What Is Sustainability: More Than Just The Planet

What Is Sustainability: More Than Just The Planet

Rarely uttered before the 1950s, the word “sustainable” has become a frequently used buzzword, even landing itself in the title of the United Nations post-2015 development agenda: The Sustainable Development Goals. Despite its frequency of use and rise in popularity, the definition of ‘sustainable’ is murky at best.

But what does sustainability really mean?

We commonly discuss the concept of sustainability in context with the environment. Many in fact use this word to seamlessly replace stale buzzwords such as ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’.

The misconception that these words are synonymous, however, is easy to forgive. Historically, the word originated from the study of ecology as a biological systems’ capacity to ‘endure indefinitely’. Considering that the entire planet is one giant eco-system, the fight for a more sustainable world is a fight to maintain the health of our planet indefinitely. So yes, protecting the environment, reducing our carbon footprint and mitigating future ecological damage is a huge component of sustainability.

Is it just the environment we are concerned about?

The short answer is no. The degradation of our planet is not the only obstacle we must overcome in order to ‘endure indefinitely’. We must overcome ourselves, evaluating our society’s social and economic behaviour and how this impacts our ability to sustain health and diversity amongst us. Global negative trends are all significant to the health of our society now and in the future. These include deepening economic inequality, increased pollution in the developing world and civil unrest and political corruption. Thus, reducing the concept of ‘sustainability,’ to 'being green’ woefully underestimates the core of the matter.

While there is still a lack of mainstream consensus regarding this buzzword, the UN and many other international organizations have adopted a three-pillared definition including the economy, society, and the environment. The relationship between these three is fundamentally intertwined. Sustainability balances the needs of our planet and its people.