Personal tools
You are here: Home > Understanding Sustainability Resources Page > Sustainability DNA Model

Sustainability DNA Model

sustainability model

The DNA Double Helix Model of Sustainability

Sustainability represents a societal condition where people live quality lives in good communities on healthy landscapes, meeting their needs in ways that permit other people everywhere to do the same into the distant future (adapted from WCED 1987). Sustainable communities are nurturing places where people prosper and cultures thrive; they maintain capital stocks including environmental services and natural capital; they are characterized by a diversity of ideas, economic activities, and landscapes; they ensure access to natural and social resources, and they achieve social justice in seeking equity, while maintaining freedom and opportunities.

The sustainability path involves the merging of the historically distinct and often conflicting goals of development and nature conservation, which requires that societies work to:


  • create opportunities where people may realize their full potentials, find productive livelihoods, and prosper according to broad-based quality of life measures;
  • protect and enhance human health and encourage wellness;
  • restore and preserve nature's life-support systems including its evolutionary potential;
  • enjoy the benefits of natural capital while fully accounting for their costs in order to encourage market mechanisms to maintain stocks for future generations;
  • achieve social justice and strive for equity;
  • construct resilient, livable communities.

The path to sustainability depends on appropriate institutions, policies, strategies, collaborations, and technologies that are governed effectively in a just transition that moves society toward the proper state in a process of continuous improvement. The ideal consists of the simultaneous establishment of two spatially and temporally essential and universal conditions — maintaining ecological integrity and social justice — in realizing effective development and conservation goals. Development must be measured broadly focusing on quality of life and ensuring the attainment of basic human needs. Other criteria must also work properly for initiatives to succeed from sustainability’s multiple dimensions the social, cultural, economic, and political/governance realms, among others.

The important symbolism of the double helix of DNA is rather straight forward and represents reasonable approaches to thinking about sustainability.

If one accepts that we are in a state of unsustainability, and if the sustainable world exists on another plane from where we are today, then we need to move society to that better place. Two simple analogies serve to illustrate the transition. First, imagine that we are in a hole that we must climb out of to reach the sustainable world plane. To do so, we build a ladder with two rails, one representing the natural dimension and the other the human dimension. The natural rail becomes nature conservation and the human rail becomes development. The rungs Ladder_DNA.jpgbecome the many parts of society that must operate properly to advance sustainability objectives to the desired ends. These may be subsets of the larger whole such as the political, economic, cultural and social, or functional parts such as institutions, education, and collaborations, or process related parts like energy, resiliency, and technology.

(CC Image (left) by SOIR (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

The second analogy is similar: imagine that we are approaching a chasm that we must pass over to find the sustainability plane. To cross safely we need a bridge, where the two parallel beams provide the support over the chasm from one rim to the other. Similar to the rails of the ladder, these long beams represent conservation and development. The smaller ties that connect the cross beams together, like the rungs on the ladder, represent the many elements of society that must be organized and managed to properly support sustainable activities.

In reality, the move from the unsustainable plane to the sustainable plane is not a simple step, but rather a transition. This transition is represented by the process of twisting the ladder or the bridge to produce the double helix. The twisting further represents the complex interplay between the natural and human dimensions that characterizes our complex world. At this point, the model takes on additional meaning representing the essential elements that must become deeply embedded into society’s collective wisdom in order to achieve sustainability. Another feature of the model is that it is open-ended on both ends permitting the inclusion of an ever expanding chain of elements that are integral to the transition process and durability.

[PDF version]


(CC Image by Nemetheger (Németh Zoltán) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

by Kermath, Brian last modified Aug 27, 2014 09:05 AM

Teaching Resources CTA