Sunday, October 30, 2016

Howard Odum, transformities and the urban/rural divide in America

It's hard not to see the urban/rural divide in the United States--unless you just don't look. Perhaps the most iconic image representing that divide is a map of presidential election results by county. The map below is from 2012.

RED = Romney (Republican) BLUE = Obama (Democrat)

Most of the land area of the United States represents Republican territory. But, of course, dense urban areas taking up much less land, but having far more voters per square mile, proved decisive for the incumbant Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.

It might seem that this is merely a cultural divide, hicks versus city slickers. But it is also an economic divide. Rural areas have been pummeled economically by the globalizing economy. That economy rewards the innovations and technology invented and deployed in cities more than the commodities that come out of the countryside. Hidden beneath these cultural and economic factors is an energy imbalance that Howard Odum, the great pioneer in understanding energy flows in nature and society, first identified in his work on what he called transformities.

Let me quote from a previous piece of mine in which I explain transformities:

To read the chart below one must know that Odum turned all measurements into equivalent calories of solar energy which he dubbed solar emcalories. Concentration of emcalories leads to their greater and greater usefulness to human society. Diffuse sunlight on a field only warms a person for as long as the sun shines. But the energy concentrated in field crops can be stored until needed for food or fuel. Such is the role of what Odum calls transformities, that is, the transformation of previously concentrated energy into more concentrated, more energy-intense forms. Transforming fossil fuels into electricity is another example.
Adapted from "A Prosperous Way Down" by Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum

Solar Emcalories Needed Per Calorie Produced
Sunlight energy
Wind energy
Organic matter, wood, soil
Potential of elevated rainwater
Chemical energy of rainwater
Mechanical energy
Large river energy
Fossil fuels
Electric power
Protein foods
Human services
1 X 1011
Species Formation
1 X 1015

Transformities reveal the amount of energy embodied in things central to the well-being of human societies. Rural areas have long been servants to cities which simply do not have the land area to provide all their needs. Rural areas essentially concentrate the sunlight in the form of crops before shipping them off to cities.

The problem for rural producers is that they do not get all the value which is embodied in the things they grow. They especially do not get credit for the concentration of energy. Most of that valuable work is done for free by nature. But, the farmer typically receives only the cost of inputs and perhaps a small profit to grow and deliver crops for further processing, mostly to cities. Sometimes the farmer gets paid less than the cost of inputs, selling at a loss.

Cities add value to those crops by milling, cooking, combining, and packaging, in short, by creating foods for the marketplace. Those foods are then shipped not only to city residents, but also back to rural residents and with a significant markup for the value added.

The marketplace assigns a far higher value to the value added by urban workers than that added by farmers (due in part to the energy component of the value added). This accounts for the higher incomes of city dwellers and for the perennial economic imbalance between city and countryside.

The same is true for mining. Though some miners and landowners strike it rich, they do so because nature has done practically all the work for them by concentrating minerals in deposits accessible to humans (and often because prevailing legal and social arrangements allow them to claim the minerals as their own property). Again, most of the value added is done by refiners and then manufacturers who fashion the minerals into products--and then sell some of them back to the miners and landowners.

Miners and other owners of minerals can face the same economic deprivation as farmers do. Although we don't often think of oil as a mineral, it is--though the means to mine it are different from those used to mine copper and zinc. The boom experienced by such places as North Dakota and Texas when oil prices were high has been followed by a punishing bust brought on by a price collapse. City dwellers don't much care whether oil producers are being paid enough to cover their costs. In fact, these city dwellers rejoice when fuel prices fall.

Of course, most of the value added to oil comes from refining it into the products we require such as gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and heating oil. Integrated oil companies reap some of this reward while companies that focus only on exploration and development do not. And, of course, major refineries--and the jobs and taxes that go with them--are near their greatest concentration of customers, namely, cities.

There is one very important difference today from the past regarding the urban/rural divide. In the past, the vast majority of humans lived on farms; only a tiny minority lived in cities. Today, the productivity of modern farming techniques has shrunk the ranks of farmers in the United States to about 3.2 million in a country of 324 million or about one percent.

Mining has never employed a large percentage of the population, but even that percentage has fallen as huge machines have taken over tasks once performed by miners with pick axes.

The urban population of the United States now accounts for more than 80 percent of the total U.S. population. Rural residents have long ceded much of their economic power to cities--something that has been true from the beginning of civilization. But, rural residents who used to constitute a large majority are now vastly outnumbered, and their political power is seriously diminished.

It is no wonder that rural populations are feeling ignored and even threatened. It is harder and harder to make a living in rural locations. And, with the advent of 24/7 communications, it is harder and harder to maintain a rural culture that is distinct from that of most cities. Rural populations face a double attack on both their livelihoods and their "way of life."

Redressing the imbalance between city and countryside could take the form of investing in value-added processes closer to farms and mines. That would require huge capital investments. Small-scale investments have already allowed some farms to expand operations to process and package their own products for sale.

Perhaps just as important would be a rise in public investment in rural communities, the tax bases of which have been eroded by the exodus of industry and people. Though Republicans know how to speak to the cultural anxieties of those in rural communities, both major U.S. political parties have de facto adopted the view that the decline of rural life is an inevitable result of globalization, and that there is little anyone can or should do about it.

Therein lies an opportunity for the political party that awakens to the upside inherent in once again embracing rural lives and livelihoods as important to the country as a whole.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


J Gav said...

Yes, Mr Cobb, another cogent article.I've watched your journalism develop over the last few years and I think it's fair to say you have become a voice to be reckoned with.

Michael Sheldrick said...

Another insightful piece. Thanks. Get a look at this. May you can help this guy drag the Republican party back to rationality on climate issues

Chris Kuykendall said...

As a quasi-rural green (grain elevator kid until we moved ten miles to a nearby town when I was age 11), originally from the sea of red in the Obama-Romney map, I agree with this essay. If the usual Democratic national politicians are not going to go after the sea of red, and I see no sign that they're trying, somebody who's non-usual, who's green with a little g, or who's otherwise non-red, needs to give it a shot.