I’ve been thinking quite a bit about “sustainability” lately. As a follower of the computationalist school of complex adaptive systems, I tend to believe “sustainability”, as a concept, is either ill-formed or merely an ideal limit that can only be approached, not obtained. But, in either case, it is a worthy goal. Also, as a follower of critical rationalism, my contribution (assuming I contribute at all), will probably consist mostly of a clarification of the concept so as to make it well-formed or more approachable. After all, what is modeling and simulation, except a tool for thinking … for refining thoughts and concepts? Of course, it’s a matter of faith whether more refined concepts can lead to more precise and accurate action. A faith which I obviously hold.
In any case, I’m also a fan of philosophy because, as Jesus’ parable of the sower says: “he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. I.e. if you work to ensure that your gestalt is robust, when you receive information and integrate it (as opposed to grafting it on with spit and bailing wire) into your gestalt, the return you will realize off that new information will be manifold.
So, in that spirit, while poking around in Eastern philosophy, the concept of karma (accumulated effects of action) yoga (discipline) leads me to correlate this “new” concept of “sustainability” with karma yoga. The official karma doctrine seems to say that karma takes effect after one dies and guides the circumstances into which (supposedly) that same person is reborn. So, karma yoga would be the process of learning to discipline your actions so that you accumulate less karma. If you have no karma when you die, then you are liberated (and presumably not reborn).
If we really stretch our metaphor muscles, we can think of reincarnation as neo-Darwinian evolutionary descent and karma as the stigmergic process of modifying our environment (including our selves), by our actions, to such an extent that subsequent generations (in our particular lineage) are constrained and facilitated by the modifications made to the environment. For example, prior generations have, through their karma-laden actions, built the city of New York. Current generations are born and live much of their entire lives where their movement is constrained to the streets (i.e. they can’t walk through buildings), their dwellings are constrained to the structures, their “hunting” is constrained to the established market places, etc. An accepted term for this historical accumulation and collaborative construction over time is “stigmergy”. Stigmergy is karma.
Viewed this way, the “new” efforts described as “sustainable” consist of disciplining our actions so that future generations are not as constrained by our actions as they otherwise would be. Ideally, we would liberate subsequent generations to experience their environment in as many ways as possible without coercing them to homogenously trudge down a stiffly constrained rat hole.
Now, the above text might lead one to think this is incompatible with the more exploitative technologies like the manufacture of silicon wafers, where companies externalize their pollution in the form of toxic chemicals and heat. But, it doesn’t. The invention of the silicon-based quantum well, the transistor, the integrated circuit, and the modern computer, all fall into karma yoga, disciplined action intended to liberate subsequent generations. It’s not a contradiction. It’s a paradox, which is resolved by hopping up to a higher level of discourse. The invention of this heavily polluting technology has opened more doors through the facilitation of information flow than it has closed through the deleterious effects of its pollution.
I.e. the liberation of subsequent generations from the karma of our actions does not necessarily imply some idyllic surface world populated with hunter-gatherer Eloi powered by a dirty smelly underworld populated by Morlocks. A future environment built through “sustainable” processes may look entirely different from any world we’ve seen or imagined so far … perhaps a world where the toxic waste generated from silicon wafer manufacturing is nutrient for several life forms … which means it would only be “waste” to the wafer producers but would be raw materials for others.
So, if we think deeply about “sustainability”, we may be able to co-construct (with our sibling life forms in our current ecology) an entirely new landscape that is less fragile than the one we’re currently constructing. But to do that, we will need to develop some methods for measuring and estimating the long-term effects of our current actions.
My punchline’s always the same, I’m afraid.
How do we measure and estimate the long-term effects of our current actions? Why, through modeling and simulation, of course!