Big Sustainability


First published on October 23, 2018

Big Sustainability


First published on October 23, 2018

This multi-lesson, introductory course in Big Sustainability explores cognitive biases, examines challenges to sustainability, briefly reviews planetary sciences, ecology and thermodynamics, and describes unified science concepts. It then delves into the Small and Big perspectives on sustainability, considers the interaction between those two perspectives and then described a framework to develop robust solutions to sustainability that encompasses macroscopic, integrated approaches, including economic and social sustainability.

This multi-lesson, introductory course in Big Sustainability explores cognitive biases, examines challenges to sustainability, briefly reviews planetary sciences, ecology and thermodynamics, and describes unified science concepts. It then delves into the Small and Big perspectives on sustainability, considers the interaction between those two perspectives and then described a framework to develop robust solutions to sustainability that encompasses macroscopic, integrated approaches, including economic and social sustainability.

Table of Contents

  1. 1. What Is Big Sustainability and Why Is It Important

    Learning Objectives:

    • Describe what is big sustainability
    • Explain why big sustainability is important.

    What Is Big Sustainability?

    Imagine a world where everyone had what they needed, where all people could have interesting, healthy, prosperous, meaningful lives. Further imagine a world where all these things could be obtained in a sustainable way, for many centuries, where the Earth’s ecosystem and beauty was preserved, where society could endure in a manner in which people felt hope, freedom, secureness and fairness.

    Big Sustainabilityincorporates a comprehension of large-scale social, economic and historical forces, processes and potentials to develop an approach for thinking about sustainability challenges and a framework for developing solutions. It encompasses macroscopic, integrated approaches to sustainability, including environmental, economic and social sustainability. Big Sustainability involves large-scale, integrated systematic thinking. It recognizes that multi-century “soft” physical forces exist that act to push society along certain paths.

    Big Sustainability involves several branches.

    • Unified science, including a science of society.
    • Constructive thinking approaches
    • Thepsychology of sustainability and human decision-making, especially in very large groups.

    Big Sustainability strives to bring the goals of humanity through the filters of physical, social and psychological reality to develop a framework for identifying robust, practicable solutions to sustainability challenges.

    Science of society, psychology of sustainability, and constructive thinking approaches

    Three areas of Big Sustainability

    Why Is Big Sustainability Important?

    Environmental sustainability will not happen without economic and social sustainability. If humans feel stressed, environmental sustainability will be a low priority. Consequently,  excessive use of renewable resources and rampant destruction of the environment will be more likely to occur. Consequences of that stress include environmental damage caused by wars and accelerated use of nonrenewable resources.

    In the past, disruptive events as such war might last a few years, and then ecosystems would recover during times of peace. Destruction in one part of the world could be offset since other parts would remain intact and help with the recovery. Yet, in current times, a global nuclear war can destroy the Earth’s entire ecosystem. Or, given the international interdependency of national economies, severe economic shocks can lead to global economic collapse, and nearly did so in 2008. Even conventional wars, such as Syria’s civil war in , has lead to a refugee problem that encouraged in the partial break-up of Europe (e.g the Brexit) and the fall of several democracies. In reaction to globalism, there are nationalist and fascist movements in many developed countries that threaten the freedom of speech to vital to gain and spread the knowledge required to overcome human crises.

    Thousands of dedicated activists and scientists work on sustainability. Yet despite there have been some successes, humanity and the environment are rushing towards a catastrophic future. Just climate change itself may lead to the end of complex life on Earth. There may be several reasons for this lack of success. First, we do not sufficiently understand the psychology of sustainability and human decision-making, especially when they occur in very large groups. Second, we do not sufficiently recognize and understand medium-term “soft” physical forces that push society along certain paths. Finally, there is a lack of really large-scale, integrated systematic thinking.

    If one fails acts without understanding the big picture, one can actually make matters worse. Imagine a factory production line, where a worker in the beginning of the line starts working much faster than the other workers. Will this effort produce any more product? No. All the worker will do is to use up more raw materials and create an late, growing pile of unfinished inventory in front of the next worker. Each and every worker and part of that line must work in coordination to be truly more productive.

    Big Sustainability strives to better understand and overcome these challenges. These challenges are embodied by the following parable.

    The Scientists and The Elephant

    There is an old parable that illustrates the importance of systematic thinking which is fundamental to Big Sustainability.

    • It was six scientists
    • To learning much inclined,
    • Who went to see the Elephant
    • (Though the night was dark as coal),
    • That each by observation
    • Might satisfy their minds

    They conclude that the elephant is like a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending upon where they touch.

    • And so these scientists
    • Disputed loud and long,
    • Each in their own opinion
    • Exceeding stiff and strong,
    • Though each was partly in the right
    • And all were in the wrong.

    This parable is a modern adaptation of the Blind Men and the Elephant, by American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) which in turn was based upon a fable told in India many years ago.

    What Makes This Different?

    Big Sustainability goes deeper. In addition to big picture, systematic, interdisciplinary thinking, Big Sustainability goes to the roots of our ecological and social systems. We recognize that our world is the product of cosmological processes, and that our lives, environment and societies are the natural progression of such processes, that we don’t exist in isolation. This approach provides us with an understanding of how things work, the forces that drive our world, and the constraints that fight back. Even so, we never forget that we are each conscious individuals.


  2. 2. Understanding Ourselves

    Learning objectives:

    • Understand biases of ourselves and others that can affect the interpretation of information and negatively impact decision-making
    • Learn strategies for overcoming those biases

    Thinking Reactions

    How we feel about a topic, news or information may color our assessment of its validity or relevance. Therefore it is important to understand how we feel about a topics and statements before we consider their validity. It is also important to understand the sources of our biases, the consequences of those biases and strategies to overcome them.

    • There are several thinking reactions that can affect and distort our thinking. Awareness of these reactions, their consequences and strategies to overcome them can help strengthen one’s thinking.
    • Even if we know about these reactions already, they are easy to forget. Hence it is good to frequently review them.

    Dueling Parts of the Human Brain

    At the core of the human brain is a reptile brain. This brain is reactive and reflexive. It is useful for quick reactions such as immediate danger and fighting. Many of our base emotions are within this layer.

    On top of the reptile brain is a mammal brain. The mammal brain is much more socially aware. Our emotions such as love come from this layer. Our ability to interact in groups comes from this layer as well.


    Your immediate judgement of a situation will be based upon your instincts and biases.


    Your initial reactions will tend to be negative and uninformed. You will be easily manipulated by others.


    Wait until you are calm to make key decisions or interpret important facts.

    Action–Rationality Paradox

    The action-rationality paradoxis related to the duel existence of reptile and mammal brains. To motivate ourselves, we need to activate our reptile brain. We need to boost our confidence and tell ourselves, we can “do anything”, “beat any odds.” It can help increase our adrenaline levels and increase the chances of success during battle. Unfortunately, much of the reptilian “hype” is nonsense. To think rationally, we need to use our mammalian brain, such as to plan a battle.

    Here is the paradox: if we use our reptile brain to plan a battle, it will decrease our chances of victory. If we use our mammalian brain to fight a battle we will react more slowly and less strongly. So we cannot use the same part of our brain to plan and fight.


    Think rationally about goals and plans, then tell oneself a lot of nonsense when one goes into battle (or give a presentation or interview for a job).

    Confirmation Bias


    We tend to believe things that confirm what we already believe.


    We become more and more convinced of something regardless of what most external evidence is telling us.


    • Identify what you want to believe before interpreting facts.
    • Be especially critical of and triple-check any facts that confirm your existing biases or make you feel good.

    Kill-the-Messenger Syndrome


    We tend to reward or punish the deliverer of a message based upon the favorability of the content, due to the immediate reaction of our reptile brain. This is known as kill the messengersyndrome.


    This syndrome has the effect that people are hesitant to deliver bad news, so we may not receive important information.


    • For the message recipient: remind oneself to save one’s reaction to the message for the party responsible for is contents.
    • For the message deliverer: try to take measures to mitigate the impact of any negative content. Be ready with solutions.

    Concepts of Perception of Time


    We humans tend to think of time in terms of:

    • Now
    • Soon
    • Infinity

    ➜ Consequence

    This makes it difficult for people to think about and plan for the “medium term” (i.e. the time between soon and infinity). Sustainability efforts are often targeted at infinity or 10,000+ years. Yet, we live our lives in real time. The Earth’s eco-system may be saved or destroyed within the next 50 years (or less), not now or in 1000 years.

    • Bad stuff may happen before we get to infinity.
    • In real systems, infinity = equilibrium = death


    Write out timelines and schedule milestones. Don’t just keep it in your head, because the human brain does not have enough “time bins”. Also, remind oneself that solutions designed for excessively-long periods of time often tend to be inflexible.

    Coldness of Math


    Most people distrust math and quantitative reasoning.

    ➜ Consequence

    Many people may get hurt to save the few. Many impractical options are acted upon.


    Do the math. Calculate the odds as best as possible. Multiply them by the value of the impact of each potential outcome. Every number should either be a ratio or expressed in units.

    Bias Towards the Local


    We often favor what we know and can control. We have the most information and influence over local phenomena, from which we can get the most immediate, certain benefits. This also tends to be our comfort zone. We have a distrust over big things, especially those we know little about. So we often miss the big picture.


    We overlook system effects and interdependencies. We neglect the big picture, which may be far more significant.

    ✓ Strategy

    Take the effort to see the big picture, and the impact of the local and global pictures on each other.



    There is often the belief that we cannot change anything, or at least not the big things. Although this can sound disempowering, it has the benefit that we absolve ourself of any responsibility for positive change.

    ➜ Consequence

    Likewise, this can also result in a false idealism. There is the feeling that since we cannot make change, we should adopt the most idealistic position possible regardless of its practicality.


    Remember that effort typically pays off, even if not in ways expected.


    Please choose the best answer.

    Further Reading


  3. 3. Hard, Visible Challenges Versus Soft, Hidden Ones

    Learning objectives:

    • The hard physical challenges to sustainability
    • The soft challenges that restrict possible solutions


    Society faces several hard, physical challenges to sustainability, such as greenhouse warming, nuclear war, fossil fuel exhaustion and pollution. Their physical mechanisms as well as how to physically overcome them are well understood. However, there are soft challenges as well, due to social and indirect physical mechanisms that make overcoming hard challenges even more difficult.

    The Hard Challenges

    Even though most of us know the “hard”, physical challenges faced by society, it is worth reviewing several key challenges.

    Global Nuclear War

    If most of the nuclear weapons possessed by the superpowers were used, the Earth’s ecosystem would be completely destroyed by the heat, fire and radiation. This can happen faster than it can be stopped, in less than an hour, hence prevention is vital. The world’s major nuclear arsenals are ready to be launched upon a moment’s notice, resulting in the destruction of humanity and most life on Earth. A global nuclear war can be triggered by merely one leader of the three super-powers having a really bad morning.

    Nuclear explosion on Bikini Atoll in 1954

    An atomic bomb, such as the one dropped on Hiroshima during World War Two, can wipe out an entire city center. A hydrogen bomb can wipe out an entire state. Many nuclear missiles carry multiple warheads.

    • All it takes is one superpower’s leader to have a really bad day.
    • Risk x consequence?
    • A trivial challenge? If it happens, then there is nothing left to worry about?
    • So why should we care?
    US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile , showing a rise then fall.

    US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile (U.S. Government)

    As of September 2013, the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads consisted of 4,804 warheads. This number represents an 85 percent reduction in the stockpile from its maximum (31,255) at the end of fiscal year 1967, and a 78 percent reduction from its level (22,217) when the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989. The below figure shows the U.S. nuclear stockpile from 1945 through September 30, 2013. There are still enough nuclear weapons in existence to totally destroy humanity.
    Video of an atomic bomb explosion.

    Climate Change

    The build-up of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide is raising global temperatures thus disrupting many weather- and eco-systems.

    GHG emissions vert_bar chart

    GHG emissions to 2010 (image credit: U.S. Government)

    Climate change is a potentially exponential killer. Climate change can result in even greater greenhouse gas emissions, such as by higher evaporation rates and the release of methane from the arctic regions. Such will result in even greater climate change, creating a spiraling effect that can get out of control very easily.

    GHG emissions pie chart, with 74.8% from coal, 19% from petroleum

    GHG emissions (image credit: U.S. Government)

    • Even worse, this temperature rise can release further greenhouse gasses, possibly resulting in a runaway greenhouse effect, such as on 900 °F Venus.
    • Does it matter whether caused by humans? If a house gets struck and set on fire by lightning, or starts a forest fire, do we let it all burn down just because lightning is not created by humans?

    Environmental destruction

    Several aspects of the environment are facing diminishment and destruction.

    • Water. Rainfall patterns are changing. Underground reservoirs are being depleted. Human are using more water than some ecosystems can sustainably provide.
    • Farmlands. Soil is being eroded. Much prime farmland is being paved over for homes and roads.
    • Rainforests, especially in tropical regions such as South America and Southeast Asia, are being cut down for farming. Often these farms are very temporary due to poor soil. The rainforest often does not regrow after its destruction.
    • Many species of plants and animals are endangered. When they become extinct, a gap in the eco-system is created, and biodiversity is lost.


    Pollution covers so many areas that it deserves special mention. Just as humanity can run out of nonrenewable resources, it can create “negative” resources. Often negative resources are disproportionately dangerous. A human needs a lot of food, but can be killed by a tiny amount of poison or biomaterial.
    The build-up of toxins and waste in the environment is making parts of the Earth unsuitable for human, animal and plant life. Sources of pollution include:

    • Pesticides
    • Household chemicals
    • Mining waste
    • Plastics
    • Biohazard waste
    • Nuclear waste


    • Greenhouse gasses
    • Toxin readings
    • Plastics in ocean
    • Rainforest destruction rate

    Refugees and Displaced Persons

    Each year, millions of people are having to leave their homelands due to violence, poverty, political oppression and climate change. As of this writing, there are 65.3 million refugees and other displayed persons (UNHCR 2016).  With the fall of Aleppo and the fight over Mosul, these numbers could increase. Countries that take in many refugees and displaced persons can receive both benefits and incur challenges:

    • Add new capabilities and diversity
    • Overwhelms local social bonds and customs

    The governments of several western democracies are falling due to populist pushback against accepting refugees and other immigrants. Disruption is a trendy goal these days. Yet is disruption always good for everyone? Do we care?

    Energy Supply

    The energy supply is sufficient for current use, except that current sources result in tremendous production of greenhouse gasses. Persons in developing countries could certainly use more energy locally, especially cooking fuel and electric power. (The terms energy and power are often used synonymously, but are defined more precisely elsewhere.)

    Several petroleum drilling rigs and pump against background sky

    Petroleum drilling rigs and pump (U.S. Govt.)

    However, the fossil and nuclear fuels upon which our contemporary society depends are nonrenewable, so that our current rate of use of fossil fuels is not sustainable.

    From 2005 to 2010. OECD countries flat. Non-OECD increasing.

    Energy supply (credit: U.S. govt.)

    Hard Challenges As Superficial Challenges?

    These hard challenges are real, physical issues. They are not figments of our imagination, and solutions must follow the laws of physics. However, the impediments to solving these challenges are often social and psychological. We could reduce climate change if enough of society has enough will to do so. Hence, many hard, physical challenges are in essence “soft” psychological ones.

    • What are the root causes of these challenges?

    Soft Challenges

    Most hard challenges can be overcome, if one can overcome the soft challenges behind them.

    Soft Challenges—Level 1

    Let us call Level 1 soft challenges that represent the first level of getting people to accept sustainability challenges and modify their behavior appropriately. Some Level 1 soft challenges include:

    • Getting people to recognize and accept problems, despite their personal and cultural biases.
    • Once problems are recognized, getting people to take sufficient action
    • Trying to get people to work together to holistically overcome problems
    • Overcoming the effects of game theory and the raising of the commons, where people discount problems to justify individually-selfish behavior that makes the problem worse

    Soft Challenges—Level 2

    Let us call Level 2 soft challenges that represent challenges that represent medium-term physical and social forces that are not generally recognized but that have a significant medium-term effect upon sustainability. Examples include:

    • Historical forces
    • Thermodynamic forces upon society

  4. 4. Energy and Thermodynamics


    Thermodynamics is a branch of physics that concerns the flow of heat energy and the ability to convert energy into work. Thermodynamics is also extensively used in chemistry, atmospheric science, geology and engineering.

    Thermodynamics is a branch of yet a larger branch of physics called statistical mechanics, which brings thermodynamics closer to modern physics. In fact, the discovery of quantum mechanics was an outcrop of thermodynamics. Josiah Williard Gibbs first utilized a quantum approach to express chemical reactions. Max Planck then utilized a quantum approach to express energy levels in photons being edited from a hot object.

    Motivation and Applications

    An important motivation for thermodynamics was to understand how to make engines more efficient, and what the maximum efficiency for engines could be. Another application is to express the energy involved in chemical reactions.

    Further Reading

  5. 5. Planetary Sciences

    Planetary sciences concerns the geology, oceanography and meteorology of planets. Most of what is know in these sciences concerns the Earth. However, they are applicable to other planets both in the solar system and beyond.


    Geology concerns the materials on and below a planet’s surface. There are complex interactions between both deep layers of the Earth and its surface.

    Layers of Earth shown from core to surface oceans and continent.

    Interior of the Earth. Photo credit: USGS.

    The current condition of surface rocks can also tell us about a planet’s distant past history. How rocks have formed can tell us about past processed far below the process. How rocks on the surface have been weathered and worn can tell us about the past climate. Sometimes, each layer of a rock represents a past climate era.

    Large, worn, layered rock above grit and small rocks

    Cross-bedding on Mars (credit: NASA)


    Although oceans are literally sandwiched between the realms of geology and meteorology, the oceans can have a tremendous influence on the atmosphere and climate. Chemical reactions in oceans can remove CO2, and life in the oceans can add oxygen to the atmosphere.

    Warm and cool currents looping around oceans and continents

    Warm and cool ocean currents. Photo credit: NOAA.


    The atmosphere has a tremendous impact upon the conditions for life. Plants require CO2 and animals require oxygen for the basic purposes of their metabolism. Rain provides vital supplies of water, the vital solvent of life.

    Downward flow of air at 30°

    Vertical air flow by latitude and Hadley Cell. Photo credit: NOAA.

    Energy Basics

    This quiz covers basic concepts about energy.

  6. 6. Introduction to Ecology and Earth Sciences


    Disk of Earth featuring Africa and cloud swirls again space

    Earth as seen from Apollo 17 (credit: NASA)

    The Earth’s ecosystem places a crucial role in sustainability. We breath the air, drink the water and are dependent upon sunlight for food. Therefore it is good to refresh one’s memory with a few facts about it. The Earth Sciences (often called Geosciences) include Atmospheric Science (Meteorology), Geology and Oceanography.

    Ecology is the relationships between living organisms and their relationships with the environment. Ecology studies energy and matter flows, and the dynamic relationships between entities an ecosystems. Food webs and the changes of populations over time are important matters in ecology.

    Further Reading

  7. 7. Unified Science


    A major goal of Big Sustainability is to develop a unified science. A unified science would will offer several major benefits.

    1. It would allow a wide range of phenomena to be studied and understood using the same principles.
    2. It will allow experts from different fields to  communicate more effectively with each other. This would make it easier to understand and analyze the big picture.
    3. It will better enable systematic thinking by capturing more parts of the system and understanding how they relate to each other, identifying interdependencies.
    4. as well as to develop comprehensive expressions for the state of the entire system, allowing of more effective global optimization.

    The beginnings of a unified science are discussed here. There are several concepts that are interrelated and have broad applications.


    An important characteristic of unified science are unifying principles and terminology. Such should be broad enough to encompass many phenomena and disciplines, but sufficiently precise to allow measurement. Terminology is a special challenge, since each field has its own particular terms. Ironically, many fields use the same terms as other fields, but with different and even incompatible meanings.

    Another important characteristic is to be able to relate various terms and principles to each other. Likewise, it should allow describing the impact of various components of a system on each other.

    Terminology and Principles

    The following terms are proposed for a unified science. They are defined independently of their use in other fields. (These terms and their definitions are experimental, are still being developed and may change.

    • A systemis a collection of interrelated elements.
    • potential is the possibility to achieve. In economics, the consumption of potential is called revenue.
    • Achievement is progress towards some goal of an individual or system. In physics, achievement can be called work. In economics, achievement can be called production or profit.
    • A tendencyis something that increases the likelihood of an event. Tendency is a broader term than the physical concept of force. All forces are tendencies, not all tendencies are forces. A potential is ultimately dependent upon a tendency.
    • An engine represents a means to transform potential into achievement.
    • Efficiency is the proportion of consumption that becomes transformed into production (achievement).
    • Waste is the proportion of potential consumed that does not become transformed into achievement.
    • Equilibrium is the eventual end state of any isolated system, when all the potential has been achieved. The goal of an isolated system is achievement.
    • flow is the progression or transfer of quantities within or to the outside of a system.
    • Dynamic equilibrium is when consumption is balanced with the relevant flow.
    • A processis a set of steps during a transformation.
    • “Momentum” is the resistance of a process to change. Momentum in the physical sense is due to the mass and velocity of an object. The “momentum” of a social process might be due to the size of a population and their physical needs such as for food. “Momentum” is akin to inertia, where inertia is the weighting component of momentum.

    These concepts can be used to express and analyze a broad range of situations. Let us attempt to interrelate some of the terms.

    Imagine a potential. An engine transforms that potential into achievement. If the potential is nonrenewable, once all of the potential has been achieved, the system will have reached equilibrium.

  8. 8. The Small

    This multi-lesson, introductory course in Big Sustainability explores cognitive biases, examines challenges to sustainability, briefly reviews planetary sciences, ecology and thermodynamics, and describes unified science concepts. It then delves into the Small and Big perspectives on sustainability, considers the interaction between those two perspectives and then described a framework to develop robust solutions to sustainability that encompasses macroscopic, integrated approaches, including economic and social sustainability.

  9. 9. The Big

    Perspective of The Big

    The perspective of the big is the overall, holistic, systems perspective, typically looking from the outside inwards.

    • Represented by the pronoun “They”
    • An Outer Perspective
    • Top-down approaches.
    • An entire system that embodies all of its interrelated components.
    • A nation, a continent, a world.

    The Goal of the Big

    • Global optimization
    • A global optimum is the maximum achievement of a goal for an entire system, rather than for any of its individual components or subsystems (e.g. local optima).

    The Really Big

    The Universe is the biggest system and perspective known by science. The age of the known universe is about 13.8 billion years. The size of the observed universe is about 90 billion light years in diameter. The distance we can observe is limited by the speed of light.

    Bell-shaped structure showing universe suddenly exploding from a point, then gradually expanding until recent times, at which the expansion accelerates.

    Cosmic Background Radiation (Credit: NASA)

    Note that while the Universe has been expanding and cooling, it has become clumpier with structures such as nebulae and hot spots such as stars.

    Bright stars agains hazy clouds of glowing gas, part-of which is blocked from view by a dark horsehide shaped nebula

    Horsehead nebula and foreground stars. (Credit: Adam Block, Steinberg Family /NOAO/ AURA/NSF)


    It is possible to create simulations to model and analyze the Big. Here are several useful tools for simulating the Big.

    • Xcode for OSX (a somewhat large download). This is free and it is useful for editing files.
    • Ruby language for simulations. It is really simple to start with and it is the basis for many web applications using a framework called Rails.
    • Python language for simulations and analysis. It has many useful libraries.
    • R language for plotting and more.
    • Processing language for graphics and animations.


  10. 10. Critical Resource Sustainability

    Such are called critical resourcesare scarce resources whose availability limits the entire production of a system.

    It has been known for about 100 years the human society has been using up critical resources that are non-renewable resources (irreplaceable). The energy from petroleum might be replaced by solar and wind power, but metals, ground water, rare earths and phosphorus do not have ready substitutes.

    A group called the Technical Alliance began discussing such in the early 1920s. Technocracy, Inc., a successor group pointed out these issues in the 1930s. In the 1970s, a Club of Rome study Limits to Growth (1972) used modern computing technologies (system dynamics) to model such resource exhaustion and its implications.

    When people use the term sustainability, they are often mean the exhaustion of critical resources and its impact upon the sustainability of human society.

  11. 11. System Dynamics


    How does one model an entire universe or even a single ecosystem? System dynamics provides a means of studying and simulating the progression over time of a process involving multiple, interacting components. It was initially developed by J. Forrester at MIT in the mid-1950s.

    • Widely used to model industrial processes.
    • Used to model the progression of the world, and its economy and environment by the Club of Rome study Limits to Growth (1972).




    Further Reading

  12. 12. Climate Change


    Certain gasses trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and further warm up the surface. An increase in such gasses is literally like pacing an extra blanket over a bed. These gasses include carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) as well as some other gasses. There as been a steady increase in the presence of these gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere since the industrial revolution.

    Plot of exponential increase of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses from 1700 to 2000)

    Annula Greenhouse Gas Index (credit: NOAA)


    The increasing presence of greenhouse gasses is causing the Earth’s temperature to increase, which is causing polar ice to melt (potentially raising ocean levels and flooding costal areas) and disruption of the Earth’s weather patterns resulting in increased damaging extreme weather events and drought. What is even more frightening is increased temperatures might further increase the level of greenhouse gasses, resulting in a run-away increase in temperatures, until the Earth is barren of life. This has already happened in the case of the planet Venus, where surface temperature are about 900° F.

    Why Does The Source Matters?

    Some people say that the burning of fossil fuels and forests by humans have cause the increase. Other people say that the causes are natural.

    This question is important from a philosophical point of view. For example, lightning strikes a schoolhouse full of children and starts a fire, there are likely some people who would say not to put out the fire and let the building and children burn, since it is a natural event. One cannot say whether this position is right or wrong, since it is a matter of one’s personal beliefs and philosophy.

    However, if the goal of sustainability is assumes, then from a strategic perspective, the source is completely irrelevant. What matters is whether human society is capable of reducing the levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.


    A Global Challenge Requiring Global Cooperation

    Climate change is a challenge that most experts agree must be handled through global cooperation and constraints. Although we all as individuals have an impact upon greenhouse gas production and climate change, we need to work together as a global community to overcome this challenge. One can use system dynamics to model the flow of green house gasses and heat into and out of the atmosphere.

    Solar energy flows ityo and through the Earth's atmosphere; most gets radiated back into space.

    Energy flows to and from the Earth’s surface and atmosphere (credit: U.S. Govt.)


    Further Information

  13. 13. Economic Sustainability

    Economic sustainability is the extent to which an economic system can continue without the requirement of extraordinary corrective measures. Economic sustainability goes a level of abstraction beyond critical resource sustainability. Economics is the science of the allocation of scarce resources. In a sense, it concerns who gets what and how much.

    Even if a society has sufficient physical resources to meet the basic needs of its population, its financial system may result in instabilities that can cause financial and economic crises. One example are economic bubbles. Another issue might be excessive borrowing that cannot be sustained. During the 1800s and 1900s (and as recently as 2007-2011), the USA has experienced several severe economic downturns that have been extremely disruptive.

    Most economic systems based upon debt are inherently unstable, as shown in the MONAD simulator.

    Another issue is that although total industry production increases, labor productivity has also greatly increased, so that less labor is required per unit of goods. Hence there is less need for industrial labor and thus a decrease in the quantity of manufacturing jobs. (The figure below shows this trend). Paradoxically, despite greater productivity, unemployed workers cannot afford such goods, as they typically do not own the means of production, and therefore cannot derive direct income from such production. Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will only increase this trend. Extraordinary measures must be taken for there to be markets for such goods, such as welfare, a minimum income or increased taxes and public employment.

    Plot showing rising production and decreasing labor hours.

    Plot showing decreasing amount of labor required per unit of production. Part actual data, part projection. (Credit: Technocracy, Inc. circa 1930s)

  14. 14. Social Sustainability

    Social sustainability goes a level further in abstraction than economic sustainability. For example, if a system can provide a livable basic income for everyone in a sustainable manner, than that system might be economically sustainable. However, if a basic income is insufficient to keep most of the population satisfied, then there will be a source of social instability. It that instability cannot be contained or counter-balanced, then the society itself is unsustainable.

    If people develop unrealistic expectations for a society or a distorted view of scientific reality, then they may place disruptive pressures on a society.


  15. 15. Entropy Accounting for the Big

    The Big often concerns systems involving nonrenewable physical or social resources, or flows of such that are only replenished at limited rates. Accounting for entropy, or its proxies, can help us track where we are in the progression of such systems and understand the state of certain factors.

  16. 16. Interactions Between The Big and The Small


    It is the interactions between big and small phenomena that mediate much what concerns us.

    Game Theory

    • Game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.” [1]
    • Individual actions and reasoning.
    • When faced with “commons”, individuals make rational decisions.
    • “Joker” example‚ is that how real life works?
    • Even if most people cooperate, a few deviating individuals can raid the commons thus depriving the group of such.
    • People tend to act in their own self-interests in isolation from the larger benefit of working together.

    Tragedy of the Commons

    • The tragedy of the commons is “where individuals acting independently and rationally according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole.” Wikipedia, “Tragedy of the Commons”.
    • This tragedy may be a negative effect of game theory. It may also be a consequence of fast entropy tendencies.
    • Location community ties can help overcome negative effects.
    • How to scale community solutions?
    • (Move elsewhere? Big-Small transition?)
    • Related to game theory?
    • Small-scale social constraints


    • Ruby is a friendly, easy-to-read programming language that is a useful, easy way to develop simulations. It is a good language for both beginners, brainstorming and rapid prototyping.
    • R is both a language and an environment that can used to create plots (graphs) and statistical analysis.
    • Processing is a language that is useful for creating simulations as well as running Arduino controllers.

  17. 17. Developing a Framework


    The perspectives and tools previously presented can be used to develop a framework for developing pragmatic sustainability solutions.

    A New Framework

    Big Sustainability strives to framework a process to develop robust, holistic solutions to sustainability challenges, featuring:

    • Account for deep root causes such as build-up of potential, and resulting rise-fall bubble patterns & market oscillations.
    • Insist on both physical and social practicality. Brutally and honestly challenge assumptions and listen to the data and people.
    • Timed, dynamic solutions that account that take into account changes over time and self-correcting feedback loops.
    • Seek “global” optimization while maintaining flexibility to meet individual needs.

    Developing Goals, Core Values, Unifying Principles

    The first step in the process is to identify your goals, core values, and principles that can be used to unify your group. It is important that most people you work with have similar, or at least compatible goals.

    ”If you don’t know where you’re going, you will end up someplace else.”—an old adage.

    Compatible core values help to set expectations and guidelines for working with each other. Incompatible values can be a source of friction and disappointment. An example of a core value might be “respect for the truth” or “we all agree that there is an objectively verifiable reality.” Another core value might be “we do not discriminate against others on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation.”

    Design Principles: Applying the Big and Small Filters

    A solution should be designed with a goal in mind. Yet at the same time, a robust, practicable design must take into account applicable constraints.

    The process of developing and designing a solution is literally as important as the result. Without a good process, the likelihood of achieving a great result is greatly diminished.

    After a statement of the goal, the next step is brainstorming. Many ideas should be thought of and recorded. No ideas should be rejected during the brainstorming stage.

    Then after all of the ideas are written down and considered, many of the ideas can then be rejected because of constraints. An example of constraint for a physical product is size. One can only fit so many eggs at once into a dozen-pack container, so if the goal requires more than that, then that container will not be a solution to the egg storage goal and must be rejected. A social constraint may be the biases of a population that cannot overcome. If the goal is to provide a better measurement system, and the US population is incapable of emotionally accepting the Metric system, then the metric system is not a practicable solution.

    • A solution must be achievable in a physical sense
    • A solution must be achievable in a social/psychological sense.


    Many ideas reach the physical reality filter. Fewer ideas reach the psychological reality filter. Only a few ideas survive both.

    Ideas winnowed through physical and social filters

    Projecting Forward In Time

    Many people think of long-term solutions only in the long-term, the final desired end-state. However, people live in the short- and medium-term. What matters between now and the long-run greatly affects our lives.

    Hence, it is important to project the progression of the path towards the solution, as well as the progression of the solution past its desired end-state.

    Delivering Solutions

    1. Research roots of social and physical drivers, and how they translate into human psychology; use the intersection of science, technology and design principles to create a unified science and language of sustainability
    2. Develop new tools using system dynamics, cellular automata, new visualization techniques and will create interfaces to new technologies such as big data, AI and new types of data.
    3. Create an easy-to-understand and -to-understand use approach to big sustainability
    4. Build an interdisciplinary, international and intercultural community of people who are big sustainability-literate and are passionate about making a positive impact for everyone.
      Solve real problems we are facing everyday regarding environmental, economic and social sustainability.

    Exercise: Projections

    Try to use the tools we have discussed to project a social, economic or environmental trend.

    Workshop: Developing Framework, overcoming barriers

    • Goals
    • Unifying Principles
    • Overcoming barriers

    Reactions to conservation and exponential function positions

    Overcoming social, economic and psychological challenges

    A physical solution might not be of much use if people decide not to use it.

    Hence it is important to be able to overcome social, economic and psychological challenges. Ideally, by this point, among a choice of multiple physically suitable solutions, the least psych/socially undesirable or difficult has been selected.

    Below is an example framework.

    [gview file=””]



  18. 18. Timed Solutions

    Many sustainability solutions are proposed without making a reference to time, or make absurd statements about timing without considering the consequences. In Big Sustainability, Time is of the Essence. Time matters!


    Most of us have relatively global few resources or power. Those who do are often subject to constraints that effectively hinder their ability to create big sustainability solutions. Hence the strategy is to create a seed for a solution. The seed will contain elements that will initiate and allow for exponential growth while achieving the original goals (in a flexible, dynamic manner). The magnitude of the result will be timed to match or overcome the constraints of an issue at that future point of time.


    The longer the target point of time in the future, the more time there is for the seed to grow, and a lower growth rate will be required.


    The longer the target point of time in the future, the greater the uncertainties and time for opponents (or nature) to develop counter-strategies.

  19. 19. Policy Development

    The perspectives and tools presented allow for the development of sophisticated and robust solutions to sustainability challenges. They may require more effort and care to develop but the goal of sustainability is arguably worth the effort.

    These solutions can be reflected in policy development. Such policies would be realistic and robust.

    One last caveat: remember that for every action there is a reaction. Those reactions should always be considered. If you enact a policy, it will inevitably have social costs that may have to be paid for later.

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