Defining Sustainability

When we first began this project, many of the business partners and colleagues with whom we spoke asked us just what we mean by “sustainability.” At first, this seemed like an odd question, but the frequency with which we encountered this question made it clear that we needed a working definition. It wasn’t that nobody knew what sustainability was; rather, everyone wanted to know what we meant when using the term. The term is often used by others synonymously with environmental stewardship. But our view of sustainability is not purely environmental. In fact, we believe that it is difficult to sustain ecosystem services if human economic and social needs aren’t also considered.

To sustain something means that it is maintained over a long period of time. The term sustainability essentially refers to the maintenance of the human population on earth. This maintenance rests upon the three pillars of sustainability: environment, economy, and society. That’s a big concept that may seem daunting for individuals, organizations, or businesses to accomplish. It is. Thus, sustainability may best be viewed as a continual process in which we attempt to become more sustainable, rather than establishing the goal of becoming sustainable. Even if we could become sustainable, it would likely be short lived if we felt that we had reached our goal. Sustainability is dynamic and a system with environmental, economic, and social benchmarks may be better viewed as a juggling act as opposed to a place in which we are attempting to bring these three items to rest. Sustainability is not simply a set of environmentally friendly, economically efficient, and socially just actions; sustainability is a mindset that informs actions.

The Brundtland Report from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development is often credited with first articulating a widely accepted definition of sustainability and with establishing the need for these three pillars in sustainable development. The Brundtland Report states that sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own goals.” Satisfaction of human needs is the primary objective of development, and human needs are dependent on the ecosystem services as well as economic and social wellbeing.

Since that time, others have added more components to sustainability. The Curriculum for the Bioregion (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. from the Washington Center at The Evergreen State College states that “Sustainability encompasses four intertwined ideas: economic wellness, social justice, human health, and biodiversity and ecological integrity. It is a systematic concept, relating to the continuity of economic, social, institutional, and environmental aspects of human society.” This definition expands upon the environmental, economic, and social aspects of sustainability to explicitly include health and institutions. Some might argue that this are social components of sustainability, which may be true, but the Curriculum for the Bioregion felt it was important enough to explicitly mention these ideas. Curriculum for the Bioregion is a great source of sustainability resources, including curriculum materials using examples from the State of Washington.

Andres Edwards modified the core concepts of sustainability as The Three E’s Plus One: ecology/environment, economy/employment, equity/equality (society), and education[1]. According to Edwards, environmental sustainability is dependent on three ecological perspectives: 1) temporal scaling or transitioning from a short-term to a long-term perspective, 2) systemic rather than piecemeal understanding of ecological relationships, and 3) the concept of built-in limits. The economy/employment “E” recognizes the importance of economic development and employment in sustainable societies. Overexploitation and pollution can be detrimental to the environment. When people experience economic hardship, it can encourage unwise management of natural resources because contemporary survival outweighs concerns for future generations and stifles longterm thinking.

Similar to the interdependence of the three pillars, there is an interdependence of individual and community wellbeing. Even if there is a recognition for environmental and economic sustainability, a lack of equity can impair social cohesion. Globally, inequity has made it difficult to make significant strides in curbing climate change, for example. Even when developed countries recognize the long-term environmental and economic challenges associated with atmospheric carbon dioxide and are willing to take some actions to reduce their own emissions, these steps seem disingenuous in light of inequities, as do forest conservation efforts that increase contemporary economic hardships for indigenous peoples that rely on forest resources. Disadvantaged communities often suffer pollution from more affluent parts of the community as well. Inequities can impair social sustainability.

Active commitment to public education, Edwards argues, catalyzes understanding of the dynamic interrelationship of the Three Es. He states “Through education, sustainability can become firmly established within the existing value structure of societies while simultaneously helping that value structure evolve toward a more viable long-term approach to systematic global problems.”

The essence of sustainability is the long-term preservation of mankind, recognizing the fundamental roles of natural resources and ecosystem services; the production, distribution, and use of goods and services; and the ability of individuals to contribute to their community and realize their potential in society. Significant social, economic, or environmental disruptions may impair longterm viability of businesses, institutions, communities, societies, or even mankind as a whole. However, while sustainability is a global issue, actions toward sustainability must occur on a smaller scale, often at the level of the individual or organization.

Professor Greg Möller of the University of Idaho provides a nice set “doculectures” as part of his Principles of Sustainability course. The course uses the textbook Introduction to Sustainability: Road to a Better Future by Nolberto Munier; the doculectures follow nicely from this text. I’ve provided a link to Professor Möller’s doculecture, Definitions of Sustainability (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..
[1] Edwards, A.R. 2005. The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift. New Society Publishers.
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE-1400699.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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