Failed predictions should remind us of the limits of our knowledge. The world's complexities overwhelm the cognitive abilities of any one person.
Resilience, not static sustainability, is what world needs
'There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable." An unfortunate comment from 1932, no doubt from someone without expertise in the topic? In fact, the speaker was Albert Einstein.
Failed predictions like this should remind us of the limits of our knowledge. The world's complexities overwhelm the cognitive abilities of any one person. The future is inherently both uncomputable and unknowable.
Just the last five years have seen a once-in-a-century financial crisis; Japan's nuclear power disaster; deadly storms, droughts and wildfires in the United States and Australia; popular revolution in the Arab world; the shale oil and gas breakthrough; the emergence of 3D printing; and the spread of wireless connections between nine-tenths of humanity. That is why, in place of the common notion of "sustainability", we need a new concept. Sustainability is too static a word for our dynamic age - it misses the ability both to respond to crises and to seize opportunities. It looks back to a world in which humanity lived in balance with nature - a world that never existed.
Sometimes sustainability is taken to mean that economies should not grow, or that we should not use resources today but leave them for our descendants. But a truly sustainable economy and society are not fossils, frozen in time like Brezhnev's USSR from 1964 to 1982. They are creative and adaptable.
Some utopians in developed countries seek zero growth economies. In today's hyper-connected world, this demands that, like Japan during its 200-year Sakoku seclusion, they wall themselves off from fast-expanding and transforming societies in Latin America, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and east Asia.
The concept of sustainability is often applied narrowly, to the environment only or, even more specifically, to tackling human-caused climate change. Environmental sustainability, however, cannot be divorced from the fight against poverty, from efforts to ensure social justice and reasonable levels of equality, from open and inclusive political systems, from exploring scientific and cultural frontiers.
At least a billion of the world's people need not static sustainability, but transformation. Without modern energy, they walk to work over long distances, spend hours every day carrying water from kilometres away, cook with wood or dung in smoky homes, and have to stop work when the sun goes down.
"No plan survives contact with the enemy," as the great Prussian general, Helmuth von Moltke, observed. That is why a new concept is gaining popularity: "resilience", the capacity to survive shocks. Japan cleaned up the Fukushima reactor site and instituted a sweeping energy conservation programme. China injected massive financial stimulus to revive demand during the global economic meltdown.
If we speak of climate change, resilience is in direct contrast to the detailed but fragile plans of those who pin all their hopes on renewable energy, on nuclear power, on UN treaties, on reducing population or some other magic bullet.
Resilience, though, is often falsely equated with adaptation - that is, seeking to reduce the impact of a changing climate, for example with sea defences and drought-resistant crops. Adaptation is vital, but resilience definitely does not involve - as some deniers of the climate threat might wish - sweeping the problem under the carpet, then cleaning up later.
Resilience also has to acknowledge the ability to create and exploit positive situations - scientific discoveries, booming economies, progressive social movements. Command-and-control mandates and directives are very much second-best to nourishing open, intellectually curious societies. The aim is not to balance economic and environmental imperatives, but to make them the same thing.
As von Moltke put it, "Strategy is a system of expedients". To survive and flourish in the unpredictable future, we need a system, but we also need expedients.
Robin Mills is head of consulting at Manaar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon