This article discusses whether “sustainability” has a physical meaning in applied thermodynamics. If it has, then it should be possible to derive general principles and rules for devising “sustainable systems.” If not, then other sides of the issue retain their relevance, but thermodynamic laws are not appropriate by themselves to decide whether a system or a scenario is sustainable.
Here, we make use of a single axiom: that final consumption (material or immaterial) can be quantified solely in terms of equivalent primary exergy flows. On this basis, we develop a system theory that shows that if “simple” systems are based solely on the exploitation of fossil resources, they cannot be thermodynamically “sustainable.” But as renewable resources are brought into the picture and the system complexity grows, there are thresholds below or beyond which the system exhibits an ability to maintain itself (perhaps through fluctuations), in a self-preserving (i.e., a sustainable) state. It appears that both complexity and the degree of nonlinearity of the transfer functions of the systems play a major role and—even for some of the simplest cases—lead to nontrivial solutions in phase space. Therefore, even if the examples presented in the article can be considered rather crude approximations to real, complex systems at best, the results show a trend that is worth further consideration.