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The future and sustainability
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by Peter van Vliet 10 the future of the Knowledge Society

Introduction for a Round Table discussion on (the future of) sustainability
Amsterdam, April 13 2005

The term sustainable development dates from 1984, when it emerged in the well known Brundtland Report: Our Common Future. It was defined as

development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

( The emerging of ) This definition is seen by many as the starting point of sustainable development as a movement. It was the result of the first official attempt to apply a systems approach to create a policy for solving the problems of a growing society in a limited environment.

A friend of mine, Pim Martens, who recently was appointed professor of sustainable development at Maastricht University, addressed sustainability in his oration as an integrative science, requiring input from and cooperation between a wide palette of disciplines.

Today, twenty years after the starting point of sustainable development as such, the perception of sustainability by business professionals, scientists, journalists, politicians, teachers and general public alike, is still very diverse. Some relate it to pollution, others to environment in general, climate change, depletion of resources and energy, the extinction of species. But also as a business opportunity and a (fear based) variable to influence and control human behavior.

These examples illustrate the progress from a mere policy instrument to a genuine scientific status. But they also show that twenty years of evolution in sustainable development obviously were not time enough to take sustainable development out of the abstract and establish it as a clear concept in people's mindset.

And I am going to make it even worse. I am going to place sustainable development as the variable in dynamic systems, which determines the balance of the system. System dynamics and cybernetics show how feedback of information influences the evolution of ( complex ) systems. If information feedback is allowed to have direct influence on the working of the system, the result will be a linear development of the offset parameter.

Example: a car accelerates based on the feedback parameter [ no crash ] . As long as it gets feedback [ no crash ]it will accelerate until it crashes. The crash itself is the feedback to stop the process. Rather permanently.

If, however, we introduce sustainability in the feedback processing as a set of parameters like [ maintain distance to surrounding objects that allows to stop within that distance, according to speed ] this will cause the car to balance the speed according to the environment (at least of known objects) Thus crash risk will reduce to the appearance of unknown objects or to incomplete input

From that I move on to chaos theory, which illustrates how evolution of (complex) systems is nonreversible and what the effects are once such systems get out of balance.

Irreversibility is best illustrated with a cup of coffee. If you like it black, don't spill milk in it, because there is no way to separate the two again. That is relevant to sustainability because if coffee is the only drink available and you are deadly allergic to milk, you are left with the choice between dying from allergy or dying from thirst. You may compare this to pumping co2 into the atmosphere.

Most people are familiar with the example of the butterfly, flapping its wings in Peking and causing a hurricane in the Caribbean. No way of stopping the process once it flapped its wings. Which does not mean that by eradicating butterflies we can prevent hurricanes, by the way. What it does mean is that it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to complex systems. And system Earth is an extremely complex system.

But let's go back to the future, because that is what the Club of Amsterdam stands for, and that is what we want to address. We want to find out what the position of sustainability is in future thinking (if there is any at all) and which value it can have for futurism.

Tom Lambert illustrated this already in the opening speech of the Summit for the Future, last February, when he illustrated that:

"The Law of Comparative Advantage demands that each should freely contribute what they can do best. We have created a law of comparative disadvantage in which we insist that we, in the wealthy countries use our comparative advantages of technology to maintain an environment in which our inefficiencies can still triumph to the cost of the rest of the world.

A cow in the EU can attract $2 a day, in subsidies. Meanwhile 800 million people subsist on less than $1 a day."

The inefficiency of the First World slowly suffocates all the rest, peoples and environment alike. We should mobilize all our capabilities, resources and creativity and allow equal access to them for every man and nation. That is where futurism and sustainability converge.

I remind again of the definition that Gro Harlem Brundtland gave to sustainable development. With that definition she put sustainability right at the basis of future development, future thinking and acting for the future. Sustainability may be conditio sine qua non for a future for the human species in this present environment.

If we accept that point of view, the next step is to determine how we make sustainable development fit into our preferred image of the future. To do that I suggested to Felix to organize a "Future of Sustainability", which idea made him invite me for this discussion.

It is interesting for me to look at how sustainability was (or was not) part of previous "future" sessions, and if so, how they related to the topics.

We may discuss how the concept and the awareness of the need for sustainability influence scenarios for preferred futures.

And: what are the key elements for a sustainable futurism ..

Peter van Vliet
Chair / founder of the iNSnet Foundation

Visit also the conference about 'the future of the European Knowledge Society' and the sections with books, articles, links and the Summit for the Future Report 2005

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