What is Sustainability?

In the past decade or so, the term “sustainability” has become the rage and is used at every turn, and in every realm of study and project-analysis. It’s important, then to understand the meaning of the word, for our modern use of it is broad and difficult to define precisely. Originally, sustainability meant making only such use of natural, renewable resources that people can continue to rely on their yields in the long term, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that the concept became more mainstream (as “sustainable development”) in international and institutional parlance.  In 1987 the United Nations published the Brundtland Report (also entitled Our Common Future) with the findings of the World Commission on Environment and Development after nearly three years of research throughout the world, and aimed to discuss the environment and development as one single issue.

The report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This short description really tells us all we really need to know about sustainability: we must consider the future in making our decisions about the present.

In 2005, the World Summit on Social Development identified three core areas that contribute to the philosophy and social science of sustainable development. These “three pillars of sustainability” are interdependent, and in the long run cannot exist without one another. They are 1) economic development (providing decent livelihoods, for example), 2) social development (ensuring access to basic resources, healthcare, education, etc) and 3) environmental protection (protecting ecosystems, air quality, integrity and sustainability of our resources, etc). When we understand and accept the interconnectedness of these three pillars, we can appreciate the delicate balance between fulfilling our material needs and the needs to protect the environments in which we and others live. And while sustainability takes into account how we might live in harmony with the natural world around us, protecting it from damage and destruction, it’s also about our health as a society examining the longer term effects of the actions humanity takes and asking questions about how it may be improved.

In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to discuss and develop a set of goals to work towards. The outcome document was entitled The Future We Want, and became the background document for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an agenda set in 2015 by the 193 countries of the United Nations General Assembly and intended to be achieved by the year 2030. The agenda, entitled Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, includes 169 targets in order to achieve the 17 SDGs. Included in the list were:

  1. The end of poverty and hunger
  2. Better standards of education and healthcare – particularly as it pertains to water quality and sanitation
  3. Reduced inequalities, decent work and economic growth
  4. Tackling the effects of climate change, pollution and other environmental factors that can and do harm people’s health, livelihoods and lives.
  5.  Achieving sustainability must include health of the land, air and sea.

Among the 17 noble and necessary goals (and the 169 targets that could be thought of as sub-goals), a few are particularly noteworthy. One is the importance given to combating climate change and its impacts, and the other is acknowledging the concept that nature has certain rights, that people have stewardship of the world and with that comes the responsibility to protect and nurture our natural environment.

Indeed, without a living, thriving environment, social and economic development become moot points. Think of it this way: nothing else really matters if we don’t have a planet to call home. Without downplaying the importance of these and other virtuous goals leading toward economic and social development, what good is gender equality if the air we breathe or the water we drink is toxic? What good is a good education if we become climate refugees because extreme weather or sea-level rise makes us flee our home, our region, our country? What good is economic growth if we have depleted our soils, eradicated pollinators and wiped out biodiversity and ecosystems, leading to the impossibility of growing our own food?

Environmental sustainability is the biggest issue faced by humanity at present. An increasing population and an even greater growth in consumption, along with tremendous escalation in anthropogenic activities have put into doubt our ability to live sustainably on our planet. There is no place on Earth that has not been touched by the effect of human activities or human-created waste, plastic or otherwise. In addition to this, urbanization, industrialization and modern conventional agricultural practices have polluted our water, air and soil all around the globe. Not only are we overexploiting our natural resources, but we are contaminating them with toxic chemicals and dangerous materials, compromising our own survival…let alone the survival of future generations.

While many individuals and communities have long recognised the damage that can be caused to our environment and to the plants and animals with whom we share our planet, it is only relatively recently that this has been acknowledged globally. And while individual transformative actions are necessary in creating and adopting sustainable practices, there is an equal, or perhaps even greater need for global approaches and solutions, for our current problems are global and interwoven. Natural resources are running out, pollution knows no borders, biodiversity loss is palpable, our ecosystems are nearing collapse and there are proven effects of climate change…Throughout history, every civilization has dominated its ecological system; as a particular society enjoys increased regional success, the growing stress on the ecological system leads to crises. History has shown that these crises are either resolved, producing sustainability, or not, leading to decline and sometimes to total collapse. Today, faced with an unprecedented stress that we are putting on our environment, we can choose between either resolving our current crises by adopting sustainable practices in all realms of our life or not. Our ability to survive on the planet depends on our making the right choice.


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