Category Archives: Research & Measures

notes on scientific data and analysis techniques

Tricky Reading – the Indicator & the Context

From a conversation on the Commons Abundance Network.


Of course I agree a lot is solved by having it clear what you are using the word “growth” to refer to.   But it’s easier to figure out we *should* be clear about what is being referred to than to really do it.   It’s so easy to fall into the trap of treating some “positive indicator” as the system, some changing number that “sounds nice” in name, to end up promoting something not knowing what the real situation is at all.

That’s exactly how the BAU approach to consuming the planet ever faster got off track, using a trusted set of indicators and not paying the least attention to how their meanings were changing radically over time.   So, that philosophy’s “mistake” was not paying attention to the whole system it was applying its values to.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of treating some “positive indicator”
as “the system”

False priorities develop are all over the place that way.  Giving relief wherever there is pain and suffering, for example, ignores that injecting artificial supports just skews the indicator.  It changes the ability of people to care for themselves in the wrong way, giving them dependencies rather than independence, and directly causes their own local cultures to become useless to them and decay.

to help you watch where you're going...

Continue reading Tricky Reading – the Indicator & the Context

UN Development Goals… leave out Common Needs

Report I. (below) 18 June – Comment to UN organizers of Final Report on MDG’s in dialog with Major Groups –  MDG solutions are not designed to hold, because the goals were defined as performance metrics not cultural growth and development.  JLH

Report II. (above) Comment to UN President, Member State Delegates and UN SDG agencies, on the UN Sustainable Development Goal Progress Reports of UN Agency and Stakeholder Groups – UN Development Goals… Leave out the common needs for a world that works as a whole:

  1. UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons, Report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda – May 2013
  2. UN Development Group: The Global Conversation Begins –  Emerging views for an new Development Agenda – June 2013
  3. United Nations NGO and Civil Society Stakeholder Forum Initial Stocking Taking Analysis of the SDGs eInventory – June 2013
  4. United Nations Global Compact: Report on UN Post-2015 Development Agenda
  5. Sustainable Development Solutions Network An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development – June 6 2013

by: Jessie Henshaw UN representative of Institute for Planetary Synthesis (IPS) & Science Adviser on natural systems to the NGO Commons Cluster – PDF copy (See related problem/solution discussions linked below)



1 Jul 13 – Report II.

Left out are the deep common interests we ALL share, a secure world working together as a whole.

The progress reports on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals display an inspired cultural image of the future, but tragically omit the most important practical necessities of sustainability. Over time the discussion has drifted, toward being only about sustaining ideal economic development, quite overlooking the conflicting critical tasks of sustaining the Earth. It’s been thrilling to observe the process of dream weaving online, and in the many meetings I’ve attended at the UN.   There’s clearly been a massive response from the global social networks, and an eagerness to build a new vision for our future. The vision we see forming is highly impractical though.   For me, as a natural systems scientist who understands the implications, it has been extremely painful to watch as the discussion proceeded, with the critically important steps of sustainability being consistently left out.

Continue reading UN Development Goals… leave out Common Needs

“Active Learning” more than goals… For SDG’s we need to Rethink

This is a copy of a requested comment on the UN NGO Major Group’s recommendations for the UN Post2015 Sustainable development goals, being developed by the UN Open Working Group (OWG) of member country representatives, guided by the UN’s consultants and representatives of civil society groups around the world.   It’s a really exciting thing to be part of…

Comments on draft NGO SDG framework Post 2015
on the SD Knowledge Platform site

I represented the NGO Commons Cluster at the major groups HLPF meeting, 1st OWG meeting and CIVICUS meetings at the UN in the past month.   I’m a natural systems scientist, and for decades have studied a type of physics for understanding why systems like economies are sometimes smoothly self-managing and then sometimes spin out of control.   I’m also active in CAUN.  For reference to what we are learning about how to apply commons principles to the SDG’s, see our 1) proposal for the UN to adopt the commons approach and our 2) draft “Ideal Model” for a global commons approach and for engaging civil society in solving SD problems.  These proposals were reposted to #1 & #2.

We have a lot of rethinking to do:
My main comment could go after pp #1:

A lot of rethinking is apparently needed, as current sustainability efforts are being ineffective, need to be brought into question and new direction found. There’s clear evidence of many kinds that after 40 years of mounting efforts there has been little appreciable effect on the course of the economy’s ever swelling strain on the earth’s resources and living systems. The one exception is unintentional, the current slowing rate of increasing impacts due to the slowing of world economic growth. That’s only from the failure of economic recoveries following the 2008 financial collapse.

So it appears, essentially, that **we don’t know what we’re doing yet**, and so need to take a more active learning approach rather than focus the effort at expanding on current methods, that now seem unproven. Promising new directions like a rejuvenated “commons approach” for facilitating multi-stakeholder collaboration on common interests, are only just being explored. But we believe some way needs to be found to use the active engagement of civil society’s resources central to the world’s SDG framework, and to bridge the silos of thinking now keeping our solutions from changing our problem.

[the following notes would help with turning “needing to rethink” into an “active learning approach” for finding new direction. It comes from email comments on the evolving “commons approach”.] Continue reading “Active Learning” more than goals… For SDG’s we need to Rethink

Sustainability = growing profit then steady profit

Posts on the UN NGO Week 4 Sustainability dialog for “WorldWeWant2015Post II references Post I below it, and is in reply to Alison Doig, working with Christian Aid, Green Alliance, WWF, Greenpeace and RSPB to understand the nature of the relation between environmental sustainability, quoted at the bottom.  Alison lays out a set of simple but broad principles for sustainability, a preview of a longer paper, but missing key issues for working with the natural phases of developmental processes for environmental transformations.  jlh

See also Jan 2014 OWG7 proposed World SDG incorporating this principle and others


Post II  Jessie Henshaw Fri, Mar 1, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Alison,    Your approach seems quite sensible, but to be missing one of the key controlling variables for all these objectives.   That’s whether the improvements you seek are “by an accumulation of larger steps” or “by an accumulation of smaller steps”.   An accumulation of smaller steps is probably sustainable, and an accumulation of larger steps is necessary to get any process of change started, but quite unsustainable, is the interesting rub.

This distinction is also quite missing from the whole discussion, always has been actually, so you’re not to be faulted for overlooking it.   Still, it does in fact control whether any of the things we hope will be sustainable actually will be.   I’m a systems physicist and this is the subject I study, both how all sorts of development processes need to begin and end, and how easy it is for people to overlook the whole subject.  I’d very much like to work with you if you see how to build any of this into your report in progress.

As a matter of change over time, start-up development always needs to be divergent and expansive, a series of ever bigger steps, and maturing development always needs to be converging and self-limited, a series of ever smaller steps.  In-between the physical momentum of change builds and decays.

The natural succession of development phases

For the  “three dimensions of sustainability”, social, economic, and environmental, it applies to all three. Continue reading Sustainability = growing profit then steady profit

Why we’d need 8 Whole Earths by 2100

We’ve largely used up or maximized our use of the good quality sources on earth, for lots of our critical resource needs.  It’s evident in their systematically rising prices, for one thing, but also in our rapidly declining rates of discovering new reserves, for half a century now!   We’ve “eaten the good stuff”, and still plan to find more and grow the economy as before.

a fact

So, not that you couldn’t use your shopping and profits for values far greater than just having more, of course,

BUT, to prosper by increasing our wealth as we have been,

It seems like it'd be a real joy! Just catch them with your radiant smile.


we need to

*Double* our total previous use of natural resources
three more times this century !

(like being the sorcerer’s apprentice)

It’s a detail overlooked by the world’s mainstream economists, and apparently nearly all the critics too.   Our present economic plans are to keep prospering as we did over the past two centuries.  That necessitates continuing to double of our resource uses every ~33 years in the future, then, or magical change only dreamed of.

It’s really ALL our long term professional economic modeling, all our long term environmental rehabilitation planning, such as responding to climate change, as well as all our long term government, finance and business plans, that “just assume” continued growing resource use as before.  Just to make the point clear,… our long term plan is not only to “make bricks without straw” but also to project making bricks without water or clay!

Why it not adds up to our really needing 8 whole earths by the end of the century has to do with the sneaky mathematical properties of doubling… sneaking up on our brains. In each doubling period everything changes as much as throughout all its prior history.   The oddest and most sneaky of all aspects of it, of course, is that this dilemma is quite real…

Even if we could find 7 more earths worth of resources as good as what we started with, it would actually end up just make our problems worse.   “Enjoying them” would then reasonably be expected to involve 7 times the impacts we’ve had on the beauty and sustainability of the earth too…!!   It also exposes the  madness of our well meaning hope to rely on growth to pay for reversing climate change!

These problems add to the evidence that the fundamental in-feasibility of our long term growth plan has avoided most everyone’s attention.   It’s not just “unlikely” that we’d keep finding many times the total amount of natural resources we’ve consumed before,… and that using them would have no effect.

You might as well be looking for an endless line of magical frogs to kiss.

Continue reading Why we’d need 8 Whole Earths by 2100

It’s the student that creates the education

Posts to the UN NGO Thematic Consultation on Education on how to measure and improve education for the Post2015 UN development goals.   My series of three comments focus on the tools a student needs to create their own educations… NOT on measuring the productive value of their educations for business.  We did that already, and overdid it.   It would do both students and society a great deal more good to look at the basic competencies offered, to see if students are getting the tools they need for exploring the world, like having competence in math, reading, and understanding ‘relationships’.

Productivity is often the assumed purpose of education, but has produced an unsustainable spoiling and depletion of the earth’s resources, now straining all its human and natural ecological systems.   So it’s our students who need the tools for guiding their own educations, to take us out of that dilemma created by the poor learning of their parents.

Schools and teachers should mainly be judged by their own peer and served communities, only measuring achievement in core competencies, and create a new core competency in “relationships“. Understanding relationships is a new essential competency for living in a world thrown into disarray by rapidly changing relationships of all kinds, caused by our prior vast misunderstanding the relationships between ourselves and the earth.


What he needs is the tools not the answers...

World We Want 2015 – Thematic Consultation – Education

Quality of Learning – Week 2 Questions

1.       1. How should learning outcomes be measured and how can measurement of learning improve education quality?

2. What would be your recommendations to address and improve the quality of education in the post MDG framework?


I. E-Discussion TWO: Week 2 – Quality of Learning
JLH Tue, January 15, 2013 at 06:11 pm

1. Based on my understanding of quality of learning, the indicators used to measure learning outcomes should be:

  1. … kept simple.  We should only use unambiguous measures giving confidence in what is being measured, like “numeracy”, “literacy”,  “understanding relationships”, “understanding design”, i.e. rudimentary life skills. Continue reading It’s the student that creates the education

How mismeasures steer us wrong

10/26/12 in Shining Light on “Dark Energy”, part of my “reality math” series, I describe how standard measures of business impacts vastly under-count them, and how it has equally misled our theory and practices of sustainable design.

We’re not counting the consumption required to deliver business services at all, and that’s commonly much larger than the impacts we can trace directly.   The article is in the Sept 2012 SB “New Metrics of Sustainability” letter (& here as a PDF).  The research for it is the peer reviewed 2011 SEA assessment method published in Sustainability (MDPI).  In discussing it on Systems Thinking World I found good added ways to explain the huge problem it causes us. The graphic below shows the scale of the error, the typical four-fold under-count.

But… Why Does the Changing Information Matter ???

Loraine noted that if the same error of perception is the same for all, it might not matter, for example.  So, the problem that misinformation distorts every decision you make wasn’t getting through.  The question she asked help set up a good explanation.


10/25/12 Loraine – Thanks for inquiring.   I do recognize there is something in my work that is hard to connect with.   Maybe its best exemplified by the weird quotes I get occasionally, like my dad’s, the outstanding physics professor who taught me to be so observant I could recognize behavior not following the laws of physics.   He finally gave up in exasperation saying “Everything you say is true dear, it’s *just not physics*”.   Needless to say, I also had no idea what to say to a response like that!!

Business energy use
The scales of counted and uncounted direct energy demands for operating the model business for the SEA case study.

But that was years ago, and I do see a lot more clearly what keeps people from recognizing how I depart from the common perspective.   I am, after all, talking about systemic errors in perception.  In this case it’s for the world’s standard setting bodies for economic measures.   They’ve been thinking our data was the reality, unaware of how much of business system impacts are hidden from view.   Thinking our information is reality is a problem lots of places. Continue reading How mismeasures steer us wrong

Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

There are a great variety of reasons to organize people

Sometimes it’s to discover something or to accomplish something
Sometimes it’s to connect people who share their views
Sometimes for people who share a common world from different views…
(but have remarkably different talents and views)

If you know of good examples or methods not mentioned here,
please post comments

It’s Collaborative Work between groups of stakeholders that often “don’t speak the same language”.  It takes art, patience and a sound method to get them to immerse themselves in the environment of the problem or opportunity that they need each other to respond to as partners.

They find there’s more to the reality than they thought, and to each other. Continue reading Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

Mining cells of natural language (for semantic ontology)

This is a brief but relevant comment, from my Systems Thinking World discussions, points out a way the efforts by Goggle and others, to mine “meaning” from of the massive quantities of semantic data now available, is missing a golden opportunity. There are a variety of ways to use the natural structures of languages as a key.

@Ferenc – I don’t recall the subject of data mining semantic meaning coming up, but I sure agree there seems no computer search strategy yet in use for that.    I have some original technical ideas of how to do it, but they all begin with  learning to recognize how natural languages “integrate common knowledge” for you, by how language communities naturally develop within their own social commons, (or “silo”).

So the first step to learning how to read the natural organization of semantic structures generally is to learn how recognize and observe the development of natural languages and the semantic webs they create.   This STW community is one, for example, as is any other community with a sustained internal conversation.

Armed with that, perhaps a computer whiz could learn to crawl the web to develop a lexicon of the code phrases of a great variety of distinctive language communities.  That could provide a way to let you search on any topic of your interest, for any language group’s interest in it.

I’ve tried to suggest that to Google a few times, to let people do web searches from a “scientific” viewpoint, or “entertainment” or “youth” or “religious”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “European”, “Asian” or other distinctive community of interest.

Wouldn’t having that option, to look in on other language cultures and learn from what they’re learning from, would be very entertaining and enlightening itself, wouldn’t it?



The physics of HappeningStatistical Methods


Budgeting for “the commons” needs business “eco-balance” sheets


A comprehensive method guiding investors
to compete for profiting the commons

It would not just count profits but also liabilities, in financial terms, using monetized business ESG balance sheets (eco-balance sheets), in combination with normal financial balance sheets.

Then everyone will see the real societal financial costs of making money today, that present or even past investors might well be held responsible for.


The full application of this principle is “A World SDG“, to provide TRUE MEASURES of sustainability for business, consumer and policy choices, and applying the basic science research for ‘Scope 4’ accounting and the 2011 Systems Energy Assessment (SEA) paper It is still “new science” though, and so demands fresh questions too.  It takes investigating the actual organization of the working systems of our world, looking for regular patters of in the system as a whole, what causes them and how they are change, more than theory.  It’s surprising both how little we notice going on around us, and how much we see but don’t notice what is implies.   A workshop method for opening people’s eyes to what’s really happening all around them can be found in the 3Step Method of Learning to Work with Nature. 

The original version of this proposal was submitted to the Rio+20 Dialogues for comment and voting as: Budgeting for “the commons” needs business “ecobalance” sheets, to compare environmental liabilities and benefits”. See “News of the Commons” for introductions to the vision and the systems thinking needed for a commons based approach to sustainability.  It’s part of my “reality math” series.

It’s proposed as part of the foundation of collaborative free market institutions needed for the health of the competitive free markets, as an element of Helene Finidori’s “Commons-Sense” and the “commons based economic models” she proposed.  Their intent is to solve the global economic crisis by making the commons work for the whole, as a replacement for the paradigm of “prosperity” with ever expanding development.

The proposal would accelerate how the business community is responding to their environmental liabilities. They’re hiring teams of sustainabilty experts, using comprehensive sustainabilty reporting (CSR) to track Environmental, Sustainability and Governance (ESG) factors, following both private and public standards, such as for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The reason business has a new interest in environmental liabilities is that they are driving corporate assessed values, as economic liabilities.

To protect natural resources local stakeholders would still need a say in the use of local resources.   To protect global resources for the future an equitable way to restrain growing economic demand is needed.   World standards for Comprehensive Sustainability Reporting (CSR) wold accurately assess the impacts of business products.  Then Economic Liability Assessments (ELA) of their economic costs to our future, would allow the world to act as a resource commons.   It would provide equitable market constraints on high impacts would, to suppress demand, and fund investment in alternatives.   ELA reports would be the basis of the “Eco-balance sheets” called for below, to be reported in business annual reports and factored into Pigovian taxes/tariffs on their products and services.

The basic scientific methods of doing accurate CSR and ELA assessments are what are discussed below.    The current statistical methods of environmental and economic accounting contain a major systematic inaccuracy. Simply said the error is in relying on tracing individual records rather than assessing whole system requirements,

an inaccuracy caused by not asking who sliced up the pie, to check the accuracy of trying to trace all the crumbs.

a scientific method difference
between economic accounting and systems accounting

Slices of a business energy pie mostly go uncounted when relying on traceable records, leaving out all the energy demands of business services.


Our Economic Liabilities for Environmental Damage
are direct costs of prior profits for business
that went unaccounted for.

New systems physics (3) would now allow the development of model “eco-balance sheets” to be placed along side normal “financial balance sheets” in annual business reports.   That would provide a clear and quicker way than others for using market forces to correct our systemic problem of unaccountable impacts on our future.

Businesses have long accumulated unaccountable impacts by investing in growing irreversible exploitation, and now accelerating depletion, of what once seemed limitless capacities of people and the earth.   It’s enormously costly for our future.

Investors and business managers can make better investing decisions if ESG measures capture the whole impact.

Those investment strategies incurred very costly economic damage to our future economy, that the businesses that created them were not charged for.   For estimating environmental impact costs like that there are various methods, and some major recent innovations. Continue reading Budgeting for “the commons” needs business “eco-balance” sheets