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Maximum Power Principle [Economics
Posted on December 26, 2014 @ 10:27:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Today I want to begin discussing the maximum power principle. Credit for the maximum power principle as I will be discussing it is due theoretical biologist Alfred Lotka and was more fully elaborated by systems thinker Howard T. Odum.

A bit of context first.

There is a maximum power theorem in electronics that I do not claim to be an expert on but which provided some inspiration to Mr. Odum. Mr. Odum also uses the Atwood Machine in some of his explanations of the maximum power principle, where an Atwood Machine is just a heavy weight placed on the down size of a rope with pully. You are then asked to imagine what happens when you put couterbalancing weights of different mass on the other side of the rope. Maximum power in the system is achieved when you select a counterweight that delivers the maximum amount of work in the shortest amount of time - a counterweight that is around 50 to 60% of the weight of the heavy weight on the other end. Power output is reduced when the weight is so light that considerable power is lost as heat when the heavy weight crashes down to earth. Power output is also reduced then the counterweight is so heavy that is moves very slowly up the other side of the Atwood Machine. Maximum power is achieved when the loading is optimal relative to the energy available to drive the system (the potential energy in the heavy weight on the other end of the pully).

Mr. Lotka and Mr. Odum originally proposed the Maxiumum Power Principle as a 4th law of thermodynamics, a law that would provide for a physical interpretation of why natural selection occurs. The physical principle that natural selection might be satisfying is to cycle power from the available energies in the system at a maximum rate.

The physicists have so far not jumped on the idea that there might be a fourth law of thermodynamics that might serve to explain much more about why the natural world is organized as it is.

The idea that we as individuals, as a business group, as a nation, or as a species are adapted to maximize power consumption in order to survive and compete has a certain amount of plausibility and explanatory power to it. It is worrying to some who see our maximum power tendancy as hard coded into our DNA making us unable, as a species, and as a market economy, to slow down our drive to exploit as much energetic power as we can in as short a time as we can. Humans are the supreme power maximizers and our effects have lead many to call the current era "The Anthopocence Era".

Discussions of the maximum power principle can quickly shift from physics to sociology which makes some physicists uncomfortable with the idea, but an increasing number of writers are starting to wrestle with the implications of the maximum power principle (see Kurt Cobb's Greed Explained article), how we should understand it, and perhaps counteract the tendency to exploit power at maximum rates. Some Buddhist teachings have recognized the tendency, that maximum power does not produce maximum happiness, and encourage disciples to live more contemplatively and less acquisitively.

The final observation I will make today about maximum power is whether there is a corresponding aesthetic which goes with it. The designed landscape, either around the home, the garden, the farm, and the park might be most preferred when the power output of that landscape appears to be maximized. In a forest garden, the idea is to plants trees at every level of the understory from the top canopy layer, to the small trees, to the shrubs, to the vines, to the tall plants and short plants. Productive ecosystems like this will sometimes occur in nature, but will probably not contain all the edible plants we might want to see in a forest garden understory. If one were to encounter such a garden, my guess is that most people would find it aesthetically pleasing. Is it because all the colors, textures, smells and edibles are pleasing at many levels, or is there an additional and significant principle of maximum power cycling that is also being appreciated?

Maximum power may not be so bad as we think if we understand it to mean the harnessing of available energies at a maxium power rate in a way that is more sustainable. To be more sustainable we must be more intelligent about how we harness the available energies to create landscapes that are less energy intensive. We are still maximizing power but the amount of power could be voluntarily set at a lower set point which would require us to re-organize our ways so as to live within a new energy envelope. Producing more of our own food and goods ourselves and locally, travelling less intensively, buying smarter, recycling more, wasting less energy, and sharing more are few ways to lower the energy envelope in a way that maximizes power in the context of lower overall energy usage. Strategies like this can lead to better individual and group-level resilience in the face of whatever the future might hold.

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