Eco-literacy Part 5: We Measure What We Treasure

Several months ago, U.S. President Donald Trump sent out a tweet misspelling “emergency” as “emergy”. Almost no one recognizes emergy as a real word, and so Trump was derided for his lack of attention to spelling.


Although the current president isn’t likely aware of the meaning of the word emergy (often spelled with a capital M to differentiate it from energy: eMergy), it is indeed a word and the ideas behind it have useful implications measuring our relationship with energy.


Understanding our relationship with energy is a small step each of us can take for the future of humanity. If we are to ever begin to seriously take steps on a path toward sustainability for human living systems, then we must take our relationship with energy seriously.


Simply put, we need a new story, one that measures what really matters again. Part of this story is understanding the realities of our relationship to energy. This is the foundation of an eco-literacy for our future. We need a measuring stick that will help us gauge the reality of the story we are actually living in today.


Before we go further about the use of a new measuring stick to assist us on an ecological path of decision-making regarding energy use, here is a recap of the seven key points thus far in this eco-literacy series. This series has focused on understanding energy flows and use related to human society. This emphasis is because energy, its flow, capture, storage, and use, is the foundation that underpins how life functions on Earth:


  • The real currency of life on Earth is sunlight – all past and present energy is derived from sunlight (nuclear is also star-based, just not from our current sun). Ancient sunlight energy accounts for all carbon-based fuel we call fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and petroleum that currently powers human civilizations around the world. [see Eco-literacy Part 1 & Part 2]


  • The use of energy creates wealth and technology (this is the direct opposite of what most politicians, economists, business owners, and citizens believe: “with enough money, I can always buy – ‘create’ – more energy”) [see Eco-literacy Part 2]


  • We can’t create or destroy energy – we can only transform it from one from to another by using it. We have to expend energy in order to obtain energy. The total amount of energy in our world and the universe remains constant. (1st Law of Thermodynamics) [see Eco-literacy Part 3]


  • As energy flows and gets used, high-quality energy is always degraded to lower quality energy. We can’t break even on energy use. This is why a perpetual motion machine can’t work – and neither can endless economic growth (2nd Law of Thermodynamics) [see Eco-literacy Part 3]


  • Energy returned on energy invested (EROI) to obtain fossil fuels is rapidly getting worse, and it will never improve [see Eco-literacy Part 4]


  • 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. We must start working on how to develop sustainable human living systems by mimicking what Nature achieves. (The Law of Return) [see Eco-literacy Part 4]


  • Improving efficiency of the use of energy resources alone is never going to be THE answer. For every improvement in efficiency we gain, history has shown that overall “free market” consumption of that resource increases to the degree that any gains from efficiency are dwarfed by the ongoing increased consumption (Jevon’s Paradox). [see Eco-literacy Part 4]



At this point, you might be thinking ‘we’re doomed’. On the one hand, our civilization and culture as they are currently structured are likely doomed. On the other hand, hope for humanity isn’t lost, but neither denial nor blind optimism are viable options (see Footnote below for discussion of an evolutionary theory of why humans like playing the denial card).


“We essentially deny anything we don’t like” ~Ajit Varki (Mind over Reality theory)


(source: Calvin & Hobbes)


A systemic transformation of humanity’s relationship to energy and its use is at a severe threat level emergency. Such change could be involuntarily enforced as a result of the collapse of civilization due to denial of this need for transformation; avoiding short term pain of making such changes leads to collapse bringing high levels of pain and suffering. Or, such transformation can occur because we overcome denial and choose to transition to lifestyles that are more in harmony with reality; taking on some short-term pain, in return for long-term survivability and quality of life. The 2,000-watt society is one such plan that is making progress in Switzerland (thanks, Bill and Tom for the tip).  Permaculture principles provide another pathway forward.


The good news is that we do have the capacity to rationally plan and strategize, and we also have the ability to overcome denial. Theoretically, therefore, we have the ability to let go of the tiger’s tail of climate change and plan for healthy lifeways by employing a gradual powering down from fossil fuels, and a return to a more sustainable low energy future through direct and renewable sunlight energy use.


It’s been said many times, ‘We measure what we treasure. We treasure what we measure’. Our culture measures the growth of GDP (gross domestic product) as the primary ‘health’ indicator of our society because we treasure monetary wealth. GDP measures are blind to the total energy used to produce products and services, and completely ignores ecological degradation, social inequities, and human dignity. For us to walk a path of systemic change, we need to think and make decisions using a systems perspective. In order to have a chance at success, we must develop accurate, but user-friendly, methods to measure and evaluate whole systems to make good decisions and keep us on the right pathways.


Although there are many potential creative, innovative qualitative indicators we can and should use (e.g. GNH, Gross National Happiness, ), eMergy is one quantitatively derived measuring stick that shows promise for this way of seeing and making decisions. The quantitative aspect is important if it is to compete directly with GDP. It is built upon systems ecology research – and although it still is in development and appears complex to implement – it is one of the few measuring sticks being developed thus far that can account for full system-wide human and natural energy use and flows.


eMergy is a whole-systems accounting method of quantifying the available energy used directly and indirectly to produce a service or product. It is the energy memory, the EM of emergy. The development of eMergy is the result of many years of research in systems ecology. Its primary developer was ecologist Howard Odum (1924 – 2002). eMergy has been called the most significant, but least known, quantity in the realm of science. It is derived from the laws of thermodynamics (introduced in Eco-literacy Part 3: Universal Laws). Mary Odum, Howard’s daughter, puts it this way:


“How does one find a coherent way to grasp the big picture of how man exists on this planet? If we use a macroscope to analyze energy flows using Emergy Synthesis, then we can capture the essence of complex, global systems, since a continuous flow of energy is the central issue to maintaining our complex civilization (or not). Understanding the nature of our energy basis is essential to understanding where we are headed as a civilization.”



I encourage you to check out her article unpacking the ideas behind the concept and how eMergy can be developed into a transparent measuring stick we can use to move away from purely monetary indicators. The Emergy Society has a number of helpful explanations and resources, as does the Prosperous Way Down website.


There are certainly other, and currently more popular, tools and methods. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) has had more attention and research in academia and is indeed a helpful, big picture analysis of a process or product. It doesn’t account for all indirect and direct human and natural energy use. Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI, or EROEI), provides a similar accounting for specific products and is especially useful when making decisions on whether or not to pursue a specific resource. Again, the initial primary natural energy sources are not included in the final calculation for EROI, as they are with eMergy.


Carbon Footprint analysis is something that is popular on the web for individuals to calculate their impacts using estimates of their household size, diet, and transportation habits. The carbon footprint calculators I’ve come across are oversimplified. They can’t account for the majority of nuances that people make in their behaviors and choices. My conclusion from meticulously comparing several stereotypes of Americans is that there really isn’t a nickel’s worth of difference between most people living in the U.S. in calculating carbon footprints – unless your lifestyle is essentially devoid of modernity (e.g. well below the poverty line, homeless, and/or living completely off the grid while not purchasing food and goods and avoiding carbon-fuel based travel).


This ‘dissatisfying’ result of comparing carbon footprints for individual behavior change is actually something of which to take note. My take is that it is essentially demonstrating that a small percentage of (typically affluent) individuals in the population focused on their own altruistic behaviors to lessen their impact on the environment are not going to make a dent in the overall carbon energy use outcomes of our modern society. But, this doesn’t mean individuals should cease striving to make changes in their lifestyles that they are motivated to make, as long as they don’t become paralyzed by these choices, or convinced that theirs is the “only one right way”. Few people are going to be consistent in this chaotic, apocalyptic period. Emerson said as much in his essay on self-reliance:


“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”


It’s okay if every move you make doesn’t add up – as that is where the new insights may spring forth.


The main point here is the critical need to move from tiny incremental individually focused changes toward systemic-wide change via local, state, and national levels of policy and governance, and an agreed upon method to chart our course forward (A new and transparent measuring stick!!).



Alas, this feels like a paradox, as Margaret Mead pointed out it is indeed individual citizens making their own changes and demanding a new paradigm at the level of our government that is going to matter in the end. However, it is only at the national level and world stage where governments working together can foster policy allowing everyone to engage in powering down their lifestyles, without being individually isolated and penalized for doing so. The penalties should be at the larger end of the scale for businesses, industries, and activities that choose to continue to use large quantities of carbon-based fuels and continue to pollute air, water, and land (e.g. Carbon-tax, and carbon neutrality policy). The Green New Deal, a Congressional Resolution recently sponsored by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and colleagues, begins to suggest alternative pathways forward. It isn’t perfect, it doesn’t go far enough, but opening up the very conversation and having the courage to start is the first step toward national policy.


I encourage you to gain a truly useful literacy of ecology – one that is fully embedded in our relationship to energy. I invite you to read the other articles in this series:


Eco-literacy Part 1: The missing element in our connections and decision making with our environment

Eco-literacy Part 2: The missing element in our connections and decision making with our environment

Eco-literacy Part 3: Universal Laws

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

Eco-literacy Part 5: We Measure What We Treasure (this current article)


If you enjoy learning via video tutorials, I recommend a brilliant series by Nate Hagens titled Reality 101. You can view the playlist on YouTube here.


Once you’ve seen the world through the eco-literacy lens of energy, you can’t go back.


Just keep in mind Dennett’s maxim:

“Any theory that makes progress is bound to be initially counterintuitive” Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance



Footnote: Denial Behavior in Human Beings:

Humans are irrationally optimistic. One theory gaining traction and posited by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower coined “Mind over Reality” is that during human evolution around 100,000 YBP or so we developed two simultaneously negative – seemingly maladaptive – traits: 1) the ability to have a theory of mind that understood the stark reality that we are mortal beings, that we can and will die, and 2) the ability to deny reality.



These traits each on their own would likely have been unsuccessful and never passed on to future generations. On its own, the trait of full awareness of one’s own mortality, and of potential death due to a myriad of situations (e.g. childbirth, venturing out of the cave to face predators, hunting dangerous large animals) would tend to make individual humans with this trait avoid risky behavior altogether. This, in turn, leads to a much lower chance of reproducing, because some risk-taking is necessary to gain food, shelter, mates, etc. to survive and reproduce.


Likewise, on its own, an individual with a trait that denies reality would generate the opposite effect leading to constant overt risk-taking from the thought that “I’m invincible”. This also results in lower chances of reproducing offspring for future generations due to large percentages of early death rates.


However, the double negative as it were of both of these traits in tandem led to the behavioral evolution of strategic overconfidence – taking more and greater risks than would have been the norm for mammals specifically to obtain resources.


Through this one-time-in-the-history-of-the-Earth event, humans became nigh invincible, harnessing this sizeable overconfidence to take and conquer resources in a finite world.  Our ability to deny reality combined with irrational optimism, a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die belief system (one never really dies), along with anatomically big brains and opposable thumbs gave humans a super-hero advantage over all other life forms.


Outside of Africa, ecosystems had no evolutionary history of modern humans, and thus had no way of balancing the impacts of their effects on the land. It’s been a perfect storm allowing humans to take over the planet.


Today this combination of traits has coupled with the utter lack of understanding of how the Earth functions and our place within it have coincided with our unleashing the power of most of the world’s carbon-based fuels. The result has us teetering on the cliff’s edge of survivability, though most people deny this is where we are now standing. Few of us want to think about the consequences of our species success.


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