Archive for February, 2007

Energonomics: On the Storage and Distribution of Solar Energy

On my commute into work, I started listening to Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese, an environmental lawyer in Minnesota who became fascinated by the topic when the state investigated the environmental impact of its energy decisions.  She tells of how coal industry representatives intervened and tried to convince state decision makers that climate change was happening “in small ways we were all going to enjoy” (!) so they “should ignore what the vast majority of their colleagues around the world were saying about climate change” (8).  Happily, they “flatly rejected the industry’s notion that climate change would be limited  to climate improvements, adopting instead  the widely held consensus  that climage change is a grave threat” (9).

At one point early in the book she tells of the difference that coal made, speaking of the billions of years that “almost every life form on earth depended for its existence on energy fresh from the sun.”  She continues:

Like living solar collectors handily dispersed all over the planet, plants capture sunshine as it arrives and convert it into chemical energy that animals can eat. And plants don’t just convert energy, they store it over time–holding that energy within their cells until they decay, burn, or get eaten (or, in rare but important cases, are buried deep within the planet as a fossil fuel).  Animals eating plants take that stored energy into their bodies, where they not only store it in concentrated form but disperse it through space.  A flock of geese, a pod of whales, a herd of caribou–they are all, on some level, mobile battery-packs.  They gather solar energy that falls upon one patch of the planet and deliver it to another as they migrate; in this way, they make life possible for their predators even when, for example, the snow is thick and there is not a green leaf in sight.  Life on earth is, in short, a vast and sophisticated system for capturing, converting, storing, and moving solar energy, the evolutionary success of each species depending in significant part on how well it taps into that system. (4)

I don’t know what it is that I love about reading passages like this.  Maybe it’s the recognition of a fundamental feature of existence, which is why I think the concept of energonomics–of the management of energy–is crucial, especially at this critical point in the history of life on this planet.  It seems like there are more and more books like this one that speak of this “systems ecology” of energy flow.

12 February 2007 at 7:02 pm Leave a comment

Complexity Economics

I’ve gotten through the first section of Eric D. Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics.  This book introduces the emerging field of “complexity economics,” which applies the recent advances in the science of nonlinear dynamics to “the dismal science” of economics, making it far more interesting in my mind.  He argues convincingly that traditional economics is based on a partial comparison to physics (a “misused metaphor”) in which only the first law of thermodynamics is recognized but not the second. . . . This yields the false assumption that the economy is a closed equilibrium system whereas, in reality, it is an open, far-from-equilibrium system that displays emergent properties:  “this borrowing of equilibrium from physics was a crucial scientific misstep that has had lasting consequences for the field” (32).   That is, mainstream theory (such as the “market fundamentalist” ideology that neo-conservatives rely upon) is, to put it bluntly, “wrong, or, at best, only approximately right” (19).

As Beinhocker explains that he himself is not merely relying upon a shaky scientific metaphor, he speaks of the materiality of energy in a way that makes me think of my concept of energonomics: 

We have to remember that social systems . . . are real physical systems made of matter, energy, and information; they are made up of people and all of that stuff outside your window, and they are just as subject to the laws of physics as any other phenomenon.  Real, physical economies have enormous amounts of real, physical energy pouring into them every day–that is what makes them tick. . . . Economies are not just metaphorically like open systems; they literally and physically are a member of the universal class of open systems. (71)

I’m looking forward to making my way through this extremely interesting book.

10 February 2007 at 12:16 am 1 comment

The Civilization of Illiteracy

I was just browsing through Project Gutenberg for fun–what else does one do on a Friday night?!–and stumbled upon a copyrighted book (I thought they were all public domain books) from 1997 title The Civilization of Illiteracy by Mihai Nadin. As I browsed the table of contents I noticed the phrase “cognitive energy” and of course thought of my concept of “energonomics”:

Networking, which at its current stage barely suggests things to come, can only be compared to the time electricity became widely available. Cognitive energy exchanged through networks and focused on cooperative endeavors is part of what lies ahead as we experience exponential growth on digital networks and fast learning curves of efficient handling of their potential.

This reminds me of Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of the emerging “noosphere” as well as a few books I’ve been looking at that suggest the radical changes Mihai Nadin suggests–Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything being one of them. His thesis, as presented in brief on Amazon, claims that “literacy as a dominant framework of human activity is no longer adequate.” This is similar to what I was saying in a recent conference presentation about all of the new literacies that we are now required to learn. One encompassing term, “electracy,” attempts to capture the paradigm shift that Nadin is perhaps trying to suggest in his very long 900 page book.

Elsewhere, he suggests that equitable access to the digital resources now (and soon to be) available will put people in touch with this “cognitive energy”:

Representing the underlying structure of the pragmatics of the
civilization of illiteracy, the digital becomes a resource, not
unlike electricity, and not unlike other resources tapped in the
past for increasing the efficiency of human activity. In the
years to come, this aspect will dominate the entire effort of
the acculturation of the digital. Today, as in the Industrial
Age of cars and other machines, the industry still wants to put
a computer on every desk. The priority, however, should be to
make computation resources, not machines, available to everyone.
Those still unsure about the Internet and the World Wide Web
should understand that what makes them so promising is not the
potential for surfing, or its impressive publication
capabilities, but the access to the cognitive energy that is
transported through networks.

The other book I think of when I read this is Pierre Levy’s Collective Intelligence: “Genuinely human existence-like all true encounters between individuals–is born, perpetuates itself, and finds its unity in thought” (244).

9 February 2007 at 10:27 pm 1 comment

February 2007
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