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Sustainability assessment and complementarity

Hugo F. Alrĝe, Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University
Egon Noe, Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University


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Sustainability assessments bring together different perspectives that pertain to sustainability to produce overall assessments, and a wealth of approaches and tools have been developed in the past decades. However, two major problems remain. The problem of integration concerns the surplus of possibilities for integration; different tools produce different assessments. The problem of implementation concerns the barrier between assessment and transformation; assessments do not lead to the expected changes in practice. We aim to analyze issues of complementarity in sustainability assessment and transformation as a key to better handling the problems of integration and implementation. Based on a generalization of Niels Bohr’s complementarity from quantum mechanics, we have identified two forms of complementarity in sustainability assessment, observer stance complementarity and value complementarity. Unlike many other problems of sustainability assessment, complementarity is of a fundamental character connected to the very conditions for observation. Therefore, complementarity cannot be overcome methodologically, only handled better or worse. Science is essential to the societal goal of sustainability, but these issues of complementarity impede the constructive role of science in the transition to more sustainable structures and practices in food systems. The agencies of sustainability assessment and transformation need to be acutely aware of the importance of different perspectives and values and the complementarities that may be connected to these differences. An improved understanding of complementarity can help to better recognize and handle issues of complementarity. These deliberations have relevance not only for sustainability assessment, but more generally for transdisciplinary research on wicked problems.

Key words

complementarity; food system sustainability; implementation; indexation; integration; multicriteria assessment; Niels Bohr; perspectivism; sustainability transformation; sustainability transition

Copyright © 2016 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087