The First Criterion for Sustainability – the Energy Survey

Introduction

The first of the Three Criteria is that humanity may not use more resources than the Earth can renew each year, and it is no coincidence it’s the first. After all, if we use more than our planet can renew each year we will be creeping towards a Mass Extinction Event (MXE) no matter how many sustainable technologies we are implementing and how little CO2 we are releasing.

One question does however arise; At what point do we use more than what the Earth can renew?

There are several studies conducted both by national, international and non-governmental bodies which outline our usage rate of different resources, based on available data. Sadly, it can be said that these surveys generally fail to receive access to the resources which they need, and also do not gain the wide public attention they so richly deserve. Nevertheless, they represent an important step in the right direction.

Before we can install an ecological budget ceiling we need to know approximately how much resources which are available on a global level. If there is one aspect of the EOS design which is absolutely, critically essential for the future of Humanity, that would be the one.

In today’s world, it is absolutely paramount that we install a surveillance system capable of continuously surveying our Civilization’s resource usage and its environmental impact on our planet. We need to give up the illusion there is something called “a free lunch” and realise that whatever we are doing, ecosystems will be affected.

That is but one of the reasons why we desperately need to consciously minimise our impact.

TL;DR

  • The current crisis in the world is primarily a resource usage crisis.
  • This crisis is manifesting in an ecological budget deficit.
  • This deficit will lead to a MXE if not reversed.
  • If we want to live sustainably, we will need to establish an ecological budget ceiling.
  • This budget ceiling must be based on the planetary carrying capacity and determine how much resources and – in the long term – surface that we may utilise for the purpose of Humanity.
  • We need to determine this budget ceiling using the scientific method, with basis in criteria which can be objectively verified.
  • There are several methods to determine the resource usage on the planet.
  • The principle we have chosen to look at closer is derived from the concept of the energy survey.
  • This concept is a continuous process, which is meant to be an on-going investigation and tracking of resource capacity and resource flows.
  • This process is meant to gather data which defines the constraints within which our civilization on Earth may operate.
  • This process must be continuously fine-tuned within the perimeters established by scientific consensus.
Credit: Global Footprint Network

How the crisis manifests

The current crisis has two aspects – pollution and surface over-usage.

When most people think about environmental problems, they usually think of the first phenomenon. Particle emissions have a negative local and regional impact, and the release of fossilised greenhouse gasses perils human civilization as we know it. Other examples of damaging by-products are for example chemicals leaking out where they should not be, hormones from medicines polluting freshwater reservoirs and tire rubber infecting trees. In general, people tend to have an instinctual understanding of why this is having a negative impact.

The understanding of our surface impact is sadly more difficult to convey to the masses, partially because pollution often leaves visible tracks, while the aberrations caused by the surface usage are invisible to a large extent. Everyone could see and smell if a once clear and blue lake now is covered by slimy green algae, but the gradual disappearance of pollinating insects, the continuous retreat of natural ecosystems, the destructions of soils and freshwater reservoirs go unnoticed and are more difficult to comprehend. To some extent this is also true for CO2 emissions, whereas one big chemical plant may poison a river, the on-going release of fossilised carbon into the climate cycle remains a de-centralised distributed process, where each little car provides a minuscule amount but the billions of cars are having a profound impact.

Ultimately, around between 33% and 40% of the Earth’s land surface is utilised for the purpose of industrial monocultures, which has an incredibly degrading effect on soils and freshwater reservoirs. Coupled with the reliance of fossil-based fertilisers and pesticides this does not bode well for sustainability in the future. Even if renewable technologies are available, the unsustainable methodologies still grow faster and wider in scope, and quite often even if new and more efficient technologies are introduced, they actually worsen the environmental impact by making exploitation more available (Jevons’ Paradox).

Similar data exists for all ecosystems affected by our linear resource usage system. Trawling has damaged oceanic ecosystems. Urban sprawl has created light pollution which affects nocturnal ecosystems badly. Vast areas of forests are being cleared each year, leading to a deficit of trillions of trees. Our civilization seems to be a super-organism, hell-bent on slowly covering the planet’s surface in its web.

An ecological budget ceiling?

Often, you hear different numbers – that we are reaching Earth Overshoot Day earlier and earlier each year, that to be sustainable our planet would have to be 1,4 times larger than it is. This data is derived from the Global Footprint Network, a Euro-American think tank which produces global biocapacity studies derived from tens of thousands of control points each year. An ecological footprint here is defined as the quantity of nature it takes to sustain populations and economies. The carbon footprint is determining the cost by converting the data according to the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon, which is a narrower methodology, while other institutes are measuring the impact with other methodologies. According to Post Carbon Institute, the average human being is using “2,7 global hectares of bioproductive land and water”, while only 2,1 should be sustainably available, thus overshooting by circa 30%.

The Earth Organisation for Sustainability is calling for a global, ecological budget ceiling which would constrain the amount of surface which can be utilised for purposes related to the human civilization, to the point where we can secure the long-term resilience and feasibility of human activity on the planet. This means that measurements of Earth’s carrying capacity should become the central core tenet of any future world economy and establish the constraints within which we may act. This is so essential that we define it as the first criterion for achieving sustainability; and that should be a no-brainer!

When we talk about an ecological budget ceiling, we are not talking about morality – about urging the consumers to choose right. We are talking of a global limit of what might be extracted by producers, over the entire planet.

Yes, that is currently a Utopian concept, but sadly for our era everything which would put our civilization on a truly sustainable path would be considered politically unfeasible – thence Utopian. The concept of an ecological budget ceiling must, as long as we are having a technologically advanced industrial civilization on the planet, be the foundation of our resource extraction parameters.

Credit: renewablechoice.com

The Energy Survey methodology

The foundation of the Energy Survey will be that each continent, region, locality and community should be equipped with the tools to conduct a continuous, automated survey of all the vital ecological systems in their geographic areas, as well as the energy and resource usage of all available machinery. In short, both the biosphere and the technosphere should be put under thorough, continuous and vigilant surveillance.

This data acquisition would either be conducted by individuals in each community tasked with monitoring the relevant information fractals, by automated computerised systems, by academic institutions, by departments or by a combination of some or all of the aforementioned. It will be poured into a global information hub which will be available through the Internet or equivalent information technology platforms which may hypothetically supplant it. Within the framework of this hub, all economic operations conducted by humanity on the planet Earth would be analysed from various different perspectives – but most notably from an energy perspective, and then specifically regarding the exergy and emergy aspects of resource flows. This conversion of information would provide the public and the technate with a frame of reference from which decisions can be derived. The information provided would contain all types of operations, industrial and agricultural, ecological and non-ecological – all being measured with the same parameters, their impact on the ecosystems analysed from a long-term energy perspective.

Who will control this extensive databank?

Ultimately, both for the purpose of data acquisition and transparency, the control must be distributed and intermediate.

Conducting and controlling the Survey

There are three reasons for distributing the control over the Energy Survey.

  • Assembling and registering millions of data points every month cannot be maintained efficiently by one centralised structure, which would need to exist parallel to all economic operations.
  • It will reduce the risk of errors if all information is available for peer reviews and for verifiable correction of flawed information by the communities involved.
  • It will significantly reduce the risk of any political or technological faction exerting totalitarian control, as well as the perception of that being the case.
  • Which actors would then be able to take part of the data as well as contributing to it? By necessity there would need to be at least six groupings which influence the Survey in different or similar manners.
  • The Public: Each citizen would be able to introduce input which will be subject to peer review and which would be approved or discarded judged by evidence (for example if an individual is noticing that someone is storing liquid fuel in the forest or shooting beavers and omitting to report it). So much information as possible about resource flows should also be available for the public. The Survey would also – more importantly (see the article on Energy Accounting) be the foundation for the market economy, affecting the cost of all products and services which the individual citizen would like to allocate energy units to. The Public would also use the data of the Survey to be able to make political decisions about resource allocation.
  • Production Facilities: Or Holons. Each Holon would be responsible for reporting all vital data on its own resource usage to the Survey, and would of course also have available special data sheets seeing its own resource usage over time.
  • Communities: Local communities would both be responsible to report vital data of the resource usage of their utilities and public buildings, as well as to report future projects and conservation efforts. The Survey would also be available to provide a basis for planning and allocating collective resources. Communities would also potentially have their own teams responsible for developing, improving and fine-tuning the Energy Survey locally in order to make it better reflect the economic reality.
  • Academic Institutions: Ecologists, geophysicists, geologists and other scientists would form teams which would serve in boards which establish reference points and conduct peer reviews, and would also – in case things are unclear – send out field excursions to analyse anomalies which may appear within the Survey. Amongst the coordinators, there must be a certain amount of scientists to validate the findings of the Survey in a transparent and open manner.
  • Technical Institutions: Or rather, nodes. Software technicians, computer programmes, continuous scans and probably thousands of servers will store and manage the assembled data, and provide the graphic interfaces which will allow the public to gain access to easily understood statistical information pertaining to the Survey. The role of these institutions is to ensure that the software of the Survey works efficiently, to protect the data from viruses and to support the platform.
  • The Technate: In reality, both the Facilities/Holons and the Technical Institutions are considered to be parts of the Technate, but the Technate does also – in this model – provide one crucial service, and that is that it uses the results of the Survey to issue Energy Units and distribute them to the Holons, to the Communities and to the Public, for in short the Survey is determining the size of the economy.

We should not discuss any details on the complex networks which are required to make this process work, as they would be dictated by the size of the global resource flows and by our technical capabilities to conduct this Survey at any given point. What can be said, however, is that it probably will be increasingly possible to automate a larger and larger share of this work for every year – which will arise other questions which rather pertain to the autonomy of the community and the individual. I will not delve into that discussion much herein, but instead say that putting all the monitoring of the Earth’s resource flows into the cybernetic chips of an AI God seems like a move towards a massive centralization and subsequent loss of autonomy, as well as running counter to the resiliency and sustainability we want to strive towards.

By EmilisB, DeviantArt

Challenges

A critique often heard against the Energy Survey is that it would be very encompassing and difficult to conduct, yes it will even contribute somewhat to our resource usage on Earth! To that critique, I can say without doubt that it is correct, but that we mean that the Energy Survey is a necessary instrument – and that for several reasons. We can list two of the most important reasons.

  • If you want to have an ecological budget ceiling – which you must want to have if you are in support of sustainability – we need to determine how much resources we can use.
  • The Energy Survey would eliminate much of the need for tiresome political bickering and compromises, and do away with the tradition of random, arbitrary patch-work policies (punish some products, rewarding others based on political preferences). Our goal is to replace perceptions of reality with reality.

You know well the main challenges of instituting a global energy survey which would run for the continued duration of human civilization, right? The fact that we have 190+ more or less independent nation-states, multinational corporations, alliances and a myriad of short-term interests working to maintain an untenable status quo…

Technically, it would be extremely cumbersome to process and analyse such an ocean of data every month of every year, and provide – in as close as real-time as possible – an interactive flowchart and map of the planet’s resources and their usage.

Yes, but who has said that the Survey should be installed in one swoop and emerge in its crystal-clear, final form as Phoenix from the flames? In fact, much like the other aspects of our work, the Survey will most likely emerge gradually if we install it – first with a focus on certain regions and certain raw materials, before the scope incrementally widens. In the beginning it will not necessarily be directly connected to the concept of Energy Accounting either.

This means that the fact that the software algorithms and programmes necessary for the Survey are not developed yet shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem. Rather, there might even be interest amongst agents in today’s civilization to contribute to the development of an Earth Resource Monitor Software, and incentives to innovate the technologies necessary to eventually shift towards the Energy Survey. These innovations will also make the measurements conducted by the Survey gradually more and more accurate, even if the accomplishment of full accuracy is extremely unlikely.

This, the accuracy issue, is another issue of contentment. Since perfection is impossible to achieve, we should not even try, and instead make use of the information patches we currently have to get political compromises where possible and continue down the current trail. That argument, however, should not even be dignified with a  response, since it could well be used as an argument for not minimising traffic deaths or aeroplane accidents, and to not sanitize the water supplies since a hundred percent elimination of parasites is impossible.

What stands clear is that we need an ecological budget ceiling – something akin to an Energy Survey is necessary.

Credit: Dylan Cole

Energy, Exergy and Emergy

Usually, an energy survey studies the energy efficiency of a building and how to save energy when constructing or maintaining infrastructure. Our Energy Survey will treat the entire human civilization’s infrastructure as one integrated super-system. In our opinion, energy is the most useful denominator since it can be labelled the Currency of the Cosmos, which means that the available energy reserves determine what we can utilise.

A rough draft of how we would proceed would look like this:

  • We would measure the total energy capacity currently available on the Earth (exergy), and then subtract the part which is necessary to keep the biosphere ecologically sustainable (that part would constitute the limit for the budget ceiling, and it would be verboten to exceed).
  • We would measure the total energy needed to maintain our technosphere (emergy).
  • We would measure the total amount of energy it will take to extract resources and to compensate for adversarial environmental effects within the scope of our current technological ability (emergy).

This model would provide a few challenges on its own. On a macro level, there can come times when we are forced to exceed the ecological budget ceiling, for example during natural disasters, which is why there ideally should be a buffer (that can also help compensate for inaccuracies in the Survey itself).

One usual critique against Energy Accounting is that different types of energy are using different amounts of labour, and therefore “the value of the energy units would differ between different types of energy”. I have a distinct suspicion that these critics have misinterpreted aspects of the Design, as that argument was aimed at poking holes against the claim (or rather observation) that values in terms of energy are not subjectively defined with that different types of energy have different energy values (while the basic energy units remain the same)! I must admit that argument is quite incomprehensible, and probably arises from a misunderstanding.

However, one aspect of the critique is correct, and that is that sometimes energy efficient ways of managing for example forest reforestation or mining operations would not be available, forcing the people on the ground to rely on less energy efficient methodologies. Moreover, outdoor temperatures, moisture levels, equipment age and similar can affect the amount of energy which is used and on an aggregated level have huge effects. This can be partially alleviated by installing energy measurements into machinery and buildings, which is a necessary aspect of the Energy Survey anyway.

A smart civilization?

The concepts of “smart cities” and “the Internet of Things” are well-known ideas which are gradually being implemented as these words are written. These are, within their own at the moment limited scopes, vastly improving information gathering and to some extent energy usage.

What we want to do ultimately is to scale these concepts to a civilisationary level – because while a smart city would manage the energy within its limits more sustainably, cities today are using land surface from throughout the globe, and the usage of these resources are only measured in terms of the city’s energy cost in managing said flows.

What we need is to interconnect all cities, all the machinery and all the facilities which make up our technosphere, so we can see the extraction of the raw materials, the production of machines and goods, their usage and their effect on the environment in a full scope. While smart cities are a beginning, we must not delude ourselves that is an end point of our discussion.

Smart cities could however serve as a starting point towards the Energy Survey, and regional energy surveys which run continuously and involve relevant institutions, factories, the government and the people would serve as experimental fields which can be studied with the purpose of identifying inherent weaknesses in our current methodologies and systematically eliminate or minimise them as the time passes on.

Time is not on our side however.

Credit: Sam Clayton/Vincent Callebaut

Where we must go

The EOS Design has one area where no compromises are possible, and that area is the Three Criteria. These must be fulfilled so Humanity should be able to thrive sustainably on Earth, and most important of these is the First Criterion – that we do not use more resources than the Earth can renew.

It is very likely that the situation is far more complicated and serious than we even can imagine. Our civilization is currently built on a house of cards of fiat money and debt, and the establishment is currently caught between the Scylla of economic collapse (in case economic growth stalls) and the Charybdis of ecological collapse (in case exponential growth continues unabated).

In order to live within Earth’s carrying capacity, we need to have an ecological budget ceiling.

To have an ecological budget ceiling we must, as objectively and scientifically as possible, determine the planetary carrying capacity.

To do that, we need some form of Survey, and therefore while there might be alternatives to conducting Energy Surveys, we cannot escape the fact that if we are going to have a technological civilization on Earth to sustain billions of human beings while at the same time avert a Sixth Mass Extinction Event, we need to monitor our resource usage, which will require a coordinated global effort to track flows. Energy is simply one methodology which encompasses all systems, especially if we integrate the budget ceiling and make ecological compensation a hallmark of every resource transfer.

The alternative, which we currently are pursuing, is sometimes based on close-to-exact data within limited areas, but equally often on political expediency, which creates random and arbitrary results and lulls the public into believing that whatever it is we have today can survive with the bare minimum of reforms.

We need a deep and radical transition, if Humanity should be able to successfully thrive on Earth for this millennium. If we base our estimates on real data and adapt as the information improves, we stand a real chance to create an equitable future for everyone.

Facebook
Twitter
LinkedIn

You might also enjoy

News

Climatopia

A game about reality Preface: “Climatopia – Bridging the Gap Between Fun and Learning” “A Journey from a Substitute Teacher’s Classroom to a Vision for

Read More »

Collapse

Introduction Collapse is highly probable out come given our current socioeconomic system. If we want to avoid a collapse, or failing that, be able to

Read More »