SEA – energy accounting “far more holes than cheese”

Emmeline, at was looking for recent innovation is sustainability to review for recognition.  In a short email exchange she persuaded me to try to find a simple explanation again, for my recent radical discovery.  It’s that our information on the scale of energy demands that business place on the economy is “far more holes than cheese“.    See also

Are the holes in your map helping you read the territory?
Self-organization as “niche making”

On 3/7/12 I replied,

Thanks very much for your nice reply.    If you care to consider it for recognition, last fall I published a long paper on the evidence of a true 80% hole in our information on business energy use, that is sorely needing attention.

We don’t have information on what self-managing service providers are doing, because they don’t record or report it.

The study identifies a deep structural problem in what we know about complex business service networks.   We don’t have information on what self-managing service providers are doing, because they don’t record or report it.

In a contrarian way that large gap in our information is exactly what gets missed by a “focus on transparency and clarity and measurement, being more accurate”.   It has to do with estimating known kinds of impacts that go unmeasured for lack of information.  It’s only due to the nature of outsourced business services having evident impacts that are individually untraceable, and so provide no data to count.

The major case study I did was for finding a better way to measure the energy consumed in producing energy, published last fall in the scientific journal Sustainability (MDPI).  It was part of a special collection of papers on EROI.

I created a carefully developed “mixed method”,  that everyone seems to agree is valid.   The problem readers are struggling with is what to do with the completely unavoidable difference between totals for the standard and supplemented measurement methods, and it being SO large.

It makes it fairly clear that the whole process network for delivering business services, which generates a business’s energy demands, has a large hidden “fat tail” of untraceable energy demands not previously considered.    The true total energy needs of businesses is evidently on the order of five times the scale (as found for the wind farm case study) compared to the total found by the best available network tracing technique.

Their addition to the total needs to be first counted as being “about average” rather than as “zero”, to be ignored.

The paper is quite long, and the result at first seems counterintuitive.   It becomes remarkably simple to understand once you think it through.   It’s a new way to think.  It’s for widely distributed business impacts known to be occurring, but for which we start with having no direct evidence of.

Their addition to the total needs to be first counted as being “about average” rather than as “zero”, to be ignored.    That’s where the discrepancy comes from, initially counting the energy uses for individually untraceable but essential business energy services, as having “average” rather than a “zero” energy needs per dollar of business.

I would agree that this method is limited to measuring the resource impacts for which the “fat tails” would have widely and more uniformly distributed impacts.  My case study was to prove it for the primary common indicator for all environmental impacts, “total energy use”.

That makes it seem like a highly useful result, for both getting a more accurate measure of total business impacts and a better understanding how whole process networks really behave.    So that’s what I have studied so far.

See “Systems Energy Assessment (SEA)”

There would be several recommendations to business, to offer, my having thought this all through to a degree.   They would be hard to understand at first, though, since discovering you are missing 80% of your data can cause major changes in thinking.

It also exposes a very large scale of hidden impacts that are not individually escapable, once you understand it, and so imply large changes in fundamental strategy.   It implies a need for a new kind of collective learning and action to change widely established practices, and so relying on business networks to drive the learning, as the top urgent need.

There would also be unexpected changes of direction for individual businesses adapting to discovering a broader new view of reality too.   The important ones are quite “doable” and could be effective.  They’d also present big emotional hurdles, though.   Our misunderstanding, all along, of what business innovation has been doing to its own environment (while we were missing 80% of the data) would come out.



Responding to:Emmeline Rajasingam
Sent: Wednesday, March 07, 2012 6:56 AM
Subject: RE: FW: Ethical/sustainability winner

Hi Jessie,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Well who wants to entertain evidence that principles of sustainability need to be re-thought? But I agree with you. And it’s not the first time I hear this.

Last year at our big summit we had the ex CEO from 7th Generation talking about precisely this: the thinking, and why the whole thing need to be re-phrased/re-done and how reluctant big businesses are to do this, which is understandable, to an extent.

Unless you started up your business with principles of sustainability/responsible business practice at the core of the business model, the chances are, trying to ‘do’ sustainability is going to be a very hard and very un-natural thing to implement.

Out of interest, if you were currently sat opposite CEO’s from big corporate companies who are trying to re-think the way they do sustainability, how would you suggest they go about doing this?

Re the Swiss Cheese situation on data, of course, no-one’s perfect, and apart from someone like InterfaceFlor, it will be hard to find any company who has traced that information all the way through. But companies are aware that there is a big unknown, and the encouraging thing is, having chatted to a fair few people in the industry now, there is a huge focus on transparency and clarity and measurement, and being more accurate. It is happening and companies are getting and more and more sophisticated in their approach to this.

All is not lost :)


—–Original Message—–

Sent: 06 March 2012 18:07
To: Emmeline Rajasingam
Subject: Re: FW: Ethical/sustainability winner

Emmeline, Thanks for the inquiry. I’d have lots to submit for recognition of my work, were it not for most of it it being so disturbing, that people aren’t ready to even think of it as controvercial yet.

The deep problem with sustainability I’m uncovering is that nearly everyone treats cause and effect in nature as being what we have information about, but there are enormous voids in our information. It’s why all efforts to slow down our growing rate of resource depletion keep letting it continue to speed up, for example.

A case in point is the easily demonstrated fact that the energy uses needed for businesses to operate are mostly out sourced and untraceable. What we have traceable information about is normally only 20% or less. So our information on how our sustainability efforts really work is a bit like Swiss Cheese, with 80% holes…! Http://

I doubt you would want to entertain evidence that all the principles of sustainability need to be rethought…


Emmeline Rajasingam <> wrote:

>Hello Philip
>Any thoughts on the below?
>Deadline to enter the awards is the 16th of March. Any questions on
>this, let me know!
>And PS: here’s a podcast interview with last year’s winner of the
>private company award:
>Many thanks,