Howard Odum's work on ecological systems and how environmental limits interact with human economic systems should be better known.
Odum describes the way natural systems (and human socio-economic systems) pulse in a frequency determined by the availability of resources - just think about the four seasons on the Northern hemisphere if you are wondering what this means. This pulsing appears as a rise in productivity proportional to the consumption of a resource. Once this resource has been used up, productivity falls. This fall could be gradual or sudden and catastrophic. In most systems there is no choice but for we humans, currently coming to the end of a number of resources which have fuelled our recent growth, there is some choice - we have knowledge and we have technology but do we have the will? Take a look at a presentation by Dr. Steven Harris of Science Shops Wales for more on this.
So with Odum's work fresh in my mind I yesterday visited the Creation Trust in the Garw Valley South Wales.
The Garw was one of those iconic coal valleys in the last century. Hills rise vertically from the narrow flood plain, roads and houses cling to the sides in narrow terraces. At one time the narrow valley echoed to the sounds of steam and clanking machines. Engines and aerial ropeways disturbed the ancient peace, slicing the sky and the flesh of the place in a frenzy of industrial greed. Human beings were dwarfed by the industry. Coal (and the elites who controlled it) was king.
Before coal there were only five farms. Now, though the houses remain, there is no industry, no machinery - it is once more a rural, beautiful place.
Blaengarw is a living example of the pulsing phenomenon that Odum describes. Coal was the resource that fuelled the rapid, rabid growth - a brief pulse in time. Before coal, a peaceful low energy state where the only pulsing was that brought by the seasons. After coal....? What?
Well the descent, when it came was sudden and catastrophic. Socially, economically, environmentally, the valley landed with a bump. Now, thanks to the Creation Trust and the residents who support it, the community and the ecosystem in which it is embedded are recovering. It is reaching a new kind of steady state - not that of five farms but of a community in harmony with nature and itself, pulsing with the seasons once again. There is a lot more work to do but the achievements and aspirations of Creation Trust and the people of Blaengarw offer hope that with commitment, patience and vision, regional, national and even global society can negotiate the descent and reach a new, low energy existence that pulses not with the insane fever of stock markets dependent on oil, gas and coal but with the natural pulses that have always existed and will remain as long as the sun shines and the earth rotates. These can be devastating in their own way - who can predict the eruption of the next super volcano - but if human society is obliterated at least it will be by some natural perturbation and not as a consequence of our own folly and greed.