Thursday, 4 June 2009

Precious Information - the gift that keeps on giving

I make no apologies about using this blog spot to promote the work of Howard T. Odum. As mentioned previously I am reading “A Prosperous Way Down” – a book in which Odum succinctly explains his theoretical world view of how human society and the environment interact at the energetic level. Since all matter is energy, this amounts to ecological theory of everything. This may sound glib – well a blog is not the place to explain Odum’s thinking in detail – you’ll have to buy or borrow his books and read the many scientific papers written by his former students.

Odum offers the observation that the most energy-rich material we have on this planet is information. Energy-rich is to be understood as rich in embodied energy, rich in the sense that a great deal of effort by nature and humankind has gone into producing it. A seed is rich in information. All the information needed to make a mighty oak tree is contained in an acorn. The genius of Einstein (and Odum), the magnificence of our greatest athletes and artists is contained in a single cell.

With this stated Odum considers modern societies – highly powered with fossil fuels, highly structured, complex and overflowing with resources. What characterises such a society – our society - is that it overflows with information. We live in an information age, they say.

Of course, most of this information is useless. Hello magazine contains information as does the chat show of Jonathan Ross but does that compare to the wisdom to be found in books, professional journals or even humble blogs?! And yet a profusion of information sources and outlets is what Odum’s theories predict for highly powered societies. If we removed cheap energy (peak oil) there would be a fall off in inane chatter as people sought out the most vital, useful information. In hunter gatherer societies for example, all information is instructional and essential for survival – read Jay Griffiths’ wondrous book “Wild” in which she fully explores the deep and resonant worlds of so called primitive savages – our ancestors.

In a hunter gatherer society there is little or no surplus energy. All information is valuable and highly prized. Stories instruct. Gossip cements social bonds or gives tips on where the best food is to be found.

Useless information is quick and adaptable. It spreads easily. The more useful information is, the more embodied energy it contains, the slower it is to impart and explain. Think how long it takes to train a doctor or for someone to become a master craftsman or that genetic information is the product of millions of years of evolution.

Two examples of the role of information are in the news this week. The one is MPs expenses, the other is calls for compulsory MMR vaccinations. What makes the headlines is pretty low grade stuff. In both cases there is a more complicated set of facts behind the headlines that require sober, reasoned analysis. One story raises questions about the fundamental structure of our system of governance and the values upon which it is founded, the other raises questions about the role of drug companies in our medical system and our perceptions of risk.

We need politicians so how do we get ones motivated by principle and not material gain?
At what level of risk do we rely on naturally acquired immunity over commercially produced vaccinations?

And all of this presents the sustainable development movement with big questions. We know that society needs to change in order to survive. We know that the spread of information precedes major social change. Ayatollah Khomeini distributed tape players and cassettes to spread his revolution in Iran. Joseph Goebbels distributed radios tuned to the state controlled station.

This summer and autumn, Cynnal Cymru-Sustain Wales will be addressing the issue of social behavioural change. We have invited leading thinkers to submit essays on the topic and it will be the theme of our annual public conference in Carmarthenshire on the 25 and 26th September. Our colleagues in BBC Wales are also addressing the same issue later this year.

What type and quality of information will convince people that it is necessary and possible to plan for and develop a low carbon, resource efficient, environmentally harmonious society? Is the situation so desperate that we should resort to the cunning of Khomeini? When an idea’s time has come, it spreads like a virus. But by then it may be too late. What follows is revolution not evolution. Instead of reasoned, planned change based on high quality complex information you get rapid and destructive change based on slogans and fear.

One point that Odum makes that we should all consider: he says that information is too valuable to be held and used for profit. Good quality information is vital to our survival. The stories of our ancestors told around the camp fire were given freely and with love. They were necessary for survival. Having read the chapter on information in Odum’s book, I now understand why a colleague and fellow Odumite gives books away to those he knows will cherish them.

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