Eco-literacy Part 4: The Law of Return and Sustainability

A cycle of giving, and exchange, and symbiosis. This is how I’ve largely come to see Nature in her most healthy functioning ways. This isn’t to say that resource scarcity and competition don’t exist – they do – but we’ve placed far too much emphasis on these aspects of understanding nature as applied to human society. Seen through a co-evolutionary lens Nature has built resilient systems in part because organisms do behave in synergistic and symbiotic patterns, they do find niches that reduce and avoid competition, and they thrive due to a collective ability to capture energy and cycle nutrients with little waste. How does Nature do it?


Nature uses solar energy to build biodiversity leading to resilient systems in tandem with the co-evolved ability to efficiently cycle nutrients.


To recap the previous article in this series – Eco-literacy Part 3: Universal Laws – introduced basic laws of energy and ecology because they are foundational concepts necessary to a truly useful literacy about the environment in which we live and depend upon. The first articles in the eco-literacy series introduced energy flow on earth, and how sunlight is the progenitor of all the energy that we use – whether directly, or indirectly through eating plants and/or the animals that consume those plants, all the way to ancient sunlight energy that has been stored in the form of coal, natural gas, and petroleum.


We briefly touched upon the concept that it takes energy to get energy. Energy return on investment (commonly listed as EROI) is a critical concept to understand. For example, the calories a deer derives from munching on grasses, fresh twigs, and acorns better be greater than it expends over the long run to get those nutrients or it will eventually die.


The virgin petroleum reserves tapped in the 1930’s gave us a 100:1 return on invested energy, meaning that for every barrel of oil burned to run the equipment we gained 100 barrels of oil out of the ground. That EROI has slipped dramatically in recent years to around 36 to 1 in the 1990s, and 19 to 1 by 2006. We are on an ever-steeper sloping downside of EROI for all fossil fuels around the world, and it is highly unlikely to improve. Alarmingly, our modern industrial agricultural system expends 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every single calorie of food produced; an extremely negative balance that is clearly unsustainable and will bankrupt the entire system.


There is an additional “Law” on the other side of the coin from the Laws of Thermodynamics that I wrote about in my pervious post that I would like to touch upon here. It has been coined the Law of Return.


Law of Return:
In order for a living system to be sustained, we must replace whatever resource is taken with a resource of equal or greater [energy] value. This is what healthy natural ecosystems achieve over time.


A number of years ago I was involved in an outreach project promoting something known as whole farm planning. The idea is to account for the entire ecosystem and all of the inputs and outputs of the farm when making plans, rather than only looking at financial aspects. I often used the concept of a five-gallon bucket filled with water to explain why off-farm inputs could be damaging in the long run. Every recurring off-farm input, such as mined minerals like phosphorus, or petroleum produced nutrients like nitrogen, used to maintain fertility for crop production would be like shooting a hole in the bucket – location and size of hole depending on the long-term impact of the input. Water is going to squirt out of those holes and without finding ways to plug those holes (with an equal or greater resource to replace that which was lost) will lower the overall sustainable potential of the farm over time until eventually such practices can no longer be sustained.


Many economists believe that efficiency is the answer. If we can simply be more efficient, then we will extend the value of energy resources such as petroleum. One approach is to engineer cars and other transportation vehicles to go further on a gallon of petrol. Overall, this sounds good and has the potential to extend our ability to not deplete these non-renewable energy sources. However, efficiency usually isn’t the answer. What happens in almost all cases is that as efficiency increases we actually use more and more of the resource, not less.


This phenomenon is known as Jevons’ Paradox, named after the guy who showed that as 19th century Great Britain became more efficient with coal, it consumed ever larger quantities of it. The same outcomes have been shown for everything from increasing paper use in the ‘paperless’ computer age to cars and light bulbs. Even if every car in the world was a hybrid, and every light bulb a compact fluorescent or LED, growing demand for the energy to run cars and light bulbs will dwarf any savings from efficiency.


The Law of Return (from my sources at least) was coined by Bill Mollison, co-creator of Permaculture, with the primary guiding principles of Earthcare, Peoplecare, and Fairshare. Natural ecosystems are able to sustain their growth through to climax by capturing sunlight energy and the cycling of nutrients where organisms have co-evolved to synergistically use each other’s resources. The waste product of one organism is the food for a different organism, and so on. Usually, as biodiversity increases, the resiliency of the overall system also increases.


The word sustainability gets used frequently to brand programs that are not really ever going to seriously consider or have any chance of meeting the ecological notion of sustainability. It is open for debate whether or not human settlements are capable of achieving sustainability – yet it is time for us to come together as individuals, as communities, and as a species to adopt goals and actions that move us in this direction.


“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

~UN World Commission on Environment and Development


We are not yet acknowledging that meeting the ‘needs’ of the present IS radically compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Real conservation and a plan for living well in a low energy future – often referred to as powering down – is the most likely scenario if human societies are to continue to function. Mollison’s Permaculture concepts of using ecological understanding to purposefully design a sustainable system supporting human settlement offers one such pathway we can explore.


Perhaps an ending must occur, and a time of living in a transitional period, before we can collectively transform society and evolve a new story for humanity. The apocalypse is now. The institutions we’ve built, from religion to education to industry to banking, no longer serve the real needs of human beings. As more and more people disengage from traditional institutions, the ways of modern society are beginning to be dismantled. This has to happen before something new can be unveiled and take hold. We certainly can’t fix things the way they’ve been going by using the same ways of thinking that brought us to this point.


My writing on this blog focuses primarily on a way forward through re-imagining education such that we gain the knowledge, skills, and wisdom of becoming native to the places we live, while concurrently striving to live into wholehearted lives as human beings stewarding our home and loving one another. If we can do this while also using science and data-driven decision making, future generations will have a chance.


See you next time with one more post in the eco-literacy series when we explore a promising ecologically based whole systems accounting method that we can use at local, national, and global levels to guide decision making.

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