First a warning: If you like your blog entries, insightful, well-structured and written with concision and clarity, you may wish to stop reading at this point (there are many other entries by Joern and others on this blog that can satisfy those peculiar cravings). If on the other hand you enjoy a somewhat rambling blog entry, that uses tenuous analogies, stretched to breaking point, then read on dear reader, read on.
When I say sustainability science is puzzling, I don’t mean that it is literally bewildering, bamboozling or baffling, although it certainly can be, rather, I mean it is figuratively like the act of ‘puzzling’, more specifically jigsaw puzzling (apologies for using puzzle as a verb, but when in Germany do as the Germans do).
Our world (bless its little cotton socks) is a complex, confusing and often chaotic place. To make sense of that complexity we have developed science, and beer, but mainly science. For me at least, all science is fundamentally about the art of abstracting complex reality into models of the world (e.g. “the map is not the territory” -Alfred Korzybski). The usefulness of those acts of abstraction is determined by the extent to which they allow us to better understand our world and to align our actions to our visions of the world in which we wish to live.
We have crafted that skill of ‘meaningful abstraction’ in a number of ways. Firstly we have learnt how to ensure that our individual abstractions are consistent and comparable and can be linked to the real world – through empiricism and the scientific methods. Secondly we have honed our abstractions by creating ever more sophisticated models. In part we have been able to do this by limiting the bounds of the aspects of reality, or real-world systems, we choose to model. In doing so specialization and disciplinarily, in increasingly narrow and specific domains of knowledge has been a key process in the notion of scientific progress. Sustainability Science has emerged from the broader institutions of science and has (rightfully) inherited some of that deep regard for specialization and detailed understanding of smaller parts of bigger systems, but this is not without problems. And so to the promised analogy…
Sustainability is a big and complex, multifaceted problem and individual scientists cannot possible solve the puzzle by themselves. So instead the puzzle is broken in to smaller jigsaw pieces. Everyone gets their own piece of the puzzle and has to try and figure out what the image on piece represents. This we have been doing for a long time. We understand our piece of the puzzle increasingly well, but I wonder how useful it is to continue to stare longer and deeper at each individual jigsaw piece in an attempt to solve the bigger puzzle.
At some point, we have to acknowledge that although are understanding is imperfect we now broadly know what our piece is (an arm, leg, an edge of a cloud etc.). Now is the time we need to start looking not at the image at the centre of our own pieces, but at their edges and try to see who has another piece of the bigger picture with which our personal piece might fit. This is problematic because we enjoy staring at our own puzzle piece and are rewarded for doing so with ever increasing intensity. There is less reward for bothering other people who are intently staring at their own piece of the puzzle to see if they might fit together. It is also problematic because the edges of our individual puzzle pieces are generally a result of the historical development of scientific disciplines, which were never designed to fit neatly together. This means that we may well have to nibble of the edges of some of our own science in order to make it fit with that of our colleagues and that is often an uncomfortable thought.
Perhaps most importantly of all, in our intensive puzzle piece staring it is easy to lose track of the bigger puzzle we are trying to solve. When doing a Jigsaw sometimes we need to take a good look at the box to see where our pieces might fit in the grand scheme of things, and to ensure that the jigsaw piece we hold in our hands is actually part of the puzzle we really want to solve…. There is little value staring intently at a puzzle piece from the “dogs playing poker” jigsaw if you really want to compete the “Mona Lisa” puzzle…
So what does this all mean? I’m not sure, but I will leave you with three thoughts:
- We should look more often at the jigsaw box. To help us think of what sustainability means, what are the ultimate goals of our science (beyond increased knowledge), and to figure out who is working on the same puzzle.
- When we find a fellow jigsaw puzzler, play nice. Invite them to hold our own precious puzzle pieces, perhaps even let them turn them around or nibble off a corner if that helps.
- Consider whether creating increasingly sophisticated abstractions- rather than increasingly useful abstraction – have, unwittingly, become the goal of science and whether r not this is something we might wish to change.
P.S. apologies of the excessive use of alliterations, it is a profound and persistent problem that I am seeking salient strategies to solve.