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

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
    Fisheries
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 data sources.
 

Solutions

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 uses.

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 and future.

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.

References: 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.

 
Books:
Web Sites:
  • 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 2000 http://grid2.cr.usgs.gov/geo2000/ov-e/index.htm
  • International Institute of Sustainable Development, http://www.iisd.ca/linkages/
  • A good source of environmental news http://www.gristmagazine.com/grist/
  • 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/
  •  
    This site is being developed for The Whole Systems Foundation by Norton Smith
    Your comments are welcome. e-mail nlsmith@jeffnet.org
    last updated 5/06/04