Sustainable Cities: Caring for the Greater Commons

“Sustainable Cities” is the topic to being the upcoming Open Working Group 7 on SDG’s, Jan 6-10 2014, in the UN’s marathon effort to decide “what we should do with the earth”.   Our cities, as brilliant as places of creativity as they are, find themselves “in a fishy stream…”  See also the final World SDG proposal on the global application of the general principle, that we all are responsible for our shares of the abuses of the economy as a whole in proportion to our owning, investing in and using it

The World SDG uses a method of calculation for any person’s or business’s share of world GDP, for estimating their total share of  responsibility for world economic impacts as “users” called “Scope-4 Accounting“.  The legal view of responsibility is different from “cause and effect” in that, legally, both the people paying for, benefiting from or authorizing a tort harm may all be held as equally responsible as the person actually doing the harm, as familiar for hiring others to commit a crime. 



Fishing in a fishy stream…

 “Sustainable Cities” started with Caring for our Cities as Commons
Neglecting The upstream burden of their wealth and the World as Their Greater Commons


A scientifically better way to measure the true scale of economic footprints is as fractions of the whole.  It’s easy and accurate for scale, treating fractions of world GDP as shares of world resource use and impacts too(1).  Cities thrive as hubs of creativity and growing concentrations of wealth, cells within a greater whole. Without self-restraint, growing parts can become cancers on the whole, profiting by conquering others, not by caring for their world.  A city’s limit is then exhausting their world, as done by ancient Rome, the Mayans and others.

New York City with ~1/10th of one percent of the world’s population has a $1,350 billion/yr GDP, ~2% share of world GDP, so causing ~2% of world economic resource demands and impacts, with its plan for real repeated doubling of all three. Wealth earned on New York’s 13 sq mi uses the products of ~380,000 mi2 of farm land around the world, ~2% of the world’s, with resource pressure causing ~2% of the world’s 1,460 mi2 of deforestation. Its services produce~2% of the world’s CO2, ~141,750 million lbs/yr, ~170,000 lbs. per NYC resident.

The question is, what would make New York and other cities turn from consuming to caring for the world they generate their wealth from(2)?   Now each World Capital, as islands of high GDP, is growing its impacts on the world by growing amounts each year, as if as innocently as living by a lazy stream grabbing floating bags of money going by now and then..                Jessie Henshaw


Jessie is an environmental and human systems scientist quite familiar with defining units of measure. She’s been doing advanced research on emergent organization in nature and economic systems for over 30 years. The scientific basis for this measurement method is a peer reviewed research paper

1)“Getting the incentives right requires redefining the units of measure”.

2) “Ideal Model: Steering money to what matters


New dialogs needed – on “steering in heavy seas”

I write lots of very carefully crafted letters to people deeply engaged in the UN’s work on

Steering the Earth Toward Sustainability

…, its Open Working Group is drafting Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).   Each letter is crafted to convey to leading thinkers some piece of my sophisticated natural systems view, of how to recognize the organized working parts of our economic environment and how they are changing.   To steer the ship to calmer seas we need new kinds of responses to calm the waters, as our “stimulus” has been producing new hazards everywhere we look.   Attempting  to force the economies to grow while pressing ever harder on the planetary boundaries, has been driving it into ever more desperate quandaries of what to do instead.  

Here are two letters from this week.    I’d really like to know if you understand, or if you have any questions about the subjects raised, or how I arrive at my conclusions or choose how to present them.   It could help me do this work a lot.    JLH


Going where everything seems to be a trap..


Tweet’s this AM:

J.L. Henshaw ‏@shoudaknownWhy not #finance #sustainability, for more stable markets and greater total #returns, giving up only our #ignorance? …

@umairh You’d learn from what I found, building new science using the same lead. Sustainability is more profitable. …


Good Letters for comment,… on relieving our world’s economic panic:

  • to a World Bank expert on development,
  • to a group of NGO’s studying how to measure the SDG Targets and Indicators

Continue reading New dialogs needed – on “steering in heavy seas”

Getting the incentives right requires redefining the units of measure

This is a post for the UN’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals “Informal meeting on measuring progress” on the new science needed for achieving the SDG’s, “getting the incentives right” as many observers have noted as essential.   In part, it requires “New Units of Measure”   because there is “Something Very Wrong with our way of measuring impacts”


The Need to redefine our Units for Measure and how to begin

Getting the incentives right:

To be effective in getting the results we want, we need to get the incentives right, a matter of understanding both how people make decisions and how the economic system works and would respond.   That involves knowing how to measure what decision makers want to know about.  For investment decisions, for changing how we use the earth one thing they’d want to know is their possible future liabilities for making the wrong decisions. That illusive goal is now much  closer to being solved, with this major improvement in the measure of the impacts of businesses.  The traditional way to measure impacts was to count up what you could trace, and this study showed that what we can trace is most often only a small part, basically because what was being left out was the impacts on the environment caused by the resource demands resulting from the revenue businesses generate as their main purpose, having to date only been counting the impacts of intended operations.   This discusses a comprehensive approach to quantifying them.    JLH

Statement to OWG 6:

Prepared statement For 9:00 AM Major Group Meeting of 12/12/13 on Means of implementation (science and technology, knowledge-sharing and capacity building)  —  “The mismatch between measured impacts and responsibilities”.    Also delivered from the floor at OWG-6.1 the Informal Meeting on Measuring Progress” on Tuesday 12/17/13

Statement: Because sustainability metrics for businesses are just for the impacts of business operating technology, the environmental impacts of the people who operate the business, their employees and those of all the kinds of service providers businesses use to operate, don’t get counted.   Businesses and economists, thinking of money systems not environmental ones, may not see a reason to treat businesses as physical systems and count all their impacts, but you know for sure nature does.   So it’s very common for businesses and consumers to actually be directly responsible for much larger scale environmental impacts than they are told.    Of course the reason we’re measuring impact is for steering a redesign of our economy for the future of the earth, and it would actually be better to get it right.   Using metrics very often in error by 80% or more is really unacceptable as it voids the purpose of measurement in general, but you talk to people and they don’t want to change, sometimes mentioning the inconvenience.    Don’t you think we’d do better to think of the “inconvenience” to the investors who have been trusting us, who we are presently giving false guidance to for what to invest in? Continue reading Getting the incentives right requires redefining the units of measure

Ideal Model: New Architecture for Economic Self-Governance

Prepared for UN Open Working Group on SDG’s, OWG-5, 6 in Dec 2013 Owg 7,8 in Jan & Feb 2014, solving the special “steering problems” raised there as well with: 

 This is a serious effort to describe in natural language a well thought out way for a market economy to follow organic systems principles, and decouple from conquering the earth to reorient its development toward finding its secure place on earth.   It would be driven by our goal seeking social and economic communities developing new markets and partnerships for mutual benefit as markets always serve to steer the economy, but having much better information on what’s profitable, and recognizing the true cost of inaction.   As we find how to do it the economy would also  change from building itself up internally to making itself at home externally.  

By redirecting our resources from pressing ever harder on the limits of the earth, and instead aim for relieving the strain on ourselves and the earth, the economy would become relatively more profitable than before as it heals.   A great many of the key goals of sustainability (SDG’s) being stated again and again at the UN, would be achieved naturally this way.    Other critical goals would still take concerted planning and government action, but would become more practical to accomplish.


Incentives to Sustainably Lower Our Global Footprint 

  • Holistic and accurate measures of  ESG costs of production and consumption
  • An Information System Everyone can understand, for a Self-managing World 
  • Turning the economic pursuit from “conquest” to “homemaking”
  • “Nature’s Capitalism”, first profiting from building things, then by caring for them

Steering Capitalism with a purpose: giving us a good home on Earth

A.            The idea

The natural way economies determine their futures is by “market choices”, as financial, business and consumer markets look for how to get what they want from each other and the earth. Then governments, the press, professions and open societies watch out for the common interest.   That’s what designs of the economy of our future, telling developers what new parts to add or old ones replace.

Those market choices often don’t reflect common interests just for our natural lack of information.  What was done around the world to deliver goods or services is not collected and passed along as they are paid for,   What’s becoming possible is like that, ways to identify future societal costs that business may be held responsible for in the future, practices like adding to global inequities or harming our economic future.

Comparing comprehensive sustainability balance sheets, for finding development proposals with financially and culturally acceptable risks and benefits. Global benefits/People centered, Homemaking

Just one new fact about money can release a great wealth of information on that.  It’s that the “hidden consequences” of using money we don’t immediately see have been scientifically shown to most often be close to “average”[1].  In information terms, that serves to “internalize all externalities”, opening the door to what has eluded us, a way to make sound decisions for the world as a whole.

It would let us build an information system making the choices responsible for impacts transparent for all to see.  For example, spending one dollar generally adds about 1 pound of CO2 to the atmosphere.  We might select the least cost engineering option for ending our addition of CO2 to the atmosphere as a standard measure, possibly bio-char, estimated to cost $.20 per pound of CO2.  That would be equal to an impressive “tax” on GDP, of $.20/$1, an indicator of how poorly the earth’s profits are being used.

People would then clearly see, for example, that as we build more and more for the future economy to take care of, a natural turning point approaches for investors and everyone else, of diminishing total returns.  So as growth becomes seen as a drain on future profits, the most profitable use of profits becomes caring for the environments creating the profits, not compounding our demands on them.

[1]Henshaw, J. 2011 Systems Energy Assessment. Sustainability MDPI. – People are “end users” of the consumption economy AND “end servers” of the production economy.  The “end producers” for any dollar of goods or services are SO wide spread one must first assume, every dollar is distributed as an average share of GDP and reflects the average impacts of the whole, good and bad.

Continue reading Ideal Model: New Architecture for Economic Self-Governance

UN OWG-5 statements – SDG’s missing some signals

Last week was unusually successful for me at the UN, or felt that way.   The increasing openness of the process, and my good luck in finding socially acceptable ways to stay it, both helped me.  So I was able to bring small flashes of light to the deeper kinds of issues about “What to Do with the Earth” that the UN is continuing to expand it’s discussion of,..

toward defining the world’s “Sustainable Development Goals”  

It’s really an amazingly broad discussion of every aspect of how the “world we want” should work, a truly impressive effort, well, of course still leaving out the things that we are culturally blind to and at the same time feverishly looking for to save our necks in a terrible situation     Here are three of my statements for OWG-5, and capsule assessment of the UN’s Technical Support Team briefs for OWG-6 for framing everyones terms of discussion for the issues.

Yes, but can we REALLY now have energy and equity for all?
  1. Macroeconomics – of ever increasing inequity
  2. More Energy – for ever growing demand
  3. Mismatched measure – impacts missing from responsibilities
  4. Using the economy’s own steering not mentioned


1.  OWG5 Scheduled 11/25 intervention Macroeconomic Policy  (circulated) 

Promoting growth at the limits creates severe increasing, not decreasing, inequities

The great variety of urgent SDG’s being discussed are truly desirable, but can only be somehow addresses together.

Monday morning Bernbadette Fischler offered a model that seems consistent with cost estimates for doing all this, that the SDG’s might for a period cost 2% of the income of the over developed economies to kick start the growth of the underdeveloped economies.

Say that worked. We’d then have 100% of world population using modern technology, adding their earnings to their investments to drive more growth, and so ever increasing competition over the earth’s shrinking resources too, adding even more strain on both people and planetary boundaries. Continue reading UN OWG-5 statements – SDG’s missing some signals

Natural Systems.. meet many worlds of Cultural Reality

I got a strong “like” from Mark Stahlman to my comment on Real-World Economic Review issue no. 65that led to A great longer discussion on the Cultural Anthropology of Knowledge on Open Anthropology .   We start a series of excerpts, mostly my writings, with my comment to the economics review journal.    J.L. Henshaw (@shoudaknown) commented in response to Edward Fullbrook’s “New Paradigm Economics” :

Culture was always what defined our realities, till we had to deal with multiple cultures, and found our selves confused.


1. JLH Comment to Ed Fullerbrook 10/6/13: – 

A Solution that leaves out much of the problem

Edward, Regarding your new paradigm. I’m a natural systems scientist who has spent a lot of time on the puzzle of how economics became so detached…

I certainly applaud your effort to describe a new paradigm for economics, and see your approach as having the right intent and to be quite elegant in how you construct it. It still overlooks why natural systems will invariably depart from even the most faithful effort to describe them mathematically.

It’s that 1) natural systems change how they’re organized, and so how they behave, ALL the time, 2) all natural systems originate from a growth process in which they change how they work ever faster, to then change form, and 3) by ignoring #2 the present paradigm is to manage a world of systems that all expand and become ever more unmanageable over time.   It’s “impractical”.

What I think this exposes is a very basic flaw in our conception of nature. It seem to be coming directly from our attempts to define nature conceptually (treating nature as rules that we control), rather than using the rules we find to help us learn about it. What we have is an ever changing world, full of complex living natural and cultural systems we need to interact with, that are inventing new behavior all the time and fundamentally out of our control. From there I’m not sure what would help you understand my approach, as my terminology is likely to ‘sound funny’.

Continue reading Natural Systems.. meet many worlds of Cultural Reality