History of sustainability

Sustainability is defined as:

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

WCED, 1987

Where does this definition come from? What is the history of the concept of sustainability?

17th century

The modern definition of sustainability has its roots in forestry management of the 17th and 18th centuries in the concept of so-called sustained yield.

Sustained yield is a way to manage a forest so that it has time to regrow between harvests.

In other words, it ensures the forest can keep on producing indefinitely (“go on forever”).

1960s

But it wasn’t until the 1960s when the growing concerns about the environment drew attention to the link between economic growth and environmental degradation.

More specifically, to the fact that the depletion of natural resources and the degradation of the environment limit our ability to grow economically.

One of the first uses of the term sustainability in the present-day sense was by the Club of Rome in 1972.

Its report defined sustainability as:

A state of global equilibrium that is capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people.

Club of Rome (1972). The Limits to Growth.

Notice how close this is to the modern definition of sustainability, already.

1980s

The actual modern definition was first used in 1987 by the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development, in the so-called Brundtland Report.

It defined sustainability as:

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).

This definition has been modified slightly in later years but the core meaning remains the same:

Mankind’s ability to go on forever.

Mankind’s ability to survive and prosper.