Complexity and Sustainability

In this paper complexity theory and complex adaptive systems are examined as a conceptual and empirical framework for sustainability and the sustainable commons. In contrast to traditional reductionist approaches, complexity theory provides a view in which nested and intertwined social, environmental, economic and cultural systems are in continual flux and coevolutionary development, and where change is emergent, the result of ongoing multidirectional contact and feedback among networks of agents of many types. The implications of this ontology are that sustainability is defined more in terms of processes rather than performance measures or final goals, and inquiry focuses on the contexts, patterns, networks, and relational aspects and mechanisms of micro and macro sustainability processes. The paper presents an overview of complexity theory, situates and examines sustainability in a complexity ‘mindset’ (Richardson, 2008), and discusses three important research tools for a complexity analysis of sustainability—social construction, identity work, and social network analysis
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