Emergence, Rules, and Sustainability


I spent a few days this weekend teaching my course on “Exploring Sustainability” at the Marlboro College Graduate MBA in Managing for Sustainability. I’ve written about this terrific program many times now, but I am always impressed what the combination of an enlightened faculty and a group of committed students can produce. I have only limited time allotted to my course in a very busy weekend. It’s an important moment as it’s the only chance for me to meet the students face-to-face rather than read their posts to the program pedagogical website. We are reading my book as the text this term, and the latest assignments focus on complexity and its connections to sustainability. In the course of presenting a short illustrated lecture, I had a real breakthrough in my own understanding of that relationship. I hope the students did as well.

I was speaking about the phenomena of emergence: the creation of coherent patterns from generally chaotic systems or the bringing forth of some quality, like beauty or security, from a complex system. Systems that are complex in this sense cannot be described by a determinant set of equations and behave in unpredictable ways. Flourishing is the quality we seek in all our attempts to design our worlds to become sustainable, that is to continue to exhibit flourishing over long time periods. I used this short video to explain emergence.

The part I want to discuss is the first 4 or 5 minutes, but the whole video is worth watching. The key to emergent phenomena is that they follow a set of rules, but not necessary rules expressible in mathematical terms. We have such a set of rules that underlies economic institutions and economic behavior in modern developed countries. The rules have been known ever since Adam Smith pointed us to the “invisible hand.” He connected the emergence of wealth and well-being to behavior driven by self-interest as then construed as the seeking of things that brought pleasure and the avoidance of pain. No one was directing the economic system. It ran all by itself, with the exception of government setting some other rules to avoid the emergence of patterns that were not deemed good for society. We know that this scheme has never been fully successful.

This simple rule at the base of all modern market-oriented economies doesn’t produce the right kind of emergence. Yes, we do get more material output and more wealth measured by putting monetary values to all the stuff traded in the market. But we also get poverty, unfair distribution of well-being, and devastation of the natural system that supports life on Earth. And now we have much evidence that it even fails to produce pleasure and avoid pain for many, many people. As long as the economic system is designed on the basis of this fundamental rule, all the fixes that economists use cannot alter the emergent dynamics. They may mitigate a problem here and there but cannot change the basic patterns.

So what different rule might be used to replace the one that came from Smith and Mills and others theorizing at the dawn of classic economics. If human are truly self-interested in the way Mill suggested, then there would seem to be no way out of this mess. The best we can do is to apply fixes here and there until the whole system collapses into some unpredictable regime. We have lived so long with this model of human behavior as the normal one that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have suggested in my book that there is an alternative to the Homo economicus created by Mill, but named as such by Pareto and Marshall. This alternative is a model of our species as constituted by caring. Caring is the sense of paying attention to the world of phenomena and acting according to rules coming largely from experience. Caring is behind the emergence of language as the technique that has enabled humans to coordinate their action to cope satisfactorily with the world of nature, other humans, and their individual selves.

Taking my lead from Heidegger, Fromm and others, I have argued that the loss of care under the relentless attack by technology and its manifestation in economic institutions has led to the failure of modern social systems to produce flourishing and other similar normatively positive emergent qualities and to the emergence instead of dysfunctional and dystopic patterns and forms. In the same way we cannot predict exactly what the invisible hand of Smith will produce, we cannot predict the outcome of changing the rules to a system based on caring, but I am more confident that it will bring flourishing forth. Care-based cultural rules has done this in smaller societies and groups. Changing the rules can be done at all levels of society. The video shows that rules that guide individual behavior work without the need of leadership from the top. I’ll explore this idea further as I become more comfortable inside of it. But why not get started now. Let’s go.

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David M Carter said:

Great stuff, John! Thank you for sharing your early thoughts on this topic. I too sense that an upward spiral toward sustainable flourishing is possible through some collective manifestation of human caring. I also sense, as have most ecopsychologists, that modernity, and its closely aligned economic power plant, is gradually breaking down this possibility.

Clearly, we cannot break free from the current paradigm without some well-articulated vision of what can be possible through an applied psychology of caring. The time is critical for us to envision, refine, and communicate a convincing future to gradually transform our social culture away from rapacious ways of living centered around consumption, materialism, and technological innovation. But how can we do this without it appearing that we have taken a step backward in our development? Humans, particularly those inculcated in Western ways, have a hell of a time admitting that they are heading down the wrong path.