Complexity is more than a scientific construct and has significant implications for sustainability. I’ll get to discuss that later, but first I need to set the stage. Complexity can refer to a real system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when subjected to perturbations. It is also used to describe systems that can move toward order from chaos, that is, they are self organizing. This characteristic is basically the same as the first. Chaotic situations will remain chaotic until something perturbs the system creating order, but we cannot tell in advance what the ordered system will look like. Schools of fish and flocks of birds exhibit complex behavior when they form ordered collections.
In recent years, complexity is slowly being welcomed in the world of science, but the welcome is not particularly warm. Complexity study is the antithesis of classical scientific work which is based on the search for laws that will predict the behavior of various parts of the world. This tension must be very frustrating to many scientists who are not yet ready to drop the “scientific method” of revealing truth for a method that can only describe. Complexity is amenable to some analysis; it’s possible to understand the rules that bring order to a flock of birds, but not to map the actual behavior. The errant behavior of a single member of the flock can turn the orderly movements back to chaos in a moment.
Complex behaviors fall into the class of what you know you don’t know and, also, into the one where you don’t know that you don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld used this concept for the title of his recent memoir. I think it would be more accurate to describe his story as one about not knowing what you should know. Fish schooling fits the first of the two classes above. If you understand complexity at all, you know that you don’t know what the system is going to look like from one moment to the next. But if you mistake a complex system for a merely complicated one, you don’t know that you don’t know how it works. It’s important to distinguish between complex and complicated. A complicated system takes a form of a machine where the whole system can be broken down into its parts and the relationships between all the parts can be reduced to a closed set of analytic expressions.
If you know that you don’t know, you can adopt a scheme of governance or control that accepts that you will have to adapt your rules as you learn what is happening. Gardening is a classic case of operating in this fashion. The gardener plants in the spring and then watches very carefully as the plants sprout, employing understanding gleaned from experience with the garden. Good gardeners know that their plot is unique and that they cannot count on the rules used by the neighbor across the street. Everything they do is contingent. Their methods go into the bag of tricks if they seems to work, but become suspect when they fails the next time. The theories found in the textbooks at the local agricultural school may serve as starters, but more than not have only short-lived utility. Good gardeners are pragmatists, not scientists.
Now what does all of this have to do with sustainability? Everything! The world we inhabit is the epitome of complexity. We are merely a node in the web of life. Our scientific method has led us to believe that we exist outside of that system and can get to know it in the same way we learn to design and fix automobiles, or at least we used to be able to do this. Modern automobiles are becoming complex as computers attempt to control a very large number of interconnections. Toyota’s recent troubles, in part sprang from the inability to understand how a car really works on the highway, as opposed to some engineer’s computerized simulation model.
We speak about sustainability without understanding or ignoring our place inside of this complex world. We wish desperately to keep it running and pouring out everything we need from all the spigots of the economy. That’s what most people think about when they use the word sustainable. Please keep the machine going so I can keep getting a new iPad every two years. For most people, they risk getting what they are asking for–an inauthentic, unsatisfying life of having, but not being. The being mode of life that Erich Fromm wrote about and I cite extensively in my own work now, perhaps, falls into the realm of what we don’t know we don’t know. We think we know what life is all about and so don’t bother to look for what I call flourishing.
Sustainability is the possibility of flourishing for all life on Earth. Until we accept that humans are only a part of the complex system we call Earth, that possibility will be nil. I have been teaching a course seeing sustainability through the lens of spirituality. The picture that keeps coming forth is that of the sacredness of the web of life. That it is sacred means we should give it the highest level of respect and avoid doing violence toward it. Early cultures, including the Native Americans, understood this and built their spiritual systems to reflect their place in the web. The meaning of Mother Earth fits naturally into such a system of belief.
It seems to me that we have a new opportunity to recover our consciousness of the interconnected nature of the world and our place within (not outside) of it. The increasing attention to complexity keeps a fire burning under our intellectual kettles. Natural and man-made catastrophes remind us that there is much we don’t know we don’t know. Understanding of the complexity of the Earth’s environment is diffusing from the scientists’ supercomputers to the everyday thoughts of many lay persons, but that is just the first step toward creating sustainability. We also have to recover the sense of the sacredness of the world, even of the cosmos, that envelops us. That’s no easy task given the opposite thrust of modernity as Max Weber wrote, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” It takes humility, not hubris, and attention to Candide’s rejection of the misplaced optimism of Dr. Pangloss. “Neither need you tell me,” said Candide, “that we must take care of our garden.” Maybe Voltaire was a gardener on the side and understood more about complexity than we might imagine.