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

Damon M. Hall, Andrea Feldpausch-Parker, Tarla Rai Peterson, Jennie C. Stephens, Elizabeth J. Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)381-392
Number of pages12
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017, Springer Japan.


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


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