1.3.5 Provisioning systems

Note to teachers and students: this section is longer than other sections of the book. It could be divided into two lessons, where one lesson focuses on clarifying what provisioning systems are with Activity Option 1, and the second lesson focuses on the factors that affect how well provisioning systems work with Activity Option 2.

Helpful prior learning and learning objectives

Helpful prior learning:

Learning objectives:

Picture a family involved in subsistence farming, where the family produces food mainly to meet their own needs (Figure 1). The family organises itself to plant, nurture, harvest, and prepare the food. They also manage the food waste, probably using a compost pile to decompose the waste for fertiliser. The family sees every step of the food provisioning system and their work directly supports the family's survival.

Two women working in a field with some chickens nearby

Figure 1. Subsistence farming is organised by small groups, often families, who plant, harvest, produce/process, and dispose of waste locally

(Credit: IFPRI CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Now, imagine a family in an  urban area (Figure 2). Food provisioning from farm to table involves thousands of people in complex systems. Farming may happen in countries far away, global supply chains move food where people want it. Supermarkets have thousands of items and digital payment systems enable instant purchases.

A couple with a child in a well-stocked grocery store

Figure 2. Large urban areas have very complex provisioning systems

(Credit: Greta Hoffman CC0)

These two examples show how different food provisioning systems can be, depending on the context of the people whose needs are being met. So what factors make it more likely that a provisioning system is meeting people’s needs within planetary boundaries?

What are provisioning systems?

The economy is all the human-made, interconnected systems we use to transfer and transform energy and matter to meet human needs. Provisioning systems, like those for food, energy, and housing, are systems that manage how much and what types of energy and matter are used to meet specific human needs. The parts of provisioning systems are everything and everyone that provides for our needs. Provisioning systems have many connections between those parts, including (Figure 3):

An illustration of extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal

Figure 3. Processes in provisioning systems

(Credit: Extraction Distribution CC BY 3.0, others CC0)

Another way to think about provisioning systems is that they are the link between biophysical inputs and social outcomes or human needs, shown in Figure 4 below. This way of thinking about provisioning systems is explained below through the example of bananas.

Provisioning systems illustration, showing biophysical inputs, provisioning systems and social outcomes

Figure 4. Provisioning systems link Earth’s resources and systems, or biophysical inputs, with social outcomes

(Credit: Adapted from O'Neill et al. (2018))

Biophysical inputs

Biophysical inputs (Figure 5) include Earth systems processes, like the water cycle and carbon cycle, two of several biogeochemical cycles (Section 1.2.6). They also include natural resources such as fossil fuels (Section 1.2.2) and other material resources (Section 1.2.4). 

To produce bananas, seeds or seedlings are planted in soil and biogeochemical cycles support the growth and development of the banana plants (Figure 6). Bananas are grown in tropical climates, with warm temperatures and abundant rainfall, and can be harvested all year round.

Biophysical inputs including biogeochemical cycles and natural resources

Figure 5. Biophysical inputs to provisioning systems

(Credit: Adapted from O'Neill et al. (2018))

A banana plantation in Brazil

Figure 6. A banana plantation in Brazil

(Credit: José Reynaldo da Fonseca CC BY 2.5)

The mediating role of provisioning systems

Provisioning systems (Figure 7) have a mediating role to transfer and transform biophysical inputs into social outcomes that meet people’s needs. There are physical and social parts of provisioning systems.

Physical parts of provisioning systems

The physical parts of provisioning systems include the technology,  infrastructure and manufacturing for producing, processing, and distributing goods and services. For bananas, this means:

Provisioning systems including physical and social parts

Figure 7. Provisioning systems

(Credit: Adapted from O'Neill et al. (2018))

Figure 8. A banana processing factory in the Philippines

(Credit: Shubert Ciencia CC BY 2.0)

A container ship and a truck, transporting bananas

Figure 9. Refrigerated containers are transported by ship and loaded onto trucks

(Credit: Karen Green CC BY 2.0

Social parts of provisioning systems

Social parts of provisioning systems include the institutions that determine the processes and rules for how bananas get to the end consumer. Social parts also include the values and norms that influence individual and group behaviour. These provisioning institutions were outlined in Section 1.1.2 on the embedded economy

Some social parts of banana provisioning include:

Bananas in a supermarket

Figure 10. Bananas sold in a supermarket

(Credit: Gratisography CC0)

The state and markets are two of four provisioning institutions. These two institutions will be covered along with households and commons in Section 1.3.6 and other topics later in this course.

The role of human relationships

Both the physical and social parts of provisioning systems are influenced by dynamic and complex human relationships that vary from place to place. These human relationships exist from local-to-global levels and are shaped by various factors like  culture, history and power relationships. For the banana example:

Illustration showing exporters and importers of bananas

Figure 11. Exporters and importers of bananas

(Credit: OEC)

Social outcomes

Social outcomes (Figure 12) are the human needs that are satisfied by the things we produce in provisioning systems, and the overall human wellbeing. These needs are met by need satisfiers (Section 1.3.3), like bananas. Bananas provide energy and nutrition for human bodies to meet the need for a healthy diet. Cultural practices, a social element of provisioning systems, affect how bananas are consumed as a need satisfier. In some cultures, bananas are a staple food. In others, bananas might be a special treat, more of a want than a need.

Another social outcome is that banana farming provides jobs and income for farmers, which helps them buy things in markets to meet their needs. Decent work also supports human dignity and sense of purpose. However, working conditions on banana plantations can vary. On some farms, workers face low pay, unsafe conditions, and poor treatment as owners focus on making as much profit as possible. On other farms, power is shared more equally and workers are treated better. Worker unions negotiate for fair pay and safer conditions, helping to balance power as you can see in the short video below. Workers might even own part or all of the business, called a cooperative, spreading the economic benefits of the farm even more widely.

Social outcomes - needs and need satisfiers

Figure 12. Social outcomes of provisioning systems

(Credit: Adapted from O'Neill et al. (2018))

What factors affect how well provisioning systems work?

The banana provisioning system shows the complex interconnection of the biophysical world, technology, infrastructure, social institutions, and culture. Not all provisioning systems work well to meet human needs within planetary boundaries. But they are human-made systems, so we can redesign them, a very exciting area of research and experimentation! To minimise biophysical inputs and optimise social outcomes, both the physical and social parts of provisioning systems should be addressed.

Physical parts: new technology and ancient wisdom

One part of provisioning systems that gets a lot of attention is technology. The news is full of green technologies that will produce more goods and services with fewer or renewable resources. 

For bananas, this could mean using drip irrigation which uses less water (Figure 13), or developing new genetically diverse and resilient banana varieties that can resist disease and pests without synthetic chemicals. These technologies improve efficiency, reducing energy and matter inputs relative to social outputs in provisioning systems. Scientists agree that such technologies are necessary to better meet human needs within planetary boundaries.

Figure 13. Drip irrigation can reduce water use, improving the efficiency of banana plantations

(Credit: IWMI CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

However, new technologies alone are not enough. In fact, sometimes technologies put even more pressure on the environment from a rebound effect (also called Jevons paradox). Efficiency improvements may lead to lower production costs and prices, which encourage farmers to produce more and households to buy more. For example, if drip irrigation reduces water use and production costs for banana farmers, they might decide to grow even more bananas. If the price of bananas falls, people may buy more. As a result, the total water used might actually increase, rather than decrease. Thus, we need social changes around business expectations and household behaviour to ensure that efficiency improvements really do reduce resource use.

In addition to avoiding the rebound effect, we also need to consider ancient wisdom in provisioning systems. Indigenous communities have many insights that can make the physical production of provisioning systems more efficient and resilient. Circular practices that mimic nature, like composting banana plants in the fields to bring nutrients back to the soil, using ground cover to prevent soil erosion, or agroforestry where bananas are planted with other types of crops to create a more biodiverse ecosystem (Figure 14). These regenerative practices put less pressure on planetary systems.

Banana agroforestry in Uganda

Figure 14. Banana agroforestry in Uganda

(Credit: NatureDan CC BY-SA 3.0)

Social parts: distributive, caring, needs-based and sufficient

If you read the previous Section 1.3.4 on Doughnut Economics, you know that some countries like Costa Rica are better at meeting human needs within planetary boundaries than others. 

Recent research suggests that changing social parts of provisioning systems are important to meet human needs within planetary boundaries. In particular, we should design our economies to be more distributive, caring, needs-based and sufficient. Promoting economic equality; providing high quality public services, like transportation, education and health care (Figure 15); strengthening democracy; ensuring universal access to energy and clean fuels; and improving trade rules so that local farmers can keep more of the value of what they produce will all improve the ability of provisioning systems to meet human needs with less pressure on the environment. Here the state plays a large role in shaping the social and economic conditions that optimise social outcomes relative to biophysical inputs.

Figure 15. Providing universal public health care is an effective way to improve the efficiency of provisioning systems

(Credit: Presidencia El Salvador CCO)

To apply these ideas to our banana example, the state could establish adequate minimum wages for farm workers, provide universal public health care (Figure 15) regulate safe and healthy working conditions on farms, support farm workers to form unions to balance power relationships, provide financial support to help farmers move to more regenerative farming practices like agroforestry, and work to change the social and norms around endless economic growth and profit-maximisation

Activity 1.3.5

Concept: Systems

Skills: Thinking skills (transfer)

Time: 40 minutes

Type: Individual, pairs, group

The illustration from Figure 4 in the text is repeated below to make it easier to complete an activity.

Provisioning systems illustration, showing biophysical inputs, provisioning systems and social outcomes

Figure 4. Provisioning systems link Earth’s resources and systems, or biophysical inputs, with social outcomes

(Credit: Adapted from O'Neill et al. (2018))

Option 1: Considering the global provisioning system of T-shirts

Watch this video on the Life cycle of a T-shirt.

Option 2: Discussion - Why do certain strategies lead to better social outcomes with lower ecological impact?

The text in this section cites research suggesting that the following conditions improve the ability of provisioning systems to meet human needs within planetary boundaries:

Think about WHY these things might result in improved social outcomes (meeting human needs) and lower ecological impact. How does each one lower the biophysical inputs (Figure 3, left), while improving the social outcomes (Figure 3, right).

If you are working in a class group, you could divide the class into smaller groups and each group considers one of the factors in the bullet list, discussing ideas and then feeding back into the larger class.

Ideas for longer activities, deeper engagement, and projects are listed in Subtopic 1.5 Taking action

Checking for understanding

Further exploration


Fanning, A.L., D.W. O’Neill, M. Büchs. (2020). Provisioning systems for a good life within planetary boundaries. Global Environmental Change, 64, Article 102135, 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102135

Observatory of Economic Complexity. (n.d.). Bananas. https://oec.world/en/profile/hs/bananas.

O’Neill, D.W., A.L. Fanning, W.F. Lamb, J.K. Steinberger. (2018). A good life for all within planetary boundaries. Nature Sustainability, 1, pp. 88-95. 10.1038/s41893-018-0021-4

Vogel, J., Steinberger, J. K., O’Neill, D. W., Lamb, W. F., & Krishnakumar, J. (2021). Socio-economic conditions for satisfying human needs at low energy use: An international analysis of Social Provisioning. Global Environmental Change, 69, 102287. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102287

Terminology (in order of appearance)

Link to Quizlet interactive flashcards and terminology games for Section 1.3.5 Provisioning systems

subsistence farming: where family or other group produces food mainly to meet their own needs

composting: the natural process of recycling organic matter, such as leaves and food scraps, into a valuable fertilizer that can enrich soil

decompose: to break something into smaller parts, especially organic materials

fertiliser: a chemical or natural substance added to soil or land to increase its fertility

provisioning system: a chemical or natural substance added to soil or land to increase its fertility

system: a set of interdependent parts that organise to create a functional whole

supply chain: the sequence of processes involved in the production and distribution of a product

planetary boundaries: a model that illustrates these nine Earth systems and their limits

economy: all the human-made systems that transfer and transform energy and matter to meet human needs and wants

transfer: to move something from one place to another

transform: a change in the state, energy or chemical nature of something

energy: the ability to do work or cause change

matter: anything that takes up space and has mass

extraction: a basic material that is used to produce goods

raw materials: a basic material that is used to produce goods

ecosystem: the interaction of a community of organisms with their physical environment

consumption: using resources and products to meet needs

biophysical inputs: Earth's biogeochemical cycles and natural resources

water cycle: the stocks and flows of all water on Earth

carbon cycle: the movement of carbon between Earth's atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere

biogeochemical cycle: Earth system cycles that move essential elements like water, carbon and nitrogen between living and nonliving parts of ecosystems

fossil fuel: a non renewable energy source including coal, oil, and natural gas, formed over millions of years in the Earth's crust from decomposed plants and animals

tropical climate: a climate that is warm all year

mediate: someone or something that sits between two groups, engaging with both

infrastructure: large scale physical systems that a society needs to function (roads, railways, electricity networks, etc)

cultivate: to prepare land and grow crops on it

harvest: the gathering of crops

genetically modify: a plant or animal that has had some of its genes changed scientifically

synthetic: any material made artificially by chemical reaction

irrigation: a system to water plants

institution: human-made systems of rules and norms that shape social behavior

values: ideas about what is important or good

norms: a social rule for accepted and expected behaviour, can be stated or unstated

provisioning institution: a group of people and their relationships as they try to meet human needs and wants

embedded economy model: an economic model showing that the economy is shaped by society and dependent on nature

state: a system that provides essential public services, and also governs and regulates other economic institutions

regulation: a rule that guides individual or group behaviour and enforced by an authority

trade: to exchange something for something else

market: a system where people buy and sell goods and services for a price.

wholesaler: a person or business that sells goods in large quantities at low prices, typically to retailers

retailer: a person or business that sells goods to the public in relatively small quantities for use or consumption rather than for resale

consumer: someone who uses resources and products to meet needs

household: a system where people living together care for each other and do domestic work, often termed the 'core economy'

commons: a system where people self-organise to co-produce and manage shared resources.

culture: the beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviours and traditions shared by a group of people and transmitted from one generation to the next

power: the ability to influence events or the behaviour of other people

organic: produced without using chemical fertilizers or pesticides

export: send products to another country for sale

Global South: a group of countries with low-middle incomes and less industrialisation; most of the global population lives in these countries, but these countries bear little responsibility for exceeding planetary boundaries

Global North: a group of countries with high incomes and more industrialisation and service-based economies; these countries bear most responsibility for exceeding planetary boundaries

colonialism: acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically

exploitation: using and benefiting from resources; the term is often used negatively to imply using power to take advantage of a situation

need satisfier: the specific ways people meet their needs

income: money received from work or investments

profit: the difference between the amount of money earned from selling something and the cost to produce it

union: an organisation formed by people who work together to achieve a common purpose or interest

cooperative: an organisation owned and controlled by people to meet their common economic, social, and/or cultural needs

green technology: technology that is intended to reduce or reverse the effects of human activity on the environment

renewable resource: natural resources that can be regenerated in a human timescale

drip irrigation: a system that delivers water directly to individual plants through a network of tubes or pipes

resilient: able to recover after a disturbance

efficiency: the ratio of resource inputs compared to outputs

rebound effect (Jevon's paradox): a situation where efficiency gains in an input are counteracted by increased consumption and production, resulting in even greater use of the input

indigenous community: the original settlers of an area (pre-invasion/colonialism) who have retained their culture apart from colonisers

circular: having the form of a circle; in this course, closing the loop on linear economic systems

ground cover: low-growing plants that help to stop weeds growing and prevent soil erosion

erosion: process where soil or rock is worn away by wind or water

agroforestry: a land use management system that integrates trees with crops or pasture

biodiversity: the variety of living organisms on Earth

regenerative economy: an economic system that meets human needs in a way that strengthens social and ecological systems

distributive: when something is widely or evenly among individuals

care: the act of providing what is necessary for the health, welfare, upkeep, and protection of someone or something

sufficient: when there is enough of something

economic equality: equal distribution of income and opportunity between different groups in society

optimise: make the best use of something

minimum wage: the lowest wage permitted by law or other agreement

economic growth: an increase in the total value of goods and services produced in a period of time

profit maximisation: the strategy where a business tries to achieve the highest profit possible