Hello and welcome to Module 2: Key concepts in the quest for equitable applications of the Food energy and Water Nexus
Two key concepts in the quest for sustainable development frame and affect the FEW NEXUS. That is to say that the nexus, if thought of as a web of interactions in multidimensional space, must operate within the limitations set by these two concepts. Many of you will have studied them in previous courses; as a Nexus practitioner you need to see them as bounding bodies and figure out policies and maneuvers that avoid spillage beyond these “boundaries to sustainability”.
The first is the famous “tragedy of the commons”, brought to world attention by Garrette Hardin in 1968 in a famous paper that used the metaphor of competing cow farmers overgrazing a constrained piece of common land because there was no rational incentive to restricting grazing since common ownership in a shared-resource system meant each farmer would benefit from putting just one more cow on the land without some regulation telling him not to do so. The assumption was that on public land Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ would not operate well with each person pursuing their own self interest.
Game theory was invoked to defend the proposition, showing that due to information assymetries, each player or actor stood to benefit more in the short term from getting all they could before the system collapsed because each found himself in a kind of “prisoners dilemma” with no way of knowing what the other party was going to do. The logic of the tragedy of the commons seemed unassailable to some, so that on the so-called left there were calls for more state control of resources, with more regulation and enforcement, while on the so-called right there were calls for privatization of all possible resources with, of course, state enforced property rights.
The flaw in the reasoning, as pointed out in particular by leaders of indigenous groups as well as the anthropologists studying them, is that the prisoner is prevented from communicating while outside of a prison there is the possibility of open communication, reinforced by cultural mechanisms, often some moral imperatives, that make it possible to manage resources collectively. Ironically, even Adam Smith was one of the largest proponents of this view, dedicating his life to the writing of his book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, of which the Wealth of Nations was a small part. Recent studies of the tragedy of the commons using simulations played by college students on computers showed that when everybody is aware of the stakes and agrees the goal is to avoid unsustainable outcomes and has a chance to communicate freely with the group what they need, what they are doing, and what the local effects are, the aggregate information begins to act like Smith’s invisible hand. Good information and an awareness of the interlinkages seems to be the key.
It could be argued that The Food Energy Water NEXUS is a conceptual tool that acts ultimately as a cultural mindset operating quite like Smith’s theory of moral sentiments or like the taboos put in place by traditional societies. By insisting on an awareness of the interdependencies and interconnections of a sectors and all players in a landscape, and providing the moral suasion of “sustainability and justice is our endgame” the Nexus enlarges and creates communication channels that show what affect each player’s move will have on all the other players. The Nexus seeks to highlight and eliminate information assymetries and by so doing, avoid the tragedy of the commons without forcing a move toward either privatization or government control. Instead it provides a more nuanced understanding of each possible move in its three dimensions, allowing for more subtle and complex arrangements.
In todays NEXUS world, the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals act as the cultural boundary and provider of moral suasion. They define the rules of the game, and the notion of what is taboo and what is expected of the players in the game.
A brief review of the SDGs shows that food, energy and water, and the impacts of any tragedy in providing them for our common future (to use the title of Barry Commoner’s seminal book on the subject which helps frame the moral imperative) stitch together all of the goals set before humanity this century.
Goal 1 End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
That seems ambitious, but, if we understand the chief forms of poverty resulting from an inability to obtain the necessary amounts of clean and healthy food, energy and water for the reproduction of the household, and we consider that the minimum amounts of food and water required for a dignified life can theoretically be obtained through a closed recycling loop and powered through efficient used renewable energy systems, the end of these forms of poverty is certainly conceivable. Opportunity poverty is another issue, but one that addressing the fundamental forms can address.
Goal 2 End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
This goal is well within the scope of the Nexus.
Goal 3 Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
In so far as healthy food and clean water promotes healthy lives, and clean renewable energy eliminates the grave threats of air and water pollution, this one is also within our domain, leaving medical knowledge and treatment as an equity issue.
Goal 4 Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
This goal is more political in nature, but Yale Political Economist James C. Scott, in his book “Seeing Like a State, How Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed” has argued that agricultural systems based on monocropping and survival schemes that silo knowledge are responsible for “dummification”. The argument is that self-sufficient populations engaged in a permacultural polycropping landscape and in hunting and gathering learned to read the landscape as a complex environment and were already tuned to Nexus style thinking because their lives depended on an understanding of complex interrelationships in ecological systems. With extreme division of labor and what Marx called the “alienation of labor” came educational systems that rewarded specialization at the expense of holistic understanding. A quality lifelong education can start with learning how to apply the Nexus to all areas.
Goal 5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
It can be argued that given that provision and maintenance and preparation of food and water have been traditionally female domains, along with fetching and utilizing domestic energy sources, the FEW Nexus can be a tool of empowerment for women.
Goal 6 Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
This goal is addressed specifically by the FEW nexus.
Goal 7 Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
Again, this is a goal implicit in the Nexus.
Goal 8 Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
The Nexus reveals opportunities to create sustainable economic growth and suggests different jobs, many of them new, that could provide productive employment. Whether the insights it offers leads to greater inclusion is, of course, a political decision.
Goal 9 Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
Because the FEW Nexus is tied to Industrial Ecology and the creation of overlapping, interconnected Cradle To Cradle infrastructure, it holds great promise for achieving this goal.
Goal 10 Reduce inequality within and among countries.
One of the premises of the Nexus is that through its lens we will be able to ensure provision of adequate nutrition and useful energy and water which, if achieved will help reduce inequalities, at least on the existential level. Unequal access to luxury goods or non-essential good may remain, but their very definition contains the implicit assumptions about inequality as their value and the cost of obtaining them is defined culturally rather than biologically.
Goal 11 Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
The FEW NEXUS helps us achieve this goal by helping to ensure food, energy and water SECURITY. The assumption is that with their basic needs met, humans are more likely to engage in peaceful trade since they can’t be threatened with starvation or water or energy shortage.
Goal 12 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
This is firmly within the purview of the food energy and water nexus, especially when coupled with an understanding of how industrial ecology systems can mimic natural ecosystems and produce zero waste.
Goal 13 Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
It is assumed that when we shift to closed loop systems of production and consumption and grow, transport, process, consume and dispose of food and organic materials in a sustainable way, most of the drivers of climate change will be addressed and most of the impacts mitigated. It is agreed that industrial mono-cropping agriculture is the largest user of fossil fuels and the largest cause of deforestation, soil erosion and land degradation and pesticide and fertilizer runoff, fires and flooding and greenhouse gasses, water use and water contamination. So the FEW Nexus has direct relevance to this goal.
Goal 14 Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
This is arguably a go in streamline with the FEW Nexus.
Goal 15 Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
As explained above, this is within the crosshairs of the Nexus.
Goal 16 Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
With the food, energy and water nexus used to solve the three pillars of survival, only the provision of adequate shelter becomes the problematic that must be dealt with by inclusive institutions. Land speculation and land ownership and redistribution and property values retain their potential for conflict, as they have for millennia. But finding ways through the nexus to make it so that large land holdings and the fight for “40 acres and a mule” become less urgent. Vertical farming through hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics is allowing creative food production in urban and suburban built environments as well as rural landscapes, at a time when distributed energy systems like solar and wind and biogas power are emerging to end the monopoly of centralized power production enabling a more inclusive society to emerge.
Goal 17 Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
One of the key strengths of the Nexus philosophy is that it implies partnerships since specialists in each domain need to communicate and create multidisciplinary interventions. So by its very essence, FEW Nexus thinking strengthens the means of implementation.
Each of these goals creates lattices in our collective cultural framework that provide connection points holding the moral fabric of sustainable development together. By agreeing that these goals are our drivers, and that we hold them in common purpose, the implementation of the FEW Nexus as a way to reach them helps prevent any one actor working on one goal from disrupting or impeding the goals of the others. When the use of any individual shared resource, viewed as a contested slice of a limited pie, has the potential to cause conflict, a Nexus approach reveals ways to maximize the utility and mutual benefits of other resources from other pies that impact the resource in question and helps us to find win-win-win strategies that encourage more rational use and planning and, by eliminating dead waste losses and channeling resources back into the loop, may actually “grow the pie”. This is the promise of the plenitude approach of industrial ecology that proper application of the nexus implies.
In this way we avoid the tragedy of the commons.
Besides the tragedy of the commons, which requires vigilance as well as a moral imperative supported by good communication and understanding of the linkages, sustainability and justice demand we operate within another constraint to the “limits of growth”. These limits are embodied in the concept of the “ecological footprint.”
Ecological footprint analysis emerged in 1992, developed at the University of British Columbia by Dr. William Rees and Dr. MathisWackernagel. As defined by the Global Living Project “ It estimates how much of Earth's productive land and sea is used to produce the food, materials and energy that we consume and to assimilate our wastes.” 20 years earlier, the Club of Rome, lead by Donnella Meadows, published a landmark study called “the Limits to Growth”. The Wikipedia entry shows how similar their approach was to what we now call the Nexus:
“Limits to Growth was a book about the computer simulation of exponential economic and population growth with finite resource supplies... The book used the World3 model to simulate the consequence of interactions between the Earth's and human systems… The original version presented a model based on five variables: world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resources depletion. These variables are considered to grow exponentially, while the ability of technology to increase resources availability is only linear. The authors intended to explore the possibility of a sustainable feedback pattern that would be achieved by altering growth trends among the five variables under three scenarios. They noted that their projections for the values of the variables in each scenario were predictions "only in the most limited sense of the word," and were only indications of the system's behavioral tendencies. Two of the scenarios saw "overshoot and collapse" of the global system by the mid to latter part of the 21st century, while a third scenario resulted in a "stabilized world."[
The Nexus approach helps us to create those sustainability feedback patterns they talked about to avoid overshoot and collapse, and the Ecological Footprint gives us an idea of when we approach the edges of overshoot so that we don’t blunder into collapse.
The ecological footprint is a metaphor based on a very visual descriptor of the consequences of human activity. It visualizes a giant stepping on the landscape and crushing it, or, better put, it shows us each that we can be a single normal sized person sitting at home thinking we aren’t hurting anybody, but that we have an absolutely massive giant foot as our avatar in the real world, blindly crushing and obliterating landscapes however unintentionally or inadvertently .
When you go online and use one of the many ecological footprint calculators you learn that your consumption patterns, if engaged in by all of the people on the planet, would require 4 or 5 planets to sustain. The internet has sites now where you play the footprint calculator game to try and see how small you can make your footprint, with the ultimate goal of proving that you can lead a lifestyle whose consumption patterns, if applied to everyone now living, would only require a single planet. And that makes sense because that is all we have.
The calculators, obviously as flawed as all models of reality and the complex feedbacks loops are, of course use a nexus approach. As we talked about in the first module, they show how movement along one axis of consumption or production affects the other axes. They show how an increase in one parameter, say water use, can have a negative impact on another, say food production. As the algorithms behind them get more and more sophisticated, we get closer and closer to the kind of immediate feedback loops which can help us plan for a just and sustainable outcome.
Certainly in the age of ever more refined computer simulations of possible outcomes with better world systems theories informing their logic, we can make better predictions of what will happen when we try out a new technology or policy.
But because models are always inadequate, and, as James Scott reminds us, “the map is not the territory”, we need very careful ground trothing, and we have to make sure that in our enthusiasm for technological and engineering fixes that seem to pan out when simulated by a computer, we don’t miss the political and human factors that make things in the real world work or fall apart. This is the role of political ecology, the field of study that explicitly embraces the human factor.
One of the scientific papers now addressing an important area of this that has often been left out, is “Sustainable development and the water–energy–food nexus: A perspective on livelihoods” by Biggs et. al, from the University of Southhampton in England.
Their abstract says,
“The water–energy–food nexus is being promoted as a conceptual tool for achieving sustainable development. Frameworks for implementing nexus thinking, however, have failed to explicitly or adequately incorporate sustainable livelihoods perspectives. This is counterintuitive given that livelihoods are key to achieving sustainable development. In this paper we present a critical review of nexus approaches and identify potential linkages with sustainable livelihoods theory and practice, to deepen our understanding of the interrelated dynamics between human populations and the natural environment. Building upon this review, we explore the concept of ‘environmental livelihood security’ – which encompasses a balance between natural resource supply and human demand on the environment to promote sustainability – and develop an integrated nexus-livelihoods framework for examining the environmental livelihood security of a system. The outcome is an integrated framework with the capacity to measure and monitor environmental livelihood security of whole systems by accounting for the water, energy and food requisites for livelihoods at multiple spatial scales and institutional levels. We anticipate this holistic approach will not only provide a significant contribution to achieving national and regional sustainable development targets, but will also be effective for promoting equity amongst individuals and communities in local and global development agendas.”
In the body of the paper they make the linkage to the guiding Sustainable Development goals explicit but argue that even they aren’t enough. They say,
“The water–energy–food nexus has become central to discussions regarding the development and subsequent monitoring of the SDGs. However, while all of the proposed 17 SDGs also resonate with the concept of sustainable livelihoods, the term ‘livelihoods’ is not mentioned anywhere in current documentation.n This is counterintuitive given that, as we argue more fully in this paper, livelihoods are key to achieving sustainable development.”
And what do they mean by livelihoods?
“Broadly speaking,” they tell us, “approaches to sustainable development have focused on ‘top-down’ quantitative indicators based on scientific expertise and have a tendency to measure progress at national, regional and global scales. Conversely, sustainable livelihood approaches have tended towards more ‘bottom-up’ qualitative analyses of data obtained at household, community and local levels. Sustainable livelihood approaches have evolved from shifts in perspectives on poverty, participation and sustainable development (Sen, 1981; Chambers and Conway, 1992) and in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development used the term ‘sustainable livelihoods’ for the first time in discussions on resource ownership, basic needs, and rural livelihood security…
Nexus thinking is advocated as an advance on current and often sector-specific governance of natural resource use. Current nexus framings are often focused on macro-level drivers of resource consumption patterns (see Table 1). However, ‘larger scale’ extraction and consumption of natural resources may lead to depletion of natural capital stocks and increased climate risk without an equitable share of the benefits”.
So this is the dimension that sits at the heart of the true nexus between food energy and water, and is the most politicized and hence often ignored. This is the dimension that creates the most uncertainty when it comes to using the nexus to reach our Sustainable Development Goals. It was argued by Dr. Robert Bullard, the African American father of the Environmental Justice movement who is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, that almost all environmental issues are really justice issues.
If our guiding moral principle is “do no harm” and we are not allowed to have a negative impact on any community, then we would definitely approach the nexus in an equitable way because we would add the social dimension to our considerations of food, water and energy sustainability. The livelihoods of ALL people would matter, and we would be forced to think from the bottom up as much as we do from the top down.
Human tendencies to exploit one another and to marginalize different groups may be the most difficult part of achieving the gains and seeing the opportunities provided by the Food Energy Water Nexus .
We can only hope in these contentious and dangerous times that the next generation of planners and policy makers and engineers includes social and environmental justice in the mix, whenever they look for solutions, creating liberty and justice… for ALL.