Thursday, October 24, 2013

Systems Ecology

William Henry Sharp
 Copyright © October 24, 2013

Abstract:  We have an ethical mandate to rebuild our world into a way of life that will sustain the human species into the far distant future.  There are a number of tools that could allow us to design and build a sustainable human ecosystem, a system that coexists within the planetary biosphere.  These tools include the idea of a human ecosystem – a community ecosystems – a part of the emerging field of ecosystems science, general systems theory upon which it was founded, and other major derivatives such as permaculture, pattern language and Fuller’s synergetics.

These tools are only a beginning.  We must systemize them, create training and educational programs, develop leadership, reorganize communities and change the laws of the land.  With this article my intent is to lay a cornerstone for this effort.


I start with the premise that a human community is a spontaneous ecosystem just as a forest or a lake is an ecosystem:  It is composed of a large number of interdependent parts that have organized into a natural relationship.  Between these parts flow energy (including information) and materiel resources.  These systems have a boundary, albeit highly permeable[1].

Systems ecology is a formal discipline, or, more correctly, an interdisciplinary field of ecology.  Ecology is the study of the interrelationship of an organism and its environment.  It is a study that includes biology and earth sciences.  Systems ecology defines the relationships of the many parts of that environment and quantifies the exchanges between them.

Systems ecology is a holistic approach that draws heavily from general system theory and systems analysis.  It employs the concepts of thermodynamics (entropy).  Central to the model is the study of emergent properties.  It studies the exchanges of matter and energy and in this sense has analogies to an economic system.  It also includes advocates of deep ecology where the anthropocentric paradigm is challenged.

The celebrated pioneer of systems ecology is Howard T. Odum (1924 – 2002).  The term “organism in an environment” was used by Alfred Korzybski, who for that matter wrote of an early representation of “biosphere,” (circa 1933).  Korzybski used the term “organism in the environment" to develop an early formulation of human neuro-linguistics, or how the human nervous system interacts with its perceptual environment.  Korzybski’s objective was to improve the way we create an internal map of our experiences and the world in which we live.  Korzybski’s work was the foundation of general systems theory[3] and GST the foundation for ecosystems.  The term “ecosystem” was apparently first used by British biologist Arthur Tansley in 1935.  Systems ecology as later developed is applicable to the human species as an organism and our relationship with the Earth, or biosphere.

The idea of the relationship between humans and our world has been popularized by a number of authors but I will make special note of Theodore Roszak who coined the term eco-psychology.  And, of course, James Lovelock and others have written extensively about not only humans in the biosphere but the egregious impact we make; now especially in terms of climate change.  It will be argued in this paper that in order to reestablish the balance between us and our world, we need to have a profound understanding of our role in the biosphere and that human social organizations are components of that ecosystem.

In 1953 Howard T. Odum and his brother Eugene P. Odum[4] published the first textbook on system ecology:  Fundamentals of Ecology.  Between them, and with other collaborators, they wrote well over a dozen books and hundreds of papers about systems ecology.

Howard T.[5] approached systems ecology in terms of the exchange of energy between the components of the ecosystem.  The most important part of this work, in my opinion, is ecosystem modeling.

Howard T. thought in technical or mechanical terms:  Ecosystems can be modeled and diagramed.  He considered them “heat engines,” governed by the laws of thermodynamics.  These models include feedback and cybernetic linkages.  He used Sankey diagrams[6] to model the exchanges within ecosystems.  He developed an “Energy Systems Language,” a set of symbols that defined processes within an ecosystem, for his model[7].

Howard T. distinguished between the energy needed to form the functional relationships in an organism and the resultant exchange of energy.  The implication of this distinction, defined as Emergy, or “embodied energy,” is that by understanding the energy exchanges employed in developing the relationships, one has a better understanding of the potential of the system for evolution.  For human society this is a form of history.

Ecosystems evolve.  They embody both stability and change.  There is a mechanism of selection.  Howard T. worked the principles of economics into his model and that model has been elaborated in terms of systems economics[8].

Where Howard T. was mechanistic in his approach to systems ecology, brother Eugene was perhaps more naturalistic.  Eugene worked to make biologist more aware of ecology.  Eugene’s teaching about a living Earth has had its own considerable influence on the environmental movement.

Eugene liked to use the metaphor of the Apollo 13 mission’s loss of its life support system to illustrate the imperative of maintaining a sound, bio-regenerative, self-supporting and self-maintaining, solar-powered, life support system on planet (spaceship) Earth.  As a result of the impact we have had on our planetary ecosystem we need to think in terms of damage control.  We need to approach this emergency in terms of resilience (recovery and adaptability).  Howard T.’s maximum power principle applies, which he and Eugene jointly expressed in 1981 as:  “The systems most likely to survive in this competitive world are those that efficiently transform the most energy into useful work for themselves and surrounding system with which they are linked for mutual benefit.”

Eugene saw the decoupling of the human species and nature as highly unnatural and perilous.  He noted that human beings are not passive components of the ecosystem but actively engaged with it, modifying it and trying to control it.  We have now come to dominate the planetary ecosystem and have introduced an accelerating level of disequilibrium.  Disequilibrium, however, pumps the system with energy with the result (or consequence) of a new, dissipative, structure (Prigogine[9]); an emergent structure with unanticipated qualities.  

Our ignorance of how this super ecosystems works and our influence on it, is, in a word, dangerous.  We have no way of knowing the outcome of the dissipative transformation but, without reasonable understanding of and participation in the process, there is no guarantee that it will be advantageous to the human species.  Far more likely not to our advantage for the simple reason that the dynamics of natural selection are quite indifferent to human values systems, be they humane or predatory.  They are, rather, governed by natural laws and not by ecologically detached and indifferent human aspirations[10].

An Ecosystem Architecture

One of the objectives of the Transition Centre initiative is to develop an architecture of a community ecosystem[11].  From the sustainability literature I pulled together a list of basic subsystems that are required to maintain a viable community (below).  That does not suggest that a community build a wall about itself.  Communities are open systems:  no community is 100% self-reliant.  Throughout the entirety of human history (and prehistory) up to the modern, urban-industrial era, economies have, however, been largely local and self-reliant.  Our present global economy is far from local.  The global economic and social system is made possible only by massive injections of energy, mostly derived from fossil fuels, and that system will survive only as long as those energy and other non-renewable resources last (or remain economically feasible).  No ecosystem can survive if it attempts to live beyond its energy income.

One of the chief impediments to our understanding of larger systems is our highly conditioned, left-brained, linear thinking.  The roots of our disconnection to our ecosystem go back to ancient times.  The ancient Greeks formalized the mind-body split.  Unfortunately some of our major religious systems, which participate in this split, have come to see the world as a dark and evil place to be either transcended or dominated.  And, too, science has detached itself from the world it studies.

A number of writers have theorized that our detachment from the Earth’s ecosystem goes back to the invention of the alphabet, which enabled widespread literacy, but which emphasized left-brained, linear and abstract thinking over the right-brained emotional and pattern recognition driven functions.  The rigid separation of reason and emotion by modern rationalism has seriously aggravated the problem.  The belief that we live in the world but not of it, I considered gravely flawed.

     General Systems Theory

For about a century now a movement has been underway to think more holistically:  to bring the parts, including mind and matter, back together.  General systems theory is one of the results.  The term “general systems theory” was coined by Ludwig von Bertalanffy and the idea formalized by James Grier Miller, Kenneth Boulding, Ralph Gerard and Anatol Rapoport (a student of Korzybski) during the mid 1950s.  GST has roots in general semantics, operational research, cybernetics, systems theory, information theory, games theory, etc.; ideas that have been developed in modern times.

The basic rule of GST is that nothing exists in isolation.  That is an easy thing to say but very hard to make happen.  In this age of experts and specialists, ideas like holism, interdisciplinary, polymath, Fuller’s comprehensivist, etc. [12], are still far from universally accepted.  As indicated, we are rigidly condition against the very idea of thinking outside our box.  And, in fact, it is not easy to do.

     The Regional Survey

One of the earlier systematic thinkers who saw humans and their world as interrelated was Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932).  Geddes started the regional planning movement in Great Britain, worked extensively in India and other developing countries, then continued to the end of his life to spread his methods in Europe and America.  He developed the regional survey, an in-depth inventory of the human and natural regions around a community (then a town or city).  This included history and natural history, soil, weather and climate, sociology, architecture:  just about any and everything you can think of.  Trained as a biologist (he was recognized in a number of other fields including sociology, town planning and geography), he saw humans and their environment as a living system[13].

This regional, or “community,” survey idea has been carried on by others, some with and some without acknowledging Geddes’ influence.  American Lewis Mumford (1895 – 1990), an associate of Geddes, wrote extensively along this line.  A relatively recent popular and useful guide is Building Communities From The Inside Out:  A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing A Community’s Assets, by John Kretzmann and John McKnight.  But I would recommend learning something about Geddes before trying more recent adaptations.

     Systems Design

The Odum’s model is a visual, schematic representation of living systems.  It draws on the technics of systems analysis.  This process starts with some type of input and that input is something that has to be able to move.  That is, it is or involves a form of energy.  For the Earth’s biosphere, the primary energy source is the Sun.  Solar energy gets stored in a number of ways.  In the short term it is stored in wind, water potential and heat gradients.  A lot of what was once solar energy is now stored in coal, oil and gas.  We are now burning through millions of years of solar energy in a relative blink of he eye.  Yes, there are other energy sources at work such as Lunar and solar tidal forces, the Earth’s magnetic field, chemical reactions, gravity, geothermal, etc.  But what the biosphere lives on is primarily its solar income.

Systems analysis is the tool used to design computer programs.  Alan Turing laid the cornerstone of the computer industry with the idea that if you could fully describe what is going on, you could write a program to get a machine to emulate that process.  Systems analysis is simply taking the time to describe what is going on.  It is something we do all the time; from planning a dinner, planting a garden, taking a trip, or solving a problem at work.  Much of life is just a lot more complex than that.  Planning an Olympic event, a moon shot, developing Google or Facebook, cell phone networks, computer applications; these are just orders of magnitude more complicate.  But those disciplines are now in place.  Here is a Wiki definition of the work of software engineers, the type of really smart people Bill Gates and Steve Jobs found to change the way we live: 

Software engineering (SE) is the application of a systematic, disciplined, quantifiable approach to the design, development, operation, and maintenance of software, and the study of these approaches; that is, the application of engineering to software.

A natural or community ecosystem is just a few orders of magnitude more complex yet.  But the tools and techniques are the same (at least for the start).  Yes, you need to add in the fact that we are working with living, thinking, constantly adapting systems.  Bottom line, however, is that we are, each and every one of us, right in the middle of this game working at it all the time.  We simply need to get a clear vision of what it is that we want to achieve[14] and the consequences of our actions.

Here is an example of such a schematic developed by M. T. Brown, which can be found at A Prosperous Way Down[15], using Odum’s “energese,” or diagraming symbols.

This is merely an illustration of the highly involved discipline used in ecosystems analysis.  Let it be said for now that a community is an ecosystem.  In has inputs of energy, material and information; it has internal processes where these resources are consumed or transformed; and it has an output, which includes waste heat energy. 

If you consider a place like New York City, the scale of the human ecosystem is truly mind-boggling.  The problem of understanding this ecosystem, however, is not just complexity; it is a matter of accounting.  Corporations, and often families, have detailed accountings of what they consume, typically in terms of dollars.  We need an accounting of actual units of input, throughput and output.  Even where those statistics are found they do not share a common set of standards and represent problems in translation into real numbers at the micro-level.  Those figures are hard to come by simply because we are conditioned to think in other terms.  And unless and until we learn to think in terms of what is actually happening, rather than abstract income and expenses, we will not solve the sustainability problem.


Permaculture is a central feature of the Transition Towns model[16].  TT founder Rob Hopkins is a permaculture teacher and innovator.  Permaculture is an ecological design system.  Its objective is perpetual sustainability of the land we produce food and resources on.  It is also used to reclaim and restore land that has been exhausted or degraded.

Permaculture was developed by two Australians, Bill Mollison (professor) and David Holmgren (student and collaborator), who came together to develop and “interdisciplinary earth science” during the 1970s.

Permaculture is the application of design to agriculture and is based on scientific principles and research.  Those principles are, however, drawn from the experience of living on and with the land, of becoming part of the ecosystem rather than its master.

Permaculture is founded on a system of twelve principles, or thinking tools[17]:
1.     Observe and interact
2.     Catch and store energy
3.     Obtain a yield
4.     Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
5.     Use and value renewable resources and services
6.     Produce no waste
7.     Design from patterns to details
8.     Integrate rather than segregate
9.     Use small and slow solutions
10. Use and value diversity
11. Use edges and value the marginal
12. Creatively use and respond to change

Another way of looking at this is David Holmgren’s “Permaculture Flower” of the seven domains of permaculture action[18].

It starts with ethics, human survivability, and the twelve principles then expands outwardly into the seven domains[19].

As can be seen from this model, it is systematic, it is comprehensive, and it is a discipline.  It is far, far more than gardening.

Pattern Language

An integral part of this model involves the pattern language system developed by architect Christopher Alexander.  A pattern is defined as something that occurs over and over.  This approach begins with patterns that define places where people live.  Alexander collected hundreds of these patterns and organized them.  Starting with a region, within the region is a distribution of towns, agriculture, roads, the countryside, etc.  Within the towns will be markets, places people live, traffic intersections, children, families, shops, food stands, etc.  The list continues down to very fine detail.

The methodology is at the heart of pattern language.  It starts with a picture, followed by an introductory paragraph, a definition of the problem in a few sentences, the body of the problem which provides the detail and the array of ways the pattern can be manifest, then the solution to the problem which establishes the relationship of the various elements, physical, social, etc., that are required to make the pattern happen.  The solution is stated as a set of instruction, which includes a diagram.  Within each pattern are the smaller patterns (what Arthur Koestler called holons, or systems within systems) that are required to complete the functioning entity.

Pattern language assumes that the way humans build their environment is organic.  Our social and cultural patterns have evolved over thousands of years.  Architecture is a study of how those patterns form and work.  In master architect Lewis Sullivan’s words:  “Form follows function.”

This organic pattern comes out of the way people interact, or participate in communal activity.  It takes a long time for these patterns to emerge and stabilize.  They become the local culture.  A pattern, I would like to add, from a systems ecology perspective, is not only structure but a flow of energy; a movement of energy, like within a living cell or the human body, that assembles matter into a persistent pattern, a structural integrity, which persist even when the matter in the pattern is constantly replaced[20].

The pattern language model was used to develop The Transition Companion[21].


R. Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, was ecological design science exemplified.  The genesis of Fuller’s life work was his extreme nearsightedness.  Before he got his first eyeglasses as a child, he conceived of the world in terms of triangles rather than the box-like rooms we normally perceive.  He spent a lot of his life developing a model of the universe based not on right angles (900) but on the 600 angles of the triangle.  Triangles are natures preferred way of organizing matter.  Triangles have tremendous structural integrity, which is to say that they don’t readily collapse.  A square (or rectangle), like a wall of a building, which defines the space we are conditioned to understanding, must be diagonally (triangle) braced or it will collapse. 

Fuller translated this thinking not only into the technology of the geodesic dome[22] but a geometry of thinking he called synergetics[23].  Synergetics is based on the structure of the tetrahedron, a solid constructed formed by four triangles.  This figure represents a minimum system:  It has an inside (the system) and an outside (the environment).  It requires four components (each vertex of the figure), each of which is connected to all the others.

Let me describe how this works.  Start with one corner, one idea.  Mathematically it is a point.  In essence a point has no length, width or depth.  Connect that point to another and you achieve the dimension of length.  Connect those two points to a third, in the form of a triangle, and you have two dimensions and a surface.  Connect those three points to a fourth and you achieve a “solid,” a three dimensional figure.  This is a minimal system:  It has an “inside” and an “outside.”

Between each pair of points is a line of force and the energy along this line goes in both directions:  two degrees of freedom.  Given that there are six lines, that makes twelve degrees of freedom.  Given that there is movement and "non-simultanity," you also have “time.”

The idea of permutations also applies.  Each additional point (”N”) roughly (not exactly, the simple formula is (N2-N)/2) doubles the number connections.  By adding just one additional point the number of connections goes from six to ten and the degrees of freedom from twelve to twenty.  Unlike the song in which the knee bone is connected to the hipbone, this is not a linear model[24].  In my meta-taxonomy of 22 basic human needs, there are, for example, 231 connections between these components; and that doesn’t get down to the detail within each.  Daunting yes, but so too was the computer and software revolution, which has now settled into a routine industry.  Today that field has evolved into social network architecture technology, which is a definite step in the direction of human systems ecology.

Fuller’s book on Synergetics, and its sequel, Synergetics 2, represents a daunting intellectual exercise suitable for those who love mathematical games[25].  A far more readable account of the system can be found in Fuller’s synergetic collaborator, E. J. Applewhite’s Cosmic Fishing.  This book provides a fabulous insight into the mind and character of Bucky Fuller.  Fuller, while challenging, was one of the twentieth century’s greatest sustainability thinkers.  He left a fabulous legacy of environmental design science.

Korzybski and General Semantics

Alfred Korzybski was a Polish chemical engineer and mathematician (also an accomplished linguist) who settled in the US following World War I and begin an in-depth exploration into how to use advancing scientific knowledge to improve human mental health and communication.  In 1933 he published Science and Sanity and the book was judged one of the most influential of its time.  Korzybski closely studied how humans transform experience into language and how we use language in ways that distort reality.  His objective was to develop a method for forming accurate internal representations of the world brought to us by our senses and a discipline of communications that allows us to more accurately exchange information about the world as it really is.  His intention was to thereby reduce conflict by the process of bringing us into common agreement about what we know about our world.  That is, if we each see it as it really is we would have the basis of agreement and cooperation.

He was one of the first to not only bridge the gaps between the sciences but to extend his holistic system to the social science.  He saw humans as an integral part of the surrounding environment:  no division between mind and body.  He saw science as an integral system of knowledge, not a lot of specialized subjects.  He believed that when we are well-informed about the world and events around us, and he believed all ordinary people could do so, we were part of it and part of the society of shared experience with all other human beings.

Korzybski also influenced the emergence of holistic, humanistic psychology.

The link to Korzybski's General Semantics:  Principles and Practices is here.

Ralph Borsodi and the School of Living

Ralph Borsodi is remembered as the father of the back-to-the-land movement but he is far more important for his development of the central institution of a sustainable, agrarian community:  The School of Living.  Borsodi’s School of Living was developed during the crises of the middle of the last century (The Great Depression and World War II).  The SoL provides the knowledge, skills and mental preparation needed to form and maintain its community.  In a series of books Borsodi described a program for forming the “quality” human being; that is the full potential of each member of the community.  These books represent a pioneering effort to design a holistic human learning program[26].

A link to The Essential Ralph Borsodi is here.

A First Synthesis

If we are going to do anything about creating a sustainability world, and of adapting to the profound changes to come, we have to move from theory to practice.  So let me start with a brief summary:

A human community is an ecosystem.  It is an integral part of the Earth’s biosphere.  Like all ecosystems it is an unimaginably complex organization.  It is based not only on the laws of physics and biological systems but includes the active participation of human intelligence, a force that is capable of dramatically transforming the environment.  Those qualities that define our species have initiated a process that has, in this modern, energy-driven, age, begun to cause environmental consequences that imperil the human future.

This raises the question of human nature.  Like it or not, when we say that humans are part of the biosphere, we err in thinking that we are not, or should not be, a commanding presence.  We are, quite literally, the universe becoming aware of itself.  Our mistake is that, like a pampered, narcissistic brat, we have chosen to break the laws of the system that gave us life and consciousness.  There are inescapable consequences.  Nature designed us to solve problems, not create them.

Perhaps it is more than coincidence that two sons of Howard W. Odum, who gave us an early view of organic human community, produced a biologically-based science of ecosystems.  This science validates and provides tools for the study of community ecology.  The science of ecosystems tends to reside in academia as a specialized subject that is relatively inaccessible to those of us on the outside.  Permaculture, however, is a practical application of ecosystems that can be learned and applied by anyone

The study of ecosystems is not only about understanding but also engagement; something called design.  In order to live appropriately on this Good Earth, we need to use the qualities we so uniquely represent to become not the adversary to but an active, integral part of an incredible life-system.  Permaculture is a great place to start.

The ethos of ecosystem management is that we have to first, and foremost, survive.  Like it or not, for all our prowess, nature selects those species that have the greatest capacity to adapt.  To use another metaphor, we are like a child with a box of matches and unless we grow up and learn to be responsible very quickly, we are going to burn our house down, so to speak. 

We live in a Yin-Wang universe.  It is not a universe of opposites but rather of compliments.  The modern era has given us not only the means to burn the house down but, if we can grow up a little, to delve into the essence that is our potential as a co-creator on our world.

The social-Darwinism that has driven so much of human predatory practices is essentially wrong in emphasizing competition.   An ecosystem is founded on the principle of cooperation.  The strong, in fact, do not survive well.  The successor of T-Rex is the bird singing on the branch outside of my window.

In this essay I have outlined some of the more promising subjects that give us the tools to realize who and what we really are.  The twenty-first century will be transformative but in terms very different from that of the last century.  It will likely be tragic.  We have already wasted far too much time preparing our adaptation.  We need to grow up and get serious without delay.

With these tools we have the means, if not yet the will, to create a perpetually sustainable world.  The sustainability movement, as I said, is by far the largest in the history of the planet.  It is as yet largely undefined.  It lacks coherence.  It must, if it is to affect the course of history, coalesce around a new ethos and develop the tools and leadership needed to turn it from mob to movement.  That will happen at the local, community, level.

There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle and our task is, first to get them on the same table, connected and interacting.

The Fifth Element

Before the modern age our ancestors saw the universe as composed of four elements:  Earth, Air, Fire and Water.  These represent qualities of the material world:  hot, cold, wet, dry.  There was always a sense that there was a fifth element.  The ancients believed there was something even more fundamental, called “aether,” out of which the four elements formed.  About a century ago science searched for and failed to find this fifth element.  What was found is a fundamental constant in the universe:  the speed of light.  From that discovery Einstein developed his famous E=mc2, an equation that defines the relationship between matter and energy and the nature of space and time; another foursome.  In this new, scientifically defined universe, there are still only four fundamental forces:  gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.  The ultimate goal of physical science today is to find the fundamental particle and the fundamental force that is at the root our material existence.  Our DNA is also composed of just four “letters.”  Bottom line is that there is a fundamental simplicity and elegance to nature and we need to learn from this.

Science has given us the tools and produced the knowledge to allow us to reach a whole new and far more practical understanding of the world we live in.  It has taught us that the universe is more marvelous and more mysterious that even the ancients imagined.  But it is we human beings who are aware of, just barely aware of, how this universe works and our role in it.

Many a deep thinker has spent sleepless nights wondering if the fifth element is the quality we human beings manifest:  consciousness.

The knowledge and skills we have accumulated are but a small part of who and what we are.  They have to be applied.  And for these applications to be successful adaptations to the demands of life, they have to be successful, that is pro-survival.

Central to the idea of ecosystems is that the things we do have to be done not in isolation but as functional parts of a whole system, or at least as subsystems of the whole, and within the boundaries of which we have some comprehension of the forces working in our lives, which is by definition the community where we live.

Each part, and what it does, has a positive potential effect if and only if it compliments the other parts and fills a need.  There must, first, be an existing need:  a receptor.  If a surplus, for example, is not effectively stored it can become an impediment to the free function of a system.  If a part does not fit it may (likely will) produce disharmony or conflict.

Unlike human systems, biological ecosystems are not conscious.  They achieve balance and integration by trial and error; lots of error.

Humans are self-conscious and we act deliberately, for the better or the worse.

In the past, human communities also grew organically, spontaneously, by trail and error, by adapting.  Civic, religious and educational institutions were formed for the purpose of maintaining social order – the quality in a biological system we would call homoeostasis.  The rapid rate of change and innovation of the modern age has disrupted thousands of years of social adaptation.  Our best attempts to force social adaptation have only distorted and fragmented these institutions.  The most powerful of these institutions now exist primary for their own self-preservation:  They have formed virtually impermeable boundaries.  They have become highly dysfunctional.  Examples of this dysfunction are seen every day in the news.  The poster child at this writing is the US Congress.  Closed systems inevitably fail.

This modern age, while bringing us many good and useful things, has dramatically changed our relationship to the world we live in.  Rather than live as a part of the biosphere, we have chosen to exploit it, and undeterred in our pursuit of growth and material comfort, we are accelerating the disequilibrium in the biosphere.  Why are we constantly surprised that there are consequences?

Climate change is a major focus of the environmental movement:  trying to fix it.  But climate change is an effect, not a cause.  We are not, it becomes increasingly evident, going to fix climate change.  We have to adapt.  Yet we still hope the adaptation will be a Star Trek future:  continued mastery of, exploitation of, nature; a perpetual “growth” economy.  As grand as the theme is, “to go where no one has gone before,” the metaphor is one simply of expanding our dominion of the universe.  Of course that gets the crew into terribly dangerous situations.

The lesson we gain from the Star Trek dramas is that the human element, a deep and fundamental set of human values, is what saves the day.  We see in these episodes an ethically based action that has become rare in our age.

If we think the universe is hostile and indifferent, that is because we are in opposition to it.  The universe does not have value judgments.  We do.

Consider:  We are that creation of life that can conceive what we call the higher, or spiritual, values, and only we can have these values; in the form of an “enlightened” behavior within the fabric of life.  Are these values detached and abstract, even other-worldly, or are they consistent with life in the biosphere?

Putting it Together

We start with the reality that human society has pushed the biosphere into a far from equilibrium state and this will have consequent.  Our petro-industrial civilization is not sustainable.

The second term in our argument is the premise that a community is an ecosystem.
Odum and Odum and others gave us a science for understanding ecosystems.  It is founded on biological science.

This science draws on general systems theory and a range of linked disciplines related to process and communication.  It is a holistic method

Permaculture is a practical application of this approach.

Other disciplines I use to support this model include:  Alexander’s pattern language, Fuller’s synergetics, Korzybski’s general semantics and Borsodi’s School of Living[27].

There is a vast field ripe for a focused discipline about local, national and planetary sustainability (and, because we can only begin to comprehend problems at this level, it all starts locally).

Transition Towns was designed to mobilize a community to organize itself to become fully sustainable.  This community has to be adaptable.  The term used by the TT movement is “resilience.”  It is linked to the principles of permaculture and systems ecology.

If we are serious about creating an effective adaptive system our objective is to organize this discipline, set up (practical, community-based) training programs, and programs to train “leaders[28]” in both management of sustainability efforts and related community organization.

The transitional, self-reliant, sustainable community and the comprehensive learning institution that serve it are the objectives Transition Centre seeks to clarify and impliment.

Transitional Mapping

Transition Town State College (TTSC) started an eco-community project it calls “Mapping.”

The idea of transition mapping comes from three observations:
1.     Sustainability groups too rarely know much, if anything, about each other, let alone work together.
2.     A community is an ecosystem, just like a forest or lake.  It consists of a large number of spontaneously interdependent parts that make it a living entity.
3.     We form our eco-community not by will but by discovery of natural relationships between its parts.

The purpose of this enterprise is to build a virtual organization within the community that collectively seeks to merge resources for the common goal of achieving a sustainable future.

As mentioned, in Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken reported that the largest movement on the planet is the sustainability movement.  It has millions of followers and tens of thousands of organizations all over the world.  It is, I must stress, essentially unorganized and incoherent.  It is clearly time, there is a clear need, to take this movement to the next level.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell identified three types of players in the process of change:  People who came up with great ideas, people good at selling ideas (persuasion) and people who connect.  The mapping project focus is on people and organizations that connect.  The purpose of making the connections, however, is to mobilize collective action.

Human beings are social animals; by far and away the most sophisticated social species.   Our very identity as human beings is defined by our relationship with other people.  The ideal form of human association is the community.  A community is by definition a group of people who share the same values and worldview and who work for their mutual benefit.

I want to take this idea a step further:  I cannot overstress the idea that human communities are ecosystems.  This is more than metaphor; it is a fact.  We are organized like connected dots on a map but that is only where it starts.  There is an emerging field of social networking analysis that attempts to give us a visual image of how we are connected.  As mentioned, there is a lot of new stuff coming out on social networking and the dynamic forms of cooperative enterprise that defines the modern organization.  That so much effort is going into this area is indicative of the innate need for greater connectedness.

But back to the dots.  All too often, as I said, there is not even a comprehensive list of sustainability organizations.  Where such directories exist, they are an invaluable resource.  A very worthwhile project, if you don’t have it already, is to create one[29].  Then what?  You’ve got to connect the dots, get the social networking architecture in place.  Then you need to do something else and that is to figure out what happens along those connectors.

It’s not really hard work.  It is something we all naturally do.  It just calls for a bit more intention, a goal to connect, and the discipline to write it down and think about it.  There is a critical threshold between casual and committed.

In an ecosystem energy flows between the connections.  That is what makes it an ecosystem.  Not just a bunch of diverse parts, not just the connections between them, but, I must stress, what happens along all those connections.

The objective of transition mapping is to develop an ecosystem model of the sustainability groups within a “community” and how they relate to each other.

The Transition Town State College Map

Centre County, Pennsylvania, has a resident population of just over 150,000.  About half live in and around State College[30].  We are also the home of Penn State and over 40,000 students.  We founded a Transition Town here in 2010.  We’ve done a lot of the usual things a Transition Initiative does with typical mixed results.  We now have a project I consider to be part of, shall I use the term, the new paradigm.  We call it the Mapping Project.  It is about awakening our community ecosystem.

How many sustainability organizations and groups and activities do you have in your community?  Transition Town State College actually embraces about a dozen townships and, of course, the University.  At last count, and the list[31] is growing, there are over 250 local organizations with sustainability on their agenda in our area[32].  (We had been guessing far less than half that number.)  They range from conservation and environmental groups, such as ClearWater Conservancy, chapters of the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited, to local sustainable agriculture (including PASA) to community gardens to Penn State student organizations, etc.  There are a number of government and business organizations getting on the list.  The recently formed Penn State Sustainability Institute[33] has added a virtual new dimension to the local sustainability network.

These groups perform all sorts of functions.  This is where I find the gemstone metaphor suggestive:  they are, potentially, like the facets on a great diamond.  The splendor of a diamond is how all the facets work together to gather and focus the light.  It is something we all know as great beauty. 

Several efforts were made locally to draw groups into collaborative activity.  One series of such activities included two TTSC lead Marcellus Shale Forums followed by a Public Issues, day-long, forum in which TTSC was represented as a planner (late 2011 to April 2012).  These meetings brought a great many people together, from both sides of the issue, to explore and learn.

In late 2011 a small group was formed by a local green mayor, Elizabeth Goreham, composed of nearly a dozen organizations that set out to develop a portal of sustainability organizations[34].   That portal was realized by one of the partners of this group, New Leaf Initiative, about a year later[35].

In an effort to draw more groups together TTSC co-sponsored a potluck and community meeting with a local green church (Grace Lutheran) that drew nearly 70 people representing 25 organizations (January 2013).  Building on this experience TTSC held a workshop in which three teams created maps of their perception of how a list of 60 local organizations fit together.

Members of the TTSC core group have conducted face-to-face surveys with a number of sustainability organizations to both gather information and make connections. We are doing that in part for the purpose of letting folks know that they are part of a larger community ecosystem.  We are just getting started but the promise of this project already appears very large.

The current Sustainable Happy Valley directory is available at this link.

Community Ecosystem Mapping (CEM)

Out of this effort evolved Community Ecosystem Mapping (CEM).  This model is drawing on emerging technology to both enhance understanding of community ecosystems and uses ecosystems to extend the concept of social networking to creating an interactive model of our community sustainability enterprise.

As suggested, a community is an ecosystem:  an evolved, complex set of highly interrelated processes.  Let’s looks at a highly simplified model of a community ecosystem.  The basic functions of this model are:  Inputs, Throughputs and Outputs.

Inputs, for a human community, consist of things like food, water, energy, goods, services and information.  The community itself consists of a group of people who occupy an identifiable place, with boundaries that are usually defined as political entities[36].

In the CEM model, sustainability is not at the intersection of events but the show itself, so to speak.  Human society is, and should be considered as, a subsystem within the environment.  Human beings, we tend to forget, are an intricate part of the biosphere.  The economy is a subsystem of society and the environment.

Intersection Model of Sustainability

Holistic Model of Sustainability

The Transition Centre list of twenty-two basic human needs was drawn from the literature of sustainability, and as such is a workable list of functions within the community.  These both define inputs and processes within the boundaries of the “community:”

1.       FOOD
2.       WATER
3.       SHELTER
4.       CLOTHING
5.       ENERGY
7.       ECONOMY/Services and Made Goods
9.       FAMILY


A sustainable and self-sufficient community would provide most of these needs itself.  There is no such thing, however, as a totally self-sufficient community in the developed world.  Indeed, much of the world is part of a global marketplace.  That marketplace is defined by our current patterns of consumption.  The bottom line, however, is that this lifestyle is not sustainable.  Our first priority, therefore, is to define not only what is being consumed within the boundaries of our community but what would be necessary to support an acceptable quality of life.  Then comes the question of how we can meet a growing share of these needs from local resources in a way that insures perpetual sustainability for our community.  For that to happen will require a whole and entirely different economic model.  

The assumption that we cannot transform the economy is false.  The economy is constantly transforming itself and those transformations have accelerated over just the past few generations.  Within living memory we have gone from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy – several industrial economies, in fact – to a post-industrial economy.  Each stage of industrial development has had a primary energy source and each of these was succeeded by another that defined the economy it supports.  Information technology now has and continues to dramatically transform human social organization. 

Every successful business enterprise is an exercise in economic transformation.  The Great Recession of 2008 was largely the result of economic innovations that simply did not work and we are clearly in need of an economic system that does work.  The idea of sustainability demands a dramatic transformation of the economy.  Community Ecosystem Mapping seeks to define and reestablish a natural flow of exchange and that, by definition, is an economic model.  We have to transition the current model into a natural model.

The scope of this problem is analogous to setting up a human colony on another world.  Indeed, it is virtually the same problem.  To do so would require an exacting catalog of what is necessary to sustain life and society.  An attempt to explore this concept was undertaken in the Biosphere II project[37].

     Food Systems

According to the USDA, the average American requires about a ton of food per year.  That figure is decidedly skewed as it includes the ingredients of highly processed foods and does not include the acreage needed to grow feed for meat and dairy products.  Ralph Borsodi, founder of the School of Living, a cost accountant by profession who carefully studied the economics of self-reliance, estimated that a family of five could live on 2 ½ tons of food per year plus meat and dairy products.  He also demonstrated that this amount of food, including dairy products, could be grown by the family on three acres of land[38]. Virtually all of our food can be grown in the US; and what can’t be grown in this climate is not essential for a healthy and agreeable diet.

Borsodi’s School of Living model is an economy of self-reliant homesteaders.  They grow most of what they need and live in a community that cooperates for the collective welfare – which is the way we lived until modern times.  If we choose a society with a higher degree of division of labor, where local small-scale farmers (roughly 80 acres) grow the food, we have a different but potentially manageable business model.  I want to stay with this “Plan B” for a bit.

Small-scale local farming is based on the assumption that the great majority of food products are in fact raised within a matter of an hour or less transportation from a town or city.  To a limited extent, this model is already in place.  This is a “farm to table” model in which food is grown and sold directly within the local market[39].

Growing food locally is only part of the model.  It seems that the most pressing barrier is actually the market where the farmers sell their foods locally.  While the scale of the local food model has grown dramatically over the last decade or so, it is still a highly restricted one.  The idea of even doubling it (to about one percent) has proven daunting; let alone scaling up to ten, twenty and progressively higher shares of the local market.  As is often the case, this is a consequence of inadequate cooperative enterprise.  It is not easy to do.  It requires a passionate will and hard work to accomplish.  But it starts with coalescing interested parties and bringing them into alignment.

Finding land, finance, skilled workers, tools and equipment and other means to put the land into production is a significant undertaking.  There are two other parts of this model.  First is a complex supply chain needed to provide the tools and resources to produce food.  Second is a distribution, processing, and storage chain that follows production.   Both of these markets can be localized and made part of the community economy.  It is, in short, not just the farms but the two wings of this model that need to be and can be developed.  This local food sector would generate a lot of jobs and circulate a lot of wealth within the community.

While there is a lot of literature about making us a nation of farmers, and academic studies about improving the food system, I have yet to see a comprehensive model for doing that.  Yes, there are some wonderful examples of expanding local food consumption.  I have written about some of them in “Local Food Revolution[40]”.  These are, however, the “finger pointing to the Moon.”  Indeed, the scope of the project would not be unlike the effort that went into the Apollo missions.  But it can and must be accomplished:  Local food is the entry to creating a sustainable community and economy.  It is also about the only way to start it[41].

     The Whole Community

Likewise for each of the other 21 basic needs; each of which is a definable subsystem of the sustainable community.  If you can do local foods, you can do them all.  In fact, if you achieve local food self-sufficiency, all the rest will follow.

Community Ecosystem mapping is showing considerable promise for extending ecosystems science into the realm of human community.  The model promises to yield a virtual organizational framework through the process of identifying, linking and defining the relationship between local sustainability organizations.    It also holds the promise of defining organization by discovery rather than imposition.  It creates an enhanced consciousness of not only the natural environment but the social environment as well. 

The most pressing risk today is not climate change but resource scarcity.  Manic consumption of resources is indeed causing climate change and other environmental stresses but climate change is the effect, not the cause.  Climate change is no longer something that will happen in the future; it is hurting us now.  The effects of climate change, however, will be of secondary importance to that of rapidly diminishing nonrenewable resources over the next few decades.  There may be a Star Trek future but it is a high-risk dream.  Betting everything on technological progress is not prudent.  For now population is still accelerating and developing countries are working hard to get their share of the pie.  Resource depletion has an immediate and evolving economic impact.  Community Ecosystem Mapping offers the potential of understanding the design of a truly sustainable economy and such an economy, inevitably, is what we will have whether by design or by failure to do so.

The model is rapidly evolving and will be reported in future posts.

[The Transition Centre Rural Resilient Hub model can here.]

Bill Sharp, Director
Transition Centre  

[1] A boundary that has been increasingly dissolved by globalization and human migration between places.
[3] See Korzybski Institute for the Study of General Semantics at:
[4] Their father, Howard W. Odum was a renowned sociologist who applied the principles of holism to his work and developed models of regional cultures, particularly southern agrarianism, that have informed thinking about agrarian reengagement for decades.  Howard W., in son Eugene’s words encouraged him to:  "seek more harmonious relationships between man and nature."
[5] I keep the “T.” in the name to distinguish him from his renowned father.
[8] Unfortunately more of an academic discipline than a practical model.
[10] It is a reasonable assumption that some human social system will successfully adapt to whatever conditions emerge; but that is not to say that all or even a majority will do so.
[11] An outline of the approach and the twenty-two basic human needs can be found on the home page at and will be further explicated in my upcoming Community, Economy and Energy.
[12] A. E. van Vogt coined the term Nexialism to give a literary framework to the systems thinking of Alfred Korzybski:  "Nexialism is the science of joining in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields.  It provides techniques for speeding up the processes of absorbing knowledge and of using effectively what has been learned."
[13] Lewis Mumford was the US equivalent to (and friend of) Geddes.
[14] This points in the direction of “Fifth Sector Leadership” as outline on the home page of
[16] I am a Transition Town founder.
[19] Click on each petal at the web link for more detail, go to home page for more information:
[20] A pattern defined by a set of code called DNA.
[22] Google/image:  geodesic dome.
[25] The art and science of community ecosystem, and its components, as described in this paper, all require tough-minded intellectual discipline.
[26] A description of Ralph Borsodi's life and work can be found in post at
[28] Perhaps a better job title would be “steward.”
[29] Recommend looking at Sustainable Lehigh Valley directory and the PVCA (Centre County) Slow Money business directory  Paul Hawken’s is the master directory of the sustainability movement.
[30] State College is part of the Centre Region, composed of six municipalities, but the for practical purposes our sustainability region extends north to Bellefonte and east to Millheim.  
[31] Compiled by the New Leaf Initiative and maintained jointly by TTSC.
[32] This is better than five times the list we get from
[33] PSU Sustainability Institute:
[34] The portal architecture was recommended by Transition Town State College.
[35] The portal site has been taken down as of this writing and maintenance of the list assumed by Transition Town State College
[36] For our purposes the size of this community must be comprehensible, so it is best to start with something small.
[37] Biosphere II:
[39] The USDA estimates that something on the order of one-half of one percent of American food is direct farm to tables.
[41] The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, headquartered in Centre County, is a resource for developing the local food economy:

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