Sustainability is the process of maintaining change in a balanced fashion, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations. For many in the field, sustainability is defined through the following interconnected domains or pillars: environment, economic and social. Sub-domains of sustainable development have been considered also: cultural, technological and political. While sustainable development may be the organizing principle for sustainability for some, for others, the two terms are paradoxical (i.e. development is inherently unsustainable). Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Brundtland Report for the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) introduced the term of sustainable 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.
Healthy ecosystems and environments are necessary to the survival of humans and other organisms. Ways of reducing negative human impact are environmentally-friendly chemical engineering, environmental resources management and environmental protection. Information is gained from green computing, green chemistry, earth science, environmental science and conservation biology. Ecological economics studies the fields of academic research that aim to address human economies and natural ecosystems.
Moving towards sustainability is also a social challenge that entails international and national law, urban planning and transport, local and individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism. Ways of living more sustainably can take many forms from reorganizing living conditions (e.g., ecovillages, eco-municipalities and sustainable cities), reappraising economic sectors (permaculture, green building, sustainable agriculture), or work practices (sustainable architecture), using science to develop new technologies (green technologies, renewable energy and sustainable fission and fusion power), or designing systems in a flexible and reversible manner, and adjusting individual lifestyles that conserve natural resources.
“The term ‘sustainability’ should be viewed as humanity’s target goal of human-ecosystem equilibrium (homeostasis), while ‘sustainable development’ refers to the holistic approach and temporal processes that lead us to the end point of sustainability.” (305) Despite the increased popularity of the use of the term “sustainability”, the possibility that human societies will achieve environmental sustainability has been, and continues to be, questioned—in light of environmental degradation, climate change, overconsumption, population growth and societies’ pursuit of unlimited economic growth in a closed system.
The name sustainability is derived from the Latin sustinere (tenere, to hold; sub, under). Sustain can mean “maintain”, “support”, or “endure”. Since the 1980s sustainability has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth and this has resulted in the most widely quoted definition of sustainability as a part of the concept sustainable development, that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Three dimensions of sustainability
The 2005 World Summit on Social Development identified sustainable development goals, such as economic development, social development and environmental protection. This view has been expressed as an illustration using three overlapping ellipses indicating that the three pillars of sustainability are not mutually exclusive and can be mutually reinforcing. In fact, the three pillars are interdependent, and in the long run none can exist without the others. The three pillars have served as a common ground for numerous sustainability standards and certification systems in recent years, in particular in the food industry. Standards which today explicitly refer to the triple bottom line include Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade and UTZ Certified. Some sustainability experts and practitioners have illustrated four pillars of sustainability, or a quadruple bottom line. One such pillar is future generations, which emphasizes the long-term thinking associated with sustainability. There is also an opinion that considers resource use and financial sustainability as two additional pillars of sustainability.
Sustainable development consists of balancing local and global efforts to meet basic human needs without destroying or degrading the natural environment. The question then becomes how to represent the relationship between those needs and the environment.
A study from 2005 pointed out that environmental justice is as important as sustainable development. Ecological economist Herman Daly asked, “what use is a sawmill without a forest?” From this perspective, 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 from another. This perspective led to the nested circles figure of ‘economics’ inside ‘society’ inside the ‘environment’.
The simple definition that sustainability is something that improves “the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems”, though vague, conveys the idea of sustainability having quantifiable limits. But 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 suggested a more complex figure of sustainability, which included the importance of the domain of ‘politics’.
More than that, sustainability implies responsible and proactive decision-making and innovation that minimizes negative impact and maintains balance between ecological resilience, economic prosperity, political justice and cultural vibrancy to ensure a desirable planet for all species now and in the future. Specific types of sustainability include, sustainable agriculture, sustainable architecture or ecological economics. Understanding sustainable development is important but without clear targets an unfocused term like “liberty” or “justice”. It has also been described as a “dialogue of values that challenge the sociology of development”.
Circles of sustainability and the fourth dimension of sustainability
While the United Nations Millennium Declaration identified principles and treaties on sustainable development, including economic development, social development and environmental protection it continued using three domains: economics, environment and social sustainability. More recently, using a systematic domain model that responds to the debates over the last decade, the Circles of Sustainability approach distinguished four domains of economic, ecological, political and cultural sustainability; this 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 Programme 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 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.
Shaping the future
Integral elements of sustainability are research and innovation activities. A telling example is the European environmental research and innovation policy. It aims at defining and implementing a transformative agenda to greening the economy and the society as a whole so to make them sustainable. Research and innovation in Europe are financially supported by the programme Horizon 2020, which is also open to participation worldwide. Encouraging good farming practices ensures farmers fully benefit from the environment and at the same time conserving it for future generations. Additionally, instigating innovative and sustainable travel and transportation solutions must play a vital role in this process.
Resiliency in ecology 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 in a sustainable way despite the fact that to policymakers a definition remains elusive. Resilience-thinking addresses how much planetary ecological systems can withstand assault 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 in order to promote resilience and achieve sustainability of these essential resources for benefit of future generations of life? The resiliency of an ecosystem, and thereby, its sustainability, can be reasonably measured at junctures or events where the combination of naturally occurring regenerative forces (solar energy, water, soil, atmosphere, vegetation, and biomass) interact with the energy released into the ecosystem from disturbances.
A practical view of sustainability is closed systems that maintain processes of productivity indefinitely by replacing resources used by actions of people with resources of equal or greater value by those same people without degrading or endangering natural biotic systems. In this way, sustainability can be concretely measured in human projects if there is a transparent accounting of the resources put back into the ecosystem to replace those displaced. In nature, the accounting occurs naturally through a process of adaptation as an ecosystem returns to viability from an external disturbance. The adaptation is a multi-stage process that begins with the disturbance event (earthquake, volcanic eruption, hurricane, tornado, flood, or thunderstorm), followed by absorption, utilization, or deflection of the energy or energies that the external forces created.
In analysing systems such as urban and national parks, dams, farms and gardens, theme parks, open-pit mines, water catchments, one way to look at the relationship between sustainability and resiliency is to view the former with a long-term vision and resiliency as the capacity of human engineers to respond to immediate environmental events.
The history of sustainability traces human-dominated ecological systems from the earliest civilizations to the present day. This history is characterized by the increased regional success of a particular society, followed by crises that were either resolved, producing sustainability, or not, leading to decline.
In early human history, the use of fire and desire for specific foods may have altered the natural composition of plant and animal communities. Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, agrarian communities emerged which depended largely on their environment and the creation of a “structure of permanence.”
The Western industrial revolution of the 18th to 19th centuries tapped into the vast growth potential of the energy in fossil fuels. Coal was used to power ever more efficient engines and later to generate electricity. Modern sanitation systems and advances in medicine protected large populations from disease. In the mid-20th century, a gathering environmental movement pointed out that there were environmental costs associated with the many material benefits that were now being enjoyed. In the late 20th century, environmental problems became global in scale. The 1973 and 1979 energy crises demonstrated the extent to which the global community had become dependent on non-renewable energy resources.
In the 21st century, there is increasing global awareness of the threat posed by the human greenhouse effect, produced largely by forest clearing and the burning of fossil fuels.
Principles and concepts
The philosophical and analytic framework of sustainability draws on and connects with many different disciplines and fields; in recent years an area that has come to be called sustainability science has emerged.
Scale and context
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 organization. The focus ranges from the total carrying capacity (sustainability) of planet Earth to the sustainability of economic sectors, ecosystems, countries, municipalities, neighbourhoods, home gardens, individual lives, individual goods and services[clarification needed], occupations, lifestyles, behaviour patterns and so on. In short, it can entail the full compass of biological and human activity or any part of it. As Daniel Botkin, author and environmentalist, has stated: “We see a landscape that is always in flux, changing over many scales of time and space.”
The sheer size and complexity of the planetary ecosystem has proved problematic for the design of practical measures to reach global sustainability. To shed light on the big picture, explorer and sustainability campaigner Jason Lewis has drawn parallels to other, more tangible closed systems. For example, he likens human existence on Earth — isolated as the planet is in space, whereby people cannot be evacuated to relieve population pressure and resources cannot be imported to prevent accelerated depletion of resources — to life at sea on a small boat isolated by water. In both cases, he argues, exercising the precautionary principle is a key factor in survival.
A major driver of human impact on Earth systems is the destruction of biophysical resources, and especially, the Earth’s ecosystems. The environmental impact of a community or of 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 to the resource demands of individual goods and services.
One of the initial attempts 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:
I = P × A × T
Where: I = Environmental impact, P = Population, A = Affluence, T = Technology
In recent years, concepts based on (re-)cycling resources are increasingly gaining importance. The most prominent among these concepts might be the Circular Economy, with its comprehensive support by the Chinese and the European Union. There is also a broad range of similar concepts or schools of thought, including cradle-to-cradle laws of ecology, looped and performance economy, regenerative design, industrial ecology, biomimicry, and the blue economy. These concepts seem intuitively to be more sustainable than the current linear economic system. The reduction of resource inputs into and waste and emission leakage out of the system reduces resource depletion and environmental pollution. However, these simple assumptions are not sufficient to deal with the involved systemic complexity and disregards potential trade-offs. For example, the social dimension of sustainability seems to be only marginally addressed in many publications on the Circular Economy, and there are cases that require different or additional strategies, like purchasing new, more energy efficient equipment. A review of a team of researchers from Cambridge and TU Delft identified eight different relationship types between sustainability and the circular economy, namely a (1) conditional relation, a (2) strong conditional relation, a (3) necessary but not sufficient conditional relation, a (4) beneficial relationship a (structured and unstructured) (5) subset relation, a (6) degree relation, a (7) cost-benefit/trade-off relation, and a (8) selective relation.
Sustainability measurement is the quantitative basis for the informed management of sustainability. The metrics used for the measurement of sustainability (involving the sustainability of environmental, social and economic domains, both individually and in various combinations) are evolving: they include indicators, benchmarks, audits, sustainability standards and certification systems like Fairtrade and Organic, indexes and accounting, as well as assessment, appraisal and other reporting systems. They are applied over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales.
Some of the best known and most widely used sustainability measures include corporate sustainability reporting, Triple Bottom Line accounting, World Sustainability Society, Circles of Sustainability, and estimates of the quality of sustainability governance for individual countries using the Environmental Sustainability Index and Environmental Performance Index.
Companies such as Lieef (www.Lieef.com) have started reporting ESG metrics on behalf of companies, and investment funds, in an effort to increase transparency through patenting pending technology that measures emissions from a gross to net basis.
According to the most recent (July 2015) revision of the official United Nations World Population Prospects, the world population is projected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, up from the current 7.3 billion (July 2015), to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, and to reach 11.2 billion by the year 2100. Most of the increase will be in developing countries whose population is projected to rise from 5.6 billion in 2009 to 7.9 billion in 2050. This increase will be distributed among the population aged 15–59 (1.2 billion) and 60 or over (1.1 billion) because the number of children under age 15 in developing countries is predicted to decrease. In contrast, the population of the more developed regions is expected to undergo only slight increase from 1.23 billion to 1.28 billion, and this would have declined to 1.15 billion but for a projected net migration from developing to developed countries, which is expected to average 2.4 million persons annually from 2009 to 2050. Long-term estimates in 2004 of global population suggest a peak at around 2070 of nine to ten billion people, and then a slow decrease to 8.4 billion by 2100.
Emerging economies like those of China and India aspire to the living standards of the Western world as does the non-industrialized world in general. It is the combination of population increase in the developing world and unsustainable consumption levels in the developed world that poses a stark challenge to sustainability.
At the global scale, scientific data now indicates that humans are living beyond the carrying capacity of planet Earth and that this cannot continue indefinitely. This scientific evidence comes from many sources but is presented in detail in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the planetary boundaries framework. An early detailed examination of global limits was published in the 1972 book Limits to Growth, which has prompted follow-up commentary and analysis. A 2012 review in Nature by 22 international researchers expressed concerns that the Earth may be “approaching a state shift” in its biosphere.
The Ecological footprint measures human consumption in terms of the biologically productive land needed to provide the resources, and absorb the wastes of the average global citizen. In 2008 it required 2.7 global hectares per person, 30% more than the natural biological capacity of 2.1 global hectares (assuming no provision for other organisms). 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).
The figure (right) examines sustainability at the scale of individual countries by contrasting their Ecological Footprint with their UN Human Development Index (a measure of standard of living). The graph shows what is necessary for countries to maintain an acceptable standard of living for their citizens while, at the same time, maintaining sustainable resource use. The general trend is for higher standards of living to become less sustainable. As always, population growth has a marked influence on levels of consumption and the efficiency of resource use. The sustainability goal is to raise the global standard of living without increasing the use of resources beyond globally sustainable levels; that is, to not exceed “one planet” consumption. Information generated by reports at the national, regional and city scales confirm the global trend towards societies that are becoming less sustainable over time.
Romanian American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a progenitor in economics and a paradigm founder of ecological economics, has argued that the carrying capacity of Earth — that is, Earth’s capacity to sustain human populations and consumption levels — is bound to decrease sometime in the future as Earth’s finite stock of mineral resources is presently being extracted and put to use.:303 Leading ecological economist and steady-state theorist Herman Daly, a student of Georgescu-Roegen, has propounded the same argument.:369–371
At the enterprise scale, carrying capacity now also plays a critical role in making it possible to measure and report the sustainability performance of individual organizations. This is most clearly demonstrated through use of Context-Based Sustainability (CBS) tools, methods and metrics, including the MultiCapital Scorecard, which have been in development since 2005. Contrary to many other mainstream approaches to measuring the sustainability performance of organizations – which tend to be more incrementalist in form – CBS is explicitly tied to social, environmental and economic limits and thresholds in the world. Thus, rather than simply measure and report changes in relative terms from one period to another, CBS makes it possible to compare the impacts of organizations to organization-specific norms, standards or thresholds for what they (the impacts) would have to be in order to be empirically sustainable (i.e., which if generalized to a larger population would not fail to maintain the sufficiency of vital resources for human or non-human well-being).
Global human impact on biodiversity
At a fundamental level, energy flow and biogeochemical cycling set an upper limit on the number and mass of organisms in any ecosystem. Human impacts on the Earth are demonstrated in a general way through detrimental changes in the global biogeochemical cycles of chemicals that are critical to life, most notably those of water, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is an international synthesis by over 1000 of the world’s leading biological scientists that analyzes the state of the Earth’s ecosystems and provides summaries and guidelines for decision-makers. It concludes that human activity is having a significant and escalating impact on the biodiversity of world ecosystems, reducing both their resilience and biocapacity. The report refers to natural systems as humanity’s “life-support system”, providing essential “ecosystem services”. The assessment measures 24 ecosystem services concluding that only four have shown improvement over the last 50 years, 15 are in serious decline, and five are in a precarious condition.
Sustainable development goals
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the current harmonized set of seventeen future international development targets.
The Official Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted on 25 September 2015 has 92 paragraphs, with the main paragraph (51) outlining the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and its associated 169 targets. This included the following seventeen goals:
Poverty – End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Food – End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Health – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Education – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Women – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Water – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Energy – Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
Economy – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Infrastructure – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Inequality – Reduce inequality within and among countries
Habitation – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Consumption – Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Climate – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, ensuring that both mitigation and adaptation strategies are in placed
Marine-ecosystems – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Ecosystems – Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Institutions – Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Sustainability – Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
As of August 2015, there were 169 proposed targets for these goals and 304 proposed indicators to show compliance.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) replace the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expired at the end of 2015. The MDGs were established in 2000 following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations. Adopted by the 189 United Nations member states at the time and more than twenty international organizations, these goals were advanced to help achieve the following sustainable development standards by 2015.
To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
To achieve universal primary education
To promote gender equality and empower women
To reduce child mortality
To improve maternal health
To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
To ensure environmental sustainability (one of the targets in this goal focuses on increasing sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation)
To develop a global partnership for development
According to the data that member countries represented to the United Nations, Cuba was the only country in the world in 2006 that met the World Wide Fund for Nature’s definition of sustainable development, with an ecological footprint of less than 1.8 hectares per capita, 1.5, and a Human Development Index of over 0.8, 0.855.
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