Sustainability and September 11th

On this anniversary of 9/11, it seems most appropriate to reflect on the link between that day, the subsequent seven years, and what might seem a disconnected topic: sustainability. The carnage of that day is the epitome of unsustainability--a system stretched beyond the breaking point; the failure to return to the original equilibrium state; the emergence of new patterns of behavior.

The response we have created in the United States is fashioned from the very same toolbox and beliefs and values that were in play right up to the event. They are fundamentally technological and technocratic, telling us that we can prevent the next regime changing event in our world by employing the force of technology manifest in our superior military power. Or that we can impose our beliefs and norms on the rest of the world because we know it is right.

The argument I am weaving here is not an ideological one; just the opposite. Such means do not work well in a complex world. And the world is indeed complex. We cannot predict the outcome of actions taken in the name of governance any more than foresters can predict the outcomes of traditional management practices. Technology applied may appear to treat the symptoms we observe, but it rarely gets at the underlying causes of the unwanted symptoms. Such solutions are always quick fixes; the same kind of problems seem to recur repeatedly.

Sustainability, taken as the possibility of flourishing, is the ultimate end we seek. It is a property of a complex system that needs to be very thoughtfully governed. All the scientific knowledge of our experts cannot replace the wisdom of those keen observers of history in understanding how the whole system works and how to govern it without pushing it into an unsustainable state.

9/11 was a wake-up call, not only to the real threat of terrorism, but to the need to re-conceptualize the very way we think about the world and strive to maintain it so that we and all life can sustain itself. Sustainability cannot be created by rules and formulas; it shows up only when the whole system is working right.

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Tom Ehrenfeld said:

Brilliant argument, couldn't agree more. One other parallel can be seen in the way that political leaders not only fail to respond directly to the event, but in fact use it as the basis, the justification for a set of actions that are not even directly related!