Complex Adaptive Systems and a Sustainability Framework

Part of the SpringerBriefs in Geography book series (BRIEFSGEOGRAPHY)


This chapter describes the key features of complex adaptive systems (CAS) and presents a framework for analyzing sustainability of coupled human-environment systems (CHES). The framework uses two concepts to characterize and quantify sustainability: well-being and resilience. Well-being describes the state of a CHES at a given point in time, and resilience describes the state change of the system. The framework suggests some quantitative measures for well-being in the context of climate change and variability. It also includes specific analyses that are intended to undertsand the complex processes in a CHES and to provide scientific support for policy to promote sustainable development. The chapter closes with an overview of the study of rural development in the Poyang Lake Region of China.


Complex adaptive systems Coupled human-environment systems Well-being Resilience Sustainability Policy analysis 


  1. Adger, W. N., Huq, S., Brown, K., Conway, D., & Hulme, M. (2003). Adaptation to climate change in the developing world. Progress in Development Studies, 3, 179–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arthur, W. B., Durlauf, S. N., & Lane, D. A. (Eds.). (1997). The economy as an evolving complex system II. Reading: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
  3. Axelrod, R. (1997). The complexity of cooperation: Agent-based models of competition and collaboration. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Axelrod, R., & Cohen, M. D. (2000). Harnessing complexity: Organizational implications of a scientific frontier. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  5. Bankes, S. (2002). Agent-based modeling: A revolution? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99, 7296–7303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bebbington, A. (1999). Capitals and capabilities: A framework for analyzing peasant viability, rural livelihoods and poverty. World Development, 27, 2021–2044.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berkes, F., Colding, J., & Folke, C. (Eds.). (2003). Navigating social-ecological systems: Building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., Davis, I., & Wisner, B. (1994). At risk: Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Burton, I., Kates, R. W., & White, G. E. (1978). Environment as hazard. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Burton, I., Kates, R. W., & White, G. E. (1993). Environment as hazard. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Anderies, J. M., & Abel, N. (2001). From metaphor to measurement: Resilience of what to what? Ecosystems, 4, 765–781.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cioffi-Revilla, C. (2014). Computation and social science. In Introduction to computational social science (pp. 23–66). London: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cioffi-Revilla, C. (2016). Social-ecological systems. In W.S. Bainbridge, & M.C. Roco (Eds.), Handbook of science and technology convergence. Switzerland: Springer.Google Scholar
  14. Clark, W. C. (2007). Sustainability science: A room of its own. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(6), 1737.Google Scholar
  15. Cutter, S. L., Boruff, B. J., & Shirley, W. L. (2003). Social vulnerability to environmental hazards. Social Science Quarterly, 84, 242–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dreze, J., & Sen, A. (Eds.). (1990). The political economy of hunger (pp. 50–67). Oxford, UK: Clarendo.Google Scholar
  17. Dwyer, A., Zoppou, C., Nielsen, O., Day, S., & Roberts, S. (2004). Quantifying social vulnerability: A methodology for identifying those at risk to natural hazards. Geoscience Australia. Retrieved from
  18. Eakin, H. (2005). Institutional change, climate risk, and rural vulnerability: Cases from central Mexico. World Development, 33(11), 1923–1938.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ellis, F. (1998). Household strategies and rural livelihood diversification. Journal of Development Studies, 35, 1–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Epstein, J. M., & Axtell, R. (1996). Growing artificial societies: Social science from the bottom up. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  21. Farmer, J. D., & Foley, D. (2009). The economy needs agent-based modelling. Nature, 460(7256), 685–686.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Folke, C., Carpenter, S., Elmqvist, T., Gunderson, L., Hoiling, C. S., & Walker, B. (2002). Resilience and sustainable development: Building adaptive capacity in a world of transformations. Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 31(5), 437–440.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Folke, C. (2006). Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social–ecological systems analyses. Global Environmental Change, 16, 253–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fussel, H. M., & Klein, R. J. T. (2006). Climate change vulnerability assessments: An evolution of conceptual thinking. Climatic Change, 75, 301–32Google Scholar
  25. Gell-Mann, M. (1994). The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the simple and the complex. New York: Freeman.Google Scholar
  26. Gilbert, G. N. (2008). Agent-based models (No. 153). Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  27. Gunderson, L. H., & Holling, C. S. (Eds.). (2002). Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Washington, DC: Island Press.Google Scholar
  28. Heppenstall, A. J., Crooks, A. T., See, L. M., & Batty, M. (Eds.). (2012). Agent-based models of geographical systems. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  29. Hewitt, K. (Ed.). (1983). Interpretations of calamity. Boston, MA: Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  30. Holdren, J. P. (2008). Science and technology for sustainable well-Being. Science, 25, 424–434.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Holland, J. H. (1995). Hidden order: How adaptation builds complexity. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.Google Scholar
  32. Holland, J. H. (1998). Emergence: From chaos to order. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.Google Scholar
  33. Holland, J. H. (2012). Signals and boundaries: Building blocks for complex adaptive systems. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  34. Holling, C. S. (1973). Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4, 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Houghton, J. T., et al. (Eds.). (2001). Climate change 2001: The scientific basis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014). Climate change 2014—Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability: Regional aspects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Janssen, M. A. (Ed.). (2003). Complexity and ecosystem management: The theory and practice of multi-agent systems. New York: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  38. Kates, R. W. (2000). Cautionary tales: Adaptation and the global poor. Climatic Change, 45(1), 5–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kauffman, S. (1995). At home in the universe: The search for the laws of self-organization and complexity. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Lemos, M. C., Boyd, E., Tompkins, E. L., & Osbahr, H. (2007). Developing adaptation and adapting development. Ecology and Society, 12(2), 375–386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lemos, M. C., Lo, Y. J., Nelson, D. R., Eakin, H., & Bedran-Martins, A. M. (2016). Linking development to climate adaptation: Leveraging generic and specific capacities to reduce vulnerability to drought in ne Brazil. Global Environmental Change, 39, 170–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Levin, S. A. (1999). Fragile dominion: Complexity and the commons. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.Google Scholar
  43. Levin, S. A., & Clark, W. C. (2010). Toward a science of sustainability (CID Working Paper No. 196). Cambridge, MA: Center for International Development, Harvard University.Google Scholar
  44. Liu, J., Dietz, T., Carpenter, S. R., Alberti, M., Folke, C., Moran, E., et al. (2007). Complexity of coupled human and natural systems. Science, 317(5844), 1513–1516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Luenberger, D. G. (1979). Introduction to dynamic systems: Theory, models, and applications. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  46. Manson, S. M., & Evans, T. (2007). Agent-based modeling of deforestation in southern Yucatan, Mexico, and reforestation in the Midwest United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(52), 20678–20683.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. McCarthy, J. J., Canzianni, O. F., Leary, N. A., Dokken, D. J., & White, K. S. (Eds.). (2001). Climate change 2001: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  48. McCubbin, S., Smit, B., & Pearce, T. (2015). Where does climate fit? Vulnerability to climate change in the context of multiple stressors in Funafuti, Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change, 30, 43–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Moran, E. F. (2010). Environmental social science: Human-environment interactions and sustainability. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  50. Ostrom, E. (2009). A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science, 325, 419–422.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Paavola, J. (2008). Livelihoods, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change in Morogoro, Tanzania. Environmental Science & Policy, 11(7), 642–654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Parker, D. C., Manson, S. M., Janssen, M. A., Hoffman, M. J., & Deadman, P. (2003). Multi-agent systems for the simulation of land-use and land-cover change: A review. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 93, 314–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Railsback, S. F., & Grimm, V. (2011). Agent-based and individual-based modeling: A practical introduction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Ribot, J. C. (2009). Vulnerability does not just fall from the sky: Toward multi-scale pro-poor climate policy. In R. Mearns & A. Norton (Eds.), Social dimensions of climate change: Equity and vulnerability in a warming world. Washington, DC: The World Bank.Google Scholar
  55. Ribot, J. C., Najam, A., & Watson, G. (1996). Climate variation, vulnerability and sustainable development in the semi-arid tropics. In J. C. Ribot, A. R. Magalhaes, & S. S. Panagides (Eds.), Climate variability, climate change and social vulnerability in the semi-arid tropics (pp. 13–54). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Riolo, R. L., Axelrod, R., & Cohen, M. D. (2001). Evolution of cooperation without reciprocity. Nature, 414, 441–443.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Rogers, S., & Xue, T. (2015). Resettlement and climate change vulnerability: Evidence from rural China. Global Environmental Change, 35, 62–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Rygel, L., O’Sullivan, D., & Yarnal, B. (2006). A method for constructing a social vulnerability index: An application to hurricane storm surges in a developed country. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 11, 741–764.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Sen, A. (1981). Poverty and famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Smith, J. B., Dickinson, T., Donahue, J. D. B., Burton, I., Haites, E., Klein, R. J. T., et al. (2011). Development and climate change adaptation funding: Coordination and integration. Climate Policy, 11(3), 987–1000.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Swift, J. (1989). Why are rural people vulnerable to famine? IDS Bulletin, 20, 8–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. The World Bank. (2009). World development indicators. Washington, DC: The World Bank.Google Scholar
  63. Tian, Q., Brown, D. G., Zheng, L., Qi, S., Liu, Y., & Jiang, L. (2015). The role of cross-scale social and environmental contexts in household-level land-use decisions, Poyang Lake Region, China. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 105(6), 1240–1259.Google Scholar
  64. Turner, B., Kasperson, R., Matson, P., McCarthy, J., Corell, R., Christensen, L., et al. (2003). A Framework for Vulnerability Analysis in Sustainability Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(14), 8074–8079.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Turner, B. L., Lambin, E. F., & Reenberg, A. (2007). The emergence of land change science for global environmental change and sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(52), 20666–20671.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. UNDP. (1990, 2007, 2008). Human development reports. Retrieved from
  67. Vincent, K. (2004). Creating an index of social vulnerability to climate change for Africa. Working Paper Series at Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Retrieved from
  68. Walker, B., & Salt, D. (2006). Resilience thinking: Sustaining ecosystems and people in a changing world. Washington, DC: Island Press.Google Scholar
  69. Walsh, S. J., & Mena, C. F. (2016). Interactions of social, terrestrial, and marine sub-systems in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(51), 14536–14543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Watts, M. J., & Bohle, H. G. (1993). The space of vulnerability: The causal structure of hunger and famine. Progress in Human Geography, 17, 43–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Wilbanks, T. J., & Kates, R. W. (2010). Beyond adapting to climate change: Embedding adaptation in responses to multiple threats and stresses. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 100(4), 719–728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Yan, D., Schneider, U. A., Schmid, E., Huang, H. Q., Pan, L., & Dilly, O. (2013). Interactions between land use change, regional development, and climate change in the Poyang Lake district from 1985 to 2035. Agricultural Systems, 119, 10–21.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Computational Social Science Program, Department of Computational and Data Sciences, College of ScienceGeorge Mason UniversityFairfaxUSA

Personalised recommendations