This video provides a basic definition of sustainability.
You’ve probably heard the term “sustainability” in some context or another. It is likely that you’ve used some product or service that was labeled as sustainable, or perhaps you are aware of a campus or civic organization that focuses on sustainability. You may recognize that sustainability has to do with preserving or maintaining resources—we often associate sustainability with things like recycling, using renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, and preserving natural spaces like rainforests and coral reefs. However, unless you have an inherent interest in sustainability, you probably haven’t thought much about what the term actually means.
Simply put, sustainability is the capacity to endure or continue. If a product or activity is sustainable, it can be reused, recycled, or repeated in some way because it has not exhausted all of the resources or energy required to create it. Sustainability can be broadly defined as the ability of something to maintain itself. Biological systems such as wetlands or forests are good examples of sustainability since they remain diverse and productive over long periods of time. Seen in this way, sustainability has to do with preserving resources and energy over the long term rather than exhausting them quickly to meet short-term needs or goals.
The term sustainability first appeared in forestry studies in Germany in the 1800s, when forest overseers began to manage timber harvesting for continued use as a resource. In 1804, German forestry researcher Georg Hartig described sustainability as “utilizing forests to the greatest possible extent, but still in a way that future generations will have as much benefit as the living generation” (Schmutzenhofer 1992). While our current definitions are quite different and much expanded from Hartig’s, sustainability still accounts for the need to preserve natural spaces, to use resources wisely, and to maintain them in an equitable manner for all human beings, both now and in the future.
Sustainability seeks new ways of addressing the relationship between societal growth and environmental degradation, which would allow human societies and economies to grow without destroying or overexploiting the environment or ecosystems in which those societies exist. The most widely quoted definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987, which defined sustainability as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
But sustainability is about more than just the economic benefits of recycling materials and resources. While the economic factors are important, sustainability also accounts for the social and environmental consequences of human activity. This concept is referred to as the “three pillars of sustainability,” which asserts that true sustainability depends upon three interlocking factors: environmental preservation, social equity, and economic viability.
First, sustainable human activities must protect the earth’s environment. Second, people and communities must be treated fairly and equally—particularly in regard to eradicating global poverty and the environmental exploitation of poor countries and communities. And third, sustainability must be economically feasible—human development depends upon the long-term production, use, and management of resources as part of a global economy. Only when all three of these pillars are incorporated can an activity or enterprise be described as sustainable. Some describe this three-part model as: Planet, People and Profit.
From pollution, to resource depletion, to loss of biodiversity, to climate change, a growing human footprint is evident. This is not sustainable. We need to act differently if the world and its human and non-human inhabitants are to thrive in the future. Sustainability is about how we can preserve the earth and ensure the continued survival and nourishment of future generations. You and everyone you know will be affected in some way by the choices our society makes in the future regarding the earth and its resources. In fact, your very life may well depend upon those choices.
For more information about sustainability, see: http://www.macmillanhighered.com/Catalog/product/sustainability-firstedition-weisser
This video is available under a Creative Commons Attribution license.