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Sustainability is an economic, social, and ecological concept. It is intended to be a means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society and its members 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 globe. It is a sometimes controversial topic.



Put in simpler terms, sustainability is providing for the best for people and the environment both now and in the indefinite future. In the terms of the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainability is: "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 object to the term "sustainable development" as an umbrella term since it implies continued development, and insist that it should be reserved only for development activities. "Sustainability", then, is nowadays used as an umbrella term for all of human activity.

In economics, sustainable growth consists of increases in real incomes (i.e. inflation-adjusted) or output that could be sustained for long periods of time.

Concepts and issues

The modern concept of ecological 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 Ehrlich (1968) raised public awareness.

There are two related categories of thought on ecological sustainability. In 1968 the Club of Rome, a group of European economists and scientists, was formed. In 1972 they published Limits to Growth. Although discredited by many, it predicted dire consequences because the earth was using up its resources, and it advocated as one solution the abandonment of economic development. Groups sympathetic to the general premise that the world was growing too quickly and/or using up its resources formed, including 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.

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, ecological footprint analysis and The Natural Step.

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 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.

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".

Some organisations which have attempted to incorporate sustainability values into the global economy are International Council on Mining and Metals and the Global Mining Initiative .

Types of sustainability

  • Institutional sustainability: i.e. 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;
  • Economical and financial sustainability: i.e. 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: i.e. 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?

See also

External links

Definitions of Sustainability - Many views excerpted in a short space. University of Reading (UK).

Last updated: 02-10-2005 15:01:46
Last updated: 02-27-2005 12:34:40