Whole Systems Foundation
Taking an Integrated View
of the Biosphere
There is only one earth, shared by upwards of 10 million species.
The existence of each one depends on a vast web of interconnections,
bonding living organisms to each other and to their environment.
The play of evolution has graced man with the brainpower necessary
to control many aspects of his environment. This has led to the
illusion that he is separate from the biological web, and no
longer dependent on it.
- Sustainability has become the Holy
Grail of the environmental movement, and like the Medieval myth,
it is both unattainable, and absolutely essential as a beacon
to guide environmentally sound decision making. Species have
evolved and become extinct according to their ability to adapt
to changes in climate, and compete with other species. In the
current world view man has met and overcome most of these challenges
to become the dominant species. To maintain this status will
require intelligence, planning, and a bit of luck. In planning
for the continuation of the species, what is a reasonable time
frame? In our political system, time is measured in sound bites,
sustainability in years between elections. Perhaps that is good
enough for a fruit fly; producing a new generation every 2 weeks,
planning 4 years or 208 generations into the future is admirable,
especially given the size of a fruit fly brain. Can we do better?
How about 40 years, 400 years, or 4,000 years? The average longevity
of a species is one million years. For how many generations of
your children would you like to preserve the mineral and energy
resources of this planet? There are limits, however, for to be
sustainable indefinitely, society would need to refrain from:
- Extracting anything from the earth
faster than it is being replaced or,
- adding anything to the biosphere faster
than it can be eliminated by natural processes.
What is a realistic goal? What can the
planet support, for how long, and at what level of consumption?
To begin to grasp these questions we need to begin with a look
at the current situation on a global level.
Entropy - The more we do
the worse it gets.
Entropy is the quicksand into which
the industrial world sinks at an increasing rate as it struggles
to find a technological cure for resource depletion. Entropy
is defined in thermodynamics as a measure of disorganization
or randomness, but the concept has been popularized and utilized
in a variety of fields. Entropy is relevant in this context because
sustainability is fundamentally a process of controlling energy
utilization. In order to maintain our civilization, we have no
choice but to use resources that occur in concentrated forms
whether that be coal, oil, iron ore, forests, or other resources,
resulting in their dissipation into unusable forms. A percentage
of some materials, like steel, can be recycled, but that requires
an input of more energy. The principal of entropy merely states
that each time we act, energy and/or materials are consumed;
the process is inevitable and irreversible. It is time's arrow
pointing toward randomness. We can alter the relative rates of
depletion of various resources, but each change merely shifts
the burden of supporting society to a different resource with
a finite loss resulting from the conversion process.
- To sum up
- There are five essential inputs which
support an industrial society.
- Fossil Fuel
- Fresh Water
- Clean Air
- Agricultural production
- Throughout history, the rise and fall
of nations has been largely controlled by the abundance or lack
of one or more of these factors, but we have never faced a depletion
of them all simultaneously on a global scale.
Click on a label to get more details, and the
- Population has
been increasing exponentially since the agricultural revolution.
The consumption of energy and raw materials has been increasing
at an even faster rate because of the development of technology
and the increased affluence. In 1996 the annual energy consumption
in the United States was the equivalent of 61 barrels of oil
per person, or 12,000 watts of power continuously.
- The atmospheric levels of Carbon Dioxide are
rising, and the earth is warming
up. The link between the two is established
beyond doubt, only the degree of warming is still debated, and
how the warming will effect local environments.
productivity of the oceans has been
fully exploited and could begin to decline in absolute terms
if measures are not taken to reduce the damage being done to
the marine ecosystem. The per capita catch peaked in 1970, and
even assuming a steady production, the increase in population
will result in the decline in per capita fish as depicted in
- The world per capita grain harvest
has also peaked, although the total harvest is still rising slowly.
No projection was made, because there are too many unknown factors
to make a reasonable estimate. Among them on the negative side
are climate change,
shortage of irrigation water, new plant pests and diseases. On the positive
side, genetically engineered plants that use light and water
more efficiently, better farming techniques, and reduction in
meat consumption as costs rise.
- World production of crude
oil is predicted to peak between 2007
and 2025. If major new discoveries are made, the peak will not
move significantly, but the rate of decline may be reduced.
- The cost of environmental degradation is rising exponentially. This can be seen in terms of the permanent loss of biodiversity measured by estimated species extinctions.
Or it can be measured by the increase in
health risks both from direct environmental
causes, and the evolution of antibiotic resistant disease.
- Computer models such as the World 3 model produced
by the Club of Rome 25 years ago are still on track with real
world developments. Unless significant policy changes are made
in the near future there is no reason to expect results significantly
different from those predicted by the model.
If we choose to work toward a more sustainable
society, the first pitfall to be avoided is the illusion of a
quick technological fix. The best that technology can offer is
a increase in the efficiency of energy and materials use. By
itself, however, this does not lead to sustainable use. In the
past 100 years developing technology has improved efficiency
many fold, but the total consumption of energy and materials
has increased exponentially as resources are allocated to new
Technology cannot solve population pressure,
over fishing, the destruction of forests by homesteaders in search
of land to feed themselves, or of shortage of irrigation water.
The situation needs to be addressed from all aspects; stabilization
of population (at a level below the current 6 billion), reduction
in individual consumption, international agreements to preserve
common assets (oceans and atmosphere), reduction in energy consumed
for transportation by locating local producers near consumers,
and workers closer to their employment, and the development of
"green" technologies, especially non fossil fuel based
sources of energy.
The question is not so much whether
the human race will make the necessary changes and survive, but
whether the changes will be made by choice in an orderly way,
or whether they are imposed on us by natural forces of disease,
starvation and war. The outstanding ability of humans is their
capacity to adapt in order to survive. On the other hand one
could say their greatest flaw is the instinctive desire to survive
as an individual irrespective of the costs to others both present
Any real solution has to begin with a change in attitude, a fundamentally different view of our status in the world not as a dominant consumer, but an interdependent partner with all aspects of the ecosystem. This change is taking place from several directions. On one hand, the environmental movement is gaining acceptance as the public becomes better informed and on the other hand, major religions of the world are beginning to acknowledge their responsibility in encouraging an attitude of care for all of God's creation. The next evolutionary step for us is an emotional shift not a physical change. We must develop a philosophy and a set of values that provides pleasure and status based on preservation not consumption.
Real world solutions will require changes in the economic system so the sustainable use of resources is an innate characteristic of the sytem's self regulation rather than something imposed on a system whose natural trend is toward exploitation and exhaustion of resources (see essay on The Failure of Economics). A first step is a shift in the system of taxation away from the income tax which by making labor more expensive, encourages the substitution of raw materials and energy for labor, to a tax on the net consumption of materials and energy. International trade rules need to be established to prevent one country from exporting the environmental costs of its consumption to a less developed nation. In other words, the concept of sustainability needs to be at the core of the system not applied as a band aid to a system that is inherently unsustainable.
These are some general references, specific references are listed
under each page, or data block. There are far too many sources
to list, but these are chosen as a sample of points of view and
depth of coverage.
- AtKisson, Alan, Believing Cassandra,
1999, Chelsea Green, White River Junc. VT. An excellent book,
going beyond the litany of problems to take a broader perspective
of systemic causes and solutions.
- Ayres, Ed, God's Last Offer,
Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999
- Brown, Lester Flavin Christopher, French,
Hilary, State of the World 2000, 1999,WW Norton &Co.,
- Brown, Lester, Gardner, Gary, Halweil,.Brian,
Beyond Malthus, 1999, WW Norton &Co., NY.
- Fischer, David Hacket, The Great
Wave, Price Revolutions and the Rythm of History, 1996, Oxford.
- Meadows, D., Meadows L., Randers, Jorgan,
Beyond The Limits, Confronting a Global Collapse, Envisioning
a Sustainable Future, 1992, Chelsea Green, Post Hills, VT
- Pointing, Clive, A Green History
of the World, 1991, St. Martin's Press, NY
- Wilson, Edward O. The Diversity
of Life, The Belknap Press of Harvard university press, Cambridge,
Mass.1992. A classic
A clear graphical view of the state
of the world's ecosystems http://www.wri.org/wr2000/scorecard.html
Global Climate Change: A Selective
List of Online Resources, http://www.pacinst.org/ccresource.html
Food and Agriculture Organization of
the UN, Home Page, http://www.fao.org/
Food and Agriculture UN data base http://apps.fao.org/default.htm
Global Environmental Outlook The United
Nations Environmental Program http://grid2.cr.usgs.gov/geo1/
in particular take a look at Global
International Institute of Sustainable
A good source of environmental news
The natural Step, an environmental
organization working toward sustainable business. http://www.naturalstep.org/direct/index.html
Population and Sustainability, Paul
Ehrlich & Gretchin Daily http://dieoff.org/page112.htm
World Resources Institute http://www.wri.org/
Worldwatch Institute http://www.worldwatch.org/
A good source of information with a
many links http://www.dieoff.org/
- Web Sites:
- This site is being developed
for The Whole Systems Foundation by Norton Smith
- Your comments are welcome.
- last updated 5/06/04