Self-Sustaining Sustainability

After decades of efforts and massive resources expended in trying to create a self-sustaining sustainable economy, perhaps it is time to wonder if we are going about it the wrong way. There seems to be truly significant and widespread desire for change, but the often inspiring volumes of investments and ingenuity applied to the problem persistently prove insufficient to the task. Why?

I’ve previously and repeatedly explained how finding the will to change is not the issue. This time I’ll approach my proposed solution in a different way.

Q: How do we create a self-sustaining sustainable economy?

A: By making sustainability profitable in monetary terms as well as in the substantive real terms of the relationships we live out with each other and the earth. Current efforts in this regard focus solely on reducing energy costs enough to compensate for investments in advancing the organizational mission. We need far more comprehensively designed solutions than that.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By financially rewarding improved sustainability at every level of innovation, from the individual to the community to the firm.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By instituting rights to the ownership of human, social, and natural capital properties, and by matching the demand for sustainability with the supply of it in a way that will inform arbitrage and pricing.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By lowering the cost of the information needed to be able to know how many shares of human, social, and natural capital stocks are owned, and to match demand with supply.

Q: How could that be done?

A: By investing as a society in improving the quality and distribution of the available information.

Q: What does that take?

A: Creating dependable and meaningful tools for ascertaining the quantity, quality, and type of sustainability impacts on human, social, and natural capital being offered.

Q: Can that be done?

A: The technical art and science of measurement needed for creating these tools is well established, having been in development for almost 100 years.

Q: How do we start?

A: An important lesson of history is that building the infrastructure and its array of applications follows in the wake of, and cannot precede, the institution of the constitutional ideals. We must know what the infrastructure and applications will look like in their general features, but nothing will ever be done if we think we have to have them in place before instantiating the general frame of reference. The most general right to own legal title to human, social, and natural capital can be instituted, and the legal status of new metric system units can be established, before efforts are put into unit standards, traceability processes, protocols for intralaboratory ruggedness tests and interlaboratory round robin trials, conformity assessments, etc.

Q: It sounds like an iterative process.

A: Yes, one that must attend from the start to the fundamental issues of information coherence and complexity, as is laid out in my recent work with Emily Oon, Spencer Benson, Jack Stenner, and others.

Q: This sounds highly technical, utilitarian, and efficient. But all the talk of infrastructure, standards, science, and laboratories sounds excessively technological. Is there any place in this scheme for ecological values, ethics, and aesthetics? And how are risk and uncertainty dealt with?

A: We can take up each of these in turn.

Ecological values: To use an organic metaphor, we know the DNA of the various human, social, and natural capital forms of life, or species, and we know their reproductive and life cycles, and their ecosystem requirements. What we have not done is to partner with each of these species in relationships that focus on maximizing the quality of their habitats, their maturation, and the growth of their populations. Social, psychological, and environmental relationships are best conceived as ecosystems of mutual interdependencies. Being able to separate and balance within-individual, between-individual, and collective levels of complexity in these interdependencies will be essential to the kinds of steward leadership needed for creating and maintaining new sociocognitive ecosystems. Our goal here is to become the change we want to institute, since caterpillar to butterfly metamorphoses come about only via transformations from within.

Ethics: The motivating intention is to care simultaneously and equally effectively for both individual uniqueness and global humanity. In accord with the most fundamental ethical decision, we choose discourse over violence, and we do so by taking language as the model for how things come into words. Language is itself alive in the sense of the collective processes by which new meanings come into it. Language moreover has the remarkable capacity of supporting local concrete improvisations and creativity at the same time that it provides navigable continuity and formal ideals. Care for the unity and sameness of meaning demands a combination of rigorous conceptual determinations embodied in well-defined words with practical applications of those words in local improvisations. That is how we support the need to make decisions with inevitably incomplete and inconsistent information while not committing the violence of the premature conclusion. The challenge is one of finding a balance between openness and boundaries that allows language and our organizational cultures to be stable while also evolving. Our technical grasp of complex adaptive systems, autopoiesis, and stochastic measurement information models is advanced enough to meet these ethical requirements of caring for ourselves, each other, and the earth.

Aesthetics: An aesthetic desire for and love of beauty roots the various forms of life inhabiting diverse niches in the proposed knowledge ecosystem and information infrastructure, and does so in the ground of the ethical choice of discourse and meaning over violence. The experience of beauty teaches us how to understand meaning. The attraction to beauty is a unique human phenomenon because it combines apparent opposites into a single complex feeling. Even when the object of desire is possessed as fully as possible, desire is not eliminated, and even when one feels the object of desire to be lost or completely out of touch, its presence and reality is still felt. So, too, with meaning: no actual instance of anything in the world ever embodies the fullness of an abstract conceptual ideal. This lesson of beauty is perhaps most plainly conveyed in music, where artists deliberately violate the standards of instrument tuning to create fascinating and absorbing combinations of harmony and dissonance from endlessly diverse ensembles. Some tunings persist beyond specific compositions to become immediately identifiable trademark sounds. In taking language as a model, the aesthetic combination of desire and possession informs the ethics of care for the unity and sameness of meaning, and vice versa. And ecological values, ethics, and aesthetics stand on par with the technical concerns of calibration and measurement.

Risk and uncertainty: Calibrating a tool relative to a unit standard is by itself already a big step toward reducing uncertainty and risk. Instead of the chaos of dozens of disconnected sustainability indicators, or the cacophony of hundreds or thousands of different tests, assessments, or surveys measuring the same things, we will have data and theory supporting interpretation of reproducible patterns. These patterns will be, and in many cases already are, embodied in instruments that further reduce risk by defining an invariant unit of comparison, simplifying interpretation, reducing opportunities for mistakes, by quantifying uncertainty, and by qualifying it in terms of the anomalous exceptions that depart from expectations. Each of these is a special feature of rigorously defined measurement that will eventually become the expected norm for information on sustainability.

For more on these themes, see my other blog posts here, my various publications, and my SSRN page.


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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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