Newton doesn’t do ’sustainability’

”Learning to live sustainably” is an article* written with colleagues Nadia McLaren and Olena Pometun. In it we quote Philip Anderson:

”The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe… Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry.”

Obvious? Well, yes… in a way. The problem is, we tend to forget it when tackling questions like climate change or sustainable development. We analyse and analyse, narrowing in on smaller and smaller areas. But, as Nadia writes,

“Something is lost when a whole is degraded. Let’s call it coherence or integrity. Partly because what is lost is often invisible, it is usually ignored or any loss of value denied. This is the penalty of analysis.”

Conventional analytical thinking doesn’t work at the quantum scale or the cosmic scale. This was the paradigm shift from Newton to Einstein. Nor does it work when living beings are involved. “You could insist that a falling egg, just before it smashes, has the same constituents as the mess on the floor. Materially it does, but it cannot make a chicken.”

Yet still today the responses to environmental problems and the solutions put forward are coming largely from an analytical perspective. It is as if we are trying to live and breathe a vital internal life of a new sustainability paradigm while wearing a medieval suit of armour.

To move beyond the current road-blocks that prevent us from seeing our way, we need a whole brain approach, incorporating the right, pattern-completing brain and the emotional, limbic brain.

When are schools going to start teaching synthesis as well as analysis?

*Global Environmental Research journal 4/2010, one of the documents in the research section of our web site.