A global social boundary?

A global social boundary?

Sander van der Leeuw
Arizona State University
Santa Fe Institute
Venice 9-10 May 2014
INSITE Final meeting


Insite Project

May 09, 2014


  1. A global social boundary? Sander van der Leeuw Arizona State

    University Santa Fe Institute Venice 9-10 May 2014 INSITE Final meeting
  2. 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting The The current situation current situation

    © Will Steffen 2 Nature Society
  3. 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 3 The apparent limits The apparent

    limits • • CO CO2 2 • • Methane and other Methane and other nitrogen gases nitrogen gases • • Ocean acidification Ocean acidification • • Biodiversity Biodiversity • • Phosphorus and Phosphorus and sulfur cycle sulfur cycle • • Ozone depletion Ozone depletion • • Freshwater use Freshwater use • • Aerosol loading Aerosol loading • • Chemical pollution Chemical pollution • • Land use change Land use change © J. Rockstrom et al
  4. Society and Nature • Society defines its environment (and leaves

    out what it thinks is not relevant) • Society decides the environmental issues and challenges • It is up to society to deal with them • It does so in ways that suit society, not necessarily the environment • Sustainability is fundamentally a societal issue that affects the environment • We have looked for environmental planetary boundaries, but not for social ones. • Can we identify such (a) societal planetary boundary (-ies)? 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 4
  5. Societies exchange organization against energy and matter • Fundamentally, societies

    need to sustain their members, provide matter and energy • To harness matter and energy, they organize the world around them • The more they can organize, the more they can harness • The more matter and energy they need, the more they need to organize • To keep the process going, societies need to innovate… • How have our societies managed to do that in the past? 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 5
  6. AD 700-1000: Dark Ages • High entropy, low alignedness •

    Very limited extent of flow structures: little trade • Huge loss of information in crafts, technology and industry • Abandonment of infrastructure • Little aggregation • Local survival strategies 5/9/14 INSITE Final meeting 6 The roman arena in Arles contained the whole of the city’s population at this time
  7. AD 1000-1200: First stirrings • Oscillation between different small systems

    – Cohesion alternates with entropy • New spatial structure from bottom up (Duby 1953) • Competition for access to local resources – New (feudal) social/hierarchical structure • Small surplus enables local armies, castles, etc. 5/9/14 INSITE Final meeting 7 Les Baux de Provence
  8. AD 1200-1400: Renaissance • Local, later regional markets – Link

    S and N European centers • N Italy – Champagne – Low Countries – Britain – Hanse • Black Death in the 14th C. – More urban aggregation + wealth – Major cultural and social shifts • Italian Renaissance. – ‘Top of the heap’ are towns (market systems) – Diverse resources, better information processing link wider areas 5/9/14 INSITE Final meeting 8
  9. The emergence of Europe 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 9 The

    Hanseatic League The Renaissance city states The growth of France
  10. AD 1400-1600: Birth of the Modern World • Continent-wide transition

    from rural barter to monetized urban economy – Hierarchical rural structures replaced by market-based, heterarchical ones • do not optimize behavior; more flexible • link much larger number of people in networks with nodes • Trade & commerce expand across political entities • Heyday of city power, trade and urban immigration • Exploration of the rest of the world – New downstream information processing areas – Steepest information-processing and value gradients 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 10
  11. Birth of the Modern World System 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting

  12. AD 1600-1800: territorial states and trading empires • Merging of

    political and economic power – Cities and rulers eventually come to mixed hierarchical- heterarchical systems – Taxes exchanged against security; territorialization • Intercontinental resource acquisition – Leveling off of value gradient initially compensated by acquisition of new territories + products – Later either independent or exploited colonies (US versus India) • Increasing industrial base of nations – More people in production process 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 12
  13. The colonial Empires 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 13

  14. The extraction-to-waste society • Over the centuries, ‘the west’ has

    managed to create a global system of resource extraction (natural, social) • Those resources were concentrated in the ‘developed’ nations • That system was driven by the following cycle: • Problem-solving structures knowledge  increases information processing capacity  allows the cognition of new problems  creates new knowledge  involves more and more people in processing information  increases group size involved and its degree of aggregation  creates more problems  increases need for problem-solving  structures more knowledge … etc. 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 14
  15. Fossil energy and the Anthropocene • Energy flow is indicative

    of system size, as is # of consumer goods etc. • A human body needs 100 W; modern Americans use c. 11,000 W • The transformation begins with the Industrial Revolution • Why? 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 15
  16. Innovation acceleration • Until c.1750 energy constrained the system •

    From then on, innovation the main constraint • Innovation accelerated, resembling a Ponzi Scheme • Innovation transitions from demand- to supply-driven • Marketing fills the gap • Result: our present consumption society 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 16 Average per capita wealth worldwide… Our global footprint…
  17. Individuals and societies • Individuals live by processing matter •

    Individuals learn, learn how to learn, and organize their world by processing information • Matter and energy cannot be shared, but information can • Human societies are kept together by shared ideas, cultures and forms of organization: shared information processing • Information-processing capacity is power, is wealth • Does information-processing capacity spread equally through a society? 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 17
  18. The information dynamic 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 18 The core

    processes information faster than the periphery, gathers more information, attracts more processing capacity … and energy If the process is hampered, the structure dissipates … … and eventually collapses
  19. Wealth distribution 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 19 • Of course

    we have known this for a long time • But i.m.o. the economic explanations are insufficient
  20. A secular slowdown? • Is Piketty right? – His data

    are incontrovertible – They point to a growing concentration of information-processing capacity in the hands of the very few – The dynamic is accelerating – It points to a potentially very explosive situation • Is Larry Summers right? – I cannot follow the technical arguments he uses – But it is clear that innovation (value creation) is slowing down – I think he has hit on a manifestation of the societal boundary: a fundamental slowdown in the west’s innovativeness 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 20
  21. • Innovation productivity declined 22% in a generation. 5/9/14 INSITE

    final meeting 21 Capital moved our of the ‘real’ economy Other aspects … • Are we globally hitting an innovation boundary? • How would such a boundary manifest itself?
  22. Towards an opportunity economy • The core has extracted from

    the periphery all it can • The productive economy is dwarfed by the speculative one • We must re-balance the speculative and productive financial sectors • From an extractive economy to a nourishing one – Money is made out of the flow of information and resources • From supply-driven to demand-driven – Why not have the flow go in the opposite direction? • What prevents this from happening? – Path-dependency of the current structure – Not just capitalism – our whole world view is involved – Marginal cost in energy terms of information flow 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 22
  23. The expansion of ‘value space’ is core • Globally increase

    the number of things people see as valuable (and may want) • Stimulate personal and collective development of have- nots • Create cultural (and value) diversity • Exchange short-term for long-term strategy • Expansion of global value space – will reduce social tensions and make societies better able to deal with change – will open up huge opportunities for business • Must be done while reducing resource use: dematerialization 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 23
  24. The ICT revolution • It reduces the marginal cost of

    spreading information-processing capacity to near zero • It can thereby transform the hierarchical nature of information- processing structures into horizontal networks – Decoupling energy flow from information flow frees the latter of a major constraint • That is the fundamental importance of the social networks – They have based their business models on this • It counteracts our emphasis on entities (individuals, groups, corporations, nations) by an emphasis on relations – Borges – This creates difficulties for the definition of identities – It loosens geographical (energy-related) boundaries • This will lead to a major restructuration of our social organizations • It enables the discovery of novel values and a growth of the global value space – In particular by involving the non-western world 5/9/14 INSITE final meeting 24