What is Sustainability?

Defining What “Sustainability” Really Means

Due to my own specific background, to date the materials on this website largely focus on the “planet” part of the “people, planet, profit” triumvirate that constitutes a genuine sustainability program. From a systems thinking perspective, essentially equal weight must be granted to each part of this equation. (Another version is equity, ecology, economy.)

The most common definition of “sustainability” is from the Brundtland report of 1987, which defined “sustainable development” as basically meeting the needs of today without messing things up so badly for the people tomorrow that they won’t be able to meet their needs. I like that definition because it allows for the reality that sustainability is an ever moving target. What is reasonably sustainable today may not be thus tomorrow. A program that is basically sustainable on this side of the mountains may be unsustainable on the other side. And what works just dandy for me may put you in an untenable position, and for reasons that may be difficult or impossible to quantify or qualify.

Many people find reasons to dislike the term “sustainability” and have worked to promote alternatives that refer to the goals of sustainability, like “well-being,” “balance,” and “resilience.” There is also the widespread problem of using the term illegitimately because it is hard to define, and no real rules have been set down to standardize its use.

I suggest that it is most important to remember two things: 1) don’t believe claims that “it’s easy being green,” because in the midst of our extremely unsustainable society, it rarely if ever is, and 2) working toward true sustainability requires deep personal commitment, and there are no shortcuts. With this last point, I don’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have to work extra hard to earn that extra money to afford a Tesla. Rather, I mean that working toward real sustainability requires that we do whatever work is necessary–which turns out to be mostly inner work–to bring out the best of ourselves, and to lead with sincerity and goodwill in every interaction. Anything less is less than sustainable.

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