Sustainability has become a ‘catch all’ term that has been attached to products, processes, companies and movements, but may be losing any relevance to society in the process. As Norton (2005) points out, the conceptual and linguistic framework within which sustainability is understood is important. We apply systems thinking and emergence theory and take into account the importance of scale to present an integrated way of thinking about sustainability that identifies a point of interaction where policy and discussion might be better directed.
We consider sustainability as an emergent quality of a system that occurs when the interactions within the system and between the system and its environment are nourishing. This conception is useful for three key reasons: it indicates the kinds of relationships individual humans and human groups need to be engaged in at the micro level; it provides a guide for the monitoring functions that might be needed at a macro level to recognise emergent patterns; and most importantly, it places emphasis ultimately neither upon the micro or the macro scales but upon the relationship between these two. By drawing attention to the interaction between the two we seek to stimulate discussion on how these best can speak to each other and facilitate the emergence of sustainability.
Systems thinking illuminates two key aspects that help in thinking about sustainability: boundaries and relationships. Thinking of sustainability as a quality of a system highlights the boundaries we draw, the negotiation we undertake between reality and our efforts to describe and understand it, as well as the interactions between and within systems that need to be nourishing and nourished. It is through these multitudes of nourishing interactions that we believe sustainability emerges. Nourishment in this context is the active support of a system by its environment and the elements within it so that it may persist, like the active role of muscles in holding a pose. Emergence theory tells us that it is through interactions at a micro scale, between elements of a system and without control from above, that emergent properties may occur. Emergence however, can only be detected at the scale above where the individual interactions are occurring. Hence, the relationship between sub and super systems is a critical focal point for thinking about sustainability.
There are two processes to consider as we engage with this model of sustainability: those that are required to support emergence, and those that are required to ensure that the emergence leads to sustainability. Emergence is fostered by complexity, risk, and reduced control from above. For sustainability to emerge, the interactions between and within systems need to be nourishing, and some form of feedback or monitoring is needed to assess whether this is being achieved.
Emergence is more likely to occur in a system with greater diversity and complexity where there is more interacting and sharing of information and minimal outside control. The outcomes from such interactions are unknown and may be perceived as chaotic and risky (Miller 2010). However, it is through risk taking that we discover new and unexpected outcomes or pathways. Some recent examples in science show how, by trying experiments that were expected to fail new discoveries that challenged accepted theories were discovered. Examples include Nobel gases that react despite all earlier predictions (Hargittai 2009), and spontaneous reactions that go in both directions despite the second law of thermodynamics predicting that they should only go in one (Tabony 2006). If we reduce our desire for security we create the freedom for alternatives, including sustainability, to emerge from an evolution of interactions. We judge if an emergent property is sustainable or not depending on whether the risks are beneficial or harmful. Consequently a closer look at the human decision making system is a critical part of this model.
In human decision-making systems there is a similar need for diverse contributors and opportunities for risk to facilitate the possibility of emergent outcomes. Emergence is more likely when each individual makes decisions based on the information they gather about their local environment and relative changes (Johnson 2003). We think looking for some measure of nourishment will be one way to establish whether sustainability is an emergent outcome. Nourishment will primarily occur at the micro level but those doing the nourishing and within the system, are unlikely to be able to judge whether their actions are resulting in sustainable outcomes. Monitoring at the macro scale is where sustainability is likely to be detected and feedback to the micro scale will facilitate whether current practices continue or are changed. So, to foster sustainability, not only do we need room for risk taking but a framework that is responsive to whether nourishment can be detected at a macro scale.
There appears to be a tension between what is needed at the micro scale and the role of the macro scale. The micro scale needs risk and diversity for the possibility of sustainability to emerge. The macro scale is needed to detect the emergent patterns and provide feedback, but if it begins to play a directive role, emergence may be stifled. Emergence theory suggests that the best kind of relationship between the micro and macro levels is one where the macro level merely monitors and provides information, so that individuals and groups at the micro level can be informed but autonomous in their actions. This is risky and in conflict with current practices. The act of monitoring and feedback is important, but where should the decision making take place? How to manage and care for this interactive space between the scales is the challenge we are posing to the sustainability community.
For the emergence to focus towards sustainability the conversation between micro and macro must remain open and vigorous to both enable risk taking and ensure that the risks are targeted towards nourishment. This paper will look further at this space and pose the questions that we think need further exploration if this model is accepted as a possible path towards emerging sustainability.
Hargittai, I. 2009. Neil Bartlett and the first noble-gas compound. Structural Chemistry, 20(6): 953-959.
Johnson, S. 2002. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. Penguin.
Miller, Peter. 2010. Smart Swarm: using animal behaviour to organise our world. Harper Collins, Australia.
Norton, B. 2005. Sustainability: a philosophy of adaptive ecosystem management. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Tabony, J. 2006. Historical and conceptual background of self-organization by reactive processes. Biology of the cell, 98: 589-602.