Bernard Lietaer on the Window of Viability Between Resilience and Efficiency

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"Lietaer and his colleagues looked at the issue of economic stability through the lens of an ecosystem, deeply considering what makes for sustainability – or not. It seems that the sustainability of any system is actually a balancing act between its resilience and its efficiency (Lietaer, Ulanowicz, Goerner, and McLaren, 2010). Whereas we tend to understand the concept of efficiency quite well (reducing redundancy, streamlining), we are often less knowledgeable about what actually creates resilience – a generally less quantifiable combination of diversity and interconnection.

It seems that an ecosystem only survives if it finds a way to remain in a certain “window of viability” – essentially finding a balance between what makes it efficient while assuring that it maintains its resilience. Just as we are finding out about sustainable agriculture, monocultures are deeply problematic in any system. Without adequate diversity, systems can collapse without warning. Research on optimal sustainability of systems points to the need for, if anything, more resilience than efficiency.

This “window of viability” formulation has much to offer our discussion about what maintains sustainability in financial systems. It seems that over the last few decades we have been raising the pursuit of “efficiency” to extreme levels – focusing on just one side of the equation. We have been told that this is the true path to “optimizing productivity” as if it were the Holy Grail itself.

Those who maintain this vantage point claim that of course we need to “streamline” the workforce, eliminate the “redundancy” in our energy delivery systems, make our food sources more “efficient” by increasing the size and “productivity” of agriculture through the use of chemicals, modified seeds and immense food factories. Because, following this line of thinking, nothing much matters except the bottom line.

Yet, sadly, even this obsession with producing and maximizing Financial Capital does not seem to be doing the trick – as you’ve probably noticed, we’ve been having a couple of problems stabilizing our economic system of late. “Today’s global monetary ecosystem is significantly overshooting the optimal balance, or the Window of Viability,” Lietaer tells us, “because of its exclusive emphasis on efficiency. It is careening toward brittleness and collapse because a general belief prevails that all improvements need to go further in the same exclusive direction of increasing growth and efficiency.” (Lietaer, 2009)

The point being made here is truly profound and has wide-reaching implications for all complex systems, natural or human-made. Placing too much emphasis on efficiency tends to automatically maximize flows, size, and consolidation at the expense of choice, connectivity and resilience until the entire system becomes unstable and collapses. –Bernard Lietaer"


More information


* Article: Quantifying sustainability: Resilience, efficiency and the return of information theory. Bernard Lietaer et al. Ecological Complexity 6(1):27-36, March 2009