Monday, January 09, 2006

It's about time...

As we’ve seen and discussed the concept of time is central to movement towards sustainability. Unknown time-delays in complex systems make it very difficult to determine when the system will reach inflection points, tipping points, bifurcations, or thresholds. How long can a company dump mercury into a lake before it all of the sudden dies? How long must cold-war diplomacy and negotiations go on before the wall suddenly comes down? How long will it take for the increases in atmospheric CO2 to result in dramatic and erratic changes in the global climate system? How long can systematic undermining of the capacity for poor Parisians to meet their fundamental needs of participation and protection go on until sustained rioting erupts? How many decades of persistent struggle and resistance are necessary to end Apartheid?

The dramatic shifts are inevitabilities if the inputs driving the change are not altered, but it is very difficult, if not impossible to predict when the systems will “tip,” the threshold will be crossed, or the bifurcation will occur. A variety of factors can contribute to the switch happening. Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point looks in detail at some of these dramatic events in the context of society. He tells the stories well, and it’s an easy, interesting read (click on the link for a review).

Even when we’re not dealing with complex systems, the human brain has trouble dealing with the concept of time. Where it is an incredibly perceptive, intuitive, calculating machine, for whatever reason in its evolutionary development, the human brain just gets tricked by time. We have all experienced it with events that seem like they “happened yesterday and a life time ago.” Or how some weekends seem to last for a month, while others go by in about 5 minutes (all too often it’s the latter). We are in awe of the beautiful snow in New England every winter and by January we can’t figure out why the hell anyone would ever want to live there – only to fall in love with it again when spring arrives.

Gladwell’s latest book, Blink, also deals with the tricky issue of time by looking at the split second information we get – from facial expressions, art work, music, tasting food – and how much we can learn from that information. He talks about how that split second information gets processed by the ‘adaptive unconscious’ and creates a kind of intuition, particularly in experienced experts. Again, a good read, and in Gladwell fashion covers a lot of interesting, seemingly obscure research, and makes it readable and relevant to our everyday lives – and thus, movement towards sustainability.

Sort of a random post, but this issue of time comes up again and again in the context of strategic sustainable development – with the world speeding up and the quarterly economy driving decision-making understanding our limitations when it comes to conceptualizing time becomes extremely important. The concept of “slowing down to speed up” is also central to all of this, as we find it’s crucial in understanding and influencing complex systems to step back and take stock to make sure we’re heading in the right direction and doing things appropriately instead of just continuing on with business as usually only faster. So I’m sure we’ll be referring back to all of this. Stay going…