Sustainability - finding emergent word use patterns in the NY Times
ed. 10/29/06, 6/1/2011   pf henshaw

10/29/06 - Trying to hit two birds with one stone, here's a simple example of how to find and investigate complex system emergence and the question of where the 'sustainable design' movement came from and is going to at the same time.    This mini-study took about 15 minutes of data collection, 4 hours learning how to format the 416 citations for Excel , and a couple hours of playing with statistics and graphs.   

From inside 'the movement' the appearance is that the word's increased use is coming from the success of the LEED program for Architectural design, defining clear measures of attainable goals for changing the whole environmental footprint of construction, and verifying that those goals are met.   It's an unusually rigorous design approach.    For all the research, costs and headache you get 'points'.    I'd been noticing that the increasing popularity of the term with people who have little idea what these design principles are for, or how to apply them to things other than architectural design, was spreading the relatively empty 'feel good' use of the term even faster.    'Sustainability', as a word, is not primarily a verb, adjective, condition or state of mind.    It's a noun referring to a measure, which needs to be connected to the activity of measuring something to have a use.    Why that's important is that the 'state of mind' has been about making demonstrable steps toward well conceived goals for changing the whole effect on the earth of what we do.  If  the words you use don't describe how to do that, it probably doesn't happen.    Here's a method of finding the significant 'emergent' events in the evolving use of the term.    Are there big issues concerning civilization's uncertain sustainability yet to address?   Definitely.

Fig 1



A little thought about what a flow of conversation is about helps bring out some interesting things, the swelling and decline in the 'chatter'.   The graph shows there are nearly 0.5 articles a day being published in the NY Times at the present peak.   The average starting level 10 years ago was about 0.07 and is now about 0.26, so the average rate has more than tripled.   The interesting part of how it changed is in the shapes of the waves, like little epidemics.   You can read the details in the 10yrdata.doc and see exactly what was being talked about in each one and as the base level has risen.   Each of the citations has a link to the story (though you may need to sign up for the NYT archive service to read more).

For a couple fine points, note the first three waves, and that they had space in-between that returned to the same level.   They each occurred as isolated events above background.    They all have some rising and declining shape before and after the peak.    In the version of the chart combining 10 points, rather than the version combining 7 above, each seemed to have a fast rise and then a slower decline.   Sometimes using larger smoothing groups gives you a more accurate impression of the underlying flow of events, sometimes not.     If you did the research I think you'd find that each of these  separate shapes represented 'a nameable event' corresponding to some particular spark of interest that caught wider attention but which then faded away as the novelty wore off.     Then there's the group of spikes centered on 02 that starts to have the jagged shape of the now three year old on-going real debate and broadening of the discussion.     To me this looks like a pretty healthy diversification of the issue, shifting from isolated events that entirely faded away, to frequent large spikes of conversation on a building base!    I actually have not done the reading in the record needed to see if any one of the surges in interest represented a recognizable central idea being introduced, or of blossoming confusion, but that each would have some central 'issue' is what I'd generally expect.   It's a road map to a living history of ideas.  

What you'd need to do to firmly identify emergent systems with this, is connect the growth periods () with the loops of communication that are physically doing the growing, while thinking about each whole event as a series of 4 destabilizing and stabilizing phases of developmental change: growth & collapse destabilize (1 & 3), while climax & decay stabilize (2 & 4).   These may take place at very different speeds and scales, but always make the same turns away from stability and then back to stability.    In this data there are no smooth exponential-like growth curves visible, though there are rough periods of increasing rates of increase before the major peaks, those are the growth periods.   The long trend line seems to suggest an exponential, of much larger scope, or it's rate of increasing slope may actually be decreasing at the end, pointing toward a temporary or permanent climax.   It's actually a 3rd degree polynomial and not very responsive to the shape of the data, and as such surely misrepresents the actual dynamics of the cultural phenomenon displayed.   One of the reasons this record is as simple and eventful as it is is that the word 'sustainability' has relatively  few uses and meanings, so it serves to trace a single large scale conversation better than most.  

If anyone does read into the shapes in the curve, trying to take a comprehensive pulse of what's happening, based on the articles in the Times or anything else, I'd be delighted to hear about it.    

6/1/2011 - I've spent a few months playing with the Google Ngram tool  to study the 200 yr trends of word use reflected in Google's word counts from its scanned books, for how it displays a detailed history of ideas in "western culture", the language of the published books in English the Google collection represents a broad cross section of.   The word use curves sometimes show mysterious systemic developmental change over time.   One example is the use of the word "complex" (fig 2).   I'm not sure it would hold up to further study, but there is certainly a provocative line of reasoning for saying in our experience of an increasingly complex world, the point our use of the term "information overload" (fig 3) exploded would coincide with our beginning to loose interest in what was becoming too complex, indicated by the red line at 1960, where the shape of the curve (fig 2) reverses growth trends.  There was a coincident explosion in the use of the term "information overload" to suggest that.   From someone who has been closely watching how the real difficulty of the issues have been changing over the past 30 years, as a task of managing the exploding complexity of our economy, it's environmental impacts and its depleting resources, it does seem that the complexity of the issues has began going over nearly everyone's head, and causing a palpable loss of interest.  That loss of interest seems to continue today, as the complex real issues of our surviving on earth seem to get ever less and less and less attention.  Even from a view of the "expert circles" attempting to deal with them absent public interest, the languages for understanding the problems are clearly not growing as fast as the conflicting realities....



















(note: the baseline of GDP curve was raised to the pre-1860 scale of word use of "complex" and GDP scale adjusted for the 1870-1960 shape fits the growth rate in the word use of "complex")

A curiosity is also found in how the word use of "productivity" (fig 4) suddenly falls off in 1980, as sharply as any historic trend of language change.  That is just the time when the word use of "sustainability" emerges.    It's tempting to think the term "sustainability" a substitute for the word "productivity" (fig 4), since they are two words that mean much the same thing in business practice.  Productivity is measure in business as a decrease in effort for increasing sales or the control of resources and  in business, and "sustainability" comes to mean "sensitive productivity", or development with a sincere effort to limit impacts, as it is applied to "green design" and "sustainable development".   I was an architect during the time when these word uses emerged and watched it first hand.   What was also occurring without a pause of any kind was the world economy's quantitative use of resources and the global rate of resource depletion.  That was the "harm" that the "good" of sustainability was intended to correct.  Technical aspects of this are discussed further in the research papers on the global effect of efficiency improvement in economies, how to count the true total resource use of businesses, and the world resource market response to growing shortages for supplying the demand.

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