Pre-inauguration Thoughts

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Today is the last day of the Bush Administration. There has been enough said about the state of the world he has left. It seems to me that sustainability, while spoken about at a much higher level than eight years ago, is much further away. Its distance is a consequence of very bad policies that continue to see the world as a resource to be plundered and managed for the benefit of those with the means to exploit it. But it is also the result of the models used to think about and act toward the problems we face. This administration has been, perhaps, the most ideological in my lifetime. Choices are dichotomous: good or. evil; black or white. Bush’s famous dislike of nuance translates into a sense of singularity. There is one right way to do everything. It is this mental model that I believe is more dangerous than the “solutions” it produces.

I have slowly come to see sustainability as a generic property of complex systems. Almost all the broad ends that have emerged in the civilizing process of humanity are emergent properties of complex systems, in many cases, the entire socio-technological-natural in which our species evolved. They were the linguistic inventions of perspicacious people who observed that something that the system generated was desirable. These qualities, like justice or goodness, slowly became the aims of civil society. A large part of philosophy became devoted to figuring out how to define these broad qualities in everyday terms and how to invent systems to produce and maintain them.

They were worried about sustainability, even if they never used the word itself. Sustainability is the possibility that a complex system will continue to produce some desired positive quality over time. It is really the property we desire, not sustainability itself. We might argue that the Soviet Union was not sustainable because it could not produce lasting equality, choice, freedom and so on. Apartheid was not sustainable because it could not produce justice, Jared Diamond writes of cultures that collapsed because they more or less destroyed the healthy ecosystems on which they depended for their own health. I use flourishing as the desired property because I believe it captures more of all the things we seek that any other single word.

Complexity is a term of art that means that the system being examined or observed produces some quality or state that cannot be analytically or deterministically described by some fixed law--mathematical or otherwise. We can learn much about these systems, but cannot treat them like machines that do what we have designed them to do. Those who would try to control complex systems as if they were machines may succeed, but rigid, singular approaches may also produce catastrophic shifts in the system where the desired ends metaphorically disappear into a cloud of smoke. Such was the case with the financial collapse and the chaos in Iraq. Those managing these situations mistakenly believed they knew how the system worked. Ideologies could be interpreted as a set of solutions to a class of problems that will always work. In some cases this is possible. I expect my car to start every time I turn the key. There is also always some probability that it won’t. My car may be complicated, but it is not “complex.” It is reasonable to fix it in these cases.

Complexity must be treated differently. Any solution to restore or change a failing system must be considered tentative. This is not a philosophical, ideological, political, or moral statement. It is simply a recognition of the nature of complex systems. The new President-elect has already shown us that he is less likely to act ideologically and more likely to follow a pragmatic path. Some of my colleagues and friends are disappointed that he may be less ideologically progressive than they wish. I tell them that progressivism is as much a commitment to pragmatism as it is to any particular set of policy solutions. The last thing we need in our new President is a distaste for nuance and a commitment to certainty.