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Sustainability: definition and five core principles, a systems perspective

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  • People, Technology and Governance for Sustainability: The Contribution of Systems and Cyber-systemic Thinking
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A systems perspective is used to discuss the concept of sustainability. From this perspective, it is argued, sustainability can be regarded as a system state that is mediated by specific structures. This is fundamentally different from regarding sustainability merely as a normative goal, as it is presently regarded by most. Insight into the kinds of structures which mediate a system’s state open the door to proactive design of new structures and mechanisms, which are necessary for yielding effective change: in this case, promoting the sustainability agenda. The kind of change required to transform the prevailing trajectory of human affairs is presented as a second order change: a change that requires a major shift, and a complete transformation of the system itself, not only in a few aspects of its behavior. A new definition of sustainability is offered, anchored in the interaction of a population and the carrying capacity of its environment. From this definition, five core sustainability principles are derived, along with their respective policy and operational implications. Together, these principles prescribe the conditions that must be met to attain sustainability as an enduring state. The principles themselves form an integrated, systemic set, which requires them to be acted on simultaneously. A piecemeal approach—focusing on one aspect while neglecting others—is not likely to yield effective results for the whole.

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Fig. 1


  1. This exploration joins other attempts to emphasize the significance of taking a system perspective when addressing the question of “sustainability.” For example: Clayton AMH, Radcliffe NJ. Sustainability. A systems approach. London: Earthscan, 1996. p 258; Espejo R, Stewart ND. Systemic reflections on environmental sustainability. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 15: 483–496, 1998; Gallopin G. A systems approach to sustainability and sustainable development. Santiago: United Nations—Sustainable Development and Human Settlements Division, 2003. p 38; Hansen JW, Jones JW. A systems framework for characterizing farm sustainability. Agricultural Systems, 51:185–201, 1996; Schütz J. Sustainability, systems and meaning. Environmental Values, 9: 373–382, 2000, to name a few.

  2. In their recent review of research topics in sustainability science (Rakaya, P., Sheikholeslami, R., Kurkute, S., et al. Multiple factors that shape sustainability science journal: a 10-year review. Sustainability Science (2017), Vol 12, pp 855-868.), the authors refer to the goal of integrating the natural and social sciences and the humanities. These categories, reflecting broad clusters of academic disciplines, roughly overlap with the five domains proposed here. In their review, the authors classify the distribution of research papers published by the journal over the last 10 years, in relation to the social sciences, the natural sciences, economics, and engineering and applied sciences. Issues raised by such contributions would inevitably relate to aspects of the five domains. Engagement with the Spiritual, or Value Domain seems to be lacking but the Journal’s recent volume on cultural evolution and sustainability is a welcome move in this direction. See, for example, Wansler, C., Brossmann, J., Hendersson, H., et al. Mindfulness in general sustainability practices. Sustainability Science (2018). 13:143. A central tenet of the current paper is that the five domains represent one whole system, and that key aspects of each domain need to be simultaneously integrated in any attempt to effectively implement desired change. The Spiritual Domain, or Value Domain, moreover, is fundamental to the integrity and coherence of the whole.


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This paper is based on a presentation delivered during the 2017 Congress of the World Organization of Systems and Cybernetics (WOSC), held in Rome, Italy.

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Correspondence to Michael U. Ben-Eli.

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Handled by Marialuisa Saviano, University of Salerno, Italy.

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Ben-Eli, M.U. Sustainability: definition and five core principles, a systems perspective. Sustain Sci 13, 1337–1343 (2018).

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