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Sustainability analysis

“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lips, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley – ‘Ozymandias’ – 1817

The article on sustainability explained what we mean by the word ‘sustainability’ and how, in the 1980s, this was translated into international programs by the United Nations. Also, how, emerging from this international program has been an awareness of three ‘pillars’ of sustainability: three key, interdependent and sometimes competing, factors that must always be kept in mind when considering sustainabilty – the environmental, social, and economic whose collective management requires the reconciliation of often competing interests.

Sustainability is a whole-of-life pursuit: it means being aware of the implications of all human activity for the future. It is not just the United Nations that must act on our behalf: you and I must also do what we can in our individual lives. This teaches us a basic lesson in sustainability. The practical strategies we adopt will depend on the scale of time and place that is being investigated. The sustainability article looked at factors operating at three different scales: global, national, and individual.

Most of the articles on this web site provide a ‘Plant commentary and Sustainability Analysis’ module.

The ‘plant commentary’ section reflects the goal of this web site to examine the role of plants in all our activities and at all scales.

Sustainability Analysis

The ‘Sustainability Analysis’ discussion takes a different approach. It provides a modern-day take on an age-old problem: how do we create and maintain harmonious social organization? Most of the major factors involved have remained the same down the ages but they have taken on new meaning in modern times.

Social organization

Historian Ian Morris has defined communities’ social organization in simple terms as:

‘. . .‘their capacity to get things done – to shape the physical, economic, social and intellectual environment to their own ends.’

And more fully as:

‘. . . the bundle of technological, subsistence, organizational, and cultural accomplishments through which people feed, clothe, house, and reproduce themselves, explain the world around them, resolve disputes within their communities, extend their power at the expense of other communities, and defend themselves against others’ attempts to extend power [5]

This, as we have seen, the United Nations regard as equivalent to the effective synthesis of environmental, social and economic factors.
This article investigates some of the factors critical to social organization – social structure & function – both its evolution and disintegration. This is a vast topic and unlikely to reach any definitive conclusions, but it can provide insights into factors influencing sustainability.

For simplicity, these factors will be stated dogmatically as this encourages a critical response in the reader.

So far we have concluded that if humanity as a whole is to flourish then we need stable systems of management that integrate environmental, economic, and social activity for at least three scales: global, national, and individual.

Countries and people that are having difficulty in surviving, that exist in poverty, do not have the luxury of considering such things.

We therefore need to examine those factors that are needed to overcome such difficulties.
Elsewhere, we have found that social activity requires social organization and that those societies with highly developed social organization tend to be more successful in achieving social goals.


Energy is the ultimate source of all work and activity in the universe. For our purposes there are two kinds of energy that limit the possible forms of social organization, biological energy (the energy we obtain from food) and social energy (the additional energy we use to power social activity) such as the energy derived from fossil fuels. In general terms, it is the availability and use of energy that has constrained the forms of social organization that have developed through human history.

Population & urbanization

From 1804 to about 2060, a period of about 250 years, the world population is expected to have increased ten times, from 1 billion to 10-12 billion. This acceleration in growth of human numbers has been fed by cheap energy and associated with an accelerating increase in economic growth and the environmental impact of human consumption that is reflected in the population numbers themselves, since about 7-8% of all the humans that have ever lived (about 100 billion), are living today.

Transport & communication

Historically, communication and transport systems were inextricably linked as they facilitated the passage of people, goods, organisms, and ideas. In recent times communication has become much more concerned with the passage of ideas and information following the invention of telegraph, telephones, radio, fax, television, computers, the internet, and smartphones.

Analysis and synthesis

Clearly what sustainability can achieve is determined in part by the constraints imposed by material factors. These are almost infinite in kind but, for simplicity, and within the context of sustainability; they can be reduced to just five fundamental sustainability building blocks
on which all life depends: energy, water, food, materials, and ecosystem services. These are what are derived from the analysis of material factors.

But these building blocks mean little if we do not know how they are intefrated into human systems and to do this we must understand sustainability at its most complete or synthesised form, which is social organization.

are integrated into populations through systems of transport, communication, and trade, by via systems of governance that are synthesised into a system of social organisation.

Sustainability analysis looks analytically at the elements of social organisation and synthetically at the way these are drawn together by socio-economic factors into a system of social organization.

Communication includes exchange . . . of people, organisms, objects, and ideas.


Historically there are a number of factors that stand out as being both important and open to effective management: population numbers, transport, communication, trade, and technology but these cannot be harnessed without effective governance.

However, without several critical environmental factors socio-economic activity would not be possible and in this sense environmental factors are prior to social and economic ones.

The reason why this fact receives so little attention is because it is taken for granted – it is a given. But these factors can never be ignored.

Principle 1 – Environmental factors are prior to social and economic factors.

underpinning any group activity First, in such a list must be a stable and sustainable global system of governance
If we are to build stable and sustainable flourishing societies then we need to understand those factors that are crucial to the achievement of this end.

an overall understanding of the factors that might make this possible. We all understand intuitively that this requires cooperation, tolerance and hard work but we need a better understanding of the social factors at work here. We have also determined that our approach must entail the integration of social, economic and environmental considerations but all this is still very abstract and general.

It is argued elsewhere on this web site that if we are to understand human history then we need to understand social organization, recognizing that in the course of history the form of social organization has been determined by the limitations of energy use. But what are the most informative conceptual categories we might use in trying to understand the effective use of energy sources.

This is a difficult and complex question with no simple answer and insufficient space to justify here, but there are at least four key factors worth considering in relation to the management of social activity – of ‘getting things done’ : values (constraining what should be done); governance (constraining how it is done); scale (constraining what can be done); technology (constraining the rate at which it is done).

Such a goal demands the careful management of life’s basic physical resources, understood in everyday simple terms as energy, food, water, materials, and biodiversity.

Sustainability analysis

Assessing the degree of success with which resources have been harnessed to create harmonious social organization, or indeed how this might best be done, is a tall order. Isn’t this what we are all aiming for anyway?

Analysis of resources critical for the community of life

The interrelated environmental factors on which all life depends (energy, water, food, materials, and biodiversity. Indofar as these resources and their combination with other factors, support life, then they are known as ecosystem services. These resources do not figure in history books (until they become scarce) as important factors in human history because they are taken as ‘given’ necessities for life to continue at all. Their absence from human narratives belies their importance.

Principle 2 – The environmental factors critical to the community of life are: energy, water, food, materials and other organisms

The temptation to rank these elements can be misleading. For example, no life would be possible without water. However all activity, of whatever kind, depends on the expenditure of energy and there is a strong relationship between human energy use (as wild plants and animals (natura), domesticated plants and animals (agraria), fossil fuels (industria) – and social organization.

Major factors influencing human resource use

In very general terms the larger the number of people (population) the greater the impact on the environment (consider the consumption of the above-listed resources by one person over a lifetime).

Whether resource-use has a detrimental effect on humans or other members of the community of life will depend on the context.

In general, as societies increase in complexity so their capacity to harvest resources becomes more efficient. This is achieved in several major ways. Firstly, by improvements in transport and communication it becomes possible to gather a greater variety of resources, more efficiently, in greater quantities, more rapidly, trading across a wider geographic range. This can be simply understood in terms of the transition from walking, to the use of horse and camel, sailing ship, motor car, steamship and aircraft, and the transition from spoken word, to letter, to telegraph, telephone, fax, and internet. The evolution of these factors depend in turn for their increase efficiency on the application of science to the development of new technology.

Empires & civilizations

The synopsis given above is a (over)simplification of a highly complex situation. However, we need as many ways as possible of understanding the way our activities of today can affect the planet, the community of life, and the humans of tomorrow.

The following discussion of empires and civilizations provides an example of the way the interplay of these factors might be addressed.

Decline & fall

Empires are like giant organisms, they grow and expand. To extend their sovereignty over external territories they require energy in the form of food and resources. For the empire to flourish, each part must be reliable, integrating harmoniously with the whole. Achieving this requires astute governance which, historically, has been achieved through an unambiguous and rigidly applied system of social rules (the law), a generally accepted code of behaviour, and hierarchical chain of command. The imposition of this discipline and conformity was compensated by the benefits of scale – the safety, food security and material benefits that could be enjoyed by the collective that were not available to individuals. Armies had the potential to capture vast territories, ocean-going ships could source goods from distant lands, manufacturers could improve their technologies. Manufacturing a car or computer today requires sourcing materials and skills from around the world: the division of labour accelerated the kind of social diversification and flexibility at scales that could be used to dominate other civilizations.

But, also like organisms, empires might grow and flourish until social, economic or environmental factors fracture the social organization: critical resources may become depleted; a war might result in invasion; internal political strife like failures in leadership or breakdown in other social institutions as uncertainty erodes the sense of common purpose and direction that are evident in buoyant societies. Nineteenth century European nationalism, however ill-founded, helped bind communities together; there may be a natural or man-made disaster, like a famine, flood, fire, a disease epidemic, earthquake etc.

Empires are ephemeral, they wax and wane – some lasting longer than others but eventually they die. Their apparently inevitable demise warns us of the fragility of social organization and the crucial dependence we have on resources, both renewable and unrenewable – but it also alerts us to the beneficial consequences of human ingenuity, commerce, enterprise, and peaceful coexistence.

They depend on the security and harmony of their social organization and historically those civilizations with the largest populations, armies, navies and access to resources (including intellectual resources) through trade and communication have tended to outcompete others.

Today’s urban world in which more than 50% of the population live in cities, evolved out of the first centres of plant and animal domestication. Complex systems of social organization and governance would develop independently from three major world centres arising in latitudes amenable to agricultural domestication and human living. From the Western Mesopotamian core arose the Eurasian civilization of the Nile and Indus valleys and their urban progeny that, from their inception, maintained some trade connections. In the East, Asian communities grew out of the core arising in the Yangtze and Yellow river valleys. Contact between eastern and western cores was most firmly established between the Roman and Han empires. Much later came the third, American, urban centres of Mesoamerica, the Aztecs and Incas, whose contact with Eurasia began in earnest with the arrival of western Europeans in the 15th century.

In the West there was the Mesopotamian core around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where, after the last Ice Age, soils and climate together with animals and plants that were amenable to domestication, all converged to produced conditions suitable for agriculture. Founder crops of Mesopotamia then passed to Egypt’s Nile Valley in the west and Indus valley in the east. By about 4000 BCE when the first Bronze age cites were emerging in and Mesopotamia farming had extended around the Mediterranean and Europe to arrive in the British Isles.

aton had become more elaborato as a consequence of the exchange of trade and ideas that
t along the majo river valleys bul subsecuently expanding into maritime trade within the
he Near East to
Mediterranean Sea, the centre of civilization, as eccnomic and social power, moving out of t
Mediterranean coastal cities like Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Athens, Carthage, Rome, and Marseilles.
A further phase of grcwth occurred during the European Age of Discovery wtien cultural exchange covelopcd
across oceans -first the Allantic, then the Indian ard Pacific Oceans. This gave cities on the At
of Western Europe access to the overseas resources of the Americas – first the plundered çold and sive
the Now World and subsequently goods that lay beyond, like spices, tea, coffee, cocoa, sugarcane, cotton, a
rubber. Cites like Lisbon, Amstordam, Paris, and Loncon prospered as Spain. Pcrtugal, Britain, anc France
constructed a truly global economy through empires whose arms embraced the word

In retrospect we can see a historical pattern of increasing and accelerating socio-economic complexity among certain peoples. Though we must be cautious in designating this pattern as ‘progress’, or ‘improvement’ and equally cautious in interring the inevitability of its path, we can nevertheless see how urbanization, and itsperspective on the world, brought about social transformation. How the benefits of scale can multiply the impacts of science and technology in a transition from hunter-gatherer to Bronze Age urban centres. How following the European Renaissance, scientific and technological development in the West would overtake that
of the East, and how the ‘guns, germs, and steel of European nation-states-become-empires, made possible the international maritime capacity to break out of the Mediterranean Sea into the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans to initiate international trade and accelerate the process of globalization.

Historians are still divided over the factors that have determined global power structures demonstrates their complexity. One problem is that the factors regarded as important will depend on the time scale being considered (see History in 10,000 words and Social crganization).

According to one historian there are seven dimensions of state power: geography, population, econcmy, resources, military, diplomacy and national identity. Major polities have been categorised in varlous ways, the mcst popular being civilizations and empires. At an even wider scale hyperpowers are those that. historically, have dominated contemporary states in major spheres of activity – political, economic, technological, military, and cultural – often associated with vast areas of occupied land. Hyperpowers are sometimes contrasted with superpowers that have exerted global power but together with other nations examples being Britain and America at the time of the Cold War when the Soviet Union also wielded substantial international power. It seems most hyperpowers have achieved this combination by tolerating and accessing the world’s greatest talent in these and other spheres. Empires that
have achieved this include the Persians, Tang dynasty in China, Romans, Mongols, and the United States (the first nation of immigrants to become a hyperpower, also with ethnic and religious neutrality and universal suffrage). Accessing world human capital involves tolerance-acceptance of cultural diversity in law, customs cultures and religions. Citizens are more cooperative and compliant when they feel valued, when they return pride, and loyalty to their polity. Remove this respect and allegiances are quickly changed as occurs in periods of decline. Rome was one of the few empires that commanded this kind of respect. Hyperpowers are necessarily outward-looking and confident in their governance and social structures, cultural introspection and intolerance being symptomatic of decline.

Historically, with the Age of Discovery and Great Divergence dominance was achieved by commanding trace routes rather than land masses and that meant control of the oceans, a consequence of commerce rather than conquest, democracy rather than autocratic rule, and immigration rather than invasion. With the Enlightenment the strategic expediency of tolerance became matters of principle, equality, human rights and mutual respect. Rome assimilated subjugated people through the inducements of citizenship, participation in the empire, and the appeal of Roman culture. Even emperors could have mixed ancestry. For example, at its height, Roman education was strongly influenced by the culture of the ancient Greeks and the state absorbed and the religious practices of its subjects.

A glimpse into the future

Historian Morris offers us a glimpse into the world future of social organization:

‘‘As I see it, we should expect the United States to remain an indispensable nation for another generation, perhaps even two, but probably not three. But the rise of the East is not the only dynamic we need to consider when projecting future power structures. As social development rises ever higher, revolutions in genetics, computing, robotics and nanotechnology are beginning to feed back into our biology, transforming what it means to be human. As these changes accelerate, old-fashioned debates about whether America is number one may become increasingly irrelevant.’ [6]

Key sustainability criteria & finite resources

Articles on this web site attempt to assess sustainability through history, a difficult task as we have seen, with so much depending on scale and context. The creation of any taxonomy of sustainability (which encampasses all physical human activity as well as the mental component of welllbeing) will be extremely difficult and contentious. For example, Living Planet Report of 2014 suggests nine key limiting planetary boundaries that must not be crossed while at the same time they must meet the human desire for health, wealth, power, and participation (general well-being) on the path to inclusive and sustainable economic development: climate change, land use change, phosphorus and nitrogen, freshwater use, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading. At the chemical level there are the vital constituents of life itself and their place within global biogeochemical cycles: water, oxygen, carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen.

However, in assessing sustainability I have placed emphasis on the following key criteria for sustainability analysis: social organization, Ecosystem Services, The reasons for this selection are discussed in following articles.

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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impact of population (urbanization) technology

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