Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
After an unexpected prolonged stay in Cleveland, I am back home. My flights back were canceled for the two days it took Boston to dig out of the blizzard that left a couple of feet of snow on the ground. I was there to teach a class to the Doctor of Management students in the Weatherhead School. The course is entitled, Designing Sustainable Systems, and is organized to emphasis both systems thinking and sustainability. I had prepared a class based on my book, as usual, but wanted to incorporate more systems context than I generally do.
The syllabus had a large dose of complex systems theory and I thought I should also focus there. I had recently read a few articles that more or less equated sustainability with resilience, and wanted to correct that misunderstanding. Resilience is not the same as sustainability although the two concepts are related. Sustainability is the ability of a complex system to produce some desired quality or material output for an extended period of time relative to an observer’s time frame of interest. I have defined the normative output of interest as flourishing and the duration as extending at least over many generations.
It is useful for this discussion to speak of attractors, but not quite in the rigorous way they are defined in formal complexity theory. One reason is that the global system of interest in sustainability discussions is a complex case of complexity and the mathematical formalisms do not quite work, but the ideas do. Think of a complex system as existing in a metaphorical well or basin where its behavior is constrained to some limited extent by the rules that govern the system. As long as the rules produce behaviors that are considered normatively satisfactory, we can say the system is in good shape and we are getting what we want. We can describe this by saying that the system lies within an attractor basin that keeps the system from straying too far.
Occasionally a system may stray from producing what we want and then we may intervene to restore it. The departure may be due to a change in the rules or material conditions that change the material or emergent outputs. This happened in the case of the 2007-8 financial collapse. Something shifted within the system and two things happened. First, the material output, money flows, ceased, and that shift spilled over into the whole economy which slowed down dramatically. Secondly, emergent qualities, like confidence and security, also vanished. The system’s behavior was so different that we can say it moved into a different attractor which exhibited a distinct set of emergent properties and material outputs.
Economists argued that it would stay there unless radical efforts were taken to move it back into the original attractor basin. Of course, they did not use this language. But that is what was done. Massive amounts of capital were injected, and new rules were applied. The internal structure of the system was significantly altered by bankruptcies and mergers. Now in 2013, it appears that the system (the economy of the US) is back to a place where it is normatively satisfactory or approaching that point. But it is in a new attractor basin, a point missed by many. Even if it appears to be acting satisfactorily, it can be subject to abrupt shifts in behavior quite distinct from those seen in 2007-8.
Systems like an economy are always being subjected to perturbations. The players change as enterprises come and go, and grow and shrink. Exogenous pressures shift, for example, the price of factor inputs coming in from outside the system. To the extent that the system remains in the basin in the face of such perturbations, it is exhibiting resilience. Resilience is the ability of a complex system to remain in a basin when subject to changes in the rules or material conditions.
Now, with this preface, we can talk about sustainability and resilience. The global system is now situated in a basin where it is behaving badly and exhibiting signs of brittleness (the opposite of resilience). The desired outputs are falling away from goals set by many institutions and individuals. Flourishing is largely absent, and exists only in an isolated sense as there is little evidence of it as an emergent property of the system. Indeed, those would assert that they are flourishing have largely detached and insulated themselves from the system. Let me call this basin, Modernity, governed by the beliefs (habit-forming rules) that have evolved and become embedded in the culture since the time of Descartes and the Enlightenment. I have written much about the details of these beliefs and will not repeat them here.
We cannot be sure of the nature of other basins; their very complexity confounds our ability to predict future behaviors. But we can make a pretty good guess that a basin I will call Collapse is close by. In it, our global system will depart from the conditions of the Holocene which supported the evolutionary processes that led to our present system. We do know a lot about the possibilities of climatic shifts that will, in turn, cause large changes in the rules that govern our cultures. Migrations will shift the internal relationships such that new behavioral patterns are highly likely to show up. Given that the new system will be complex as is the present one, we cannot ever be certain about how it will work.
The figure represents this case. The blue dot represents the condition of the system at this time. Our modern world is flanked by two others. One, Collapse, is a place we are trying to avoid. The height of the red arrow is a measure of resilience. If the blue dot moves to the cusp separating modernity and collapse, then there is a good possibility that our world will flip into that well.
As we pour our wastes into the environment, we are reducing the resiliency of the existing world. On the figure, this would be represented by a shortening of the red line. Most atmospheric scientists claim that we are doing that by pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The increasing inequality in the United States is doing the same thing, making the system more brittle, subject to flips into another well.
That is the bad news. The good news is that we can conceive of another adjacent well, that of Flourishing. It is separated by a different cusp at the top of the green arrow. My writings have been focused on the set of rules that might constitute such an alternate world. Care, instead of need, is one of the fundamental changes that could maintain a flourishing world. But we cannot simply jump there without climbing the wall to the cusp and over into the new basin/well. But that means overcoming the resistance to change inherent in our present modern system. Purposely moving to a new world has to overcome the forces in the current attractor that try to maintain the system.
Those who believe that our present attractor is the right one should and do focus on making the system more resilient. They believe that we can continually lengthen the arrow with technology and the application of scientific knowledge, pushing off the day we flip into the terra incognita of Collapse. I do not think they are on the right track. Given that the ominous moves toward collapse we observe are, in my arguments, an unintended consequence of Modernity, it seem imprudent to keep doing what we have been doing for a few hundred years and expect it to turn out differently.
While it is just as impossible to predict how life in the Flourishing basin would be, we have small smidgens of evidence from history and our thinking that a different set of constitutive rules can transform the system to one that has the capacity to produce flourishing as an emergent quality. Although this discussion simplifies complexity theory (no pun intended), it retains enough of its character to present a meaningful picture. As I write often, trying to avoid a flip into Collapse using the same rules that has moves us close to the cusp seems unwise. But, as Paul Krugman wrote today in his NYTimes column, ignorance seems to be the norm in our political world.
And such is the influence of what we might call the ignorance caucus that even when giving a speech intended to demonstrate his openness to new ideas, Mr. Cantor felt obliged to give that caucus a shout-out, calling for a complete end to federal funding of social science research. Because it’s surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we’re trying to change.
The excuses that we do not know what Flourishing would look like or that we do not know if our efforts to get there will be effective are only explicit or implicit forms of procrastination. Time is not on our side, I believe, nor is the optimistic view of Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption. Gilding expects some sort of collapse, but argues that Homo sapiens is so clever that we will find our way back to a world that works. If we do not now understand, and we do not, that we are intricately involved in the move to collapse, I believe it unlikely that we will be able to create anew a workable and desirable world. This a case where the “devils you know theory” does not apply. We must start moving toward Flourishing (or some other normatively desirable basin) now and the old devils will not help us. It’s time to “give love a chance.”