Defining sustainability

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This forum supports discussion on topics of interest to the Environmental and Energy Special interest Groups of the System Dynamics Society. Everyone who is logged in may post to this forum.
William Braun
Posts: 65
Joined: Sun Jan 11, 2009 11:18 am
Location: Cleveland Heights, OH

Re: Defining sustainability

Post by William Braun » Thu Feb 26, 2009 6:58 pm

Jack Harich wrote:Bill,

Thanks for the succinct reply. But I wonder if your “sustainability is the state in which the resources consumed are less than or equal to the natural replenishment rate of the resources” is widely applicable. You may be considering only renewable and non-renewable environmental resources.

How, for example, would your definition handle economic sustainability, where a nation might define its goal as a certain level of GDP and percent growth? GDP is not a resource. It’s an index of throughput.

snip other good stuff

Jack
I admit to a resource based view of the world. Every issue can be seen through the lens of resources (I do not mean this to be rigid, only descriptive of one way to look at things).

Your reference to economic sustainability piques my thinking. Think forward to the day when the last developer has gone out of business, because the last parcel of land to develop already has a building on it. In other words, the final limit to growth has been reached. What would sustainability look like then? What ever your response to the question is, assume it is true right now. Bringing the future to the present, what policies would you follow? If we instituted them now (ignoring policy resistance for the time being) what would be the result?

Crime also piques my interest. What resources are consumed in crime? Time, knowledge (that could be elsewhere applied), money, talent, community cohesion, housing stock, commerce, to name a few.

Good questions, thanks.

Bill

William Braun
Posts: 65
Joined: Sun Jan 11, 2009 11:18 am
Location: Cleveland Heights, OH

Re: Defining sustainability

Post by William Braun » Thu Feb 26, 2009 7:01 pm

Jack Harich wrote:Geoff,

I can go to a nearby university library and use their account, but they are 6 miles away and I must park about a mile away off campus.

snip other stuff
Sign up for remedial English at your local community college. Get a library account. Skip all the classes, fail the course, and use the on-line access to the library's databases.

Bill

Eric Stiens
Posts: 31
Joined: Thu Jan 22, 2009 12:51 pm

Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Eric Stiens » Thu Feb 26, 2009 7:57 pm

Even large institutions are cutting back on their subscriptions because of cost, so check with the community college to see what access is available, first...better yet, continue to push for open access:

http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archiv ... _is_t.html

(and yes, the question of open access journals is complex, as the comments on that article indicate, and is related to the complexity of digital publishing of lots of types of content, not just academic articles)

The author-pays-to-publish model is an interesting one which is gaining some traction these days as well.

There is also (as always in these situations) a thriving black market in institutional passwords and journal passwords, especially for scientists and others in non-industrialized countries, but I'll leave it at that.

Now back to sustainability.....

John Gunkler
Posts: 5
Joined: Sun Jan 11, 2009 12:11 pm

Re: Defining sustainability

Post by John Gunkler » Sun Mar 08, 2009 5:03 pm

Maybe this is naive, but when I think about sustainability in an SD context, I think first about the state of dynamic equilibrium in an SD model. Sterman defines this as a condition where the value of a stock (or of all the stocks in a system) remains constant (because the inflows equal the outflows.) But this seems too restrictive to me as a definition of sustainable.

Then I think about SD models with oscillations. Here, stocks go up and down. I think that something can be sustainable even if levels (states, stocks) go up and down -- so long as the maxima and minima stay within predefined limits.

To say that a system is sustainable, then, I would think we would need to define these things:
1. The time frames over which the system would be sustained. [Jack suggests "forever."]
2. What are the key stocks/levels/states of this system -- i.e., the things we wish to sustain. [This is a non-trivial issue!]
3. The limits of the key stocks/levels/states of the system -- either upper or lower or both, depending upon what is to be "sustained."

There may even be cases where we wish to specify that the upper or lower limits of the key stocks may only be reached once per some specified time period or may only remain at the maximum/minimum level for some specified time period. For example, the earth can sustain global warming or cooling up/down to a certain average temperature and maintain that extreme temperature for up to some period of time before unacceptable changes will occur.

Finally, I may be going a completely wrong way about this. Perhaps we need, instead, to define what are acceptable and unacceptable levels of key states/levels/stocks and decree that any system is "sustainable" so long as these key variables stay within acceptable levels. This becomes simpler, on the face of it, but the setting of "acceptable" levels of important things becomes quite a difficult matter when we talk about anything that's very important. For example, what is the "acceptable" level of deaths/year caused by errors in hospitals? What is the "acceptable" level of loss of life per year on our interstate highways? How many workers in (fill in the blank industry) may "acceptably" die each year in producing the product? What is an "acceptable" level of taxation and how does that change by income level or other status?

William Braun
Posts: 65
Joined: Sun Jan 11, 2009 11:18 am
Location: Cleveland Heights, OH

Re: Defining sustainability

Post by William Braun » Sun Mar 08, 2009 8:07 pm

John Gunkler wrote:
snip other stuff

Finally, I may be going a completely wrong way about this. Perhaps we need, instead, to define what are acceptable and unacceptable levels of key states/levels/stocks and decree that any system is "sustainable" so long as these key variables stay within acceptable levels. This becomes simpler, on the face of it, but the setting of "acceptable" levels of important things becomes quite a difficult matter when we talk about anything that's very important. For example, what is the "acceptable" level of deaths/year caused by errors in hospitals? What is the "acceptable" level of loss of life per year on our interstate highways? How many workers in (fill in the blank industry) may "acceptably" die each year in producing the product? What is an "acceptable" level of taxation and how does that change by income level or other status?
Reference mode becomes important if not critical. For example, a "sustainable number of hospital error deaths" relative to reputation and risk management is quite different than sustainability for the actual people who die (not trying to be facetious). For all of your inquiries above, there is the default assumption that "none" is not achievable. If we, for matters of thinking and planning, reject that assumption, what is possible.

Bill

Derek Burrows
Posts: 1
Joined: Wed Mar 18, 2009 6:30 pm

Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Derek Burrows » Wed Mar 18, 2009 6:31 pm

found this link to a PDF of the article

http://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&sourc ... hsc-oxghZw

Robert Eberlein
Site Admin
Posts: 179
Joined: Sat Dec 27, 2008 8:09 pm

Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Robert Eberlein » Thu Mar 19, 2009 5:28 am

This is a good topic and, not having read your paper, am inclined to agree with the criticism of discussion on sustainability in general. Often we treat sustainability like pornography: poorly defined, but we when something is not sustainable it is easy to recognize.

I very much like the definition: "We define sustainability as the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely," which is actually a definition of sustainable behavior. However right after that concise definition follows a s statement about environmental sustainability. But environmental, with any ending you want to apply, is not behavior and so the example makes no sense.

I have always promoted notion of not talking about sustainability but simply long term consequences. For example it is completely clear that our consumption of fossil fuels can't continue as it now is without change. While that makes this consumption behavior unsustainable, the more interesting question is what are the long term implications. Do we find an alternative and run (ride or fly) with it, or does civilization devolve to something more primitive?

The long and short of this is that I would recommend sticking with a pretty narrow definitions of sustainable behavior, but talk to the broader implications for changes to the human condition.

Jack Harich
Posts: 54
Joined: Mon Jan 12, 2009 10:56 am
Location: Atlanta, Georgia US
Contact:

Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Jack Harich » Sat Mar 21, 2009 11:18 pm

Bill Braun suggests “Sign up for remedial English at your local community college. Get a library account. Skip all the classes, fail the course, and use the on-line access to the library's databases.” – Good advice. I will try something like this.

Eric Stiens, thanks for your suggestions.


Regarding John Gunkler’s thoughts:
To say that a system is sustainable, then, I would think we would need to define these things:
1. The time frames over which the system would be sustained. [Jack suggests "forever."]
2. What are the key stocks/levels/states of this system -- i.e., the things we wish to sustain. [This is a non-trivial issue!]
3. The limits of the key stocks/levels/states of the system -- either upper or lower or both, depending upon what is to be "sustained."
Yes. This agrees with the System Improvement Process’s standard format for problem definition: Move system A under constraints B from present state C to goal state D by deadline E with confidence level F.

And
Perhaps we need, instead, to define what are acceptable and unacceptable levels of key states/levels/stocks and decree that any system is "sustainable" so long as these key variables stay within acceptable levels.
Yes.


Derek Burrows offers a link to “Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability.” Thanks. I’d not seen this before. Reading it, I notice that right off it references Donella Meadow’s leverage points piece. I’ve recently done the same, so this perked up my ears.

Then I noticed “For example, if our goal is to improve quality of life, we will develop institutions and technologies that promote that goal, whereas if our goal is endless economic growth, we will develop a different set of institutions and technologies.” Again, the choice between these two goals is a theme I’ve also been writing about.

The authors see the challenge as “designing our way through the process of cultural evolution.” – Yes and no. Designers do not have omnipotent power to effect change in society. But this statement implies they kinda do. Let’s see where the piece goes.

“A crisis is often required to allow the addicted individual to see and to acknowledge the addiction, and the transition to a postaddiction state can be quite traumatic.” – This is the famous ‘wake up call catastrophe’ reactive approach to solution, which I’ve modeled in the “Change resistance as the crux” paper. The paper shows that’s what history has relied upon to solve most of the environmental sustainability problem so far.

This is pretty good reading, very congruent with my interests. Thanks again, Derek.

“Full World Scenario: A Regime Under Stress - Our current WITs [world views, institutions, and technologies] are failing to meet our needs in a changing world. Anthropogenic climate change, peak oil, biodiversity loss, rising food prices, pandemics, ozone depletion, pollution, and the loss of other life-sustaining ecosystem services all pose serious threats to civilization. These crises can be traced back to one, albeit complex problem: we have failed to adapt our current socioecological regime from an empty world to a full world.”

It took me years to develop a term to describe this pattern of failure: lack of proper coupling. A system that has failed to adapt to exogenous forces (such as approaching environmental limits) is improperly coupled to one or more other systems. In the environmental sustainability problem, the human system is improper coupled to the greater system it lives within: the biosphere, aka the environment. The term is useful because it encourages asking why improper coupling has occurred. This is different from why “we have failed to adapt to…” because the viewpoint of improper coupling encourages a higher level of abstraction.

“The aspects of our regime that no longer serve us in a full world can be grouped under two interrelated themes: a belief in unlimited growth, and a growing and unsustainable complexity.” – Very interesting. The “Change resistance as the crux” paper also identifies two beliefs as the fundamental axioms behind the dominant paradigm of our time. The beliefs are corporations are good and growth is good. I disagree with the complexity diagnosis (maybe I don’t understand what it represents) because it has low productivity in root cause diagnosis and resolution. But, let’s see where their argument is going….

Hmmm, the authors then talk a lot about growth and none about complexity. Then they move into “Envisioning a New Regime - Regime shifts can be driven by collapse or by integrated worldview, institutional, and technological changes. New cultural variants can be developed to offer new goals, rules, and tools. These new variants provide the opportunity to transition away from unsustainable practices and to avoid social, economic, and ecological collapse. Below we provide a partial list of worldviews, institutions, and technologies to stimulate and seed this evolutionary change.”

This “partial list” is what I call proper practices. They are what the system needs to adopt to be properly coupled. Here is their list:

1. Redefine Well-Being Metrics
2. Ensure the Well-Being of Populations During the Transition
3. Reduce Complexity and Increase Resilience
4. Expand the ‘Commons Sector’
5. Remove Barriers to Improving Knowledge and Technology

Lurking in the list is a tautology. “Increase resilience” means the system needs more of the ability to cope correctly with problems. So to solve the sustainability problem the system needs to be more able to solve the problem. See the circular reasoning here? Jared Diamond did the same thing in Collapse. One of his five causes of a society’s failure to avoid collapse was making the wrong decisions. That’s not a cause. It’s a symptom that’s always present when a society sees collapse coming and fails to take appropriate action.

Note the lack of continuity in the piece. Early on it argues the causes are “a belief in unlimited growth and a growing and unsustainable complexity.” Unless I missed it, the list of what to do does not address the first cause at all. This is a sign of a very informal analysis.

The list contains good ideas, individually. But where is the analysis that shows anything in this “partial list” will work in this case? Where is the root cause analysis and a model showing something in the list would cause the social system to become sustainable? No formal structured analysis is presented. Thus I conclude this is an intuitively derived list. It offers some small insights, but does not deliver on its promise of “Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability.” To me, the most systemic roadblocks of all would be the root causes of the problem. These were not identified.

I’ve encountered this pattern hundreds of times. It’s all over the environmental literature. Well intentioned people create lists of what to do, promote them, and… little happens. WHY IS THIS?

A clue lies in the last section: “Conclusions - Changes in our current interconnected worldviews, institutions, and technologies (our socio-ecological regime) are needed to achieve a lifestyle better adapted to current and future environmental realities.” But what will cause society to adopt the list of changes? The paper does not address that at all. It blithely assumes they will somehow eventually be adopted.

The clue is the word “change.” I’ve spent the last many months patiently building an academic argument in what will possibly become my first published paper: “Change resistance as the crux of the environmental sustainability problem.” This explains why the “Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability” piece, and thousands of others like it, have failed and will continue fail. It’s because they are ignoring systemic change resistance.

But not everybody is ignoring it. In fact, one of our very own recently tried to light the candle so others could see that change resistance is the crux: John Sterman. His observation was so keen I ended my paper with a quote from his:
A recent article in Science observed that “The civil rights movement provides a better analogy for the climate challenge. Then, as now, entrenched special interests vigorously opposed change.” The piece ended with:

“Of course, we need more research and technical innovation—money and genius are always in short supply. But there is no purely technical solution for climate change. For public policy to be grounded in the hard-won results of climate science, we must now turn our attention to the dynamics of social and political change.” (Sterman, 2008, italics added)

Could this be the next frontier of system dynamics?

Bob Eberlein writes “However right after that concise definition follows a statement about environmental sustainability. But environmental, with any ending you want to apply, is not behavior and so the example makes no sense.”

Thanks. I guess this indicates how far we have to go on terms that are so commonly accepted and understood that we no longer stumble on their use. Thomas Kuhn calls this the prescience stage of a new science. Here the science is human system sustainability. Or… is that the right term? ;-)

Jack

Jay Warner
Posts: 2
Joined: Fri Nov 13, 2009 10:27 am

Re: Defining sustainability

Post by Jay Warner » Fri Nov 13, 2009 11:30 am

Wow! I just visited here for (semi-) related information, and I discover that some folks are working very hard to build a rigorous basis for exploring/analyzing/developing something called 'sustainable.' Just scanning the discussion blew my mind with things I had never considered, and should have. Now I have to go back and read the papers & references.

No doubt some of my fellow tree-hugger wannabes would dismiss this work as excessively pedantic, but I think it needs to be done, and well.

Since there have been no other posts since March, '09, may I infer that there is a summary/complete analysis that puts everything together? Where might that be?

[Then, at the risk of compounding his ignorance with chutzpah, he adds:

A system, esp. a sub-system, which can oscillate about a mean performance value, should be called 'sustainable' even if the short term performance value is not constant.
IN view of the fact that most systems perform in an 'environment' - external conditions - which are not constant, then a system which can sustain itself - survive - must be able to adapt to those external conditions and continue performing to that 'mean performance value.' Perhaps not mean, but desired, or sustainable performance. No matter how encompassing you make the external conditions there are changes involved (entropy is increasing in the universe), so any subsystem must deal with those changes, if it is to sustain itself 'indefinitely.' Therefore, 'sustainable' behavior needs to include short term variation as an option. It is the trend toward a constant performance value that counts, and perhaps a measure of deviation from that constant. That is, a mean and variance of deviation from a stable target.

At least within 'environmental sustainability,' the excitement seems to lie in the hidden costs of a practice. Burning coal is a very cheap way to produce electrical energy, and the fuel source (chemical potential energy) is relatively cheap. So long as you don't count the cost of climate change due to the CO2 emissions that are returning our atmosphere back to what it was in the Carbonaceous period of the Precambrian era. (You may want to correct my use of 'period' and 'era' and their names, but you get my point.) Thus, a 'sustainable' behavior needs to incorporate/include the downstream & future effects of that behavior. There are no 'hidden' costs in a sustainable operation.

Now to go dig out your papers & considered thoughts,

Jay

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