Sustainability is a broad topic, but is much more than a recent buzzword. You may recognise it from social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, but the concept is not new.
The Historical Origins of Sustainability1
- The concept was first termed in the 1700s, when referring to ‘sustainable yields’ in Germany. In this context, it meant never harvesting before the forests could regenerate.
- Over time, the term began to encompass all biological systems, not just forests.
- The 1980s saw a revival in discussions around sustainability. People became conscious of natural resource use and their dependence on non-renewable resources.
- In 1987, sustainable development was termed as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ by the UN. This definition is commonly used today.
Sustainability is the balance of achieving human needs without degrading the natural environment.
Core Concepts of Sustainability:
Sustainability is a fluid term shaped around one’s desires to be more conscious of natural resource use, with context specific understanding. One prevalent characteristic of sustainability applies 3 core interconnecting pillars, interconnecting environmental protection, social and economic development2.
Ensuring we do not degrade the natural environment requires a focus on environmental protection. We should examine exactly how we use the environment and the resources provided3. Then we can ensure that the negative effects are minimised and our behaviour remains conscious of our usage. This area of sustainability covers a wide range of topics from energy production to deforestation over all spatial scales.
Social sustainability focuses on a community’s wellbeing and longevity4. It concerns how people live with others and set out to achieve the objectives of development, using the capacity building and skills of the community. It concerns areas of equity and health, social capital, the economy, environment, happiness, wellbeing and quality of life.
Economic sustainability refers to an economy operating in a manor which protects social and Environmental elements. In other words, you can’t achieve economic sustainability without being socially and environmentally sustainable too. Economic sustainability as an idea is contested and often seen as unachievable5. The current crises we have with water, food and energy are all unresolved root causes which means we cannot currently be economically sustainable. Despite this, we are moving towards our conception of economic sustainability. Although slowly, progress is being made.
Sustainable Development Goals:
More recently in 2015, the UN constructed a more diverse set of goals, named the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)5. These goals integrate and balance the three dimensions of sustainability. By separating the original pillars of sustainability, the SDGs show us exactly what we should strive for when trying to be sustainable. Take goal 7 for example ‘affordable and clean energy’. This goal encompasses all aspects of sustainability. Affordable energy allows for lower income populations to access this basic human need. Clean energy revolves around renewable resources which will not pollute the environment.
Why is sustainability important?
In the broadest sense, we need the capacity to endure and maintain a healthy planet, economy and society over time. Sustainability can do wonders for the individual, businesses and society. If we do not act sustainably, millions of species will become extinct, we will change the atmospheric composition indefinitely, also run out of fossil fuels. This is just the beginning of the planetary catastrophe we could expect if change is not to occur.
- 1 – World Energy. 2014. A brief history of sustainability. Available at: https://theworldenergyfoundation.org/a-brief-history-of-sustainability/.
- 2 – Purvis et al. 2019. Three pillars of sustainability: In search of conceptual origins. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11625-018-0627-5.
- 3 – Chan, B. 2020. Environmental sustainability – The ultimate guide. Available at: https://diversity.social/environmental-sustainability/.
- 4 – Chan, B. 2020. Social sustainability – Everything you need to know. Available at: https://diversity.social/social-sustainability/.
- 5 – Courtnell, J. 2019. Economic sustainability for success: What is it and how to implement it. Available at: https://www.process.st/economic-sustainability/.