Voltaire, French author, humanist, rationalist, and satirist (1694 – 1778)
Left to its own devices, the Earth is a sustainable system. Discussions about sustainability and sustainable development become necessary as a result of how Earth’s natural systems affect human life and settlement and how human life and settlement affect Earth’s natural systems. That we do not really understand the long-term causes and effects at the intersection of natural phenomena and human behavior is, as you might imagine, quite a barrier to sustainability. We believe that we are rational creatures who favor reason and science. But as someone much wiser than me once pointed out, reason itself is just another form of faith…
The biggest barrier to making more responsible decisions about the present and future is the number of individuals and groups active in the discussion that are absolutely certain about things for which certainty is irresponsible. We have ever more sophisticated tools to help us understand climate science on a global and regional scale. But these models are by necessity reductionist. The Earth’s systems, even at a small scale, are vastly too complex for the human mind, and any model we might invent, to capture in whole. What the models yield are probabilities. Humans are uncomfortable with the doubt inherent in probability. The esteemed scholar Kenneth Boulding once posited that as soon as a probability is assigned the question shifts from “if” to “when.” And so reason becomes another form of faith as we transcribe doubt into certainty.
We have only to turn back the pages of history to see how models, probabilities and evidence can be engaged in a very long and protracted debate. The likes of Galileo, Koch and Darwin travelled long, long roads to public acceptance – and in some cases have still not reached their destination.
This phenomenon manifests itself most virulently in the propensity of groups to be certain about the values, motives, and desires of others without ever actually having an honest discussion about what matters to them. I was thinking about this while reading an Op Ed piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman regarding the Arab Spring and the process of democratization. In his article, Friedman references “Carlson’s Law,” put forward by Curtis Carlson, the CEO of SRI International in Silicon Valley. Carlson’s Law states that in a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.
As a result, says Carlson, the sweet spot for innovation today is “moving down”, closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate.
I am firmly convinced that the ideas found within the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development are attractive to most of us. If we move down into our communities and spend less time fighting out environmental policies on the national stage, I believe that we will see sustainability shed its abstraction and emerge as the means through which we can achieve a happier, more secure future for people. If the end goal becomes the future success of human society in households, neighborhoods, communities and nations we will, I believe, see society changing its behaviors and instructing government and the marketplace to make different choices in order to avoid the undesirable consequences of our current desires and expectations. Chaotic pressure from below may be the catalyst for civic renewal, greater justice, greater equity, and more constructive ownership in our future.
Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM.