What is sustainability?

The word ‘sustainability’ is thrown around over and over again, by environmentalists, nonprofits, corporations and United Nations conspiracy theorists but we rarely pause to define the principle. Turning to the dictionary isn’t helpful either in the context we’re looking at (the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.)

At Renew Lehigh Valley, we focus on promoting smart growth and smart governance in order to revitalize our core communities, preserve open space, and establish an economically and environmentally sustainable foundation for our region’s future growth.

A picture is worth 1,000 words, and sometimes a 2 minute video is even better. The Green Meeting Industry Council made such a video where they focus primarily on the environmental aspects of sustainability, but the principles are applicable to every realm of sustainability.

Do you agree with their definition of sustainability? Are there more principles that they miss? What does sustainability mean to you?

The transcript of the video is below:

Sustainability means that things can keep going, can sustain themselves, can continue into the future and go on forever. from a human perspective, sustainability means that our planet can continue to do what it was designed to do: provide fresh air, clean water, produce food and allow us all to have a high quality of life forever. Unsustainability means that it cannot and that is where we are now

20 years ago, scientists in Sweden developed a definition of sustainability with four basic principles. these can be seen as the care instructions for our planet, and if we follow them – it is good for our planet and because we are part of a system that includes our planet, it is good for us too.

The care instructions are as follows:

  1. Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and heavy metals
  2. Reduce our dependence on synthetic chemicals 
  3. reduce our destruction of nature
  4. Ensure that we are not stopping people globally from meeting their needs

Demand for the earth’s services (air, water, food) increase as the population increases and living standards rise but the Earth’s ability to provide these services is declining because of the way we are living. In our search for prosperity, growth and success, we are destroying the system that we as humans are completely dependent on – nature. We, as humans, have become a threat to our own way of life. The Earth is a system and everything is connected: society, environment and economy.

To live sustain-ably we need to follow the 4 care instructions and apply them to everything we do at home and at work. If we follow these care instructions, we can work together to be sustainable  we will all have a better quality of life, waste less, pollute less and create more things we value in society while improving our planets chances of providing us with the very things that we need to survive.   

Posted on April 17, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The definition is not too bad — but it’s a little repetitive, and still focused too much on resources & the environment. [It may be worth noting that even if we destroy the ecosystems and our own ability to survive, the planet will continue and develop new ecosystems.]

    The 4 principles are also not bad as far as they go, but they need to 1) define people to include future generations, not just the global population today; and 2) define people’s needs to include peace and justice — without which our civilization is not sustainable.

    It’s also important to note that the U.S., with less than 5% of the world’s population, consumes over 25% of the world’s energy and resources. Do the math — this overconsumption is by definition unsustainable. There is no way around it; we need to consume far, far less in both energy and natural resources.

    To explore the many dimensions of sustainability, it’s worth reading the introduction to The Sustainable Learning Community, from the University of New Hampshire Press, part of University Press of New England. While the case studies focus on institutions of higher education, their approach applies everywhere — they group initiatives under 4 primary areas: Climate & Energy, Biodiversity & Ecosystems, Culture & Sustainability, Food & Society. And they look at sustainability issues through multiple perspectives that stress active engagement at multiple levels: engaged intellectual, earth systems, citizen of the world, & public health. Initiatives are grouped.


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