Tag Archives: economy

Systems thinking

Systems thinking involves the use of various techniques to study systems of many kinds. In nature, examples of the objects of systems thinking include ecosystems – in which various elements (such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals) interact. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that operate together to make an organization “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Systems Engineering is the discipline that utilizes systems thinking to design, build, operate and maintain complex engineered systems.


The Circular Economy concept has deep-rooted origins and cannot be traced back to one single date or author. The generic concept has been refined and developed by the following schools of thought:

Regenerative design (representative: John T. Lyle).
Performance economy (representative: Walter Stahel).
Cradle to Cradle (representatives: Michael Braungart and William McDonough)
Blue Economy (representative: Gunter Pauli)
Permaculture (representatives: Bill Millison and David Holmgren)
Biomimicry (representative: Janine Benyus)
Industrial Ecology (this is more than a school of thought, it is an academic discipline that has been taught from the 1990s)


The evaluation of processes that protect the environment alongside resource and energy consumption to most favourable to least favourable actions.[1] The hierarchy establishes preferred program priorities based on sustainability.[1] To be sustainable, waste management cannot be solved only with technical end-of-pipe solutions and an integrated approach is necessary.[2]

The waste management hierarchy indicates an order of preference for action to reduce and manage waste, and is usually presented diagrammatically in the form of a pyramid.[3] The hierarchy captures the progression of a material or product through successive stages of waste management, and represents the latter part of the life-cycle for each product.[3]

The aim of the waste hierarchy is to extract the maximum practical benefits from products and to generate the minimum amount of waste. The proper application of the waste hierarchy can have several benefits. It can help prevent emissions of greenhouse gases, reduces pollutants, save energy, conserves resources, create jobs and stimulate the development of green technologies.[4]

All products and services have environmental impacts, from the extraction of raw materials for production to manufacture, distribution, use and disposal. Following the waste hierarchy will generally lead to the most resource-efficient and environmentally sound choice but in some cases refining decisions within the hierarchy or departing from it can lead to better environmental outcomes.[5]

Life cycle thinking and assessment can be used to support decision-making in the area of waste management and to identify the best environmental options. It can help policy makers understand the benefits and trade-offs they have to face when making decisions on waste management strategies. Life-cycle assessment provides an approach to ensure that the best outcome for the environment can be identified and put in place.[5] It involves looking at all stages of a product’s life to find where improvements can be made to reduce environmental impacts and improve the use or reuse of resources.[5] A key goal is to avoid actions that shift negative impacts from one stage to another. Life cycle thinking can be applied to the five stages of the waste management hierarchy.

For example, life-cycle analysis has shown that it is often better for the environment to replace an old washing machine, despite the waste generated, than to continue to use an older machine which is less energy-efficient. This is because a washing machine’s greatest environmental impact is during its use phase. Buying an energy-efficient machine and using low- temperature detergent reduce environmental impacts.[5]

The European Union Waste Framework Directive has introduced the concept of life-cycle thinking into waste policies.[5] This duality approach gives a broader view of all environmental aspects and ensures any action has an overall benefit compared to other options. The actions to deal with waste along the hierarchy should be compatible with other environmental initiatives.

The middle income trap

The middle income trap is a theorized economic development situation, where a country which attains a certain income (due to given advantages) will get stuck at that level.[1]The concept was coined in 2007.[2]

A country in the middle income trap will have lost their competitive edge in the exportation of manufactured goods because their wages are on a rising trend. However, they are unable to keep up with economically more developed economies in the high-value-added market. As a result, newly industrialised economies such as South Africa and Brazilhave not, for decades, left what the World Bank defines as the ‘middle-income range’ since their per capita gross national product has remained between $10,000 to $12,000 at constant (2011) prices.[1] They suffer from low investment, slow growth in the secondary industry, limited industrial diversification and poor labor market conditions.[3]

Jevons paradox

In economics, the Jevons paradox (/ˈɛvənz/; sometimes Jevons effect) occurs when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used (reducing the amount necessary for any one use), but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand.[1] The Jevons paradox is perhaps the most widely known paradox in ecological economics.[2] However, governments and environmentalists generally assume that efficiency gains will lower resource consumption and are an effective policy for sustainability, ignoring the possibility of the paradox arising.[3]

In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of coal-use led to the increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. He argued that, contrary to common intuition, technological progress could not be relied upon to reduce fuel consumption.[4]

The issue has been re-examined by modern economists studying consumption rebound effects from improved energy efficiency. In addition to reducing the amount needed for a given use, improved efficiency lowers the relative cost of using a resource, which tends to increase the quantity of the resource demanded, potentially counteracting any savings from increased efficiency. Additionally, increased efficiency accelerates economic growth, further increasing the demand for resources. The Jevons paradox occurs when the effect from increased demand predominates, causing resource use to increase.[4]

Considerable debate exists about the size of the rebound in energy efficiency and the relevance of Jevons paradox to energy conservation. Some dismiss the paradox, while others worry that it may be self-defeating to pursue sustainability by increasing energy efficiency. However, conservation policies such as green taxes, cap and trade, and emissions standards do not display the paradox, and can be used to control the rebound effect.[5] Environmental economists have proposed that efficiency gains be coupled with conservation policies that keep the cost of use the same (or higher) to avoid the Jevons paradox.[

safe operating space

Footprint Calculator

How much land area does it take to support your lifestyle? Take this quiz to find out your Ecological Footprint, discover your biggest areas of resource consumption, and learn what you can do to tread more lightly on the earth.

There are limits to the individual’s ability to instigate major change on the Earth’s changing conditions. Many people indicated that, even after dramatically changing certain behaviors such as fuel usage, their scores were marginally changed (if at all) – and depending on which country you reside in, a certain allotment of environmental impact is prescribed via goods and services. Therefore, to reduce this allotment, collective action (through aggressive campaigning or swift policy changes) must take priority.

Of course, this is not to say that individual actions do not matter – indeed, collectivity is comprised of a large group of individuals. By committing to invest in solar rather than non-renewable energy sources or eliminating meat from your diet to reduce the amount of grains that must be grown to feed those animals or reducing time in the shower, you are advocating for the Earth and setting an example that others can follow.

At the rate things are going, the Earth in the coming decades could cease to be a “safe operating space” for human beings. That is the conclusion of a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science by 18 researchers trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world.

Nine planetary boundaries
1. Climate change
2. Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)
3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
4. Ocean acidification
5. Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
6. Land-system change (for example deforestation)
7. Freshwater use
8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)
9. Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics).

Prepared by researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the study looks specifically at how “four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity.” Published in the journalScience* on Thursday, the 18 researchers involved with compiling evidence for the report—titled ‘Planetary Boundaries 2.0‘—found that when it comes to climate change, species extinction and biodiversity loss, deforestation and other land-system changes, and altered biogeochemical cycles (such as changes to how key organic compounds like phosphorus and nitrogen are operating in the environment), the degradation that has already take place is driving the Earth System, as a whole, into a new state of imbalance.

The conclusion that the world’s dominant economic model—a globalized form of neoliberal capitalism, largely based on international trade and fueled by extracting and consuming natural resources—is the driving force behind planetary destruction will not come as a shock, but the model’s detailed description of how this has worked since the middle of the 20th century makes a more substantial case than many previous attempts.

“When we first aggregated these datasets, we expected to see major changes but what surprised us was the timing. Almost all graphs show the same pattern. The most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950. We can say that around 1950 was the start of the Great Acceleration,” says Steffen. “After 1950 we can see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes largely related to the global economic system. This is a new phenomenon and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global level for the planet.”


Habitat destruction

Uploaded on Mar 30, 2010
Murray Gell-Mann, the 2004-2005 Pardee Visiting Professor of Future Studies, argues that global problems cannot be considered in isolation, and he wonders about the best ways to separate environmental issues from those involving population growth.Run time 1:27

Hosted by Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future on September 27, 2005.

News coverage of environmental issues can be difficult, in part, because those who are affected—whether the effect is economic or environmental—routinely exaggerate their claims. Non-governmental organization advocates pull “facts” in one direction; big
business tugs them in another, and sometimes neither leaves the cushy offices in the northwest section of Washington, D.C. Truth resides in a place somewhere in between.

Preventing illness is the best way to get health-care costs down. So why aren’t governments doing more to protect the environment? We’ve long known that environmental factors contribute to disease, especially contamination of air, water, and soil. Scientists are now learning the connection is stronger than we realized.

New research shows that 60 per cent of emerging infectious diseases affecting humans — those that rapidly increase in incidence or geographic range — start with animals, two thirds from wild animals. Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Ebola, SARS, AIDS… these are just a few of the hundreds of epidemics that have spread from animals to people. A study by the International Livestock Research Institute concludes that more than two-million people a year are killed by diseases that originated with wild and domestic animals. Many more become ill.

Habitat destruction is the process in which natural habitat is rendered functionally unable to support the species present. In this process, the organisms that previously used the site are displaced or destroyed, reducing biodiversity.[1] Habitat destruction by human activity is mainly for the purpose of harvesting natural resources for industry production andurbanization. Clearing habitats for agriculture is the principal cause of habitat destruction. Other important causes of habitat destruction include miningloggingtrawling and urban sprawl. Habitat destruction is currently ranked as the primary cause of species extinction worldwide.[2] It is a process of natural environmental change that may be caused byhabitat fragmentation, geological processes, climate change[1] or by human activities such as the introduction of invasive species, ecosystem nutrient depletion, and other human activities mentioned below.

The terms “habitat loss” and “habitat reduction” are also used in a wider sense, including loss of habitat from other factors, such as water and noise pollution.

Tropical rainforests have received most of the attention concerning the destruction of habitat. From the approximately 16 million square kilometers of tropical rainforest habitat that originally existed worldwide, less than 9 million square kilometers remain today.[8] The current rate of deforestation is 160,000 square kilometers per year, which equates to a loss of approximately 1% of original forest habitat each year.[10]

Other forest ecosystems have suffered as much or more destruction as tropical rainforestsFarming and logging have severely disturbed at least 94% of temperate broadleaf forests; many old growth forest stands have lost more than 98% of their previous area because of human activities.[8] Tropical deciduous dry forests are easier to clear and burn and are more suitable for agriculture and cattle ranchingthan tropical rainforests; consequently, less than 0.1% of dry forests in Central America’s Pacific Coast and less than 8% in Madagascarremain from their original extents.

Habitat destruction caused by humans includes conversion of land to agricultureurban sprawlinfrastructure development, and other anthropogenic changes to the characteristics of land. Habitat degradation, fragmentation, and pollution are aspects of habitat destruction caused by humans that do not necessarily involve overt destruction of habitat, yet result in habitat collapse. Desertificationdeforestation, and coral reef degradation are specific types of habitat destruction for those areas (desertsforestscoral reefs).

Geist and Lambin (2002) assessed 152 case studies of net losses of tropical forest cover to determine any patterns in the proximate and underlying causes of tropical deforestation. Their results, yielded as percentages of the case studies in which each parameter was a significant factor, provide a quantitative prioritization of which proximate and underlying causes were the most significant. The proximate causes were clustered into broad categories of agricultural expansion (96%), infrastructure expansion (72%), and wood extraction (67%). Therefore, according to this study, forest conversion to agriculture is the main land use change responsible for tropical deforestation. The specific categories reveal further insight into the specific causes of tropical deforestation: transport extension (64%), commercial wood extraction (52%), permanent cultivation (48%), cattle ranching (46%), shifting (slash and burn) cultivation (41%), subsistence agriculture(40%), and fuel wood extraction for domestic use (28%). One result is that shifting cultivation is not the primary cause of deforestation in all world regions, while transport extension (including the construction of new roads) is the largest single proximate factor responsible for deforestation.[16]


Nanjing Road in Shanghai

While the above-mentioned activities are the proximal or direct causes of habitat destruction in that they actually destroy habitat, this still does not identify why humans destroy habitat. The forces that cause humans to destroy habitat are known as drivers of habitat destruction.Demographic, economic, sociopolitical, scientific and technological, and cultural drivers all contribute to habitat destruction.[15]

Demographic drivers include the expanding human population; rate of population increase over time; spatial distribution of people in a given area (urban versus rural), ecosystem type, and country; and the combined effects of poverty, age, family planning, gender, and education status of people in certain areas.[15] Most of the exponential human population growth worldwide is occurring in or close tobiodiversity hotspots.[7] This may explain why human population density accounts for 87.9% of the variation in numbers of threatened species across 114 countries, providing indisputable evidence that people play the largest role in decreasing biodiversity.[17] The boom in human population and migration of people into such species-rich regions are making conservation efforts not only more urgent but also more likely to conflict with local human interests.[7] The high local population density in such areas is directly correlated to the poverty status of the local people, most of whom lacking an education and family planning.[16]

From the Geist and Lambin (2002) study described in the previous section, the underlying driving forces were prioritized as follows (with the percent of the 152 cases the factor played a significant role in): economic factors (81%), institutional or policy factors (78%), technological factors (70%), cultural or socio-political factors (66%), and demographic factors (61%). The main economic factors included commercialization and growth of timber markets (68%), which are driven by national and international demands; urban industrial growth (38%); low domestic costs for land, labor, fuel, and timber (32%); and increases in product prices mainly for cash crops (25%). Institutional and policy factors included formal pro-deforestation policies on land development (40%), economic growth including colonization and infrastructure improvement (34%), and subsidies for land-based activities (26%); property rights and land-tenure insecurity (44%); and policy failures such as corruption, lawlessness, or mismanagement (42%). The main technological factor was the poor application of technology in the wood industry (45%), which leads to wasteful logging practices. Within the broad category of cultural and sociopolitical factors are public attitudes and values (63%), individual/household behavior (53%), public unconcern toward forest environments (43%), missing basic values (36%), and unconcern by individuals (32%). Demographic factors were the in-migration of colonizing settlers into sparsely populated forest areas (38%) and growing population density — a result of the first factor — in those areas (25%).

There are also feedbacks and interactions among the proximate and underlying causes of deforestation that can amplify the process. Road construction has the largest feedback effect, because it interacts with—and leads to—the establishment of new settlements and more people, which causes a growth in wood (logging) and food markets.[16] Growth in these markets, in turn, progresses the commercialization of agriculture and logging industries. When these industries become commercialized, they must become more efficient by utilizing larger or more modern machinery that often are worse on the habitat than traditional farming and logging methods. Either way, more land is cleared more rapidly for commercial markets. This common feedback example manifests just how closely related the proximate and underlying causes are to each other.

The rapid expansion of the global human population is increasing the world’s food requirement substantially. Simple logic instructs that more people will require more food. In fact, as the world’s population increases dramatically, agricultural output will need to increase by at least 50%, over the next 30 years.[19] In the past, continually moving to new land and soils provided a boost in food production to appease the global food demand. That easy fix will no longer be available, however, as more than 98% of all land suitable for agriculture is already in use or degraded beyond repair.[20]

The impending global food crisis will be a major source of habitat destruction. Commercial farmers are going to become desperate to produce more food from the same amount of land, so they will use more fertilizers and less concern for the environment to meet the market demand. Others will seek out new land or will convert other land-uses to agriculture. Agricultural intensification will become widespread at the cost of the environment and its inhabitants. Species will be pushed out of their habitat either directly by habitat destruction or indirectly by fragmentation, degradation, or pollution. Any efforts to protect the world’s remaining natural habitat and biodiversity will compete directly with humans’ growing demand for natural resources, especially new agricultural lands.

Exponential growth

 Big changes await us. An unrecognizable economy. The main lesson for me is that growth is not a “good quantum number,” as physicists will say: it’s not an invariant of our world. Cling to it at your own peril.

Note: This conversation is my contribution to a series at www.growthbusters.org honoring the 40th anniversary of the Limits to Growth study. You can explore the series here. Also see my previous reflection on the Limits to Growth work. You may also be interested in checking out and signing the Pledge to Think Small and consider organizing an Earth Day weekend house party screening of the GrowthBusters movie.

Published on Sep 19, 2012
This video quickly covers the key points that you will find in the long version. Everyone needs to see the long version but many won’t because they don’t have the time. My hope is that people will watch this short version and then be motivated to watch the long version.

I came across “The Most Important Video You’ll Ever See” on YouTube and clicked on it. I didn’t realize that it was an eight part video that lasted over an hour but after finishing part one I had no choice but to watch the whole thing. It truly could be called the most important video you’ll ever see.

Continue reading

brain drain

Funding at the NSF and the NIH is so bad that scientists are being laid off all over the country, and about 20% are considering quitting and taking their talent to other countries that have unwavering support for science, creating a giant brain drain.

Meanwhile, lobby groups like Research!America share concerns about a scientific brain drain from the US. ‘China is aggressively wooing Chinese nationals who have trained in the US by offering very generous funding,’ says Mary Woolley, the organisation’s president and CEO. ‘Other nations that are attractive to US scientists now include those whose governments have committed to science, even in a time of general economic austerity: the United Kingdom, Singapore, Sweden and Australia.’