Approaching Business and the Environment with Complexity Theory

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The failure to establish an international agreement on climate change at Copenhagen in December 2009 highlights the challenge of managing complex problems at the interface of business and the natural environment (B&NE). This unfortunate outcome can be understood in the context of the larger “sociotechnical system” within which business and policymakers are operating: a complex dynamic system comprising economic, technological, social, political, and ecological elements, generating complex interactions and unforeseen outcomes. Yet even as recriminations were fl ying at Copenhagen, some welcomed the opportunity to move beyond a centralized, top-down model of global climate governance. Instead, they embraced the opportunity for businesses, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and governmental agencies to experiment with a plethora of innovative approaches to reducing emissions, which off er new opportunities for learning and creative solutions ( Hoffmann 2011 ). Complexity theory provides a grounded theoretical basis for this more optimistic perspective by explaining how networked actors can display adaptive learning and emergent self-organization. In this chapter we examine the contribution of complexity theory to our understanding of B&NE, with a particular focus on climate change as an illustrative and representative example. These provide insight into systemic tendencies towards patterned behavior, frozen inertia, and sometimes extreme instability. At a macro level, complexity theory explains why systems are oft en hard to comprehend and forecast, let alone manage and control. Yet complexity also offers micro-level tools and concepts to help innovative organizations improve sustainability through local initiatives of loosely networked agents.


Oxford University Press