Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

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Building an Economy for a Living Earth

Building an Economy for a Living Earth

By Patricia M. DeMarco

April 5, 2017

            The distinguishing feature of man’s activities is that they have almost always          been undertaken with a viewpoint of short-range gain, without considering either       their impact on the earth or their long range effect upon ourselves.

            Rachel Carson[i]

My generation heard President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon. Seeing the blue, green and white swirled marble of the earth from the perspective of space marked a paradigm shift in our time. For some, this represented the first step on the conquest of yet another frontier, and early speculation about colonizing the moon abounded. Others saw the earth from the distance of space and recognized the fragility of our position. Astronaut Frank Borman of Apollo 8 said, “I think the one overwhelming emotion that we had was when we saw the earth rising in the distance over the lunar landscape . . . . It makes us realize that we all do exist on one small globe. For from 230,000 miles away it really is a small planet.”[1]

Everywhere we look around us we see evidence of our civilization pressing against the limits of the critical resources of the planet. Our time marks a critical turning point for preserving the living system of our earth as a regenerative, bountiful and productive ecosystem. As a species, humans have reached the level of dominating and overtaking the natural world through exploitation, extraction and consumption, burning through natural resources and leaving massive amounts of trash and destruction in our wake. The earth now bears the scars of hundreds of years of such abuse. It is time to recognize the limits to such profligate behavior, and take a different direction. The age of using technology for the conquest of nature must yield to the age of biology, using technology to live in harmony with nature to preserve and regenerate the life support system of the living earth.

Four human behaviors since the industrial revolution have driven our way of living out of balance with natural systems. We consume resources beyond what can be generated by the land we live on. We drive our economy on continuously expanding growth in consumption. We fail to control population growth while using technology to extend life. We generate waste that poisons our life support system. The consequences of these actions in our energy system, food system and materials system, are not compatible with sustaining a living planet.

We have reached this condition by allowing human inventiveness in conquering nature to proceed without restraint. From the earliest of times, human’s ability to manipulate and control the conditions presented in nature contributed to our survival. But once industrialization began, the ability to manipulate natural systems unbalanced the natural flow of energy and materials. It is time, now that we have begun to understand the elegant complexity of natural ecosystems, to take lessons from the natural world to craft our way forward. We must restructure our economy and our civilization to preserve and restore the robust resilience of the natural living world.

To begin thinking about structuring our economy along the principles of an ecosystem, it is important to understand how an ecosystem works. Any area of nature that includes living organisms and non-living substances interacting to exchange materials between the living and non-living parts is an ecological system, or ecosystem.[2] There are many kinds of ecosystems around the world, and at least six major distinct ecosystems within the continental United States, recently mapped by the U.S. Geologic Survey.[3] But all ecosystems operate with four basic constituents.

Ecosystems, whether they are aquatic around ponds and streams or oceans and coast, or whether they are of the forests, grasslands and deserts, all have these four essential parts, and all are circular. The producers convert essential materials into forms that can be used by consumers, and the decomposers return them to the system for use again. The entire process is powered by the sun, and connected by the water in its various forms. Temperature, altitude, and the amount of moisture available shape the different expressions of ecosystems, and determine the number and kinds of species of producers, consumers and decomposers present. The inter-relationships among these parts have evolved into complex food webs coterminous with the evolution of conditions over geologic time. Adaptations and adjustments emerged gradually over millions of years as conditions changed.

Albatross killed by eating plastic debris

Modern ecosystems universally bear the mark of human influence, because the effects of human activity are dispersed around the globe, introducing man-made materials and shifting the balance of natural ecosystems by rapidly adding synthetic materials and the combustion products of fossilized organic materials extracted from the crust of the earth to the atmosphere. Faced with rapidly changing elemental conditions, many species are unable to adapt, and mass extinctions are predicted for our time.[4][5]

The focus of human inventiveness and creativity up to now has used science and technology for increasingly intrusive ways to extract resources from the earth to consume for energy and raw materials for production. The quest for access to and control over the distribution of natural resources extracted from the earth drives our civilization. We have given little consideration to replacing natural resources, or to preserving the ecosystems from which the resources have been wrenched. Our economy takes raw materials to make goods for consumers to buy, and the waste and post-use materials are discarded as trash. This is a linear flow of resources exactly contrary to the operation of ecosystems. However, ecological limits to growth apply to the human constructed economy. Our model is not sustainable, because we are changing the conditions of the non-living and living parts of the human ecosystem, the living planet earth.

The economy defined in this process depends on drawing down natural resource reserves and using economic or physical warfare to take over resources. Power, resources and economic control become concentrated among the few with decreasing quality of life for many. We see this result not only between different countries but also within the United States. The concentration of wealth to the top 5% of the population has occurred with increasing disparity between the conditions experienced by the most wealthy and the least wealthy people.[6] This condition seeds instability, increasing unrest, and stress to the fabric of society. The economic model based on extraction- consumption- waste increases the inequity among people, decreases the quality of life of many people, and increases the conditions for revolt. This economic model also decreases the capacity of natural ecosystems to function in providing the conditions necessary for our life support system.

The critical feature of natural ecosystems is the dynamic equilibrium established among the different parts. Rather than a linear raw material to trash model, ecosystems operate in circular patterns, a steady-state where the waste or output from one level becomes the input or supply for others, and the energy source that drives the process is constantly renewable as long as the solar system exists. The earth’s major nutrients – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen – are all cycled and recycled in living systems.[7]

To shift our entire economic premise from one based on extraction and exploitation of natural resources to one based on regeneration, system preservation and enhancing the ecological infrastructure requires a change in thinking more than a change in technology. We can build our whole economy around principles of resource preservation, recovery and re-use. This approach cultivates the concept of an economy based on a dynamic equilibrium, rather than an economy based on indefinitely expanding growth.

One major initiative that can shape a more sustainable way forward involves re-defining the structure of the economy away from a model driven by corporate profit motive to one based on corporations operating for social benefit. The New Economy Movement has several manifestations, all gaining momentum in different ways. According to Gar Alperovitz, one of the leaders of the New Economy Movement, “Over the past few decades, a deepening sense of the profound ecological challenges facing the planet and growing despair at the inability of traditional politics to address economic failings have fueled an extraordinary amount of experimentation by activists, economists and socially minded business leaders. … As the threat of a global climate crisis grows increasingly dire and the nation sinks deeper into an economic slump for which conventional wisdom offers no adequate remedies, more and more Americans are coming to realize that it is time to begin defining, demanding and organizing to build a new-economy movement.”[8]

The movement seeks an economy that is increasingly green and socially responsible, and one that is based on rethinking the nature of ownership and the growth paradigm that guides conventional policies.[9] As frustration with the wealth concentration in the top 1% of the economy increases, a wave of community wealth building institutions has begun to swell across the country. People are joining together through a variety of forms such as public, community or employee-owned businesses to meet local needs and thus regain a sense of democratic control. Community development corporations, community banks, social enterprises, community land trusts and employee-owned business and cooperatives emerge as the instruments for building community wealth. Worker owned businesses now include manufacturers, retailers and a number of non-profit organizations. Community Development Corporations can now be found in nearly every major city across the United States. Once limited to redeveloping blighted areas following urban riots or rural neglect, these CDCs produced over 1.6 million units of affordable housing nationwide over the last two decades.[10]

All of these institutions pool capital in ways that build wealth, create living-wage jobs, and anchor those jobs in communities.[11] One of the most significant aspects of this growing movement is the challenge it presents to corporate power. Because the driving imperative in the new economy movement is social benefit, not corporate shareholder profit, the possibility of building a balance against the corporate profit-driven politics of the 20th century is growing. Not since the days of unionized labor pressing for social justice and fairness in distribution of wealth between corporations and workers has there been such a strong voice for the public interest.

The success of businesses and communities that purposefully choose sustainability as a course for building the future shows that the spiral of infinite growth and infinite resource extraction can be transformed. Models of viable, even thriving, economic and social communities illustrate the way forward.

A new economy locally centered and locally invested springs up here in Pittsburgh, and in communities across the country and around the world. Corporations operating for social benefit, not stockholder profit, expand the distribution of wealth among worker-owners. Well being of the community is measured in terms of beneficial economic activity, health of the environment, social equity, and cultural diversity.


This essay is condensed from a chapter in the forthcoming book by Patricia M. DeMarco: “Pathways to Our Sustainable Future” with The University of Pittsburgh Press. All rights reserved.

This work is funded by the W. Clyde and Ida Mae Thurman Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation.



Rachel Carson “Of Man and The Stream Of Time” June 12, 1962. Commencement address. Scripps College. Claremont, CA. (monograph)Rachel Carson “Of Man and The Stream Of Time” June 12, 1962. Commencement address. Scripps College. Claremont, CA. (monograph)

[1] Frank Borman, Apollo 8, press reports, 10 January 1969.

[2] Eugene P. Odum. Fundamentals of Ecology. 2nd Ed. 1959. Philadelphia. W. B. Saunders Co. Page 10.

[3]   Roger Sayre, Patrick Comer, Harumi Warner, and Jill Cress. A New Map of Standardized Terrestrial Ecosystems of the Conterminous United States. Professional Paper 1768. 2009. U S Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of the Interior. 17 Pages.

[4] Elizabeth Kolbert. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Henry Holt & Company, LLC. New York. 2014.

[5] E. O. Wilson. “The Future of Life.” The John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture on Science and the Environment. 2nd National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment. December 6, 2001. Washington, D.C.

[6] US Statistics on wealth distribution from 1900 to 2015

[7] William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press. New York. 2002. Page 92.

[8] Gar Alperovitz. “The New Economy Movement.” The Nation. June 13, 2011. Accessed May 21, 2015.

[9] Gar Alperovitz. “The New Economy Movement.” The Nation. June 13, 2011. Accessed May 21, 2015.

[10] Gar Alperovitz. “The Political-Economic Foundations of a Sustainable System.” In: Worldwatch Institute. State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability. 2014. Island Press. Washington D.C. Page 196.

[11] Gar Alperovitz. “The Political-Economic Foundations of a Sustainable System.” In: Worldwatch Institute. State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability. 2014. Island Press. Washington D.C. Page 195.







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The Voice of the Earth Rising

As 2015 comes to a close, we mark a rare congruence of awareness and a call to action on climate change. In advance of the COP-21 talks in Paris, the leaders of all of the world’s major religions have called for true stewardship of the Earth.  The Encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si,

the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change

and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth from the People’s Climate Conference in Cochabamba,

calls to action resound with increased urgency. The COP-21 Accord, though non-binding, united the voices of 195 nations to strive for a 2 degree ceiling, with many advocating a goal of a 1.5 degree limit, in temperature rise by mid-century.

imagesIt is my hope for the new year that we can recognize the critical importance of the living Earth. We hear the voice of the Earth not in words but in the songs of birds and of whales; in the intricate ballet between flowers and pollinators; in the exhalation of forests and phytoplankton; and the sweep of landscapes. Earth speaks also in pain as forests are felled; oceans become acidic; mountaintops are scraped off; and the carbon dioxide of human energy production and agriculture pollute the air and water.

As we celebrate our Holidays and make plans for the New Year, may we remember that we are more alike in our humanity than different in cultures, religions or customs. May we reach out to work together to preserve and restore the life support systems of the living Earth- fresh water, clean air, fertile ground and the biodiversity of species that constitute the global web of life. May we work together for justice and equity as we face the necessary transitions from despoiling to preserving the resources of the Earth.

To my Colleagues who have helped me in so many ways this year as my manuscript has come together, I offer thanks for gifts beyond measure. Thank you for all you are doing to build a Pathway to Our Sustainable Future. May we all hear and embody the great power of the voice of the Earth. The children of the 21st century deserve our fullest effort to preserve our beautiful living Earth. To my grandchildren, and the nieces and nephews of my family, I solemnly promise my whole life to protecting your future.

Buon Natale!

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A Reflection on the “Energy for the Power of 32” Conference

Energy for the Power of 32 Conference was organized to establish a baseline and catalyze a regional energy plan and strategy for the 32 contiguous counties encompassing western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.  The preparations included a regional compilation of the Energy Flows in a Sankey diagram of Production, Consumption, Net Imports/Exports, and Losses.  the full report and analysis can be found at

Regional Energy Flow showing Production, Consumption, Net Imports/Exports, and losses is a critical starting point for analysis. The three issues that emerge from this set of data are:

  1. the dominance of coal for electricity generation and as an export product
  2. Net exports (1,470 Trillion Btu) far exceed the regional consumption of energy for all uses (520 trillion Btu).
  3. The largest sources of “Unused Energy” result from electricity generation and transportation, Both sectors rely predominantly on technologies from the 1800’s- the Rankine cycle thermoelectric steam turbine and the internal combustion engine.

Data showing the global context creating an impetus for a change in our energy system was not allocated to a regional profile. Data adapting the EPA Sankey diagram on greenhouse gas emissions[1] to a regional profile would be helpful in isolating principal targets for change. Coal combustion for generating electricity is the most significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in the region.

A large data void exists in the failure to present, or even discuss, the ecosystem service components of the economy. There were some presentations about health effects and costs related to loss of productivity associated with pollution. However, the positive attributes derived from ecosystem services such as water purification, oxygen generation, food production through photosynthesis etc were not included. To the extent that the strategic plan seeks metrics and indicators to track economic conditions forward, it is essential to include metrics that reflect the health of the environment, our life support system. Measures for clean air, water quality, soil fertility and species diversity reflect not only quality of life conditions but also the resilience and sustainability of conditions upon which the economy ultimately depends. The failure to consider such parameters in economic development planning has largely contributed to the climate changing circumstances we are facing today. The classic papers of Robert Constanza et al. may be helpful in addressing this critical component of a regional strategic plan.[2] [3]

A second major omission in this discussion may be due to the absence of the presentation on environmental justice that would have been covered by Mustafa Ali. It is critical to recognize that the options for future development in energy are not limited by technology, but must be shaped by choices grounded in the ethics and values of our society. It is an ethical criterion to preserve our life support system for future generations, and indeed this is a part of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Article 1, Section 27, the Environmental Rights Amendment.[4] It is an ethical criterion to transition from a resource extraction based economy to a value adding economy, a legacy of manufacturing and innovation well rooted in our region’s history. It is an ethical criterion to establish conditions that reflect social equity among workers past and future. It is an ethical criterion to plan for a healthier solution to our energy requirements than we have done in the past.

Establishing an energy system that provides for a robust economy requires that we recognize the absolute need to rapidly move away from burning fossil fuels, in all aspects of our economy. In our region, the conditions are not favorable to take maximum advantage of the natural flows of renewable and sustainable energy. The myth that renewable energy is insufficient to serve our needs must be addressed directly. The flow of solar energy to the surface of the earth exceeds our current and projected needs by many orders of magnitude. [5] The energy uses in the region for all sectors – residential, commercial, industrial and transportation – require only 520 trillion Btu. The Unused (wasted) portion to deliver this amount of energy in useful form 1,400 trillion Btu, represents the compelling reason to change our system. If we focus on the work that needs to be delivered, rather than the replacement of the fuels that are mostly being wasted in the current system, the options are far more exciting.

WindStax Vertical turbine- Made in Pittsburgh

WindStax Vertical turbine- Made in Pittsburgh

The work of Lovins et. al. illustrate ample ways to move toward a much less wasteful energy system focus on suiting the energy source to the energy need, and addressing appropriate technologies for the task.[6] Thus as a goal, buildings will operate in net zero profile for energy, water and waste. We have current illustrations for the realistic achievability of this approach in the Phipps Living Building example, and even retrofit examples in the innovation workplace. [7] [8]

Transportation systems will require two types of transition first, to renewable fuels, most likely recovered from wasted food sources, but also new technologies such as methane gas fired or electric engines., ultimately to hydrogen driven systems. Transportation system solutions require better integration of non-mechanized mobility options such as designing communities for easier pedestrian access to services, recreation and workplace centers. Our region was once heavily dependent on pedestrian mobility, as the many remnants of pedestrian stairways testify. Walking distances to transit was normal as recently as 1968.

Industrial and manufacturing sector presents the largest challenge, but also the largest opportunity. As a strategic goal, think about converting the raw export component of the regional economy to value added production where raw materials convert n the regional economy to finished goods. Such activity can occur as part of creating a sustainable stream of energy system supports, including the technology and communication interconnects for a distributed electric system where the load and source are balanced. New categories of utility services emerge from such an inverted paradigm of utility system including DC as well as AC segments, load leveling and voltage regulation , and storage (including not only batteries but fly wheel, compressed ait, pumped hydro storage and chemical phase change crystals.) Making and installing adaptive technologies for existing buildings can also offer increased production opportunities, such as ground source heat pump auxiliary heating/cooling systems that tap into the existing water pipes with external heat exchangers.

Transformation from fossil fueled enterprise to renewable energy flow based enterprise seems daunting and “unrealistic” according to my working group colleagues. But, many times in our history we as a country have taken on major transformations in a very short span of time, often less than a decade. The industrial mobilization that shifted production to make vehicles machines and munitions for World War II happened in a span of three years. The rural electrification of America took only five years. The shift from horse and buggy to automobile took only 20. The shift from regulated communication to unregulated and competitive communications took less than a decade. What is needed in order to mobilize this kind of capability is a clear and urgent motivating force that enables cooperation among competing interests. That force can be national security in time of war, market opportunities opened by innovative technology, or collective moral outrage.

What we cannot lose sight of in this discussion is the essential truth that the climate of the earth is changing rapidly, irreversibly, due to human activity that we can control. If we defer meaningful action to contain the conversion of sequestered carbon into atmospheric carbon dioxide, the atmosphere will no longer support aerobic living organisms…that includes people. A graph projecting 600 to 800 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was presented as if it were a normal expectation for continued practices. This cannot be construed in any way as “Business as Usual” but as a catastrophe! Every year that we delay in addressing this situation narrows our options and reduces our chances of shifting successfully away from a course of disaster. Because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 200 years or more, our actions today determine the fate of the unborn generations who have no say in determining their fate. We must consider the legacy we are leaving to them. We have seen the accumulated damages from mining and burning coal for fifty years, including the 3,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams permanently contaminated with acid mine drainage. We must take precautions going forward to preserve, protect and if possible restore the health of the living earth we depend on for our own survival.

As you develop the formal strategic plan for the Power of 32, I urge you to seek out and consider seriously the voices who speak for the living parts of our community, our economy and our selves. If we only focus on the infrastructure and technology, we will not preserve our own survival.

Respectfully submitted,

Patricia DeMarco

[1] EPA greenhouse gas emissions by source

[2] Constanza, Robert et. Al. “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital. Nature. May 15, 1997. Vol 387. Pages 253-260.

[3] Hunter Lovins. Natural Capitalism. 2010. Earthscan. London.

[4] Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Article 1, Section 27

[5] NASA Chart on energy flow comparisons renewable vs fossil resources

[6] Amory B. Lovins and Rocky Mountain Institute. Reinventing Fire – Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era. 2011. Chelsea Green Publishers. Vermont.

[7] Phipps Living Building see

[8] Hartkopf and Loftness – innovation workplace Carnegie Mellon University

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Thank a Farmer this Thanksgiving

In this week of Thanksgiving we celebrate the bounty of the earth and the robust harvest delivered by the farmers who serve the land. In Western Pennsylvania we are blessed with an abundance of fertile agricultural land, enough to sustain the population within 120 miles of the cities.

Pennsylvania has seven million acres of agricultural lands, about half in Western Pennsylvania. We have 481 organic farms in Pennsylvania, about 10% of the USDA Certified Organic Farms. In addition there are many other farms practicing sustainable agriculture that have not completed organic certification yet. The National Farmland Trust has identified nearly all of Western Pennsylvania agricultural land as threatened because of the development pressure from urban encroachment, and from gas development. We are losing agricultural land at the rate of 125 acres per day.

The organic certification requires separation from industrial activities and any synthetic substance not specifically authorized for organic use. The National Organic Program (NOP) regulations specify the processes by which organic food may be produced. They do not directly prohibit industrial activity on or near the property, but certified farms could be affected by nearby drilling operations.

Primarily, the regulations bar the use of “prohibited substances,” require distinct boundaries and buffers to prevent the unintended application of prohibited substances to the crops or pasture, and require that measures be taken to prevent organic products from contact with prohibited substances. Because the definition of prohibited substances is very broad, including all synthetic substances unless otherwise permitted and selected non-synthetic substances,1 contact with pollutants from nearby drilling operations, or the lack of appropriate buffers, may jeopardize a farm’s certification.  The regulations also require that production practices “maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality.”2

Again, land application of polluted water may be interpreted as a violation of this section.  Farmers who do not own their mineral rights are especially concerned, as noted by Stephen Cleghorn of Paradise Gardens and Farm:

“In our case, at the very least, we
would lose for years, if not forever, the 5-10 acres carved out of our farm by a well pad if
that happens. If we find our water threatened from above or below, we could see the
entire operation decertified, losing our livelihood.”

Many farmers have sold or leased their mineral rights without fully understanding the extent of industrial activity that would take place with Marcellus Shale drilling, compared to the older technology associated with shallow well drilling.

Also of interest is that the National Office of Homeland Security (yes, those guys) have directives to protect our nation’s food production resources from terrorists, disasters and emergencies. Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio are declared as “Critical Foodshed” which is being touted as a model for the nation.

The gas fracking industry is operating under a federal exemption from the protection the Safe Drinking Water Act provides to communities. In Pennsylvania, the Oil and Gas Act requires that property owners provide access to mineral rights, even if such development compromises their basic livelihood, even if it compromises the community watershed. The contaminants may take years, even decades, to penetrate from the depths to the groundwater, or from surface spills to the groundwater.

As citizens we should demand precaution in going forward with Marcellus Shale development. We must insist on preventive actions that can deflect the environmental and health effects evident in other locations where hydraulic fracking has been going on for several years. Is it really our intention to salt the fertile ground as Romans did in ancient times to guarantee the starvation of their enemies?

Choices we are making today directly affect the options available to our grandchildren. What can we do now to preserve the choices available to them and for future generations? We can choose to protect fertile ground, especially organic farms and drinking watersheds, from incursion of contaminants injected to extract natural gas.

The abundance of our earth flows from a fragile, living ecosystem, easily poisoned and rendered sterile by carelessness and greed. So, in this Thanksgiving harvest time, thank a farmer!

Patricia M. DeMarco, Ph.D.
With collaboration of Stephen Cleghorn Paradise Gardens and Farm
and Gregory Boulos, Blackberry Meadow Farm


1 7 CFR § 205.105
2 7 CFR § 205.200