What do we mean when we say "Sustainability is Ongoing"? We mean that Sustainability is both a process and an outcome over time. It is not a place nor is it the status quo. Rather, Sustainability is the outcome of various natural and human system interactions, and the accompanying feedback loops, adaptations and equilibriums that exist within those systems.
This page describes some of the properties of complex systems and why those properties ensure that there will never be a final outcome or stopping place for Sustainability. The principles of complex systems tell us that there will always be surprises! To be Sustainable requires that we continue to learn and adapt to new circumstances. Please watch the video from Natural Resources Secretary Laird as he discusses how Sustainability is on-going.
It is important to understand that when we talk about Sustainability, we are actually talking about working with complex systems. Complex systems have a number of properities that make them unique. These include:
- Cascading Failures-Due to the strong coupling between components in complex systems, a failure in one or more components can lead to cascading failures which may have catastrophic consequences on the functioning of the system.
- Dynamic network of multiplicity- As well as coupling rules, the dynamic network of a complex system is important. Small-world or scale-free networkswhich have many local interactions and a smaller number of inter-area connections are found in comples systesm. For example, in the human cortex, there exists dense local connectivity and a few very long axon projections between regions inside the cortex and to other brain regions.
- Diffuse Boundaries-It can be difficult to determine the boundaries of a complex system. The decision is ultimately made by the observer.
- Open Systems- Complex systems exist in a thermodynamic gradient and dissipate energy. In other words, complex systems are frequently far from energetic equilibrium: but despite this flux, there may be pattern stability.
- Path Dependent-Complex systems may depend on its history or be path dependent. Because complex systems are dynamical systems they change over time, and prior states may have an influence on present states.
- Nested into Other Complex Systems- Complex systems may be found within other complex systems.
- Produce Emergent phenomena- The complex behavior or properties of a system cannot easily be predicted or deduced from behavior in the lower-level parts of the system: they are irreducible. The inability to predict the shape and behavior of a flock of birds or a school of fish are good examples of emergent properties. It is possible to recognize patterns but not predict them.
- Relationships are non-linear; this means a small change or disturbance in the system may cause a large effect, a proportional effect, or even no effect at all.
- Feed back loops - Complex system relationships contain both positive and negative feedback loops.
All Sustainability efforts confront complex systems, and most efforts will need to deal with adaptive systems as well. Complex adaptive systems are fluidly changing collections of distributed interacting components that react to both their environments and to one another. Examples of complex adaptive systems include the electric power grid, telecommunications networks, the Internet, biological systems, ecological systems, social groups, and even human society itself.
With the above properties inherent in Sustainability efforts, it is clear that there is a continuous adaptive process necessary in order for any activity or society to be sustainable. There will always be surprises and all efforts are ongoing!