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Life: A Systems Approach - Reflections on Multiple Dimensions of Sustainability

Arthur Dahl's picture

Inaugural Lecture, University of Brighton, Thursday 16 December 2010
(An inaugural lecture by a new professor is intended to justify the awarding of the title by the university.)

Life: a systems approach
Reflections on multiple dimensions of sustainability

Prof. Arthur Lyon Dahl

Powerpoint presentation (pdf) (54mb) and Audio recording (31.5mb)


ABSTRACT

Systems science provides tools to explore the patterns and processes underlying complex biological systems, from the cellular to the ecosystem level. The same integrating approach can be extended to human life and social and economic organization. These insights have been applied through a half century in the environmental movement to build information systems and indicators, ethical frameworks and approaches to governance intended to guide society towards planetary sustainability.


Science is the great knowledge system upon which modern civilization has been built.

Yet economic, social and environmental crises suggest something is missing; our unsustainability threatens the collapse of civilization and life as we know it.

How can we reconcile humanity and the environment? This is the challenge to which I have devoted my life, in both research and action.

SYSTEMS

This talk is an attempt to integrate my own academically atypical life and justify the title which the university has so kindly bestowed upon me. It may seem odd to be giving an inaugural lecture eight years after retirement, so excuse me if I look backward in order to better look forward, providing a systems perspective on my life and career to open a vision towards the future. I look at systems at multiple levels: living systems (biology), ecosystems (life in an environment), human-environment systems, systems and information, economic systems, systems of government and management, the higher levels of human systems, and the planetary system as a whole.

Sustainability is a systems concept, not a goal to be reached but a balance to be maintained in space and in time. It involves complex interactions in the whole system that maintains life on Earth (the environmental component)‏, including the human system (the social and economic components)‏, that must respect planetary limits.

I have in fact pursued a set of research questions through a varied career: What do all systems have in common? How do the parts make a dynamic whole? How does evolutionary progress come with dynamic equilibrium? What are the system control mechanisms and information flows? How do we maintain or restore balance? What unites rather than divides? This talk is the scientific dissection of a life-long effort to learn something about the characteristics of sustainability in living systems, both natural and human.

Along the way, I shall raise a number of issues of concern to academia: specialization versus generalization; analysis of the parts versus integration; disciplines versus inter/multi/trans-disciplinarity, basic versus applied science; ivory tower versus action in the real world; a scientific elite or science for everyone; areas that are off limits to science, like religion (unless it is to bash it); even going beyond the purely intellectual, to integrate other intangible feelings like beauty, the fascinating complexity of nature, awe and wonder it can inspire, the sense of connection with all things, and the humility to recognize how much we owe to nature.

BACKGROUND

I was raised on the California coast, so my curiosity turned naturally to marine biology. My first mentor was Vinson Brown, a naturalist who came to my Bahá'í children's classes to tell us about nature. Following one of his guides, I stuffed my first animal when I was 11 and set up a home nature museum. He also wrote Warriors of the Rainbow” that inspired Greenpeace.

BIOLOGY, THE SCIENCE OF LIFE

Living systems (molecule, gene, cell, organ, organism, species, ecosystem) provide a useful model for the science of integration. Life is by definition sustainable as a process, at least at the time scale of our planet.

Stanford University (1960-1964): evolution with Paul Ehrlich, senior honors with Peter Raven (polyploidy and speciation), publication on food preferences in periwinkles, A.B. in biological sciences.

Also economic development, study in France, vocation towards environmental science advice in developing countries.

Ecology is the science of living systems dynamics, looking at diversity, stability and efficiency, dynamic equilibria, processes of competition, collaboration and symbiosis, and vulnerability and resilience. I specialized in marine biology and ecology, earning a Ph.D. in Biology at UCSB (64-69).

My research was on marine algae (simple models), exploring cellular organization, morphogenesis, and ecology in Zonaria. Why does the form of the plant differ so much in different habitats? (what does a cell need to know? how does cell structure relate to form? how are different forms generated?) The systems lesson was that complexity can develop from simple rules and interactions.

Biology provided me the elements of a systems approach: a way of thinking, dynamic, processes, cause and effect, interactions, integration, emergent properties.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGE

This was the time when the environmental challenge emerged in the public consciousness, and I caught the first wave of the environmental movement. As an early teenager, I took part in Audubon Society bird censuses (1955-1957). I attended a marine parks conference in Tokyo in 1966. The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 came over my research material, so I was doing pollution studies by default. At the invitation of the Governor, I prepared the first report on the environmental problems of American Samoa (1969-1970). I lectured at the first Earth Day in Washington, D.C. in 1970, and in schools around Belize in 1972. I represented the Bahá'í International Community at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, getting my first exposure to science and diplomacy. I published a book review of “The Limits to Growth”.

I had always wanted to help developing countries, and after my first visit to rural areas of Korea and Taiwan in 1966, my goal was to become an environmental advisor to developing countries, what we called ecodevelopment before the term sustainable development was coined in 1980.

CORAL REEF ECOSYSTEMS

In 1969, I moved to the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, 1969-1974, as Associate Curator in the Department of Botany. My research on algae expanded to coral reef ecology, looking at symbioses, community dynamics, functional form (surface area indicators), monitoring long-term changes, systems modelling of coral reef ecosystem. My research took me to many developing countries: Panama, Belize, Caribbean and Pacific Islands, and a mission as an aquanaut in PRINUL.

The complexity of the coral reef ecosystem showed many parallels to human society, with even a physical resemblance between the built environment of the reef and modern cities. The reef ecosystem provided a model of sustainability, with efficient solar energy and materials capture by generating a large surface area; efficient energy transfers within the system; multiple symbioses; little waste, effective recycling; high complexity and integration; a dynamic system resilient to perturbations; that maximizes total productivity, not just the most productive species.

Later in my career, I returned to address the environmental challenges facing coral reefs, as first Director of a Coral Reef Unit in UNEP (2000-2002) and organized the International Coral Reef Action Network.

HUMAN DIMENSIONS OF A SYSTEMS APPROACH

From a focus on biological systems, it became obvious that the human systems impacting on nature could not be ignored, so addressing the human dimensions of a systems approach became a priority. In our present materialistic world, the human side of sustainability was being neglected. Our world has become polarized between economic liberalism and social welfare, the political right and left, as if we had to choose one or the other. Yet sustainable development called for bring the economic and social together with the environmental as complementary aspects of a whole that is human development.

ISLANDS

I left my position in basic research when I was offered the post of Regional Ecological Adviser with the South Pacific Commission (now the Secretariat of the Pacific Community) in Noumea, New Caledonia (1974-1982) covering 22 countries/territories. Islands were a good place to start, as places where the relationship of man and nature is reduced to its simplest expression. My work covered conservation of nature, adopting a Convention on Conservation of Nature in the South Pacific; conducting a regional ecosystems survey, and organizing the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP. Islands are microcosms of human/environment systems, evolution and environmental management, and in small countries, one person can have an impact. I compiled traditional knowledge of the environment to show the complementarity of traditional and modern science and restore confidence in customary management systems. To make science accessible to local resource users, we developed a Coral Reef Monitoring Handbook, and prepared a Training Programme in Small Island Environmental Management. Remote sensing provided tools to study the dynamics of whole islands.

At the time, small islands did not count in a world dominated by super-power conflict. Making the case for island communities was part of my responsibilities. Taking a systems approach, and with the support of an islands task force at IUCN, I prepared a database of 2000 islands, with indicators for their geographic, biological and human characteristics, from which conservation priorities could be determined, and the visibility of islands and island challenges increased. We are now developing a Global Islands Database of over 100,000 islands.

A decade working with small island developing states showed me the complexities of human-environment interactions, even on a small scale. Scientific approaches cannot by themselves resolve environmental problems; the real problems are human rather than scientific. It was clear that a whole systems approach, integrating both the requirements of natural systems and the human communities, with their cultures, institutions and values, as well as economies and social systems, would be necessary to make the transition towards sustainability. Solutions must be appropriate to each local environment, very different from the model proposed by the western economic system.

The next logical step was to move to the global level. In 1989 I joined the United Nations Environment Programme as Deputy Director, Oceans and Coastal Areas Programme Activity Centre. The focus was on science for governance, regional collaboration, and building scientific capacity (climate change, pollution monitoring, ecosystems). After serving in the secretariat for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, I became Coordinator of the UN System-wide Earthwatch (science for global/national decision-making), responsible for developing the Integrated Global Observing Strategy Partnership, Global Observing Systems, GEO environmental assessments, and information for decision-making. Finally, I was founding Director of the UNEP Coral Reef Unit and ICRAN. More recently in 2008, I reviewed for the UNEP Governing Council all national assessment and reporting on the state of the environment and sustainability since 1992.

INTERNATIONAL SYSTEMS OF GOVERNANCE

Starting with the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, as representative of the Bahá'í International Community, I became a participant in international environmental diplomacy. At the South Pacific Commission, I organized and serviced intergovernmental meetings, including the South Pacific Conference on the Human Environment (Raratonga, 1982) that launched the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme. In the secretariat for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio, 1992), I was responsible for drafting Agenda 21 Chapter 17 on oceans, coastal areas and islands. In UNEP I had many intergovernmental and interagency responsibilities. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, I launched a “type II partnership” and organized four parallel events with the International Environment Forum. I participated in the Mauritius International Meeting on Small Island Developing States in 2005, and the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference 2009. Most recently, I was named Co-coordinator of the UNEP Major Groups and Stakeholders Advisory Group on International Environmental Governance, preparing for Rio+20. For four years, I organized and coordinated the UNEP/University of Geneva programme in environmental diplomacy, teaching a module on ethics, religion and science for diplomacy. This provides a certain perspective on governance issues.

What lessons can be learned at the global level? Threats to the planetary environment can only be addressed globally. Ultimately, the planet's resources need to be managed and equitably distributed globally. But there is very little science in environmental diplomacy. Diplomats give priority to national interest, political expediency, negotiating tactics, fear of creating precedents. Environment is not a priority when the economy is at stake. There is little concern with the common interest. An international system based on national sovereignty cannot easily deal with global problems. The failure in Copenhagen illustrated this.

There are great governance challenges ahead. The coming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 will consider governance for sustainability and the green economy. Will this be enough for the great transition? The limits to growth are coming closer.

SYSTEMS AND INFORMATION

My career focused more and more on information, its collection, distribution and role in decision-making. Information is essential for governance.

To understand systems, we need to understand how information is coded and used to organize the system. In a chemical system, information is coded in the atoms; in a biological system, in DNA; in a mechanical system, the engineer's concept or plans; in an institutional system, in statutes, laws, regulations, practices and customs; and in human social systems, in values, beliefs and cultures. The transmission of information is equally important, requiring knowledge of systems of communication. Characteristics include economy in the amount transmitted, control of information flow, feed-back mechanisms, nested sub-systems, subsidiarity, and the use of indicators. My first effort to synthesize a systems perspective on natural and social organization and the role of information was “The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis” (1996), exploring sustainability by combining science, economics and values.

With the increasing demand for a perspective that combined science and values, I organized in 1997 the International Environment Forum (http://iefworld.org) to build capacity and share experience among environmental professionals in this area.

ECONOMIC SYSTEMS

Given the important interactions between the economic system and sustainable development, an understanding of this dimension is essential to a systems approach. When people think of development, they first think of economic development, and this is one of the three pillars of sustainable development. Yet while the world has become wealthier, the extremes of wealth and poverty have also increased, a trend which is itself unsustainable.The Western economic system has failed to deliver on its development promises in much of the world. Some of its problems are over-specialization; the limitation of economic perspectives to what is traded in the market; the fact that people are secondary; the economic benefits of negative activities; unjust relations in trade and the global economy; a narrow view of employment; waste and pollution; the economists' short-term perspective; the preoccupation with growth; and the lack of global governance.

The World Economic Forum asked me to help revise their approach to environmental issues. I added 20 questions to the Executive Opinion Survey sent annually to 30,000 business leaders. The resulting chapter of the Global Competitiveness Report 2004-2005 on “The Competitive Edge in Environmental Responsibility” demonstrated a good correlation between economic competitiveness and environmental responsibility, with business leaders calling for strong government regulation within which they could demonstrate their innovation and efficiency. Another WEF study of the transformation of the Taiwanese economy through information technology showed the value of close collaboration between government and business, long-term strategic vision, and high investment in research and education. Both studies illustrated the advantages that come from cooperation, integration and innovation to economic advancement, as predicted by a systems approach.

Business is often criticized as socially irresponsible and unethical, so working through the European Bahá'í Business Forum has allowed me to bring values and sustainability concepts into the business community and work for a new paradigm of business.

SYSTEMS INDICATORS

An indicator is a sign that stands for or represents something, or more specifically a variable that summarizes or simplifies relevant information, makes a phenomenon visible or perceptible, or quantifies, measures and communicates relevant information (Gallopin, in Moldan et al., 1997). In a world where we experience increasing information overload, I have long been interested in using indicators to communicate scientific concepts, island characteristics, and ultimately sustainability itself.

Developing indicators of sustainable development as called for in Agenda 21 is conceptually challenging. I have contributed to a number of efforts, starting in 1992 with the work programme on indicators of sustainable development of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (http://www.un.org/esa/dsd/dsd_aofw_ind/ind_csdindi.shtml), and extending at the request of the World Economic Forum to the revision of the Environmental Sustainability Index (http://www.yale.edu/esi/) and the development of the Environmental Performance Index (http://www.yale.edu/epi/). I worked with the South Pacific Applied Geosciences Commission in Fiji to develop the Environmental Vulnerability Index (http://www.vulnerabilityindex.net/), the first to relate 50 indicators to scientifically-determined sustainability values. I was on the scientific committees of two projects on sustainability indicators of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) producing two volumes on the topic.

THE WAY FORWARD - A SYSTEMS VIEW

As several recent studies have pointed out, civilizations have come and gone, and there is no reason to think that ours is more permanent. If we continue business as usual, the science suggests that we are heading for overshoot and collapse. There is an increasing tendency for countries to withdraw into a fortress world. The science also suggests that sustainability is technically possible if we are ready to make a great transition. The question is how to do this.

It is customary to consider three dimensions or "pillars" of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. I add a fourth dimension, less tangible but equally important, including the cultural, institutional or organizational, and ethical/spiritual aspects defining the rules and control mechanisms by which human society operates. In systems terms this is the information dimension.

HUMAN SYSTEMS HAVE A SPIRITUAL DIMENSION

To understand the importance of this dimension, we must look at the multi-level system that is human life, individually and collectively. We are a biological organism, but also a social entity that builds complex communities. We also have the potential for emergent properties of a “spiritual” being with ethics, values and ideals which collectively are embodied in a culture and often a religion. These guide the struggle of the self/ego towards a mature altruistic adult, what in spiritual terms could be described as the growth of the intangible (soul) towards the absolute (God). The science of the physical world lacks tools to address this level of widespread human experience. It is unreasonable, even arrogant, to deny the importance of this level and to limit reality to only what science can measure.

Religion, defined as a knowledge system and a domain of human experience, rather than specific institutional manifestations, has a place in considerations of sustainability. Sustainable development is at the interface of science and ethics. We need to redefine "development” (which means growth for economists) within a more universal framework including society, culture, science and spirituality. What is our purpose as individuals and as a society? What is our vision of the future? Ethics and values are what determine how humans relate to each other. They are the social equivalent of DNA, encoding the information through which society is structured.

Behaviour change is fundamental to make a transition to sustainability, requiring motivation, emotional commitment, self-sacrifice, and a spirit of service. A lot has been written about selfish genes. Are there “selfish values” with a collective evolutionary advantage that can tip the balance toward altruism and cooperation? An ethical system for sustainability will focus on the oneness of humankind, providing a foundation for higher levels of organization, complexity and efficiency. What values do we “programme” humans with to evolve a more desirable and sustainable society? These could include unity in diversity, solidarity – elimination of poverty, justice, trustworthiness, moderation, social responsibility, a cooperative and altruistic economic system creating employment for all, and sustainable environmental management. This is science applied to religion, providing rational explanations for the need for the intangible.

My own spiritual direction has come from the Bahá'í Faith, which provides an evolutionary concept of religion, seeing one common faith in all human experience. It taught me the harmony of science and religion, the oneness of humanity, and the importance of the independent investigation of truth using reason for religion as for everything else. It calls for sustainable environmental management and moderation in material civilization, with the establishment of a federated world government able to manage and equitably distribute the planet's resources. It is an essential part of my personal life system, so it would be inconsistent for me to exclude it from a systems perspective on myself and on all of society.

In a systems view, science and religion are the two great knowledge systems. They are complementary: science is values neutral; religion focuses on values. Both reflect one underlying truth. Both require reason. For a sustainable society, they must be in balance. Science without religion tends to materialism; religion without science leads to superstition.

One example of the potential role of religion in the transition to sustainability is the launching of long-term action plans on climate change and environment by representatives of the major religions at Windsor Castle in November 2009, in the presence of Prince Philip and the UN Secretary-General.

VALUES-BASED INDICATORS

All of this provides an explanation for the logic of this conference and the values-based indicators project that has organized it. We started by asking if we can measure that values dimension or its manifestations. Our aim was to make the invisible visible (and thus recognize the importance of values in human systems behaviour and the need to manage for and increase them). We wanted tools to direct our own evolution towards an ever-advancing civilization. WeValue.org is the result.

WHAT INTEGRATIVE PRINCIPLES?

This talk has mapped out a systems approach to life in many dimensions, individual and collective. It looked at examples of systems relationships at multiple levels of organization, showing how balance, moderation/optimal size, subsidiarity, efficiency, de-materialization, integration and closed cycles are characteristics of sustainable systems. We have seen the importance of information flow for control and decision-making in systems, and the use of indicators for signalling sustainability trends. Natural living systems such as the coral reef with its symbioses and efficiency give us an example, a model and inspiration for human society. They show that, if we get the roles and rules right, we can just let the systems evolve in all their diversity.

To achieve sustainability, we must redefine our goal and purpose based on the oneness of humanity, understand the evolutionary processes pushing globalization, identify the major driving forces behind unsustainable trends, and define and implement the responses necessary to put us on sustainable trajectories. However, scientific knowledge of these possibilities is essential but insufficient; a foundation of ethical principles is necessary to motivate changes in human behavour.

Hence the importance of defining a framework of values necessary to choose the right direction towards human prosperity, sustainability, and an ever-advancing world civilization based on the oneness of humanity. Science and religion, the two great complementary knowledge systems, must be in balance, to help us understand not only what and how, but why? Everyone must be educated in science and values, investing in human capital as the best way to develop human potential. Education is also the only way to ensure sustainability across generations.

From an academic perspective, some light has been shed on the issues I raised at the beginning.

There are other kind of coherence than disciplinary coherence. It is sometimes necessary to have the courage to go beyond disciplinary boundaries, even beyond science, while asking scientific questions, using the scientific method with an open mind to its limitations, and the honesty to recognize that we cannot know everything (rather than limiting ourselves to what we can know). I have tried to be of service with my science.

Real solutions to achieving sustainability lie beyond any one discipline. They require progress at multiple levels and in many dimensions of society from values to governance.

This requires people with a new kind of training, and perhaps a new academic field of research and training in broad systems integration, scenarios, strategic planning, human values and motivation. We need generalists, able to look at the highest levels of organization and systems behaviour and management, to help to guide us towards sustainability.

And ultimately, education should empower everyone with the ability to see both the large picture and the specific actions needed at the community level within an ethical framework, so that multiple approaches to sustainability will evolve naturally and organically as civilization advances. This systems perspective can inspire a new generation to see present environmental problems not as disaster but as an opportunity.