Re-patterning our Civilization

Nested Self-organizing Water Systems

John Fox BE RPEQ
engineer, integral water systems

Unless a person believes that there is a Great Organizer out there, organizing everything in detail, it is rational to accept that the universe is a system of nested self-organizing systems.

At any point in physical reality there is a balance of influences, in many dimensions, at many scales, which determine events and conditions. An organism in an ecosystem, for example, uses its senses and capacities to respond to and operate within its surroundings as they exist from instant to instant, including influences which constrain its actions or even destroy it; its actions are influenced and resourced by, but not organised by, the systems within which it is nested.
Human civilization, on the other hand, is based upon patterns of habitation which serve the interests of the large-scale thinking arising from the needs of empire; ideas developed and put in place under a cultural paradigm which saw humans as having “dominion” over nature, with the objective of organizing and exploiting it in the supposed interests of civilized humanity.

One of the props of this top-down paradigm has been the so-called “economies of scale”, a confidence trick based upon ignoring “externalities”: costs that can plausibly be charged to nobody in particular . . . that is, in the end, nature. We do it all the time!

Top-down Patterns

It is argued in this paper that “top-down” patterns, created by the human intellect and “laid over” the natural world, are inherently ineffective and inefficient, as they only ever match an idealized construct of reality and cannot be assumed to fit accurately at any specific point “on the ground”.

A simple example of a top-down pattern, designed on a political and statistical basis, is a speed limit on a road, easily and profitably enforced by speed camera. This pattern is only effective under ideal conditions: it does not constrain drivers from dangerous driving, below the speed limit, under poor conditions. Such is the nature of top-down organization, the reductionist scientific method, and the abstraction inherent in mathematics and theory.

The Tree Pattern

In terms of water systems, the underlying pattern of organization is most commonly a centralized, hierarchical “tree” form, of trunks and branches, designed and constructed using often enormous natural and financial resources and very sophisticated satellite imagery, computer modelling and other techniques. When dams, treatment plants, pipelines, and reticulation networks are taken into account, such systems cost many billions, many years of planning and construction, and much environmental and social damage, with associated political softening up etc. Large-scale infrastructure also implies large-scale risk, particularly in an age of large-scale civil unrest and insecurity and large-scale environmental degradation and climate change.

The tree pattern also occurs with other types of infrastructure, such as energy, as well as most other aspects of human social organization, such as mainstream education and religion, politics and government, and the corporate world, now globalised. In all cases, the detailed needs of individual users of the service are invisible, replaced by thousands or millions of “model” or “typical” or “equivalent” users, with statistically or abstractly determined “needs”, in accordance with a “standard” or a “doctrine” or a “policy”.


The tree pattern of organization is inherently flawed, in that it both concentrates problems at one end of the system and widely distributes them at the other. Widespread dripping taps or leaks in pipes or illegal connections can account for waste of a significant proportion of water supplied to a centralized water system, and yet be very difficult and expensive to do anything about. An attack upon a large-scale water pipeline, or failure of a major system component, or the presence of a source of contamination in a catchment, can bring disaster to a huge number of people.

A huge number of people using inappropriate detergents with a traditional sewerage system can have devastating effects upon the downstream ecosystem, and such systems are often overwhelmed by excess water inflow from leaks or illegal connections in sewers. And again, large-scale sewer systems represent a very serious and widespread security threat to cities if attacked.

The vulnerability, inefficiency, and potentially lethal nature of centralized systems has been demonstrated many times: gas explosions in Victoria and Mexico City, water supply contamination in Sydney, electrical failure in Auckland and the north-east United States, dam failure in Italy, bridge failure in Hobart and Seattle.


The tree pattern also implies transporting resources over distances which bypass other closer opportunities to source the need. Water, for example, can commonly be sourced from rain on every roof, instead of some distant flooded valley. Solar energy collectors on each roof can do away with centralised power plants and fossil or nuclear fuel usage in many parts of the world.

It is often cheaper for a large-scale supply utility to pay people to disconnect from a system than face the enormous cost of expansion or upgrade, illustrating the fact that centralised systems are not population-proof.

In the end, probably the most telling condemnation of centralised water systems is that people often do not like and do not trust the town water they are supplied, and are prepared to pay several thousand times as much per litre for bottled water to drink. This is, of course, an overhead cost on civilization, both in the cost of “purifying”, bottling and delivering the water, and also in the waste of resources and environmental pollution represented by the bottles, the factories, the supermarket shelf-space, and the transport.

Uneconomies of Scale

A very large proportion of the cost of a centralized water system is in the large-scale structures involved in collecting, storing, treating and delivering drinking water to streets of houses, and collecting sewage from those streets, treating it and delivering it to a point of disposal. The branch pipe work serving houses in a street, and the pipe work within the house sites represent a very small part of the total cost.

And even with that huge expenditure on large-scale infrastructure, there is no mechanism for reclaiming and reusing water other than building another huge, expensive network, for secondary reticulation, this time using energy to pump huge quantities of reclaimed “waste” water up from the bottom to the top of a catchment. So storage volumes and water withdrawal from the ecosystem are multiplied by a factor of three compared with volumes if sub-potable uses are supplied by recycled water.

To capture water in house tanks and reclaim/recycle on a very small scale, locally, is cheap and much more efficient than the old way of doing things, because the entire headworks cost is removed from the equation, and replaced with the much lesser cost of tanks, small-scale wastewater treatment equipment and small pumps and poly pipes. Even then, the unaccounted costs of social and environmental damage from large-scale systems, avoided by holistically designed small-scale systems, have not been included.


The inefficiencies and inaccuracies inherent in almost all aspects of large-scale civilization can be grasped by considering what proportion of water delivered by a centralized system actually needs the degree of treatment and security applied, or how much of every hour worked or dollar spent actually contributes to a person’s wellbeing, or how much waste results from the top-down control and adversarial processes society inflicts on itself and its members.

Human habitation of the planet is smothered by a thick layer of overheads. Nature, on the other hand, wastes nothing. There is no layer of overheads.

Bottom-up Patterns

The patterns of habitation in nature are “bottom-up”: self-organizing around each point of need, to suit the actual circumstances existing at the specific time and place in which the need arises. A non-human organism in an ecosystem finds its needed resources as close as possible; it does not bypass things that are close by in order to “save” on resources that need to be transported from far away, and it does not over-consume.

Bottom-up patterns are generally the result of “common sense”, that is, instinct, rather than intellect and ego, which of course are not available to organisms other than human beings.

Nested Systems

Nature consists of “nested” systems, in the sense that an individual natural system contains systems within itself, and is itself nested within larger systems. It is possible to identify many degrees of nesting in natural systems, and the scheme of nesting can be viewed from many different directions and follow many different tracks.

For example, a scheme of nesting might look like this

Open Systems

Natural systems are “open” systems, taking in energy and information from the surrounding systems in which they are nested. Because these systems are responding to the surroundings at all times, they “evolve” to suit that infinite variety, towards increased complexity and diversity, but within order mandated by the laws of physics. This capacity enables natural systems to “disobey” the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that systems tend irreversibly towards simplicity and disorder; they “run down”, which evolution does not.

Self-organizing Systems

Natural systems are self-organizing, in the sense that a system “knows” what it needs to operate, and sources those needs itself. A kidney “knows” how to be a kidney, as long as necessary energy and information is available to it via the other systems nested within the body . . . which itself should “know” what it needs.

Most things in large-scale civilization are externally organised, and modern civilized people have been educated and conditioned to believe that they are not capable of organizing their own lives, because that is too complicated and dangerous. Government does not trust people to organize themselves, and certainly not look after their own water, but is quite happy to trust impersonal corporate entities to organize people. So when human beings are involved, what does self-organization mean?

A human system can be considered self-organizing if, ideally, the people who live within the system are considered part of the system, understand the system, and are responsible for designing, establishing, operating, monitoring and maintaining the system, and they are able to do this in ways which reflect their real needs and values and the real circumstances.

In a more restricted sense, a system can be considered self-organizing if it is independent . . . if a failure within the system does not propagate to adjacent systems and can be repaired without having to take other systems out of service. So a group of people can outsource the practical aspects of their water system without relinquishing the self-organizing nature of the pattern, as long as they are aware of the principles, and insist on them being applied.

Nested Water Systems

A concept is presented in this paper in which water systems are arranged as nested systems, of tanks, houses, clusters of houses, and sites of a number of clusters, backed up by larger scale networked systems where beneficial. This concept deals with the full hydrological cycle, for all water originating on or imported onto a site: rain, spring, bore, stream, or town water, “waste” water, irrigation water, and environmental water. This is a pattern which, when extended to its full potential, I refer to as “water farming”. This nested pattern can replace large-scale water supply and sewerage systems in most localities, while reducing the cost and increasing the effectiveness of stormwater and pollution control systems.

In doing this, if based on local water and including water storage, the pattern becomes “population-proof”, in the sense that availability of fresh water and the means of disposing of used water follow the pattern of habitation, and do not require augmentation or upgrade with population increase. Where there is too high a population density for the pattern to be fully self-contained, excess water and nutrients can be “exported” for food production or garden watering, via a network linking water farms. This linking can also help with provision of water for fire fighting.

In general, there is nothing high-powered or obscure about water farming, which can be established by application of simple principles and small-scale landscaping and civil engineering techniques, consciously imitating the patterns and processes of nature. There are many people within society who have the necessary working knowledge of pumps, pipes, tanks, dams, landscaping etc needed to put in place a water farm, and for the system to be self-organizing it must be such that the people living within the water farm are not held to ransom by complex technology requiring specialist outside skills or knowledge or equipment. Specialized technology requiring outside attention, if used, should be made non-critical by redundancy and/or the use of medium term storage of water to bridge over any delay in repair of an equipment failure.

Water Reclamation Technology

The critical enabling technology of water farming is small-scale wastewater treatment of sufficient effectiveness to allow most of the waste stream to be reclaimed for sub-potable use, and excess water to be harmlessly released into the environment. This quality of technology is now available and economical, and the necessary education of people to deal with this new technology is underway. There is nothing in principle about this nested systems work that requires any specific type of water reclamation technology; any small-scale technology with equivalent performance may be used.

The treatment technology developed in parallel with this work on nested water systems is the waterboy™ membrane bioreactor. This system produces high quality reclaimed water as shown in the table at right, and is very resistant to shock loading. The nutrient reduction and disinfection technology employed in waterboy™ is effective enough to make the reuse of water and release of that water into the environment feasible under much higher population density than previously considered possible.

A “Water Farm”

The identifying principle of a water farm is the establishment of a controlled catchment, allowing escape of only excess runoff from a major rain event and highly treated water of suitable quality. The objective is to make the site of the water farm “appear” to the surrounding ecosystem as undeveloped land. Water should leave the controlled catchment as if the runoff coefficient is about the same as virgin country (~25% perhaps for moderate rainfall, instead of ~90% for existing urban areas) and when the water eventually leaves the catchment it must be clean and free of excess nutrients.

Extreme rain events will normally overload the small-scale system, but the water running off from such an event will be clean due to the capture and treatment of first flush pollution, will be handled by designated surface flow paths, and where possible may be allowed to cross boundaries in a non-concentrated surface flow as in nature.

There are a range of contaminants in a typical area of habitation, and a range of qualities of water, informally summarised as follows:⎯

Water description Source Possible contaminants Treatment required End destination

First flush rain water Roofs, paved areas, early in a rain event. Hydrocarbons, particulate fallout, bird droppings etc. Diversion, filtration, biological breakdown of hydrocarbons. Release or reclamation for sub-potable reuse.

Drinking water Roofs, later in a rain event. Low levels of above contaminants. Protected storage, biological conditioning in tank, filtration. Potable use.

Site runoff Rain from unpaved areas of site. As above, possible fertilizer runoff. Sand filtration, biological breakdown. Release or reclamation.

Grey water. Bathrooms, laundries. Pathogens, nutrients, cleaning chemicals. Membrane filtration, biological breakdown, disinfection. Release, reclamation or irrigation, including food crops.

Black water. Kitchens, toilets. Pathogens, nutrients, hormones, antibiotics, Membrane filtration, biological breakdown. Disposal by irrigation on suitable plantings.

Creek water. Reclaimed from first flush and excess rainwater. Very low levels of contaminants, safe for body contact. Aeration, solar UV, biological action. Aesthetic and environmental use.

Service water. Upgraded from creek water. Extremely low levels of contaminants, safe for sub-potable human use. Membrane filtration. Toilet flushing, hot water, laundry, car & dish washing, irrigation.

Water System Nesting

A water farm is a system nested within an ecosystem, which may be degraded to any degree by previous use for human purposes. For the purpose of consideration of the ecology of a region as a whole, the controlled catchment of the water farm is the basic level of nesting: comprehensive application of the water farm pattern to a region will solve water problems for that region.

Within the water farm, nesting progresses from an individual house to a cluster of perhaps eight to ten houses, to a number of clusters within the controlled catchment. The nesting level beyond the water farm enables the nested system concept to be linked for mutual support or import/export of deficits or excesses of supply, which can be expanded to a regional water infrastructure strategy.

Level 1 nesting: The House drinking water.

As a general principle, the more basic the need for a resource, the more closely and securely that resource should be held. Drinking water is the most basic water need of an organism, and is the most critical in terms of quality; even if there is a shortage of other grades of water, clean drinking water must always be available. So this water must be sourced from a clean supply, commonly filtered late-fall rainwater but also possibly from a spring or bore if a safe one exists, and stored in a tank preferably under the control of the people who will drink the water.

So the dwelling is the lowest level of nesting within the water farm. If all other systems fail, there is still water available within the house. Depending upon the specific site and conditions, there may be a means whereby a proportion of the stored water from a house is sharable for emergency purposes, such as fire fighting, but a proportion of the water volume must also be accessible only to the householder.

Preferably there should be a very clear LCD status display panel in the kitchen, giving information on the quantity of water in the tank and the time this would be expected to last at current usage rates, and with the ability to indicate how long the water would last if certain economy measures were taken, eg halving the length of showers. This helps the household be self-organizing.

Fortunately, the quantity of drinking water required is a small proportion of all water usage, so if other grades of water are available which are clean enough for safe contact, the drinking water storage required may be quite small, and the rainfall required to replenish the supply may be quite low.

Level 2 nesting: The Cluster “waste” water, stormwater.

Wastewater from houses is preferably dealt with in two streams, grey water and black water, as outlined above. This is preferably dealt with at cluster level, to provide for local containment and to integrate easily with other aspects of the total design, including plantings and landscaping features. The number of houses in a cluster is arbitrary, with 8 to 10 being a number which allows for efficient and economical use of the small-scale waterboy™ membrane bioreactor for the two streams of black and grey water. The reclamation technology would be located at the low points of the clusters, and clean disinfected water, referred to above as “creek water”, can be used to supply water features.

When a housing estate is based upon clusters, there is enormous scope for including within the scheme features which would be uneconomical or impractical for single houses and too remote if used to service a whole estate. Such items as ponds and streams, herb and vegetable gardens, barbecue areas, play areas, and even small commercial, arts or light industrial spaces can be included, providing opportunity and incentive for a group of families with some common interests to share and cooperate, and become comfortable and secure with each other.

Clusters could also be used for shared energy production: solar heat pump and/or biogas technology for hot water, heating and air conditioning, and for electrical energy, probably grid-interactive photovoltaic or wind power. This could also be the basis for shared communications, with computer wireless “hotspots” and Internet phone systems. Both energy and communications are needed for the water system, and can be provided economically as spin-offs from this.

Level 3 nesting: The Water Farm service water, stormwater.

This is the level at which reclaimed water from clusters is brought together for sharing among the clusters and the houses in them. This nesting level would also provide monitoring and reporting services, enabling centralized management of an overall decentralized infrastructure system, both within the site and in the region. But the nested water farm system must be capable of operating unhindered simply under the laws of physics, without hi-tech control systems, or it will no longer be self-organizing.

“Creek water” from the clusters is pumped into (preferably) a ring main, via a final stage of membrane filtration, with a header tank at an appropriate level, with several days’ storage capacity for “service water”. If this is in place, it is possible to use direct solar power for pumping water to the ring main, and the system is capable of being regulated simply by the cycle and intensity of the sun.

Localities with low rainfall can use the water-farming pattern to provide reclaimed water from a supply source of lower quality, bringing it up to, and beyond, body contact standard by means of membrane filtration, with bio-reaction if necessary.

Level 4 nesting: The Regional System import/export, waterways.

Water farms can be linked in an infinite variety of ways, at a variety of levels, as is, of course, the case of all of nature. A simple example would be a number of water farms of fairly high population density, getting together to install a service water pipeline to a rural area for food production. Under these conditions, the water would be reclaimed as for sub-potable use, but employing nutrient control technology to optimise the nutrient mix for irrigating crops.

And, of course, urban areas with high population density can import service water from suburban areas with large areas of roof and comparatively few people. With first flush technology, proper storage and membrane filtration, rainwater from roofs in most urban areas has the potential to be drinkable, but, given that most urban areas have an existing water supply, drinking water could continue to be taken from there, while the system is de-stressed by the removal of sub-potable uses from the drinking water supply.

Similarly, where there is an existing sewer system, black water can continue to flow to there, while grey water is kept separate and reclaimed, thereby de-stressing and prolonging the life of the sewage treatment infrastructure.


Because of the nature of self-organization, the water farming pattern is capable of gradually introducing itself, bearing in mind that people are part of the pattern. By demonstrating the nested system concept, making it attractive for people to opt in, and facilitating the process, governments can opt out and let the process happen, in a way which is at last respectful of the people they work for, and which is capable of working sustainably into the long-term future.

A patchwork of linked water farms, even partially complete, eliminates the need for new dams, pipes and treatment plants, and provides substantial protection against environmental damage. When the pattern is complete, possibly after many years, existing large-scale infrastructure can be retired. Existing dams can then be dedicated to recreational purposes, or opened, emptied, and left as monuments and lessons for the future, while the flooded ecosystem returns to nature.

Self-organization provides new and powerful ways for people to become less dependent upon top-down patterns, and more prepared to take part in providing for themselves, as individuals, families, sub-cultures, and communities.

The economics of this strategy are favourable, as long as they take into account all real costs, and the introduction of the pattern can be slow, progressive, economical and comfortable . . . without the need for big money or big politics, but with people taking part in the process on a voluntary basis . . . by attraction alone.

The water farm pattern, if complemented by nested self-organizing energy, communications, food production, social, political, and economic systems, would represent a re-patterning of civilization of sufficient significance to make long-term sustainability in most parts of the world with moderate population density feasible and achievable, quite quickly.

By embracing complexity and chaos, instead of striving for an illusion of simplicity and security and three-year plans, we can allow communities to self-organize infrastructure and nested systems that will enable them to become resilient, and to adapt to change as needed to live well in the infinitely uncertain future.

There seems to be a law of nature that says
the closer we get to nested self-organizing systems, the simpler things become.

We’d better take notice before it’s too late.


This work is an outcome of many years of working, thinking and reading over a wide range of material covering science and engineering, philosophy, metaphysics, Deep Ecology, Buddhism and meditation, mysticism and shamanism, process-oriented psychology, cooperation, social change and community development. All of these areas of knowledge and wisdom inform this work, because sustainability is a holistic concept; all aspects of human habitation of the planet are involved.

The primary motivation for all of my widely varied work and study, as well as plain curiosity, has been my clear understanding that the human species does not inhabit this planet in anything like a sustainable way ⎯  in fact, in a suicidal way. And I have wondered for many years why this is so . . . why do we not understand and respect ourselves enough as a species to live in a way which will not inevitably lead to our extinction?

I think that the emergence of the human species is such a rare and unlikely event, and we are such a good-hearted and important species of being that we deserve the opportunity to learn to live in ways that are not fundamentally self-destructive. We may “win” or we may “lose”, but we must try.

To “win” we have to learn how to occupy the biosphere in a way reflects our existence as a species of mammal in an ecosystem, not as the “masters of all we survey”. We have to relearn the survival instincts and skills that have been bred out of us over thousands of years of empire, and we have to learn new skills and levels of awareness to equip us for survival in the third millennium.

Science has many answers, perhaps too many, but there are entire areas of reality which science cannot even approach, due to the fact that they are not subject to the scientific method requirements of objectivity and repeatability. And yet, most things in real day-to-day life happen because people want them to happen ⎯  and that is subjective, and often not repeatable.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

“All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike,
and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

Albert Einstein.

One Comment

  • I have only read the beginning so far but I have a minor quibble with your definition of economies of scale.

    I thought the idea was simply to allocate fixed overhead costs across as many transactions as possible, thus reducing the per-transaction cost.

    The idea of “externalities” was a way of taking those overheads off your books and making them someone else’s problem, eliminating them from the transaction entirely. Does this come under the term economy of scale or should it be identified as a different strategy altogether?

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