Prosperous Way Down

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= book and site on achieving prosperous degrowth



  • Book: A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies. By Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum. University Press of Colorado, 2001.

"Consider the future with less fossil fuel and no new natural or technological energy sources. How can it be peaceful and prosperous? More and more leaders concerned with the global future are warning of the impending crisis as the surge of unsustainable growth exceeds the capability of the earth's resources to support our civilisation. But while history records the collapse of countless civilisations, some societies and ecosystems have managed to descend in orderly stages, reducing demands and selecting and saving what is most important. Although some scientists predict disaster, this book shows how our world can still thrive and prosper in a future where we live with less and charts a way for our modern civilisation to descend to sustainable levels. The authors make recommendations for a more equitable and co-operative world society, with specific suggestions based upon their evaluations of trends in global population, wealth distribution, energy sources, conservation, urban development, capitalism and international trade, information technology, and education. This thoughtful and provocative book will force us to confront our assumptions and beliefs about our world's future, which is all too often taken for granted." (publisher)


Thomas Abel:

"What immediately sets A Prosperous Way Down apart from other books about peak, transition, or collapse is its big ideas about all systems of nature—about air, sea, and land, about life, about energy, about culture and people. The Odums’ recommendations for a prosperous descent are one outcome from a general theoretical understanding of all living and non-living systems and processes of the Earth in our Universe. As the Odums say,

This book is different because its explanations about society come from the general scientific concepts that apply to any system (p.5).

Topics and ideas that give this book a unique basis for explanations:

  • Self-Organization by Trial and Error
  • General Systems Principles to Understand Complexity
  • Explanation Should Be Sought at Larger Scales
  • Shared Information Makes these Times Unique and Gives Hope
  • Emergy for a Quantifiable Measure of Self-Organization and Hierarchy, and for Indices for Policy
  • Systems Diagrams Allow Us to Visualize Complex Systems
  • Mini-Models are the Right Scale for Simulating the Complexity of Human-Ecological Change
  • Ecosystem Succession Analogy



Controls on any phenomena come from the next larger scale

"In this book we recognize the way the important controls on any phenomena come from the next larger scale, determining the main cycles of growth, turndown, catastrophes, and regimes of energy and material to which society must fit. This is a type of scientific determinism. The paradox is that most scientists restrict their deterministic beliefs to the realms of their specialties. When it comes to society and politics, many [scientists] share the public’s view and deny that large-scale principles control phenomena (p.6)." (

Shared Information Makes these Times Unique and Gives Hope

Thomas Abel:

"Many authors writing about peak and collapse have looked to the past for understanding of the present. This is a reasonable and valuable approach. The many cases of civilization collapse, the Maya, the Romans, the Chinese dynasties, provide some valuable insights. However, the Odums make the important point that this time the world is a different place.

- "Some [futurist] authors [analyze] the history of civilizations in search of repeating patterns to explain current times and trends, but our times are unique in the size of the energy resources involved and in the comprehensive power of the global sharing of information" (p.280).

With fossil fuels, there have never been such vastly connected global systems. I have argued that today there are essentially two ‘world-systems’, one centered on China and another centered on the US-EC-Japan, with still some few unconnected peripheries. One world or two, fossil fuels have provided the energy that connects the whole world. With that, there has been a new scale of shared information. For the Odums this provides hope that our world will not follow past societies into collapse.

The new global sharing of information and ideas makes it possible for billions to learn about world pulsing, and to embrace a new faith that coming down is OK (p.6).

The sharing of ideas and beliefs takes energy, and fossil fuels have made wide sharing a reality. The Odums decry the loss of linguistic and cultural diversity, as we all should, and indeed argue that cultural pluralism will be extremely valuable as we test and select among many possible futures. But at the same time, it is the Odums’ hope, that certain knowledges can be widely shared, knowledge about our current state of the world, knowledge about energy’s role in the formation of that state, and scientific principles that can help guide us to a prosperous way down." (

Emergy Accounting

Thomas Abel:

Emergy for a Quantifiable Measure of Self-Organization and Hierarchy, and for Indices for Policy:

"The Odums use a form of quantitative measurement that they have developed called emergy accounting. Emergy stands for ‘energy memory’.

- "In this book we use a new measure—emergy—to evaluate the main inputs, products, and accomplishments of our world on a common basis. It is a special measure of the previous work done to make something" (p.6).

Emergy accounting facilitates the discovery and measurement of the key systems properties referred to above, such as self-organization and hierarchy. At the same time, emergy accounting is useful for judging policy options for descent.

But is emergy just another ecological economic currency, like exergy, carbon credits, or the ecological footprint? The use of emergy as a quantitative measure of value carries with it the entire theoretical framework that has been assembled by HT Odum over his career. This includes his three additional laws of thermodynamics—maximum empower, the hierarchy principle, and the hierarchy of materials (discussed in Part II). This is a big house of cards and not surprisingly many scientists have reservations. Emergy researchers continue to struggle for recognition and acceptance. Time will tell. Without the use of emergy accounting, systems thinking and principles can still lead to needed solutions to our current world dilemmas. Part III of the book, with its many recommendations of essential community and national policy for transition and descent, can be understood with only a rudimentary understanding of emergy as ‘energy memory.’ But a fuller understanding of emergy accounting, it is believed, greatly facilitates comprehension of our past and present, and the creation of policy for the future." (

More information

  1. Emergy Theory
  2. Emergy Accounting


"Consider the future with less fossil fuel. How can a lower energy lifestyle be peaceful and prosperous? Much thinking has already been done. Our civilization can thrive in a future where we live with less. Decisive, proactive changes in attitudes, policies and practices could divert a destructive collapse, leading instead to a prosperous way down, if we choose to do so?

The springboard for this site is “A Prosperous Way Down”, drafted in the mid 1980s by Howard T. and Elisabeth C. Odum, and published in 2001. Many of the energetic diagrams for the website are extracted from Mark T. Brown’s Emergy Powerpoints, which explain the meaning of energy diagrams and the method for Emergy Accounting and Synthesis." (