Layered Societies

Complexity, Energy, and Sustainable Layered Societies

These notes and ideas came out of consideration of sustainable societies and their relationship with planetary boundaries.

Sustainability vs Social Justice

I have had the opportunity over the past few years to correspond with some very creative and deeply thoughtful people on the topic of sustainability.  I found myself, due to my study of the ModEco sustainable society (The PMM), to be somewhat at odds with them on one particular issue.  They argued that a sustainable society must, of necessity, also be a just society.  I, on the other hand, have come to the conclusion that sustainability and social justice are largely incompatible goals, unless the dynamics of each are fully understood, and radical trade-offs accepted.  

My argument goes like this.  A population living at the carrying capacity of its ecosystem experiences a very harsh reality: Of every pair of organisms, only two get to live to maturity and reproduce.  In such a dog-eat-dog world, social justice is a luxury that none could enjoy.  Social justice of many kinds requires a society that limits it population to numbers well below the carrying capacity.  There would need to be strict controls on reproductive rights, strict protections on both non-renewable and renewable resources, and strict controls on access thereto.  And, that would only be the beginning of it.

Ultimately, the discussion was diarized in a number of notes that I present here.  Many of these files are draft, or incomplete.  I hope to return to them some day, but not now.

2012 Whiteman - Planetary Boundaries and Corporate Sustainability.pdf

This was not authored by me, but I include it here as a downloadable file because it is a wonderful discussion of a difficult topic, and because it includes almost five pages of bibliographic references on the topic of sustainability in general, and corporate sustainability in particular.  But, more importantly, it addresses sustainability in the light of the planetary boundaries and our currently over-extended ecological footprint of 1.6 Earths.  This is, decidedly, a VERY biophysical approach to the issue of corporate sustainability.

140719 NTF Definition of Sustainability.doc

One of my correspondents issued a kind of friendly challenge.  He asked that I define what I mean by 'sustainable'.  This diary note contains my response.  The development is fairly long.  The final few paragraphs are copied here:

Sustainable, or sustainability – For me, a sustainable society is a society existing in a greatly reduced anthroposphere which is globally sustainable biophysically and socially across many generations, has many of the characteristics of a modern society, including reasonable quality of life enjoyed by a large percentage of the population, but is restrained by knowledge of natural social dynamics and knowledge of natural planetary limits as encoded in a new secular faith system. Such a society will have a radically different definition of moral behaviour, a radically different concept of acceptable economic behaviour, and a radically different understanding of personal rights and responsibilities, all realigned with goals of long-term sustainability.

This definition is somewhat long-winded, but it contains an outline of the problems that must be solved, as well as a template that can be used to evaluate when it has been achieved. Nevertheless, it still has some of the quality of ‘motherhood and apple pie’ found in the Brundtland definition. It does not say, for example, how these ‘radically different’ characteristics can be defined or attained. But, it does point out in more detail (a) that we must reduce the anthroposphere somehow; (b) that we need to study social dynamics and planetary limits; (c) that we need to solve the problems of social instability; (d) that we need to develop and promulgate a new secular faith system; (e) that we need a new economic theory; and (e) that we need a new approach to understanding personal rights and responsibilities.

So, I think it is a practical definition in the sense that it lays out a program of academic study and social change needed to attain sustainability. But, unfortunately, it is not a ‘sound byte’. 

140719 NTF Neil's History.docx

Again, this note was not authored by me, but it provides a wonderful idea of the background of discussion of which I was pleased to be a part.  This is a brief email exchange between two of my email correspondents.  It addresses the question of corporate and financial behaviours, and their effects.

140719 NTF Social Phase Changes R2.docx

In this email exchange, which was happening at the same time as the above email exchange, we discuss the nature of social 'phase changes', and the idea that such common and well-understood physical phenomena as phase changes, self-organized criticality (SOC), and percolation also have counterpart phenomena in social and economic settings. 

140721 NTF Principles of Biophysical Economics.docx

This is an outline of a note I started to write, and discovered I didn't really have the depth of knowledge to complete.  As I continue my studies, I may advance that knowledge.  I understand that some of the guru's in the field have already written an official paper of this type, but I have been unable to find it, and so, started my own collection of ideas.  If anyone can point me in the direction of such a document, please, inform me.  I suspect that many of the notes and files collected on this page contain ideas that would be appropriate for inclusion or discussion in such a document, but, as I said, it proved to be beyond my abilities and knowledge.

140725 EMail Garvin to Neil - Models, Services, and Money R2.docx

This is a diary note I wrote to preserve an email exchange on the topic of economic models, valuation of services, and the role of currency.  It was a wide-ranging and thought-provoking discussion.

140725 Email Re Piketty, Wealth distributions, Entropy.docx

In this email I briefly mention an article about Piketty's book and mention my views on it's importance.  I also mention my concern that he has overlooked the causative effects of fossil fuel consumption.

140729 NTF Layered Societies R1.5.docx

140729 PPT Layered Societies R1.5.pptx

These two files, the note and the supporting graphics, are where I try to bring it all together.  Much of this was directly borrowed from authors I admire, such as CAS Hall, but it is put together in my own way.  My first version of these were sent out for comment early in July, and the comments were incorporated in this version.  I still consider these draft, but they nevertheless represent a serious attempt to consolidate a variety of concepts that I consider important.

The five energy bands in the slide on the right correspond to the five layers of energy consumption in a long-term sustainable society, shown in the slides below.

Here is the table of contents from the NTF:


Layered structure of a sustainable modern-but-just society 1

References: 2

Purpose 2

Description of Slides 3

  • Slide #1 – Title slide 4
  • Slide #2 – Defining the Arena of Interest 6
  • Slide #3 – A Pre-Modern Simple Society at Carrying Capacity 8
  • Slide #4 – Our Modern Unsustainable Society in the First Half of the Age of Oil 11
  • Slide #5 – A Sustainable Modern Society in the Post-Oil Age 14
  • Slide #6 – A Sustainable and Just Modern Society in the “Post-Oil Age” 17
  • Slide #7 – A Sustainable and Just Modern Society in the "Post-Oil Age" 21

After Slide #7 – So Now What? 21

ANNEX 1 – Some Background Ideas 23

  • Entropy As I See It 23
  • Anthroposphere 27
  • Biosphere 31
  • Sources and Types of Energy 32
  • The phenomenon of the 20th Century 34
  • Social Justice 36
  • Bringing These Ideas Together 37
  • Mathematical Models? 41

I believe that the only means to establish deep long-term sustainability in the world is to understand the dynamics of energy consumption, its strong correlation with the complexity of society, and the need to ration energy consumption in line with our long-term social goals.  This implies the need to manage the complexity of society at four levels, in the context of five allocated streams of energy consumption.

The five energy consumption layers seen above correspond to the five layers of society shown here.

  •  At the bottom green layer is the energy consumption associated with the direct biophysical needs of people, including food, clothes, shelter.  
  • The next grey layer is split into two: 
  • The energy consumption needs to provide infrastructure for business to support the green layer.
  • The energy consumption needs to provide infrastructure necessities in support of quality of life issues.
  • The red layer is the fourth layer of energy consumption in society, and it represents the energy demands that are associated with maintaining a state of social justice on a global scale.
  • Finally, in recognition of the lack of knowledge about planetary boundaries, and in recognition of the lack of control of mankind at many times in history, the top layer in a band of energy consumption reserved for emergencies.  

The very top light green layer is the energy band that must be allocated to that portion of the biosphere that is outside of and independent of the anthroposphere.  This is the energy band that keeps the life support systems of the Earth functioning.  It is currently severely overstrained.

140818 PPR Redef of Anthroposphere R7.1.docx

140818 PPT Redef of Anthroposphere R7.2.pptx

This is a precursor idea to the file on "Layered Societies", but was, in fact, written later.  I really don't know if the ideas contained herein are a necessary adjunct to the arguments there, but I needed to think this through to be sure I wasn't off on a silly track.  (I may still be.  :-)  

The problem, as I see it, is we, humanity, still view the world from an anthropocentric perspective.  Even when we worry about nature, its from the view of what we (humans) are doing to it (nature).  This underlines the idea that we are separate from nature.  But, we are not.  We are, in many ways, just another species evolving along similar tracks that other dominant species have done, in the past.  Dinosaurs pushed up against the carrying capacity of the environment in which they lived, just as we are doing now.  I think that a contextual re-definition of such key concepts as biosphere and anthroposhere will help to resolve this problem of perspective.

To get here, I defined a concept that I call a 'phenosphere' which might be considered the environment that interacts with a phenotype.  If humanity is a phenotype, then the anthroposphere is merely another phenosphere.  If that is the case, then a study of how phenoshperes depend on each other, and interact with each other, and destroy each other, such a study would teach us how to live sustainably in the world.

Last updated: January 2015.