How the Hen House Turns: Efficiency Can Secure the Future

How the Hen House Turns: Efficiency Can Secure the Future
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

In his book Anasazi America, David E. Stuart ( illustrates the point that when it comes to surviving for the long term, energy efficiency in a society trumps power and growth. The implications for our current addiction to overproduction as an economic panacea are ominous.

A few related thoughts from the Hen House: Chickens are very efficient nibblers. They can spend all day roaming around the yard, pecking at this and that—it’s hard to tell what—and coming home to roost perfectly satisfied, leaving their dish of high-tech lay pellets untouched.

I wonder how geese persisted in the evolutionary race for so long. Unlike chickens, they pump grass and lay pellets through their innards, leaving what they eat largely untouched by nature’s digestive tricks—a highly inefficient process. In spite of this, Lucy is not lacking fat these days.

My daughter’s parrots, however, manage to shred the nastiest nut or piece of fruit and waste half of it, dropping it on the catch tray beneath their perch, dismissing it as so much excess food.

In a natural setting all those flying bits of food would be quickly cleaned up by smaller birds or animals.

Even in the Hen House pen, nothing goes to waste. Our resident chickadees, nuthatches and finches dine on leftover lay pellet duff and spilled water. Chicken wire is no obstacle to them, or to the occasional mice, who are kept under control by the resident snakes, who have the sense to live underground and avoid chickens.

The local Hen House ecosystem is kept under control by the careful storage of feed in covered barrels (left over from the days when Husband Don maintained our tar and gravel roof.)

In the wild, nothing goes to waste. A kill is soon picked clean, and bones add mineral to the soil. We humans, with our tendency to value time and money over conservation  and efficiency, create vast waste dumps, where even good lumber is buried—hidden away to rot, unusable. Our local dump used to sort a lot of good metal and other useful items from the heaps. I wonder what happens to it now.

Dumps make me think of all the food-trimming that goes on in grocery stores, the food overproduced and rotting in unsold heaps, or the food uneaten on our plates collecting in garbage cans.

We can do better than parrots, and sometimes we do, but there are still nearly a billion chronically hungry people in this world. Somehow we need to get more creative about food production and distribution.

A friend once collected all the energy bars that were being tossed away after a bike race in Madison, Wisc. Tossed away? Surely we should be less wasteful than that. The lesson from complex systems is clear. Things self-organize around an operating principle. Inefficient things don’t last long in geological time.

Join me in reading Al Gore’s latest book The Future (‎).  He was inspired by Ilya Prigogine and his findings of complex systems.

Then there is efficiency gone awry, as in animal factory farming. Must we disregard animal consciousness in the interest of mass production of meat and eggs? We need to reevaluate our priorities. The Hen House experience has made it quite clear that we share the miracle of consciousness with nonhuman life.

People have thought of many ways to implement efficiency. Surely we should put efficiency first, especially when it comes to conserving energy. We’re not parrots.