic to wander into theological/topical concepts here, but I need to pose this question. You seem to be indicating here that this concept of universal life force was still alive and well in the medieval West. Therefore, would it be accurate to say that the medievals would not have considered this concept incompatible with monotheistic religion, especially Christianity? (Your comment above on the Hebrew ruach would also seem to support this conclusion.)

I ask because I know of Christian friends and acquaintances who are very uncomfortable with George Lucas' Force because they associate it with Eastern mysticism and not Western religious thought.

If it is true, though, that the concept of universal life force was not dead during the Middle Ages, when did it die in the West and what caused its demise? The Enlightenment, perhaps, and the materialism of the scientific/industrial age?

I like the idea of thermal sprints, too! If my left knee wouldn't protest, I might try some before going on my bicycle ride later today. :-)

Wordek said...

“Every ecosystem on earth has evolved to make the most of whatever energy is available”
I see this as well and its maybe not the best time to point this out, but this descriptive coin has another side. Parts of an ecosystem will “discover” that they can profit not by making the most of their share, but by stealing as much as they can of the shares of others. For instance, canopy trees fall into this category. There is a particular featherless biped that often does the same, but for the life of me I cant remember what its called....

We head into muddier waters now.

Chi – Spirit – Energy
My sense is that the concept of chi creates confusion because many acts that encourage good chi tend to work on both planes at once. So in casual discussion people unintentionally mix up which referent the word they use is pointing at.

“The more mystical of my friends tend to insist that information follows the same rules as energy”
False. JMG in another comment seems to have implied a third “ruleset” for energy. I disagree with this ( though not vehemently) because matter and energy are part of the same game.

Information on the other hand, emerges from the interplay of the parts of that energy-matter universe and plays a completely different game. Its hard to describe succinctly, but information cannot exist without matter, and matter cannot exist without producing information. Neither has primacy over the other. It may sound peculiar (it certainly does to me ) but “life” is a type of matter that has discovered how to utilise information (or the other way around maybe – I cant decide). Sometimes I think of the intersection between the “universes” as as being like the “two faces make a candlestick” optical illusion. We can see one or the other at any time, but never both at once.

“physical terminology is wrongly applied to metaphysical concepts”
“"orange-ness" is a property of matter but is not the same as matter. “
In my head I add another category: “paraphysical”. Ideas constructed with paraphysical concepts can often be understood meaningfully on both the material and informational planes (or spheres.. or universes..) (Hmmm: looking at the sentence I just wrote, it seems that now I have to come up with another word that means “a definition that is an example of itself”...) Bother!

“Of course, lately I've begun to wonder if in fact the universe exists purely because the math says it can”

Nearly: the math that says the universe can exist, exists because the universe can exist. Nobody can write a theory that models their non-existent universe while they're in that non-existent universe. I should know because I know nobody as well as anyone else does....
So, now who's looney?

Don Plummer said...

FWIW, David Holmgren make extensive use of H T Odum's concepts of emergy and maximum power in his permaculture work. See especially his Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, most notably his discussion of Principles 2 and 3.

Don Plummer said...

I'm sure JMG will comment on your question, but the ultimate source of hydroelectric energy is undoubtedly the sun. JMG no doubt will be speaking about the water cycle very soon.


blue sun said...

Basic definitions are important. So then, does the term "Power" refer to concentrated energy? (And thus the powerless have only diffuse heat at their disposal?)

Work and Energy are fairly straightforward, but back in school I always found Power a little more slippery to grasp. Some of us may have never taken physics. Perhaps Mr. Pulliam or a physics PhD would like to weigh in on this as well....?

mageprof said...

@ Odin's Raven & JMG

A decade or t3o ago Herbert Benson of Harvard was actually able to persuade a few accomplished Tibetan monks to be connected to all sorts of external and internal measuring devices while practicing "tummo" (generating the heat that can dry freezing wet clothes on the body). He found that the surface body temperature rose a great deal while the internal body temperature rose not at all. In other words, you don't need to cook your insides while drying your outsides. There were other interesting results as well, which I don't remember.

straker said...

Interesting that nobody brought up permaculture in the comments. Permaculture emphasizes the slowing down and harnessing of energy flows that move through a property, with particular emphasis on guiding water to aid plant growth.

Since we're moving into an era when more human labor will be required than anything else, the idea is to use natural systems to your advantage. This is especially true with agriculture, which is traditionally back-breaking labor without mechanization.

It's all about working smarter, not harder.

FernWise said...

In the course of a Twitter conversation I tried to explain to someone (who was advocating that everyone get electric cars and charge them overnight with solar panels and a huge array of batteries) that there are energy and petroleum products in the body and manufacturing of the car, the solar panels, etc. And that mining and refining the nickle in the cars' batteries is vastly polluting.

The she said that getting tires where the rubber is from soy beans is green, and was silent at the idea that with folks starving, is that the best use for soy, and that the growing of soy for this involves GMO, fossil fuels, herbicides, etc.

I don't think she got the idea that there's no such thing as a free lunch.

darius said...

I had to laugh at Moose's 'Dorian Tomato' also, and I needed that chuckle!

Years ago during my first encounter with a psychic who read me well, she said, "You don't really want to know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. You want to know what you can use them for..."

straker said...

"we will eventually become so godlike and omnipotent that we should be able to do the same thing."

I see someone's read Asimov's The Last Question. Funny how doomer discussions always run over the same ground.

Andrew Butt said...

Hi all - There is a visual language for doing the type of flow charting that John is suggesting. They are known as Odum Diagrams or Odum Networks. They are named after Howard and Eugene Odum (albeit a bit more associated with Howard), both being brothers and ecologists. The diagramming language is much like a flowchart when created by a scientist / engineer, but I've seen more artistic versions over time (think of mandala type configurations).

They went so far as to suggest at one time that the laws of thermodynamics need to be extended to reflect a deeper understanding of Nature. One of the suggestions was "emergy" or embedded energy to refer to how Nature stores energy for later use.

Steve said...

While we can thank the Star Wars saga for our introduction to "the force" I think its blithe treatment of the energy required to power this future fantasy has done more damage by encouraging the concept that there's a source of unlimited energy humans in all their cleverness are fated to master. The noble messages in these films are now lost on me because of the absurd assumptions underlying the premise.

The belief humans are destined to tap into some unlimited energy source is what enables the fantasies of a "hydrogen" economy or "fusion" power or "cellulistic ethanol". But as you have stated this spell is very powerful and invocation of the counterspell - "There is no free lunch!" - is just as likely to drive people deeper into denial than open their eyes. Be it "lifeboats", "transition towns" or "wizards" there are many beacons for a future sans iPhones yet liveable and in many ways likely to be more spiritually fufilling.

rakesprogress said...

Great post, this reminded me of the Use of Energy essay in Wendell Berry's classic anthology The Unsettling of America.

May I consider this an appropriate technology book? He addresses that theme as he dispels the myth that the Amish eschew technology. Their approach to technology is to decide carefully what technology is appropriate rather than accepting all technologies de facto.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

To those more theoretical than I, such as Bill or JMG because I'm trying to integrate what I'm reading here:

So, as a living, conscious being: when practicing chigong or tai chi, I am simultaneously accessing and intensifying chi available in myself and surroundings, and functioning as a sort of complicated (nonlinear?) four-dimensional mesh of the circles of matter and straight lines of energy?

And if practicing out of doors, the preferred chigong location, since I can't photosynthesize, do sun and wind affect my transformity?

Where or how does the deep principle of the tao fit in?

Is this too far off topic?

Steve said...

Great synopsis of thermodynamic basics, JMG. Looking forward to more.

@ Laura:
"but what of the water that gushes out of the spring at the river's source? My geology gives out at this point."

This water fell as precipitation as well. Springs are manifestations of groundwater that "spring" up due to subsurface topographical changes. They fell as snow or rain uphill from the spring, soaked into the soil, and then seeped with gravity inevitably downhill. When the soil layer became too thin for the volume of water to remain absorbed, springs released the extra water back to the surface, and your river was "born."

Don Plummer said...

Librarian wrote:
i offer this for an indo-european 'chi/prana/etc':

uisge beatha

: )

and just like information, it only grows in power when shared!

Thanks for the laugh, Librarian!

When I'm teaching beginning comp students about uses for a dictionary, I have them look up the etymology of the English word derived from uisge beatha. The phrase is a Gaelic translation of the Latin aqua vitae. I always get laughs when I tell them what aqua vitae means.

John said...

One of the most concise explanations of thermodynamics I've ever seen! Once you begin thinking in terms of energy flows you begin to notice some very interesting ramifications. A couple of examples:

In a superinsulated house you feel comfortable at a temperature several degrees cooler than you would expect. This is due to radiation. You radiate heat to the walls of the house at a temperature of 98 degrees or so. The walls also radiate heat to you, though at a lower temperature (the amount of heat radiated is proportional to the temperature of the thing radiating it). In a conventional (poorly insulated) house the walls are quite cold because they are losing heat rapidly to the outside so they don't radiate much heat back to you. A superinsulated house's walls are nearer to the inside ambient temperature and radiate more heat back to you, so you feel more comfortable at a lower air temperature.

Another one; a superinsulated house is designed to minimize conduction, convection, and radiation losses. This means less heating of air. Since heating air tends to dehumidify it, superinsulated houses tend to maintain a higher humidity level in winter. Higher humidity means that sinus tissue tends not to dry out and is more effective in dealing with the ever present cold and flu viruses. Hence fewer colds and greater comfort. Working with nature;s energy flows has its rewards.

On a different note; several posters have mentioned weaving and spinning as crafts to preserve. One resource to check out is the New Hampshire Weavers Guild ( These people are doing a masterful job of preserving (and expanding!) the fabric arts. If you live in the area - join. If you don't, check it out and use it as a model for a similar organisation in your area.

Joel said...

I would say that fission power is actually traceable to the supernovae that seeded our solar system with heavy elements. A very deep gravity well drove the creation of nuclei that did not release net energy in the fusion reactions that created them, and then a stellar explosion drove some small fraction of those nuclei out of those long-ago star systems.

Considered that way, the emergy of a nuclear fuel rod is immense.

Geothermal energy has the same origin: long-ago stellar explosions supplied the momentum that allowed the system to form, and stocked it with unstable atoms.

Bill Pulliam said...

I think this matter of discrete planes is really mostly about terminology. What have been termed discrete planes clearly interact with each other to some degree, otherwise their existence would be absolutely unknown and unknowable to each other. So you can draw lines between them as discrete planes, or you can draw one big line around them and call it one universe, with different processes and phenomena having a greater or lesser degree of interaction to the point that some parts are almost invisible to others, or visible only indirectly through shared interactions with some third thing. Again, look at mainstream physics, which is at present trying to deal with the apparent fact that 90% of the matter in the universe has almost no interaction with the other 10% (which is the 10% we know about) other than via gravity. Is dark matter the stuff of a separate plane? Or is it part of one universe? It's however you chose to describe it.

Dwig -- in Odum terminology, emergy IS energy quality. Energy sources with higher transformities are of higher quality. Other people define energy quality differently, of course. It depends on the reasons you want a definition.

Wordek -- it's a chicken/egg thing. Did the math create existence, or does the math describe existence?

Straker -- I think you will continue to find many things here that are consistent with permaculture. That's because permaculture did not invent them, it borrowed them.

TG said...

Steve wrote: "But as you have stated this spell is very powerful and invocation of the counterspell - 'There is no free lunch!' - is just as likely to drive people deeper into denial than open their eyes."

I hear you on that, for sure. As John Michael discussed in "Waiting for the Millennium," there's a taboo which limits such counterspells. For people who've given sufficient thought to the matter, a counterspell helps to guard oneself against delusion. Otherwise, it falls on deaf ears, or worse.

The ideas of "no free lunch" and "can't break even" have returned to me repeatedly in the 20 years since I took that thermodynamics class. (I know there's also a third and a "zeroth" law, but those received relatively little attention in my undergraduate course, which emphasized the solution of practical problems.) I've used the two laws successfully, albeit in a semi-aware fashion, to ward off at least a few crackpot ideas. I didn't realize that I was doing magical thinking, in the best sense of that term. I considered it critical thinking. It's something of a revelation to me that the two could overlap!

--Tracy said...

Hello, Mr Archdruid-
I have been following during the last weeks the evolution of your project of "green wizards", and start to identify patterns that support your hypothesis. Having been involved in eco-development, organic agriculture, sustainable rural development, eco-building, permaculture and related issues for more than twenty years, working first in Germany, than in the mountains of Spain, and since 1993 in rural Mexico, I have the feeling that many things you are descibing in futurist language, are happening already (at least here in Mex., where the process of decline is well on the way).

For example: What some colleges and friends are doing with organic agriculture, inspired by soil microbiology and systems thinking, being able to reduce production costs for campesinos down to 30% in one year, while restoring the soil (in a lapse of one to three years), keeping up with harvests of a healthier and more valuable product, and this in the context of ever more erratic climate patterns and degraded landscapes, is pure magic, at least for most of the university trained agronomists, biologists, engineers and often the campesinos themselves…

Working with rather than against nature, understanding natural patterns and using/ working with them, combining ancient knowledge & modern science, surely is an enormously powerful tool. One of the many a “green wizzard” will have to manage in a not so distant future.

I don´t know, if the reference to the seventies eco-tech movement is the only one we should explore. Of course, there is a lot of valuable material hidden there to be rescued … A pirated DVD series called “Appropriate Technology Sourcebook” came to me by “pure magic”, a few years ago, and many of the books mentioned in your curriculum, can be found there as PDF, actually too many for my old printer to handle, nevertheless, whenever I have some inc, paper and time, I print them out and bind them as books for future use without electricity. Those who want to explore more check out - it’s an imense and valuable resource, also because many of the manuals were written for a so-called “third world” context. Maybe you will need this material soon…. said...

However, I think we should consider the period of the “dark eighties and nineties”, when the topics of energy and sustanability got pushed of the mainstream agenda by well known factors of history (a fenomena you and many others have explored well into detail) could be viewed as an important consolidation period for all those proposals.

In Germany, there was a quite strong “green” movement during the eighties, as well as a “peace movement” an “anti nukes movement”, an “organic movement” and all that. A lot of activism that found its reflection in a political party which got well established by the mid-nineties, and in 1998 even became part of government… Many of these experiences (in those distant seventies I was still a child) shaped my thinking, they also forged my scepticism towards “movements” in general. In this context, the idea of “Green Wizzards” as a successful alternative strategy makes a lot of sense to me.

I have the feeling, that the inspiration and inpulses from the seventies got more grounded, when they were pushed back to the fringes and margins of the society. For example: The issue of emergy and energy qualitiy/ hirarchy you describe in your recent post, was pioneerd by H.T.Odum in the late sixties and early seventies (“Environment, Power and Society” 1971), but the author continued to explore this topic during the eighties and nineties, and the recent re-issue of the book (“Environment, Power and Society for the 21st century”, 2007) is, in my opinion, much more powerful than the original.

On a more practical level, the permaculture concept, pioneered in the mid-seventies, made its way from a marginal proposal promoted by an outlaw with a big ego (probably necesary to make the concept survive, and to motivate a frew bright caracters to further explore the ideas and practices, during the so called “lost period”) and stands now amongst one of the proposals and thinking tools for creative adaption for energy descent, especially since the important actualization realized by David Holmgren (“Principles and pathways beyond sustainability”, 2002).

By the way, those two books mentioned above are part of the one hundred (hopefully there will be more….) books that I hope will survive and evolve during the next two, three, four centuries (being of course part of the green-wizard-curriculum), plus a lot of other material, that I partly mention on my webpage at (the selection is far from complete, comentaries are in spanish, but most of the books are in english, since you english speakers are privileged to have access to MANY MANY tools and excellent books… compared to the scarce spanish resources I have access to here in the mountains of central Mexico, you are once again with a certain advantage)

(soon to be completed) said...

Finally, let me just share my feeling, that the issue of DESIGN doesn´t get enough attention amongst many eco-tech-fetichists… in my opinion, most of the eco-tecnologies are extremely context-sensitive, which means, they don´t work in every situation. Also, the creative connection and integration of different tecniques and strategies, uniquely adapted to each site, person, family, community, climate, culture etc., makes eco-tecniques much more powerful and effective, giving way to improvement, innovation and evolution. From my experience working in rural sustainability projects undes sometimes quite tight conditions, a future “green wizzard” definitely needs some design tools, which brings me back to permaculture as one of the proposals to integrate this.

By the way, I am also very critical towards the “certification-crazyness”, so present in the promotion of permaculture in the US and elsewhere. In my opinion this is a serious impediment for making this thinking and design tool available to more communities and individuals. Also, the so called “Permaculture Design Certificate Course” (in the way it is promoted in the US and other places), with its fixed curriculum and sometimes quite high costs, endangers the concept to get frozen into a state where it was in 1988, preventing further evolution and improvement. Luckily Holmgren did a lot to break through this, also we can bypass this limit here in Mexico without serious hazards/ problems with some “permaculture purists” who are still stuck in the eighties and nineties …

OK, that’s enough for now… saludos desde mexico

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, good.

Ruben, interesting. Thanks for the link!

Laura, one of the advantages of growing up with a Japanese stepmother is that I got a much better idea of what you can do with plain rectangles of cloth. Nearly all traditional Japanese garments are made of exactly that, with no tailoring. Not limited at all!

Librarian, you're getting into Druidry at this point. One of the Druid traditions in which I'm an initiate uses that particular fluid as the sacrament for its rituals. No kidding!

Dwig, nicely Platonic.

Njh, I've noticed that inevitably, when I point out to a fan of technology that there are economic limits on what can be done with technology, they pretend that I haven't mentioned those at all, and go on about whether their project of choice is technically feasible, which doesn't matter one hoot in a windstorm if it's not economically feasible. If you aren't willing to deal with the economic dimension, that's fine, but please admit that you're dodging the issue!

Rhisiart, I've also experienced things that tend to support the claim that mental causes can, under some very limited circumstances, have direct physical effects, and there are models for such interactions in most of the old esoteric philosophies. Still, the actual amount of energy set in motion by these processes tends to be very small -- a nudge rather than a thunderbolt -- and their practical applications, though they've long been an essential part of the classic wizard's toolkit, are rather different from those we'll be discussing here.

Robin, thank you for the links! We'll have the forum up as soon as the volunteer building it has enough free time to make that happen.

Cherokee, excellent. You get tonight's gold star for grasping both the finite nature and the habits of energy.

Kim, this is great. Thanks for sharing it.

Wordek, very muddy waters! One of the things that make them muddy is the way that the models we use tend to shape the behavior of the thing we're modeling: classic observer effect in ecology or quantum physics, take your pick.

Don, every devout Christian on Earth in the sixteenth century believed in a life force. There's nothing anti-Christian about it; in the beliefs of the time, it was created by God (there was some argument on which day in Genesis), and the Holy Spirit was the divine spiritus, the life force of God himself poured out through Christ into the souls of those touched by grace.

All that got lost with the invention of modern scientific thought in the seventeenth century. The abolition of the concept of the life force was one of the central agendas of the new science of the time; they wanted to get rid of magic -- Newton was actually criticized harshly by fellow scientists for allowing action at a distance, which seemed too much like magic to them -- but in the process they basically gelded religion as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Blue Sun, I'll leave that to the physicists.

Mageprof, fascinating. I'll have to look that up.

Straker, that's probably because permaculture has been discussed at quite a bit of length in comments to other posts.

Fernwise, most people don't. Especially most middle class Americans, who are allergic to the realization that their comfortable lifestyles are paid for by other people's impoverishment.

Darius, good. Do you know the point to those old discussions? It was whether the number was finite or infinite -- in other words, whether angels take up physical space. If you believe in angels, it's a question of some interest.

Steve, oh, granted. We're not going to travel from star to star, or build any of those goshwow technologies, or even make a working light saber that doesn't need a power source the size of a 55-gallon drum.

Andrew, good. We'll be getting to those.

Rakes, yes you certainly may!

Adrian, it would take a good 20,000 word essay to answer that in any meaningful sense!

Steve, good. That's a topic for next week.

John, good -- and thanks for the contact info.

Joel, by the same logic you could trace it back ultimately to the Big Bang, if that actually happened.

Bill, there's more to it than terminology. Novices and New Age types tend to confound the planes, to use the technical term, and assume that action on one plane will inevitably have results on others, when that generally isn't the case -- this is why the so-called "law of attraction" works so poorly. There are connections between the planes, sure, but you have to know how to make them work for you, and remembering that (for example) mental causes have physical effects only in specific circumstances, and with sharp downshifts in range and power, keeps the novice occultist from making a fool of himself or herself.

Tracy, one of these days I want to write a book on the philosophy of magic that will explain the crucial role logic, critical thinking, and common sense play in any system of occult training worth the name. I'll have a helluva time getting it published, though, because the occult presses have learned the hard way that the reading public doesn't want to be told that.

Holger, granted. Since I live in the US, my perspective is shaped and to some extent confined by what's happened here, while other things are going on elsewhere. It's good to hear that so much appropriate tech is still being practiced in Mexico and elsewhere! A useful reminder that the common American pose of teaching the rest of the world needs to be put out to pasture, so we can learn a thing or two.

John Michael Greer said...

...and then I had, and deleted, a comment insisting that the secret to limitless energy, not to mention the divine principle in nature, is hydrogen peroxide. (No, I'm not making this up.) If that were true I know quite a few bottle blondes who would have super powers.


Rhisiart Gwilym said...

This may seem peripheral at first, but I think that it probably belongs in this discussion:

Dave Cohen over at ‘Decline of the Empire’ (DOTE; sic! Love it!) has some interesting graphs in this post:

The two which refer to the secondary economy (the real world of human production of actual, arguably useful, goods) both show what looks to me like an unmistakable first step down in JM’s foreshadowed stepwise descent of industrial ‘civilisation’. There’s even the little uptick at the most recent end of the tread, which presumably is the small, anaemic ‘recovery’ on each step which triggers the next stepdown. It looks like a text-book illustration of the Greer thesis.

In that post, Dave C also links to another of his, here:

which is definitely to the point of TAR, and indeed this particular discussion within it. Clearly, Dave understands that, as he says, all we have is each other. And of course, one essential part of that grassroots self and mutual help initiative – what seems to be getting called more and more the lifeboat movement – is green wizardry.

Wordek said...

By the way, I thought I'd play along with the wizard thing and go to my local secondhand book/coffee shop and see what I could find. Instead of picking up anything on ecology though, what I came home with was “The Illustrated Golden Bough” (220 pages abridged from the abridged version of the original 12 volumes) for $20.
Funnily enough, as I was paying for it the cashier said “Oh dear, I just told someone we didnt have a copy of this, looks like it must have been meant for you!”. I smiled nicely and thought, “Can the spooky stuff lady, just hand over the dead tree”.
And a copy of “Spells And How They Work” by Janet and Stewart Farrar for $9.

So goodbye rational mind: you never call, you never write, you never remember my birthday (honestly, it never does!). Its over baby! Dont come running to me when you realise you dont have any legs of your own..

“classic observer effect in ecology or quantum physics”
Dont forget your friendly neighbourhood economist....

“it's a chicken/egg thing”
My usual comeback here is a quip about the rooster, but thats maybe a bit risqué so I wont do that.

There! All finished! – Dusts hands - looks smug - falls off chair –

Wordek said...

Whoops sorry... Not quite finished

Hi Librarian terms of what sorts of things move in somewhat closed circles, and which ones (like energy) move along one or many paths on their way to do you quickly recognize which kind you have on hand? does it come down primarily to matter or made things being the former, and intangibles or forces being the other?”

Heres my take.
Matter (and also energy) moves towards diffusion.
Generally information also tends toward diffusion. However the special information that constitutes life moves in fairly robust cycles {unless it gets lost}.
DNA (more specifically the information in DNA) does the same with nucleotides as does BSE with proteins. As long as the information can successfully reproduce itself (cycle) then the original “stuff” can be easily discarded

Ecosystems also move in cycles that “trap, organise and discard” matter while conserving information.

Gods fascinate me because they constitute information that has successfully avoided becoming diffuse enough to become unrecognisable as “life”. Be careful of gods though. There's some tricky tricks going on there!

You can think of oil as being information about sunlight and dead plants that has become trapped where it hasn't been able to diffuse easily.

Weird huh?... Told you I was loony ;)

Jason said...

JMG: it was set up (as most JG products were) primarily for D&D

Hmm... well clearly not any of these ones then!

Weird because I can't find the D&D one at all...

But my real question -- why did ecosystems drop out of fashion in ecology? The set up of the more modern text I accidentally happened on does not have that idea front and centre at all.

Brian said...

I think re-introducing the work from the 70s on energy, food, etc is very useful for the future, and your exposition of energy flow is clear and accessible. I still have Foxfire books, Whole Earth Catalogs, and a largeish bunch of books on solar design, organic gardening etc sitting on the shelves with Toynbee, Spengler and other favourites of yourself. I have owner built our past two houses with the principles there held in mind as much as possible (got excellent whole house insulation for this current house for a slab of beer) so this conversation is pleasant to read. Food preservation also becomes a habit after a while so our kitchen always has some sauerkraut, bread from our home ground wheat, etc. brewing on on the benches.

But I also have to say I get a bit sensitive to what you call confusing the planes. It is just so important for people to engage with physics. I have often been impressed at the resistance in non-scientifically trained people (and sometimes in ones who in theory are so trained) to the laws of thermodynamics. It's as if they really do _not_ want to know that there is no free lunch. That the universe does limit our options. Imagination is very fine but works inside physics not surpassing it. They perhaps could be reminded of the Zen saying:

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

Another way of saying there is no free lunch.

A couple of other points - the energy in hydrogen and helium, which makes up 98% of the ordinary matter of the universe, has colossal potential energy. The tiny amounts of deuterium in the oceans is enough for us to pack everything away underground and shift the entire planet to some other sun if we so chose. And it is unlikely that such energy will leave much nasty residue compared with first generation fission reactors.

MisterMoose and Wordek - a couple of years ago I was gratified, as a mathematician, to read an article in New Scientist where a physics professor at MIT acknowledged what mathematicians have been telling the physics community for 100 years. It may help you with your philosophical thoughts. The universe IS mathematics. Nothing else is needed, no "solid" little balls etc.

Life on Earth will be long gone well before the sun does its end dance. It is getting hotter over time as the thermonuclear processes include higher nuclei than hydrogen in the furnace. The current estimate is that we have about 500 million years before the oceans have boiled away. Of course, for a species that bids fair to wipe itself out after less than 200,000 years, thats a practical infinity right there.

Bill Pulliam said...

Ah, yes, from the vantage point you describe I can certainly see the value in using concepts of unconfounded planes. I was ambling off in esoteric directions. You're doing Newtonian mechanics, I'm rambling about unified field theories, which is going to be more instructive when it's time to raise a barn?

I've found one of the things that responds the best to spell-work is (surprise surprise) information. Attempting to attract some person or thing rarely works; but attempting to find something out, send a message to a willing recipient, or keep someone from discovering a secret are often surprisingly effective.

Bill Pulliam said...

To avoid confounding the comments, I segregated this point out from the esoterica:

POWER: In the world of science, power is energy per unit time. It's as simple as that. Energy is a quantity, power is a flow. How hot something is is energy; how fast you heat something up is power. A reservoir of water atop a mountain represents energy (potential energy, specifically), water pouring down the mountain also represents energy (kinetic energy), HOW MUCH water moving HOW FAST represents POWER.

Sunlight is power, coal is energy, coal on fire is power.

If you think of something involving energy as "per day" or "per second" or "per millenium" it is power.

Energy is the ability to do work; you might have enough energy in your battery to haul an elevator to the top floor of a skyscraper. Power represents how fast you can do the work. Your battery might take 20 years to actually GET the elevator to the top of the skyscraper.

Hence, the quantity of potential energy stored in the deuterium on the earth is totally irrelevant. What matters is how fast it can be converted to free, useable energy -- how much power can be extracted from it.

In theory you can gather enough sunlight from your roof to accomplish any amount of work you like. But how fast you can get it done is severely limited. You simply cannot collect enough sunlight from a solar panel on the roof of your car to propel it down the road at any significant speed, unless you are willing to park the car in the sun for a really long time (much more than a day; charging your solar car OVERNIGHT? Really? Did someone seriously suggest this???). There is not enough power in sunlight to accomplish this

And on an earlier comment I meant to address from Wordek -- I think you just independently discovered the rational for the Maximum Power Principle. A system capable of evolution and self-organization will not leave exploitable power laying around, it will find a way to use it. Hence it will tend towards exploiting the energy resources available to it at the maximum rate that it is capable of -- it will run at Maximum Power. This would be true of a forest in the sun, or of a society after it invents the technology necessary for fossil fuel exploitation. As I said, it is an interesting and controversial idea, both in its ecological and economic implications. Note that it is evolutionary -- it is a tendency, a direction systems will be pulled towards. It does not mean that a system will actually be running at maximum power all the time; in reality none ever will. But it proposes that this is the direction that they will be pulled, and pulled rather strongly. It is also a holistic principle, it applies at large-scales of organization, not to individual pieces -- the forest, not the individual trees.

The converse view is that a system will evolve to run at maximum EFFICIENCY. EFFICIENCY is the fraction of the potentially useable energy that you have actually converted in to work. This is not the same thing as maximum power. Maximum power suggests that work which further increase the flow of energy (such as using energy to build or grow something that will enhance the rate at which more energy can be extracted) will be favored in an autocatalytic process; work that does not increase power will lose out.

I dunno, but is is coincidental that the energy extraction industries are among our largest, most powerful, and still fastest growing economic entities?

John Michael Greer said...

Rhisiart, both are entirely on topic. The green wizard project is intended as a constructive response to a future of catabolic collapse; I'll be explaining more of the details of how that works in a future post.

Wordek, hang onto your rational mind; you'll need it if you want to practice magic. It's simply a particular set of prejudices that masquerade as rationality these days that need to be set aside.

Jason, that happened in the 1980s, and it was basically a matter of politics. In the wake of the Reagan counterrevolution, anything that had too much in common with the radical environmental thought of the previous decade got squeezed out of most venues. I remember quite a bit of talk about that at Huxley College of Environmental Studies in Bellingham, WA, where I took some classes in 1980-3; a lot of very idealistic students were having to come to grips with the fact that the careers they hoped to enter were being shut down via a cutoff of grant money, and the options open to them mostly amounted to shilling for big business.

Brian, you'll be interested to know that I run into the same issue when teaching people about magic. I can guarantee a negative reaction in nineteen students out of twenty by simply mentioning that magic is not supernatural and does not allow you to violate the laws of nature. That doesn't make it useless; it just means you can't use magic as a Rohrshach inkblot onto which to project fantasies of omnipotence.

As for hydrogen and helium, oh, granted, in the abstract they have immense amounts of energy; in practice, we can't access that energy in any direct fashion that doesn't produce a mushroom cloud. This is why fusion power has been twenty years in the future for my entire life, and will doubtless still be twenty years in the future ten million years from now when the last members of our species are outcompeted by the intelligent descendants of chipmunks. Sooner or later we need to come to terms with the fact that Clarke was wrong and technology is not what he misunderstood magic to be -- that is, it's no more omnipotent than anything else human beings do, and there are things permanently outside its reach.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, the comparison between Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics is very close -- not least in their relative importance for practical applications. Not to mention because so many people are trying to convince themselves that just this once, because they want it so badly, gravity will make things fall up!

Bill Pulliam said...

Joel -- the energy in a fisable or fusable nucleus is, as you say, derived from the same original source as geothermal energy. Likewise, sunlight and tidal actions also derive from this same common source, their most recent common ancestor in cladistic terminology.

I think the simplest approximation is to consider the three fundamental energy sources on earth (solar, geothermal, and tidal) equivalent from an embodied energy perspective and assign all the same transformities of 1 = 1 = 1. They are each and all our gifts from the universe, served up on a platter ready to use. They cannot be interconverted or manufactured.

DIYer said...

Information is more like biology. If successful, it makes copies of itself. Also like biology, it depends on an infrastructure of matter and energy to exist.

I am constantly astonished by the lack of energy "common sense" that goes into home building these days. On the cool house tour this spring, I asked one of the builders whether she was routing condensate (water) from the evaporator coils of the HVAC system to the water tank they had out back -- the rain gutters went into the tank but sometimes it doesn't rain that much. She answered that the building codes require them to route the condensate to a sanitary sewer drain inside the house. We just throw away all that cold water that is won at great expense from the air in the house.

This is but one example of such nonsense, I am sure there are more.

Cathy McGuire said...

My energy diagram for the week: I plant lettuce seeds (which come from stored up sunlight via last year’s plants); the seed reaches up, uncurls leaf (using stored energy), connects to the “energy grid”; I supply water (from artesian well) and some (organic) fertilizer (that counts as added energy, right?), the lettuce plant grows, uncurling many more leaves… and the dang gopher pulls the whole $#%*! plant into its tunnel, thus undermining the cycle I have set up! This, I assume, is equivalent to the black market economy which bypasses the money system… And since my own energy is very finite, I end up feeding what seems quite a large underground population….grrrr…

@njh... making clothes is easy, though making clothes that you'd be willing to wear to a party less so. :)

Personally, I think making clothes for parties is much much easier than trying to shop for said clothes, given what’s out there! But then, I’ve been making all my non-jean/tshirt clothes since high school. ;-)

Wordek said...

Re efficiency verses maximum power.

Sorry, this started out as a simple response and got all complicated on me. I should have just said “Cheers, no worries” and left it at that. Too late now though. (Damn you rational mind, didnt I just tell you to get lost!!)

You mentioned the varying historical responses to “maximum power” earlier. I didn't know I was referring to this idea, but the principle that I described was just so obvious to me that I couldn't see it being controversial. Surprised therefore I am to reread your earlier comment with this in mind.

As far as I can imagine there is nothing preventing any self-replicator** running a maximum power principle along with efficiency, either simultaneously, or in a cyclic fashion (e.g. on and off seasonally) or in opportunistic instances (e.g. the felling of a neighbouring tree).
They arent mutually exclusive principles, and indeed while there may be waxing and waning of the importance of each in relation to the other, over time I think both would be complementary insofar as the replicator in question is concerned (especially if we assume the theoretical “ultimate goal” of a single replicator is ubiquity+)

If I were to associate the principle of efficiency with base survival and what you have described as maximum power with growth, that describes in a loose sense how the ideas are nested together in my head.

Theres more to it though and there are many other principles* in action being expressed differently depending on whether our replicators are minerals, genes, organisms or flocks. And dont forget the plethora of abstract “beasties” in the “zoo of minds” that find such a fertile environment for life within the interaction of many complex nervous systems.

And yeah, as you implied, fossil fuel is the agar of the little maximum power burst happening in our particular economic petri dish at the moment. I rather doubt that this is in any way coincidental.

(**Im using replicator in narrow and broad senses, referring to individuals as well as to sets containing all instances of a type of individual or even “ecosystems” with disparate member replicators. The context implied in the sentence should help indicate which sense is predominating)

(+Single replicators left to themselves are dumb, its the ongoing interaction between many well matched replicators in competition that produces diversity, robustness and intelligence. Note that this principle works up and down the ladder of abstraction so that while businesses competing within a healthy capitalist system will move towards robustness, if capitalism itself has no competition it will drift towards dumbness, dragging all its member replicators with it )

(*keeping in mind there is a distinction to be made between perceived phenomena -eg economic growth -, and existent phenomena -eg biological growth, which can make the most sensible principle silly when picked up from one context and dropped into another)

Kevin said...

DIYer, I can top that. My Victorian flat has a heater in the attic equipped with a fan to drive the heat down through vents in the twelve-foot ceiling, with the result that eighty percent of the heating bill goes into warming the ceiling. What's more, a second heater in the same attic likewise heats the basement flat below mine, driven by a second fan so powerful and therefore noisy that it keeps me up all night.

Unfortunately I'm a renter and so have no prerogative to rectify this energy idiocy. I'm also afraid to run the heater because there's asbestos in the attic, so I and my family freeze in Winter. The attic has no external ventilation, so in Summer heat gathers there and we roast through every heat wave. Naturally our southern exposure has high unopenable Victorian windows to ensure we don't get chilly in the 90 degree heat, nor regrettably warm during the Winter chill.

I'd put in a wood burning stove if I could, perhaps with some thermal mass, but there's no place for a chimney (though there must have been once, this being an old house) and we'd never get permission. America is full of such clever arrangements. Drives me nuts to think about.

Ruben said...


Not sure if you found Low Tech Magazine interesting or Constructal Theory interesting, or both....but as I was re-reading Bill's description of Maximum Power, I felt they both describe the same thing. So, if CT is the Fourth Law, it would be the principle that Odum articulates and relates to humanity, several decades before the engineers come along to articulate CT....

And thinking about optimizing imperfections....the infra-red photographs of heat sinks designed using CT are very beautiful--so what is the reverse? What are the layers of insulation to slow heat loss? I guess this is the 80-20 rule. 80% of the insulation will come from 20% of the work--and the last 20% is a real--and expensive--drag.

John Michael Greer said...

DIYer, that's all too common a story. Sheesh.

Cathy, that's also something that happens in energy flows. Your gopher is energetically equivalent to a single pane window with a leaky frame that allows the heat you've produced to go waltzing out to warm the great outdoors. The energy arrow leads from the gopher to the "waste heat" garbage can!

Wordek, I'm going to smile and nod and let you and Bill hash that one out.

Kevin, that's about as good an example as I can think of. Moving to some less clever entry into the I Can Waste More Energy Than Anybody! sweepstakes might be your only option.

Ruben, both! As for the 80-20 law, yes, that's crucial to keep in mind; where possible, you do the 80 and learn to live with the 20.

Bill Pulliam said...

Wordek -- I think it's generally accepted among engineers that optimizing for maximum power versus for maximum efficiency are at odds -- you can't in general simultaneously do both. If you have the same vehicle and the same amount of fuel, you can put a big motor in it to maximize power (0 to 60 in the shortest time, big time gas guzzler), or you can put a small motor in it to maximize efficiency (highest fuel economy, much less power). Ecosystems are much more complex than cars, but the conflict between power versus efficiency likely still applies.

To bring this all back down to earth, what does it matter to the modern-day wizard trying to work ecological magic? To my mind, this is the biggie:

If Odum's maximum power principle does apply to ecosystems, then human desires will by definition be at odds with the fundamental organizing tendencies of the ecosystem we live in. Our desires are almost always to maximize the efficiency of some select processes, frequently the production of specific things we need such as food, fuel, and fiber. The ecological energetics will constantly be pulling to divert the energy away from these efficiency-maximized subsystems into other directions. Does this mean the human endeavor is doomed? Not at all. But it means that, like any other living thing, we will continually have to WORK (in both the colloquial and thermodynamic sense) to keep the energy going where we want it and stop it from being diverted into more powerful, yet less efficient (from our perspective) paths. This is what agriculture, economics, and the natural history of every living thing are all about.

I see one rather pointed implication of all this: Systems designed to keep giving us what we want from nature without our needing to provide steady inputs of work ARE doomed to failure. Your self-weeding, self-fertilizing food forest assembled with the highest principles of permaculture will not work. If you think you can fool nature into doing the work you want for you, forget it. You will have to be out there weeding, planting, pruning, controlling pests, building fences, adjusting water, etc. etc. Let's say it again, THERE IS NO FREE LUNCH. Everyone else out there wants a chunk of your energy, and nature is more than happy to let them have it. The self-perpetuating artificial ecosystem that maximizes the output of human needs while minimizing the needs for human work is as impossible as a perpetual motion machine.

Yer gonna have to sweat, get dirty, and get sore. There's now way around it.

Bill Pulliam said...

Ruben -- Finally had the chance to dig into it some; yes indeed it looks to me like the Maximum Power Principle and the Constructal Principle are equivalent; they seem to have been arrived at independently. The differences I see are that constructal theory is (a) saddled with a hateful coined monicker that conveys absolutely no meaning whatsoever to the uninitiated; (b) is considerably more recent by about 30 years; and (c) is expressed more rigorously and in a way that allows it to make testable predictions. Both address the same phenomenon in the same way: how do natural systems based upon flow organize themselves in an evolutionary sense? And both arrive at the same conclusion: Power (flow rate) will be maximized, not efficiency.

sofistek said...

A number of comments refer to the non-physical world (in various ways). What is that? Are we talking about what the masses would think of as magic (not the magic mentioned here in recent posts)? The universe is made up of physical stuff - in fact, it's full up with physical stuff, so where does this non-physical stuff come from and how does it manifest itself?

If it refers to thoughts or feelings, then they are also physical.

Bill Pulliam said...

P.S. as for the "Fourth Law of Thermodynamics," many of these have been proposed. None have achieved general acceptance and hence none have actually gained this status.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, good. Please put that last sentence about getting hot, sweaty, etc. on the business end of a branding iron and apply it to the backsides of all the middle class Americans in the peak oil scene who think they can maintain their current levels of comfort and privilege on a sustainable energy basis.

Sofistek, it's a common assumption that thoughts and feelings are physical, but it's simply an assumption, very weakly buttressed by the fact that thoughts and feelings have certain slight physical correlates. Still, the label "nonphysical" is basically a confession of ignorance. People experience a range of phenomena that do not appear to have a physical basis; spirituality and magic, not to mention most martial arts, some healing practices, and quite a few other things, work with these experiences and the hard-to-define realities that underlie them; they may turn out to have a physical basis -- dark matter? -- but as yet we don't know, and it's wiser to admit that we don't know than to pretend that the phenomena don't exist because we don't understand them.

Bill (again), this is fascinating. My current writing project is an update of that durable old occult work, The Kybalion, using concepts out of ecology, and flow has turned out to be one of the central principles.

sebzefrog said...

@blue sun and others who think that definitions are important, here is my take as a physicist to what energy, work and power are. I find pertinent to come back to what energy is because of the discussions around chi. In physics, energy is something very different. The main reason is that physics doesn't deal with Reality, while philosophies and religions do. Chi in this prospect is outside of the realm of physics. I know that I might get in trouble with fellow scientist for saying that (I actually have), but physics is not meant to answer "why ?". Physic tackles "How ?". Ask me why an apple falls, and I can't tell. "Because of gravity" doesn't make more sense to me than "because it loves the Earth" to answer such a question question. Gravity on the other hand is a model that allows me to predict with great accuracy *how* the apple will fall. Which brings us to the fasinating discussion Bill and Wordek have been having about mathematics. Why math is such a powerful language to describe the world is a question that fascinates me. But I won't go there now.
Energy. Energy is a number that describes the state of a system. Not as exciting as you might have though ? Not so fast. What this means that with one number, just one, you can have a description of a system. That's exciting ! This is the core reason why thermodynamics is so elegant and powerful. You don't need to know the details of the systems to understand its fate (yes, it's fate, not its destiny). A direct consequence of the existence of such a number is that energy is meaningfull only in differences. Knowing that a rock on top of a tower is 15 "somethings" doesn't tell you much. Knowing that when it is at the bottom of the tower on the other hand, it is 45 "somethings", is enlightening. Because from the top to the bottom, there is a difference of 30 "somethings".
Now, work. Work is the number of "somethings" that you need to apply a force to induce movement. Aha ! Link that to what was just said, and what makes the difference between the rock at the top and the rock at the bottom of the tower is a force needed to induce movement. Since it seems good practice to hand out gold stars here (never heard of them
before), lets hand one to the first person who realizes that this can be summarized as "a rock on a tower can fall. A rock at the bottom of the tower just sits there".

An interesting consequence of the definition of work is that to create work, you need a difference of energy. You need a source that has more energy than the other, in order to tap the difference and create work. Otherwise, you can't have access to the number of "somethings" you need. This is exacly what our dear Archdruid kept explaining when
he said that what one need is "concentrated energy". As a side note, if you forgive me the wink, I will let to the reader to find out if heating a rock is work or not.

And finally, power. Power is the work done in a second. Let's go back to our rock: In order to push the rock up the tower, you need to go from 45 "somethings" to 15 "somethings". Doing so, you will move it, and therefore, you will need to apply work. At least 30 "somethings" worth of work. You can either do it slowly, one step at a time, or you can ask Billy the Bully to run up with the stone . Same work done, but Billy would do it faster. That's what power describes. In our everyday's life, oil is Billy the Bully. Most of the things that we have him do can be done with our hands. Doing without might need more of us, and will definitely be slower. But the work can be

Sebzefrog at

Wordek said...

Hi Bill

“ I think it's generally accepted among engineers that optimizing for maximum power versus for maximum efficiency are at odds”

No argument from me there because:
1) Thats true and
2) I think we actually have different things in mind.

The way to maximal power from a system with maximally efficient modules isnt by revamping the system, Its simply done by adding more modules. So for instance the canopy tree expresses maximal power when the opportunity arises, by adding more maximally efficient cells, twigs-leaves-branches as fast as it can.

Observe the cells as individual units moving towards maximal efficiency
Observe the tree as an individual unit moving towards maximal power.

The more efficient the individual cells are the less cost there is to the tree in adding more of them. So cellular efficiency makes it easier for the tree to “power up” as a whole, so to speak

If we want to optimise our theoretical vehicle in the same fashion our engineer fits 3 small engines and then when we have an opportunity to go racing we add another 10 small engines (vroom vroom). And when the race is won or lost we can drop a few engines to decompose in the leaf litter at the side of the road. Also a vehicle probably isnt the best comparison to a tree because all of the “engines” we are adding can actually generate their own fuel (and contribute enough additional fuel to drag the “unproductive” chassis along with it ).
So the more efficient our “leaf engines” are then the more additional resources we have left over to make even more of them quickly when the opportunity arises!

Also, assuming that what I am thinking of, and what you know as maximum power are similar enough that we arent actually talking about two different principles, there is another thing niggling in my mind.
All living things are affected by their environment, so periods of scarcity would drive our trees towards greater efficiency, whereas periods of plenty would mean our trees would have to grow aggressively in order to beat out their competition to resources.
Chuck a few million years of this kind of variation into the mix and I would suggest that both “principles” have become “latent” in our trees genetics just waiting for natural selection to encourage the expression of one or the other as climatic or other conditions change. For this perceptual shift to work we maybe need to step back a bit further, look at the forest as a whole, and see the individual trees as being selected for “death or glory” depending on how well they express either principle.
And of course you can replace tree with person and so on in a lot of this rant. Unfortunately I reckon the “forest of western culture” is probably in for a period of “efficiency”.

God! What a brain dump. Arent you glad you dont live in my head?! Unfortunately I'm not finished.......

Wordek said...

Hi Sofistec

“A number of comments refer to the non-physical world (in various ways). What is that?”

I used to ask myself the same question and it doesnt really help matters any that usually as soon as someone mentions the “non-physical world” as being “really real” they immediately start banging on about some bloke in the sky with a beard who farts lightning bolts when he's angry.

So try the following experiment in perception. Note that it might take a few runs through to “get” what this is about:

1) Take two very simple similar objects. The simpler the better ( eg pieces of black and white paper)
2) Briefly examine each in turn
3) Now examine both together. Note the difference
4) Now take black away and examine the white piece. What do you see?
5) Bring the black piece back next to white. What do you see?
6) Now take away the white piece and examine the black. What do you see?
7) Bring the white piece back next to black. What do you see?

Now answer these questions:
What is a difference?
Where is it located?
Would the difference still exist if you werent looking at it?
Can other people see the difference?
If we need an elementary particle to carry a charge, then what “carries” a difference?

And if they havent carted you off to the happy farm by now, ask yourself
What kind of “thing” is a signal?
What kind of “thing” is a mind?


Wordek said...

Hi Sofistec

I missed adding step 8 which is the best of all....

8) Look around the room. How many differences do you see?

Brian said...

I think what I am moving towards in my readings here in your blog is a deep sympathy for what I perceive your spiritual position to be, respect for the significance of a personal orientation to a positive view of life and its qualitative possibilities. As distinguished from the much more easily manipulated quantitative possibilities in the consumer culture.
I'm glad to see you resist the doom temptation so well, as I think doom is probably quite unlikely. I don't want to diminish the very probable major disruptions and difficulties ahead as fossil fuels reach their used-by dates but it's still true that there are serious concentrated energy sources available to us. Last Wednesday I was at the launch at Melbourne University of a report which gave a detailed plan for the replacement of Australia's electricity production by solar thermal and wind installations. You can download the report here. . This plan deliberately used just these two proven commercial technologies to set out the process of achieving a carbon-free power supply in 10 years with a quite manageable national investment. Other technologies like geothermal were not included although there are installations here and a history in small scale going back decades. Our geology research body here estimates that the potential for geothermal here is approximately two million times our energy requirements. Feeding Japan its energy would take about 7 of the 2 million, the USA, about 40. That's if they didn't have the gumption to tap their own renewable resources. I think it's unlikely that we in Australia will do the smart thing - there is too much at stake in our massive coal and fossil gas exports. For the near future at least. But the blueprints are on the table at least.
The point I am trying to make is that there are very good reasons for taking out insurance for the likely mess headed our way in the form of major economic, environmental and social upheavals. But for me there has always been a deeper reason. Something to do with my soul. I built my first biodiesel plant quite a long time ago, and my reasons, on reflection, were more to do with making myself and mine free to some degree from the moral universe of the dangerous fools in Washington and the equally dangerous fools in Rhiyadh and their counterparts in Canberra, London and elsewhere. There was a lifting of some weight from my soul to put in that work, to move more freely and responsibly in the world. I think that some of the satisfaction I have felt over many years now in building our homes, growing and processing some of our food, and the other skills you laud her, is much more to do with that ars magna, the cultivation of a responsible life, than motivation by fear of the consequences of the decisions of people driven by greed and power and militant ignorance.

I think that your magic springs from that same source.

sebzefrog said...

A short story that I post... Well, because I had fun writing it.

Once upon a time, in a room so well insulated that it was just as if the outside didn't exist, lived a fridge and a generator. One day, the fridge came up with the idea that there was a Greater Purpose. He called it Cold Beer. By clever speaches, he gained the generator to the cause, and they started to think about how to make cold.

"With work, said the generator,we could move heat around".
After a second, the frige expressed his thoughts: "Huh ?"
The generator sighed. "We use work to move your fluids around, they liquify and evaporate, and in the process they transport heat.". This sounded straight forward enough for someone who didn't dare asking dumb questions like "how the hell would that work ?". Only remained the question of how to get that work.
There, the generator was on familiar ground. "Heat flows freely from one concentrated energy source to a less concentrated one. If you have two such sources, you can put a machine in between (like me) and get work out of it.
"But" said the fridge, "You need two sources of energy with different temperatures ? In a warm room that is all at the same temperature ? How are we going to achieve that ?
-By Burnin' Stuff Up!"
And so they did, and very soon the fridge was getting a nice cold feeling inside.

After some time, the room got a bit uncomfortable. "Why is it so warm ?" asked the fridge.
-Well, answered the generator, you are moving the heat inside of you outside.
-True, but I am very small, that shouldn't be lots of energy. Actually I am at my nominal temperature, and you are still running. What heat am I moving out ?
- The heat that is leaking back in because you are not perfect.
- But nobody is !
- Not my fault"

The fridge thought more and asked: "But if I am scooping out heat that comes from the room, why is the room getting hotter and hotter?"
There, the generator would have blushed, had its mechanical features permitted. " Remember I told you we needed a warm source in order to get work out of the energy flow from the warm source to the cold source?
- Yes...
- Well, then the cold source should warm up, right ?
- Indeed.
- Well, the cold source is the room..."
Realization dawned. They didn't have a colder source. Therefore, they made a warmer source than the room in order to extract work, which was fundamental to move heat outside of the fridge. This in turn was warming up the room.
"Ok, stop!" yelled the fridge. The generator stopped. And the fridge, sacrificing his Cold, opened his door, bringing back the entire room and its content to equilibrium.

After a moment of silence, the fridge said:
"Still warm in there, isn't it ?
- Yup. The cold you had inside was just heat piled up outside. It went right back in. Amounts to nothing.
- Damn! But it is hotter than it was before.
- Yup: We burned up stuff. That produces heat.
- But we used it to make cold!
- Nope, we used it to move warmth around."

Terrible realization: "You mean that what we did amounts exactly to burning the stuff on the carpet ?
- But for the fun, the nice cold feeling inside for a while, and the
potential damage a fire would have caused to the carpet, yes."

Now the fridge was feeling really down. His only solution was to be Not Wrong. Cold Beer was the answer, he should never have doubted. They would endure warmth for the greater good. Full of exaltation again, the fridge shouted:
"Ok, start again Generator !
- Can't.
- Can't ?
- No: no more stuff to burn."

Silence fell.
After a long long time, in this dark, very hot room, the fridge came up with the concept he was missing from the beginning. That's when he thought about the Devil. The specific one, that leaves in the "details".

sebzefrog at

blue sun said...

Sofistek --
I'm sure there are other great sources, but if you really want to be able to recognize the non-physical (which is already there, you just haven't noticed it), you've found yourself a great excuse to read E.F. Schumacher's "A Guide for the Perplexed."

Very easy to read, it's the best introduction to the non-physical I've ever read, and I think it dovetails perfectly both with your question and this post. (Also a good segway to "Small is Beautiful," I'm sure JMG would approve!)

Bill Pulliam said...

frog -- no argument from this scientist. I've long said that science has never explained what energy "is" better than anyone else. It defines quantities, metrics, and describes laws that predict how it will behave, but it says nothing about what it "is" or why it "is." Same with matter -- so particles are little vibrating strings? Strings of WHAT? Vibrating in WHAT? It's turtles all the way down.

I don't think we can really answer what or why these things really "are." The universe is devoid of context; how do you describe what something "is" at it's most basic level when you have nothing else for comparison?

John Michael Greer said...

Sebzefrog, good. It's indicative that in the Middle Ages, when "why" was a more culturally valued question than "how," saying that stones fall because they are drawn to the ground by love was a wholly acceptable claim.

Wordek, you've come very close to Bateson's definition of information here. More on this in an upcoming post!

Brian, I'm annoyed to have to take issue with you, in that the first and last sections of your comment -- the recognition that our future has nothing in common with current media fantasies of apocalypse, on the one hand, and the recognition that a good part of the reason for getting into this green wizard work has to do with what you've called "soul" -- are central to what I've been talking about all along. Still, the claim that we've got all kinds of highly concentrated energy to hand in renewable forms is a mistake. It's a very common mistake, and will become even more common as the concentrated energy resources we've actually got sunset out, but it's still a mistake. I've discussed the reasons for this in a couple of dozen posts here; the short form is that there are crippling issues of net energy and energy concentration costs that put harsh limits on how much concentrated energy we can get from nature once the fossil fuels are gone.

I know I keep hammering on this point, but it may just be the most crucial realization humanity will ever have to face: the fossil fuels, and petroleum in particular, are the most abundant, convenient, and concentrated energy sources our species will ever know, and we've burned our way through most of them already. Everything from here on will be a matter of figuring out what we can still do with a lot of diffuse heat and very small amounts of concentrated energy. That's the challenge of the ecotechnic future, and the longer we keep on chasing fantasies of limitless abundance, the more brutal the transition is going to be.

Seb, that may just be the best single metaphor for our predicament that I've seen in months.

Blue Sun, that's an excellent recommendation, though A Guide for the Perplexed is more than just an introduction to the nonphysical -- it's one of the better books of practical philosophy I know of.

Bill, well, actually, we can take it one step further. All these things are experiences in the minds of human beings, tightly conditioned by the cultural and biological constraints on those minds. All we can experience are mental models constructed by our brains out of the input from our sense organs and the innate patterns of thought that some of us have formalized as "logic" and "mathematics." We'll be talking more about this a bit later on.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- having worn my fingers out on my tomes about energy, power, transformities, and the maximum power principle, I'll be thrilled to sit back and take a rest while you tackle epistemology!

Or you can just let Douglas Adams do the work, and post a transcript of the the "Man In The Shack" bit from the original BBC Radio production of the Hitchhiker's Guide...

"How can I tell that the past isn’t a fiction designed to account for the discrepancy between my immediate physical sensations and my state of mind?"

SophieGale said...

I found this website this evening, Beyond Traditional Borders.

"The mission of the Beyond Traditional Borders Initiative is to foster the creation of globally appropriate health technologies that address the pressing health needs of the developing world. By engaging students through a novel multi-disciplinary educational program, we will challenge them to reach beyond their usual geographic and disciplinary experiential borders and to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to advance such innovative technologies. The program establishes a new curriculum for the middle school, high school and university levels that broadens understanding of disease processes and associated advancements within the health technology field, incorporating this understanding with important world health issues. Furthermore, the program presents real-world global health design challenges to students, encouraging the development of meaningful solutions with the potential to make a real impact today."

Two young women created a centrifuge from a salad spinner! And there is a battery powered Igloo cooler that will keep medicine cool--and only needs charged every two weeks. And more!

Cathy McGuire said...

@JMG: most middle class Americans, who are allergic to the realization that their comfortable lifestyles are paid for by other people's impoverishment.

Yup. That's core for me. And the more I move toward that awareness, the more appalled I am at friends & family who manage the most amazing denial about it! Reminds me of Ursula LeGuin's masterful story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" - haven't read it in a while; plan to read it soon again.

Your gopher is energetically equivalent to a single pane window with a leaky frame that allows the heat you've produced to go waltzing out to warm the great outdoors.
Ah! I have two of those windows left to go... and today the gopher scored another onion... Thanks for the analogy - that's very helpful!

semi-related, and maybe of interest to some here:
A leading archaeologist’s take on the pre-European Maya discounts ‘ecocide’ and suggests the people were actually astute stewards of the jungle who could teach us a thing or two.

Anabel Ford, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has an alternate view of the Maya experience. Writing in the Journal of Ethnobiology last fall, Ford and colleague Ronald Nigh suggest that the deforestation normally attributed to human agricultural practices is best explained by periods of alternating drought and floods. As evidence they point to local pollen and soil data they collected.

.. but she doesn’t offer a theory about how the civilization collapsed, then…

Transition said...

JMG said: "I know I keep hammering on this point, but it may just be the most crucial realization humanity will ever have to face: the fossil fuels, and petroleum in particular, are the most abundant, convenient, and concentrated energy sources our species will ever know, and we've burned our way through most of them already. Everything from here on will be a matter of figuring out what we can still do with a lot of diffuse heat and very small amounts of concentrated energy. That's the challenge of the ecotechnic future, and the longer we keep on chasing fantasies of limitless abundance, the more brutal the transition is going to be. I know I keep hammering on this point, but it may just be the most crucial realization humanity will ever have to face: the fossil fuels, and petroleum in particular, are the most abundant, convenient, and concentrated energy sources our species will ever know, and we've burned our way through most of them already. Everything from here on will be a matter of figuring out what we can still do with a lot of diffuse heat and very small amounts of concentrated energy. That's the challenge of the ecotechnic future, and the longer we keep on chasing fantasies of limitless abundance, the more brutal the transition is going to be."

I entirely agree, and this week's post is one of the best explanations I've seen of this very important concept. In fact, I've just this week been collecting posts about this topic.

Others that convey essentially the same info (in case they help in cementing the concepts):

Energy follows its bliss by John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report 51714

Energy and Permaculture by David Holmgren, Permaculture Activist
http://www.permacultureactivist. net/articles/holmgren.htm

Energy, Ecology and Economics by Howard Odum for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1973 energy_ecology_economics_odum_ht_1973.htm
[When this article was republished by Mother Earth News, it had the following introduction:
"During a visit to MOTHER's new home in the mountains of western North Carolina—New Alchemist John Todd gave the magazine's editors about the 14th-generation Xerox copy of what can conservatively be described as a dynamite paper. 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..." ]

David M

Wendy said...

I am cross eyed from reading. I thankyou for your download I got from the previous post. Especially answering a question I had been searching for a simple answer to and then another huge thankyou for all of the comments and links and ideas from everyone. I am going to enjoy this very much and look forward to learning. Cheers, Wendy

Wendy said...

Can I say that for the first time after reading this post that I feel that I have a tiny bit of knowledge about energy. I am no scientist but I am not stupid either. Thankyou so much for sharing your skill of explaination of difficult subjects into a form that I can understand.

Again I would like to thank everyone for all of their comments as I am learning so much from reading them all as well.

And lastly I would like to thank you for not putting a price tag on information and sharing. I know this may be of track here but it is worth saying. I am a person who will give something away that I no longer require and not sell it. I simply like sharing and I do not like waste. The example you are setting in sharing freely your knowledge shows me that you are genuine and it makes me stop and listen. Over the past 6 months as my eyes have been opening and my mind eager for knowledge I have searched for answers to many questions and looked for places to listen and learn from like minded people. More often than not I come across something on the net and I am asked to pay to join - pay to learn - pay to share. Money has no place here. This does not mean that I do not understand and appreciate that this is very time consuming for you and to all the others who share their comments and ideas. There is a place to work and make money and there is definately a time and place to share our gifts and knowledge freely with nothing expected in return but that someone is better of for what you give and do. I hope this makes sense.

Cheers, Wendy

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, no need to wear your fingers out. It's simply that a grasp of the fact that all we know boils down to our own mental activities keeps us from reifying those activities too simplistically.

Sophie, thanks for the link!

Cathy, I was thinking about that story when I wrote those words, interestingly enough. As for the Mayan article, the author's right that postcollapse Mayan societies got into the kind of forest polyculture she describes, which is why the boom and bust cycle that played out so spectacularly in the Lowland Classic collapse moderated thereafter. I don't think most people like to think about how much of the depopulation of the Yucatan actually happened as a result of diseases introduced by Europeans.

David, I'm amused that you helped me hammer away at the point by repeating the relevant quote twice! Still, if it helps people notice, it's a good thing. The Odum paper's been in circulation for years now, and the reaction -- even in most "green" circles -- has been uncomfortably reminiscent of the five-year-old scrunching up his eyes, plugging his ears, and chanting "I can't hear you, I can't hear you" as loud as he can.

Wendy, I'm glad you find the files useful! As for the money thing, I didn't pay money to get the Master Conserver training, so it would be morally very dubious of me to put a price on it. Insofar as this blog gives me a place to work out ideas that will later appear in book form, and now and then encourages a reader to go buy one of my books, it contributes as much toward paying my bills as it needs to.

LewisLucanBooks said...

I am not a "smart" person. I haven't been able to find the Odum book, but by rummaging around on the Web I've been able to read a lot of his papers and things about his work. So, I have an overview of the concepts.

Energy. Something I think about a lot. Being poor, mostly from a cost aspect. I'm old enough that I suppose there will always be a bit of energy around in my lifetime, but will I be able to afford it?

Especially, when people are so short sighted. Our little town has relatively cheap electricity. It's a municipal utility as we have a hydro plant that has been around for years. It used to provide all the electricity for the town, now only 30%. But, we still pay less then the next town over which is PUD.

Our city council keeps making noises about selling it.

Energy. I was going to build a solar dryer and someone gave me an electric dryer before I got around to it. Two pounds of blueberries; TWO DAYS to get them dry. Maybe if I had cut them in half... I'm thinking james and jellies, instead of the dryer.

Our town has a lot of great old brick buildings (made from a local brickyard, now gone, from local clay.) Think Hopper paintings. The building I live in is an old theatre that was built in 1903. There are so many interesting things about this building, energy wise.

It's never really uncomfortable, even in the warmest weather. There seems to be a passive air system that slowly moves through it. Makes sense when you remember that back in the old days, people smoked in theaters. But even so, the thermal mass of the building soaks up heat all summer and slowly releases it into the fall. I don't have to turn my furnace on until more then a month later then my neighbors in newer buildings.

What's really interesting is that the building faces east. It is about 170' long. I have noticed around the fall and spring solstices as the sun rises, a beam of light begins to crawl along the south wall. Day after day it advances a bit further into the building until one glorious day it lights up the back wall. And then it's gone.

Aurora said...

I have been looking around all week trying to see the 'energy' moving and I think I am grasping it.

I have become more irritated as I realise we lose so much energy because we insist on producing it hundreds of miles from where it is to be used, whether that be the grid or a water boiler at the other end of the house from the hot taps and main rooms.

I have been considering making a solar shower, putting the bags outside in my yard during the day and bringing them in to the bathroom for an evening shower. It seems much better efficiency than allowing the boiler to fire up and carry the water, using an electric pump, upstairs to the shower. I live in rented accomodation and the pipes that are exposed are not lagged, so I am guessing the ones that I can't see aren't lagged either.

Wordek said...

Hi sebzefrog

“Ask me why an apple falls, and I can't tell. "Because of gravity" doesn't make more sense to me than "because it loves the Earth" to answer such a question. Gravity on the other hand is a model that allows me to predict with great accuracy *how* the apple will fall”

I don't see the contradiction. Obviously the apple will fall at 10 m/ps/ps with a “song in its heart”.

Its those naked parachutists are the ones who have lost the plot....

;) heh

FernWise said...

Aurora: for shower water, I found three empty 2-liter soda bottles, spray painted them black, and now fill them and leave them in the sun with their tops on. In the shower stall I installed a hook on the ceiling and have a rough 'holster' hanging from it. I started by carring the sun-warmed bottle to the shower, put a 'sprinkler' lid on it (made from a soda bottle lid that I drilled a lot of small holes in), invert it into the holster, and showered FAST.

I refined it by adding a second and third hook, and looping a string around the end of the bottle, over a second hook on the ceiling, and having a loop at it's end that will snag a hook on the wall, so I can raise and lower the sprinkling end so I can get wet, stop the flow, lather up, then lower it again for rinsing.

It does take me two 2-liter bottles when I wash my hair during a shower.

grimmorrigan said...

Hey folks. I checked out my local (WV)farmers market and the Dept. of Agriculture and found some great atuff. Blueprints for various cellars, the proper methods for gathering and preserving firewood, composting technigues and even some stuff on hydroponics. Try the organizations in you area you might find some awesome info too.

sebzefrog said...

@Wordek: no dispute there, I don't see a contradiction neither. See my answer to Bill ;)

@Bill: I am not sure that no body can answer to "what" or "why" in the way you put it. It seems to me that religions are very good at that. The fact is that because of the curse and gift of doubt,
I am blind to the word of faith. I can see it, but I don't "feel" it. What I know in the other hand is that some people who experiment faith without completely giving up thought can have very fascinating views about "why", "what" and the Reality. And most often there is no contradiction between the "why" and the "how" question. People usually get in trouble when they start mixing both. Be them obviously religious or be them clothing Reality with the science paradigme.

@JMG: Indeed, in middle ages a stone fell because it loved Earth. And maybe it still does ;) I cherish this piece of knowledge because it links to a little moment of entelechia. In high school, we were told about this "belief of the Dark Ages", as a way of showing us how much brighter we were now, without all this mystical nonsense. We all laughed. And then, as the class continued, I got thinking about what my laugh meant. It lead me to think about what Reality was. And as a matter of fact, defining science as a way to answer to "how" instead of "why" is a by product of lots of thoughts, that in one way or an other are linked to this moment.

The background temperature of the universe (before going postal,
note the non capital U used for universe) is indeed 3 Kelvin, and it is actually expected to go down. It has been going down for 13 billion years, even though stars have been burning for 10 billion years because the energy they produce is minimal compared to the energy that was there in the first place. The reason for this cooling is understood as being due to the expansion of the universe. Energy stays almost the same, but the size increases, therefore the energy gets more diluted. Also, the fact that this thermal energy is very diffuse is not the reason why it can't be used. The reason it can't be used is that there is nothing cooler in the universe. If you want to make anything cooler, you have to make it. And that needs you to use energy to provide the work needed for that. I.e. in order to tap this energy you need at least as much energy as you would get out to start with. This only works in finance, you can't get away with it in physics.

I also have to disagree a bit with Mr Greer. It is somewhat of a dangerous slope because we might end up in a discussion around what we mean by "we know something". Nevertheless, in our understanding of the universe, the energy that gets out of burning stars in the form of light is very important in the formation of new stars. This light will condence hydrogen clouds and help them form new stars. This is what causes the beautiful galactic arms one can see on galaxy pictures. Nevertheless, I don't think this amounts to a cyclic behavior, as in the end all this energy is diffused into background energy. The background radiation is indeed the elephant cemetery of energy

Have to run to get my train...
Sebzefrog at

LewisLucanBooks said...

Making home-made candied orange peel is very energy and water intensive.

Anne said...

With respect to energy, a big issue for me and for all of us is the very finite amount of personal energy I have available as a human being to get stuff done. My energy is limited so I have to prioritise what I put energy into. I don't have time/energy to learn and apply all the possible skills that may be needed for the future so I am going to have to focus on some and rely on other people for the others. Also taking care of myself has to be part of trying to become more sustainable, if I don't no-one else will.

FernWise said...

Lewis: yes, home cooking/canning is usually far less energy efficient than going it on a larger scale, with an Army mess hall or some other institutional cafeteria as a more efficient model. Even a McDonald's probably cooks food using less energy per calorie than a home kitchen.

An oven (be it electric, gas, or wood-fired) baking one loaf of bread is less efficient than the same oven, same amount of time, baking 12 loaves.

Sharon Astyk addresses this with co-housing. Transition towns address it there way, cooperatives their way. I suspect that JMG will be addressing that in the future as well.

Being Druish myself (Druid with a Jewish background), my birth-people addressed that in part with communal ovens that were used to slowly cook the hot meal for Saturdays. Everyone tucked their big pot o' cholent into it before sundown Friday, it was tightly closed and left alone until Saturday afternoon, then opened and everyone took their pots home and ate.

Wordek said...

A little more on the material\non-material. I mentioned that matter cannot exist without generating information. More accurately I should have said that matter cant exist without generating signals. What is it that turns a signal into information? Two lamps in a window is two lamps in a window, unless its “one if by land, two if by sea”
So signal becomes information through the addition of an observer
Note that without adding anything at our “lamp window” source we can derive swathes of information just by adding observers.
“Is there anyone at home at house X?”
“Are there lamps at house X?”
“Where could I borrow some lamp oil from?”

This is what I was referring to earlier when I remarked that “life is matter that has learned to utilise information”.

JMG, you mentioned Bateson earlier, so lets add in his notion of collateral energy just to keep things interesting.

One billiard ball knocking another into a pocket is a fairly easy event to describe in classical physics.
However, make this event into a signal generator by adding animate observers and a whole different set of rules will emerge. Events that transpire as the result of a bet on the game could reverberate over a lifetime. The energy used in the act of potting a ball + the photons required to transfer that signal to an observer are trivial in terms of the energy that our observer now expends in subsequent activity spurred by winning or losing its wager.

And yes all that activity will be matter and energy moving around in a physical universe which can be described (by someone with sufficient spare time) mathematically.

But thats not the point is it? Just what are the mathematical rules that can model the motivations of the living...?

DeVaul said...

"that waste is going to leak out into the biosphere, and once that happens, anyone and anything that comes into contact with even a few milligrams of it will suffer a painful and lingering death"

Thank you. Every time I hear a discussion on nuclear energy, I bring up the issue of nuclear waste, and then there is just silence. No one cares about their children or descendants one bit, and I find that incomprehensible.

Reb said...

Wondering if you all have happened across the North Dakota Extension site. They have an extensive collection of plans for all sorts of buildings, many of them from the early part of the last century. I built a chicken coop from one of these plans.