A systems-theoretical perspective on sustainable development and indicators

Authored by: Paul-Marie Boulanger

Routledge Handbook of Sustainability Indicators

Print publication date:  June  2018
Online publication date:  June  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138674769
eBook ISBN: 9781315561103
Adobe ISBN:


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The present chapter adopts a normatively distanced perspective on the issue of sustainability and its indicators. Taking a lead from the German sociologist and systems theorist Niklas Luhmann’s writings, I argue that the disappointment manifested by many scholars and activists concerning the actual use of sustainability indicators in policy-making comes from an underestimation of the complexity of the modern society. The modern society’s complexity lies in its (horizontal) differentiation into several autonomous, operationally closed subsystems (law, science, the economy, the mass media, etc.) structured around a binary code (legal/illegal, tradable/non-tradable, new/old). These different subsystems are open and structurally coupled to each other but not to their natural environment. The relation between society and nature is mediated by technology. Social systems observe each other with indicators, which are condensations of expectations with respect to the social environment. They make use of indicators if they change their structures and programs according to their own observations and they are influenced by indicators if they react to the way they are themselves observed by their environment. The recent burgeoning of sustainability indicators, sustainability impact assessments methods and practices, etc., can be sociologically interpreted as the progressive emergence of a new functional system structured around the sustainable/unsustainable binary code. Whilst being a further diversification of the modern society, such a process would however overcome the current trade-off between complexity and sustainability, responsible for the coming ecological disasters.

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