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) (Fig. 1).