The term system often sounds too theoretical, ambiguous and we use it in many ways.

For clarity purposes therefore Ulanowicz, Goerner and Lietaer rather used the term “network”, and defined a system as a network of elements in flow of energy, matter and information.

Examples: Monetary system, water system, Internet, health care system

Money flows in the monetary system, water flows in the water system, information flows in the Internet, in a country’s health care system we can see the flow of Corona patients, as the stream of people infected by that virus flow through doctors, hospitals, clinics, etc. With these streams of matter we can also see flow of energy and information (like for Corona hospital budgets and information on diagnosing, testing, tracking lines of contamination etc.)

Living systems

A living system has two special features: it organizes and creates itself, serving one purpose: to sustain it. To survive.

Even we as individuals organize ourselves - continuously adapting as required to survive.

And we re-create ourselves continuously: we renew our skeleton every 10 years, intestines every 15 years, liver every 2 years, skin every 2 weeks.

This clarity of terms is essential

Sustainability is a system’s property. To understand a non-sustainable situation, we must both identify the system we wish to understand and the flow we wish to make sustainable.




This term is used in many ways. Just look around and you will find these:

Sustainability is:

  • The word “sustainability” is derived from the Latin word sustinere.
  • Sustainable forest management has to keep the balance between three main pillars: ecological, economic and socio-cultural.
  • Managing resources: such that our quality of life can be shared by future generations
  • Sustainable investing: in companies that seek to combat climate change, environmental destruction, while promoting corporate responsibility.
  • A three-pillar conception of (social, economic and environmental)

Defined for the law of sustainability

These multiple ways of using the term sustainability Goerner, Ulanowicz and Lietaer distilled down to this precise definition: “Sustainability is a network‘s capacity to sustain flow of energy, matter and information”

A new frame of mind

This definition is a major breakthrough, a new frame of mind. It applies to all kinds of systems – forests, resources, investment, monetary systems, and it identifies one single indicator of performance: flow.

A sustainable system enjoys unconstrained flow of energy, matter and information. Out of balance it will not be sustainable. Just that.

Example: Sustainability of a country health care system

A country’s health care system is sustainable if it can cope with each case of a Corona patient, rapidly and effectively. If however this flow is hindered or constrained it is not sustainable.




The term resilience also is used in many – sometimes contradictory ways. Here are some examples:

Resilience is …

  • The noun resilience, meaning 'the act of rebounding', was first used in the 1620s and was derived from 'resiliens', the present participle of Latin 'resilire', 'to recoil or rebound'. In the 1640s, resilient was used to mean 'springing back'.
  • The ability to emotionally recover after a personal or professional set back.
  • The ability of a forest to absorb disturbances and re-organize under change to maintain similar functioning and structure.
  • The ability a business has to quickly adapt to disruptions while maintaining continuous business operations and safeguarding people, assets and overall brand equity.
  • The ability to "provide and maintain an acceptable level of service in the face of faults and challenges to normal operation."

Defined for the law of sustainability

These multiple ways of using the term resilience Goerner, Ulanowicz and Lietaer distilled into this precise definition:

“A system’s or network’s resilience comprises two competencies

  • First, a reserve of flexible fall back solutions to cope with shock, or novel disturbances and beyond that:
  • Second, the competency of adjusting to the novelty needed for ongoing development and evolution”

Example: Resilience of the health care system

Corona is a shock for a country’s health care system. To be resilient against this shock it has – for instance – a sufficient number of intensive care beds available for patients with serious infections. For Germany Statista reports 33.9 such beds per 100.000 inhabitants in hospitals, while Ireland has a much lower resilience in that element with just 5 such beds.





We use the term efficiency in multiple ways, for instance to describe:

·     Avoid wasting materials, energy, efforts, money, and time in doing something or in producing a desired result.

·     Internal performance of an organization like a business or a team

·     Doing things right, well, successfully

·     How well we transform input to output

Examples: Efficiency of education system, of health care system    

As examples we might describe the efficiency of an education system by its cost, or the efficiency of a health care system by how well it utilizes its assets.


In the same context we also use effectiveness, where we mean

·     External performance,

·     Doing things right

·     The value of output to others, for instance external or internal customers

Efficiency defined for law of sustainability

For the law of sustainability we define efficiency in a more specific way, as more specifically as a network‘s capacity to perform in sufficiently organized and efficient manner as to maintain its integrity over time.

Example: Efficiency of health care system

For the case of Corona, efficiency means a country’s health care system’s capacity to maintain its integrity: sufficiently organized doctors, hospitals, tests and social rules.