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.