1. What is Sustainability?

Because of its widespread application and effect, the modern concept of sustainability has been defined in multiple ways and according to the specific context under analysis. Rather than reiterating existing definitions, a deeper understanding can be attained by exploring the common principles underlying sustainability.

  • Continuity.  I first encountered the importance of sustainability when I was working on ideas related to business resilience.  It became clear to me that enterprises are vulnerable to potentially fatal disruptions unless flexibility and risk management are woven into an enterprise’s organizational structure and culture.
  • Natural.  In ecology, sustainability is a necessity.  The Earth’s crust and chemistry are constantly recycled as explained by the theory of plate tectonics.  Biology reveals the natural interdependence of organisms through a constant cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
  • Systemic.  Sustainability permeates nearly all aspects of our society.  The continued health of our civilization depends upon the execution of sustainable practices within core institutions, such as government, corporations, and physical infrastructure that connects us all.  Sustainability is also vital to maintaining quality and health of our cities, our neighborhoods, our natural environment, our families, and our descendants’ lives.
  • Interdependence.  Sustainability recognizes not just the interdependence of current societal organizations, but, more importantly, it reveals the vital link between the prosperity of human society and the health of our planet’s environment.
  • Limitations.  Sustainability challenges deeply held human values with prehistoric origins—that the purpose of the Earth is to be dominated and used my humanity.  More recently, however, advancements in knowledge have broadened our understanding of ourselves and our ecological role, and have shown us that many natural resources are finite.  Unlike previous generations, we have had the opportunity to literally see the Earth as one planet, and continue to find that its multitude of microsystems is intrinsically linked to one global system.
  • Distributive Equity.  Sustainability removes the comfort and self-indulgence of the here and now and requires us to recognize inter-generational connections and our duty to ensure a healthy world for humanity into the future indefinitely.

Understanding and further exploration of these common principles provide the necessary foundation for developing a qualitative definition of sustainability.

On a side note, sustainability can also be defined and measured more rigorously through quantitative analysis.  Sustainability measurement provides the tools and data for tracking and managing a system’s sustainability factors.  A more detailed exposition of sustainability metrics will be provided later.

For now, having enough understanding to answer intelligently, “What is sustainability?” within any context is sufficient.  Here is an excellent example:  “A sustainable society is one which satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations.”  (Lester Brown, Founder and President, Worldwatch Institute).  In a corporate context, sustainability is usually defined in terms of its economic benefit to a business.  However, I would argue that sustainability should be defined as a principle regardless of any corporate benefit.


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