Sustainability Science is Puzzling.

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.

11 thoughts on “Sustainability Science is Puzzling.

  1. Very nice post, Dave. And fun to read! I* just recently completed a jigsaw (around 1000 pieces) I hadn’t the box for – and no idea what the picture is. It was a hell of a job to complete it… I have no idea whether this experience can be used in your metaphorical context – I rather doubt it -, but it was the first association I’ve had.

    * – to be honest, my wife did most of the work. She studied natural sciences, I am just an economist;-)

  2. Hi Bartosz,
    “I hadn’t the box for – and no idea what the picture is. It was a hell of a job to complete it” – This exactly the metaphor that I was trying to get at…that we might find it easier to produce ‘meaningful abstractions’ rather than just increasingly sophisticated ones, if we think about the ultimate goals of sustainability science (i.e. occasionally look up at the big picture to guide us)… either that or we just get our more competent spouses to do the work for us…

  3. Nice blog Dave. I think it’s a great metaphor.
    Your recommendation that we look at the box is a bit paradoxical. I’m assuming you mean the box is the world around us and that we should keep referring to it so we can see where our jigsaw piece fits in. However, our view of the world is framed by the piece we are working on (each discipline, each tool, is lens through which we understand the world). Someone working on a different piece of the puzzle would frame the world in a different way. In this sense, therefore, there is no box lid available for everyone to consult, no agreed master plan showing us how the pieces fit together, just thousands of different ideas of what we think the puzzle picture is.
    Complexity is very puzzling.

    • HI David,

      Excellent thoughts! I entirely agree (In my defence I did note that I tend to stretch my metaphors to beyond their breaking point!). Yes there are many different box lids, but sometimes we seem to assume there is just one (sustainability), and that we all agree what that “big picture” is. I heard Micheal Crow from ASU say recently something like “I won’t define sustainability for you, as we all know what we mean by that in general terms”, which I found a bit shocking, and it is not the first time I have heard this. So for me the key is that if we are doing “sustainability science” then our research in some sense must be related to the goals of sustainability and it behoves us to be explicit about our vision of that goal (i.e. we should say in more detail what we think the big picture is and how our piece of the puzzle fits into it).

      Where I think it becomes poblematic is when we allow methods to implicitly difine and shape that “box lid” without thinking what that means in terms of what the pre-analytic frame those methods are shaped by and the visions of sustainability they create. I think the land-sparing vesus land-sharing and sustainable intensification discourses are a perfect example of methods driven sustainabiliy science. Both discourses have an implict framing around technocratic solutions based on notions of efficiency and production (as opposed to, for example, resilience and distribution) that shape the possible solution set those research agendas can provide. I think that this is potentially quite problematic.

      So in short, there is no agreed on master plan (nor should there be, pluralism is valuable), but I think we should still start from the big picture, and select methods that work for that rather than start with methods and allow that to define the model of the world we create.

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  5. Would it be fair, Dave, to say you are saying something like “[One position is that] inductive observation [Looking at your own puzzle piece?] can reveal all of the processes at work and determine all of the impinging factors on a ‘living thing,’ allowing an empirically accurate explanation of dynamics and change. Political ecologists, uneasily aware of the degree to which even simple and naive induction tends to produce ‘apolitical’ explanations that disguise the politics of the observer, are more explicit about the specific relationships for which they are hunting and that they expect to see. They are, as a result, far more candid about the role of theory in conditioning *what to look for* in explaining change: systems of extraction and exploitation, the role of power in determining conditions and context, the power of discourse to set the terms in which those context are produced…” (Paul Robbins, Political Ecology, First Edition, p. 74).

    To note, I don’t go around with Robbins’s passages always at the tip of my mind. (Well, not *all* of his passages.) Happened to be re-working a presentation and drew on this…

    • Hi Jahi,
      Well that is a far more sophisticated and nuanced formulation than my feeble mind could manage, but, yes I think that gets, more or less, to the heart of the matter. At the recent biodiversity/food security conference I had the pleasure to finally meet in person Unai Pascual (also a far more nuanced and sophisticated thinker than me). He described it in terms of how important it is to being aware of how our pre-analytic frames shape our research. I think here Unai meant more than simply being aware of political and power discourse, but the fundamental ideas that shape our research and the world more broadly, such as western notions of progress, and the reification of scientific knowledge and efficiency as a supposedly value neutral ‘goods’ etc.

      Sir David King (form chief scientific advisor to the UK government, and clearly a very smart guy) once described climate change as “a technical issue”, which to me is seems to be founded on exactly this kind of unquestioned pre-analytic frame. To me climate change is fundamentally not a technical issue at all, but one of human relations (to each other and to nature). Different pre-analytic frames lead to very different problem formulations and different ‘solution sets’. The dominant pre-analytical frame has shaped the culture of science (largely technocratic, reductionist) and breaking free of them, or at least loosening their grip, while maintaining all that is good about science, would seem to me to be one of the major challenges of sustainability science. How we should go about doing this, I have no clue, but it is good at least to discuss if this really is as important as it seem to be to me.


      • Quite so. I think it’s quite important.

        I’ve found myself having to check my tendencies acquired in years of this work, where now I have a near-jerk response towards anything purporting neutrality, standard notions of “progress”, or suggesting we can solve the problems facing us in sustainability without political sea-changes.

        A question I’ve been pushing recently to bring this to fore: a paper by Jules Pretty and colleagues estimated US$32 billion in negative externalities in US agriculture. The official “value generated” from agriculture in the studied year (2001 I think) was about US$100 billion. Even taking a less-than-order-of-magnitude-grain-of-salt with Pretty’s number, plausibly more than 10% of the “costs” of agriculture aren’t accounted for. (I think he did give ranges; can’t remember their size.) Talking about an (economically rational) 10-30% increase in price brings conversations often to an interesting head, where (in my experience) a shrug of impossibility or a change of topic follows. To think that internalizing these costs (a fraught and complex notion in itself!) would be politically feasible in current systems is a bit fanciful; no amount of precision would make in palatable. And the idea of simply finding technical alternatives is the epitome of asking for a “free lunch” — it assumes either that current winners will accede to losing, or that current winners can alter models to stop generating these externalities without losing significant profit and market share. But of course, if we are being scientific, not political, their reluctance would be immaterial. If we are being political, we need to realize that it is a fight–a social movements fight in large part–to create the space where these costs are internalized and the burden shifted off of the public.

        I’m not sure any of that makes sense. But there you are.

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