Social & Environmental Capital: the Value of Relationships

TL; DR: Investing in, and preserving, social and environmental capital is the key to a sustainable lifestyle. We can incorporate this in our engineering design to promote health and happiness. Sir David Attenborough knows best.

Have you ever made eye-contact with a stranger on the train and averted your gaze? Being wary of strangers is hard-wired into our survival instincts, but, humans are social animals: we want to connect. You can see this in the rise of the world’s obsession with social media. You can also see it by smiling at a stranger in passing (if you don’t know what I mean by this, give it a try!)

How we relate to our peers and our environment, I would argue, is a large part of creating meaning in our lives. Unfortunately, the way in which many of us do this is not sustainable. We use and abuse each other. We use and abuse our environment. All to the detriment of our own success and happiness. Now, if you’re thinking “that’s true, but I don’t use people, this doesn’t apply to me,” then great! However, I would encourage some critical self-reflection before we move on.

All done?


While this may feel all doom and gloom, fear not. Nature shows us the way to sustain beneficial relationships to improve our social and environmental capital.

Symbiotic Relationships

Mutualism – both parties benefit from the relationship. Examples include:

  • Crocodiles and the Egyptian Plover Bird (aka the crocodile bird)
  • Bees (and other pollinators) and flowering plants
  • Humans and bacteria (look after your gut, people)

Commensalism – one party benefits, the other is unaffected.

  • Remora fish and sharks

Amensalism – one party is harmed, the other is unaffected.

  • The black walnut, and many herbaceous plants within its root zone.

Parasitism – one party benefits, the other is harmed.

  • Ticks and kangaroos, or just about any mammal.
  • Lice and school children.
  • Lawyers and society… the list goes on

Humans and Other Humans

So the question here becomes:

What kind of relationships do I want to pursue with my fellow human?

Firstly, we all know a parasite. Whether it be that colleague who accepts praise for your ideas, that friend who never pays for anything, or that guy who steals your jokes and gets a bigger laugh than you (not pointing fingers… Dad), parasites are frustrating to be around. That relationship is not sustainable, nor is it healthy.

Amensalism can take two different forms: competition, or antibiosis. Chemical secretions to kill another human is also known as murder via poisoning. Don’t do it. It is illegal. Competitive relationships, however, are more widely accepted and common in human society. These can be powerful motivators, but are one-sided and can lead to mental health/self confidence issues. Thus, also unsustainable.

Without effort, many of our interactions resemble How you treat the cashier at a shop is a good example.
They don’t usually care that you ran out of milk, nor do they want to hear your life story. They are providing you with a good but are largely unaffected by your interaction. But, you have the power to improve their day.Smile, tell them a joke, engage them somehow. Plant a seed of happiness, and they will pay it forward

With a small amount of effort, commensalistic relationships can become mutualistic and everybody wins. Personally I try to emulate mutualism in all my relationships.

Only when both parties benefit from a relationship does it become truly valuable and sustainable.

Humans and the Environment

It’s well documented that humans have an unsustainable relationship with the environment. I think the word parasite is particularly applicable here. This is engrained in our social fabric. We use the environment to design, plan, build, farm, etc to the point of its detriment. In the ever-wise words of Sir David:

Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad or an economist - David Attenborough

Unfortunately for the world, economists with this line of thinking have determined the way of the world since the industrial revolution (coincidentally, about the time humans started significantly contributing to climate change). A more sustainable approach is needed. That much is clear.

How can this be achieved?

Mutualism, of course.

We need to alter our thinking to ensure that the environment benefits from its relationship with us, just as we benefit from it. For this to happen, people must value the environment.

Sustainable Engineering Design

Engineering makes the world go ’round. As such, our mutualistic approach needs to be incorporated into engineering design to ensure environmental (natural) capital is sustained for future generations.

Natural Capital

From awe-inspiring predators such as tigers, to tasty, tasty food, to the physically unimpressive but mind-blowingly significant thrombolites, natural capital is both hugely valuable and under direct threat of loss. It is critical that we stop considering ourselves separate from the environment, and start designing with the intention of integration into the environment. For more on this, check out my previous entry on site-specific design, or this blog entry by nosmallprojects for more of an overview on ecological engineering design principles.

To ensure natural capital is included in engineering design considerations, we as a society must first value natural capital. This is best done through public awareness campaigns, as well as emphasis on teaching in schools. Following this, a metric for quantifying the natural capital used or saved in a product or service included on the label (much like a heart foundation tick, or the upcoming “Made in Australia” label campaign) could be effective in encouraging sustainable behaviour in consumers. This in turn drives change in industry to meet consumer preferences.

Some of my favourite examples of the value of natural capital incorporated into engineering design are in the greening of urban areas. Like this algae-powered building, or these urban farms, or the “Urban Forest” plan from the Australian Greens (keep your eyes open, the details are going to be launched very soon and it looks epic!). Also, check out this piece on how green cities can reduce your stress level, as well as clean your air and water!

Social Capital

The value of social capital depends on the strength and diversity of the relationships within the network. Mutualism results in the strongest connections because both sides are actively working to maintain the relationship. In this way, networks become super efficient and the value of social capital skyrockets.

Improving social capital maximises the functionality and efficiency of design teams, facilitating a higher standard of work for the same amount of effort or stress, thus enhancing the engineering design process, and the mental health and happiness of the designers.

Triple Bottom Line

Measures of sustainability are constantly changing. Industry’s shiny new one is TBL – Triple Bottom Line. Unfortunately even this one often becomes a box-ticking exercise with environmental and social priorities being trumped by the financial. I think it’s crucial to the success of a project to have sustainability integrated into its objectives.

For this to happen, we need to set the bar high. Impossibly high. I think this is the best (and only) way to avoid box-ticking. If people focus on mutualistic relationships with each other and with the environment, then we will strive for the absolute best we can do – not settle for what meets the minimum standard. Again, this only becomes possible if people value the environmental and social capital.

Non-market valuation, when done properly, allows the comparison and quantification of all three sustainability objectives (financial, social and environmental), and facilitates making the business case for sustainable engineering design. It is basically a method for putting a dollar value on something that cannot be bought or sold in traditional markets. This is more stomachable for many professionals, because often money speaks louder than conscience. So non-market valuation facilitates making the business case for sustainability objectives – the benefits are quantifiable by a dollar value.

Conclusion: Health & Happiness

Traditional engineering design executes one or more processes to perform a function. Considerations of natural and social capital through emphasis on mutualism allow engineering design teams to perform at a maximum standard and efficiency, while designing to ecologically sustainable societal values. These mutually beneficial relationships between humans and other humans, as well as humans and the environment, ensure health (both mental and physical) and happiness (reduced stress, more inner peace) within individuals.





4 thoughts on “Social & Environmental Capital: the Value of Relationships

  1. I’m quite amazed at how we both took a similar take at both topics. The differences in our perspectives are quite interesting, and I also like how we both mentioned TBL and that same David Attenborough quote!


  2. Love the first few paragraphs especially, ‘ I would encourage some critical self-reflection before we move on’.. too many of us (myself included) brush over the power we have and don’t fully take responsibility, or do but when it suits us. How do you think we can change this?


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