What Is Sustainability?

A hot topic that's come onto the scene in the nineteen-nineties is sustainability. This is a concept that has always been around, but yet, at the same time, represents a real and new synthesis of thinking.

The original term was coined as "sustainable development." The original definition, formulated by the World Commission on Environment and Development, is:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future. Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1987.

This is the definition adopted by the United Nations in its Agenda 21 program.

The term "Sustainable Development," of course, is an apparent contradiction in terms to many people. Today, many people who are serious about the concept are instead using the term "sustainability." My personal complaint about the term "sustainable development" is that, as an umbrella term, it speaks from an infinite-growth model mindset, in which economies and consumption must increase without end, rather than a truly sustainable mindset. "Sustainable development" is, of course, still a completely valid term when used within the specific context of how necessary development is performed.

The above World Commission/Agenda 21 definition speaks to humans needs today and of the future. It is an inadequate definition for several reasons. First, it seems to apply only to material needs and does not specifically speak to social and other intangible needs.

Second, the definition does not in any way speak to preservation of biodiversity and natural systems. It is entirely conceivable that the human race could be sustained in a world where wilderness and even wildness no longer exist.

Third, the definition speaks nothing of human attainment or potential.

Fourth, it does not address the potentials inherent in a natural world allowed to freely evolve.

This does point up a difference in opinion within the sustainability movement. There are those for whom the natural world is secondary and only to be addressed insofar as necessary to sustain human society. Then there are those for whom the natural world, within which human society is integrated, is the entire point.

I would suggest a new definition for sustainability.

Sustainability is a means of configuring civilization 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.

As can be seen, there are several important elements in this definition. One critical element, shared with the first definition, is the concept of present and future. Human society is tragically beguiled by the short-term gains available by ignoring the needs of long-term planning. It must be part of the ethical evolution of the human consciousness that we move beyond that towards taking the long-term view. Otherwise--death. Of human society, even humankind, even much of the life on Earth. We will probably never achieve the total extinction of all life on Earth, but we certainly can take a lot of it with us.

Second, this definition not only talks about meeting needs, but also providing for the actualization of the human potential. That is exceedingly important. People imprisoned in an institutional life may have their life needs quite well met yet have a quality of life that is simply unacceptable. People have needs to strive, to create, to attain, to accomplish. A sustainable society must be one that provides for aspirations.

Third, this definition speaks to the preservation of biodiversity and natural systems. This is partly necessary simply because we only have a very poor, superficial understanding of these systems, and have repeatedly monkey-wrenched these systems, which are ultimately necessary for our very survival. We must also accept that biodiversity in and of itself is a desirable value and condition.

Fourth, this definition also addresses the potentials of the natural world. The biosphere which has evolved mostly unencumbered by human intrusion not only holds as yet unrealized potential for the immediate benefit of the human race today, but also certainly contains great potentials in biological systems which we cannot even guess at but only observe as it manifests.

General Sustainability Links

This page was last revised on 20 November, 2017.

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