Three pillars of sustainability

They make sustainability possible.

Here is how to think about the 3 pillars of sustainability…

Imagine a 3-legged platform with a ball on top.

The ball represents the sum of our needs. The bigger our needs, the larger the ball.

The platform represents the state of the system. The bigger and stronger the platform, the bigger a ball it can support.

Our goal is to prevent the ball from falling off the platform. As long as the ball remains on top of the platform, the system is considered sustainable. This requires the following criteria to be met:

  1. The platform must be perfectly level to prevent the ball from rolling off.
  2. The platform must be strong enough to support the weight of the ball.
  3. The platform must be large enough to allow time for corrections in case the ball starts rolling off.
  4. The ball’s weight cannot grow beyond what the platform can withstand.

Except for the last item, all other items depend on the platform’s design. And, the primary design considerations are the size, strength and connections among its 3 legs.

First, the legs must be the same length. Otherwise, the platform will never be level.

Second, the legs must be strong enough to support the weight. Otherwise, they might break and cause the platform to collapse.

Third, the stronger the connections between the legs, the larger span they can support. Larger span means larger platform. A larger platform offers more balance and room for corrections.

3 pillars of sustainability

The 3 legs represent the three pillars of sustainability:

  • Economy
  • Environment
  • Society

Individual roles

Their respective roles are to:

  • Create the products and services needed (economy)
  • Provide the resources required (environment)
  • Distribute and consume the products and services (society)

Connections

Economy vs Environment

The connection between the economy and the environment is that of resources and viability, and answers the question of: Can it be done?

How many and how much resources can the environment provide on an ongoing basis? And, do we have sufficient technology and processes in place to meet our needs without irreversibly depleting or destroying those resources?

Environment vs Society

The connection between the environment and the society is that of capacity and livability and answers the question of: Do we all fit?

Not only more resources are needed as the population grows. But, larger population requires more living space, which comes directly at the expense of the environment.

Can we all fit without destroying the only thing that makes our life possible?

Economy vs Society

Finally, the connection between the economy and the society is that of equitability and social order, and answers the question: Is everybody happy?

As long as a part of the population feels their needs are not met, or things are being done at their expense, there is always the potential for conflict and social unrest that threatens the balance.

Everybody’s needs must be met.

The 3 pillars and the connections between them create the platform that makes sustainability possible.