What is Sustainability?
Sustainability is a well-known and frequently used term of the 21st century. How often do you see or hear the word? Have you ever stopped to really think about what exactly does sustainability mean and where did the term originate from?
A quick Google search for ‘what is sustainability’ yields over 1.9 billion results. Sustainability is widely defined as ‘the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level’. Embedded in most definitions of sustainability are concerns for the environment, social equity, and economic prosperity(1). Most definitions look to avoid the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance. Sustainability in the context of the environment looks at the activities required to balance social, economic, and environmental needs to maintain ecosystem services at a suitable level. It is generally accepted, the goals of sustainability are related to the need for the conservation of natural capital and ecosystem services, with a shift to a less resource-intensive future.
While to most, the concept of sustainability is a relatively new idea, sustainability has a long history of use and meaning. The practice of sustainability has been utilized by various cultures for thousands of years, with the term sustainability first used in the 1700’s. Sustainability comes from the practice of nachhaltigkeit, translated to mean ‘sustained yield’ in English, a term coined in 1713 by German foresters. Sustained yield refers to the practice of taking only enough trees to allow forests to naturally regenerate well into the future. The concept of sustained yield broadened to include the conservation of plants, animals, and other food necessities, eventually moving beyond the forestry discourse but still mainly confined to research and science.
It was not until the 1970’s that the concept of sustainability became more widely used. In January 1972, the journal the Ecologist published the Blueprint for Survival, a series of science papers calling for better management of natural resources and modification of consumptive lifestyles of western civilizations. That same year, a global think-tank published the report Limits to Growth, where a definition was given to the term sustainable. For the first time in the literature, sustainable was defined to mean without sudden and uncontrolled collapse and capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all its people (2). Then later that year the United Nations (UN) world conference on human environment was held Stockholm, Sweden to address the global the growing environmental crisis. The term sustainable development was introduced into the discourse. As evidenced at the UN Conference, the environment was being neglected and not in balance with economic development.
Through the 1980’s, the concept of sustainability became more mainstream. In 1987, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, as chairwoman of what was then the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) released a Report, widely known as the Brundtland’s Commission, Our Common Future. The report emphasized the importance that development should consider social, environmental, and economic aspects to ensure the sustainability of all human societies. Her main concern was that development had to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This concept went on to become the most widely used definition of sustainability although in the context of sustainable development.
Although sustainability and sustainable development both consider the environment, society, and economies with a future timeframe, the two terms have very different meanings and should not be used interchangeably. Sustainability looks at the activities required to protect the environment as our base for survival while balancing social, cultural, and economic needs. It is generally accepted that the goals of sustainability are related to the need to conserve our natural world with a shift away from the resource-intensive current way of living1.
What is Sustainable Development?
We learned that sustainability is the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural, and social resources in ways that allow all living things, not only humans to thrive well into the future.
Sustainable development is a process that creates growth and progress through the addition of physical, economic, environmental, and social components to improve quality of life without damaging the resources of the environment. Simply put, sustainable development is a way for people to use resources without the resources running out3.
As previously discussed, the concept of sustainable development arrived in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission “Our Common Future”, the document that defined sustainable development as an approach designed to meet the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs3. This definition incorporated the understanding that economic growth is required to provide societies with the necessities of life such as clean water and food, while acknowledging the dilemma of environmental degradation that often coincides with economic development.
In 1992 the UN conference on the environment and development, informally known as the Earth Summit, or the Rio Conference took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conference promoted the idea of ecological sustainable development and in order to achieve it you had to consider social development (communities). From the mid 1990’s, different strategies were developed to try to work out what sustainability means in practice, how do we get that middle area where the environment, economics, and social development are achieved at the same time. Governments alone can not achieve sustainable development. Governments can set regulations and determine infrastructure needs but they don’t tend to have long-term goals in mind, they tend to focus on election cycles which are typically about 4 to 8 years. The market economies (goods and services) timeframe is usually only about 4 months to a year. Sustainability is about long-term solutions. The market economies and governments can not effectively do this. If the community is not driving the will for a better more sustainable future, sustainable development will be difficult to achieve. As we previously discussed, the Brundtland Commission’s definition has become a widely used definition for sustainable development and sustainability and has therefore come with many challenges, including confusion over meaning, interpretations, and misinformation.
Recognizing some of the key challenges with the implementation of sustainable development and the quest for achieving a balance between the environment and economies, the role of people and societies were formally added into the equation for sustainable development in 2005 at the UN World Summit on Social Development. The three pillars of sustainability became widely known and currently used today:
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This updated model for sustainable development recognizes that in order to meet the needs of current and future generations you have to consider the three pillars or the 3P’s (people, planet, prosperity), and they all need to be working together at the same. The key being all at the same time, or simultaneously.
Integrating the short-term and long-term needs with a focus on future generations, will require social development, environmental protection, and economic prosperity working in unison. Being able to incorporate sustainability into your day to day activities, this is what will create change.
The United Nations and the Path to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
History of the UN
The United Nations is an international organization founded in 1945 after the Second World War by 51 countries committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations, and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.
Due to its unique international character, and the powers vested in its founding Charter, the Organization can take action on a wide range of issues and provide a forum for its 193 Member States to express their views, through the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council and other bodies and committees.
The work of the United Nations reaches every corner of the globe. Although best known for peacekeeping, peace-building, conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, there are many other ways the United Nations and its System (specialized agencies, funds, and programmes) affect our lives and make the world a better place. The Organization works on a broad range of fundamental issues, from sustainable development, environment and refugees protection, disaster relief, counter terrorism, disarmament and non-proliferation, to promoting democracy, human rights, gender equality and the advancement of women, governance, economic and social development and international health, clearing landmines, expanding food production, and more, in order to achieve its goals and coordinate efforts for a safer world for this and future generations.
The UN has 4 main purposes:
- To keep peace throughout the world;
- To develop friendly relations among nations;
- To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease, and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;
- To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals
Pathway to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
In 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by 193 United Nations (UN) Member States. The 2030 Agenda is centered on the 17 SDGs which are underpinned by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs were developed in 2000 to end poverty and hunger, fight inequality and injustice, advance climate change action, create sustainable consumption and production, and promote peace and prosperity for all. One major change between the MDGs versus the SDGs is that for the SDGs, all countries are now involved. The MDGs only applied to developing countries. Another difference is that each country has set their own goals and priorities for achieving the SDGs. International collaboration to advance the SDG Agenda remains a critical component. The 17 SD goals, with their 169 targets, and over 230 indicators work together at the local and international level to help promote a shared global framework to achieve a fair, equitable, and sustainable future for all. Currently, all countries and international organizations are working on the achievement of the UN 2030 Agenda serving as the basis for better economic development that is environmentally low impact, socially just, and economically efficient and fair.
- Sustainable Development Solutions Network. (2021). Sustainable Development Report 2021: The Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals.
- Brundtland G, Khalid M. 1987. UN Brundtland commission report. Our Common Future. 41-59.
- Kidd C. V. 1992. The evolution of sustainability. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 5(1), 1-26.
- Baker, J., Dupont, D., & Vasseur, L. (2021). Exploring Canadian Ramsar Sites Ecosystem Governance and Sustainability. Wetlands, 41(1), 1-11. ↵
- Grober, U. (2007). Deep roots-a conceptual history of sustainable development (Nachhaltigkeit). ↵
- United Nations. (2021). 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future (page 41). ↵