Maximum Power?

I call the blog Maximum Power because it seems to me that Howard Odum’s maximum power principle*  lies behind the growth of industrial society. The maximum power principle states that:

In the competition amongst self-organising systems, network designs that maximise [power] will prevail.” (Odum, 1995, 16)

In plain English, if an option gives you more bang for your buck, you and others will choose that option and make it popular. Power is the rate of energy transformation per unit of time (usually measured in Watts, 1 Joule/second) e.g. a plant transforming solar energy in photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide in sugars.

Odum argues that because energy flow can be directed to acquire more energy flow (e.g. the plant grows leaves to capture more sunlight), a feedback loop forms which favours system designs that maximise energy transformation across the whole system. Hence, fossil fuel powered industrial society supplants agrarian societies.

Applying the maximum power principle to socio-economic systems is controversial. It would seem to dictate that we will not be able to reduce global fossil fuel usage through demand-regulating policies in less than a supermajority of countries or through personal actions. The fossil energy foregone by these efforts is still available, and will merely flow to the unregulated part of the system (i.e. India, China etc.). A caveat might be that less fungible fossil fuels like lignite coal or stranded gas may not be economic to transport.

*also called maximum empower

Further Reading

Hagens, N. The Psychological and Evolutionary Roots of Resource Overconsumption Revisited. The Oil Drum

Odum, H. T. (1995) Environmental Accounting: Emergy and Environmental Decision Making


One Response to Maximum Power?

  1. Iaato says:

    Nice blog, Simon. I like your quote from Lira suggesting the neutered public intellectual. We’ve seen this week how systemic structures of great power such as religion and academia neuter and control thought. That power of old structures is failing.

    The lesson that maximum power brings is that of succession over time. In growing systems, maximum power is the default. And up until now, fossil fuel availability has meant that the rule holds. But as fossil fuels wane, new systems develop that reinforce and reward more efficient behaviors and feedback. Maximum power means something else in climax: “Thou must find in thy religion, stability over growth, organization over competition, diversity over uniformity, system over self, and survival process over individual peace.”

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