Thursday, October 18, 2012

Networks in Community Energy Projects

Research on community energy projects in the UK cites Transition Towns as a key player in a network of organizations that support sustainability. The researchers used a 'sociogram' to diagram the linkages and nodes among these organizations:

"The other aspect of networking explored was the links these projects had with intermediary organisations and networks.  This built up a fascinating picture of the web of organisations, from local networks to national networks, national-scale organisations, public sector and third sector organisations and private organisations.  The authors mapped these relationships in what they call a ‘sociogram’ which shows the complexity of these relationships, and who influences who (see below, click to enlarge).
It concludes that “Transition Network was the most commonly named organisation” by respondents, and this is reflected in the sociogram.  Given that it is followed in the list by organisations such as the Energy Savings Trust whose resources and size far outstrip Transition Network’s, this is a fascinating taste of the impact of Transition, and of how it works, being as much an idea, a unifying context and identity, a motivating concept and active network, as it is a provider of tangible support in relation to community energy.  For an organisation that has been around for only a short time, and whose staff consist of less than 10 people, this is really something to celebrate I feel."
From a systems theory approach, I would call Transition Towns' collection of unifying contexts and ideas an attractor around which groups can self-organize. Multiple groups linked by these common ideas form a network to continue sharing, learning and building the network to a new emergent level of social organization, perhaps a regional ecology.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Foodless Days in 2012

Lester Brown has published two books, available free online, that detail the ongoing crisis in world food supplies. His latest book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Security, describes the current state of people in the world near starvation:

"In early 2012, Adam Nossiter wrote in the New York Times about the effect of high food prices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where hunger is common. Interviewing individual families in Kinshasa, he noted that three years ago everyone ate at least one meal a day. But today even families with both parents working often cannot afford to eat every day. It is now a given in many households that some days will be foodless, days when they will not eat at all. Selecting the days when they will not eat is a weekly routine.

The international charity Save the Children commissioned detailed surveys in five countries—India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Peru, and Bangladesh—to see how people were dealing with rising food prices. Among other things, they learned that 24 percent of families in India now have foodless days. For Nigeria, the comparable figure is 27 percent. For Peru it is 14 percent. Family size plays an important role in hunger. Almost one third of large families in all countries surveyed have foodless days." 

As always, war, foreign and capitalist exploitation, political regimes, gendercide, racism and other social and political factors adversely and unjustly impact the distribution of food. But this time it's different. In addition to all these factors, there simply isn't enough grain to feed everyone. Catastrophic climate change in the form of floods droughts and heat waves, soil erosion, water shortages, and the demand for grain-based ethanol are having severe impacts on the total global supply of grain. World grain supplies are at their lowest in since the mid-20th century.

Data from Lester Brown's earlier book, World on the Edge, is presented in a pdf slideshow that encapsulates these issues.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Cybernetic Cycle

Let's take another look at Abel's energy diagram. Moving from left to right, the diagram shows flows of energy, or eMergy, as it is transformed into more complex embodied forms. However it doesn't show emergent levels. It depicts transformations as if it were one continuous flow from solar energy to "legal codes." But there are stages of emergence that structure these flows, transformations that happened over tens of thousands of years. Solar power produces plants, which leads to human agriculture as an emergent stage. Agriculture creates the possibility of complex civilizations, including learning and cultural complexity at various stages of development. Complex civilizations create the possibility of fossil fuels and technology, which makes possible an advanced technological society. Finally, the knowledge sector grows until it becomes the dominant system of the planet. Unfortunately, what is missing from the diagram is "economic" and "scientific" data, which are the information sectors that control most of the human activity on the planet, and reshape the entire terrain of minerals and living things.

Moving from right to left on the diagram are the backward pointing arrows, which depict what I call the Cybernetic Cycle. At the point of agriculture, developed by human intelligence, energy is transformed into a civilization that can produce and store information. From that point on, at each successive stage, more information and energy is generated and stored in more complex forms, in cultural products and institutional routines. But knowledge and information is also deployed "backwards", demanding, extracting and controlling more energy from the root sources (solar, plants and fossil fuels) in order to drive the transformation "forward" to new stages of emergence and new levels of complexity. At the end point, human information in the form of economic and scientific data is controlling the entire chain of energy and materials, continuously demanding and extracting more energy, and continuously driving the production of culture and institutions that store more information and energy.