Sliding into simplicity – hiding from a complex world

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

“It doesn’t matter how conclusively you prove anything, if the person to whom you prove it can’t accept your proof emotionally, it’s still false. Not-real.

H. Beam Piper

In praise of simplicity – sing a simple song

Followers of simplicity delight in seeing the world in black and white. You are either for us or against us, a capitalist or a socialist – with little space for shades of Fiendish simplicitygrey.

Such a binary approach of course appeals at it allows us to label, categorise, align and dismiss according to our lights, our socialisation and our worldview.

Admitting that nearly all opinions can be seen as wrong from another perspective, and that this truism applies to our own views as well as those of others, is rather hard to swallow.

Of course this is why science exists, as a method for pursuing knowledge based upon agreed principles and generally accepted levels of evidence. As Thomas Hobbes said “Science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another.”

The trouble with the scientific method, however, is that it can bring inconvenient truths. Perhaps this is why recent years have seen a populist growth in the mistrust of science and expertise in favour of the seemingly robust dependability of ‘good common sense’.

Isaac Asimov recognised this very phenomena years ago when he noted “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.‘”.

Say it aint so…

This problem is well illustrated by ‘false equivalence’ in news and wider broadcast media – which tends to present two sides to every story. The apparent ‘balance’ arises from argument rather than the reliability of evidence or legitimacy of different standpoints.

These are the results of ideological attachment rather than legitimate logic, the fact that a truth is uncomfortable doesn’t make it wrong. Ideology that prevents us from questioning orthodoxy and developing our understanding of the world isn’t there to make us happy, it is there to hold us back. Thomas Paine rather acerbically summed this up more than 200 years ago when he said To argue with those who have renounced the use and authority of reason is as futile as to administer medicine to the dead.”

I have seen web conversations where, in response to overwhelming examples of personally stated experience of a phenomena, someone will join the debate saying ‘I can’t believe that X situation is really that bad, it doesn’t seem feasible that so many people would have had that experience’. This is reaction not based upon logic but upon sentiment, upon the fact that it is inconvenient for them to recognise a new truth because it would require them to consider, reflect and perhaps change their own behaviour. It is easier to doubt a newly received ‘truth’ than to accept and assimilate its implications.

Put simply, we like things (broadly speaking) to be the same, we like to feel comfortably familiar with things as they are….that is of course if we innately benefit from the status quo.

Those working to change unexamined inequity face an uphill challenge. The status quo is unequal, as the inertia of privileged position is normally strong and frequently actively defended.

Change goes fast, change goes slow

“In every respect the burthen is hard on those who attack an almost universal opinion. They must be very fortunate as well as unusually capable if they obtain a hearing at all. They have more difficulty in obtaining a trial, than any other litigants have in getting a verdict. If they do extort a hearing, they are subjected to a set of logical requirements totally different from those exacted from other people. In all other cases, burthen of proof is supposed to lie with the affirmative.”

John Stuart Mill

The difficulty of changing entrenched positions poses a huge problem for those seeking change for sustainability. We have to do more than prove that capitalism is flawed, we have to prove it far beyond any levels of proof required to maintain the status quo.

Witness the seismic changes in financial markets over the past two decades. The Big Bang in the UK, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in the US allowed banks to effectively act on their own behalves with customer’s money and to compete with them for profits in the same pool. Such deregulation also facilitated the rise of hedge funds, whose only goal is riding the volatility of the market, and ushered in innovations such as automated trading, which effectively suborn any human judgement of purpose to the cold logic of algorithms.

These changes have changed the logic and purpose of markets beyond recognition (in addition to nearly bringing the global economy to its knees). Where was the public discussion and acceptance of these changes? There was none.

Decisions are made all the time which change the purpose and direction of systems, why should changes to a more sustainable way of doing things require such debate, such levels of proof and a half-hearted adoption over decades?

Reinventing the Weal – Exploring the Commons (Part 2)

Weal (definition): Noun, 1. (archaic) prosperity or wellbeing (now esp. in the phrases the public weal, the common weal)”

From Dictionary.com.

 

Part 1 of this post provided an overview of the theories of Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom. This part explores the ideas of other commons thinkers and proposes some of our own.

 

Beyond Hardin and Ostrom – alternative and developing approaches to commons problems

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Albert Einstein

In addition to the analyses and solutions of Hardin and Ostrom, there are a number of other prominent commons theorists who have proposed new approaches and structures likely to support the health and longevity of common pool resources. Steering WealThese include (but are not limited to) the following:

Michel Bauwens, Founder of the P2P (Peer to Peer) Foundation (focusing upon knowledge commons) argues that egalitarian networking is a new form of relationship that is emerging throughout society, and profoundly transforming the way in which society and human civilization is organised.

Burns H. Weston and David Bollier, whose 2013 book “Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons” proposes a synthesis of environmental protection based on broader notions of economics and human rights and on commons-based governance.

Tommaso Fattori, whose “Towards a Legal Framework for the Commons” proposes both structures and processes by which governance and access to commons might be achieved, whilst securing their health and longevity.

The Global Commons Trust suggests the notion of ‘commons rent’ in the context of a nested system of commons trusts, under which there are three essential levels, so that:

  • Government shifts its primary emphasis from issuing corporate charters and licensing the private sector to approving social charters and open licenses for resource preservation and cultural and social production through commons trusts.
  • Commons trusts exercise a fiduciary duty to preserve natural, genetic and material commons, and to protect, create or regenerate solar, social, cultural and intellectual commons, yet may also decide to rent a proportion of these resource rights to businesses.
  • Businesses rent the rights to extract and produce a resource from a commons trust, creating profits and positive externalities through innovation, competitive products and services, and adjustment of the market to the actual costs of resources.

Discussion of the work of these organisations and practitioners and others can be found at Share the World’s Resources, the Global Commons Trust and a range of commons challenges and solutions are succinctly and clearly explored in the paper “Sovereignty, Sustainability and Natural Resources: The Limits of the Law” by Sam Adelman of the University of Warwick.

In addition, the International Journal of the Commons provides a fantastic essay by Lee Fennell (University of Chicago Law School) revisiting Ostrom’s work 20 years on “Ostrom’s Law: Property rights in the commons” and exploring its implications for property rights and law. In this piece Fennel coins what he calls “Ostrom’s Law” which states that “A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.

 

Reinventing the Weal – common good without total privatisation or global government?

“The same energy of character which renders a man a daring villain would have rendered him useful in society, had that society been well organized.”

Mary Wollstonecraft

In our Earth IPO experiment (and in fact in all of our Towards 9 Billion ideas) we have had, as part of our informal design principles, a ‘no black helicopter’ rule. This means that we wanted to try and explore global issues and solutions for the future of the planet without suggesting the imposition of antidemocratic private approaches or totalitarian global rule.

Nevertheless, the challenge of global commons management, of delivering for the common weal, preserving and rejuvenating the natural processes that sustain our species and millions of others in the face of global scale problems, requires levels of planetary thinking and responses that are currently almost entirely absent.

As part of our work exploring new approaches and solutions we have, over the last few years, produced a number of ideas or highlighted the ideas of others that offer partial or full (ish) solutions to common pool resource challenges, all of them avoiding the black-helicoptered threat of global government or (almost – there is one example below) private ownership of everything.

They are assembled and briefly described in the following table.

Concepts/Tools Description/Definition
Establishing new Trade Law – the Rights of Future Trade A concept proposed by Terrafiniti for International Trade Law to include an explicit presumption of sustainability and stewardship as fundamental principles of enterprise, to enshrine and protect the birth right of all humans to partake in activity which brings them reward, security and the use of their physical and cognitive abilities in perpetuity. This is based upon the contention that current unsustainable trade and enterprise represents a restraint of future trade.

http://www.terrafiniti.com/blog/the-rights-of-future-trade/

Planetary Limits based investment strategies A translation of the concept of planetary limits (e.g. as described by the 9 Planetary Boundaries) into sustainable investment practice; that investments would be considered viable if the company or endeavor under consideration develop and utilise products and services which innately strengthen or reinforce the Boundaries.
Capitalism with a point and purpose A proposition made by Joss Tantram for there to be a clear, articulated goal for capitalism. The actions of individual investment and corporate actors could be judged (and therefore value assigned) according to a judgment of their contribution towards that goal/ actions to undermine the achievement of that goal – in the same manner that investors currently (theoretically) analyse company strategy and prospects.

http://www.terrafiniti.com/blog/capitalism-what-is-the-point/

Planetary Going Concern Principle An idea suggested by Joss Tantram to expand the scope of the existing accounting principle of going concern, which is “the assumption that an entity will remain in business for the foreseeable future.” If the principle were applied to the planet, a clear assessment of the risks to the planetary enterprise might be more clearly understood.

http://www.terrafiniti.com/blog/a-planetisation-of-finance-our-planet-as-a-going-concern/

Systems investors based stewardship “Systems investors/systems players” are investment entities such as sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and other large market actors whose holdings represent percentages of the overall planetary asset base. Such entities are so large that they are not only exposed to individual company failures, sectoral risks and also risks to the stability of the financial system as a whole.

Given this exposure, the challenge for systems investors could conceivably move from making judgements based upon the opportunities and risks for individual companies and sectors but also to a focus upon the challenges faced by the global financial system as a whole. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke “At scale, and over sufficiently long periods of time, private interest should be indistinguishable from the common interest”.

Common Good Cartels Private interests with controlling collective influence over global or strategic resources acting in concert for the long terms viability of those resources – for their own ‘common self-interest’.

Note: whilst this suggestion breaks the ‘no black helicopters’ rule highlighted above, it should be noted that, if you are large enough to see the limits of your power, then it is possible that you may wield that power with enough care such that you continue to hold it….it’s just a thought!

Changing the rules of money Reconceptualising the relationship between money and value to prioritise longer term thinking, e.g.:

1. Introducing “demurrage” – a reverse interest rate, a cost levied for holding or owning money for a given period.

2. Developing “Long” and “Short” money – short money would have a use by date and be spent on day-to-day things, Long money would be more suited to infrastructure investment and projects with a long term or common-good payoff.

http://www.terrafiniti.com/blog/discounting-the-discount-rate/

A Global Commons Trust An expansion of the current phenomena of Commons Trusts to be global in scope. Rather than regarding a commons as a source of profit, commons trusts determine their preservation value (the actual worth of passing on what we have inherited to future generations and allowing this stock to be replenished and restored) through the full participatory choice of community members on whether or not to spend this commons capital. Commons trusts thus are based on the preservation of common resources and the resilience of the system that manages and produces them — not on the assets of the commons that may have financial value in the marketplace.
Common Heritage of Man Principle An ethical and general concept in international law. It was first introduced in a speech to the UN by the Maltese ambassador Arvid Pardo in 1967. It establishes that some localities belong to all humanity and that their resources are available for everyone’s use and benefit, taking into account future generations and the needs of developing countries. When it applies to areas and resources within national jurisdiction, exercise of sovereignty is subject to certain responsibilities to protect the common good. It is intended to achieve aspects of the sustainable development of common spaces and their resources, but may apply either more strongly or beyond this traditional scope.

http://wealthofthecommons.org/essay/common-heritage-mankind-bold-doctrine-kept-within-strict-boundaries

Hard Laws – Ecocide Ecocide – proposed by Polly Higgins – has been defined as the missing “5th Crime against Peace”, with the argument of its proponents that it should have the same status in international law as other recognised crimes against peace of Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes, and Crimes of Aggression.

Ecocide is defined as “The extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.

http://eradicatingecocide.com/

Entropic Valuation – Energy Economics based upon thermodynamic optimisation A suggested approach to understanding and valuing the fundamental life-time energetic performance of solar derived energy sources. A concept developed by Joss Tantram and Sean Grunnet Cuthbert, Entropic Valuation provides a way of assessing and therefore pricing the total efficiency of a wide range of energy sources. The approach asks “How many solar kilojoules (kJ) have gone into this storage media in order to obtain 1 kJ of usable energy from it?” This ratio can then be used to assign a nominal price to the results.

http://www.terrafiniti.com/blog/entropic-valuation-energy-pricing-as-if-thermodynamics-mattered/

Energy is a commons issue for several reasons: primarily because it is a pre-requisite for any human activity and is an ‘engine’ of life itself; secondly, because our current unsustainable use of scarce and dirty hydrocarbons gives rise to systemic impacts on the health and viability of natural systems and; thirdly, because differential access to energy gives rise to social inequity. We believe that new approaches to connecting the physical performance of energy with systems of value and priority have a role to play in a sustainable, equitable future.

Abundancy economics An approach to the derivation of price (and value) which focusses upon the abundance of a resource rather than its scarcity and values abundancy as more valuable to meet the needs of a large global population. It essentially values scalability rather than exclusivity. Under this approach, enhanced value would be assigned to the use of materials and production processes that inherently avoid or otherwise manage the challenges of scarcity, prioritising technologies and behaviours which deliver either natural (e.g. biologically-based) or managed (e.g. through closed loop stewardship) abundance.

http://www.terrafiniti.com/blog/valuing-abundance-breaking-tyranny-scarcity/

Usufruction for global commons Development of the concept of usufruction to apply more explicitly to global commons/ as a way of framing corporate license to operate.

Usufruction is a right that one party may obtain in a property owned by another, normally for a limited time or until death. It is the right to use the property, to enjoy the fruits and income of the property, to rent the property out and to collect the rents, all to the exclusion of the underlying owner. The usufructuary has the full right to use the property but cannot dispose of the property nor can it be destroyed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usufruct

 

All of the above examples would require exploration and development to become potentially useful and some might have to be used in concert rather than on their own. Nevertheless, we feel that exploring new ways to hard-wire the protection of common resources into humanity’s systems of value and prioritization is likely to become ever more important as we test the boundaries of our finite planet.

 

Common good for a constrained world

Delivering global scale change without manifest global control will only likely be achieved through a combination of changing the purpose of human systems alongside the development of structures that legislate for the preservation of common wealth and health whilst also delivering equity and sovereignty for people across the world. Such changes cut across systems of law, economics, human and non-human rights.

Many approaches to global commons suggest ways that we could achieve such a change, though they have huge implications for the current workings of national sovereignty, law, financial markets, and the ownership structures of capitalism.

Changing the nature and purpose of capitalism is clearly proving rather difficult. Less than 10 years after the largest crash for almost 100 years and capitalism’s function and processes remain the same as before it happened, and seem to be merrily carrying us towards another one.

Systems that benefit powerful and well-resourced parties tend to be quite good at resisting calls for meaningful reform or redesign. However the lack of success so far in reforming capitalism for a sustainable, equitable purpose does not mean that the task is less necessary.

Recognising the limitations of our world, and of the systems that developed in times where we could effectively ignore those limitations, should spur us to re-imagine and renew systems and structures which are no longer fit for purpose. Using human ingenuity to balance the preservation of global commons with the generation of equitable common wealth should not be beyond the wit or grasp of our uncommonly creative and capable species.

 

My profuse thanks go to Ian Christie of the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy, for allowing me to see his amazing overview of common pool resources challenges, “Managing the Commons -theory and practice”, produced for the Centre for Environmental Strategy’s Ecological Economics Module and to Sam Adelman of the University of Warwick for being kind enough to let me refer to his work. As ever, all errors are mine.

Reinventing the Weal – Exploring the Commons (Part 1)

Weal (definition): Noun, 1. (archaic) prosperity or wellbeing (now esp. in the phrases the public weal, the common weal)

From Dictionary.com.

Value without ownership? Global Commons and the problems of property

 

“Show me a first-generation fortune and I’ll show you a successful partnership between a talented individual and society’s invisible venture capitalist, the commons.”

William H. Gates, Sr.

Capitalism, by its very nature, is dependent upon property; the right to access or use the products of property owned by someone else (usufruct), or the ability to makeFree Wealing use of common property (the commons).

Where something lacks clear ownership, or where there is shared (or common) ownership, capitalism struggles to compute its value adequately, often meaning that it is either considered as a “free good” or is inadequately priced.

This does not mean that the unpriced object or objects in discussion do not give rise to value. For instance, the existence of air is one of the reasons why combustion works, does that mean that a substantial part of the profits of automobile companies should actually be paid to a local or global atmospheric fund to ensure the continued supply of fresh air? Perhaps it should!

Rather, that the existence and maintenance of that un/underpriced object does not appear either as an asset or as a cost (required to ensure its continuing existence) on a balance sheet. This situation frequently results in the degradation and possible destruction of the asset, undermining its ability to give rise to value.

As I have previously explored thorough the metaphor of trying to get a good price when selling your Mother, the fact that something is priceless should not equally mean that it is worthless.

The wicked problem of free goods and sustainability is a long explored one. Many approaches to developing sustainable economics and capitalism seek to price all such free goods (classified in economic terms as “externalities”) such that their value is included in economic calculations and decisions.

Common Weal – From free goods to common resources

Free goods are a property of the resources that give rise to them. These resources are known as ‘Common Pool Resources’ or, more simply ‘commons’.

Recognising the value of commons to our global economy in such a way that encourages their continued health and existence is perhaps an even bigger and more contentious challenge than the already difficult one of pricing environmental and social externalities.

Historically, economic value has generally been allied to ownership and property rights. Global commons, which are resources owned by no-one but benefitting many (through their productivity, ecosystem function or resource richness) are facing a series of pressures; from impacts upon their function, to the possibility of ‘land grabs’ and resource based conflict. It is frequently argued that the challenges facing global commons represents a market failure and that threats to them are either inevitable or can only be remedied through privatisation.

This is because to a large extent common pool resources are the birthright of every human being. Under conventional economic and capitalist theory, the only way for them to be adequately valued would be for them to be owned in some way, whether by governments (notionally in trust for their citizens) or by private interest. Under the latter scenario, the resource could be valued as it would be considered as an asset either capable of being sold, or of giving rise to continued revenue.

Is the only way for our birthright to be valued for it to be sold to someone else?

This is the sort of question that Terrafiniti has been exploring as part of our Earth IPO (Initial Public Offering) thought experiment, which is seeking to discover the capability of our current systems of value, law and finance to evolve such that they might deliver a sustainable and equitable world as a natural outcome of their existence.

The project, in partnership with the global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills and with the input of a range of professionals with an array of expertise and experience has been designed to discover the challenges that would be faced by our current systems of value if, as a species, we decided that sustainability and equity were worthwhile shared ambitions.

As part of this exploration Terrafiniti has developed an overview on the concept of Global Commons and its associated theories. In addition, I have included suggestions of our own on how to place the protection and growth of global commons at the heart of humanity’s systems of value and priority.

I thought that it might be useful to share this overview with our Towards 9 Billion readers, so here it is!

A quick primer on Commons

What are they?

Global Commons (or Common Pool Resources) are resource domains to which all nations have legal access. They may comprise land or other resources with great value and no owner, or resources of critical importance and benefit to many people – ‘stakeholders’.

Commons resources are capable of being degraded or destroyed through over-use, but also of supplying effectively indefinite benefits. They provide the ‘fertile ground’ which allows the existence of life, and of complex, interdependent social and financial systems.

Examples of global commons include the atmosphere, outer space, the High Seas (beyond territorial waters), Antarctica and International Institutions (such as the UN, the World Bank, IMF and the WTO (World Trade Organisation).

Local and scale-limited examples include literal commons such as Wimbledon Common (where the Wombles live) and the New Forest in the UK (where common rights exist/are granted), Government owned forest/land/seas (common ownership) and social infrastructure (roads, schools, hospitals etc.).

Commons are therefore resources themselves, geographic areas giving rise to resources or benefits of some kind or properties arising from the existence of resources that may have multiple beneficiaries.

Commons and commons rights (the right to have access to a commons resource or to benefit from the productivity of a commons) have long been the subject of moral, ethical and economic debate and discussion. The central theme in many of these discussions is that of the challenge of whether ‘open’ access to commons resources inevitably gives rise to their degradation and destruction.

Commons tragedies

The challenge which commons pose to us and which we pose to them was perhaps most famously framed by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 paper in Science, “The Tragedy of the Commons”. This used the metaphor of herders grazing cows on a literal common; describing a situation in which individuals acted independently and rationally according to their own self-interest. The herders continued to add more animals to achieve greater returns, eventually depleting the asset of grass in the process. In Hardin’s view, only mutual coercion or imposition by the state could prevent the destruction of the land.

However, there are competing views on whether ‘open’ access to commons inevitably gives rise to their degradation. Most notably, the Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom pointed to many examples of successful commons stewardship. In these examples a key part of maintaining the sustainability of the resources in question arose from a clear social compact; that those individuals accessing benefits knew and understood that they had social obligations towards other commons users. Transgressors of these social rules could be subject to a range of social penalties, including ostracism and the formal removal of rights.

Ostrom argued that there are 8 ‘design principles’ required to sustain common pool resources:

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behaviour.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

Hardin and Ostrom – on opposite sides?

Hardin and Ostrom are often considered to be the yin and yang of commons theorists, although it is worth pointing out that in some respects they each highlight the same truth; that certain strictures and structures are required to ensure the long term health and viability of common pool resources.

Hardin explored a number of solutions, from state control of commons to: “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected” (page 5 Col 1, The Tragedy of the Commons).

As a generalization however, Hardin’s analysis is frequently interpreted as calling for a privatisation of the commons, as a way of forcing stewardship though ownership, as follows:

We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust—but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.” (Page 5 Col 1, The Tragedy of the Commons).

A key challenge which could be raised to Hardin’s arguments is not that his analysis is wrong when it comes to many common pool resources, but that the specific example of cows grazing common land is actually one where history and precedent presents many examples of just the opposite of his predicted tragedy taking place. For example, here is a link to one such in Switzerland. In addition, Ostrom and many other commons theorists pointed out that many common pool resources do not allow unrestricted access, but that access is restricted to specific rights holders.

However, there are also many global commons which do conform to the ‘free-for-all’ as described by Hardin, and which are likely to succumb to the tragedy that he describes. Resources such as air, forests and the high seas (and the functions that commons resources give rise to, such as; soil formation, nitrogen cycle, weather regulation, water purification, oxygen generation and species diversity) have tended to be considered as effectively limitless and, as such, are liable to be in danger of degradation if we do not develop structures or agree rules by which their health and viability can be assured.

Part 2 of this post explores the work of commons theorists who have built upon the work of Hardin and Ostrom, in addition to highlighting some of the ideas we have developed and identified which I believe have a contribution to make to the sustainability and longevity of our global commons.

 

My profuse thanks go to Ian Christie of the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy, for allowing me to see his amazing overview of common pool resources challenges, “Managing the Commons -theory and practice”, produced for the Centre for Environmental Strategy’s Ecological Economics Module and to Sam Adelman for being kind enough to let me refer to his work. As ever, all errors are mine.

Rejuvenative innovation – building a flourishing future

Introduction

Rejuvenative (definition): “To restore to a former state; make fresh or new again.”

Our Towards 9 Billion blog is almost 4 years old. Lightbulb momentsOver that time we have produced, at least once a month, commentary, analysis or big ideas on topics ranging from energy, physics, economics, natural philosophy and the promise and perversity of the human condition. With our Towards 9 Billion E-book series coming out this year, which collects together our thinking and analysis, this blog provides a short overview of one of the key themes of Towards 9 Billion – the need and hope for innovation towards a sustainable, equitable future.

Rejuvenative innovation…beyond stasis

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.

R. Buckminster Fuller

Different outcomes require different means. This truism is at the heart of the sustainability challenge. Can we solve the problems of tomorrow with the tools of today?

What new approaches, mechanisms and technologies are required and will evolve in responses to the challenges of resource scarcity, consumption pressure, biodiversity loss and the emerging cracks in our current economic and market systems?

At its heart sustainability is about innovation: of our ways of understanding and responding to the world; of organising ourselves; in the invention, development and deployment of new technologies and also, perhaps most crucially; in our systems of production and distribution. Whilst the future may well see a flowering of wondrous sustainable technologies, it will also need to feature new ways of conceiving of the point and purpose of enterprise and economics, we call this “Rejuvenative innovation”.

At the levels of manufacture and production this innovation is rejuvenative technology and rejuvenative enterprise; technologies and initiatives whose impacts innately add to the quality and quantity of life on this planet.

Many of the seeds of a sustainable future already exist and whilst new things will undoubtedly be required, many of the techniques, concepts and technologies we need are potentially available for use, if we can prioritise, develop and value their contribution to a successful future on a physically constrained, populous planet.

The idea of Rejuvenative Enterprise and technology draws upon and builds from a number of sources, – it is majorly influenced by Amory Lovin’s (et al) Natural Capitalism, The Natural Step, Cradle-to-Cradle and biomimicry/ bio-facture concepts, combined with our own thoughts and experiences over the last 20 years.

In addition, beyond what already exists, we also point towards new and as yet undiscovered approaches to natural manufacturing that are currently more sci fi than sci-reality.

Abundant thinking

“Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities.”

Aristotle

Rejuvenation of our technology must be accompanied by a rejuvenation in our approach to economics and value. A key element of this is the idea of valuing abundance rather than focusing our conceptions of value upon scarcity.

Where price is based upon scarcity, it will always be more valuable to pursue ever scarcer supplies of a given resource, because the price of that resource will be driven higher and higher by the conventional laws of supply and demand.

Basing price on abundance (i.e. the likelihood of a resource being capable of providing utility to the greatest possible number of the world’s population) seems to be a more valuable and sustainable approach for capitalism then eternally pursuing ever decreasing traces of non-renewable resources.

Such abundance can be either natural (e.g. biologically based) or managed (e.g. through closed loop stewardship).

 

Terra sapiens – evolving to a truly planetary species

 “Human nature is hung in the balance; our behaviour driven by selfishness & our desire to cooperate to ensure survival”

E.O. Wilson

Sustainability also poses a fundamental challenge to the genetic and social capabilities of our species, requiring a perspective shift from the interests of our family and friends, to those of our communities, nations, regions and ultimately all members of our species. The development of truly global thinking will challenge the way we conceive of those we care about and how we do so, requiring the conceptualisation of true global citizenship.

At the heart of this challenge concerning human capability and capacity is the question of the limits and capability of our species’ sapience. It is not intelligence per se which is important, but ‘sapience’ – having or showing great wisdom or sound judgment.

Our species certainly has much to prove to demonstrate that we have the wisdom or judgment required to achieve a sustainable world.

Moving from Homo sapiens to Terra sapiens must be rooted in a clear eyed understanding of what we are as a species, our capacities, weaknesses, shortcomings and strengths. Recognising the biology and psychologies which drive us is a vital aspect of driving the sapience we need for a sustainable future on a populous planet.

New challenges, new opportunities

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

This blog explores these and other challenges by posing questions about our intelligence and capacity for sustainability and defining and suggesting new ways of conceiving and categorising those fundamental elements of sustainable technology and value that we believe will be essential tools for building a sustainable world.

We suggest and explore the idea of social utility as a fundamental metric for social purpose, arguing that an examination of how companies give rise to social quality and capacity will be those most valuable and sustainable over the long term.

We explore how abundance might be placed at the heart of price, how the technologies that will deliver a sustainable world might be categorised in terms that investors can recognise and explore the limitations and opportunities our species faces in responding to the power and responsibility we have in creating planetary level change.

The rejuvenative revolution is about hope. Hope for our future and hope for the evolution of our systems of production and value, whilst recognising the limits of both our knowledge and our capacity to act with wisdom and judgement in the face of global challenges.

 

Coming soon – Towards 9 Billion book series

We are packaging a range of our writing over the last few years into a series of short, free E-books, to be available in 2016.

T9B Book 4 - The Rejuvenative Revolution

Here are just some of the kind things people have said about our work:

“Building a sustainable future will take evolution and revolution, mixing what already works and challenging what does not. Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion creates positive, playful ideas which help us describe and drive a future where we and our planet can flourish together.”

KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz; Founder, Chief Executive, Sustainable Brands

“Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion initiative raises powerful questions, and some equally powerful answers. Their sharp thinking combines a rational approach to analyse in a subtle way the wicked problems of our complex and rapidly changing world, for the common good of present and future generations.”

Alain Ruche, Senior adviser to the SG of the EU External Service (EEAS)

“Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion is a creative approach for putting people and the planet at the heart of value. By pushing the boundaries of our thinking it poses serious questions and argues that the seeds of the future may already lie within our current, unsustainable approaches.”

Jeremy Nicholls, Chief Executive, Social Value UK

Sowing the seeds of a sustainable world?

Just as plants and animals broadcast seed and progeny in vast numbers in the hope that some will survive and flourish, we hope that our ideas might have the chance to do the same; to find receptive places in which to thrive.

We hope that our writing and the books might play a small but useful role in imagining and building a future fit for people and the planet.

If you would like to be notified when they are published please get in touch.

 

Contact Terrafiniti

From the stars…post-scarcity economics & energy as a human right

“Economic activity is impossible without external energy inputs. Energy is a prerequisite for all economic activity…Despite these facts, traditional economists do not include energy inputs in their macroeconomic production functions.”

Hannes Kuntz

The currency of life

Energy is the currency of life, it is transformed from one form to another (down an irrevocable pathway of dispersal) every nano-second of our lives.Christmas Star over Bethlehem

All the achievements of any civilisation and indeed all human existence across history have been bought with energy, whether it be in the form of human muscle, animal power, water, wind, fossil fuels and nuclear sources.

Energy is a spectre at the economic feast, it is a constant overhead of any activity. Any true conception of economics should really be less about profit, loss and the performance of money and more about the quality, utility, availability and safety of energy.

A burning issue

A focus upon the performance and availability of energy has become even more (if that were possible) of a burning issue as the Paris Agreement, which emerged from the Paris climate conference in December 2015. Delivering the Agreement requires a clear trajectory away from dependency upon fossil fuels.

Only one law of nature

“The idols and false notions which have already preoccupied the human understanding, and are deeply rooted in it…will again meet and trouble us in the instauration of the sciences, unless mankind, when forewarned, guard themselves with all possible care against them.”

Francis Bacon

The behaviour of energy in systems is described by the laws of thermodynamics, perhaps the most fundamental expression for the frame for physical existence. Indeed Sir Arthur Eddington said of the 2nd Law: “There is only one law of Nature—the second law of thermodynamics—which recognises a distinction between past and future more profound than the difference of plus and minus.”.

You cannot break the laws of thermodynamics, approaches to value and prioritisation which ignore them (like our current economics and markets do through their emphasis upon perpetual growth) are doomed to be constrained by them at some point. You cannot have infinite growth within a finite system.

Thermodynamic metrics?

Cognisance of the physical thermodynamic laws which govern our existence should be at the heart of economics and policy. However, a key challenge is that these get pretty complicated quickly, and it is not meaningful or appropriate to set a simple ‘target’ for how to better align with them

 

Understanding real time energy

A requirement for truly sustainable energy utilisation is a focus upon ‘live’ or ‘real time energy’ – the transformation of received energy into material manufacture or process power without significant time (i.e. the “live” use of solar wind or water power or the years-to-decades required for biomass rather than the millions of years required for coal, oil or natural gas) or aggregation intermediation.

This could include learning from how matter is shaped in nature and how plants grow through the incremental use of a massive number of tiny inputs. This is a very different to the use of energy in our current paradigm which does the exact reverse; valuing only concentrated energy and effectively ignoring small and disparate inputs.

Making the best use of real time energy – utilising the vast abundance of insolation our planet receives every day will take two key changes:

  1. To develop modes of energy utilisation that benefit from small inputs, and;
  2. The consolidation and storage of small inputs to mimic the concentrated energy of hydrocarbons and nuclear sources.

Post scarcity – Energy as a human right?

“Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”

Warren Buffett

As the common denominator of any activity, the demand for energy has risen as population and consumption has increased. With an overwhelming dependence upon sources of energy with significant destabilising effects upon natural systems and human health, this relationship is clearly unsustainable, and has led to some initial attempts, mostly (though not exclusively) through pricing carbon, to limit the ‘use’ of energy.

However, rather than pricing energy to limit its use, a truly equitable and sustainable world would instead collect, store and distribute plentiful renewable energy as a birth-right and for free. This takes us towards the idea of energy as a free good, and by proxy, a human right. What possibilities for humanity would be opened up if access to abundant and clean energy were a birth-right, rather than an obstacle to achieving a decent quality of life?

This idea is not a new one, it is perhaps most extensively explored in science-fiction, where the precondition for truly “post scarcity” economies such as those explored in the Star Trek Universe and in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels (among many others) is more or less unlimited access to clean and safe energy. Under these scenarios, freely available energy equals high degrees of social and technological freedom.

Could we take steps towards such freedom in the real world, not just in worlds of speculative fiction?

The main challenges to freeing up access and rights to energy presently lie in two dimensions:

  1. The relationship between energy and environmental and social impacts. Where energy sources are dirty, scarce and risky, expanding their use is neither feasible nor wise.
  2. The relationship between development and energy – of course, as noted above, nothing happens without energy moving from one state to another. There is, however, huge scope for changing the intensity and wastage relationships between a given unit of energy and a given unit of productive output or financial value.

There is huge scope to evolve the type and efficiency of the energy that we depend upon. Whilst we are challenged by the inertia that ties us to energy technologies and support infrastructure, there are also existing and emerging energy technologies capable of fulfilling our energy needs and wants with radically different environmental and social implications.

Here is an interactive map of a possible country-by-country sustainable energy mix for the planet to fulfil its energy needs with 100% renewable energy.

Energy as a human right is starting to rise up the agenda of development thinkers and organisations. Indeed access to energy is also a foundational requirement or precondition for the achievement of all of the UNs Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the specific focus of Goal 7.

Going beyond the idea of energy access for all, we believe that energy itself should be free. Competition for energy undermines freedom of choice, action and ingenuity.

What could we achieve together if our ambition was not defined and constrained by the impacts of our energy use or its safety and scarcity?

Energy should set us free, not constrain our potential. Turning away from dirty, scarce and dangerous towards clean abundant and safe energy is the challenge we must overcome to succeed and prosper as a species on our small, energetically blessed planet.

 

Coming soon – Towards 9 Billion book series

We are packaging a range of our writing over the last few years into a series of short, free E-books, to be available in 2016.

What is sustainable energy? Towards 9 Billion e-Book

Here are just some of the kind things people have said about our work:

“Suspect the future’s going to be very different? Unsure how multiple economic, social and environmental forces will collide? But too little time to explore? Well treat yourself to a Towards 9 billion e-book. Short, sharp, accessible insights on what the future might look like and how you should prepare for it.”

Mike Barry, Director – Plan A, Marks & Spencer plc

“Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion book series asks the important questions that lie beneath the accelerating chaos of systems no longer fit for purpose. We ignore them at our peril. They provide insightful analysis and innovative solutions which help us see reality of the challenge, and the hope for change, through a clear lens. I hope these important contributions are widely read.”

John Fullerton, Founder and President of Capital Institute

“With this series of e-books, Terrafiniti continue to not only pose the most important questions of our time – namely, how do we sustain and thrive on a planet of 9 billion people – but also propose some fantastic ideas as to how we might do just that. A must read for anybody interested in where the planet is headed – and finding solutions to our most pressing challenges.”

Jeremy Leggett, author, environmentalist, activist and solar pioneer

Sowing the seeds of a sustainable world?

Just as plants and animals broadcast seed and progeny in vast numbers in the hope that some will survive and flourish, we hope that our ideas might have the chance to do the same; to find receptive places in which to thrive.

We hope that our writing and the books might play a small but useful role in imagining and building a future fit for people and the planet.

If you would like to be notified when they are published please get in touch.

Contact Terrafiniti

Absolute beginnings – the rise of sustainability context

Are you paying attention?

“For me context is the key – from that comes the understanding of everything.”

Kenneth Noland

Sustainability is innately all about context. Pretty much anything can be sustainable if the circumstances are right or the scope of assessment is too narrow. Sustainability as it is Crate Expectationsmostly commonly understood nowadays could be cynically defined as “an activity that someone or something hasn’t stopped you doing yet”.

Sustainability is a vastly abused and misused term. In politics and economics it tends to mean that something financially ‘washes its own face’ over the short to medium term, rather than something is capable of persisting in perpetuity.

Sustainability is contingent. If it was located in outer space, you might consider a leaky nuclear reactor to be sustainable. Located up the road from your house though? Maybe not.

The judgement of what is sustainable is fundamentally contextual, and the only true context we should be interested in is that of the planet.

Almost all of the ‘sustainability’, CSR and environmental management efforts of the past few decades have been relative in both nature and intent. They are based upon the idea that reducing impacts relative to previous ones produces either sustainability itself or delivers progress on a pathway to sustainability (sustainable development).

Of course, without context, such assertions are impossible to prove. Who could possibly say that a company reducing its fossil fuel use by 10, 20 or even 30% is sustainable without first figuring out what a sustainable use of fossil fuels would be, in the context of the planet as a whole?

This is where concepts such a planetary boundaries, critical thresholds and context-based sustainability analyses come in. These either focus upon thresholds in environmental quality beyond which we might risk significant ecological instability, or upon types of behaviour that can be classed as sustainable because they do not disrupt the functions of natural (or possibly also social) systems.

Such approaches are intended to go beyond relative judgements, to place behaviour in an absolute context.

Whose context is it anyway?

“Sometimes your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness if the context changes.”

Harsha Bhogle

Contextual analysis is not a new thing. Hordes of strategic managers swarm out of MBA programmes every year, trained in the orthodoxy of strategic analysis and ready to join teams of similarly driven people in the companies of the world. Strategic analysis is the lookout in the crow’s nest of the ships of capitalism. Yet sadly, most of them still spy the horizon with blinkers on.

A plethora of whizzy analysis tools purport to allow the identification of strategic issues, risks and threats. However, all too frequently in practice their scope and vision is narrowed by a lack of understanding or recognition that the context they need to encompass is far larger and more complex than they are willing to admit. Systemic, contextual or existential risks can only be identified through an understanding of the proper scope of context. This context is the planet and the planetary systems upon which our life and health depends.

Responses to this perspective problem are in development, approaches to quantifying physical planetary limitations upon activity are emerging and being slowly explored by companies and policy makers. These include the nine planetary boundaries, doughnut economics and context-based sustainability.

From a reporting perspective, context based sustainability has received a boost with its inclusion in the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) report “Raising the Bar – Advancing Environmental Disclosure in Sustainability Reporting” (November 2015) which emphasises a fundamental requirement for companies to undertake strategic contextual analysis and also to contextualise their performance.

Approaches to the categorisation and quantification of the natural resources that support the functioning of natural systems are also being established, alongside tools that support individual companies and countries to place themselves and their impacts in the proper context. These include multiple capitals, ecosystem services, and natural capital accounting.

Knowledge and numbers

“Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.”

Elbert Hubbard

Sustainability of systems, societies and people on our finite planet is absolutely impossible without a recognition of the need for contextual understanding and contextual responses.

However the challenge for true sustainability context to become a defining strategic factor remains a significant one for two key reasons.

Firstly, because assessing legitimate “share” is difficult in a complex and interdependent world and, secondly; because in some respects context only requires us to pay attention to what we already know, that we urgently need to focus upon developing the capability for sustainable production and valuation processes.

Context tells us just how urgent that need is becoming.

 

Coming soon – Towards 9 Billion book series

We are packaging a range of our writing over the last few years into a series of short, free E-books, to be available in 2016.The Elephant is the Room - Towards 9 Billion Book 3

Here are just some of the kind things people have said about our work:

Big ideas for massive challenges: Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion provides a wide range of solution-oriented perspectives on the prospect – often seen as daunting – of accommodating 9 billion people within the remits of our one planet.

David Nussbaum, Chief Executive, WWF-UK

 

“The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries highlights the scale of the challenge humanity faces. Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion is a fount of refreshing ideas for surmounting that challenge, imagining economics, finance and enterprise for a flourishing future.”

Kate Raworth, Creator of Doughnut Economics and Senior Visiting Research Associate, Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University

 

Towards 9 Billion addresses the critical issues that face our planet in the 21st century, from business and economics to sustainable energy and technology. I love its wide-ranging intelligence, lucid prose and interdisciplinary approach to scoping a new economics for our age.

Jane Gleeson-White, author of Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism has to have – or can accountants save the planet.

 

Sowing the seeds of a sustainable world?

Just as plants and animals broadcast seed and progeny in vast numbers in the hope that some will survive and flourish, we hope that our ideas might have the chance to do the same; to find receptive places in which to thrive.

We hope that our writing and the books might play a small but useful role in imagining and building a future fit for people and the planet.

If you would like to be notified when they are published please get in touch.

Contact Terrafiniti

Truth and reason – Natural philosophy for sustainability

“We should remember that there was once a discipline called natural philosophy. Unfortunately, this discipline seems not to exist today. It has been renamed science, but science of today is in danger of losing much of the natural philosophy aspect.”

Hannes Alfvén

The new natural philosophy?

Natural philosophy was, put simply, the antecedent of what we now know as science. Before the codification of science and sciences as aligned but separable disciplines for A different way of looking - Copyright J. Montalbettithe study of the world, its causes and effects and underlying principles, such study and exploration was called natural philosophy. This can be defined as the philosophical (the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence) examination of nature and the physical universe in order to understand the ways in which they work.

Natural philosophy still has much to tell us, not as an attempt to re-brand science to an older label, but because of the activities of the natural philosophers of history have resonances and implications which might be of value for those of us seeking to explore and stimulate sustainable change.

Whilst natural philosophy has a history dating back thousands of years, it played a significant role in the European Renaissance in developing the intent and principles of what we now call science.

In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries such figures as Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were as much Natural Philosophers as they were mathematicians, chemists and statesmen.

What has natural philosophy got to do with sustainability?

 “Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted… but to weigh and consider.”

Francis Bacon

Firstly and most literally, natural philosophy is essential for sustainability because it is about science, and the need to be able to provide evidential proof of the way that our physical existence works. This is at the heart of any efforts to demonstrate that given courses of behaviour have cause and effect relationships that we may conclude have better and worse implications for the future of (our) life on this planet.

Secondly, and more avowedly philosophically, because the Renaissance philosophers were involved in a task with many parallels to the efforts of sustainability advocates now. They were comparing the observations and findings that arose from their natural philosophical investigations against the orthodoxy of what was considered to be “truth” in their time. This has a direct parallel to the work of many sustainability advocates, who explore whether the truisms and “laws” of economics and markets can be proved through evidence or whether they are in reality orthodoxies which do not stand up to scrutiny.

Thirdly, because philosophy is a critical component of navigating change, and in understanding why change is welcomed or rejected.

Why don’t facts change the world?

“Stuff that the public won’t believe aren’t facts. Being true only makes ’em worse.”

H.G. Wells

The third point is a key one in many discussions of sustainability. It is often a strongly held belief of environmentalists that facts alone have the ability to create change, that the “truth” has the ability to drive a shift from unsustainable to sustainable outcomes.

Indeed in my previous life in an NGO, it was possible to come across the attitude that time spent upon understanding why and how changes takes place (starting from the perspective that all behaviour arises from both custom and reason and is therefore innately complex in origin and in resistance to change) was a waste of time. The real way to create change, I was told, was to get people to read the latest study or set of scientific data, and that would itself drive change.

This is based upon the truism that the “truth will set you free”, however, if the truth contradicts your worldview, it can sometimes be easier and less stressful to either simply ignore that ‘truth’ or to find a truth of your own to provide competition.

Philosophy is intended to make sense of the world and it is just as important to explore and understand how things that may not make sense from one perspective might make sense from another. In situations like these, understanding what may look like irrational behaviour from one perspective but intensely rational from another should be the subject of philosophical, psychological and sociological inquiry, not just the province of the physical sciences.

To some extent, the idea of a new natural philosophy, a natural philosophy for sustainability, is seeking to emphasise that the science that has taken us for far in explaining the world around us must recombine with its philosophical component in order to play a role in delivering the future we want.

Sustainable change requires many components, facts are just one of these. Change occurs through a complex mix of factors, of which “truth” can often take a back seat to tradition, fear, self-interest and both psychological and economic investment in the status quo.

Understanding the range of reasons behind why change either does or doesn’t take place is a critical element of supporting and driving sustainable change, just as the physical sciences are in helping us understand both how the world works, its limits and trends. Combining these two dimensions of investigation and knowledge are essential, a Natural philosophy for the 21st century.

 

Coming soon – Towards 9 Billion book series

We are packaging a range of our writing over the last few years into a sNew=Natural-Philosophy-T9Beries of short, free E-books, to be available in 2016.

 

Here are just some of the kind things people have said about our work:

Big ideas for massive challenges: Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion provides a wide range of solution-oriented perspectives on the prospect – often seen as daunting – of accommodating 9 billion people within the remits of our one planet.

David Nussbaum, Chief Executive, WWF-UK

 

“9 billion people living within ecological limits requires us to rethink and redesign our human systems so that they are in tune with natural systems. To do this we need both critical thinking and generative solutions that are rooted in purpose, inclusivity and creativity. Towards 9 Billion e-book series is an important contribution to humanity’s great transition for living thriving on planet earth.”

Jen Morgan – Co- Founder – The Finance Innovation Lab

 

“To all who are disenchanted by the lack of a coherent global approach to achieving sustainable development, take heart. Drawing on a vast array of theory and practice from systems thinking and natural law to finance, economics, literature, philosophy and corporate behaviour, Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion helps us navigate the path to an uncertain future. Read and act on their work now or prepare for subsequent regret that you did not recognise them as geniuses of their time.”

Lois Guthrie, Founding Director, Carbon Disclosure Standards

 

Sowing the seeds of a sustainable world?

Just as plants and animals broadcast seed and progeny in vast numbers in the hope that some will survive and flourish, we hope that our ideas might have the chance to do the same; to find receptive places in which to thrive.

We hope that our writing and the books might play a small but useful role in imagining and building a future fit for people and the planet.

If you would like to be notified when they are published please get in touch.

 

Blog-contact-us

Biodiversity – there is no wealth but life

Why we need a world with more life in it now.

I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth — and truth rewarded me.

— Simone de Beauvoir

The good news is that there is probably more biodiversity (types) of life on earth than we currently know or even imagine.

The bad news is we are killing it off very fast.

What is biodiversity?

The term biodiversity (a contraction of ‘biological diversity’) was coined in 1985 and popularised by biologist Edward Wilson in 1988 in his book of the same name. Given that the term is only 25 years old, it has gained remarkable traction in everyday life.

Together with Natural Capital, biodiversity is one of the current buzz words in corporate sustainability. Businesses actively engaged with sustainability realise that single issues such as energy use, climate change or workers’ rights are interrelated with others such as water use and biological diversity. As extended scrutiny further illuminates the nether regions of value/supply chains, complex impacts and inter-dependencies are uncovered.

In practice, biodiversity is in trouble in reality and as a concept. The term is very difficult to define, potentially ranging as it does from genes to entire ecosystems. There are two main approaches to categorising biodiversity, the functional and the compositional (as suggested by Callicott et al 1999). Functional approaches consider ecosystem and evolutionary processes, while compositional approaches look at organisms in terms of their populations, species, taxa and other groupings.

Chinstrap-Penguins-Baily-Head

Chinstrap penguins, Baily Head, Deception Island, the breeding area for 200,000 chinstrap penguins. Polar regions have low species diversity and high abundance – that simply means there’s not very many different kinds of animal but when you find them there’s a lot of them. There’s also an interesting story behind this picture. The penguins here have been lying on their nests incubating eggs, you can see their dirty fronts. They are hungry and have walked up to 2 km to get to the sea. They are torn between hunger (and the need to get into the sea to fish) and the danger of entering the sea first where they may be eaten by patrolling leopard seals. They shuffle and run down the black volcanic gravel beach, vying to stay at the rear or middle of the group, while carefully scanning the sea for possible threats. The white specks are wind-blown foam from the waves – not snow. Photo: © Dominic Tantram 2006.

The complexity of the term biodiversity means that it is often poorly understood in wider society. But this reflects a wider malaise; in many ways we have lost view of our connections – and dependencies upon – the natural world. Most people view biodiversity as something of nebulous but rather removed value, rather than a way of interpreting the ecosystem which provides us with life. We see ourselves apart from nature rather than as an intrinsic part of it.

This disconnect, in both perception and behaviour is having massive and perhaps unprecedented impacts upon our ecosystem.

What’s the problem?

A range of studies suggest that by whatever measure we use biodiversity is in rapid decline. Uniquely among other species, humans have had a dramatic and globally reaching negative impact upon the number of and abundance of many species.

Many scientists have suggested we are entering the sixth great extinction, a man made loss of species at rates equal to exceeding other great global extinctions we can see in the geological record. Current extinction rates are between 100 and 1000 times the ‘natural’ background rate. Some have suggested this new epoch should be called the Anthropocene.

What is causing this decline? There are a number of interrelated factors, often grouped under the acronym HIPPO (increasing in importance from left to right).

  • Habitat loss – the loss, destruction or large scale disturbance and modification of habitats through clearance for agriculture or development or through fire, modifies ecosystems and removes space and opportunities for species to live.
  • Invasive species. Human actions, primarily through trade, or development and population of uninhabited areas helps move plants and animals deliberately or accidentally into areas where they have no inherent predators or other control mechanisms and where consequently they disrupt and damage local ecosystems.
  • Pollution – the widest form of pollution impact is through greenhouse gases causing global warming and moving climate ‘envelopes’. Other types of pollution including industrial chemicals, oil spills, plastic particles and pesticides interfere with physiological and biochemical processes and poison and weaken organisms and their ability to successfully reproduce.
  • Population – or more precisely the impact of human populations as a driver of the above impacts, is growing as consumption and the related production impacts grow, requiring land use change, land for growing food and further disturbance.
  • Over-harvesting occurs when stocks/populations of species are harvested at a greater rate than they can replenish. Different wild fish stocks provide key examples.

Why is it a problem for us?

People, companies and governments often tacitly acknowledge the importance of biodiversity but struggle to make it a priority. Like many other environmental issues this at least in part due to the complexity of the issues and their possible solutions. While there is a crisis with respect to geological and evolutionary timescales this is more difficult to understand and translate into human timescales.

To put it simply biodiversity is a metaphor and an indicator for the natural vitality of life on earth. And earth is our habitat – our only home. Something is going very wrong with where we live and we need to take more notice and (more importantly) more action.

Despite studying the biology of our planet for several hundred years (at least in western science) we still know woefully little about what other life we share the planet with. We still don’t really know how many species there are on earth. The table below headlines what we know using the (normally maligned – but not in this case) Rumsfeld framework:

Known knowns 1.2 million species
Known unknowns 8.7 million species*
Unknown unknowns Whatever doesn’t fit our models and assumptions

* eukaryotes (single or multicellular organisms, their cells have a membrane bound nucleus). Nature 2011

These estimates suggest that a staggering 86% of land species and 91% of marine species remain undiscovered. A further, more worrying, implication is that given the accelerated extinction rates of the Anthropocene, it is highly probable that we are causing the extinction of species before they have been discovered.

Not just for nature lovers

OK – so it’s complicated and we know that our knowledge has gaps, but why does this matter? The main problem outside the field of ecology is one of value – and management. Biodiversity at some level (a level we are struggling to fully understand) is vital to life on earth and we need to value and protect what is important.

It also has another critical dimension – biodiversity loss is generally irreversible.

Because of its importance and the fact that the main pressures upon biodiversity stem from industrial production processes, poverty, globalization and social injustice, the solutions must be enacted by a far larger group than biodiversity savvy ecologists or biologists.

Biodiversity & ecosystems – bridging the knowledge gaps

Because we don’t even know how many species there are, it is difficult or impossible to assess how much diversity we can lose while maintaining the ecosystem services we rely upon for survival.

Our knowledge is incomplete; biodiversity encompasses the twin components of unknown variety and unknown value.

Yet despite this lack of knowledge we understand some important principles:

  • We share our origins, DNA and environment with other species – they are part of our ecology/we are part of theirs’.
  • Our ecological understanding is incomplete; we don’t yet know what the implications of modifying species abundance and distribution globally will be on the operation of ecosystems and the ‘products’ and ‘services’ they provide to us.
  • Species provide a valuable genetic resource, to support viable populations of species and for human exploitation.
  • Removing species from earth now and for the future represents a massive future ‘opportunity cost’

The ecosystem approach has been developed as a model and a metaphor to help build understanding of, and provide a framework for, the value the environment has for humans. This is of course vitally important, after all it’s us that’s causing all the damage. However, this is a very anthropocentric view and should be recognised as such.

The arguments above are utilitarian and based upon enlightened self-interest. Some argue that biodiversity, nature also has:

  • an intrinsic value, apart from human existence and values; and that
  • humans have a stewardship responsibility, based upon our unique position of power and/or a spiritual/religious basis to preserve and maintain life.

Whether justifications reside in either or both of these categories, there are compelling practical and moral reasons to act.

The need for dramatic action

We need a more sophisticated approach to our understanding of biological value, more strongly related to its intrinsic ecological value and to its functional value to us as a species. We are likely to need ecosystems with what may currently be described as perhaps low to medium biodiversity that provide us with food, fuel and other materials. In densely populated landscapes such as Europe, these will provide a range of benefits to humans and the natural environment. They are likely to offer more niches, structural and spatial heterogeneity than current intensive agricultural systems – and hence greater biodiversity. They are likely to be more resilient to climate and other disruptions while providing greener, more pleasant, places to live for us and the other species we share the landscape with.

However, we have no idea if this approach goes far enough. To paraphrase E. O. Wilson from his UK address at St Paul’s Cathedral (2014):

We are playing with the very stuff of life without understanding what it is or its value to us or the rest of life on earth”.

To meet long-term sustainability and human development goals we will need to grow more food and further develop industrial supply lines based upon biological inputs rather than less sustainable mineral based inputs.

Perhaps it’s time to return to E.O. Wilson and his conclusions based upon a lifetime of study and contemplation. His vision and solution is clear, if ambitious. He suggests that half the world should be available to humans and the other half to the other 8 million species. At first this sounds unbelievably radical and hugely impractical. But it is based upon sound logic (“never has the precautionary principle been more important”) and provides an inspiring vision. If we want to meet long term human development goals we must do so on a healthy planet and one that we can share with the other 8 million plus species of unknown future value to us and the stability of our ecosystem. We have to reinvest in our home and our integral place within it rather than considering ourselves utterly apart.

Questions for a sustainable world

“A prudent question is one half of wisdom.”

Francis Bacon

What’s it all about?

The quest for a sustainable future is all about questions. Some are big and some are small. Some are about the nature and purpose of our systems of value, and some about how we value our loved ones. Sometimes the smallest questions have the biggest answers.Questions questions

Human beings are good at asking questions. We start off very good indeed.

Children’s ability and commitment to asking questions often outstrips our ability to answer them. This is not merely that an incessant stream of ‘why?’ questions is tiring, it’s also that some of the time we genuinely don’t know the answers to the questions we are asked or are unprepared to deal with their true implications.

As we grow up, we often keep questioning, but the scope of those questions can narrow due to the practical need to balance a sense of wonder with passing an exam or earning an income. We still question aspects of life but often these become more about the details and less about the overall purpose. This ‘bounded rationality’, keeps our questions within a less examined frame of reference and is one of the challenges our species faces in breaking away from unsustainable ways of being and creating new ones that may differ slightly or radically.

Some questions demand answers

“I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”

Arthur C. Clarke

In essence, sustainability is about one of two things; doing the same things very differently or doing very different things.

Maintaining our status-quo commits us to a collision course with the very real limits to possibility on this wonderful though populous planet.

To follow a path to sustainability we need to ask and then answer some fundamental questions of economics, finance, culture and business. Not just “can we do business with less impact?” but “how do we connect finance with a flourishing future in the first place?

Over previous centuries immense logic and ingenuity have been applied in the creation of our systems of value and enterprise. However, we face challenges which require a rejuvenation of our thinking because the logic of the past often falls short of the obstacles of the future.

Unless we ask the big questions “What is the point of capitalism?” and “How do we value a sustainable future?” we will be unlikely to find answers which meet the scale of the challenge.

The current rules of the game for capitalism are undermining its own long-term existence. Any game includes winners and losers, creativity, luck, cooperation and competition, and should do so in order to deliver creativity, innovation and the chance of individual and collective choice, reward and well-being.

Changing the rules of the game such that capitalism seeks to deliver sustainability wouldn’t affect the range of possible outcomes and types of choices within the game. Indeed it would guarantee that we all had more chance to play for longer, and indeed might guarantee that more of us might ‘win’.

Whatever will be, will be

“If single human beings — if one single rickety infant — can be born as it were by accident and die futile, why not the whole race?”

H. G. Wells

Towards 9 Billion asks some big questions about the nature of things and some naïve questions as to whether things must be as they are.

Humans tend to love and despise systems in equal measure. The systems of economics, capitalism and enterprise which surround and drive us are required and beloved but also feared and doubted.

Our writing is intended to present and explore new ideas and hopefully provide some inspiration about how we might think differently about a sustainable future and the route to achieving it.

  • Why do our systems of value and production function as they do and might they be capable of becoming truly planetarily compatible?
  • How can our markets give rise to behaviour so perverse that it’s in no one’s interest to leave them untouched?
  • Might there be a larger purpose behind these systems and might we aspire to more human approaches for the good our home and our species?
  • Do our current systems of value contain the seeds of the next ones?
  • Must profit for one always mean loss for another?
  • Must we learn to leave behind our expectations of linear cause and effect in an increasingly changeable world?
  • How do we move to a positive sum economy, where common good and private interest naturally align?

Coming soon – Towards 9 Billion book series

Such questions are at the heart of this blog.

In order to add a little weight to the questions we pose, and also some of the answers we suggest, we are packaging a range of our writing over the last few years into a series of short, free E-books, to be available in 2016.Whats the point book cover

 

Here are just some of the kind things people have said about our work:

Big ideas for massive challenges: Terrafiniti’s Towards 9 Billion provides a wide range of solution-oriented perspectives on the prospect – often seen as daunting – of accommodating 9 billion people within the remits of our one planet.

David Nussbaum, Chief Executive, WWF-UK

Towards 9 Billion addresses the critical issues that face our planet in the 21st century, from business and economics to sustainable energy and technology. I love its wide-ranging intelligence, lucid prose and interdisciplinary approach to scoping a new economics for our age.

Jane Gleeson-White, author of “Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism has to have – or can accountants save the planet?

With this series of e-books, Terrafiniti continue to not only pose the most important questions of our time – namely, how do we sustain and thrive on a planet of 9 billion people – but also propose some fantastic ideas as to how we might do just that. A must read for anybody interested in where the planet is headed – and finding solutions to our most pressing challenges.

Jeremy Leggett, author, environmentalist, activist and solar pioneer

 Sowing the seeds of a sustainable world?

Just as plants and animals broadcast seed and progeny in vast numbers in the hope that some will survive and flourish, we hope that our ideas might have the chance to do the same; to find receptive places in which to thrive.

We hope that our writing and the books might play a small but useful role in imagining and building a future fit for people and the planet.

If you would like to be notified when they are published please get in touch.

 

Blog-contact-us

Against a dark background – the limits of certainty

 

“Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. It always defeats order, because it is better organised.”

Terry Pratchett. Thief of Time

Through a glass, darkly

Certainty and predictability are fundamental elements for any planning process, and utterly vital for economic and investment decisions.Tunnel Vision

However, the scale and scope of ecological and social disruption envisaged by many reliable organisations and institutions over the coming decades raise some hard questions (see these from the Strategic Foresight Group) about how well humanity will fare in the coming decades.

The coming decades may result in new limits to certainty. Put simply, in a fast changing world, the assumptions that have steered us to where we are now are increasingly ill-suited for guiding our pathway forward.

The increasing dissonance between how far we can see, what we see when we look and how far we are planning, manifests in two dimensions:

  • Firstly, the divergence between the future that many studies show is coming – of restricted resources, competition for food and water, unstable climate and social disruption – and the future that we are currently planning for – a continuation of business as usual, and:
  • Secondly, the impacts that a “business as usual trajectory” has upon the predictability of the future. This is a feedback loop. The more we ignore the need for change the less predictable the change we will be forced into undertaking will be.

The first category was highlighted recently by no lesser figure than the Governor of the Bank of England, not a role usually held by a scaremonger or Jeremiah. In a speech to the World Bank in December 2014, Mark Carney highlighted what he called a “tragedy of horizons”, an emerging dissonance between recognisable problems with clear future implications and the adequate integration of the risks into corporate planning, financial valuation and risk analysis. This means that the value of companies today is calculated without enough reference to the fundamental contextual challenges that they will face in the future.

A simple expression of this challenge would be a car heading to a business meeting hurtling off the road and towards a ravine. Meanwhile, inside, the passengers discuss how rich the deal they are (still) planning to execute will make them.

This mismatch of ambition and likely outcome was categorised by Mark Carney as a “market failure”. I have previously categorised it (with wilful understatement) as a “Restraint of Future Trade”.

The second category is somewhat more difficult to get your head around, because it requires us to acknowledge and come to terms with just how much we don’t know, and furthermore don’t understand, about the world, its complexity and the limits of reliable prediction.

A light in the darkness – the Lyapunov exponent

 “…no gluing together of partial studies of a complex nonlinear system can give a good idea of the behavior of the whole.”

Murray Gell-Mann

Don’t despair though! There is a useful (if only in a metaphorical sense) tool that might help to navigate such a murky future.

It is called the Lyapunov exponent. For those of us that are not advanced mathematicians or who, when faced with a page of algebraic equations shrug and say “It’s all Greek to me” it can be simply expressed as follows:

The Lyapunov exponent is a means by which to predict, in a chaotic system, the limits of certainty – the “distance” beyond which forecasting is either inadequate, unlikely or likely to be just plain wrong.

Our world appears to be pretty predictable, the sun comes up every morning (unless you are at the Poles), spring comes around every year (unless you are on the Equator) and so on.

Yet at levels of detail our world is a chaotic system. Not in the sense that anything can happen at any time, but in the very specific sense that the complexity of the natural world (including animate and inanimate systems; life, energy and matter) interact with each other at such extreme and unmappable levels of complexity that they are essentially chaotic. Stated simply, the natural world exhibits complexity beyond our currently relatively crude understanding of cause and effect relationships.

In physics, chaos is defined as:

“the property of a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.”

 Chaos and order – a false dichotomy?

 “There are different kinds of rules. From the simple comes the complex, and from the complex comes a different kind of simplicity. Chaos is order in a mask…”

Terry Pratchett. Thief of Time

A strict delineation between a wanted and an unwanted state, of order and chaos, is perhaps too binary to match up to the nature of our reality. The Holocene has provided our species levels of predictability that we have interpreted too simply, and upon which we have built yet more simplistic, inchoate models of the nature of reality. Each step masking the innate and fundamental complexity of the place where we dwell.

This simplification has allowed us to feel falsely certain about the real nature of existence – that nature and physical systems on our planet are never and have never been either merely ordered or chaotic but are a mix of one giving rise to the other and vice versa.

This combination of certainty and uncertainty can be described as chaordic (a portmanteau term “coined” by Dee Hock, the founder of VISA). Facing up to a chaordic reality gives rise to a need for us to develop not only better ways of shining a light through the darkness – a Lyapunov torch perhaps – but also a different, more intuitive and less organised approach to planning and exploring an uncertain future.

The term chaordic is really trying to reflect that “chaos” is not the opposite of order, and that “ordered” or relatively predictable outcomes or conditions emerge from the complexity of fundamentally chaotic systems. These outcomes can be termed ‘emergent properties’ – aspects or characteristics that arise through complex interactions which are produced reliably enough to be capable of being considered as predictable until or unless circumstances change. Such properties have been defined as follows “An emergent property of an ecological unit is one which is wholly unpredictable from observation of the components of that unit” (George W. Salt, The American Naturalist, Vol 113, No 1. Jan. 1979).

A hard dichotomy between chaos and order is too simplistic – it is from the functional chaos of our massive complex and interdependent world that elements of predictability and order emerge. However the more we change the properties of our system, through physical interventions in ecosystems and changes to the balance of our atmosphere, water and soil systems the less predictable and reliable the properties that emerge from these systems will be. Our current civilisation has thrived because of the relative predictability and stability of the systems we depend upon. Changing the equilibrium of these systems will change the outcomes of their interactions – possibly in ways we can ill afford and predict.

Put simply, it will become increasingly difficult, unless we start to add to the quality and resilience of the ecosystems we depend upon, to rely on our ability to predict the future.

The limits to Assumptions

Given that the threshold of predictable emergence may be getting closer to us by the year and the chaotic nature of our planet is a simple and unavoidable fact, isn’t it time for us to develop systems of value and prioritisation which recognise rather than ignore the limits of uncertainty?

Our current systems of value derive from classical economics, which was developed in a time when natural resources could easily be considered as free goods and the planet as effectively infinite.

The fundamental tenets upon which classical economics is based, though venerable, remain at the heart of economic theory. They are no more right or really useful for helping our species navigate the physical world than they were when they emerged from the thinking of Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill or the other pioneers and thinkers in this area (for a simple exploration of the thinkers, theories and assumptions see this overview). The difference is that now we are running out of headroom for them being as wrong as they are.

Stated simplistically, the tenets of classical economics (and therefore the bedrock of our systems of value) are as follows:

  • Ceteris parabus – that everything else is equal.
  • That economic actors take action in the light of perfect market knowledge.
  • That economic actors behave rationally.

For a discussion of these, see this discussion of the main assumptions of economic theories.

Recognising the limits to our certainty starkly reveal (as if it isn’t already obvious) that none of the above assumptions actually hold true in any real sense. The market is merely a subset of the physical system it operates within. Since we do not fully comprehend the properties and interactions of the system, perfect market knowledge is impossible. In a market which is dependent upon inflows from functioning natural systems (resources, air, water etc.) then everything is transparently not equal – some things are much more equal than others.

Finally, if rationality were a characteristic of economic behaviour then market bubbles would be unknown, we would not price and prioritise the availability of dirty energy over that of a functioning climate and preserving the quality and availability of toilets would be more important than the availability of mobile phones.

The future’s so dark…..

“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

Sherwood Rowland

The utility of the Lyapunov exponent in the context of our planet’s future could be to provide us with a clear idea of where the threshold of predictability lies. To project our gaze towards this threshold. Towards when, over the coming decades, all bets will essentially be off and when any investment predicted to perform beyond that time threshold could be classed as junk.

Beyond an indication of the unpredictability threshold, it might be used as a metric to tell us how we are getting on in extending that threshold away from the present.

Other such approaches exist to indicate our proximity to system-wide tipping points. The most famous is the Doomsday Clock. This initiative of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has, since 1947, assembled a prediction of “how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making”. It analyses not just the danger posed by nuclear weapons and atomic energy but also the growing threat of climate change and problematic technologies.

The clock is (in 2015) at three minutes to midnight: “because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.

This is serious stuff. It is not the apocalyptic predictions of depressives in darkened rooms, but the sober analyses of engaged and intelligent scientists.

In addition, organisations have constructed scenarios based upon the logical possibilities arising from current and likely future trends. Many of these are from reputable and sober organisations not given to wild speculation and doom mongering, such as the WBCSD, the World Economic Forum and the US Department of National Intelligence (DNI). The best scenarios in my opinion are those produced by the Global Scenario Group.

Not one of the scenarios noted above predict a smooth transition to a sustainable world without fundamental, deliberate, planned change being undertaken. Each one, to varying degrees, predicts significant disruption to economic and social conditions over the coming decades. The scale of such disruption is magnified by each year in which the scale of coming resource, water, climate, energy, consumption challenges and changing demographic power dynamics are effectively ignored by our economic and political systems.

Pretty much anyone who stares too long into the future we are currently on course for feels at least a frisson of fear. However, such analyses, of either our proximity to catastrophe or the diminishing predictability of the coming decades, seems to have no real effect upon our systems of value or production.

We just keep on valuing fossil fuel firms as though they were companies of the future rather than of the present-past and demanding consumption-based growth irrespective of physical limits.

 A Lyapunov torch…shining a light on uncertainty

 “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”

Alan Turing

If the future is too dark to see clearly we need to grow our ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, to design systems and processes that are capable of flexibility, multiple redundancy and of changing tack when the wind (or the climate) changes. Of course such capabilities are hardwired into nature already, it’s just that we seem to have decided we can transcend such approaches through the linear power of our rationality.

Taking the Lyapunov exponent as an inspiration, we need a torch to light the darkness ahead as much as a clock to tell us how late it has got.

We need to be able to consistently assess and expand the limits of our ability to predict and forecast and, beyond that, we perhaps also need a Lyapunov torch to reveal the reality of our chaordic system.

The survival of our species in uncertain times will likely be because we have used our outstanding capacity for flexibility in the face of adversity to adjust to this ever-present but newly rediscovered uncertainty. To reconfigure our systems of value, production and consumption in the light of the fact that nothing stays the same forever.

The simplified picture of the world that was developed which delivered the industrialisation of the last 200 years may well fall to pieces in the face of systemic disruption to our physical and economic certainties.

Whether our massively interdependent civilisations will fall down with it depends upon our ability to perceive the limits to our certainty, and to embrace the uncertainty that has always been there.

A Lyapunov torch might be a valuable tool to help us see beyond ourselves through the coming darkness of the future. To shine a light into the chaos that surrounds and nurtures our existence.

 

This concept at the heart of this piece was inspired by Alastair Reynolds’ stupendous novel On the Steel Breeze, which introduced me to the Lyapunov exponent in the first place. In addition, I would also like to give huge thanks to Lois Guthrie and Alain Ruche – who each kindly lent constructive ideas and input to navigate the tangle and chaos of my own making in early drafts of this piece as well as firm ideas on the navigation of complexity. Other thanks of course go to Iain M. Banks for a title to borrow.

Contact Terrafiniti