The Encircled Fractal Triangle

Leveraging existing expertise for economic, environmental and social Sustainability is demanding new ideas. The Encircled Fractal Triangle is perhaps iconic as an approach that may contribute some help. The paragraphs that follow may open a new dialogue about sustainability and our human stewardship of planet earth. It may no longer be ethical or moral to ignore without question our collective human impacts on earth.

Sustainability is frequently characterized as a tripod or three legged stool with the head or platform labeled "sustainability" and each leg designated "Economic", "Environmental" and "Social." An economic extension the "Triple Bottom Line" often makes use of the metaphor of the three-legged stool. The metaphor seems to cry out for expansion. 

The notion of the Fractal Triangle, articulated by McDonnough and Baumgart in their book "Cardle To Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things", introduces important questions concerning the bridges that must be built among pure or deep green ecology, unrestricted free market capitalism and an idealistic view of "socialistic" social justice.

The triangle is not only a symbol of strength; its geometry has long been recognized as a mechanical foundation of structural strength and integrity.

By introducing ethics, energy, evolution, and education, the Encircled Fractal Triangle takes the metaphor of the tripod or three-legged stool to a new level.

Encircled Fractal Triangle

Education surrounds all of human existence and ethics not only makes human life unique and meaningful but also must occupy the center of any discussion of sustainability. Perhaps the most profound challenge in all of education is to assure the sustainability of life. Human life to be sure; but, to also recognize the vital and total, complete, comprehensive, global role of the human species as stewards of all life on earth. Humans, like it or not, are the profoundly ignorant caretakers of this planet. We are not arrogant although some among us may declare us to be so. Our species is not really dominant and independent, although some among us may declare us to be so. Because what we do not know, and perhaps can not know, is so profound, we may or may not be the "knowing" species; our sapience may be questioned. It certainly fails every test of omniscience. Regardless of what other species may be able to contribute to sustainability, it is human intellect that we know has raised the stakes with questions about why we are here and what responsibility our very existence brings to our species. Human intelligence (mental—rational, intuitive and emotional—properties) as well as a fortuitous evolution of our prehensile and upright naked bodies, has also enabled technologies that have brought about a new geological age; the anthropocene, a period of dominant human activity that has profoundly changed the crust of the earth through over population, massive pollution, and climate warming. The anthropocene brought a Planetary Imperative to human existence.

Each apex of the equilateral triangle represents the extremes of capitalism, environmentalism and equity (humanism*, social equity**). The symbolism of the circle of education with each apex defining a tangent depicts an extreme where education is only marginally and narrowly possible. The nine fractals sharing a base with the main equilateral triangle (red) are expressions of positions relative to the whole and may be represented by nine bivalents: equity-equity, equity-ecology, ecology-equity, ecology-ecology, ecology-economy, economy-ecology, economy-economy, economy-equity, and equity-economy. An individual's world view may be positioned relative to one or more of these nine bivalents. Three of these nine bivalents are expressions of the extremes. equity-equity is extreme humanism, economy-economy is extreme capitalism, and ecology-ecology is extreme green environmentalism. When an individual's world view is positioned within these extreme bivalents, their educational framework will consist of questions focused on "how-to." How do we maximize profits? How do we protect biodiversity? How do we assure equal life, liberty and happiness for all?

Within the other six bivalents however an individual's world view will demand questions focused on "should we", or "is it right to." Should we pay workers a living wage? Is it right to dump our waste in landfills or streams in order to maximize profits? Should we protect an endangered species even if it means fewer jobs? Is it right to boycott a company that does not recycle its product's materials? These are ethical questions.

Ethics assumes a central fractal (white) in our triangle. And the base of the other six bivalents, which I call the enlightened or educational bivalents, share a base with the Ethics fractal. Notice that it is at the apex of the Ethics fractal that education as enlightenment is most robust. The ethical questions leading to education/enlighnment are most profound because the ignorance is most profound. Answers are not easy to find, not quantifiable but are most important for sustainability.

The notion of sustainability may be considered spiritual. Three fractals (yellow, green, and blue) represent the imperative of life that it continues and is thus sustainable. Every form of life from the simplest to the most complex is autopoetic. That is it is self-sustaining through continuous renewal that is accomplished by its metabolism; the organized, organic, dynamically balanced (homeostatic) array of cellular, body (organismic) and planetary chemistry. The spirit of life is the will to live. This spirit is not religious (although it may be a reason, foundation or cause for human religiosity) and it is fully consistent with a mechanistic view of life and biology.  Life's characteristics include autopoiesis and metabolism; life is organized, metabolic, and self-perpetuating.

The illustration above is incomplete as there is ARE TWO CRITICAL MISSING ELEMENTS: Energy & Evolution.  Education, ecology, ethics, equity and economics are collectively and individually constructed consequences of the existence of the human species. Knowledge of ecology is constructed human knowledge but also, and in all likelihood, represents some reality of life's evolutionary existence on planet earth. Energy, by contrast, makes all life possible. Any discussion of sustainability in the absence of an underlying foundation about the central position of energy is a meaningless discussion. I often pause and reflect that the circle around the fractal triangle is incomplete when it is labeled, as it is above, with only education. Another construct would add energy and evolution. 

* Humanism. While deserving of much longer and complex discourse, humanism too can frame a condition in which hierarchy is eschewed and the worth and dignity of every human is considered equal.

** Social Equity. Social Justice and Equity are linked as a consideration and may emphasize. as does The Natural Step, that sustainability means the more equal distribution of Earth's resources.


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Last revised 30 December 2019