Sustainability is a systemic concept, relating to the continuity of economic, social, institutional and environmental aspects of human society. It is intended to be a means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society, its members and its economies are able to meet their needs and express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems, and planning and acting for the ability to maintain these ideals indefinitely. Sustainability affects every level of organization, from the local neighborhood to the entire planet.

Definition in wordsEdit

Sustainability can be defined both qualitatively in words, and more quantitatively rigorous as a ratio. Put in qualitative terms, sustainability seeks to provide the best of all possible worlds for people and the environment both now and into the indefinite future. In the terms of the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainable development is development that: "Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." This is very much like the seventh generation philosophy of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy, mandating that chiefs always consider the effects of their actions on their descendants through the seventh generation in the future. The original term was "sustainable development", a term adopted by the Agenda 21 program of the United Nations. Some people now consider the term "sustainable development" as too closely linked with continued physical development, and prefer to use terms like "Sustainability", "Sustainable Prosperity" and "Sustainable Genuine Progress" as the umbrella terms. Despite differences, a number of common principles are embedded in most charters or action programmes to achieve sustainable development, sustainability or sustainable prosperity. These include (Hargroves & Smith 2005):

  • dealing cautiously with risk, uncertainty and irreversibility;
  • ensuring appropriate valuation, appreciation and restoration of nature;
  • integration of environmental, social and economic goals in policies and activities;
  • equal opportunity and community participation;
  • conservation of biodiversity and ecological integrity;
  • ensuring inter-generational equity;
  • recognizing the global dimension;
  • a commitment to best practice;
  • no net loss of human or natural capital;
  • the principle of continuous improvement; and
  • the need for good governance.

The Swedish nonprofit organization The Natural Step has led a process to define an operational and consensus based principle definition of sustainability.

Concepts and issuesEdit

The modern concept of environmental sustainability goes back to the post-World War II period, when a utopian view of technology-driven economic growth gave way to a perception that the quality of the environment was linked closely to economic development. Interest grew sharply during the environmental movements of the 1960s, when popular books such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962) and The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich (1968) raised public awareness.

There are two related categories of thought on environmental sustainability. In 1968 the Club of Rome, a group of European economists and scientists, was formed. In 1972 they published Limits to Growth. Criticized by economists of the time, the report predicted dire consequences because humans were using up the Earth's resources and it advocated as one solution the abandonment of economic development. There followed the formation of groups sympathetic to the general premise that human society was growing too quickly and/or using up its resources, including the founding of the Worldwatch Institute in 1975. In a different category, other groups formed to focus less on population—growth control and slowing economic development and more on establishing environmental standards and enforcement. In retrospect, while some of the predictions made in Limits to Growth have proved to have been unfounded or premature, the warning it sounded is regarded as valid by many today.[1]

There is also a positive way to view sustainability: though values vary greatly in detail within and between cultures, at the heart of the concept of sustainability there is a fundamental, immutable value set that is best stated as 'parallel care and respect for the ecosystem and for the people within.' From this value set emerges the goal of sustainability: to achieve human and ecosystem well-being together. It follows that the 'result' against which the success of any project or design should be judged is the achievement of, or the contribution to, human and ecosystem well-being together. Seen in this way, the concept of sustainability is much more than environmental protection in another guise. It is a positive concept that has as much to do with achieving well-being for people and ecosystems as it has to do with reducing stress or impacts.

Many people have pointed to various practices and philosophies in the world today as being inimical to sustainability. For instance, critics of American society state that the philosophy of infinite economic growth and infinite growth in consumption are completely unsustainable and will cause great harm to human civilization in the future. In recognition that the Earth is finite, there has been a growing awareness that there must be limits to certain kinds of human activity if life on the planet is to survive indefinitely. In order to distinguish which activities are destructive and which are benign or beneficial, various models have been developed. Such models include: life cycle assessment and ecological footprint analysis. Recently the algorithms of the ecological footprint model have been used in combination with the emergy methodology (S. Zhao, Z. Li and W. Li 2005)Template:Ref, and a sustainability index has also been derived from the latter.

One of the critically important issues in sustainability is that of human overpopulation. A number of studies have suggested that the current population of the Earth, already over six billion, is too many people for our planet to support sustainably. A number of organizations are working to try to reduce population growth, but some fear that it may already be too late.

Critics of such efforts, on the other hand, fear that efforts to reduce population growth may lead to human rights violations such as involuntary sterilization and the abandoning of infants to die. Some human-rights watchers report that this is already taking place in China, as a result of its one child per family policy.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, founded in 1995, has formulated the business case for sustainable development and argues that "sustainable development is good for business and business is good for sustainable development".

The international nonprofit The Natural Step, founded in 1989 by Swedish cancer scientist Karl-Henrik Robèrt, with the patronage of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, has coordinated a consensus process to define and operationalize sustainability. At the core of the process lies a consensus definition of sustainability, described as The System Conditions of sustainability. The Natural Step has pioneered the use of Backasting from Principles of Sustainability in order to allow groups of people to act and innovate strategically when dealing with the complexity of sustainability issues. As of today the Natural Step has been co-creating some of the most succesful cases of innovation towards sustainability, by working with some of the largest resource users on the planet.

Another application of sustainability has been in the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach, developed on conceptual work by Amartya Sen, and the UK's Institute for Development Studies (IDS). This was championed by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), UNDP, FAO as well as NGOs such as CARE, OXFAM and Khanya. Key concepts include the Sustainable Livelihoods (SL) Framework, a holistic way of understanding livelihoods, the SL principles, as well as 6 governance issues developed by Khanya. There is a website dedicated to the SL approach called Livelihoods Connect.

Types of sustainability Edit

The FAO has identified considerations for technical cooperation that affect three types of sustainability:

  • Institutional sustainability: Can the strengthened institutional structure continue to deliver the results of the technical cooperation to the ultimate end-users? The results may not be sustainable if, for example, the planning unit strengthened by the technical cooperation ceases to have access to top-management or is not provided with adequate resources for the effective performance after the technical cooperation terminated. Note that institutional sustainability can also be linked to the concept of social sustainability, how the interventions can be sustained by social structures and institutions;
  • Economical and financial sustainability: Can the results of the technical cooperation continue to yield an economic benefit after the technical cooperation is withdrawn? For example, the benefits from the introduction of new crops may not be sustained, if the constraints to marketing the crops are not resolved. Similarly, economic (distinct from financial) sustainability may be at risk, if the end-users continue to depend on heavily-subsidized activities and inputs.
  • Ecological sustainability: Are the benefits to be generated by the technical cooperation likely to lead to a deterioration in the physical environment (thus indirectly contributing to a fall in production) or well-being of the groups targeted and their society?

The United Nations has declared a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development starting in January of 2005. A non-partisan multi-sector response to the decade has formed within the U.S. via the U.S. Partnership for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development ( Active sectors teams have formed for youth, higher education, business, faith, the arts, and more. Organizations and individuals can join in sharing resources, success stories and creating a sustainable future.

Development sustainability Edit

Sustainability is relevant to development projects. A definition of development sustainability is the continuation of benefits after major assistance from the donor has been completed. Ensuring that development projects are sustainable can reduce the likelihood of them collapsing after they have just finished; it also reduces the throwing of money at development problems and the subsequent social problems, such as dependence of the stakeholders on external donors and their resources. All development assistance, apart from temporary emergency and humanitarian relief efforts, should be designed and implemented with the aim of achieving sustainable benefits. There are ten key factors that influence development sustainability.

  1. Participation and ownership. Get the stakeholders (men and women) to genuinely participate in design and implementation. Build on their initiatives and demands. get them to monitor the project and periodically evaluate it for results.
  2. Capacity building and training. Training stakeholders to take over should begin from the start of any project and continue throughout. The right approach should both motivate and transfer skills to men and women.
  3. Government policies. Development projects should be aligned with local government policies.
  4. Financial. In some countries and sectors financial sustainability is difficult in the medium-term. Training in local fundraising is a possibility, as is identifying complementarity with the private sector, user pays approaches, and encouraging policy reforms.
  5. Management and organisation. Activities that integrate with or build onto local structures may have better prospects for sustainability than those which establish new or parallel structures.
  6. Social, gender and culture. The introduction of new ideas, technologies and skills requires an understanding of local decision-making systems, gender divisions and cultural preferences.
  7. Technology. All outside equipment must be selected carefully considering the local finance available for maintenance and replacement. Cultural acceptability and the local capacity to maintain equipment and buy spare parts are key factors.
  8. Environment. Poor non-urban communities that depend on natural resources should be involved in identifying and managing environmental risks. Urban communities should identify and manage waste disposal and pollution risks.
  9. External political and economic factors. In a weak economy, projects should not be too complicated, ambitious or expensive.
  10. Realistic duration. A short project may be inadequate for solving entrenched problems in a sustainable way, particularly when behavioural and institutional changes are intended. A long project, may on the other hand, promote dependence.

Sustainability and Competitiveness Edit

If enacted wisely it is possible for the paradigms of sustainable development and competitiveness to merge. There does not have to be an inevitable trade-off. This merger is being motivated by the following six facts (Hargroves & Smith 2005):

  1. Throughout the economy there are widespread untapped potential resource productivity improvements to be made to be coupled with effective design.
  2. There has been a significant shift in understanding over the last three decades of what creates lasting competitiveness of the firm.
  3. There is now a critical mass of enabling technologies in eco-innovations that make integrated approaches to sustainable development economically viable.
  4. Since many of the costs of what economists call ‘environmental externalities’ are passed on to governments, in the long-term sustainable development strategies can provide multiple benefits to the tax payer.
  5. There is a growing understanding of the multiple benefits of valuing social and natural capital, for both moral and economic reasons, and including them in measures of national well-being.
  6. There is mounting evidence to show that a transition to a sustainable economy, if done wisely, may not harm economic growth significantly, in fact it could even help it. Recent research by ex-Wuppertal Institute member Joachim Spangenberg, working

with neo-classical economists, shows that the transition, if focused on improving resource productivity, will lead to higher economic growth than business as usual, while at the same time reducing pressures on the environment and enhancing employment.

Sustainability metric and indiciesEdit

In 2003, Maine Template:Ref brought attention to the qualitative nature of sustainability discourses and suggested that they needed to become more quantitative, with an associated sustainability metric and indicators or index. According to the University of Reading website[2], there are three basic functions of indicators. simplification, quantification, and communication. Indicators generally simplify in order to make complex phenomena quantifiable so that information can be communicated. In this context, in 1996 the International Institute for Sustainable Development developed a Sample Policy Framework which proposed that a sustainability index "would give decision- makers tools to rate policies and programs against each other" (1996, p.9). Like Maine, Ravi Jain (2005)Template:Ref argued that, "The ability to analyze different alternatives or to assess progress towards sustainability will then depend on establishing measurable entities or metrics used for sustainability." Likewise the International Institute For Environment And Development, Environmental Planning Group (1993, p.2) said,

The need for sustainability analysis and particularly for indicators of sustainability is a key requirement to implement and monitor the development of national sustainable development plans, as required by Agenda 21 agreed at UNCED in June 1992.

A number of different schools have undertaken development of such a metric. In 1997 the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) was started as a multi-stakeholder process and independent institution whose mission has been "to develop and disseminate globally applicable Sustainability Reporting Guidelines"[3]. The GRI uses ecological footprint analysis and became independent in 2002, and is an official collaborating centre of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and works in cooperation with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Global Compact. In the same year (1997) systems ecologists M.T.Brown and S.Ulgiati Template:Ref Template:Ref published their formulation of a quantitative sustainability index (SI) as a ratio of the emergy (spelled with an "m", i.e. "embodied energy", not simply "energy") yield ratio (EYR) to the environmental loading ratio (ELR). Brown and Ulgiati also called the sustainability index, the "Emergy Sustainability Index" (ESI), "an index that accounts for yield, renewability, and environmental load. It is the incremental emergy yield compared to the environmental load" (1999, p. 7).

Sustainability definition as a ratio: please do not change spelling - see note

  • $ Sustainability Index = \frac{Emergy Yield Ratio}{Environmental Loading Ratio} = \frac{EYR}{ELR} $
  • NOTE: The numerator is called "emergy" and is spelled with an "m". It is an abbreviation of the term, "embodied energy", i.e. "embodied energy". The numerator is not "energy yield ratio" which is different. (This index is from Table 3. 'Global Energy Indicies' in Brown and Ulgiati 1999, p.23)

More recently a joint initiative of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) of Columbia University, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission also attempted to construct an Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI). This was formally released in Davos, Switzerland, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) on 28 January 2005. The report on this index made a comparison [4] of the WEF ESI to other sustainability indicators such as thh Ecological footprint Index. However there was no mention of the emergy sustainability index. Nevertheless writers like LeoneTemplate:Ref and Ukidwe et al. Template:Ref have also recently suggested that the emergy sustainability index has significant utility. In particular, Leone notes that while the GRI measures behavior, it fails to calculate supply constraints which the emergy methodology aims to calculate. See also a recent report by United States Environment Protection Agency using emergy methodology [5], and compare also with the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

Implementing Agenda 21Edit

One of the key concerns about sustainability lies in the context of what external development interventions are appropriate and can contribute to sustainability. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which was given the Task Manager responsibility for reporting World Progress on implementing four Chapters of Agenda 21 (Land, Forests, Mountains, Sustainable Agriculture & Rural Development) by the United Nations, acknowledges:

Sustainability concerns one of the most fundamental questions for technical cooperation: will the benefits and results achieved through the project be maintained and enhanced by the ultimate end-users and their community, based on their own commitment and resources, after the termination of the external assistance? The question entails a complex analysis of aspects related to this broad concept, including the acceptability and use to be made of project outputs and results by the intended groups targeted their capacity to maintain the results, and the institutional and policy environments to enable them to do so.


  • Allen, P. (Ed) 1993. Food for the Future: Conditions and Contradictions of Sustainability. ISBN 0-471-58082-1 Paperback. 344 pages.
  • AtKisson, A. 1999. Believing Cassandra, An Optimist looks at a Pessimist’s World, Chelsea Green Publishing., White River Junction, VT
  • Benyus, J. 1997. Biomimicry: Innovations Inspired by Nature, William Morrow, New York
  • Bruntland, G. (ed.), (1987), Our common future: The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Dalal-Clayton, B. (1993) Modified Eia And Indicators Of Sustainability: First Steps Towards Sustainability Analysis, Environmental Planning Issues No.1, International Institute For Environment And Development, Environmental Planning Group.
  • Hargroves, K. and M. Smith (Eds.) 2005. The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century. ISBN 1-84407-121-9, 525 pages. Earthscan/James&James. (See the books online companion at
  • Hawken, P., Lovins, A. and Lovins, L. H. 1999. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Earthscan, London (Downloadable from
  • International Institute for Sustainable Development (1996) Global Tomorrow Coalition Sustainable Development Tool Kit: A Sample Policy Framework, Chapter 4.
  • M.T.Brown and S.Ulgiati 1999. Emergy evaluation of natural capital and biosphere services, AMBIO, Vol.28, No.6, Sept. 1999.
  • Young, L. & J. Hamshire 2000. Promoting Practical Sustainability. Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), Canberra Australia, ISBN 0 642 45058 7. Free copies available at AusAID Public Affairs, GPO Box 887, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.
  • Environmental Sustainability Index (2005) Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy Yale University, New Haven

See alsoEdit

External links Edit

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