Seeing the world through embodied energy

As Howard Odum noted in his classic work on environmental accounting, “The natural conversion of sunlight to electric charge that occurs in all green-plant photosynthesis after 1 billion years of natural selection may already be the highest net emergy possible.”

Emergy—embodied energy—is nearly invisible to us.  In a previous post I looked at how emergy might help us better understand the energy that the Internet uses.  But beyond such analyses, I’ve started to see the world through the lens of embodied energy and/or net energy.  It’s been a slow and strange transition for me; I’ve begun to see every object around me not only for its function but for its manufacture.  Obviously it takes time and mental effort to not just go about our days interacting with things around us but instead thinking about them.  But it’s that blindness to emergy that contributes to poor energy decision-making.

There are a number of examples of this from everyday life: instances in which considering emergy would help us easily make the energy-efficient choice.  Consider food.  We know that there are numerous reasons to grow food on our own or to buy from local farms, yet the easiest way to think about it is to consider the emergy of the food from different sources.  Emergy calculations also help us choose between, for example, food that was grown with the use of pesticides and food that was grown without it (even though, once again, there are reasons to avoid pesticides).  Consider buying new vs. used goods.  The amortized emergy of a used item is nearly always less than the emergy cost of a new item.

Neither of these examples is novel: buying used and buying local are well known notions.  However, emergy analysis provides an all-purpose tool for decision-making in these and other instances.  It may not always solve the problem—particularly when doing the emergy analysis itself is difficult—but I think it may help in most cases.

As a result of thinking about embodied and net energy, I’ve found myself asking a lot of strange questions, many of which may not even be well-formed.  (I’ve also wondered if it might help to broaden these concepts to embodied resources and net resource expenditure rather than narrowly considering energy alone.)  I’d like to list some of them here, and try to find answers to them in some future post:

  • Are tropical fruits sweeter because they have more energy from the sun at their disposal?
  • Are ebooks really more efficient than paper books, as is sometimes claimed?  Are printed handouts (e.g. conference proceedings) more efficient than flash drives?  Are libraries more efficient than ebook stores (and their corresponding devices)?
  • Do blended raw-food diets make people feel energetic because they have greater net energy?
  • What makes food sustainable?  Is “sustainable fish” sustainable?
  • Are human-powered tools actually more energy-efficient than electrical tools or equivalent machines?
  • How much energy did it take to produce the Windows operating system?  What about the Mac OS?  Is it more efficient to download an OS update or get it in the mail?
  • What style of farming / gardening has the highest net energy (e.g. industrial vs. industrial-organic vs. small raised bed-organic vs. organic permaculture vs. biointensive-organic vs. etc.)?
  • What natural systems / phenomena would yield the highest emergy and/or available net energy (e.g. lightning vs. oil vs. volcanoes vs. high-altitude wind vs. ocean thermal gradients vs. etc.)?
  • What is the emergy of a flywheel bicycle?  Is it more efficient to use a flywheel bicycle than a regular bicycle?
  • In general, do buffers in systems increase their net energy?

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Responses to “Seeing the world through embodied energy”


    Page 18-25 at the link has some nice evaluations of various types of agriculture.

    I watched the documentary King Corn last night. The directors of the film, after going through the motions of growing an acre’s worth of dent corn, watching the tasteless, fogged, fertilized results head off to become toxic feed for CAFO cows, tallied their liabilities and realized that they had lost money on the process except for the saving grace of government subsidies of various sorts. The film left them opting to not grow corn for a second year. The directors interviewed many old-time farmers who appeared to be mesmerized by the relentless advance of industrial agriculture, and the uselessness of their efforts.

    At what point do we step back and opt just not to play this game anymore?

    Nice post.

  2. Thanks – that’s an interesting analysis. I’ve gone through some of Odum’s other books with intricate emergy analyses, though I have to say I usually find them pretty unreadable.

    As for corn – I’m with you. It’s a bit of a mystery to me how after nearly a decade of popular awareness of the problems with our industrially produced stables (corn, soy, etc.) still nothing has been done.

  3. “But beyond such analyses, I’ve started to see the world through the lens of embodied energy and/or net energy.”-barath

    “You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” -Morpheus

    Do we live and die authentically or continue to act as mindless batteries for the hyper-consumptive Techno-World until we just hit the wall? Would you push the button to reduce the flow of oil and get us to where we need to be (70% less emergy?) now, rather than wait for it to happen later?

    So what’s the boundary on the internet problem? Would I be having this conversation with you if I didn’t have a virus-free recently purchased laptop with fast connectivity, extra time and purchasing power to spare in my first-world day, JIT shipping for repairs, a broad base of computers to make DSL profitable at my node in Anchorage, etc? Not to mention the complexity and global nature of chip manufacture and computer design/development. How broad of a base do we need to keep this wonderful source of high quality information going? How many nodes have to weaken and blink out before it starts to wobble? Is consistent electricity the bottom line?

  4. I’m not sure I’d support an overnight switch to 70% less energy consumption simply because things would fall apart completely and as a result even those who are ready to adapt wouldn’t be able to handle it, but I’d definitely support a fairly rapid downshift – on the order of 10 years. From a policy perspective that could be achieved by using an enlarged SPR as a buffer and intentionally increasing the price of oil at a steady pace to target, say, 6% annual decrease in oil consumption. (This would also ensure that consumption decreases faster than Hirsch’s 2-5% estimate for annual depletion.)
    Regarding the Internet – the question you ask about what level of complexity do we require to keep the Internet functioning in some form is one I began looking into a few months back. (The dependency analysis from a few posts back was part of that work.) My initial answer is that as currently structured, the Internet is very hard to downscale from a complexity standpoint, mainly due to the complex processes needed for modern IC manufacturing.

  5. That’s the problem with incrementally increasing complexity; eventually it gets to the point that the only way the system can respond to diminished inputs is to fall apart or shut down. Contraction is no longer an option once you get past a certain point. Better not to get to that point and have something to pick out of the ruins?

    If we continue on into further overshoot, does that make potential pollution problems cause irreversible environmental degradation? For example, through a widespread nuclear LossOfCoolingAccident at multiple nuke plants after some big, blowzy tropical depression floods the eastern seaboard and there’s too much surface runoff from excess urbanization, for instance? In the end, we may not need anything really dramatic to take us out? It may be the mundane accumulation of too much pressure from too many people and their stuff on mother earth’s natural sustaining systems and she just shuts us down?

  6. You may very well be right that a mundane compounding of issues will overwhelm our ability to cope. I think there are a fair number of analyses that contend that we might be past that point of no return. Still, I think it’s probably possible and useful to downscale, though I’m not sure there’s the social and political will yet. What you’re describing reminds me of Bardi’s most recent post.

  7. Hi Barath,

    This reminds me a started but dropped project from a few years ago of trying to make sense of the work of Vaclav Smil & the field of “General Energetics” (which, for all I know, is a field of 1, Smil). Anyhow, on initial look, I found it fascinating, and perhaps related to what you’re after.

  8. Definitely. I’ve gone through some of Smil’s stuff, though to be honest I’ve gotten bogged down when reading his books. (They tend to be pretty dry…) I’ve ended up reading the bits and pieces of his work that catch my interest. I should sit down sometime and go through it more systematically.

  9. I read Bardi’s post on TOD this morning. I’ve watched endless runs of models similar to World 3. (OCD researchers–over, and over, and over ;-} )When you limit inputs early in the runs, you get a nice bell curve/leveling off in population, capital, and other stocks. The longer you let excessive inputs run, the more likely you are to have a vertical crash. That is just the way it is in most systems. Changing initial conditions, feedback, or most other system components has little effect.

    It’s all about the oil.