Of Information and Humans

Key Questions:

  • What is technology?
  • How current civilization is at the same time the creator of such amazing technologies, yet completely unable to grapple with known limits, such as, peak oil, climate change, and local ecosystem destruction?
  • Why do indigenous people often appear so enlightened from an ecological standpoint compared to modern society?

Everything is Energy

There are two striking things about the concepts contained in emergy analysis:

  1. Everything is energy. In the strict sense E=mc^2, but on a more everyday level everything has a certain amount of energy that went into manufacturing/purifying it. Imagine a good summer rain. There is a certain amount of energy required from the sun to make the water evaporate, turn into a cloud, and eventually fall to the earth.
  2. Energy is hierarchical. The more energy that goes into making something, the more impact it has on a specific system. Take that good summer rain. The higher in altitude it rains, the more energy is required for it to rain. So low lying areas will generally receive more rain than a mountain. The rain that falls near sea level does not have as much energy and per drop of rain will not impact the landscape. A similar drop of rain falling on a mountain has much more energy, so a high altitude rain drop can go into carving great ravines or can drive a generator at an electric power station.

Figure 1rain and energy

Humans and Understanding Our Technologies

Humans have the ability to create amazing technologies. We have our cars, computers, pet rocks, and all other sorts of mechanized creations, but what are all these things really? Each technology is a human created information system. Humans are not the exclusive creators of information systems. Examples of non-human information systems are the naturally occurring DNA/RNA and certain animals have their own less complex information systems, such as, birds, dolphins, whales, monkeys, and great apes.

Information systems have two key features. The first is that they take large amounts of energy to create the first copy, but additional copies take significantly less energy to make. This allows for information to spread rapidly. The second is that since information systems take so much energy to create, it is higher in the energy hierarchy and has the ability to massively impact other systems. Further, the more energy that is used to make the specific information system, the larger the impact it has on other information systems. This has important ramifications for how we perceive the impacts of human information systems. It often can appear humanity’s prowess creating technology is endless, because of its ability to work outside the natural DNA/RNA information system (genetics) and how rapidly it spreads while failing to realize there is an initial high energetic cost for information innovation.

Figure 2information feedbacks

Figure 2 Left) An avian information where a multi-step process is used to turn a stick into a tool. Most animal information systems need a relatively small amount of energy to create compared to the energy accumulated in genetic information and therefore genetics still appears to dominate survival outcomes. Middle) A human for most of the past 200,000 years. Technologies are created using significantly more energy, which start to have a more equal weight on survival outcomes compared to the genetic system. An example is animal husbandry, where humans raise lactating animals, while concomitantly the genetic changes to allow adults to consume lactose. Right) Humans in the last 100-200 years. Recent technological innovation uses massive amounts of energy and has out-sized effects on human timescales compared to the genetic, examples include genetic engineering and mastery of nuclear energy.

How Energy is Utilized within Information Systems

Biological succession, which is controlled by the genetic information system, has been studied since at least the early 1800s. The general concept consists of a disturbed site first being colonized by competitive rapidly growing weedy pioneer species that are later followed by more cooperative slower growing longer lasting climax species. Biological succession allows for the maximum amount of energy usage, generally sunlight. First, pioneer species quickly occupy energy source sites to capture free energy.  It is generally advantageous to maximize energy flow through a system when energy is in excess before switching to a conservation modality.  Once all available energy sites are occupied, then climax species replace the pioneer species that can optimize the fixed amount of energy coming into the site by moving scarce resources between site members. The climax state will remain as long as the energy flow into the system is stable and there is not a disturbance force that removes a large portion of standing capital, like fire or drought.

Figure 3succession

Human information systems as a whole use energy sources in a way that mirrors biological succession. First a new technology is developed that allows for humans to tap a new energy source, like agriculture or oil. There will be an expansion in that particular human population and new uses for that energy which are generally not energy conserving.  Individual maximizing technological use and hence energy out-compete those who do not use technology and available energy.  Eventually, the expansion of energy reaches a plateau as there are no new sites for energy, e.g. no new fields to plow or net energy positive wells to dig. Once a maximal amount of energy flow has been reached, humans switch to conserving and cooperative technologies, e.g. switch in vehicle usage, road laws, gas rationing, and birth of US EPA and Earth Day in the 1970s after the temporary energy plateau of Arab oil embargoes 1967-1979 and the peaking of US oil in 1972. This climax conservation state will last as long as energy flow remain relatively stable. In many human hunter gather and early mixed agrarian societies, energy flows were linked to primary productivity and relatively stable allowing for long lasting periods of conservation climax and seeming enlightenment (top, Fig. 4). If energy flows cannot be maintained and are intermittent or constrained, real capital, such as infrastructure projects and oil rigs, is used in ways where real capital formation is sacrificed to maintain energy flows leading to overall real capital depreciation. This leads to a situation where societal efficiency falls and energy capture devices depreciate with a lag in eventual energy flow declines, which can resemble catastrophic fire in natural system and leads to a quick destruction phase, i.e. the moment when efficiency and energy capture is most needed, these things become scarce (bottom, Fig. 4).

Figure 4.pulsing

The human innovation of extracting energy from fossil fuels led to an expansion of the human population and new information systems. During the pioneer exploitation phase, industrialization was born to quickly utilize any new energy flow mirroring the progression of energy usage in all information systems. Recently, the slowing fossil fuel production and use in most major developed economies suggests our current society is shifting from from a pioneer exploitation phase into a climax conservation stage. This is best seen in the talk/advertisements about “renewable” and “green” technologies and perhaps even the birth of the Occupy Movement. The ability for society to remain in the climax conservation stage will last as long as energy flows can be maintained at current levels.  If a switch to “renewable” energy is possible, then future generations may look back on us as rather enlightened.

Key Takeaways

Human technological innovation is a suite of information systems.  The human suite of information systems, whether it be hunter gather or industrial societies, follows the same pattern as the natural DNA/RNA information system of succession with times of pioneering, climax, destruction, and renewal.  Human information systems will grapple with the limits to energy growth and resource depletion for the duration of the climax and destruction phases, but perhaps not a moment sooner.  In the next post, I will postulate as to why pulsing/succession is the optimal strategy to maximize overall energy flow through time and how the current human information might not be the only information system on Earth that can create ecosystemic collapse.

Individual Action:

  • Interact with climax conservation biological systems (forests, coral reefs)
  • Relearn skills of past human climax conservation civilizations
  • Create a climax conservation biological system, like a forest garden
  • Minimize fossil fuels use both direct and indirect in everyday life
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6 thoughts on “Of Information and Humans

  1. Pingback: Emergy: you spelled energy wrong! - A Prosperous Way DownA Prosperous Way Down

    • I had not actually heard of the term panarchy, so I went and looked it up and sure enough the picture in EPS that I was trying to recreate is from Holling. I was not sure what to make of the word capital on the y-axis, so I substituted it with information divided by energy flow. Is there any way you think I misrepresented or could have better explained the theory? Thanks. -Brian

  2. No, nothing misrepresented — I’m just always delighted when I see panarchy (“ruler of everything”) in different contexts. And according to Odum, energy flow is a pretty good stand-in for “capital.”

    Buzz Holling — and your diagram — tells us that whenever high energy and high connectedness coincide, a crash is imminent.

    One good reason for thinking in terms of “capital” rather than “energy flow” is that panarchists say that an overshoot of energy and connectedness can degrade the capital to the point that the renewal and subsequent loops are lower. I think that precisely describes where humanity is now!

  3. quote: Each technology is a human created information system. Humans are not the exclusive creators of information systems.
    noooooooooo—it isn’t!!!
    Technology, whether primitive or complex, is a product of energy input first, intellect second.
    My knuckle dragging ancestors bashed a million rocks against each other before finally arriving at the ‘technology’ and beauty of the hand axe.
    Technology does not deliver energy, that is one of the great delusions of our time

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