On myths and sustainability

By James J. Kay, © Copyright December 2002.

Some musings inspired by the paper:

William E. Rees, Ph.D., Globalization and Sustainability: Conflict or Convergence? Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 22 (4): 249-268, (August 2002)

We have come to realize that until we get our myths right, we won't deal with the problems of sustainability. Myths are at the core of human society and are unavoidable. Given the complexity and uncertainty of the world myths act to simplify things sufficiently so that we can act with some certainty (even if it is a false sense). (Sounds suspiciously like simulation models...) Otherwise the world is just too scary a place. Also I think that in the face of uncertainty, different cultures tend to make decisions which err on one side of the risk equation. Myths tend to institutionalize these tendencies, that is how a society will make decisions in the face of risk and uncertainty.

For any action/intervention/decision there are short and long term, local and global consequences, both positive and negative, and we have a limited ability to know, a priori, what these consequences are. This is the lesson of complexity and chaos theory, there is irreducible uncertainty. So the notion of rational decision making based on predictive science and its sibling predictive, anticipatory management are non sequitur. [1]. You simply cannot get all the information necessary to make an informed rational decision, to try to do so is to be paralyzed. (Spock would be caught in an endless decision loop.) So we are stuck with the problem of how to balance the positive consequences we think will occur versus the risk of negative consequences, anticipated or not.

We have dealt with this reality of ultimate uncertainty through myths, simplifications of how the world works that guide our actions. Myths are a societal cop-out about dealing with uncertainty and complexity. They are simplifications of how the world works which allow us to proceed with confidence. They are an encoding of a particular way of balancing the gain/risk dilemma. In some ways, our use and belief in myths is an evolutionary strategy[2]. that allows us thinking knowing beings to function in the face of uncertainty. Humans seem to be bred to believe myths (with a minority of us as skeptics and nay sayers, to keep the myths from getting too ingrained and to provide the source for new myths when the old fail.)

And myths will inevitably fail. And when you are a species that lives by patch disturbance, that's okay, you just move on to the next patch. But what happens when you run out of patches? We cannot afford the luxury of living by a single myth any longer. As Rees argues, this is a major evolutionary challenge for our species.

Our response to myths, has been the myth of "predictive science" and rationality. [3]. But complexity theory and the associated irreducible uncertainty have debunked this myth. So now what? It seems that we are stuck with myths, but how do we keep them open to new ideas, new ways of looking at things, that is keep them from becoming dogma? [4]. This problem boils down to the question of how to keep our decision making systems from becoming autopoietic and instead being more sympoietic, that is organizationally ajar to new thinking. [5].

How do we develop myths which can evolve without catastrophic failure that requires moving on to the next patch? The first step is to acknowledge and believe that myths are always partial and that decisions/interventions will always ultimately lead to some negative consequences. So we must build in to any intervention, a way of detecting these negative consequences and compensating for them. To do otherwise is immoral. Our decisions/interventions should have fixed life times (sunset clauses) after which they must be revisited. We must recognize that decisions are ultimately about "passion" and not simply computations. We must design our systems with the structural coupling that allows us to detect problems with our decisions.

We already know some ways of doing this. One is the notion of getting all the actors involved in decision making. This has the power of bringing different myths to the table, of polyocular vision. Adaptive management is a step in the right direction and the recent emergence of the notion of collaborative learning processes is another example. The challenge is to acknowledge the limits of our ability to know, to design decision/intervention processes which can learn from both the positive and negative consequences of our limitations and which redress those who are the victims of these consequences. Thus any decision making and intervention becomes as much about humility, justice, compassion and learning as about "good science", rationality, and profit.


[1] This does not mean that we abandon rationality. Rather we recognize the limits to rationality. We take the best information we have, establish what it does and does not tell us about the situation, and then lay out our best understanding and uncertainty about the paths open to us. But this is all that rationality can do for us. Generally our uncertainty is such that rationality alone cannot establish the path to take. Rather it provides us with a set of possibilities. Which we choose is about passion and morality. And in the final analysis, this is what decision making is about. So the concept of rational decision making is non sequitur.

[2] In some way natural selection is about the survival of the "fittest myth".

[3] There is one myth that I think allows our society to get away with the other myths. This is the myth of "scientific objectivity" and its ability to determine TRUTH. This myths allows people to believe that what they are doing is NOT based on myth, and hence they do not feel the need to examine the inconsistencies and contradictions in the myths that guide their actions. This science myth gives people an incorrect sense that what they are doing cannot be wrong, since it is based on scientific fact. (To get this point across to my students I ask them how they know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Not one yet has been able to state a proof or evidence. Their answers all reveal that they are accepting this "fact" on blind faith.) If it is scientifically correct then there is nothing to question, one should just get on with it. This fuels the "scripted determinism" that Rees refers to. The challenge of post normal science is to break this myth without discrediting science as a useful human activity.

[4] The real challenge is how to make myths that work for us, in particular myths that have the seeds of their OWN destruction built in rather than the seeds of OUR destruction (as all myths ultimately do!). Perhaps we need to construct a Holling figure 8 (four box) approach to myths, that is build a societal process where myths come to prominence, crash and a new myth emerges. The problem is that we don't have an effective social process for doing this, so we ride a biophysical figure 8 involving societal collapse, linked to the failure of the dominant myth. That is how powerful our myths are! I am beginning to believe that this is the core evolutionary challenge facing our species, now that we operate at a global scale.

[5] Dempster, Beth 2000 Sympoietic and autopoietic systems: A new distinction for self-organizing systems in Proceedings of the World Congress of the Systems Sciences and ISSS 2000, J.K. Allen and J. Wilby, eds. [Presented at the International Society for Systems Studies Annual Conference, Toronto, Canada, July 2000 Available at her website.

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