Sorry for the unexplained absence. I seem to have acquired a case of blogger’s block, but only a mild one. I promised to continue for a while to write about complexity and its relationships to sustainability. One of the most interesting and intriguing features of complex system is emergence. The idea is quite simple, but the process is mysterious.
Emergence is the appearance of some quality that arises from the structure of a system, that is, from the relationships among all the parts. The ripples on a sand dune or the regular shape of a snow flake are one kind of emergent happening. The eddy that forms when water drains from a basin is another familiar example of emergence. But these phenomena are only meaningful to an observer who attributed significance to some ordering that stands out against the background of a chaotic or disordered context. Unlike the outcome of mechanical systems where all the system properties can be described by rules, emergent properties, in general, cannot be described by such rules and their appearance cannot be predicted in advance.
Sustainability, as I have defined it, is the possibility that human and other life will flourish for a long time. Emergence and complexity enter into the picture in two ways. Flourishing arises when the natural and social worlds that support life are working in such a way that whatever we call flourishing call be sensed by the population of the system. The combination of the natural and social worlds are complex. We cannot define them in terms of a finite set of analytic relationships. We cannot predict the future states of the system with any certainty. Revolutions appear and change regimes. Financial collapse occurs without having a time plugged into the system’s alarm clock. This feature has a huge effect on how we can govern the system to behave in a beneficial and hospitable way.
But what is it that we want the behavior of the global system to produce? We want it to produce lots of “mechanical” outputs: automobiles, money, tofu, vitamin pills, artificial hearts–all things that we use to run our lives. Without these we would not survive, but these alone would not bring the qualities that give human life its meaning. From time immemorial, humans have striven to live the “good” life, a dignified healthy life, or to flourish or some other similar quality. Always a quality, less observable that the ripples or eddies, but still only meaningful to an observer. Such qualities cannot be enumerated by some completely objective methodology, like the counting out of dollar bills.
I often use the beauty of a masterpiece, like the Mona Lisa, to exemplify emergence qualities. It’s the virtuosity of the master that creates what most viewers have come to agree is “beauty.” The beauty is not in the painting but in the assessments of the observers. It is exceedingly unlikely that such beauty could ever emerge from a paint-by-numbers kit of the Mona Lisa. No more than Shakespeare’s works could be the result of the proverbial bunch of monkeys pounding on keyboard.
Sustainability is only a possibility that we can live in a way so that the planet will work such that people will observe their life, and claim that they are flourishing. It’s always only a possibility because we can never know enough about the system to reduce it to rules that we can manipulate so that we can predict the outputs within some range of certainty. This does not mean we cannot do anything at all. It simply means that we must accept that our efforts at governance are always contingent and partial. We can and must learn as we go. We cannot allow ourselves to become fooled when the Great Economy (as Wendell Berry calls the way the Earth works) appears to be obeying our commands.
That flourishing is emergent can help explain why monetary wealth does not equate with subjective well being–estimates the people make of the quality, not quantity, of their lives. Flourishing can never be abstracted from the whole complex system, and made the output of any mechanical system, however complicated. We already know something about the social system that should put us on the right track. It is that the strength of our relationships to others is a feature found when people assess their well-being to be relatively high. But our current culture is more fragmented that ever. More people live alone than ever. The number of children born out of wedlock is shocking, not from any moral standpoint, but from the absence of familial relationships. The weak ties that social media produce are no match for the strong ties of true solidarity.
This should not come as a surprise. It’s the relationships among the structural components that produce emergence in any complex system. Our historical reliance on reductionist science and epistemological methodology in general blinds us to this fundamental feature. Effective family therapy recognizes the family as a complex system of relationships that must all be in working order for health and flourishing to show up. The family of human beings is much too large to fit into a therapist’s office, but this obstacle should not stand in the way of accepting the need to treat the whole system and not just its parts.