How I learned to stop worrying and love complexity.

Image by Stef Lewandowski |

Image by Stef Lewandowski |

Think global, act local – but how can anybody really be sure that their local actions are helping the global condition when the international sphere shapes our very lives? A quick stroll around the kitchen with a sharp eye for labels will prove to just what extent we live globally, even if our frame of reference remains local. In 1998, complexity theorist and science philosopher Paul Ciliers stated that “the distinction between complex and simple often becomes a function of our ‘distance’ from the system” (p. 3). So while a pantry seems simple and innocuous enough, it becomes increasingly dizzying to “distance” yourself from its contents and consider the sheer scale of processes and systems involved. But rather than punish yourself for the carbon footprint of your kitchen, recalibrate your frame of reference and remember that sometimes your choices are the lesser of all possible evils the complex food system might produce.

“Complex systems consist of a large number of elements…when the number of elements becomes sufficiently large, conventional means…not only become impractical, they also cease to assist in any understanding of the system” (Cilliers, p. 3). Traces of this idea are coined in Timothy Morton’s term “hyperobjects—entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” Is this why it has become so difficult to define “sustainability”? Is this why we struggle to weave our sustainability projects together beyond broad transcendental claims?

If we take Ciliers’ analysis of complex systems and Morton’s “hyperobjects”, a much more forgiving and ethical picture of sustainability emerges, one in which it’s okay to be unable to quantifiably justify the bigger picture impacts of our projects and lifestyle choices. In other words, it is quite frankly impossible to conceive of all the pros and cons of our intentions, good as they may be. What matters instead are the intentions and the conscious means in which we pursue “sustainability”.

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.