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Systems Research and Behavioral Science

Syst. Res. 31, 14–22 (2014)

Published online 14 October 2012 in Wiley Online Library
(wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/sres.2146

■ Research Paper

The Complexity–Sustainability Trade-Off in

Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory
Vladislav Valentinov*
Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Central and Eastern Europe, Halle, Saale Germany

This paper explores the way the idea of sustainability is linked to categories traditionally
examined by the general systems theory—the categories of system, environment, and
complexity. Toward this end, the paper builds upon the social systems theory of Niklas
Luhmann to explain the nature of the trade-off between complexity and sustainability.
Exemplified by Luhmann’s theory of ecological communication, the trade-off emerges
because the growing systemic complexity entails the increasing risk that systems develop
insensitivity to those environmental conditions on which they critically depend. The key
implication of the trade-off is that it may be rational for social systems to withdraw their
internal complexity to maintain their sustainability in a given environment. Copyright ©
2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Keywords Luhmann; autopoiesis; sustainability; complexity

INTRODUCTION According to von Bertalanffy (1968), classical sci-

ence suffers from a mechanistic worldview which
This paper explores the way the idea of sustainabil- prevents it from giving an adequate explanation
ity is linked to categories traditionally examined of the attributes of organized complexity such as
by the general systems theory—the categories of wholeness, evolution, self-regulation and equi-
system, environment and complexity. The general finality. To Bertalanffy (ibid), these phenomena
systems theory defines itself as a multidisciplinary could only be accounted for in the open system
exercise and, for that reason alone, provides a valu- model. Open systems maintain themselves ‘in
able methodological orientation for sustainability exchange of materials with environment, and in
research (cf. Bai and Henesey, 2012). However, continuous building up and breaking down of
the present paper will argue that the general their components’ (von Bertalanffy, 1950, p. 23).
systems theory can inform the understanding of Transferring the concept of organized complex-
sustainability in an additional important way by ity to the social context, von Bertalanffy (1967,
highlighting the potentially precarious relationship 1968) warned of the dangers of applying the
between sustainability and complexity. mechanistic worldview to human beings and
societies. Both individuals and societies main-
* Correspondence to: Vladislav Valentinov, Leibniz Institute of tain themselves in ways that are not accountable
Agricultural Development in Central and Eastern Europe, Theodor-
Lieser-Str.2, D-06120 Halle (Saale), Germany.
in terms of what he designated as the ‘robot
E-mail: valentinov@iamo.de model’ (cf. Moeller and Valentinov, 2012).

Received 22 June 2012

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Accepted 12 September 2012

The societal meaning of Bertalanffy’s open lengths in analysing and refining the meaning
system theory has evoked much interest from of the categories of system, environment and
heterodox institutional economists exploring the complexity, which indeed take central stage in his
links between the economy and the societal and whole theoretical edifice. Second, by utilizing
natural environment, or, in other words, the these categories, he developed a distinct line of
embeddedness of the economy into the broader argumentation about the tendency of the modern
societal and natural systems (cf. Hodgson, 1987; functionally differentiated society to put itself into
Hayden, 2006; Adkisson, 2009; Valentinov, 2012). an ecological predicament (cf. Luhmann, 2004).
The heterodox school of institutional economics The contribution of the present paper is in crystal-
rejects the notion of equilibrium and endorses lizing this argumentation into a general statement
Bertalanffy’s concept of steady state signifying of the complexity-sustainability trade-off, which
the ongoing exchange of matter and energy is shown to be a logical implication of Luhmann’s
between the system and the environment. In reasoning. Toward this end, the following sections
contrast to static equilibrium, a steady state reconstruct Luhmann’s ideas about the relation-
involves the antientropic maintenance of systemic ship between the categories of system, environment
complexity, which is thermodynamically improb- and complexity; revisit his theory of ‘ecological
able and is generally associated with progress communication’; and on this basis, synthesize his
(cf. Laszlo, 1972). arguments into a conceptual framework explicitly
The general systems theory leanings of heterodox articulating a precarious relationship between
institutional economics have led it to address a complexity and sustainability.
range of issues broadly related to the sustainability
of socio-economic evolution. Of central concern to
institutionalists are the difficulties involved in THE NATURE OF SYSTEMS
adapting the market system to embedding societal
and natural systems (Myrdal, 1957; Kapp, 1977; According to Luhmann, the basic rationale for
Hagedorn, 2008). The paradigmatic statement of the existence of social systems is the reduction
these difficulties is Kapp’s seminal 1977 book of complexity, which is understood as the infinite
examining the adverse effects of profit-driven horizon of possibilities of action and experience
business on the human, social, and ecological (cf. Schneider, 2009, p. 251). This horizon is
dimensions of sustainability. Yet, although institu- immensely complex. Human action implies an
tionalists have made a major step toward linking actualization of some of the possibilities out of
the concept of sustainability to Bertalanffy’s open this horizon and is in this sense necessarily
system theory, they have not squarely faced the contingent. Luhmann rejects all forms of tele-
issue of its logical interrelationship with this ology that would deny this contingence (Krause,
theory’s central categories, such as system, envir- 2005, p. 8). As the horizon of possibilities is
onment, and complexity. infinite, it must be adequately filtered to
The strategy of the present paper is to fill this prevent it from overburdening an individual
gap by revisiting and reconstructing key argu- mind. Luhmann designates this filtering function
ments of the social systems theory of Niklas as complexity reduction which is undertaken by
Luhmann, a luminary of the contemporary social systems. By reducing complexity, social
sociological thought. He has built upon recent systems make human action possible. In contrast
advances in the general systems theory, particu- to Parsonian functionalism, Luhmann takes
larly on the ideas of autopoiesis and second-order complexity reduction to be the basic systemic
cybernetics, to construct a grand sociological function which can be performed by various
theory broadly comparable, in terms of scale and structures which do so by suppressing those
ambition, to the Parsonian theoretical system. possibilities of action and experience that are
Luhmann’s social systems theory is uniquely not congruent with them. Accordingly, the
suited for addressing the research problem at distinguishing characteristic of social systems is
hand for two reasons. First, he went to great that within them, the range of possibilities is

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Res. 31, 14–22 (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/sres

The Complexity–Sustainability Trade-Off 15


limited and thus narrower than in the environ- the environment by another concept borrowed
ment. This is an assumption that is certainly not from Maturana and Varela (1980), that of structural
shared by Bertalanffy’s open systems perspective couplings. Structural couplings embody that type
which accentuates the anti-entropic implications of system-environment interconnectedness, which
of systems rather than environments. is consistent with the fully internally determined
The explanation of systems in terms of their (or structure-determined) systemic operation. In
complexity reduction role makes it clear that particular, structural couplings rule out any possi-
Luhmann rejects Ashby’s principle of ‘requisite bility of environment directly determining, or
variety’ and considers the environment to be governing, what happens within the system.
necessarily more complex than the system Rather, their role is in constraining the range of
(cf. Luhmann, 1991, p. 249). The latter fact leads possible structures that systems can use to carry
Luhmann (1991, p. 250) to postulate the central out their autopoiesis (Luhmann, 1997, p. 100).
existential challenge faced by every social The concept of structural couplings has several
system: the system has to ‘assert itself against interesting implications highlighting the precar-
the overwhelming complexity of the environ- iousness nature of relationships that autopoietic
ment’. Luhmann argues that systems can meet systems maintain with their environments. First,
this challenge by being selective in organizing a prerequisite of structural couplings is a certain
their interaction with the environment. Systems minimally required state of systemic adaptation
compensate for their inferior complexity by to the environment (Luhmann, 1997, p. 102).
becoming insensitive to the complexity of the Autopoietic systems cannot exist in an environ-
environment, or more exactly, by increasing their ment to which they are not adapted; the fact of
sensitivity to specific fragments of environmental their adaptation manifests itself in the presence
complexity while increasing their insensitivity of structural couplings. Second, by constraining
to the rest of this complexity at the same time the range of possible systemic structures, struc-
(ibid). In short, systems can increase their own tural couplings create what Luhmann (1997,
complexity in no other way than by reducing p. 133) calls ‘degrees of freedom’ for systems to
(ignoring) the complexity of the environment carry out their autopoiesis (evidently referring
(cf. Luhmann, 2009, p. 121). to the freedom from environmental influence).
In his later writings, Luhmann links the com- Within these degrees of freedom, systems deter-
plexity reduction role of social systems to the mine their own evolution. Luhmann (1997,
theory of autopoiesis developed by the natural p. 102) refers to this intrasystemic freedom as a
scientists Maturana and Varela, who were seeking compensation for the constraining effect of struc-
to understand the biological essence of life. tural couplings. Third, and most crucial for the
These scholars came to define living systems in present paper, systems can utilize their internal
terms of their capacity for autopoiesis, that is, freedom in ways that endanger the continuation
self-reproduction by means of continuous regener- of their autopoiesis.
ation of their own components (Maturana and It is here that the difference between Luhmann
Varela, 1980). Autopoietic systems are operation- and Bertalanffy becomes particularly far-reaching.
ally closed, that is, they do not have input–output According to Luhmann (1997, p. 133), ‘the overall
contacts with the environment, as supposed by effect [of operational closure] . . . is . . . not adapta-
von Bertalanffy’s (1968) theory of open systems. tion [to the environment], but amplification of
Instead, autopoietic systems interact with the deviations’. Being to some extent free from this
environment by processing self-reference and environmental influence, systems are likely to
other-reference in their internal operations, which develop in ways that make them less, rather
must be continually renewed at a sufficiently than more, adapted to their environments. There-
high rate to keep these systems in existence fore, while adaptation to the environment is a
(cf. Schneider, 2009, p. 275). prerequisite to structural couplings, it is possible
Given the operational closure of autopoietic that the intrasystemic freedom emerging from
systems, Luhmann explains their connection with them will result in this prerequisite being

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Res. 31, 14–22 (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/sres

16 Vladislav Valentinov

undermined. The next section shows that this is responsibility for dealing with the ecological pro-
indeed the way Luhmann saw the ecological blems. Instead, all responses that this society
problems of modern society. can generate are necessarily on the level of indi-
vidual functional systems, such as law, economy
and politics, which are incapable of being effect-
THE ROLE OF ENVIRONMENTS ively coordinated with each other, whereas indi-
vidual autopoietic responses of these systems are
The logic of structural couplings suggests that necessarily incomplete. For example, the economic
systems, as it were, do not notice their environ- system reacts to ecological problems by attributing
ment and are concerned exclusively with the responsibility for the ecological damage as well
continual renewal of their autopoietic opera- as by creating new cost categories and market
tions. Environment becomes explicitly ‘felt’ only opportunities for businessmen, yet all this in
to the extent that this renewal is endangered principle does not halt the process the ecological
(Luhmann, 2009, p. 63). According to Luhmann, destruction (cf. Luhmann, 1997, p. 133). Luhmann
this is what is happening with the ecological (2004) introduces a number of additional concepts,
environment of the modern societal system. There such as ‘resonance’ and ‘rejection of redundancy’,
is indeed nothing in the concept of autopoiesis that to make the point that individual functional
prevents autopoietic systems from affecting their systems respond to ecological problems in an
environment in ways that would make this envir- unpredictable and cumulative way, which may
onment less able to carry, or ‘tolerate’, the systems be difficult to meaningfully relate to the pro-
concerned (cf. Schneider, 2009, p. 372). Moreover, blems in question (cf. also Vanderstraeten, 2005;
Luhmann explicitly argues that this is precisely Gregory, 2006).
what must happen in the long run. Autopoietic Luhmann’s governance pessimism (cf. Brans
systems are utilizing their ‘degrees of freedom’ and Rossbach, 1997, p. 432; cf. also Scharpf,
all the way up to the point that the environment 1997) is evidently a logical implication of the
no longer ‘tolerates’ their autopoiesis; after this structural coupling concept. Indeed, according
threshold point is reached, these systems are to Schneider (2009, p. 352), individual functional
bound to disappear. According to Luhmann, ‘eco- systems of society, just like any other autopoietic
logical equilibrium’ does exist, but it does not systems, cannot operate in a way other than that
mean that autopoietic systems stop unfolding which entails substantial discrepancies and misa-
their internal complexity just before the threshold lignments between them. These discrepancies
point. It merely means that systems that do so are necessarily follow from these systems’ oper-
regularly eliminated, and this is what is likely ational closure. Therefore, the role of structural
happen, in the long run, with the societal system couplings is in maintaining a meaningful coexist-
(cf. Luhmann, 2004, pp. 36–38). ence and interconnection of various functional
Not only does Luhmann predict the natural systems but not in attaining coordinated intersys-
tendency of autopoietic systems, including the temic solutions to any specific societal problems.
societal system, to self-destruct through the increas- Yet, although no solutions can be guaranteed, it
ingly likely maladaptation to the environment; still remains possible to improve information
he is also pessimistic about the ability of society exchange between functional systems, for example,
to consciously resist this self-destruction. The main through what Luhmann calls ‘negotiation systems’
reason for this pessimism has a lot to do with (Luhmann, 1997, p. 788; cf. also Schneider, 2009,
the functional differentiation of modern society. p. 376 ff.) or through comparable institutional
Although the functional differentiation allows a arrangements of discussion groups, round tables,
tremendous increase in societal complexity, it makes concerted actions, public–private partnerships,
societal communication erratic, unpredictable and and others (cf. Brans and Rossbach, 1997, p. 433).
ungovernable (cf. Luhmann, 1997, p. 763 ff.). A The overall aim of these decentralized institutional
functionally differentiated society cannot establish arrangements is to improve integration between
a general agency that would bear the total functional systems, although it bears repeating

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Res. 31, 14–22 (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/sres

The Complexity–Sustainability Trade-Off 17


that no improvement of this kind can guarantee a conditions (cf. Schneider, 2009, p. 352). This
solution to the ecological or any other specific combination is, however, problematic because it
societal problems. entails the increasing risk that systems develop
However, the mere fact that an improved inte- insensitivity to precisely those environmental
gration between functional systems may be a conditions on which they critically depend. It is, in
facilitating factor in addressing the ecological fact, this precarious combination that underpins
problems potentially points out an important the ecological predicament of modern society.
connection between complexity and (ecological) Evidently, it is rooted in the general destructive
sustainability of the societal system. This connec- potential of structural couplings, which might lead
tion becomes visible upon considering the way systems to ignore crucial environmental conditions
Luhmann understood integration. To him, inte- (cf. Luhmann, 1997, pp. 102 ff.).
gration is ‘nothing other than a reduction in Contrasted with Bertalanffy’s open systems
the degrees of freedom’ of functional systems perspective, the first principle stands out as
(Luhmann, 1997, p. 603), or more generally, ‘a distinctly opposed to it. Although this perspective
structural constraint upon what is possible’ does not deny that systems critically depend on
(Krause, 2005, p. 77). By constraining the range of the environment, it does not see the systemic and
possibilities available to functional (and other environmental complexity as inversely related. It
autopoietic) systems, integration imposes limita- is the complexity reduction principle that captures
tions on the scale of complexity that these systems the main logical difference between the theories of
can unfold, thereby suggesting an inverse relation- open and autopoietic systems and that enables the
ship between complexity and (ecological) sustain- latter theory to see the relationship between
ability. This relationship is explicitly developed in systemic complexity and sustainability as poten-
the next Section. tially precarious.
Both principles are particularly well discernible
in the following statement, which has already been
THE COMPLEXITY-SUSTAINABILITY mentioned above: ‘Through operational closure,
TRADE-OFF systems develop own degrees of freedom, which
they can exhaust as long as it is possible, that is,
The preceding discussion allows crystallizing two as long as the environment can tolerate it. . . The
interrelated principles underpinning Luhmann’s overall effect [of operational closure] however is
understanding of system-environment relations. . . . not adaptation, but amplification of deviations’
The first principle, which can be called ‘the complex- (Luhmann, 1997, p. 133). Put together, the two
ity reduction principle’, posits that systems increase principles suggest that the tendency of systems to
their complexity by becoming increasingly insensi- develop their internal complexity may cause the
tive to the complexity of the environment. This increasing strain on the environment which feeds
principle captures the basic meaning of Luhmann’s back on the deteriorating prospects for the con-
seemingly paradoxical dictum that systems increase tinuation of systemic autopoiesis. Interestingly,
complexity by reducing complexity (e.g., Luhmann, both principles can be conceptualized in terms of
2009, p. 121). The second principle, which can be the relationship between systemic complexity
called ‘the critical dependence principle’, posits that and environmental complexity. This conceptua-
the increasing complexity of systems is associated lization is straightforward for the first principle,
with their growing dependence on environmental which postulates these types of complexity as
complexity in ways that make the continuation of inversely related. More specifically, the complexity
their autopoiesis increasingly unlikely. Luhmann’s reduction principle explicitly associates the increas-
analysis of ecological communication has shown ing systemic complexity with the decreasing
that the increasing systemic complexity is asso- environmental complexity to which the system
ciated not only with the increasing insensitivity to remains sensitive. In contrast, the critical depend-
the environmental complexity but also with the ence principle can be understood as an inversion
increasing dependence on particular environmental of the complexity reduction principle. It posits

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Res. 31, 14–22 (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/sres

18 Vladislav Valentinov

systemic complexity and environmental complex- being suppressed, rather than promoted, by the
ity as positively related in the sense that the regime of the functional differentiation of society.
increasing systemic complexity is associated with Indeed, the functionally differentiated society
the increasing environmental complexity on which ‘sharply reduces its relations with the non-social
systems critically depend. environment. Reference to the natural world is
Thus, to rephrase the above statement of filtered not only by the external boundaries
Luhmann, systems can develop their own com- of the encompassing system but also by the
plexity in a sustainable way as long as the envir- internal boundaries of the function[al] systems’
onmental complexity to which they are sensitive (cf. Luhmann, 2004, p. 257; Vanderstraeten,
includes the factors on which they critically depend. 2005, p. 479). Although the functional systems
The unsustainable systemic development results operate rationally, their rationality is increasingly
from systems losing sensitivity to these factors. intra-social and, thus, increasingly unsuited for
By implication, maximum sustainable complexity addressing the ecological problems, which con-
is reached at the point at which the environmental cern society as a whole (ibid).
complexity on which systems critically depend The relationship between the complexity reduc-
just coincides with that environmental complexity tion principle and the critical dependence principle
to which systems maintain sensitivity. provides guidance on how the functionally differ-
Systems evolving in an unsustainable way are entiated society as a whole can improve the ration-
bound to be eliminated. However, although this ality of its overall reaction to the ecological
fate is certain for unsustainable allopoietic systems problems. The key lesson that can be drawn from
(i.e., technical machines), it cannot be certain for these principles is that it may be rational, for any
what Luhmann called ‘the meaning-processing type of social system, to withdraw its internal
systems’, such as social systems. The reason is that complexity to maintain its sustainability in a given
the meaning-processing systems can redefine environment. Luhmann himself envisaged this
themselves, that is, reconfigure the boundary withdrawal of complexity as an effort to improve
between the actual and the possible; for example, integration of individual functional systems with
functional systems, such as economy, law and a view to attaining a more coherent way of dealing
politics, can adjust their programs (although with the ecological problems. As mentioned above,
they cannot adjust their underlying codes, cf. he understood integration as ‘a structural con-
Luhmann, 2004, p. 91). It is for this reason of the straint upon what is possible’ (Krause, 2005,
possibility of readjustment that the pessimistic p. 77), which is in essence equivalent to a constraint
Luhmannian outlook does not boil down to an upon complexity of the systems in question. The
outright prediction of an unavoidable ecological potentially precarious relationship between com-
catastrophe. plexity and sustainability appears to be, however,
Social and other meaning-processing systems a more general point retaining its validity beyond
can improve their sustainability prospects by the functional differentiation context analysed by
increasing their rationality, which Luhmann Luhmann. The point is that complex systems
understood as an intra-systemic consideration may increase their sustainability in a given envir-
of the state of the environment (Luhmann, 2009, onment by devising mechanisms for binding
p. 190) or, in more technical terms, as a ‘reentry themselves to constrain and control the unfolding
of the system-environment distinction into the of their complexity. This point provides a clue to
system’ (cf. Luhmann, 1991, p. 617; Luhmann, a systems theory understanding of business
2004, p. 257). In the ecological sustainability sustainability strategies; for example, following
respect, rationality entails the exploration of the argument of Pies et al. (2009), corporate citizen-
the way the ecological environment adversely ship can be understood as a mechanism that busi-
feeds back on the societal system as a result ness firms utilize to control the unfolding of their
of this system’s effects on the environment business complexity to secure their sustainable
(Luhmann, 2004, p. 39). Paradoxically, according existence in the broader societal environment
to Luhmann, rationality in the above sense is (cf. Beckmann, 2010).

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Res. 31, 14–22 (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/sres

The Complexity–Sustainability Trade-Off 19


THE INSTITUTIONAL ECONOMICS systems theory terms, institutional economics

IMPLICATIONS needs the Luhmannian autopoietic systems theory
which does involve the trade-off between com-
It seems worthwhile to consider the main impli- plexity and sustainability. The dichotomy drives
cations of the complexity-sustainability trade-off home the point that the excessive complexity of
for the heterodox variety of institutional econom- the (market) economy cannot be carried by the
ics, which has been mentioned in the Introduc- encompassing societal and natural environment.
tion and is centrally concerned with the issue of Putting the dichotomy under control requires
societal sustainability. (All subsequent references constraining those aspects of this (pecuniary)
to institutional economics in this section will complexity, which disregard the critical dependen-
refer to this particular school of thought). As cies of the market economy on the encompassing
mentioned above, this school of institutional societal and natural environment.
economics broadly understands sustainability in This argument gives grounds for believing that
terms of the extent to which the economy main- the institutional economics understanding of sus-
tains alignment with the encompassing societal tainability might benefit from a more explicit
and natural systems. Furthermore, the advocates consideration of the Luhmannian theory. Fur-
of this school centrally embrace Bertalanffy’s open thermore, the above-mentioned ‘optimistic’ view
systems theory to emphasize the anti-entropic of sustainability implicit in the open systems
implications of complexity and to high light the perspective can be even thought of as a particular
contrast with the closed-systems perspective case of the complexity-sustainability trade-off.
implicated in the orthodox neoclassical economics This case is based on the assumption that the
(Hayden, 2006; Adkisson, 2009; Valentinov, 2012). complexity in question takes account of all the
Given their attachment to open systems metaphor, critical dependencies in the encompassing soci-
it is only natural that institutional economists do etal and natural environment. This is, to be sure,
not see any conflict between complexity and a very strong assumption. Many critical depend-
sustainability. Bertalanffy’s paradigmatic example encies are not self-evident. They have to be
of open systems is biological organisms, which discovered through an explorative process that
are much better carried by the broader ecological West Churchman (1979) called ‘sweeping-in’; he
environment than technologically advanced soci- indeed argued that they ought to be discovered
eties. Indeed, it can be said that the complexity of from his normative perspective of the ‘ethics of
biological organisms enjoys, as it were, a ‘guaran- whole systems’. Churchman’s normative impera-
teed’ sustainability enforced by the Darwinian tive of comprehensiveness is, in turn, paralleled
evolutionary forces. by the inclusiveness of the institutional econom-
This is a very optimistic view of the relation- ics idea of instrumental value, which involves
ship between complexity and sustainability. Yet, ‘the continuity of human life and the non-invidious
although this view can be more or less directly recreation of community through the instrumental
inferred from the institutional economics litera- use of knowledge’ (Tool, 2001, p. 293). Moreover,
ture, it appears that institutionalists themselves the very justification of both ‘ethics of whole
do not really believe it. This optimistic view is systems’ and instrumental value seemingly derives
indeed hardly possible to reconcile with the insti- from the Luhmannian complexity-sustainability
tutionalist dichotomy between instrumental and trade-off. For if this trade-off did not exist, there
pecuniary value, which is ‘a central analytical would arguably be no need for being compre-
tool of institutional economics’ (Munkirs, 1988, hensive, that is, responsive to all critical depend-
p. 1035) and which can be readily associated with encies in the environment. This discussion can be
the problem of the lack of sustainability. Essential summarized by saying that at the global level,
as it is, emphasizing the anti-entropic implica- which includes all systems and environments,
tions of open systems does not lead to a clear the complexity-sustainability trade-off, strictly
explanation of the emergence of the dichotomy. speaking, does not hold; whatever is sustainable
It appears that, to explain the dichotomy in must be complex. However, the trade-off does

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Res. 31, 14–22 (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/sres

20 Vladislav Valentinov

exist locally, thereby providing the basic explan- required to make complex systems more sustain-
ation why societal sustainability became an issue able. At their core, these improvements boil down
at all. to developing complexity in ways that do not
endanger sustainability.


The contribution of the present paper is in high- ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

lighting a key difference in the way the notion of
complexity is understood by the general systems The author is grateful to anonymous reviewers
theory inspired by Bertalanffy and by the social for their very helpful comments.
systems theory of Niklas Luhmann. The former
theory seeks to explain complexity by building
upon the open systems metaphor; the latter uti-
lizes the metaphor of autopoiesis to highlight the
potentially precarious effects of systemic complex-
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Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Res. 31, 14–22 (2014)
DOI: 10.1002/sres

22 Vladislav Valentinov