A "Sustainable Civilization"

If we want to be a sustainable civilization we should know what one looks like. To help visualize it, consider a sustainable international space station? It requires oxygen, food, and energy to support six people. Over a long time period everything wears out and has to be replaced - from people to toilets.

There are also some social aspects of sustainability. One astronaut cannot eat all the food and leave none for the others. One cannot smoke and impose waste on the others. Astronauts cannot invite their friends for a visit. There are limits as to how much one astronaut can inconvenience another because there are no resources in the budget for conflict.

The space station depends on supply ships to bring everything that cannot be manufactured on board. These ships fill the energy and oxygen tanks and the food pantry. And yes the solar panels provide some power but it is a small fraction of the enterprise. Without supply ships six astronauts cannot be sustained. Everything, water, air, experiment rack space, is part of the accounting. Even the pee in the toilets is conserved, recycled, and re-shared.

In many respects earth is like the international space station except it has no supply ships. It has incoming solar energy to warm it, create its weather, and support photosyntheses. Over millions of years photosynthesis has filled earth's batteries in the form of fossil fuels. The earth creates soil that can grow food, forests that produce oxygen. A symbiotic environment has emerged that keeps itself running as long a the sun shines and its components are not poisoned. The cosmos has deposited minerals and metals in the crust that humankind uses as long as the deposits are rich or the batteries are full enough to perform extraction.

However, our current civilization is no more sustainable than the space station. 7 billion people cannot sustainably live on it.
       1) the earth's batteries, oil, gas, coal, will be near empty
              by the end of this century.
       2) eco system services, soil, air, and water have ever lower productivity because
              our use exceeds their renewing rates and we are poisoning them.
       3) minerals and metals will stop serving our needs because they have to be
              extracted from ever lower quality ore deposits.
       4) produced goods and services are less than the population needs to both
               survive and maintain infrastructure, and
       5) the resulting scarcity causes more production to be diverted to conflict.

A sustainable civilization would have to have:
        a non diminishing source of energy.
        activities that do not degrade the natural environment's ability to produce
                goods and services,
        a way of recycling minerals and metals, and
        a social system that does not divert resources toward conflict.

To establish a sustainable earth, we will have to reduce the human footprint so it balances with the earth's ability to continuously support it:
       1) reduce energy consumption below that which can be created by renewable
              resources with high net energy.
                     (Barring new technology, maybe energy deliveries
                     in 2100 will support only 50 million well educated,
                     health-cared-for people, living a high tech existence.)
       2) use the commons below renewing levels (both sinks and sources).
                     (For example, reduce the human footprint so the natural systems
                     can restore themselves. For example if the
                     3 enclaves totaling 50 million people use only 2% of the present land
                     area (because of energy limitations) 98% of the land area will return
                     to its natural state)
       3) Stop acquiring minerals and metals from mines which suffer from ever lower
              ore quality and instead recycle them from the wastes of their previous use.
       4) limit stratification of wellbeing below the level that diverts goods and services
              to social conflict.

To attain these civilization attributives requires changes in the social contract.
        1) civil control over annual number of births per year.
        2) civil control of a redefined commons. (change in private use definitions.)
        3) civil control of use and recycling of non renewables.
        4) civil control of the separation between the rich and poor.

I have proposed democratic processes for making these changes to the social contract which are similar to that used to establish abolition and suffrage laws. That is, people vote to give up some personal freedoms to gain the larger benefits provided by the altered civilization.

Next let me outline some changes to the social contract so people know what they have to "give up" to get "more of what they want" or less of "what they don't want."

In the cited article above, I have already proposed a birth lottery to lower global population to 50 million and a reorganization of our distributed global civilization into three small enclaves which are powered by three hydro electric grids.

This note to you, is asking for help in visualizing additional laws that:
        1) limit resource wasting conflict. (e.g. limiting the stratification of wealth.)
        2) Protect the commons while fairly assigning its renewing services.
                (e.g. expand the old definition of the commons to include all possible
                        services and then charge each user for that service's use.)
        3) maintain access to minerals and metals by
                a) leasing them to actual users, who
                b) also must pay into escrow the energy required to extract them
                        from the product after it is abandoned.

Before considering your suggestions for new laws assume:

        1) the birth lottery successfully created a constant global population of
                50 million. (see SKIL Note 80 and further support SKIL notes 71-99

        2) The transition from present civilization to the new community described                         below is completed.
                a) 50 million live in 3 independent city states
                        i) each with its own hydro power supply* that lasts 400 years
                              *(hydro based because
                                      fossil, and uranium no longer can produce net energy
                                              at present technology,
                                        solar PV, wind, Geo-thermal, tidal, or current energy
                                                sources don't produce sufficient net energy to be a
                                                       part of this civilization's design.

                                       (Just for the record: if we had to build dams from scratch
                                               they don’t produce enough net energy either.
                                       However, until they silt in, or collapse, they can maintain
                                             themselves and produce high net energy.)
                        ii) each has scavenged and stockpiled non renewing natural                                         resources which our present civilization mined from the earth's
                b) The hydro energy (the only high net energy available) is community
                        owned and equally distributed. Each person is allocated 96,000
                                kwh/yr. This is possible because the number of people born                                        matches the number that die each year.
                c) This hydro energy allocation allows each of the 50 million to have:
                        civil services (which include):
                                25 years of education,
                                lifetime healthcare,
                                free transport within the community, and
                                civil services including baseball or symphony tickets
                      The remainder of the energy allocation comes in the form of energy
                               tokens. The allotment allows purchase of basic food, housing,
                                        goods, services with enough discretionary income
                                        to allow investment.
                d) The energy tokens almost make work an elective.
                        The tokens represent a lot of energy slaves, just as they do today.
                        People can perform non reimbursed work, e.g. advancing the arts,
                                and still have a very good life.
                e) People can work for additional energy tokens if they provide services to
                        the public or to industry.
                f) Industrial output is market driven by sale of goods.
                g) People can start and own companies to produce a product welcomed
                        by the market and they can take the profits as earnings.
                h) People can take ownership in companies in exchange for labor or
                        investment. And they can take a portion of the profits.
                i) There is no limit on how much a single person can charge for his labor
                        or the goods and services he produces.
               j) An individual's consumption of goods and services is limited only by
                       his or her tokens or other trade-able assets.

Assuming this part of the new civilization is in place, what additional elements in the social contract can solve the last three sustainability requirements.
        1) Protecting the vitality of the commons.
                a) the inhabited 2%, and
                ii) the uninhabited 98%
        2) maintaining access to non renewables e.g. metals and minerals
        3) not expending resources in social conflict.

Below the proposed changes are presented as they apply to the three goals. However, a single law may play a role in more than one goal.

===== new social contract elements part 1
                Maintaining the vitality of the commons. ================

There are two sets of new laws. The first set maintains the sustainability of the 2% of the land area within the three enclaves. And the second set of laws which provides protection for the 98% of the land area, air, and oceans outside of these enclaves

The protection of the commons outside enclave (98%) is mostly accomplished, initially, through limitations in the distribution of available concentrated energy. There are no services out there because to provide them would dilute the energy density of the enclave. Too low an energy density and the advancement of the arts, sciences, and technology would suffer.

However, limited initial energy distribution will not provide complete protection for two reasons.
        1) people might elect to live without concentrated energy outside the
        2) a new energy source could be discovered, and then human actives could be
                unleashed to degrade biological conditions.

Laws would have to limit access and use under both circumstances. For example, except for wilderness hiking no human impact is allowed in the 98% area.

Some details:

First, people are not allowed to build a log cabin in the woods and live off the land. If people were allowed to do this, they would represent a loss in human capital inside the enclave. The investment in their education, healthcare, and potential contributions to society would be lost to a society that needs their skilled input same as the space station needs a full complement of abilities. The contributions do not have to be science. The person lost to the wilderness might be the lead violinist in the symphony. Take the person out of the conclave and the symphony cannot perform.

Second by living far from services, each represents a risk to civilization. This risk is similar to the risk created by the person who rides a motorcycle without a helmet.

Third, if they were allowed to live outside the enclave besides diluting human capital within the enclave, they would lower the efficiency of energy use. That is to deliver their goods and services would require higher transport energy.

Fourth, the recycling of non renewable minerals and metals and the restoring to initial conditions (explained in part 2 below) would be more energy intensive.

Now let me focus on new laws required to protect the commons inside the enclave (2%).

The definition of the commons in old English law is land that the community shares. No one can be excluded from using it. An example was the pasture where everyone put their milk cow.

The commons model of ownership has an overuse problem as described by Garret Hardin in his article "The Tragedy of the commons."This problem must be overcome with changes to the social contract. Overuse must be constrained to establish sustainability. That is, the social contract must be amended to limit commons overuse while equitably distributing its services.

Some pieces to the puzzle can be derived from the space station civilization. On the space station there is very little private property. The astronauts own their glasses and their wrist watch. And they pretty much share everything else. A person is assigned space and gear when he or she arrives and this allocation is absorbed back into the commons when he or she leaves.

In this imagined sustainable civilization on earth, it follows that all services (space, materials, power production, and natural recycling services) are part of a commons.

Each of the 50 million passengers on earth has equal rights to these services. For example, each gets an equal portion of the produced hydro electric power.

However, every person may not have a need for his or her allocation of zinc. The collective holds these rights for the individual and leases (with incomes from the leases returned to the individual in the form of energy tokens or social services) to a user on a per time period basis. the actual location of the zinc in the system may be in manufactured inventory, or in product in private use. When the period is over, the individual returns the zinc to the stockpile (some times passing through a recycling process) and stops paying the lease. The lease costs are paid first by the manufacturer, then the inventory holder, and finally the end user whose appliance contains a very small amount of zinc.

The leases replaces our current notion of private property. And the leases apply to not only material stockpiles like zinc, but land, and air, and water, in all their productive and restorative capacities. The lease payments are ascribed to the lessor which is the person who did not need his or her entire allotment of the commons' zinc.

If the commons's service can be degraded, as a contingency of getting a lease, the lessor has to show that his proposed use will not degrade the commons' service. That is, the same service exists at the end of lease as existed in the beginning.

For example, a person can lease land. They can build a building on the land. The can live in the building or rent the building, or produce goods and services within the building, or grow food on the land. However, when the building or growing project is no longer viable, as part of the lease agreement, the lessee has to have in escrow the energy and resources to take the building down or return the land to the state it was in at the beginning of the lease. They can transfer the leases and escrow to another person who then assumes payment of the lease and responsibility for restoration. There are no corporate entities but their are shared leases. Each share holder is also a pro rated lease holder

The same conditions of use apply to civic projects (infrastructure). Infrastructure can be built only if there is an escrow account for the energy and process for returning the property back to the original state.

Other changes to the social contract, for example, are that toxins created within the enclave are handled within the enclave and are not allowed to bleed through the enclave's boundary to the natural area.

============= new social contract elements part 2
                maintaining access to non renewables e.g. metals and minerals =====

Metals and minerals are also part of the commons.

Originally these were part of the earth's crust. However, during previous civilizations, using human, and fossil energy, they were mined, processed, stockpiled, and integrated into infrastructure. The rest is embedded in waste, or diluted beyond easy recovery.

There are still quantities of these non renewable resources left in the ground but they are so dilute, it is assumed that soon it is easier to recycle minerals and metals in use in our current civilization than mine the low concentrations of ore still in the ground.

It's assumed that during the transition of the 7 billion people distributed across the globe to 50 million living in 3 enclaves, these metals and minerals will be scavenged and stockpiled within these enclaves.

These stockpiles will be consider part of the commons. Portions can be leased to individuals for intervals. Since they cannot be created or destroyed each user (as part of his or her lease) must place in escrow the energy required to recycle the material back to its original leased form and restored to these stockpiles. Since they can no longer be privately owned. They cease to have value as a monetary unit. Jewelry will have sentimental value, art value, and an associated lease per unit time cost.

Initially people lease these materials from the stockpiles. When these materials are incorporated into products and sold, along with the selling price the buyer accepts responsibility of paying the monthly lease reflecting the material's value to the commons. Also included in the selling price would be the recycling charge (put in escrow) required to extract and return the material back to the stockpile.

When reselling a product, the monthly lease is transfered to the new buyer as well as the right of demand on the escrow account for recycling fees previously paid by the the original lessor. This reselling of subsequent leases continues until the object is abandoned and the escrow account implements the recycling.

There would have to be some insurance system to cover lost/stolen leased material. The lessor would be obligated to put up some collateral, or pay some insurance premium, to protect against the lose or theft of the leased object.

============= new social contract elements part 3
                not wasting resources in conflict. ================

For life on the space station, social conflict, that consumes resources, is not very useful. Every injury to an astronaut, every damage to a piece of equipment, and every resource diverted to conflict is a loss to the space exploration project.

It is not much different for spaceship earth. Conflict diverts resources and services that do or could support human activity. In a global system at saturation or in overshoot, diverted resources cause die-off of humans and further destruction of the environment.

When conflict leads to civilization collapse, losses of economies of scale, protection of trade, and specialization of labor, result in reduced productivity. The result is more scarcity, more conflict, more die-off, and more environmental damage.

Conflict could leave our survivors in an environmentally damaged dark age. The happiness of our children depends on finding and enacting elements of the social contract that greatly reduce and limit social conflict.

Let me focus on two biological forces that create conflict through increasing scarcity that are beyond the biological force that encourages procreation. Lorenz and Morris describe the first as the desire to control territory (that is exclude others from that space.) And the second is to establish hierarchy among others in your environment. These two forces are also in our genes, taken up residence in our lower brain, and have been written into our culture. For example, our laws that define private ownership and establish authority.

These forces have brought humans both progress, and a chance at extinction. It has already been argued that letting our genes determine how many people exist on the planet does not produce good prospects and should be limited by the social contract. Maybe territorial rights and hierarchy both need to be constrained by new elements of the social contract to avoid conflict that reduces the added benefits provided by civilization.

To a large extend, the motivation for conflict depends on one's self view of personal wellbeing. This view has two components:
       a) a trend depicting loss of wellbeing, or
       b) a state depicting a lessor level of wellbeing.
The new elements of the social contract, to prevent conflict, have to address both these trends and states.

By evenly distributing the most valuable contributor to wellbeing, energy, we have greatly leveled the playing field. and create a high plateau as the minimum base. This large component of universal services provided by the collective to individuals includes education, healthcare, transportation, civil infrastructure, and discretionary income. This results in an extremely high self determination of personal course through life. The monthly allocation of energy tokens also prevents loss of wellbeing relative to the individual's requirements.

However, if individuals rise above this base support, with work or cleverness, this elevation puts them at risk of loss of wellbeing. It also creates the opportunity for great stratification of wellbeing and forms the basis of discontent and conflict.

Which leads to the question what elements should be added to the social contract to keep these trends and elevated states from creating the conflict that wastes resources.

I need your help in the design of these constraining laws. I will present some I have considered. However, there maybe others that accomplish the task better. Or the ones I have thought of are not needed because of other elements of this new civilization's design.

Again if these are to be implemented democratically, they must appear to the average person to be -- "The giving up of personal rights to gain incremental improvement in life within a civilization." The benefits have to appear worth the added constraints. (think traffic signals are better than traffic delays or accidents.)

The processes (new laws) I am reviewing are:
        1) energy tokens have expiration dates, and
        2) dilution of an individual's wealth at death.

(Remember that public ownership of the expanded definition of commons, leasing of commons service, and escrow accounts for maintaining non renewing natural resources also play strong roles in constraining the stratification of wellbeing.)

Idea 1) energy tokens have expatriation dates. Whatever you earn in tokens you have to spend in a finite time period. Saving and accumulating tokens is difficult.

Banks will find a way to roll over tokens that need to be used soon for tokens that have longer life. However, since the bank of "longish tokens" has fees for the exchange and has to pay depositors a premium for the longish tokens they deposit, These transactions redistribute the wellbeing from those with tokens they want to save to those with a need to use the energy immediately, that is the operations of the general public.

Idea 2) Limit elevated wealth to one generation. Remember that tokens expire so there is no metric of cash wealth. There is leased wealth but this is a token flow Thus wellbeing is measured in both token flow (consumption) and changes in productive capacity.

Death ends personal consumption. Any energy token flow must be given to other consumers. The social contract might limit the size of these redistributions. For example, the bequeathed flow cannot enrich any individual more than, for example 5x, the lowest paid employee creating the flow.

Distribution of the owner's equity stake in his company, will also go though a similar dilution process. For example, his shares must be bequeathed to no less than, for example, 15 individuals.

As an alternative, the ownership of the stake can be transfered to a public benefit foundation. The foundation must do public benefit with 100 % of the income stream of the original owner's stake. Or if there was no income from this steam then the foundation must make contributions of, for example, 10% of the stake's worth annually. Again the salaries of the foundation administers cannot be more than 5x the base rate token flow of the lowest paid employee,

Let's assume Bill Gates type writes an operation system and sells 10 million copies and the energy tokens roll in and make him very token rich. The alternative to consuming them all, he can invest in the material supports or labor of another product.


These social contract changes allows very rich men to result from production streams they create, but prevents the creation of highly concentrated wealth leading to social conflict.

No civil employee, legislator, judge could be paid more than, for example, 5x baseline no work income.)

Maybe you can think of social contract constraints, laws, besides dilution, that reward a highly productive individual with great riches and still prevent the social conflict that results from the natural tendencies of individuals to create hierarchy.

In summary, no civilization is sustainable forever. The second law of thermo dynamics prevents this. Perfect sustainability is also impossible due the losses in every recycling process. However, as long as hydroelectric generation can be maintained, estimated to be as much as 400 years, this design could continue to operate at non diminished levels of wellbeing as long as resources were not diverted to social conflict.

Your comments are needed.

============= End of SKIL Note============ End of SKIL Note
============= End of SKIL Note============ End of SKIL Note


============= extra ideas below ============ extra ideas below

Transferring to sustainable enclaves:

The above description is just a design. While it does describe how we get the population down to 50 million and hold it there, and while it does suggest rationale for 3 enclaves, it does not include the transition pathway which must be traversed as the current energy sources become inaccessible by 2100.

It does not describe how to clean up the unpleasant residue from our existing civilization so it does not poison either the enclaves or the wilderness areas. For example, the toxic dumps, radio active storage, or chemical processing plants.

The design did not present a plan to scavenge and move to the enclaves the mined resources now in stockpiles or embedded in infrastructure, or long term care waste dumps.

The design did not consider the problems of an aging population or orderly decommissioning of cities and continuing re-consolidation of the remaining parts of the present civilization until only the enclaves remain.              

-----------        more ideas below -----------

The value of the energy tokens, is measured in terms of the goods and services produced. Efficiencies can change the value of a token. I am not sure but I think this appreciation will not be a problem because of the expiration dates of tokens.

Captains of industry pay the public for commons's services at auction. I think this will ensure their highest use ( maybe you can show more considerations).

The total human footprint is fixed to the energy available; just as it is on the space station. There is no increase in available power, so there is no growth in human footprint. There is a continuous redistribution of energy allocation by market forces.

What is the rationale for expiration dates of tokens?
        They relate to dam output. Dam output is related to stream flow.
                If power is used too slowly water tops the dam the and
                        some energy is lost.
                if the power is used too fast, the level in the reservoir drops
                        lowering the pressure, and electrical output (energy) is lost.

Leasing housing or manufacturing plants or farm land, or recreational space.
        Value of home leases, reflects energy to build maintain, recycle
                building materials and labor and management fees.
        Buildings can be owned privately and rented to public or private parties.
                The builder owner must pay the land lease per unit time.
                        make the recycling escrow deposits in energy tokens.
                        The lessor must also lease the commons' absorption capacities for
                        effluent emitted from activities in the building or land.

Work is exchanged for
        KWH tokens,
        goods, services,
        ownership of company

Company profits can be plowed back into the company or paid in dividends.

The company has
        physical assets which include
                raw materials,
                produced inventory and
                energy tokens with expiration dates.
                escrow payments for recycling
                Payments for lease of commons

Civilization collapse potential
        people are not motivated to make conflict.

A person will not be happy about losing their excess wellbeing but they may not be interested in breaking this system which created it. The guy who is a little frustrated by the delay at a traffic signal at two in the morning, is usually not motivated to race through every traffic signal at 100 mph.

The social contract must prevent people from making a profit from conflict - for example no private arms builders.

While the motivation to be top dog remains great -- this model creates constraints using
        capped energy flow (dam output)
        base energy distribution, and
        constant population.

Other throttles on the creation of the super rich
        1) the lack of private ownership of the redefined commons
                the existence of per-period charges for commons leases
        2) the recycling charges held in escrow.
        3) the high cost of labor caused by:
                a) not expanding labor force
                b) the value of a highly educated work force
                        (the result of prepaid education)
                c) large percentage of population engaged in the arts
                        (not in commercial ventures because with most basic services
                         "paid for" by the universal energy stipend
                                they don’t have to work for tokens.

When the average consumer works less the total footprint is smaller.

They work less because the base stipend is large and guaranteed.

I just don’t know if it is enough to prevent conflict.

I don't know if this will make people not very productive. Or if this will slow down the advancement of the arts and sciences and technology.

Maybe part of the dilution of the wealth generator's stake in the company should go to the employees.

The above ideas sound extreme. The same as a birth lottery sounds extreme. But these extreme changes in the social contract have to be placed in context to the loss of existing benefits that happen in social conflict and with civilization collapse.

Individuals that vote for the new social contract must measure the penalties of additional limitations on personal freedom against the benefits which accrue when civilization doesn't collapse.


Any payment for any good or service or investment in a company must be made with tokens that have "life left," the receiver must be able to use them before they expire.

In the end, tokens that have little life are redeemed only for immediate energy delivery.

Even inventory does not maintain its value because the commons lease per unit time must be paid.

Services can be delivered and paid for later or prepaid.

The business has no fiscal identity outside of its leases, escrow holdings, and tokens.

The brand identity belongs to the investors

People don’t own parts of the commons. But can lease parts of the commons. A building lease reflects the land lease, the energy it took to build the building, the materials lease, the escrow account deposits for the recycling of the building, the labor to build and maintain the building, management fees, and profit for the investor.

Products of the business can be bartered for more than their energy costs to produce. So the owner/s end up with dated to expire KWH tokens. Or a leased warehouse full of yet to be sold goods.

Dam energy flows determine the number tokens issued and their expiration dates.

Leased parts of the commons are liabilities like rent.

Even the machines anyone owns have leased elements.

A production system is owned by any individual or group of individuals. The system can exist only if it can pay its leases. When it fails to pay its leases, these leases must be assumed by another person. Same for inventory. Failure to make the transfer, the inventory or buildings, are assumed abandoned and each is recycled with money set aside in escrow.

A person can get really wealthy during a life time, in terms of flow of goods and services he or she enjoys. Obviously these flows stop when he dies.

I am not sure a man that holds a lot of leases is wealthy. He is more like the man that has rented a lot of buildings. Wealth may derive from the production of the leases.

Normal markets determine what gets produced, but the total energy produced by the dam limits max throughput in physical items.

A lease is a liability not an asset. At death someone assumes it. Or the resources is returned to the commons.

Private possessions (elements created from materials that are leased from the commons, for example art work, instruments, tools) can be sold or given away at face value far above the lease values, but these buyers assume the lease payments.

I don’t know if this imaginary system limits the stratification of wellbeing enough to limit conflict. It is not designed to limit it within one generation. It is designed to to limit it between generations.

5/16/2014 revised 7/9/2015

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                  Jack Alpert

blue plate on top of world

Change the Course

Internet Group Text Discussions

video invite       Text invite         Text summary of video

Electronic Conference Table discussions 

 video invite        Text invite         Text summary of video

Archived documents          Jan. 1, 2014

Too Many People Video series

How Much Degrowth is Enough?                              Sept. 2012

The Human Predicament and What to Do About It     Feb. 2012

Overpopulation Means Civilization Collapse            Aug. 2011

From Overshoot to Sustainability

Vermont conference workshop June 10th 2013

                             Feedback to USSEE board on conference


Jack Alpert (Bio)     mail to: Alpert@skil.org     (homepage) www.skil.org      position papers

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