The sustainability cycle and loop : models for a more unified understanding of sustainability

Hay, Laura and Duffy, Alex and Whitfield, R. I. (2014) The sustainability cycle and loop : models for a more unified understanding of sustainability. Journal of Environmental Management, 133. pp. 232-257. ISSN 0301-4797 (

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In spite of the considerable research on sustainability, reports suggest that we are barely any closer to a more sustainable society. As such, there is an urgent need to improve the effectiveness of human efforts towards sustainability. A clearer and more unified understanding of sustainability among different people and sectors could help facilitate this. This paper presents the results of an inductive literature investigation, aiming to develop models to explain the nature of sustainability in the Earth system, and how humans can effectively strive for it. The major contributions are two general and complementary models, that may be applied in any context to provide a common basis for understanding sustainability: the Sustainability Cycle (S-Cycle), and the Sustainability Loop (S-Loop). Literature spanning multiple sectors is examined from the perspective of three concepts, emerging as significant in relation to our aim. Systems are shown to provide the context for human action towards sustainability, and the nature of the Earth system and its sub-systems is explored. Activities are outlined as a fundamental target that humans need to sustain, since they produce the entities both needed and desired by society. The basic behaviour of activities operating in the Earth system is outlined. Finally, knowledge is positioned as the driver of human action towards sustainability, and the key components of knowledge involved are examined. The S-Cycle and S-Loop models are developed via a process of induction from the reviewed literature. The S-Cycle describes the operation of activities in a system from the perspective of sustainability. The sustainability of activities in a system depends upon the availability of resources, and the availability of resources depends upon the rate that activities consume and produce them. Humans may intervene in these dynamics via an iterative process of interpretation and action, described in the S-Loop model. The models are briefly applied to a system described in the literature. It is shown that the S-Loop may be used to guide efforts towards sustainability in a particular system of interest, by prescribing the basic activities involved. The S-Cycle may be applied complementary to the S-Loop, to support the interpretation of activity behaviour described in the latter. Given their general nature, the models provide the basis for a more unified understanding of sustainability. It is hoped that their use may go some way towards improving the effectiveness of human action towards sustainability.