No 124 Posted by fw, February 27, 2011
“Collapse, complexity, sustainability, and resiliency are common terms, yet are frequently offered without definition, or with definitions that are less than useful.” Joseph Tainter
In his 2005 paper, Social complexity and sustainability, Tainter puts forward his own definitions of these key concepts. In addition, his discussion of the misuse of the term ‘degradation’ as an antonym for ‘sustainability’ is pertinent. Tainter’s definitions are offered as an addendum to my seven-part series, Can Joseph Tainter save us from ourselves?
collapse: a rapid simplification, the loss of an established level of social, political, or economic complexity. (Elsewhere, Tainter has said: “Societies actually collapse by the same processes by which they become more complex, that complexity is the key driver that leads to collapse and that also leads societies to grow“).
complexity: in human social systems, complexity refers to differentiation in both structure and behavior, and/or degree of organization or constraint; social systems vary in complexity as they diversify or contract in structure and behavior, and/or as they increase or decrease in organizational constraints on behavior
sustainability: is the capacity to continue a desired condition or process, social or ecological
Tainter arrives at the above definition of ‘sustainability‘ after lengthy discussion, as follows:
The definition of sustainability most widely cited was offered in 1987 by Gro Harlem Bruntland, then Prime Minister of Norway. “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While this definition will no doubt continue to be widely cited, it has limited operational usefulness. Befitting a political leader, the definition is too general to guide behavior. It is so vague “. . . as to be consistent with almost any form of action [or inaction]”.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists twelve definitions of ‘sustain‘, of which two seem especially pertinent. Number four, deriving from Middle English, reads “to keep in being; to continue in a certain state; to keep or maintain at the proper level or standard; to preserve the status of.” Number six, from about 1700, is “to support life in; to provide for the life or bodily needs of; to furnish with the necessities of life; to keep.” This later definition is consistent with, and indeed underpins, biologists’ conceptions of sustainability (e.g., “to keep or maintain by furnishing the necessities of life”). The older definition, though, is more consistent with common usage. Since sustainability depends ultimately on the population at large, common conceptions of sustainability must be acknowledged. People sustain what they value, which can only derive from what they know. Ask people what they wish to sustain, and the answer will always involve positive or valued parts of their current way of life. For example, conflict between environmental advocates and rural people who live by natural resource production is not just about ecology versus economics. The conflict is also about maintaining a way of life.
Sustainability is not the achievement of stasis. It is not a passive consequence of having fewer humans who consume limited resources. One must work at being sustainable. The challenges to sustainability that any society might confront are endless in number and infinite in variety.
resiliency: the ability of a system to adjust its configuration and function under disturbance
Here’s Tainter’s discussion regarding the use of ‘resiliency‘:
Given the discussion above, it is important to distinguish ‘sustainability’ from ‘resiliency’. Sustainability is the capacity to continue a desired condition or process, social or ecological. In social systems, resiliency can mean abandoning sustainability goals and the values that underlie them. Sustainability and resilience can conflict. Resiliency is the ability of a system to adjust its configuration and function under disturbance. The goal of human groups is more often sustainability or continuity than resilience. Most of us prefer the comfort of an accustomed life (sustainability) to the adventure of dramatic change (resiliency). We find it difficult to recognize, let alone alter, the ingrained values that underlie our sustainability goals. A fully resilient society would be a valueless one, which by definition cannot be. Nevertheless, resiliency is evident in human history, and important to understand when it occurs.
degradation: Wikipedia uses the term “environmental degradation”, defining it as the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of wildlife. It is defined as any change or disturbance to the environment perceived to be deleterious or undesirable
However, Tainter points out that degradation is often mistaken to be the opposite of sustainability:
Sander van der Leeuw points out that ‘degradation‘ is a social construct. It has no absolute references in biophysical processes. He provides several examples to demonstrate that in the realm of sustainability and degradation there are winners and losers. Far from being rigidly linked to biophysical processes, these terms mean what people need them to mean in specific circumstances. For example: in Epirus, in the northwest of Greece, degradation appears as an increase of scrub vegetation that chokes off a formerly open landscape. A centuries-old pastoral life, in which local villages were sustainably self-sufficient, is now impossible. To urban residents the landscape now appears “natural,” but to Epirotes it has been degraded. Moreover, the spread of shrub and tree cover has reduced the supply of groundwater and the flow of springs.