The New Science of Sustainable Dynamics

December 18, 2008

CREDIT: Stephen Jones (CC).

In 1948, Norbert Wiener pondered a new science in his classic book Cybernetics, one that flirted with the "boundary regions of science." Sustainability today occupies a similar state, but the concept is used more as a policy guide and buzzword than as a true science.

As policy, the Bruntland Report in 1987 defined sustainability as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Beyond this important sense of applied ethics, sustainability must also be approached as a discipline governed by the scientific method.

Three Disciplines Inform Sustainability

Sustainability as a twenty-first century science arises from the confluence of three broad themes—evolution, cybernetics, and emergence. Evolution is the idea of biological change over time, which challenged ideas of humanity's origins. Cybernetics examines the structure of regulatory systems, with a focus on systems that have goals and feedback processes. Emergence is the idea of "complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules."

Life is an emergent phenomenon, reflecting not its appearance against all odds but a manifest propensity toward self-organization. Sustainability is also an emergent phenomenon: the tendency of life to maintain conditions suitable for its well-being. On all levels life is the creation and maintenance of order out of chaos.

Sustainability as a Science

As a science, sustainability must address the ecosphere as a whole, with a particular focus on humanity's influence and the dynamics of the human social sphere. Looking backward, sustainability writ large is the history of the evolution of life and of the ecosphere. Looking forward, sustainability is a guide for understanding the global dynamics of the impacts of industrial civilization, and for the creation of healing actions in the social sphere.

Sustainability will provide a description, in the cybernetic sense, of social and biological information flows and feedback loops, with the goal being transition from an industrial civilization toward an ecological one. This shift must include the articulation and application of ecological ethics, manifest in a new Green Rule: Do unto the Earth as you would have it do unto you.

The challenge of self-consciousness in the twenty-first century, and of sustainability as a science and practice, is to understand and respond to the consequences of human action on a planetary scale. Sustainability is a science of dynamic equilibrium and of change, addressing actions that are local and global, and consequences that can be both immediate and influential over geologic periods of time.

Human behavior and its consequences are an inextricable part of sustainability dynamics. We don't need to act sustainably to "save the planet," but to save ourselves. The planet will do fine in the long run without us, according to James Lovelock. Under the best of circumstances, he argues, it will take "the Earth more than a thousand years to recover from the damage we have already done, and it may be too late even for this drastic step to save us." We need to act sustainably now in our own interest and in the interest of the ecosphere and all its creatures.

Sustainability dynamics as a discipline is one expression of a healing response to humanity's excesses. The science of sustainability will be a crucial twenty-first century tool and technique for helping us understand and build an ecological civilization.

Southern New Hampshire University: An Applied Example

Our work at the SNHU Office for Sustainability on renewable energy hedges and ecological taxation suggests the broad scope of sustainability concerns and the value of sustainability as a discipline.

Fundamental for sustainability as a social practice is the development of durable means for the market to send appropriate price signals. Our heart tells us what we should do. Market prices tell us what we will do.

Unless we can get the prices right and make economic growth equate with ecological improvement, not ecological destruction, we will continue along the path of industrial business as usual. Ecological taxation and renewable energy hedges are two examples of efforts to get the prices right: an increase in pollution means a decrease in profits.

We negotiated one of the first renewable energy hedges between SNHU and PPM Energy based on power generated from the Maple Ridge wind farm in New York state. Instead of a power purchase, a renewable energy hedge is a financial swap based on the contract for differences (CFD) model. The CFD is a venerable risk reduction financial agreement between the producer and the user of a commodity. The producer, in this case the wind farm developer, gets a fair long-term income stream not subject to market fluctuation; and the user, SNHU, gets a long-term (15-year) flat net annual cost for energy.

Both parties win, and the ecosphere wins. The developer reduces financing costs and is able to build more renewable facilities. The wind hedge can help broaden the scope of finance and shift economic benefit and participation toward energy users. The renewable hedge is an emergent expression and monetization of the triple bottom line of sustainability in action: economic, ecological, and social.

We've also been working on an ecological value added tax (E-VAT) to replace income taxes with a smart sales tax on consumption. The more pollution, depletion, or damage to the environment a good or service causes, the higher the tax rate on that good or service. Income taxes would be phased out as ecological consumption taxes are phased in. The price system can become a durable way of sending signals for sustainability throughout supply chains. Being a value conscious shopper will mean being an ecologically conscious shopper.

As a tax on consumption, an E-VAT will be positively reinforcing. As higher taxes on the most polluting items make them lose market share, taxes will rise on moderately polluting items to maintain revenue. Over time, the E-VAT would tend toward a flat tax on items that are mostly sustainable, with high taxes levied on those items that remain heavy polluters.

In sum, our work at SNHU has been shaped to help serve sustainable ends and the science of sustainability. This new field represents a challenge and an opportunity, as we study the applied practice of social transformation.