Sustainability - What is Sustainability

March 8, 2023
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On a purely grammatical level, the word sustainability comes from the root of the word “to sustain” and refers to the ability of something to endure over time, to continue a course without termination.

The concept of sustainability is inevitably linked to time.

From that same etymology also comes the word sustainable which means “able to continue at the same level for a period of time”.

“Same level” highlights a very important notion: the quantity of natural resources and the state of natural ecosystems must not just be protected for today’s human needs and aspirations.

They must be sufficient to guarantee, for future generations, the same prosperous development and the same opportunities as they are today.

Related to the environment and for business and policy use, the term sustainability applies to “using methods that do not harm the environment so that natural resources are still available in the future.”

Sustainability can eventually be defined as “the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural and social resources in ways that allow the living systems in which humans are embedded to thrive in perpetuity.”



Sustainability is linked to the stream of thoughts that challenges society’s economic growth.

The Club of Rome, founded in April 1968 by Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist, and Alexander King, a Scottish scientist, is a think tank composed of scientists, economists, businessmen, international high civil servants, heads of state, and former heads of state from all five continents.

It published in 1972 its first report The Limit to Growth, known also under the name of The Meadow report, because of its main authors, ecologists Donella Meadows and Dennis Meadows.

The report concludes that, without substantial changes in resource consumption, “the most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

The authors make several proposals:

  • On the demographic level, measures such as the limitation of two children per couple
  • On the economic level, taxes on industry, to stop its growth and redirect the resources thus levied towards agriculture, services and above all the fight against pollution

For this economy without growth to be accepted, the authors propose to distribute the wealth to guarantee the satisfaction of the main human needs.

The 1973 oil crisis increased public concern about sustainability issues. The report went on to sell 30 million copies in more than 30 languages, making it the best-selling environmental book in history.

Then, in 1983, the United Nations created the World Commission on Environment and Development to study the connection between ecological health, economic development, and social equity. The commission was run by the former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

After four years of work, in 1987, the “Brundtland Commission” released its final report, Our Common Future, introducing the concept of sustainable development as “an economic development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” and describing how it could be achieved.

It consolidates decades of work on sustainable development.

Following this path, in 1992, the Rio Earth Summit rallied the world to take action and adopt Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan of actions to be taken globally, nationally, and locally by organizations in every environmental area impacted by humans.

The number 21 represented the goal of attaining long-term progress in the twenty-first century.

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up, monitoring, and reporting on the implementation of the Agenda 21’s agreements at the local, national, regional, and international levels.

8 years later, with Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000 by all 191 United Nations member states and at least 22 international organizations, social justice meets public health & environmentalism.

Finally, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development succeeded the MDGs in September 2015.

Those 17 goals reinforce the universal project and call to action to end poverty in all forms, to protect the planet, and to achieve worldwide peace and prosperity for people, now and into the future.

Sustainability comes from this concept of “sustainable development”.

Sustainability defines a long-term goal: working toward a more sustainable world, while sustainable development refers to the many processes and pathways to achieve this goal.

Sustainability - What is Sustainability

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  • University of Alberta
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