The New Science of Sustainability: Building a Foundation for Great Change

Goerner, Sally J. et al. 2008. The New Science of Sustainability: Building a Foundation for Great Change. Chapel Hill: Triangle Center for Complex Systems.

reading notes

  • See the Google Books reviews (all two of them): “The first few chapters are really inspiring. They set out some great foundational systems science ideas that the rest of the book fails to build on. I recommend reading the first four chapters or so and then sending the book back to the library.” And: “Some useful information, but largely reads like someone's well-intended but poorly edited doctoral thesis.”
  • Some nice (and vey relevant) syntheses, though mingled with often very sweeping and unexamined claims and perspectives - but this is all part and parcel of an essentially polemical tract.
  • chapter 3 “Discovering a New Logic of Life” relevant to PARN?

Like the Scientific Revolution, today’s scientific rethinking, helps the emerging dream take root by altering the basic storylines people use to live their everyday lives, and by providing tools, concepts and evidence which clarify how to proceed. In this case, better tools improve our chances of survival by creating a clear picture of the rules of societal sustainability backed by exact measures for charting our progress toward it. The new storyline then changes our picture of what life is about. We currently believe that life is about competition, self-interest, and struggle because Darwinians say this is how evolution works. The new science, however, shows that life is much more about learning, collaboration and doing what’s best for the society as well as oneself because that is what survival is about. (9)

In this new view, great change is a learning process, and successful transitions require, not a revolutionary sweeping away, but a conservative-progressive alliance aimed at preserving past societal lessons, while working past the limits and distortions of the current age. Effective learning leads to a new level of the the society, while failure to reform in a timely way often results in the kind of collapse seen in ancient Rome. Sustainability is an apt name for vanguard of today’s transition because the ultimate goal is to avoid collapse by developing healthier patterns of life. (9)

In sum, great change is a collective struggle to rethink and rearrange our way out of cascading, interlocked crises by replacing conventional wisdoms in a host of fields with more effective alternatives. It is marked by crumbling, emerging, and learning taking place simultaneously. Successful learning produces a new, more advanced stage of civilization; failure to learn produces chaos, regression and sometimes collapse. During the transition the dangers and opportunities are equally real and no one can truly predict the outcome. (11)

Though few people realize it, a web rethinking is also sweeping through every field of science, from Ecological Economics and the Gaia hypothesis to Chaos Theory and the Dynamic theory of Evolution. These web views are largely the result of computers and other electronic equipment expanding our understandings in virtually every field from mathematics and physics to biology and anthropology. Such technologies are changing scientific views, not just metaphorically, but with quantitative precision. What we refer to as integral science represents the union of these web insights, now fused into a logical, working whole. (16)

Here civilization is a knowledge ecology, a wisdom-making web that follows certain universal principles of growth and development. This view of human systems helps us recast today’s great change as a global learning response that is being driven into being by in equally global crisis. It also leads to a new set of core social stories, many of which are actually quite ancient. (17)

The learning paradigm also creates a new se sense of today’s goal. The emerging reforms in energy, agriculture, building, transportation, urban planning, etc. form the content of today’s collective mind change, but from a learning perspective, the real trick to sustainability lies not in specific content changes, but in developing the cultural mindset and societal infrastructure for becoming an effective collaborative learning culture, one capable of revising our society rapidly and wisely from this day forward. (24)

History suggests, however, that collapse will come, and that the only way to avoid it is to build a better dream, as our Enlightenment forebears did 400 years ago. (29)

Since societal health is a reflection of beliefs, the key to saving civilization lies not only in sustainability’s many technical improvements (such as those needed in energy), but also in a general cultural reformation that ends up putting “learning” – meaning rapid, effective, collective adaptation – permanently at the heart of the human endeavor. (32)

Why do democratic peoples accept this situation when virtually everyone finds it sick and self-destructive? Charles Reich (1995) suggests that another problem is that there seems to be no viable alternative. The only large-scale alternative most people have ever heard of is some form of communism socialism or Utopian communalism – all of which have proved to be disastrous. Much of what was formerly Communist Eastern Europe is now an ecological disaster area; virtually all Utopian communes have failed; and even he milder socialist economies of the West have proved to be callously bureaucratic and grossly inefficient. (50)

In this view, human beings need to care for the environment because it forms a kind of “external metabolism” into which our internal metabolism is linked and from which we derive many of your crucial biochemical components including enzymes and hormones. (68)

The S-curve also explains why growth is not easy. Growth stretches bonds and breeds fragility. We call this obvious gotcha of growth, the complexity catch. Failure to address it leads to big, bubble-like organizations that collapse easily because they lack sufficient intricacy to support their bulk. (77)

The complexity catch teaches us that, “it’s not how big you grow, but how you grow big.” Repeating at all levels, it is also the main reason we live in a world of small systems linked into larger systems linked into larger ones still. Armies consist of divisions built of brigades built of regiments built of platoons. Living organisms consist of cells organized into tissues, organs, and organ systems. (77)

The complexity catch also explains why intricacy is the ultimate form of smart growth. Like a lace tablecloth, a system’s strength and resilience comes from keeping energy flowing through thousands of small circles bound in a ever-growing meshwork of connective tissue. In the human case, it teaches us that communities need strong bonds to keep themselves cohesive and well-knit social fabric to remain vibrant and adaptive by keeping resources and information flowing throughout. Conversely, the less intricate the social fabric, the less robust; the less adaptive, and the more fragile the society will be. (78)

We face a similar choice today. Populations and economies have grown to unimagined size, but we are still operating with the same kinds of structures used for societies 1/10th our size. Where community webs and strong personal bonds once helped maintain information flow and social resilience during crises, today’s uncaring bureaucracies leave everyone scrambling for self-preservation largely on their own. (79)

Hence, in an organism built of collaborating cells, losing touch is deadly. Yet, the complexity catch tells us that growth always leads to pulling apart. Consequently, the pressure to stay collaboratively coordinated has played a major role in increasing intelligence from nerves to brains to civilization. The Process by which this happens demonstrates how evolution’s three key threads – structure, intelligence, and collaboration – create a powerful system of interlinked pressures. (86)

Human societies work like ecosystems or, more strongly, committed collaborations: diverse, interdependent specialists, working together in a mutually supportive, living network.

Because we are first and foremost a learning species, societies are best described as knowledge ecologies, information-processing communities whose survival depends on our joint ability to weave diverse perspectives into improved mental maps that help us create more functional responses o pressing issues. (90)

Collaboration: Healthy patterns of co-operation are needed to keep diverse members of the human ecosystem working together smoothly and well. Intelligence/Learning: A society’s survival depends on its ability to act appropriately and change rapidly in response to signals coming from outside and inside as well. Organization (Structure): If a society’s human infrastructure is frayed, malnourished or insufficiently intricate for the size, the “organizational structure” falls apart. Organization refers to the connective tissue relationships) that holds the system together and provides the conduits by which energy, information and resources flow more rapidly and thoroughly throughout. The structure an organization needs varies depending on its size and complexity. (91)

Culture takes on new value as we appreciate what it represents: a vast reservoir of past lessons and future dreams organized into a roadmap for how to live, which then guides all we do. Since the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works form our greatest survival tool, to degrade culture is to degrade our ability to endure. (97)

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