Sociocultural Boundaries

By Tom Abel

Some years ago now a team of Swedish scientists proposed an interesting framework for understanding planetary environmental problems. It generated a range of responses from the environmental community, mostly positive. I had what is undoubtedly a very unusual response to their framework, and while it is perhaps old news, it may still be useful to present it here. As an anthropologist, I see planetary problems from a cultural and evolutionary perspective that could offer a different take on the subject.

Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015
Estimates of how the different control variables for nine planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015

First, though, I want to say that the identification of the nine interrelated environmental ‘boundaries’ has been unquestionably of great value (Planetary Boundaries). Raising awareness about the problems and emphasizing nonlinear feedbacks effects, and so the possible triggering of abrupt global environmental changes, are integral to a more sophisticated discussion of climate change and the other problems they highlight. To list them, they are climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, nutrient fluxes, global freshwater use, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution.

The great acceleration of the Anthropocene. Source.

The nine ‘boundaries’ are concisely represented in their popular diagram. The green space in the center represents the safe operating values. If the wedge exceeds the green space then it has already crossed its threshold and become a threat of flipping to a disastrous state for our human presence on the planet. Worse, the problems are interrelated and interactions are a grave threat. As an example of dangerous interactions, loss of soil moisture, degradation of land to new land types, and biodiversity loss all reduce the ability of ecosystems to sequester CO2, and thus increase greenhouse effects.

These same issues can be found today in a number of diagrams such as the one above. The Swedish authors have called our times the ‘great acceleration’, a time of rapid growth of a number of environmental problems. They have argued persuasively that now is the time that we need to ‘bend the curves’.

The great acceleration. Source.

Sociocultural Problems

What I am suggesting in this blog is that parallel to the environmental problems are a list of ‘sociocultural problems’, which as they say, are big slow changes that may (also) change everything. I introduce them by first proposing three dilemmas of fossil fuels and sociocultural problems. These are perhaps obstacles to ‘bending the curves’ that are related to sociocultural variables

  • The Dilemma of Climate Change / Fuel Use
  • The Dilemma of Replacement / Complementarity
  • The Dilemma of Renewables w/o Fossil Fuels
A sociocultural system, by the author. All components are supported by energy on the left, and each feeds-back to sustain and amplify energies when they are available.

The sociocultural variables that I am considering are found in this diagram that I have published and discussed elsewhere. This is a simplified model of a ‘sociocultural system’ found anywhere in the world, or in the world as a whole. Five components of a human sociocultural system are identified and labeled. Admittedly our human adaptation in the world is a chaotic swirl of variables. Simplified models with aggregate variables are not realistic, but they may offer a way through the great complexity of society and nature to create a degree of understanding. The nine environmental variables of the Swedish team are equally abstractions from our complex natural world.

The perceptive reader might notice in my diagram a hint of infrastructure, structure, and superstructure, a la Marx or Harris. There is also the intention to represent increasing average turnover times from left to right, though each storage is in fact also a hierarchy. Notice further that (unlike Harris) population is just one of the supported ‘storages’ in the sociocultural system, it does not by itself ‘push’ cultural change; each of the storages have feedbacks that amplify the whole when energies are available, and each subtracts from the energy pie for maintenance. In addition to the five sociocultural variables, three other variables in my diagram are the interactions with the three categories of energy that support our current global system, the renewable, slow-renewable, and non-renewable energy sources.

Notice last the feedback from the total sociocultural storage to the environment. This includes active efforts to support ecosystems that are essential to our survival. But it also includes the heat energies added by burning fossil fuels and greenhouse CO2, which result in the transformations we are witnessing in climate change, especially larger pulses of rainfall and drought and more powerful storms.

Sociocultural boundaries, by the author.

The eight sociocultural problems that I name are related to these eight variables and are presented in my own ‘boundaries’ diagram. Values associated with the variables are not substantiated by research (and thus they are here in a blog and not in a journal), but are based on my intuitions. The point is to raise these issues and suggest the possible levels of danger that we face from each. For each of these variables, I will present a list of features and possible thresholds that threaten to be crossed or have arguably already been crossed.

Renewables – these are renewable energy sources that support the global systems of humanity. Examples are food production, fresh surface waters, sunlight, wind, and many others. The nine variables identified by the Swedish team are particularly threatening to our renewable resources. Potentially dangerous thresholds include:

  • GMOCorn
    GMO crops with unknown environmental interactions. Source.

    Elimination of seed varieties

  • GMO crops with untested environmental interactions
  • Food insecurity in production, storage and delivery
  • Water shortages and competition between industry and households
  • Fertilizer and pesticide pollution
  • The disruption and replacement of ecosystems and species by the nine processes identified by the Swedish team
  • Water induced political conflict (resource wars)

forestslungsSlow-renewables – these are renewable energy sources that due to their slow production within global ecosystems and water cycles deserve a special designation. They exist in usable forms that once consumed may take decades or centuries to be replenished by natural processes. Historically and presently important slow-renewables for our human adaptation are topsoil, groundwater, and forest timber. Several of the nine variables of the Swedish team also threaten these slow-renewables. Potentially dangerous thresholds include:

  • AquiferInfluence
    Cone of depression from pumping from a water table aquifer. Source.

    Topsoil loss and land degradation

  • Loss of ancient groundwater sources
  • Over-pumping of regional groundwaters and lowering of water tables
  • Loss of old-growth forests
  • Timber expansion of low quality forests of palm or pine resulting in land-cover loss of natural systems
  • Regional resource conflicts over access (resource wars)

Non-renewables – These are the essential energy sources in use today that are emphatically not renewable. They include fossil fuels, nuclear fuel, and the many metals that we use. Oil is the most important fossil fuel, as the source of motor fuels, plastics, fertilizers, and pharmaceuticals. In our current production systems, fossil fuels are consumed at nearly every stage of production, transportation, storage, delivery, and disposal. Potential dangerous thresholds include:

  • Peak oil and declining net emergy / EROI
  • Exhaustion of metal supplies
  • Dangers of fracking to groundwater supplies, geology, and ecosystems, and competition for water
  • Dangers of nuclear fuels include meltdowns, long-term storage, and terrorist weapons
  • Resource conflicts over existing and undeveloped oil fields around the world (e.g., Iraq, Nigeria, the Midwestern US, and the South China Sea (resource wars))

Population – global human population continues to grow towards a projected 9 billion by 2050. Population growth rate is declining slightly. Potential dangerous thresholds include:

  • Genocide is or has occurred in pockets worldwide, including Rwanda, Palestine, Bosnia, Darfur, Cambodia, Iraq, Syria, and others
  • Developing countries continue with high birth rates
  • Rapid urban growth accelerates the use of resources
  • Pandemics are a real danger
  • Refugee migrations are life-threatening and destabilizing in destination countries

Assets and Technologies – this refers to the countless material products and machines and structures that we have created as part of our human adaptation. It refers here to the maintenance or replacement of assets for transportation, housing, and industry. It refers to our many technologies, but especially today to the information technologies in finance, sales, data storage, and internet processing. Potential dangerous thresholds include:

  • Rapid expansion of production in financial sector technologies, including especially financial instruments for speculation with little productive contribution to national economies
  • Government financial policy interventions resulting in bubbles in student loan debt, housing debt, and government direct borrowing
  • Continual and expanded production of destructive weaponry, despite the absence menacing global adversaries
  • The expanded production of products with inelastic or addictive demand, such as fuels, education, healthcare, food, gaming, drugs
  • The production of products for coercion and control, such as banking, insurance, weapons, police, surveillance
  • Contraction in the production and maintenance of useful assets in public infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, dams, and national parks
  • Threats to social safety net technologies in social security, pensions, welfare, food programs, and others
  • The continued elimination of technologies for regulation in finance, banking, and environmental protection

Social structure – refers to our complex division of labor with great specialization. It refers also to a fully populated hierarchy of economic classes. Potential dangerous thresholds include:

  • AnnualIncome
    Income of the top 1%. Source.

    Many countries now have simplified economic specialization with a vast lower class of small-farmers or service employees, and a much smaller class of techno-managers, capped by super-elites

  • Income inequality is at a high worldwide, as the US reaches new extremes
  • Migrant workers and refugees fill a rapidly expanding ‘underclass’ of the poorest of the poor

Language – refers to language diversity, which provides alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the world. Alternative concepts evolved in the contexts of local and regional environments. Potential dangerous thresholds include:

  • Languages
    Languages and speakers of the world. Source.

    Today there are 6,000 languages in the world, but in one generation that number will be 3,000

  • Half of all languages will become extinct as the last native speakers die without passing the language to their children
  • The wide homogenization of language dominated by English and Chinese
  • Language loss means the loss of conceptual diversity, which could be invaluable for reorganization after ‘release’ or a ‘prosperous way down’

Cultural Models – could be called symbolic culture, and refers to the many meaningful models of the world that we use in our reasoning and communication. Cultural models are produced and cycled in distinct scales of communication that we know as discourse, social media, TV, ritual, art, education, research, economic markets, legal codes, and others. This is a hierarchy, discourse is rapid and voluminous and small in spatial scale, while legal codes are few and slow to change, but have the greatest feedback influence. As models are regularly cycled in their use they may be selected and bumped up-scale, where added energies and durable carriers give them more influence in the larger society.

Positive signs are the democratization of public discussion in social media. This is one reason that I did not place cultural models past their threshold. The difficulty is to move progressive ideas for peace and social justice to the higher scales of information cycles. These scales change very slowly, for good and for bad. This is the other reason that I did not place cultural models yet past their threshold, we are still living with more democratic legal models from earlier times. But where they go from here is far from certain.  Potential dangerous thresholds include:

  • MainstreamExtremeDiscourse is influenced by media and has become highly polarized and simplified
  • TV News has become highly polarized and simplified
  • Religion and other rituals show revitalization and fundamentalism
  • Education is being limited to teach science and technology
  • Science is being constrained to technologies
  • Legal Codes and other scales are captured by financial interests

Wrapping Up

As with environmental problems, interaction effects exist between the sociocultural variables. Unlike the environmental problems, all the sociocultural storages are ultimately dependent upon the three energy source variables. Net decline in energy sources will lead to instabilities and fluctuations in the others, which may cascade feedbacks across all the storages.

Another dramatic potential effect is with population, which due to its slow turnover time (people live 70 years!) and current momentum will continue inevitably for a time to draw resources away from the other storages. But to now return to the three dilemmas introduced above:

The Dilemma of Climate Change / Fuel Use

Perhaps the greatest dilemma exists in the contradiction between the requirements for the sociocultural variables, especially the burning of fossil fuels, and the source of human-induced global climate change, which is the burning of those very same fossil fuels. Human populations worldwide have grown to over 7 billion via the sociocultural innovations associated with fossil fuel energy capture and use. The majority of the world economies rely on fossil fuel energy sources or manufacturing techniques that release greenhouse gases at almost every stage of production, transportation, storage, delivery, and disposal. Simply reversing the trends in energy use could lead to destabilizing fluctuations throughout societies, with the potential for loss of life and assets.

The Dilemma of Replacement / Complementarity

Solutions in the form of renewable energy sources may not succeed due to the low net emergy / EROIs of those sources, and to the dilemma of replacement / complementarity. This refers to the fact that there is no guarantee, and current evidence suggests, that using renewable sources will actually ‘replace’ fossil fuel use. Human societies are apparently drawn to make use of potent energy sources when they are available. Instead, renewable sources will simply be ‘added to’ existing fossil fuel sources, giving economies new energies to grow on, as argued by Ozzie Zehner in Green Illusions. Notice that the fossil fuel companies are among those jumping into renewable energy. Put a stick of gum in your mouth and try not to chew it. It may be the same with fossil fuels.

The Dilemma of Renewables w/o Fossil Fuels

The last of my ‘dilemmas’ is more technical and refers to the scientific evaluation of the ‘net energy’ or ‘net emergy’ of renewable energy sources. Renewable energy can only power the existing global society if it has a significant positive ‘net’. That is, a renewable energy technology must produce much more energy than it takes to produce it. Today many such evaluations have been conducted. However, all renewable power technologies are built today with energies produced largely by fossil fuels. Therefore, do existing evaluations give honest measures of net energy or net emergy? Are the sources evaluated truly ‘renewable’ sources if they are made with fossil fuels? What happens when fossil fuels are gone or declining, can these energy technologies continue to be built?

Is there a way out?

Andy Singer on Development
Andy Singer on Development

With all this naysaying, you might wonder if I see a way out of our current environmental, and energy, and economic dilemmas. Personally, I favor both top-down and bottom-up initiatives for a smaller world. Top-down initiatives include the Odum’s Prosperous Way Down. Bottom-up initiatives are social movements such as bioregionalism, permaculture, ecovillages, or transition towns. All of these initiatives require a significant transformation away from the ‘business-as-usual’ solutions that are often proposed, solutions that keep the current global political-economic systems while tweaking energy sources or market mechanisms, for example. In my diagram, population size with its slow turnover time is important, it is the ‘variable’ most dear to us all, should only shrink by gradual and natural means, and so will stress all variables if energy sources contract quickly. Also, fossil fuel use is critical, because the high net energies of fossil fuels have driven the existing global system. Rapid weaning from those energy sources could lead to dramatic destabilizing fluctuations, as occurred in 2008 when oil reached $148 per barrel. Instead, we should support a coordinated downsizing of sociocultural variables and new smaller scales of organization, together with the maintenance of (shrinking) fuel production and transportation in fair global markets, and with the proper use of renewable energies like geothermal and hydropower, if we are to reduce the chance of the cascades of collapse.

The intention of this post is certainly not to make light of the environmental problems identified by the ‘planetary boundaries’ research effort. Instead, it is to identify sociocultural problems with a similar theoretical framework. We should expect that sociocultural variables also have thresholds past which nonlinear change can be expected. We should expect that sociocultural variables have interaction effects that can amplify the dangers presented by those variables taken individually. A collapse of food production due to loss of one of the super varieties of corn to disease, for instance, would exacerbate the problems of overpopulation, social inequality, topsoil and forest timber losses, and eventually the ability of financial technologies to service debt. Or inversely, another collapse of the financial system as in 2008, perhaps related to the current bubble of student loan debt or the trillions in national debt, could trigger a cascade of failures across most or all the other scales. In fact, it was arguably the oil price rise associated with global pressure on reserves that dragged the housing market down and popped the housing bubble that triggered the 2008 financial crisis that we are still suffering from. It is easily forgotten now that the US twice dipped into its strategic reserves of oil before 2008 to pump up supply and lower price pressures. It was only the emergence of fracking technology that has temporarily boosted global and especially US oil production that has eased the energy pressure on the US economy.

Specific arguments aside, we should view our societies, economies, and cultures as composed of processes and variables that are no less tractable than the nine environmental problems identified by the Swedish scientists as planetary boundaries. Solutions for our biospheric problems have been proposed by atmospheric, ocean, or other systems scientists. Global sociocultural systems are similarly complex systems dependent on energy and innerved with feedbacks, with negative, positive or amplifying potential for nonlinear change.  In my opinion, only when our human presence is better understood and incorporated into complex systems theorizing about global problems will we perhaps see some real solutions forward.