Man-made laws and natural laws: sustainability and resilience

Every blue moon or so, I realize I have been pretty blind to an obvious truth.  Usually these epiphanies come when I’m trying to reconcile two opposing ideas.  One occurred on a walk at Meadowcreek when I finally realized the basic limitation of the mainstream approach to sustainability. I’d only been working on sustainability for 30 odd years when I had the epiphany.  I hope you see it much quicker.

The foundation for this realization began when I learned that Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee and Missouri legislatures have all passed bills opposing sustainability.  In 2013, 15 bills in seven states were introduced to oppose sustainability (specifically Agenda 21—a United Nations document written 20 years ago).

Many who advocate for sustainability were surprised, amazed and nonplussed.  For them, sustainability ranks right up there with Mom and apple pie as absolute goods and with gravity as an absolute truth.  Yet these bills have been overwhelmingly adopted in many instances by our elected officials.  Presuming that both sides are well-meaning, why is sustainability raising such vociferous emotion?

Then I stumbled onto research on ecological resilience and at one point actually slapped my forehead with my palm saying, how could I have missed this all these years?  This research area studies how systems grow and transform themselves in adaptive cycles.  Resilient systems are those which last, just as sustainable systems are those which last.

I realized that the mainstream approach defined sustainability normatively and legally and not based on natural, empirical evidence.  In fact, nearly all those involved in sustainability research have focused on achieving practical and applied goals—such as achieving an environmentally sound and socially just agriculture–rather than understanding sustainability as a natural phenomenon.  These practical and applied goals can be fine and good, but they are normative, not scientific, goals.  That is, we have decided that environmentally sound and social just systems are better.  These are values, not testable hypotheses.  When you pursue a particular value, you can’t logically object when others advocate goals based on other values–even if they are diametrically opposed to yours.  There is no scientific, empirical means of chosing between different value systems.

Ecological resilience research gives us more than a set of values we are trying to push systems toward.  It gives us a working model of the cycle of adaptation and transformation that explains and predicts which systems survive and which don’t.   Sustainability is a term which carries some of the meaning of resilience to some people, but does not necessarily refer to a natural phenomenon. We wouldn’t say gravity or the speed of light has to be socially just.  That they do treat everyone the same is a pleasant side effect. Ecological resilience research seeks a well-defined model which will enables sustainability to be based on natural law instead of man-made law.

Advocates of sustainability who discover the adaptive cycles of ecological resilience can marshal arguments which transcend values. Eventually, naysayers realized the earth is not flat and the sun does not revolve around it because a spherical earth revolving around the sun results in better predictions.  As people begin to see how the adaptive cycle and resilience explain and predict behavior of systems, those who attack it will disappear just as all non-resilient systems do.

When presented as a natural property of systems, rather than a set of values we want to impose on others, sustainability as a concept will have more resilience.  Popular values are fads.  They inevitably rise and fall in popularity.  Meanwhile the natural systems just keep rolling along.  The resilient systems survive and transform into even more successful systems.

Values which are consistent with natural laws survive.  They will be tested and contradicted by popular values but they will survive.  Societies, businesses and farms which don’t operate consistent with those natural laws may seem successful, but they will perish.  A concept of sustainability will likewise perish unless it is derived from empirical evidence of systems which adapt and transform in the face of adversity.

My walk in the woods led me to embrace resilience, but not to spurn the values of sustainability.  So naturally when we came up with a resilience index, we ran correlations with social indicators.  If you are dedicated to the normative values of sustainability, our results should make you happy.  Our index of resilience is negatively correlated with poverty and highly correlated with various health outcomes.

Turns out the qualities which create resilient systems also seem to create great social outcomes.   Once again proving you can be a scientist and still have a heart.


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