Social-ecological system resonance: a theoretical framework for brokering sustainable solutions

Abstract

Sustainability science is a solution-oriented discipline. Yet, there are few theory-rich discussions about how this orientation structures the efforts of sustainability science. We argue that Niklas Luhmann’s social system theory, which explains how societies communicate problems, conceptualize solutions, and identify pathways towards implementation of solutions, is valuable in explaining the general structure of sustainability science. From Luhmann, we focus on two key concepts. First, his notion of resonance offers us a way to account for how sustainability science has attended and responded to environmental risks. As a product of resonance, we reveal solution-oriented research as the strategic coordination of capacities, resources, and information. Second, Luhmann’s interests in self-organizing processes explain how sustainability science can simultaneously advance multiple innovations. The value logic that supports this multiplicity of self-organizing activities as a recognition that human and natural systems are complex coupled and mutually influencing. To give form to this theoretical framework, we offer case evidence of renewable energy policy formation in Texas. Although the state’s wealth is rooted in a fossil-fuel heritage, Texas generates more electricity from wind than any US state. It is politically antagonistic towards climate-change policy, yet the state’s reception of wind energy technology illustrates how social and environmental systems can be strategically aligned to generate solutions that address diverse needs simultaneously. This case demonstrates that isolating climate change—as politicians do as a separate and discrete problem—is incapable of achieving sustainable solutions, and resonance offers researchers a framework for conceptualizing, designing, and communicating meaningfully integrated actions.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1

Source: AWEA US Wind Industry Second Quarter 2016 market report

Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    The green credit incentivizes the purchase of renewable energy and is given legal priority on the power lines. If natural gas generated electricity sets market price on the Texas power grid at 15 cents per kW/hr, then renewable-generated kW/hrs would be sold at the same rate.

References

  1. Adorno TW, Bernstein JM (2001) The culture industry: selected essays on mass culture. Psychology Press, Routledge

    Google Scholar 

  2. Agyeman J (2005) Sustainable communities and the challenges of environmental justice. NYU Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  3. American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) (2016) Annual wind energy report 2016. http://awea.files.cms-plus.com/FileDownloads/pdfs/1Q2016%20AWEA%20Market%20Report%20Public%20Version.pdf

  4. Bettencourt LM, Kaur J (2011) Evolution and structure of sustainability science. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108:19540–19545

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Braun-Wanke K, Risch K, Goldberg AM (2015) From knowledge to action—a field report, moving from traditional to transformational teaching and learning. A pilot model for education for sustainable development at Freie Universität Berlin. J Environ Stud Sci 5(4):508–516

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Burke K (1969) A grammar of motives. University of California Press, Berkeley

    Google Scholar 

  7. Caldas MM, Sanderson MR, Mather M, Daniels MD, Bergtold JS, Aistrup J, Heier Stamm JL, Haukos D, Douglas-Mankin K, Sheshukov AY, Lopez-Carr D (2015) Opinion: endogenizing culture in sustainability science research and policy. Proc Natl Acad Sci 112(27):8157–8159

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Campbell JA (1974) Charles Darwin and the crisis of ecology: a rhetorical perspective. Q J Speech 60:442–449

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Carson R (1962) Silent spring. Houghton Mifflin, New York

    Google Scholar 

  10. Cash DW, Clark WC, Alcock F, Dickson NW, Eckley N, Guston DH et al (2003) Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100(14):8086–8091

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Cash DW, Borck JC, Patt AC (2006) Countering the loading-dock approach to linking science and decision making. Sci Technol Hum Values 31:465–495

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Chaudhry R, Fischlein M, Larson J, Hall DM, Peterson TR, Wilson EJ, Stephens JC (2013) Policy stakeholders’ perceptions of carbon capture and storage (CCS): a comparison of four US states. J Cleaner Prod 52:21–32

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Clark WC (2007) Sustainability science: a room of its own. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104:1737–1738

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Clark WC, Dickson NM (2003) Sustainability science: the emerging research program. Proc Natl Acad Sci 100(14):8059–8061

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Clark WC, van Kerkhoff L, Lebel L, Gallopin GC (2016) Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. Proc Natl Acad Sci 113(117):4570–4578

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Cox JR (2010) Beyond frames: recovering the strategic in climate communication. Environ Commun 4(1):122–133

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Crompton T, Kasser T (2010) Human identity: a missing link in environmental campaigning. Environ Mag 23:23–33

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Cvitanovic C, Hobday AJ, van Kerkhoff L, Wilson SK, Dobbs K, Marshall NA (2015) Improving knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers to facilitate the adaptive governance of marine resources: a review of knowledge and research needs. Ocean Coast Manag 112:25–35

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Ehrenfeld JR, Hoffman AJ (2013) Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability. Stanford University Press, Palo Alto

    Google Scholar 

  20. EPA (2015) Clean power plan emissions data. https://www3.epa.gov/airquality/cpptoolbox/texas.pdf. Accessed 30 Aug 2015

  21. Evans J, Karvonen A, Raven R (eds) (2016) The experimental city. Routledge

  22. Feldpausch-Parker AM, Chaudhry R, Stephens JC, Fischlein M, Hall DM, Melnick LL, Peterson TR, Ragland CJ, Wilson, EJ (2010) A comparative state-level analysis of carbon capture and storage (CCS) discourse among US energy stakeholders and the public. Energy Procedia 4:6368–6375

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Feldpausch-Parker AM, Ragland CJ, Melnick LL, Chaudhry R, Hall DM, Peterson TR, Stephens JC, Wilson EJ (2013) Spreading the news on carbon capture and storage: a state-level comparison of US media. Environ Commun 7(3):336–354.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Fischer F (2000) Citizens, experts and the environment: the politics of local knowledge. Duke University Press, Durham

    Google Scholar 

  25. Fischlein M, Smith TM (2013) Revisiting renewable portfolio standard effectiveness: policy design and outcome specification matter. Policy Sci 46:277–310

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Fischlein M, Larson J, Hall DM, Chaudhry R, Peterson TR, Stephens JC et al (2010) Policy stakeholders and deployment of wind power in the sub-national context: a comparison of four US states. Energy Policy 38(8):4429–4439

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Fischlein M, Feldpausch-Parker AM, Peterson TR, Stephens JC, Wilson EJ (2014) Which way does the wind blow? Analyzing the sub-national context for renewable energy deployment in the United States. Environ Policy Gov 24(3):169–187

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Flyvbjerg B (2001) Making social science matter: why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  29. Funtowicz SO, Ravetz JR (1993) Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25:739–775

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Galbraith K, Price A (2013) The great Texas wind rush. University of Texas Press, Austin

    Google Scholar 

  31. Gibbons M (1999) Science’s new social contract with society. Nature 402:C81–C84

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Gibbons M (2000) Context-sensitive science: mode 2 society and the emergence of context-sensitive science. Sci Public Policy 27:159–163

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Guyot, J (2011) Anthropology as a key to sustainability science: an interview with Charles Redman. Anthropology News, April, 1

  34. Hall DM, Lazarus ED (2015) Deep waters: lessons from community meetings about offshore wind resource development in the US. Marine Policy 57:9–17

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Hall DM, Silka L, Lindenfeld L (2012a) Advancing science and improving quality of place: linking knowledge with action in Maine’s sustainability solutions initiative. Maine Policy Rev 21(1):22–29

    Google Scholar 

  36. Hall DM, Gilbertz SJ, Horton CJ, Peterson TR (2012b) Culture as a means to contextualize policy. J Environ Stud Sci 2(3):222–233

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Hall DM, Gilbertz SJ, Horton CC, Peterson TR (2013) Integrating divergent representations of place into decision contexts. In: Stewart WP, Williams DR, Kruger LE (eds) Place-based conservation: perspectives from the social sciences. Springer Press, Dordrecht, 121–136

    Google Scholar 

  38. Hall DM, Lazarus ED, Swannack TS (2014) Strategies for communicating systems models. Environ Model Softw 55:70–76

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Hall DM, Gilbertz SJ, Anderson M, Ward L (2016) Beyond “buy-in”: designing citizen participation in water planning as research. J Cleaner Prod 133:725–734

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Honadle G (1999) How context matters: linking environmental policy to people and place. Kumarian Press, West Hartford

    Google Scholar 

  41. Jasanoff S (2003) Technologies of humility: citizen participation in governing science. Minerva 41:223–244

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Jerneck A, Olsson L, Ness B, Anderberg S, Baier M, Clark E, Hickler T, Hornborg A, Kronsell A, Lövbrand E, Persson J (2011) Structuring sustainability science. Sustain Sci 6:69–82

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Kajikawa Y, Tacoa F, Yamaguchi K (2014) Sustainability science: the changing landscape of sustainability research. Sustain Sci 9(4):431–438

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Kates RW (2011) What kind of a science is sustainability science? Proc Natl Acad Sci 108:19449–19450

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Kates RW, Clark WC, Corell R, Hall JM, Jaeger CC, Lowe I, McCarthy JJ, Schellnhuber HJ, Bolin B, Dickson NM, Faucheux S (2001) Sustainability science. Science 292(5517):641–642

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Kingdon J (1995) Agendas, alternatives, and public policies, 2nd edn. Harper Collins, New York

    Google Scholar 

  47. Latour B (2004) Politics of nature: how to bring the sciences into democracy. C. Porter, translator. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  48. Latour B (2010) An attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”. New Lit Hist 41(3):471–490

    Google Scholar 

  49. Lorenzoni I, Benson D (2014) Radical institutional change in environmental governance: explaining the origins of the UK Climate Change Act 2008 through discursive streams perspectives. Glob Environ Change Hum Policy Dimens 29:10–21

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Lubchenco J (1998) Entering the century of the environment: a new social contract for science. Science 279:491–497

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Luhmann N (1989) Ecological communication. Translated by J. Bednarz, Jr. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  52. Luhmann N (1995) Social systems. Translated by J. Bednarz, Jr. & D. Baecker. Stanford University Press, Stanford

    Google Scholar 

  53. Luhmann N (2000) Art as a social system. Translated by Eva M. Knot. Stanford University Press, Stanford

    Google Scholar 

  54. Luhmann N (2012) Introduction to systems theory. Translated by P. Gilgen. D. Baecker (ed) Polity, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  55. Mattson P, Clark WC, Andersson K (2016) Pursuing sustainability: an introduction. Princeton

  56. McDonough W, Braungart M (2013) The upcycle: beyond sustainability designing for abundance. North Point Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  57. McGreavy B, Kates R (2012) Interview with Robert Kates, pathfinder in sustainability science. Maine Policy Rev 21(1):14–21

    Google Scholar 

  58. McNie EC (2007) Reconciling the supply of scientific information with user demands: an analysis of the problem and review of the literature. Environ Sci Policy 10(1):17–38

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Miller T, Wiek A, Sarewitz D, Robinson J, Olsson L, Kriebel D, Loorbach D (2014) The future of sustainability science: a solutions-oriented research agenda. Sustain Sci 9:239–246

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Murphy JW (1982) Talcott Parson and Niklas Luhmann: two versions of the social “system”. Int Rev Mod Sociol 12:291–301

    Google Scholar 

  61. Nisbet MC (2009) Communicating climate change: why frames matter for public engagement. Environ: Sci Policy Sustain Dev 51(2):12–23

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Norton BG (2005) Sustainability: a philosophy of adaptive ecosystem management. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  63. Norton BG, Thompson A (2014) Ethics and sustainable development: the virtues of an adaptive approach to environmental choice. Handbook of sustainable development. pp 105–124

  64. Nowotny H, Scott P, Gibbons, M (2001) Re-thinking science: knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty, Polity, Cambridge, pp 166–178

  65. Peterson TR (1997) Sharing the earth: the rhetoric of sustainable development. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia

    Google Scholar 

  66. Peterson MJ, Hall DM, Feldpausch AM, Peterson TR (2010) Obscuring ecosystem function with application of the ecosystem services concept. Conserv Biol 24(1):113–119

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Pidgeon N, Fischhoff B (2011) The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nat Clim Change 1(1):35–41

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Pielke RA Jr (2007) The honest broker: making sense of science in policy and politics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  69. Polk M (2014) Achieving the promise of transdisciplinarity a critical exploration of the relationship between transdisciplinary research and societal problem solving. Sustain Sci 9(4):439–451

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Reid RS, Nkedianye D, Said MY, Kaelo D, Neselle M, Makui O, Onetu L, Kiruswa S, Kamuaro NO, Kristjanson P, Ogutu J, BurnSilver SB, Goldman MJ, Boone RB, Galvin KA, Dickson NM, Clark WC (2016) Evolution of models to support community and policy action with science: balancing pastoral livelihoods and wildlife conservation in savannas of East Africa. Proc Natl Acad Sci 113(17):4579–4584

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Roux DJ, Rogers KH, Biggs HC, Ashton PJ, Sergeant A (2006) Bridging the science-management divide: moving from unidirectional knowledge transfer to knowledge interfacing and sharing. Ecol Soc 11 (1)

  72. Salzman J, Thompson BH Jr (2014) Environmental law and policy, 4th edn. Foundation Press, St. Paul

    Google Scholar 

  73. Sandfort J, Moulton S (2015) Effective implementation in practice: integrating public policy and management. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco

    Google Scholar 

  74. Sarewitz D (2004) How science makes environmental controversies worse. Environ Sci Pol 7:385–403

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Sarewitz D, Clapp R, Crumbley C, Kriebel D, Tickner J (2012) The sustainability solutions agenda. New Solut J Environ Occup Health Policy 22(2):139–151

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. Shellenberger M, Nordhaus T (2005) The death of environmentalism. Grist Magazine. Jan 13

  77. Spruijt P, Knol AB, Vasileiadou E, Devilee J, Lebret E, Petersen AC (2014) Roles of scientists as policy advisers on complex issues: a literature review. Environ Sci Policy 40:16–25

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Stephens JC, Wilson EJ, Peterson TR (2008) Socio-political evaluation of energy deployment (SPEED): an integrated research framework analyzing energy technology deployment. Technol Forecast Social Change 75(8):1224–1246

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Stephens JC, Rand GM, Melnick LL (2009) Wind energy in US media: a comparative state-level analysis of a critical climate change mitigation technology. Environ Commun 3(2):168–190

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Stephens JC, Peterson TR, Wilson EJ (2014) Socio-political evaluation of energy deployment (SPEED): a framework applied to smart grid. UCLA Law Review 61:1930–1961

    Google Scholar 

  81. Stephens JC, Wilson EJ, Peterson TR (2015) Smart grid (R) evolution. Cambridge University Press

  82. Swofford J, Slattery M (2010) Public attitudes of wind energy in Texas: local communities in close proximity to wind farms and their effect on decision-making. Energy Policy 38(5):2508–2519

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. van Kerkhoff L, Lebel L (2006) Linking knowledge and action for sustainable development. Annu Rev Environ Resour 31(1):445–477

    Article  Google Scholar 

  84. van der Leeuw S (2014) Sustainability culture and personal responsibility. Sustain Sci 9:115–117

    Article  Google Scholar 

  85. Varner G, Gilbertz SJ, Peterson TR (1996) Teaching environmental ethics as a method of conflict management. In Light A, Katz E (eds.) Environmental pragmatism. Routledge, London, pp 266–282

    Google Scholar 

  86. Whittemore A (2013) Finding sustainability in conservative contexts: topics for conversation between American conservative elites, planners and the conservative base. Urban Stud 50(12):2460–2477

    Article  Google Scholar 

  87. Wiek A, Withycombe L, Redman CL (2011) Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustain Sci 6(2):203–218

    Article  Google Scholar 

  88. Wiek A, Ness B, Schweizer-Ries P, Brand FS, Farioli F (2012) From complex systems analysis to transformational change: a comparative appraisal of sustainability science projects. Sustain Sci 7(Supplement 1):5–24

    Article  Google Scholar 

  89. Wilson EJ, Wilson R, Krizek KJ (2007) The implications of school choice on travel behavior and environmental emissions. Transp Res Part D: Transp Environ 12(7):506–518

    Article  Google Scholar 

  90. Withycome-Keeler LW, Wiek A, Lang DJ, Yokohari M, van Breda J, Olsson L, Ness B, Morato J, Segalàs J, Martens P, Bojórquez-Tapia LA (2016) Utilizing international networks for accelerating research and learning in transformational sustainability science. Sustain Sci 1–14

Download references

Acknowledgements

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation: SES Division of Social and Economic Sciences “Collaborative Research: Diffusion of Emerging Energy Technologies within a State Context” Award #0724301. Authors wish to acknowledge Susan Gilbertz, Jamie McEvoy, Luke Ward, Matt Anderson, Rumika Chaudhry, Joel Larson, and the reviewers for comments.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Damon M. Hall.

Additional information

Handled by Joshua Farley, The University of Vermont, USA.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hall, D.M., Feldpausch-Parker, A., Peterson, T.R. et al. Social-ecological system resonance: a theoretical framework for brokering sustainable solutions. Sustain Sci 12, 381–392 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0424-6

Download citation

Keywords

  • Knowledge to action
  • Transformational sustainability science
  • Climate-change communication
  • Wind energy
  • Renewable portfolio standard
  • Macro-level theory