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Defining Sustainability

sustainabilityThe concept of sustainability has emerged as an aspiration for the direction of society that evolved from the conclusions of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its 1987 landmark report entitled "Our Common Future" (commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report). Achieving sustainability is about finding a better way for humans to live within our support system - the biosphere. Natural systems provide the essentials for our survival - clear air and water, healthy soil, a stable climate - through a massively complex and interconnected web that has evolved over billions of years, making a habitable environment for humans. In order for the human species to survive and maintain a healthy and just society, we must live in ways that do not systematically erode the ecological and social systems upon which we depend.


Sustainability can be scientifically defined as a dynamic state in which global ecological and social systems are not systematically undermined. The Brundtland Report defined sustainable development as that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. To ensure that the ability of future generations to meet their needs is not compromised, we must ensure that our activities do not systematically undermine ecological and social systems.

Ecological and social systems can be undermined in four basic ways (as originally articulated by The Natural Step): when nature is subject to systematic increases in:

  1. concentrations of substances from the earth's crust (e.g. fossil fuels, heavy metals);
  2. concentrations of substances produced by society (e.g. CFCs, DDT);
  3. degradation by physical means (e.g. deforestation, overfishing); and
  4. when social systems are subject to conditions that systematically undermine people's capacity to meet their basic needs (e.g. oppressive conditions, non-living wages)

These four Sustainability Principles provide a generic, scientific definition of sustainability, towards which any organization can strive, by systematically eliminating their contributions to violating them. Thus, sustainability is a shared vision of success in which these four principles are not violated, and strategic sustainable development (SSD) is the process of moving towards this vision in systematic and strategic ways on the individual, organizational, community, national and global scales.

To do this, we need an unprecedented shift in the way we think and act. These four principles represent the basic constraints we have been dealt as a global society. While at first this may seem negative, or limiting, it actually provides the basic structure - the rules of the game - within which we have unlimited potential for innovation and creativity. Having an understanding of these principles is like having an understanding of pitch and rhythm in order to make music instead of a jumble of sounds, or understanding the rules of soccer in order to play a fun and competitive game as opposed to merely chasing a ball.

It is also important to be explicit about what we mean by “basic needs.” To define basic needs, we borrow from work originally developed by Manfred Max-Neef, which contends that there are nine basic human needs that are non-hierarchical and constant across time and cultures. They are: subsistence, freedom, protection, affection, participation, understanding, leisure, creativity, and identity. The ways that these needs are satisfied clearly varies over time and in different cultures, but it is important to differentiate between these needs and satisfiers.

For example, food, clothes, and shelter are not needs, they are satisfiers of the need for subsistence. This is not to suggest that in a sustainable society, all of these needs will be satisfied for all people at all times, but rather that people’s capacity to meet these basic needs is not systematically undermined. There are various ways in which people’s capacity to meet their needs can be undermined, generally through abuses of power such as oppression, totalitarianism, exploitation, prejudice, etc.

Sustainability is often evaluated using the 'triple bottom line' for ecological, social, and economic health because economic considerations are such a large and central aspect of social systems, and vital to the continued operation of individual organizations. Too often, we view health, social, economic, security, environmental, and other major societal issues as separate, competing, and hierarchical, when they are really systemic and interdependent. We do not have environmental problems per se, we have negative environmental consequences of the way we have designed our business, social, economic, and political systems. The challenge of addressing these flaws in societal design is unprecedented, daunting, and exciting. It is one that will require the best in all of us.