What is Sustainability?


What's your definition?

There are many different definitions of "sustainability" and "sustainable development." Depending on who you are and what you find important, your definition or concept of sustainability will likely vary from others -- assuming you have one. Many people have no idea what sustainability is, or argue that it is so ambiguous that it is a meaningless term.

However, the most important words in our language, such as truth, justice, love, freedom, faith, have multiple and often conflicting definitions. Increasingly people are recognizing sustainability as one of the most important ideas of the new century, that its practice and realization will decide the very survival of our industrious human species. Thus it is essential for each person to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for this concept and define what it means to you as an individual.

The international definition

It is also important to know how this term is defined and used by policymakers making national and international laws, treaties and other agreements. To understand how the international policymaking community defines sustainability, it is essential to recognize three key elements, which emerged from three historic meetings of the world's heads of state (as well as major scientists, business leaders, educators and public interest groups.) As citizens of this planet, taking responsibility for the future we are creating, we should all be familiar with these three elements:

1. Responsibility to the future

"Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

- World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), Our Common Future (1987), page 24, para 27 [pdf]

2. A decision-making framework

"...economic development, social development and environmental protection are interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development, which is the framework for our efforts to achieve a higher quality of life for all people."

- World Summit on Social Development (1995), Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development, page 5, para. 6 [pdf]

3. The three overarching objectives

"These efforts will also promote the integration of the three components of sustainable development, economic development, social development and environmental protection, as interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars. Poverty eradication, changing unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development are overarching objectives of, and essential requirements for, sustainable development.

- World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002), Plan of Implementation, page 8, para 2 [pdf]

Other definitions

The following represent a sample of various other statements about sustainability or sustainable development, highlighting different aspects or perspectives of the concept:

  • "An economic state where the demands placed upon the environment by people and commerce can be met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations. It can also be expressed in the simple terms of an economic golden rule for the restorative economy: leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm life of the environment, make amends if you do."
    Paul Hawken, Ecology of Commerce
  • Sustainability pertains to a balanced interaction between a population and the carrying capacity of an environment such that the population develops to express its full potential without adversely and irreversibly affecting the carrying capacity of the environment upon which it depends.
    Buckminster Fuller Institute
  • Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
    American Friends Service Committee
  • The ability to provide for the needs of the world's current population without damaging the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. When a process is sustainable, it can be carried out over and over without negative environmental effects or impossibly high costs to anyone involved.
    Sustainable Table
  • The ability of an ecosystem to maintain ecological processes and functions, biological diversity, and productivity over time.
    Umpqua Watersheds, Inc.
  • Sustainable development The concept of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The terms originally applied to natural resource situations, where the long term was the focus. Today, it applies to many disciplines, including economic development, environment, food production, energy, and social organization. Basically, sustainability/sustainable development refers to doing something with the long term in mind. ...
    Dantes Project
  • A characteristic of a process or state that can be maintained indefinitely .
    Jamaica Sustainable Development Network
  • Sustainability has many definitions but the basic principles and concepts remain constant: balancing a growing economy, protection for the environment, and social responsibility, so they together lead to an improved quality of life for ourselves and future generations.
    US Environmental Protection Agency
  • An architectural property of a program which allows continued viability.
    Open Knowledge Initiative/MIT
  • Economic development that takes full account of the environmental consequences of economic activity and is based on the use of resources that can be replaced or renewed and therefore are not depleted.
    US Geological Survey
  • To keep in existence; maintain. To supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for earth
  • The use of ecosystems and their resources in a manner that satisfies current needs while allowing them to persist in the long term.
    Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
  • The measure by which a human activity can be continued without relying upon limited resources, such as fossil fuels, or by leaving waste behind, and also giving nature the chance to replenish itself.
  • Using methods, systems and materials that won't deplete resources or harm natural cycles.
    Global Environmental Management Initiative
  • To keep in existence, to maintain or prolong
    Irving Forest Discovery Network
  • Sustainability is effectively the goal of sustainable development. It is the ideal end state which we must aspire.
    Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)
  • Use of resources in a manner that allows the resources to be replenished by natural systems, as well avoidance of pollution that damages biological systems. Use of resources in such a manner that they will never be exhausted.
    Schuylkill Heritage Ecosystem Discoveries Project
  • The ability of natural resources to provide ecological, economic, and social benefits for present and future generations.
    Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education
  • creating new ways to live and prosper while ensuring an equitable, healthy future for all people and the planet (Natural Step website).
    Queensland Environmental Protection Agency
  • The ability to continue an activity for a long period of time while maintaining diverse, healthy and productive ecosystems.
    Parliamentary Commission for the Environment (New Zealand)
  • A concept and strategy by which communities seek economic development approaches that benefit the local environment and quality of life. Sustainable development provides a framework under which communities can use resources efficiently, create efficient infrastructures, protect and enhance the quality of life, and create new businesses to strengthen their economies. ...
    City of Austin, Texas
  • the property of being sustainable
  • Sustainability is an economic, social, and environmental concept. It is intended to be a means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society and its members are able to meet their needs and express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems, and planning and acting for the ability to maintain these ideals indefinitely. Sustainability affects every level of organization, from the local neighborhood to the entire planet. ...

Other definitions...

  • Smart Communities Network