Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The FEW Nexus Episode 2

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[3][4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.

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The FEW NEXUS Episode 1

Script for Module 1
By T.H. Culhane, Ph.D.
Greetings and welcome to Episode 1 in our new Sustainability Series, “Navigating the Food/Water/Energy Nexus; Synergizing for Sustainability”.
In this course we will take you on a journey into the complex interrelationships between 3 essential sectors in our environmental solutions portfolio  that dominate our lives and yet continue to be poorly understood and whose mismanagement now arguably threatens the very existence of billions of people.
According to the United Nations World Water Development Report from 2014, “Recognizing the synergies [between food, energy and water], and balancing the trade-offs engendered by dealing with any one of them in isolation, is “central to jointly ensuring water, energy and food security.“

Water security. Energy security. Food Security.  Homeland security.
It’s a hot topic.  For millions of people around the globe it is literally a matter of life and death.

Approached  in isolation, each problem’s solution has historically created still more problems for the other sectors.  As the United Nations World Water Development Report from 2014 reminds us:

” The global community is well aware of food, energy and water challenges, but has so far addressed them in isolation, within sectoral boundaries. At the country level, fragmented sectoral responsibilities, lack of coordination, and inconsistencies between laws and regulatory frameworks may lead to misaligned incentives” .

When trying to solve issues related to how and what and when people can eat and drink healthy food and water, and where they will get the energy to keep from heat or cold exposure, or to move away from trouble and toward opportunity, misalignment creates debilitating chaos. And yet, we’ve been well aware of the problem the sectoral approach creates.

This course seeks to address that by giving you a synergistic, holistic approach to problem solving.  We need leaders in systems thinking, in sectoral integration. We need leaders who will bring insights from each domain where dysfunction is being dealt with and combine them into a broad suite of interleaving overlapping, combinatorially dynamic best practices.   We need leaders who cross the boundaries and create industrial and natural ecologies that work together for the betterment of all.
You have just entered… the Food Energy Water NEXUS.

The UN report states, “If water, energy and food security are to be simultaneously achieved, decision-makers, including those responsible for only a single sector, need to consider broader influences and cross-sectoral impacts. A nexus approach to sectoral management, through enhanced dialogue, collaboration and coordination, is needed to ensure that co-benefits and trade-offs are considered and that appropriate safeguards are put in place”.
Safeguards from what, you may ask?

The UN report stresses that there are hidden costs to every benefit. That each forward step we take along a given path can simultaneously move us backward along another axis in our journey.  It can be frustrating, and it is anything but obvious.
This graphic animation illustrates the point – you can try it yourself.  The graph shows a sphere in a 3 dimensional Cartesian space, the kind 3D animators at Pixar use to create movies like Toy Story. We can let the x axis represent food, the y axis water.  The z-axis would be energy.  The zero point would be stagnation and anything below the 0 in negative number space would be, well, negative. Dysfunctional. Any  points away from Zero  in the positive direction would be a good thing.  Think of it like a game. Can you keep the ball moving in positive direction in all three axes simultaneously?

When all you can see is one or two axes it is easy to be fooled.  With only one dimension you have no idea where the ball is in the other dimensions. You wave your hand and move the mouse and drag the ball forward in, say the food dimension, only to find that you catastrophically decreased the amount of water available.  In two dimensions, your typical X-Y space graph from economics, the kind we use with supply and demand curves, you can check out how movement in the food axis affects the water axis but still have no idea what is happening along the energy axis.

  Anybody who has struggled to learn a 3D mesh modelling or animation or architectural program knows this effect two well. The mental ability to visualize in 3D space is also something scuba divers, submarine drivers, airline pilots and astronauts train for.   We can learn to think this way on a computer through visualization programs like the one I am using here, “Blender 3D” a free open source physics engine used in the gaming industry.  Despite the fact that we live in a 3 dimensional world, it is hard for most people to visualize motion in three dimensions at once. Computer simulations can help if we can look at different perspectives simultaneously with more than one 2 dimensional representation of space..  What most of us do when we want to manipulate an object in three D on a computer is open 4 windows with different viewpoints, as I illustrate here.

Three of them are two dimensional two axis views, one a flat plane looking down the Z axis so that we can see the X and Y just like in your high school geometry class, the other two looking down the X and Y axes respectively.  The third view, the user view or camera view, is the nexus.

It shows how any move on one axes affects the position of the object on each of the other two axes.

It is a powerful conceptual tool, and once your mind has embraced the concept and skill of thinking along three axes simultaneously, you can make moves with confidence. And then you can apply this way of seeing the world to complex problem solving that involves many overlapping and interconnected parameters.

Of course, in real life, even if you appreciate the complexities in moving along different axes, there are tradeoffs and antagonisms as well as synergies, many interventions require value judgements and our ability to model reality is filled with uncertainties even if we could agree on what is “good” and what is “bad”.  The law of unintended consequences always rears its ugly head,  Murphy’s Law, stating that whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment, usually applies, and nature can behave in a capricious manner at times. And then there are competing visions of the world and competing political forces to factor in.

The UN report  tells us,
““There are many synergies and trade-offs between water and energy use and food production.  For example, Using water to irrigate crops might promote food production but it can also reduce river flows and hydropower potential. Growing bioenergy crops under irrigated agriculture can increase overall water withdrawals and jeopardize food security. Converting surface irrigation into high efficiency pressurized irrigation may save water but may also result in higher energy use. Recognizing these synergies and balancing these trade-offs is central to jointly ensuring water, energy and food security.
Ay, and there’s the rub.  We want to JOINTLY ensure the elements necessary for our survival and well being are always available, sustainably used, creating health and welfare benefits and justice for all.  But it is quite a challenge to figure out how.
All we can console ourselves with is the notion that more information is often better than less – although economist Daniel Kahneman’s work on Fast and Frugal Heuristics, based on ideas from Gigerenzer and Todd’s ecological rationality research,  calls even that assumption into question.  But at least we can say that having a bird’s eye view of a landscape, having a fish-eye lens to take it all in, having a multi-dimensional perspective, is arguably better than being stuck on a single axis, like the square in Edward Abbey’s classic math parable “Flatland” who has to learn how limited his perspectives and world view were when suddenly visited by a sphere and taken above his world to see how much more there is to reality.

The Food-Energy-Water Nexus provides that all-encompassing view from outside the flatland of single subject assumptions.  We call it the FEW Nexus as a convenient acronym, but might also be thought of as the MORE Nexus – the place where more and more things are brought together and their interconnections made manifest.

FEW stands for Food Energy and Water.  MORE could stand for “Multidimensional Omniperspectival Relationship Ecology”, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well, does it?

But while we are on the topic of the acronym we use for this course, let’s address the obvious “sin of omission”.  

Where did all the waste go?

We all know that the process of growing, delivering and consuming food, and capturing, storing, delivering and using water, and producing, transforming, transmitting and consuming energy generate WASTE.  And we know that these wastes – in the form of disease causing, foul smelling, water eutrophying and water and air polluting substances, are the primary reason that humanity is in such trouble these days, and that waste is the source of environmental injustices, habitat and species loss, illness  and climate change.

So why isn’t WASTE in the title? Why don’t we call our course the “FEWW Nexus : Food Energy, Water and WASTE?”.

It is a good question, but we think we have an equally good answer.

The fact is, we want to eliminate WASTE.
We don’t waste in our title as a reflection of our commitment to see waste disappear from both our world and our worldview.

In the food-energy-water nexus, there is no room for waste. Waste is simply “the right thing in the wrong place at the wrong time or in the wrong concentration.” Waste is often a form of food for another process that has simply been denied a role as an input to that process.
The FEW Nexus takes an Industrial Ecology perspective.

Industrial Ecology, made popular by the architect William McDonough in his book Cradle to Cradle, remaking the way we make things, is an applied philosophical framework in which the output of every process should be  the input of another process.

For example, in Reykjavic in Iceland I visited a thermal spa called the Blue Lagoon. It’s healing sulfur hot springs where merely the wastewater from the adjacent geothermal power plant. Nothing wasted there.  In coal country, fly ash from the burning of the coal is reprocessed into concrete blocks.  In Cairo Egypt I visited a factory in the desert that took plastic bags from the city garbage collectors, heated and melted and crushed them into forms to make everything from park benches and palettes to manhole covers.  Sometimes they mixed them when sand for weight and rigidity, and there are now companies making building block materials out of recycled plastic. In fact the entire world of recycling is moving toward a form of industrial ecology.  At Mercy College we have the BLEST Japanese Plastic—to-oil machine that takes Styrofoam, polypropylene, polyethylene and other waste plastics and uses computer controlled pyrolysis/gasification to transform them back into oil and then into fractional products like kerosene, diesel fuel, gasoline and paraffin.  After all, plastic was made from oil, and it is a simple procedure to turn it back into the substance from which it came.

But while all of  this seems straightforward, the NEXUS teaches us both the limitations and the opportunities.

For example, we can talk about recycling all day, but most recycling takes prodigious amounts of water and energy, and these determine the economic limits to what almost all of us agree is an otherwise obvious solution to our waste problems.  Because of the energy involved, for example, much would-be recycling is actually better classified as “Down-cycling”. Down cycling means that we may not immediately being throwing things “away” but the secondary or third hand use may be severely downgraded from the first.  In this way, for example, clothing may make it to a second-hand or thrift shop when it is a bit threadbare, and then, when it is no longer acceptable to wear it, it can be downcycled into cloth strips which are then woven into ornamental quilts or carpets.  Further down in the life cycle, these items may end up being torn into strips and used as rags to clean up spills or mop up oil.  At some point they make their way to a waste disposal site to be put in a  landfill or incinerated.  In these cases downcycling is preferred to simply throwing the clothes away, but it is part of an inevitable linear progression from “Cradle to Grave”.

What Mcdonough and Braungart took up the flag for industrial ecology  in their book “From Cradle to Cradle”. Cradle to Cradle processes  are  TRUE recycling, where there is no grave, not landfill, no carbon sink.  A worn out carpet is shredded, processed and turned back into a carpet.  A plastic water bottle is turned back into a water bottle, and aluminum can into an aluminum can… or they are transformed into other goods of high value in such a way that the molecules in them never end up in the air or water or landfill.

But this process only works economically and environmentally and socially – the three axes of the sustainability paradigm – if the energy costs and water costs and labor costs (driven by the consumption of food, don’t forget) are taken into account and managed in a win-win-win way.

The FEW nexus lets us do that.  It asks at every step of the life cycle – “how is this impacting the water? How is this impacting energy? How is this impacting food?” And it assumes a goal of ZERO WASTE.

The Nexus assumes an explicit understanding of systems integration, and draws its strength from the holistic approach successfully employed by NASA engineers working together in interdisciplinary teams to keep human beings alive in the forbidding environments of outer space.  As the movie pitch slogan goes “In space, no one can hear you scream” – and in addition, nobody can make home deliveries of food or water while energy has to be very carefully managed.

The reductionist approach to problem solving that was the bedrock of the early scientific revolution, approaching systems in isolation, was fine for drilling down to basic principles and developing early theories and models of the universe. But when it comes to surviving in that universe its limitations can become debilitating.  The Nexus, with its theory-meets-practice approach, which we call PRAXIS, demands multiple disciplines working in synergy and harmony, demands mutual respect and understanding for multiple perspectives.  It is a application of the ancient “blind men around the elephant” metaphor, where one touches the trunk and thinks it’s a hose, another touches the tusk and thinks it’s a spear, another thinks the tail is a rope and another the leg is a tree trunk.  Only when they integrate their limited observations can they begin to reconstruct the whole elephant.

The NEXUS is the coming together of observations, theories, disciplines and sectors. It disciplines us to always pay attention to what the other blind man is seeing and to follow the threads as we tug on each strand of our understanding to see what impact it is having on another part of the system.

The food water energy nexus is also iterative and self-correcting.  In its DNA is a kind of genetic algorithm that says “if a gain in parameter A causes a loss in B or C such that the entire system starts collapsing, correct A for maximum sustainable yield, even if it means bringing A down now in order to help it increase later. Then learn from that experience to make better finer adjustments in the future.”

The musician activist Pete Seeger, famous for his song “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” and for his work on the ClearWater Sloop sailing ship studying water pollution issues on the Hudson River, told me the following when I was in his activist club when I was in high school studying sustainability.

He said, “You have to think like Sailors… when we want to go forward we don’t simply set a course for our target.  We are working in a complex environment with many forces – the current, the waves, the tides, the winds, eddies and swirls and backwash and turbulence, heat and cold, all these things affect the speed and direction of the boat.  But when the wind is blowing against us, we don’t give up or go where it wants to push us. We learn to “tack against the wind” and use the energy in that gust or gale to push us in another direction, to nudge us upstream even though it may be blowing downstream. That is how we succeed, by understanding the flows of energy and water and harnessing them to a positive goal.”

This had a lot of influence on me as a kid because it too is an  endorsement of the nexus concept that helps us operate in multi-dimensional space.  The Nexus can be very subtle. Sometimes it is like a mixing board in a recording studio. There is a whole bank of sliders and knobs and buttons for every aspect of food production and transport and consumption and waste, another one for the myriad parts of the energy mix, yet another for all the things associated with water, from the hydrologic cycle to irrigation and sewer systems. Each affects the other. As a good producer understanding the nexus, you begin to feel how a given action will affect the entire mix.  It is much more complex than merely blending bass, midrange and treble; as any good studio engineer or musician knows, sounds, like the parameters of sustainability,  have their own special properties that go beyond tone and volume, beyond frequency and wavelength, and they blend differently, blend in unique ways, depending on the particular song or symphony.  

A FEW Nexus expert is somewhat like a symphony conductor, calling in different instruments with a deep awareness of the intended structure and dynamism of the whole song which the individual player may not be able to grasp from inside the orchestra pit.

So those are some of the more colorful metaphors for the FEW Nexus.  We need to play our understandings of food and energy and water like a conductor so that we conduct ourselves sustainably and with justice in this world.
One of the easiest places to start down this road to mastery, as far as I am concerned, is to explore the simple process of “Biodigestion” which is an area of research we are exploring here at the Patel College and which  arguably forces integration of our knowledge of food, energy and water.

Biodigesters take food waste – whether the food has been discarded uneaten or passed through the body of an animal – and transforms it in an anaerobic tank of water through microbial action, into liquid fertilizer for further food production and into useful clean renewable energy in the form of biomethane gas.  Since biodigesters involve food energy and water and integrate them into a recycling system that turns food consumption back into a system for food production and preparation the digester acts as an ipso facto and tangible nexus.  So I will be using the biodigester as a potent and real symbol of the FEW Nexus which we can return to in our studies again and again as we explore other examples of the Nexus approach and how it applies to other parts of the three sectors.
As a perfect case study for the FEW NEXUS, WE can look at the most recent one from the General Electric Foundation titled “flower-power-energy-from-plant-waste-helps-farmers-grow-weapons-against-pests”.
The story here is that Kenyan farmers in the cut flower industry, which is one of the largest agricultural export markets in the world,  particularly those who grow roses, are plagued by a spider mite known as Tetranychus urticae.  This pest, which causes millions of dollars in damages and is one of the reasons that the flower industry uses so many pesticides, which contaminate water and cause cancers and birth defects and wildlife loss, has a natural enemy , Amblyseius californicus, a predatory mite used as a biological control against the red red spider mite. Ambylseius is also affected by pesticides, so to do sustainable pest management no pesticides can be used.
The predatory mite could make organic growing of flowers with no water contamination possible, but the flower growing region in Kenya is in the highlands where it is cold, and Amblyseius needs lots of heat to breed. Once it is an adult it is pretty hardy and can feed on Tetranychus, but it needs help getting established.

The solution funded by General Electric, an energy company, was to use “an anaerobic digester to  convert plant matter into biomethane for generating electricity and high quality natural liquid and solid fertilizers, which help displace synthetic options.
The Austrian Jenbecher gas engines they installed also recover waste heat generated by the burning of the biogas. The heat produces a stream of hot water, a valuable commodity in the farm’s location some 2,000 feet above sea level, some of which is used to heat greenhouses where the Amblyseius predatory mites are incubated, hatched and grown for release in the flower fields.”
And best of all for our purposes, the website for GE actually uses the word NEXUS to describe what they are doing.
“The good bugs will breed inside a nearby greenhouse that will be kept cozy with excess heat from a unique new power plant serving the farm. “We’re rethinking the whole agriculture-energy nexus,” says Mike Mason, chairman of Tropical Power, the company that built the plant. “Gorge Farm’s system is the first step in that process.”
This explicit mention of the Nexus on a corporate website in an interview with a company building power plants shows how deeply the concept is penetrating our society and this is a very hopeful thing.  The isolation of sectors that the UN Report was concerned about is increasingly being challenged and the challenge being met.  There is deep awareness now of how systems integrate for maximum efficiency and economic benefit.
Mason continues with specifics saying,“This power system brings a new dimension to agriculture because it doesn’t just produce food,” “It also produces electricity, heat, fertilizer, compost and, indirectly, pest control for the crops growing in the field. All of these benefits are coming off the land in a closed loop.”

Closing the loop is industrial ecology in a nutshell.  And NEXUS THINKING is the arguably the best way to approach industrial ecology and natural ecology and human ecology, the best way to eliminate waste and tackle the challenges of providing security in food, energy and water.

So, as they say in the Marines, we invite you to be part of the few and  the proud, students at the Patel College of Global Solutions studying and applying the FEW Nexus.  We hope you will carry this knowledge out into the world so that the FEW will become many, and the world will shift its economy from one based on scarcity to one based on plenty. The FEW Nexus can help us do this, and soldier, we are counting on YOU!