What is Sustainability?
Definitions of Sustainability
According to the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) "There is no longer any doubt that every ecosystem that life depends on is compromised and in danger." Coupled with the rapidly increasing world population and rising consumption demands, the global sustainability crisis facing so many in the world today has made achieving sustainability – whether looked at from an economic, social, or environmental standpoint – our most pressing common need. This global emergency also brings unprecedented opportunity.
The concept of sustainability emerged in the 1980s in response to a growing international awareness of the need to link economic, political, and social development with environmental and social responsibility and equity. In 1987, the Brundtland Report "Facing Our Future" defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This is the most widely used definition, but there are as many definitions of sustainability as there are groups defining it. No single approach or framework is consistently useful, given the variety of scales inherent in different types of institutional structures and societies.
"A sustainable society is one that is far-seeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social systems of support." – Donella Meadows, et al, Sustainability Institute, Beyond the Limits
A common conceptual model is the three pillars sustainability – economy, society, and environment – and their intersection in global responsibility. Rather than three partially connected circles, three concentric circles provide a better model, since the economy exists within society and both the economy and society exist within the environment. Since people need food, water, and air to survive, society can never be larger than the environment.
MACED offers this definition: Sustainable community development is "the ability to make development choices which respect the relationship between the three "E's"-economy, ecology, and equity:
Economy - Economic activity should serve the common good, be self-renewing, and build local assets and
Ecology - Humans are part of nature, nature has limits, and communities are responsible for protecting and building natural assets.
Equity - The opportunity for full participation in all activities, benefits, and decision-making of a society."
The Sustainable Society Foundation builds on the Brundtland Commission to define a sustainable society as one:
that meets the needs of the present generation,
does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,
in which each human being has the opportunity to develop itself in freedom, within a well-balanced society and in harmony with its surroundings.
Its Sustainable Society Index is comprised of 22 indicators of sustainability and quality of life, clustered into five categories, and has been used to evaluate the "distance to sustainability" in 151 countries.
The Natural Step framework is widely used as a model in Europe, Canada and the U.S. northwest as a strategic approach to addressing the challenge of sustainability. It provides a clear, compelling, science-based definition of sustainability and a strategic planning framework rooted in systems-thinking that helps businesses and communities understand how daily decisions impact the larger systems in which we all live and to make smart decisions that move them step by step towards a successful and sustainable future. The Natural Step defines four necessary system conditions and what needs to change for permit conditions for sustainability to flourish:
|In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:||To move toward strategic sustainability, we must:|
|concentrations of substances extracted from the earth's crust|| Substitute minerals that are scarce in nature with others that are more abundant.
Use all mined materials efficiently.
Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
|concentrations of substances produced by society|| Substitute persistent and unnatural compounds with ones that are normally abundant or break down more easily in nature.
Use all substances produced by society efficiently.
|degradation by physical means|| Draw resources only from well-managed ecosystems.
Pursue the most productive and efficient use of both those resources and the land.
Exercise caution in all kinds of modifications of nature (i.e. over harvesting or introductions).
| and people are not subject to conditions
that systematically undermine their
capacity to meet their needs
|Create and support action and policies that allow people to meet their fundamental human needs in our society and worldwide so that the needs of people on whom we have an impact, and the future needs of our children can be met.|
The Ho'okipa Network in Hawaii defines sustainability as "aloha 'aina, malama' aina, ahupua'a", where aloha 'aina means to love and respect the land, make it yours and claim stewardship for it; malama 'aina means to care for and nurture the land so it can give back all we need to sustain life for ourselves and future generations; and ahupua'a is an ancient concept that manages land and resources by dividing them into slices from the mountains to the sea, usually following a stream. Each ahupua'a included a lowland cultivated area and an upland forested area, crossing climatic zones and ensuring that each could be self-sufficient for a large portion of its needs. Malama Kaua'i builds on these traditional values to create on a holistic method for approaching the sustainability challenges the island faces. "To us, the word "sustainability" goes beyond simply sustaining our resources. Ultimately, we envision a Kaua'i where the 'aina (environment) is healthy, people enjoy a high quality of life, the sense of community is strong, and culture is respected and perpetuated.There is much that can be learned from the wisdom of indigenous people around the world, for whom sustainability is a part of their traditional lifestyles.
More than simple links between economy, society, and environment, sustainability emphasizes systems-thinking and a process of change in which resource use, the orientation of technological developments, direction of investments, and institutional change are aligned to enhance current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations. Meeting human needs must be balanced with the need to preserve natural capital and other species. Sustainability respects limits - limits that are adjustable by technology. It emphasizes long-term over short-term profits, the precautionary principle, and quality of life that includes greater equality in the distribution of resources and opportunities today and for future generations.
The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, http://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/About.aspx
World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our Common Future. Brundtland Commission. England: Oxford.