A role for diversity in achieving sustainability through ecological, social and economic domains

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Byrne, Edmond P.
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University College Cork
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Modern conceptions of progress, based on the dominant Cartesian reductionist paradigm, are associated with a linear drive towards ever greater ascendancy, order, organisation, homogeneity, hegemony, performance, efficiency, and control. Similarly modern conceptions of progress are associated with positivist approaches to overcoming and extinguishing disorder, inchoateness, uncertainty, redundancy and risk. In this framework, diversity is conceived as a threat to system organisation, efficiency and control. Many contemporary conceptions of sustainability and sustainable development, framed within this paradigm, envisage sustainability as aligning with such ideas of progress. By this narrative, sustainable systems are achievable through ever greater efficiency, through for example, technological prowess, improved organisational structure/control, taming of “big data” and through risk reduction/extinction. Similarly, corporate sustainability would be advanced through growth, mergers and acquisitions, rationalisation, pruning of smaller operations/sites within firms, layoffs, increased corporate control, accountability and managerialism. “Bigger is better” is the apposite maxim. From a complex systems perspective however, a very different picture is evident. In the ecological domain, sustainable ecosystems have been quantitatively shown to be those which maintain an appropriate (context, time and space dependent) dynamic balance between opposing tendencies of ascendancy and efficiency on one hand and diversity and redundancy on the other (Ulanowicz, 2009; Goerner et al., 2009). Ecological biodiversity is an absolute requirement for ecosystem endurance since it facilitates system resilience in the event of significant perturbation (whether sudden shock or longer term stress). For example, a species which can feed on a selection of available prey species is more resilient against partial ecosystem destruction/prey extinction than one which relies on a single species for food. While the latter scenario represents a situation of greater efficiency, it is also more rigid and less resilient. Moreover, while the tendencies of complex systems towards ascendancy (organisation, efficiency) and disorder (redundancy, diversity) are antagonistic at local levels, they are in fact mutually dependent at higher levels (Ulanowicz et al, 2009): “A requisite for the increase in effective orderly performance (ascendency) is the existence of flexibility (reserve) within the system. Conversely, systems that are highly constrained and at peak performance (in the second law sense of the word) dissipate external gradients at ever higher gross rates”. This model has been mirrored across techno-economic and social domains wherein similar sustainability models have been proposed (e.g. Stirling, 2011). This framework has manifested itself in research outputs across virtually every discipline, where in different guises sustainable and persistent systems have been shown to require a balance between tendencies of control, structure and organisation and those of diversity and disorder.
Diversity , Sustainability , Ecological , Economic
Byrne, E.P. (2013) "A role for diversity in achieving sustainability through ecological, social and economic domains", Trans-disciplinary conversations on transitions to sustainability, University College Cork, 5-6 September 2013.
© 2013, Edmond P. Byrne.