Sustainability is the capacity to endure in a relatively ongoing way across various domains of life. In the 21st century, it refers generally to the capacity for Earth's biosphere and human civilization to co-exist. For many, sustainability is defined through the interconnected domains of environment, economy and society. Despite the increased popularity of the term "sustainability" and its usage, the possibility that human societies will achieve environmental sustainability has been, and continues to be, questioned—in light of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, climate change, overconsumption, population growth and societies' pursuit of unlimited economic growth in a closed system.
A related concept is that of "sustainable development", which is often discussed through the domains of culture, technology economics and politics. Sustainable development may be seen as the organizing principle of sustainability. According to Our Common Future (the "Brundtland Report" in 1987), sustainable development is defined as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Moving towards sustainability can involve social challenges such as individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism. Sustainable living approaches can reduce environmental impacts by altering the built environment to create more sustainable cities which support sustainable transport and zero emission housing as well as sustainable architecture and circular flow land use management.
The philosophical and analytic framework of sustainability draws on and connects with many different disciplines and fields; this is also called sustainability science.
Originally, "sustainability" meant making only such use of natural, renewable resources that people could continue to rely on their yields in the long term. The concept of sustainability, or Nachhaltigkeit in German, can be traced back to Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645–1714), and was applied to forestry. However, the idea itself goes back to times immemorial, as communities have always worried about the capacity of their environment to sustain them in the long term. Many ancient cultures had traditions restricting the use of natural resources, e.g. the Māori of New Zealand, the Amerindians of coastal British Columbia and peoples of Indonesia, Oceania, India and Mali.
The term sustainability is derived from the Latin sustinere (tenere, to hold; sub, under). Sustain can mean "maintain", "support", "uphold" or "endure."
Modern use of the term "sustainability" began with the UN Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, set up in 1983. According to Our Common Future (also known as the "Brundtland Report"), sustainable development is defined as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
The report stated that sustainability was meant to indicate that environment and development are inseparable:
"the ‘environment’ is where we all live; and ‘development’ is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.": Foreword [...] We came to see that a new development path was required, one that sustained human progress not just in a few pieces for a few years, but for the entire planet into the distant future. Thus 'sustainable development' becomes a goal not just for the 'developing' nations, but for industrial ones as well.": Section I.1.10
In other words, the report marks sustainable development as a global concept which links environmental and social issues and addresses both developing countries and industrialized countries.
A different view of sustainability emerged in the 1990s. Here, sustainability is not seen in terms of confronting human aspirations for increased well-being with the limitations imposed by the environment, but rather as a systems view of these aspirations, incorporating environmental concerns. Under this conception, sustainability is defined through the following interconnected domains or pillars: environmental, economic and social. In crude versions of this view (also termed the ‘triple bottom line’), the three dimensions are equivalent, and the aim is to achieve a balance between them. More sophisticated versions recognize that the economic dimension is subsumed under the social one (i.e., the economy is part of society), and that the environmental dimension constrains both the social and the economic one. In fact, the three pillars are interdependent, and in the long run, none can exist without the others. The term "sustainability" and its derived definition continue to change and adapt as the world advances and opinions develop.
The 2005 World Summit on Social Development identified sustainable development goals (SDGs), such as economic development, social development, and environmental protection. This view can be expressed as a “wedding-cake” model, in which each of the 17 SDGs is assigned to one of the three dimensions.
The three pillars have served as a common ground for numerous sustainability standards and certification systems, in particular in the food industry. Standards which today explicitly refer to the triple bottom line include Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, UTZ Certified, and GLOBALG.A.P. Sustainability standards are used in global supply chains in various sectors and industries such as agriculture, mining, forestry, and fisheries. Based on the ITC Standards, the most frequently covered products are agricultural products, followed by processed food.
The economy is a subsystem of human society, which is itself a subsystem of the biosphere, and a gain in one sector is a loss in another. This perspective led to the nested circles' figure (above) of 'economics' inside 'society' inside the 'environment'.
Thus, the simple definition of sustainability as something that may constrain development has been expanded to incorporate improving the quality of human life. This conveys the idea of sustainability having quantifiable limits. On the other hand, sustainability is also a call to action, a task in progress or "journey" and therefore a political process, so some definitions set out common goals and values. The Earth Charter speaks of "a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace." This suggests a more complex image of sustainability, which includes the domain of politics. Essentially, sustainability can not be ensured through one route means of focus, attention, and action. It must be cultivated through a complete targeting of the object itself to ensure results and feasibility.
More than that, sustainability implies responsible and proactive decision-making and innovation that minimizes negative impact and maintains a balance between ecological resilience, economic prosperity, political justice and cultural vibrancy to ensure a desirable planet for all species now and in the future. Understanding sustainable development is important but without clear targets, it remains an unfocused term like "liberty" or "justice." It has also been described as a "dialogue of values that challenge the sociology of development."
Sustainability can also be defined as a socio-ecological process characterized by the pursuit of a common ideal. An ideal is by definition unattainable in a given time and space. However, by persistently and dynamically approaching it, the process results in a sustainable system.
The concept of sustainable development has been criticized from different angles. While some see it as paradoxical and regard development as inherently unsustainable, others are sobered by the lack of progress which has been achieved so far.
According to Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the first report to the Club of Rome, called "The Limits to Growth", many people deceive themselves by using the Brundtland definition of sustainability. This is because the needs of the present generation are actually not met today, and the economic activities to meet present needs will substantially diminish the options of future generations.: 27 Sustainability has also been described as an “exhausted roadmap” due to the fact that our consumer societies are socially and ecologically self-destructive.
Some scholars have even proclaimed the end of the concept of sustainability due to the realities of the anthropocene: These realities include "unprecedented and irreversible rates of human induced biodiversity loss, exponential increases in per-capita resource consumption, and global climate change". Therefore it might become impossible to pursue a goal of sustainability when faced with these complex, radical and dynamic issues.
Some sustainability experts and practitioners have proposed additional pillars of sustainability. A common one is culture, resulting in a quadruple bottom line. There is also an opinion that considers resource use and financial sustainability as two additional pillars of sustainability. In infrastructure projects, for instance, one must ask whether sufficient financing capability for maintenance exists.
An example of this four-dimensional view is the Circles of Sustainability approach, which includes cultural sustainability. This goes beyond the three dimensions of the United Nations Millennium Declaration but is in accord with the United Nations, Unesco, Agenda 21, and in particular the Agenda 21 for culture which specifies culture as the fourth domain of sustainable development. The model is now being used by organizations such as the United Nations Cities Program and Metropolis. In the case of Metropolis, this approach does not mean adding a fourth domain of culture to the dominant triple bottom line figure of the economy, environment and the social. Rather, it involves treating all four domains—economy, ecology, politics, and culture—as social (including economics) and distinguishing between ecology (as the intersection of the human and natural worlds) and the environment as that which goes far beyond what we as humans can ever know.
Another model suggests humans' attempt to achieve all of their needs and aspirations via seven modalities: economy, community, occupational groups, government, environment, culture, and physiology. From the global to the individual human scale, each of the seven modalities can be viewed across seven hierarchical levels. Human sustainability can be achieved by attaining sustainability in all levels of the seven modalities.
An alternative way of thinking is to distinguish between what has been called weak and strong sustainability. The former refers to environmental resources that can be replaced or substituted for, such as fossil fuels, many minerals, forests and polluted air. The latter refers to resources that once lost cannot be recovered or repaired within a reasonable timescale, such as biodiversity, soils or climate. Different policies and strategies are needed for the two types.
Also, with regards to the economic dimension of sustainability, this can be understood by making a distinction between weak versus strong sustainability. In the former, loss of natural resources is compensated by an increase in human capital. Strong sustainability applies where human and natural capital are complementary, but not interchangeable. Thus, the problem of deforestation in England due to demand for wood in shipbuilding and for charcoal in iron-making was solved when ships came to be built of steel and coke replaced charcoal in iron-making – an example of weak sustainability. Prevention of biodiversity loss, which is an existential threat, is an example of the strong type. What is weak and what is strong depends partially on technology and partially on one’s convictions.
In 2009 a group of scientists led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University described nine planetary boundaries. Transgressing even one of them can be dangerous to sustainability. Those boundaries are climate change, biodiversity loss (changed in 2015 to "change in biosphere integrity"), biogeochemical (nitrogen and phosphorus), ocean acidification, land use, freshwater, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosols, chemical pollution (changed in 2015 to "Introduction of novel entities").
The ecological footprint measures human consumption in terms of the biologically productive land and sea area needed to provide for all the competing demands on nature, including the provision of food, fiber, the accommodation of urban infrastructure and the absorption of waste, including carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel. In 2019, it required on average 2.8 global hectares per person worldwide, 75% more than the biological capacity of 1.6 global hectares available on this planet per person (this space includes the space needed for wild species). The resulting ecological deficit must be met from unsustainable extra sources and these are obtained in three ways: embedded in the goods and services of world trade; taken from the past (e.g. fossil fuels); or borrowed from the future as unsustainable resource usage (e.g. by over exploiting forests and fisheries).
Main article: Sustainability and environmental management
See also: List of environmental issues
At the global scale and in the broadest sense environmental management involves the oceans, freshwater systems, land and atmosphere. Following the sustainability principle of scale, it can be equally applied to any ecosystem from a tropical rainforest to a home garden.
Healthy ecosystems provide vital goods and services to humans and other organisms. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment from 2005 measured 24 ecosystem services and concludes that only four have shown improvement over the last 50 years, 15 are in serious decline, and five are in a precarious condition.: 6–19 There are two major ways of reducing negative human impact and enhancing ecosystem services and the first of these is environmental management. This direct approach is based largely on information gained from earth science, environmental science and conservation biology. However, this is management at the end of a long series of indirect causal factors that are initiated by human consumption, so a second approach is through demand management of human resource use.
Management of human consumption of resources is an indirect approach based largely on information gained from economics. Three broad criteria for ecological sustainability were describe in 1990: renewable resources should provide a sustainable yield (the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration); for non-renewable resources there should be equivalent development of renewable substitutes; waste generation should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment.
According to the Brundtland report, "poverty is a major cause and effect of global environmental problems. It is therefore futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality."
Ecological resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic structure and viability. Resilience-thinking evolved from the need to manage interactions between human-constructed systems and natural ecosystems sustainably, even though to policymakers, a definition remains elusive. Resilience-thinking addresses how much planetary ecological systems can withstand assaults from human disturbances and still deliver the service's current and future generations need from them. It is also concerned with commitment from geopolitical policymakers to promote and manage essential planetary ecological resources to promote resilience and achieve sustainability of these essential resources for the benefit of future generations of life.
Alterations in the relative proportions of land dedicated to urbanization, agriculture, forest, woodland, grassland and pasture have a marked effect on the global water, carbon and nitrogen biogeochemical cycles and this can impact negatively on both natural and human systems.: 560–582 At the local human scale, major sustainability benefits accrue from sustainable parks and gardens and green cities.
Feeding almost eight billion human bodies takes a heavy toll on the Earth's resources. This begins with the appropriation of about 38% of the Earth's land surface and about 20% of its net primary productivity. Added to this are the resource-hungry activities of industrial agribusiness—everything from the crop need for irrigation water, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to the resource costs of food packaging, transport (now a major part of global trade) and retail. Environmental problems associated with industrial agriculture and agribusiness are now being addressed through such movements as sustainable agriculture, organic farming and more sustainable business practices. The most cost-effective mitigation options include afforestation, sustainable forest management, and reducing deforestation.
The environmental effects of different dietary patterns depend on many factors, including the proportion of animal and plant foods consumed and the method of food production. At the global level the environmental impact of agribusiness is being addressed through sustainable agriculture and organic farming. At the local level there are various movements working towards sustainable food systems which may include local food production, slow food, sustainable gardening, and organic gardening.
As global population and affluence have increased, so has the use of various materials increased in volume, diversity, and distance transported. Included here are raw materials, minerals, synthetic chemicals (including hazardous substances), manufactured products, food, living organisms, and waste. By 2050, humanity could consume an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year (three times its current amount) unless the economic growth rate is decoupled from the rate of natural resource consumption. Developed countries' citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita per year, ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries with resource consumption levels far beyond what is likely sustainable. By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year.
Sustainable use of materials has targeted the idea of dematerialization, converting the linear path of materials (extraction, use, disposal in landfill) to a circular material flow that reuses materials as much as possible, much like the cycling and reuse of waste in nature. Dematerialization is being encouraged through the ideas of industrial ecology, eco design and ecolabelling. The use of sustainable biomaterials that come from renewable sources and that can be recycled is preferred to the use on non-renewables from a life cycle standpoint.
This way of thinking is expressed in the concept of circular economy, which employs reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling to create a closed-loop system, minimizing the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions. The European Commission has adopted an ambitious Circular Economy Action Plan in 2020, which aims at making sustainable products the norm in the EU.
On one account, sustainability "concerns the specification of a set of actions to be taken by present persons that will not diminish the prospects of future persons to enjoy levels of consumption, wealth, utility, or welfare comparable to those enjoyed by present persons." Thus, sustainability economics means taking a long-term view of human welfare. One way of doing this is by considering the social discount rate, i.e. the rate by which future costs and benefits should be discounted when making decisions about the future. The more one is concerned about future generations, the lower the social discount rate should be. Another method is to quantify the services that ecosystems provide to humankind and put an economic value on them, so that environmental damage may be assessed against perceived short-term welfare benefits. For instance, according to the World Economic Forum, half of the global GDP is strongly or moderately dependent on nature. Also, for every dollar spent on nature restoration there is a profit of at least 9 dollars. The study of these ecosystem services is an important branch of ecological economics.
A major problem in sustainability is that many environmental and social costs are not borne by the entity that causes them, and are therefore not expressed in the market price. In economics this is known as externalities, in this case negative externalities. They can be solved by government intervention: either by taxing the activity (the polluter pays), by subsidizing activities that have a positive environmental or social effect (rewarding stewardship), or by outlawing the practice (legal limits on pollution, for instance).
In recent years, the concept of doughnut economics has been developed by the British economist Kate Raworth to integrate social and environmental sustainability into economic thinking. The social dimension is here portrayed as a minimum standard to which a society should aspire, whereas an outer limit is imposed by the carrying capacity of the planet.
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Sustainable business practices integrate ecological concerns with social and economic ones (i.e., the triple bottom line). The idea of sustainability as a business opportunity has led to the formation of organizations such as the Sustainability Consortium of the Society for Organizational Learning, the Sustainable Business Institute, and the World Council for Sustainable Development. The expansion of sustainable business opportunities can contribute to job creation through the introduction of green-collar workers.
The concept of "embedded sustainability" is defined as "incorporation of environmental, health, and social value into the core business with no trade-off in price or quality—in other words, with no social or green premium." Embedded sustainability offers at least seven distinct opportunities for business value creation: better risk-management, increased efficiency through reduced waste and resource use, better product differentiation, new market entrances, enhanced brand and reputation, greater opportunity to influence industry standards, and greater opportunity for radical innovation.
Social sustainability is the least defined and least understood of the different ways of approaching sustainability and sustainable development. Social sustainability has had considerably less attention in public dialogue than economic and environmental sustainability. There are several approaches to sustainability. The first, which posits a triad of environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and social sustainability, is the most widely accepted as a model for addressing sustainability. The concept of "social sustainability" in this approach encompasses such topics as: social equity, livability, health equity, community development, social capital, social support, human rights, labour rights, placemaking, social responsibility, social justice, cultural competence, community resilience, and human adaptation.A second approach suggests that all of the domains of sustainability are social: including ecological, economic, political and cultural sustainability. These domains of social sustainability are all dependent upon the relationship between the social and the natural, with the "ecological domain" defined as human embeddedness in the environment. In these terms, social sustainability encompasses all human activities. It is not just relevant to the focussed intersection of economics, the environment and the social.
Broad-based strategies for more sustainable social systems include: improved education and the political empowerment of women, especially in developing countries; greater regard for social justice, notably equity between rich and poor both within and between countries; and, perhaps most of all, intergenerational equity. After all, to be sustained means to outlast the present.
The World Health Organization recognizes that achieving sustainability is impossible without addressing health issues. There is a rise in some interconnected health and sustainability problems, for example, in food production. Measures for achieving environmental sustainability can in many cases also improve health.
For better measuring the well-being, the New Economics Foundation's has launched the Happy Planet Index. In the beginning of the 21st century, more than 100 organizations created the Wellbeing Economy Alliance with the aim to create an economy that will guarantee well-being and heal nature at the same time.
There are at least three letters from the scientific community about the growing threat to sustainability and ways to remove the threat.
Similarly, in 2005, 12 main problems were described that can be dangerous to sustainability: Deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, overpopulation, Increased per-capita impact of people, climate change, Buildup of toxins in the environment, energy shortages, full human use of the Earth's photosynthetic capacity.
In 2021 the United Nations Environment Programme issued a report describing three major environmental threats to sustainability: climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. The report states that as of the year 2021 humanity fails to properly address the main environmental challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is also linked to environmental issues, including climate change, deforestation and wildlife trade.
Sustainability is studied and managed over many scales (levels or frames of reference) of time and space and in many contexts of environmental, social, and economic organizations. The focus ranges from the total carrying capacity (sustainability) of planet Earth to the sustainability of economic sectors, ecosystems, countries, municipalities, neighborhoods, home gardens, individual lives, individual goods and services, occupations, lifestyles, and behavior patterns. Since the overarching theme of sustainability includes the prudent use of resources to meet current needs without affecting the ability of the future generation from meeting their needs, sustainability can entail the full compass of biological and human activity or any part of it.
One attempt to express human impact mathematically was developed in the 1970s and is called the I = PAT formula. This formulation attempts to explain human consumption in terms of three components: population numbers, levels of consumption (which it terms "affluence", although the usage is different), and impact per unit of resource use (which is termed "technology", because this impact depends on the technology used). The equation is expressed:
Strategies for reaching sustainability can generally be divided into three categories. Most governments and international organizations that aim to achieve sustainability employ all three approaches, though they may disagree on which deserves priority.
Affluence: Many believe that sustainability cannot be achieved without reducing consumption. This theory is represented most clearly in the idea of a steady-state economy, meaning an economy without growth. Methods in this category include, among others, the phase-out of lightweight plastic bags, promoting biking, and increasing energy efficiency. For example, according to the report "Plastic and Climate", plastic-production greenhouse gas emissions can be as much as 15% of earth's remaining carbon budget by 2050 and over 50% by 2100, except the impacts on phytoplankton. The report says that for solving the problem, reduction in consumption will be essential. In 2020, scientific research published by the World Economic Forum determined that affluence is the biggest threat to sustainability.
Population: Others think that the most effective means of achieving sustainability is population control, for example by improving access to birth control and education (particularly education for girls). Fertility rates are known to decline with increased prosperity, and have been declining globally since 1980.
Technology: Still others hold that the most promising path to sustainability is new technology. This theory may be seen as a form of technological optimism. One popular tactic in this category is transitioning to renewable energy. Others methods to achieve sustainability, associated with this theory are climate engineering (geo – engineering), genetic engineering (GMO, Genetically modified organism), decoupling.
Further information: Consumption (economics)
The environmental impact of a community or humankind as a whole depends both on population and impact per person, which in turn depends in complex ways on what resources are being used, whether or not those resources are renewable, and the scale of the human activity relative to the carrying capacity of the ecosystems involved. Careful resource management can be applied at many scales, from economic sectors like agriculture, manufacturing and industry, to work organizations, the consumption patterns of households and individuals, and the resource demands of individual goods and services.
The underlying driver of direct human impacts on the environment is human consumption. This impact is reduced by not only consuming less but also making the full cycle of production, use, and disposal more sustainable. Consumption of goods and services can be analyzed and managed at all scales through the chain of consumption, starting with the effects of individual lifestyle choices and spending patterns, through to the resource demands of specific goods and services, the impacts of economic sectors, through national economies to the global economy. Analysis of consumption patterns relates resource use to the environmental, social and economic impacts at the scale or context under investigation. The ideas of embodied resource use (the total resources needed to produce a product or service), resource intensity, and resource productivity are important tools for understanding the impacts of consumption. Key resource categories relating to human needs are food, energy, raw materials and water.
In 2010, the International Resource Panel published the first global scientific assessment on the impacts of consumption and production. The study found that the most critical impacts are related to ecosystem health, human health and resource depletion. From a production perspective, it found that fossil-fuel combustion processes, agriculture and fisheries have the most important impacts. Meanwhile, from a final consumption perspective, it found that household consumption related to mobility, shelter, food, and energy-using products causes the majority of life-cycle impacts of consumption.
According to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, human consumption, with current policy, by the year 2100 will be seven times bigger than in the year 2010.
In 2019, a summary for policymakers of the largest, most comprehensive study to date of biodiversity and ecosystem services was published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. It recommended that human civilization will need a transformative change, including sustainable agriculture, reductions in consumption and waste, fishing quotas and collaborative water management.
Further information: Religion and environmentalism
Within the context of Christianity, in the encyclical "Laudato si'", Pope Francis called to fight climate change and ecological degradation as a whole. He claimed that humanity is facing a severe ecological crisis and blamed consumerism and irresponsible development. The encyclical is addressed to "every person living on this planet."
Buddhism includes many principles linked to sustainability. The Dalai Lama has consistently called for strong climate action, reforestation, preserving ecosystems, a reduction in meat consumption. He declared that if he will ever join a political party it will be the green party and if Buddha returned to our world now: “Buddha would be green.” The leaders of Buddhism issued a special declaration calling on all believers to fight climate change and environmental destruction as a whole.
A sustainable approach is a systems-based approach that seeks to understand the interactions which exist among environmental, social, and economic pillars [...].
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.
The concept of 'sustainability' comes from forestry and originally meant something like: using natural resources mindfully so that the supply never runs out.
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