Sustainability is the most important concept ever

Table of contents:

  1. Definition of sustainability
  2. Synonym of sustainability (noun)
  3. Synonym of sustainable (verb)
  4. History of sustainability
  5. Why is sustainability important
  6. What is sustainable development
  7. What is sustainability
  8. Pillars of sustainability
  9. What does sustainable mean
  10. Sustainable products

1. Definition of sustainability

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).

This is the true and only correct definition of sustainability.

It is very specific about whose needs are to be met and for how long. The definition explicitly includes everybody who is alive today, plus everybody who will ever live, until the end of time.

Essentially, sustainability is defined as mankind’s ability to go on forever.

Incorrect dictionary definitions

Unfortunately, dictionaries define sustainability very differently.

For example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sustainability as capable of being sustained, where sustained means maintained at length without interruption or weakening.

Simplified, the dictionary definition of sustainability is: can go on, without any specification of what can go on or for how long.

Thus, anything capable of going on is considered sustainable and it stops being sustainable the moment it can no longer go on. This is not only incorrect, but can also be in direct contradiction to the actual definition of sustainability.

Example: sustainable economic growth

If we apply the incorrect dictionary definition, sustainable economic growth is growth that goes on. When the economy stops growing, it is no longer sustainable.

But, according to the actual definition of sustainability, economic growth can be considered sustainable only when it ensures our continued survival. Thus, the main question shifts…

From: How do we make the economy grow?

To: What kind of economic growth will ensure our continued survival?

Problems resulting from using incorrect definitions

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

AnswerHelps economyEnsures survival
Cut down more treesYesNo
Catch more fishYesNo
Different definitions could lead to conflicting outputs.

When people are not clear on definitions, they are unable to agree on solutions, because they are not talking about the same thing.

When they use incorrect definitions, their solutions could lead to catastrophic results.

Takeaway: always use the correct definition!

The only way out is to always use the true definition of sustainability.

2. Synonym of sustainability

The only acceptable synonym of sustainability (noun) is our survival.

Our survival is the very essence of the definition of sustainability and using the synonym in a sentence retains its intended meaning.

For example:

Fossil fuels do not support our survival very well because they are a limited resource that will eventually run out.

Have we underestimated the importance of our survival?

The idea of trying to promote rapid economic growth for the benefit of humanity is entirely alien to the supporters of our survival.

There is no question: our survival is the perfect synonym of sustainability and can be used interchangeably.

3. Synonym of sustainable

When looking for a synonym of sustainable (adjective), things get a bit complicated. The biggest issue with using sustainable as an adjective is that it is not very practical.

By definition, sustainability means meeting all the needs of all the people, both present and future.

Therefore, something can be sustainable only if everything else is also sustainable. In other words, we must take into consideration:

  • all the resources in the world,
  • all the needs of all the people on Earth,
  • right now and in the future.

That’s the only way to determine whether or not things are done in a way that ensures our continued survival.

Unfortunately, this is almost impossible to determine with any degree of certainty.

Any claim of sustainable this or sustainable that can be easily countered simply by pointing out changes in needs and/or resources because even the smallest change will require a recalculation of the whole system. And, the system changes all the time!

Therefore, using the word sustainable as an adjective is almost meaningless.

Is there a better word to use instead? Preferably one, which clearly communicates its intended meaning and can be used in everyday life to provide clear guidance in decision making?

Yes! That word is: responsible.

Just like our survival gives clear meaning to sustainability (noun), responsible gives clear meaning to sustainable (adjective).

For example:

The government should do more to promote responsible agriculture.

The creation of an efficient and responsible transport system is critical to the long-term future of London.

Cycling is a totally responsible form of transport.

Not only does responsible offer a complete clarity. It is also way more actionable.

Decision making usually comes down to selecting the best option. Determining which option is more responsible from those available will always be easier and more practical than trying to calculate the ultimate solution using highly theoretical concepts and huge (yet not necessarily accurate or complete) sets of data on a global scale.

In other words, responsible allows us to quicker and helps overcome indecisiveness and “paralysis by analysis”.

4. History of sustainability

The concept of sustainability has its roots in forestry management of the 17th and 18th centuries in 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 (can go on).

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 in their Limits to Growth report. It 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)

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

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

That definition has been modified slightly in later years but the core meaning remains the same: Mankind’s ability to go on forever or Mankind’s ability to survive and prosper.

5. Why is sustainability important

Sustainability is important because it ensures our survival.

As per its definition, sustainability allows us to meet our needs without compromising the ability of our children, grandchildren and grand-grandchildren to meet their own needs.

This is why the synonym of sustainability is our survival and it is also why sustainability is probably the most important concept ever.

6. What is sustainable development

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

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

The main idea behind the concept of sustainable development is the recognition that our natural resources are limited and that all our current and future development depends on our ability to work within or overcome these constraints.

It also recognizes the fact that, if we deplete our natural resources or diminish their utility through pollution or otherwise, we affect our ability to grow in the future. Therefore, we should aim to maintain economic growth and progress only to the degree which maintains or improves the long-term value of the environment.

As such, sustainable development should provide a framework for the integration of environment policies, social policies and development strategies. Indeed, the key principle of sustainable development underlying all others is the integration of environmental, social, and economic concerns into all aspects of decision
making.

The overall goal of sustainable development is the long-term stability of the economy, society and environment.

7. What is sustainability

From the definition of sustainability, we know that the key to sustainability is our ability to meet our needs, both present and future. Let’s break it down…

Needs

What needs? All of them. Literally everything we consume… housing, utilities, food, clothing, transportation, education, health care, entertainment, government, etc.

People

Whose needs? Everybody’s needs. Not just our own, but our neighbors’, their neighbors’, the city’s, the country’s, the world’s… from presidents and captains of industry, all the way to indigenous tribes in the most remote locations.

Present and future

But, that’s not all! We need to ensure that all future generations can meet their needs, too. This includes all the people who are currently alive plus all the people who will ever live, to the end of time.

Resources

In order to meet those needs, somebody or something must produce the necessary products and services, deliver them to those who need it, and then dispose of them after they are used.

To do all that, resources are needed. In other words, everything we consume is created by extracting something from the environment around us and then applying labor to it.

However, if everything we consume requires us to take something from our environment, it’s only a matter of time before we run out of resources to create new products from.

Trends

The good news is, our planet and its ecosystems have an amazing ability to regenerate and regrow most resources. But, if we consume too many resources too fast, and destroy the ecosystems responsible for the regeneration of those resources, there will not be enough left for the future.

Resources depletion

Unfortunately, this is exactly what we have been doing for the past 50 years. The Global Footprint Network estimates that humanity’s demand on nature has been exceeding Earth’s ability to regenerate since the early 1970s.

For example, in 2020 we’ve used 60% more resources than the Earth’s ecosystems could regenerate. This basically means, we would need 1.6 Earths to continue consuming at this rate and remain sustainable. Except we don’t have 1.6 Earths. We have only one. There is no Planet B.

But it gets worse, far worse.

Population growth

Right now, there are 7.8 billion people on Earth. This number is expected to grow by another 42% and then stabilize at around 11 billion. The timeline for this to happen is by the end of the century. To put it in perspective, that’s still within our children’s and grandchildren’s lifespan.

Increasing consumption

But, the consumption is expected to grow much, much more. How so? Simply, as countries develop economically, their citizens tend to consume more.

It’s only natural that everybody wants to live in prosperity. The living standards in the most advanced economies offer a benchmark of what prosperity looks like. That means higher consumption.

Challenge

With 11 billion people, all consuming the same amount of resources as the average American today, we would need not 1.6, but 8 Earths to supply the resources needed!

Did I mention we only have one planet?

So, the first challenge of sustainability, is to establish a balance between the resources we need and the resources we have available.

This could be done by:

  • Reducing consumption
  • Improving resource utilization
  • Discovering new resources

The next challenge of sustainability is to maintain that balance into the future. This requires a harmony between 3 pillars upon which sustainability is built.

8. Three pillars of sustainability

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

The ball represents the sum of all 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 more stable it is and 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 cannot exceed the weight the platform is designed to carry.

Except for the last point (which has to do with managing our needs) all other points have to do with the platform’s design. And, the primary design considerations are the size, strength and connections among its 3 legs.

First, the legs must be of the exactly same height and they must be attached to the platform the same way. Otherwise, the platform will never be level.

Second, the legs must be strong enough to support their share of the total weight. Otherwise, the legs might break and cause the platform to collapse.

Third, the stronger the connections between individual legs, the larger the span they can support. Larger spans allow for a larger platform. A larger platform provides more balance and room for corrections.

3 Pillars

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.

9. What does sustainable mean

In the context in which it is normally used, sustainable is usually equated with terms, such as: renewable, environmentally-friendly, ecological, healthy, fair, etc.

Unfortunately, none of these words represent what sustainability is about. For example, while all products should ideally be environmentally-friendly, healthy and fair, it doesn’t automatically mean that they are sustainable. In fact, whether a product is sustainable or not doesn’t even depend on its characteristics. Rather, it’s the state of the entire system that determines if we are sustainable.

Let me explain.

The definition of sustainability states that, if we’re able to meet our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, we live in a sustainable world. But, this includes all needs and all people, present and future. Not some needs of some people.

Therefore, it doesn’t matter if your so-called sustainable clothing is made from a material which is sourced responsibly, regrows quickly, is fully recyclable or compostable, plus it captures carbon from the atmosphere, when millions of people around the world are starving or when the rate at which we’re consuming resources, polluting the environment and reducing the biodiversity so dramatically changes the living conditions on the planet that it threatens our very ability to survive as a species.

Sustainability refers to the whole system, not its individual elements. In other words, nothing is sustainable until everything is sustainable!

10. Sustainable products

The idea behind so-called sustainable products is that they are produced, distributed, used and disposed of in a way that is environmentally-friendly, healthy, equitable and socially responsible.

Unfortunately, while this is all great and very much welcome, there is no guarantee that doing so will get us any closer to sustainability.

The main point is that sustainability is about the entire system, not its individual parts. It’s either everything or nothing.

In other words, sustainability refers to our ability to meet all needs of everybody, now and in the future. It does not refer to some needs, some people, or some point in time.

What this means is that there cannot be some products that are sustainable and other products that aren’t sustainable. We can either have sustainability and then all products are sustainable, or we don’t have sustainability and then no products are sustainable.

Yet in other words, referring to products as sustainable is a non-sense.

For example, imagine a local company which prides itself in offering a beautiful line of sustainable furniture. In order to have every part of the production under control, it even bought its own land to grow timber on and takes great pride in the fact that it harvests only as much as will regrow each season.

This must be sustainable, right? Not so fast…

First of all, in order to have a never-diminishing supply of high-quality wood from the same area, the area needs to be of substantial size. What if I told you that, as a result of the company’s buying up land and planting trees, the size of land available for food production is now smaller by a third? Obviously, this is not of concern to the furniture company, but somebody somewhere else now needs to produce that missing food.

Second of all, even if the furniture company bought a land previously unsuitable for growing and expended an enormous effort to re-cultivate that land so that it can grow a forest on, it wouldn’t matter. Until we are able to meet our needs on a global scale and ensure that what we leave for future generations is at least as good or better, there is no sustainability and our survival as a species remains uncertain.