Seeking Sustainability in the Financial Market Blow-up

When I talk about sustainability, I am usually referring to the possibility of flourishing. But sustainability can connect to many other properties that we would like to keep around for a long time. Anytime we come face-to-face with a complex system that is important to us, we probably think about sustainability even if we use some other term.

Complexity is a relatively new term, coined to explain the behavior of systems so large and interrelated that it is impossible to describe many of their interesting and desirable functions and properties by rules and scientific laws and theories. Properties like flourishing, health, well-being, resilience, justice for all, or beauty are just a few examples of this kind of property that emerges when the system as a whole is functioning properly. Just try to imagine the magnificence of the Mona Lisa as the output of a paint-by-numbers kit. Properties like beauty jump out (emerge) and are meaningful only to those interacting with or observing the system.

Much of life is merely complicated, and can be described by such rules and laws within some degree of certainty. Complexity means that we cannot expect to know how these systems work by examining them with our standard scientific tools and methods, nor manage them by applying technological or technocratic means. We may know a lot about such systems but we rarely understand them. And understanding is the key to maintaining them so that they keep producing what we want.

This is what sustainability is all about. Although the word sustainability is used today most often with reference to the environment, it is a much more general term that can be applied to any complex system. It means the possibility that the system will keep delivering the desired qualities indefinitely even when subjected to changes in its world.

Yet for some 400 years we have largely ignored the fact that complexity is the dominant form of the systems we hope to bring under our control. There are two principal reasons for this state of affairs. One is Francis Bacon’s view that humans are not a part of nature--which can be conquered and brought under our control. This view has hardened into a mindset that ignores the intimate interrelationships between humanity and the natural system that is essential to our flourishing.

The second factor comes from our dominant reductionist scientific methodology. This method is so embedded in our culture that we only rarely think about it. Reductionism is simply a way to add to our knowledge or to solve our problems by cutting up whatever we are focused on into small pieces, each of which we can get our arms or minds around. While wildly successful in the realm of science, reductionism prevents people from seeing how complex systems work and creates barriers to their governance.

The financial crisis is in part the result of slicing and dicing risk while ignoring how the whole system works and assuming that it could remain healthy without governance. Regulations are not merely some political device; they are necessary rules to keep the whole system flourishing and avoiding collapse.

Besides the obvious function to provide the infrastructure for our economic system and keep capital flowing, what we want most from the financial system is an emergent property, confidence. And when the system sputters not only does the functionality disappear, confidence evaporates. That's why it is critical to do something, almost anything to restore enough movement towards functionality so that confidence can re-emerge.

But we should be very wary of big, dramatic interventions. Complex systems behave in strange and unpredictable ways when they depart from the place where they have been working well. Complexity demands prudence and precaution since we can never be sure how the system will react to our effects to govern it.

This poses a huge challenge to those trying to fix our current problems. They have to do something to get the financial system running and restore confidence, but not so much that it will jump from the present crisis into another. And add to this that the financial system is coupled to another complex systems, the political. The players seem to have understood that restoring confidence is very important, but haven't understood that taking such big steps may be just as risky as was the condition of the system before it blew up, and upset the political system to boot.