Notes and definitions

Notion of sustainability

For many people, the basic idea of sustainability focuses greatly on depletion of resources. Others consider that sustainability covers also (irreversible) pollution, conservation of nature and other environmental and ecological aspects. Some include the aspects of quality of human life, the human wellbeing.

Over the past thirty years hundreds of definitions of sustainability and sustainable development have been made. Many of these have one major item in common: to survive – for human beings – in  the long run.

Though definitions may differ in scope, it is now widely accepted that sustainability comprises all three elements mentioned above. Thus sustainability is about

  • us, human beings Human Wellbeing
  • the environment, the ecosystem in which we live Environmental Wellbeing
  • the economy, which enables us to do what we do Economic Wellbeing

Some people make a further distinction between individuals and the society in which they live, often described as Human wellbeing and Social wellbeing.

The three core values Human, Environment and Economic Wellbeing are interrelated. They are not independent. On the contrary, they are very much interdependent. There are large trade-offs between all three values.

Some people purport that to achieve sustainability, it is enough that the total value of the actual Human, Environment and Economic Wellbeing will at least stay even. Thus trade-offs between the three are accepted, as long as the total sum is not in decline. This approach is called weak sustainability, in contrast to strong sustainability. Others, including the SSF, emphasize there is no weak or strong sustainability, there is just sustainability. Trade-offs between the three elements cannot be accepted. Sustainability can only be achieved when all three elements have achieved the sustainability level.

Not all three values are equal. Human Wellbeing and Environmental Wellbeing are goals to be achieved. Economic Wellbeing is a mean to be able to achieve sustainability and to maintain so over time. Thus we might picture sustainability as follows:


If we digest the concept of sustainability we will realize that sustainability bears in it some basic principles:

  1. intra-generational equity, solidarity between all people living today.
  2. inter-generational equity, leaving next generations not empty-handed by the depletion of resources and spoiling the environment.
  3. ecological limits, living within the carrying capacity of the earth.
  4. precautionary principle, that is that in case of insufficient information, it is better to err on the side of caution, then to run the risk of irreversible decline.

That means that sustainability is not just a fashionable or ideological issue. Sustainability affects all of us and thus requires proper action of all of us.

Definitions of sustainability

Just a few definitions have been listed here, in chronological order.

The sustainable society is one that lives within the self-perpetuating limits of its environment. That society is not a “no growth” society.  It is rather, a society that recognizes the limits of growth [and] looks for alternative ways of growing. (Coomer, 1979)
Sustainable development – development that is likely to achieve lasting satisfaction of human needs and improvement of the quality of human life. (Allen, 1980)
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (Brundtland Commission, 1987)
Sustainable development – economic development that can continue indefinitely because it is based on the exploitation of renewable resources and causes insufficient environmental damage for this to pose an eventual limit. (Allaby, 1988)
The basic idea [of sustainable development] is simple in the context of natural resources (excluding exhaustibles) and environments: the use made of these inputs to the development process should be sustainable through time.  If we now apply the idea to resources, sustainability ought to mean that a given stock of resources – trees, soil quality, water, and so on – should not decline. (Markandya and Pearce, 1988)
The indefinite survival of the human species (with a quality of life beyond mere biological survival) through the maintenance of basic life support systems (air, water, land, biota) and the existence of infrastructure and institutions which distribute and protect the components of these systems. (Liverman et al., 1988)
The sustainable development concept constitutes a further elaboration of the close links between economic activity and the conservation of environmental resources. It implies a partnership between the environment and the economy, within which a key element is the legacy of environmental resources that is not “unduly” diminished. (OECD, 1990)
Sustainable development: The amount of consumption that can be sustained indefinitely without degrading capital stocks, including natural capital stocks. (Costanza and Wainger, 1991)
Sustainable development means improving the quality of life of humans, while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems. (IUCN, UNEP, WWF, 1991)
Sustainable development means basing developmental and environmental policies on a comparison of costs and benefits and on careful economic analysis that will strengthen environmental protection and lead to rising and sustainable levels of welfare. (World Bank, 1992)
Sustainable development means adjusting economic growth to remain within bounds set by natural replenishable systems, subject to the scope for human ingenuity and adaptation via careful husbanding of critical resources and technological advance, coupled to the redistribution of resources and power in a manner that guarantees adequate conditions of liveability for all present and future generations. (O’Riordan and Yaeger, 1994)
A sustainable society implicitly connotes one that is based on a long-term vision in that it must foresee the consequences of its diverse activities to ensure that they do not break the cycles of renewal; it has to be a society of conservation and generational concern. It must avoid the adoption of mutually irreconcilable objectives. Equally, it must be a society of social justice because great disparities of wealth or privilege will breed destructive disharmony. (Hossain, 1995)

(retrieved from various sources, among these a paper by Rob Hounsome and Peter Ashton, CSIR, South Africa)

As a conclusion, we suggest to use the Brundtland definition, the best one ever, extended with a third sentence, to make explicitly clear that sustainability is not only about human beings, nor only about the environment or natural resources, it is about all. So the definition will run as follows:

A sustainable society is a society

  • that meets the needs of the present generation,
  • that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,
  • in which each human being has the opportunity to develop itself in freedom, within a well-balanced society and in harmony with its surroundings.

Further reading, some suggestions:

Coomer, J.  (1979).  The Nature of the Quest for a Sustainable Society.  In: J. Coomer (Ed.), Quest for a Sustainable Society.  Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Hales, D. and Prescott-Allen, R., 2002. Flying Blind: Assessing Progress toward Sustainability. In: Esty, D.C. and Ivanova, M.H. (eds), Global environmental governance: options and opportunities. Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1991. Caring for the Earth: A strategy for Sustainable Living. IUCN/UNEP/WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

Liverman, D.M. and Hanson, M.E., Brown, B.J. and Merideth Jr, R.W., 1988. Global Sustainability: Toward measurement. Environmental Management 12 (1988) (2), pp 133-143.

Meadows, D.H. and Meadows, D.L., Randers, J. Behrens, W.W., 1972. The limits to Growth, Universe Books, New York.

Mebratu, D., 1998. Sustainability and sustainable development: Historical and conceptual review. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 18 (6)1998, pp 493-520.

Pearce, A.R, not dated. Defining sustainability: a content analysis comparison of definitions from the literature, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Atlanta GA, USA.

Pezzey, J., 1989. Definitions of sustainability. Working Paper No. 9, Institute of Behavioral Sciences, University of Colorado.

WCED, 1987. Our Common Future, chair: Gro Harlem Brundtland. World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press.

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