November 15, 2010

Swings in Harlem

(the editing over at AAAS is getting rather heavy handed, but I will try to learn to stick to a single idea and to use simpler sentences...)

My daughter’s childhood was spent in the little-kid wonderland that is Upper Manhattan.  Playgrounds abound and there is never a dull moment when one is out and about.  As we would swing together in the Downstairs Playground, I pondered the nature of our swinging.  In particular, despite the fact that the chains on our respective swings were the same length, the period of our swinging was different.  Similarly, when kids flung the swings without a body in them, they didn’t exhibit the wonderful behavior of the introductory physics lab.  What was going on?

The simple answer is that we were in a playground in Harlem.  In Harlem, the pendulum’s “massless rod” has mass and displacements are not necessarily small.  All of those messy terms related to mass and displacement don’t go to zero and the nice oscillatory solution of the lab gets swallowed up in a jumble of vandalism prevention and youthful exuberance.

Just as my thinking about swings in Harlem reminded me of forgotten assumptions, much of my thinking lately about “sustainability” has to do with the often-unstated values that are imbedded in its use.  “Sustainable” usually has implications of conservation and efficiency, while “sustainability” usually spans a larger domain that also includes notions of “social justice.”

I think that it is important not to forget what we mean when we say “sustainable”; even more, I think that it is important that we continue to reflect on those underlying meanings and their associated values.  Physics in Harlem is going to remain fairly constant over the coming centuries, but I expect that values there will evolve.  And while swinging may be universal, what Dad does while it is happening can reflect important regional differences in today’s value systems.

November 12, 2010

Sustainability as a Satisficing

(this is a cerebral version of the last post on satisficing - it also has some better links)
Curious readers of my last post may have clicked on a link and found themselves in a wikipedia entry on satisficing.  That link was part of my implied definition of sustainability as the existence of a set of possible futures that are at least acceptable to Earth’s current human inhabitants.  So where did that come from...

As I pondered the classic definition of sustainability, I found it lacking.  Specifically, in order to determine whether or not we are in a sustainable state, that definition requires that we know things about the future that are unknowable in the present (e.g. the needs and capacities of future generations).  Hence, I set out to devise a definition in which the presence or absence of sustainability could be determined in present.

Among the things we can know now, at least as individuals, are characteristics of the futures we would wish for our progeny.  (The problem of the aggregate was opened in the last post.)  We can also make some reasonable guesses as to whether those futures are possible.  I might wish that my great grandkids live on an Earth where the wooly mammoth is abundant; this is not going to happen.  But an Earth where all children receive at least an 8th grade education? - this is still possible.

While some sort of maximized future might be wonderful, I am inclined to set the bar for “sustainability” lower.  If we take now as our baseline, I think that breaking even counts for sustainable.  Even if we want to include some notion of progress in our definition, there is still a lot of room between the baseline and utopia; hence sustainability is the condition of possible futures that are at least “good enough”.

Note added in proof: that last link is quite obscure and not as good as I would have liked.  Any ideas about a good utopia link would be greatly appreciated.

Qualia: Creating a Satisficing Future

In my last post there was an oblique reference to the idea of satisficing (in the Assertion, the bit about “at least satisfactory”).  It is now about 6:30 on a Saturday morning and I have a cup of warmed over coffee from yesterday and some cool music from Budapest on the stereo.  One of those things is satisficing (barely) and it isn’t the time of day or the music.

Satisficing is a term coined by Herbert Simon in his work on how institutions work.  It is part of the bounded rationality stuff and it refers to the idea that decision-makers often move forward with solutions that suffice, that are satisfactory.  Compared with the optimal solution, which is unique and maximizing, the satisficing solution is one that gets the current job done and reflects the current preference ordering and information availability.   (My coffee reflects my tolerance for bad coffee and my current preference ordering for getting to work rather than making fresh or going out in the cold).

And herein lies a challenge with the Brundtland definition of sustainability - it assumes that we can know things about the future which are unknowable.  We cannot know the needs, preferences, or the capacities of future generations (unless your grandfather was Vannevar Bush, he probably didn’t even imagine the internet).  But we can project our own values into the future and in so doing imagine a future that we desire for our progeny (Grandpa probably did wish safety and security for you).

So in my view, sustainability is about creating a satisficing future.  One that is good enough, hopefully at least a bit better than the present, but certainly no worse.  It is a pragmatic vision and it is one that is rooted in thinking about how institutions actually work.

Qualia: Sustainability as a Problem of Democracy

I have only a few words, so I am going to jump quickly into the fray and defer some pretty important elaborations to future posts.

Assertion: Sustainability is about maintaining possible futures that are at least satisfactory to the humans currently living on Earth.  (After all, we are the ones currently calling the shots.)

Taking that as a starting point, the obvious question is, “how do we decide which futures belong in our global portfolio?”  My individual portfolio is probably pretty similar to yours, but it is likely to be very different from that of a farmer in a developing country.  Even in very different portfolios, there are likely to be some elements of commonality, but how do we resolve the inevitable tradeoffs and incommensurability?

Given my rearing by reasonably liberal, middle class parents here in the US, complete with public school civics and government classes, I argue that democratic processes should be central to answering this question.  And those processes are going to have to be much more sophisticated than “winner-takes all / choose between 2” voting.  Further complicating things is Kenneth Arrow’s Noble-winning proof which showed that there is no way to uniquely choose between 3 options under conditions that we take for granted as fair.  And even if we ignore Arrow, we are not going to all get together and rank our own portfolios, much less the union of all portfolios of possible futures...  This is a very hard problem of values and institutions.

Difficulties aside, I see this challenge as absolutely central to sustainability and much more complex than “paper or plastic?” Current choices matter, but their meaning is greatly enhanced if they are made in the context of collectively imagined futures.

Writing for Qaulia

There is a new blog on American Association for the Advancement of Science web site called Qualia. It is part of the MemberCentral section of the AAAS web site and I fear that it is not accessible unless you are a AAAS member (do you get Science, if yes, then you are a AAAS member).  So that means that pearls of my wisdom recorded there will not be accessible to most of the people of who have internet access.

The other thing about those posts is that they are stripping all of my hyperlinks out.  I ask you, what is the point of a blog post that cannot link anywhere?  The jokes all go away and in one case the main point of the post was compromised.

So I am going to repost things from Qualia here.  That is probably some violation of trust or some agreement to which I am party, but also unaware.  Time will tell.

On with the show.