November 12, 2010

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.