Definition of sustainability

There is quite a confusion about the correct definition of sustainability.

Yet, most people don’t realize this.

Most people are convinced they know what sustainability is.

The reality is, however: they often apply different (sometimes mutually exclusive) definitions.

It is therefore no wonder they cannot agree on the appropriate course of actions.

Let’s shed some light on this problem and provide the only correct definition of sustainability.

Dictionary definition (incorrect)

Linguistically, sustainability comes from combining the words sustain and ability, and is defined as:

capable of being sustained

Merriam-Webster dictionary

where sustained means:

maintained at length without interruption or weakening

Merriam-Webster dictionary

In other words:

capable of going on forever

Modern definition (correct)

The modern definition of sustainability is very different:

Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

WCED (1987). Our Common Future (PDF).

In other words:

mankind’s ability to go on forever

Key differences

According to the dictionary definition, anything capable of going on forever can be considered sustainable.

The modern definition of sustainability, however, is very specific about who is to go on forever.

No longer it is about anything.

Instead, it is about us and our ability to survive.

In other words, according to the dictionary definition, something can be sustainable until it isn’t.

For example, using the dictionary definition, sustainable economic growth is growth that goes on. When the growth stops, it is no longer sustainable.

That’s it!

But, according to the modern definition, if we cannot reach and maintain sustainability, we die. Literally!

From that perspective, economic growth can be considered sustainable only when it ensures our continued survival.

Thus, the main question shifts.


How do we make the economy grow?


What kind of economic growth will ensure our continued survival?

The problem with conflicting definitions

You can probably see how the two questions above can produce very different, even mutually exclusive answers.

For example, would cutting down even larger portions of the Amazon rainforest for timber help grow Brazil’s economy?

For sure.

Would catching even more fish from the world’s oceans help the economies of countries with strong fishing industries?


But, would doing so also guarantee our long-term survival?

Not so sure.

Unfortunately, the existence of these two definitions of sustainability causes confusion during debates.

It’s because some people use the dictionary definition, while others use the modern definition.

Yet, both groups think they are talking about the same thing, not realizing that even though they use the same term (sustainability), their interpretation of the term is very different.

A typical example is already mentioned sustainable economic growth.

Most people, media and even economists understand it to be simply an economy that keeps on growing.

They are clearly using the dictionary definition.

But, according to the modern definition, economic growth can be sustainable only when it guarantees our continued survival.

And, that requires a completely different approach and different solutions.

It is therefore no wonder that people cannot agree on how to grow our economy sustainably, when some use one, others the other definition of sustainability.

The solution

From now on, I want you to do two things:

  1. Always use the modern definition when talking about sustainability. It is the most important concept ever and it must guide all our decisions.
  2. Be aware that some people might still be using the dictionary definition.

Therefore, always seek to understand first and educate next.

Only once we have the same understanding, we can hope to start making the right decisions and finding the right solutions for our continued survival.