I have been thinking about the research I have been reading on sustainability, and musing about the possibility of a simple framework to help explain it all. Here is what I came up with. Please beat up on it as you deem fit and proper.

I begin with the age old question: Why is it easier to break something than to build it? The answer is rooted in system behavior. Systems have multiple parts, and in order for the system to function (or more fundamentally, in order for the system to be a system), dependencies among those parts need to be maintained. This is true whether we are talking about jet engines, worms, schools, governments, or whatever. I know that not all parts are equally important and that some relationships have much looser tolerances than others. Still, the system/dependency notion seems broadly correct.

Looked at this way, more has to be maintained than broken for the system to work. For the system to work all the dependencies need to function, while only a few need to break for failure to cascade through the system. (Another gross generalization I know, but let’s pretend it is mostly correct.)

Another way of saying that dependencies need to be maintained is to say that energy needs to be expended to keep the system functioning. Energy also needs to be expended to do whatever needs to be done to break the system. (Let’s leave entropy and system degradation out of it for now.) But because so many dependencies need to be maintained for the system to function, and so few need to be interrupted to break the system, we have a situation in which the high energy condition is maintaining the system, and the low energy condition is breaking it. So there you have it. It is easier to break a system than to maintain it.

What are the implications for sustainability? One implication is that anything that can be done to lower the energy of maintaining dependencies among the parts will improve the likelihood of sustainability. So for instance, imagine accepted cultural beliefs about cooperation between two government agencies. Because of that culture the energy needed to maintain communication is a lot lower than if the communication were an unfamiliar innovation. The same would be true if instead of cultural norms, there were established standard processes. Same deal.

A second implication is that anything that can be done to raise the energy needed to break the system will also work in favor of sustainability. To continue the previous example, imagine that a formal collaboration process among two government agencies is overlaid with a network of informal relationships. This builds in a redundancy that makes it harder to break whatever collaboration depends on communication.

The example above deals with activity internal to the system. But another way to raise the energy needed to break the system is for the system to manipulate the external environment. For instance a program may put effort into building good will in the community in which it resides. The system has essentially changed its environment so as to require more energy for any force that seeks to break the system.

If this way of looking at sustainability makes any sense, it means that any action that is done to affect sustainability can be judged by the answer to two questions. Will this lower the energy needed to maintain the system? Will this increase the energy needed to break the system?

Of course the world is more complicated than this. For instance building internal linkages in a system may make it harder to break, but may also may make it more brittle when it does break. Also, lots of internal linkages by themselves raise the maintenance costs. And, making the system harder to break may also make it less able to adapt to changing environments. And so on and so forth, the complications are multitudinous and fascinating.

But complications notwithstanding, I think the system/thermodynamics way of thinking about sustainability is useful. I’m open to being told otherwise.

2 thoughts on “Understanding sustainability – systems as a framework, thermodynamics as a metaphor

  1. From Maryann Scheirer

    I very much like the ideal of analyzing the energy expenditure (or resources) needed for a system to be maintained, or broken. As many of you know, I’ve been doing research and writing on health program sustainability for several years now. This idea of examining the energy expenditure needed to maintain or break a system is applicable to many types of programs. For example, I propose in a new paper just accepted for publication (not yet ready for circulation) that changes in policies or organizational procedures are more likely to be sustained, once implemented, than are programmatic changes requiring new types of staff members, which therefore need a continued stream of resources to maintain those new staff in place.

    I do think that you should include the “entropy” concept, when the lack of new resources (energy) simply means that some staff members or processes can’t be supported and they leave for other positions. Lots of “energy” required to maintain those changes, and no energy needed to break them – just the absence of prior energy source(s).

    Thanks for stirring up this discussion, Jonny!

  2. From Saumitra SenGupta
    Hi Jonny,
    Sorry did not respond. I read the article the first time you posted the link. Are you like me who came from physics to evaluation? I thought your ideas are brilliant and the linking of sustainability to the second law of thermodynamics. You don’t use the word entropy in the blog. Somehow the rising chaos gives rise to a sustainable future is a fascinating idea. I was thinking that in a way, in field of mental health, a lot of therapist trained in psychodynamic ways were quite skeptical to the idea of wellness and recovery. I think most professionals trained in and subscribing to the traditional ways of treating the mentally ill, thought that consumer guided recovery and wellness were akin to chaos. Yet, the last 15 years have demonstrated quite the opposite. The point I am trying to get at is that in the social sciences the concept of chaos or entropy is more of a construct (you use the term metaphor) than in physical sciences but sometimes going with the flow of chaos can lead to a more sustainable future. Behavioral healthcare is showing it. Perhaps, others on the list will have examples from other content areas.
    Looking forward to further refinements of this idea.

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