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What is Sustainability?

Definitions of Sustainability

Now that we have reflected on our own ideas of sustainability it is time to turn to the experts. The text and videos below will present definitions and meaning of sustainability and sustainable development. Whilst viewing this keep your own definition of sustainability to hand and consider the similarities and differences between your definition and those presented here.

Sustainable Development Defined by the UN SDG Project

The UN SDG working group define sustainable development as:

  • Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs
  • Sustainable development calls for concerted efforts towards building an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future for people and planet
  • For sustainable development to be achieved, it is crucial to harmonize three core elements: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. These elements are interconnected and all are crucial for the well-being of individuals and societies.
  • Eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions is an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. To this end, there must be promotion of sustainable, inclusive and equitable economic growth, creating greater opportunities for all, reducing inequalities, raising basic standards of living, fostering equitable social development and inclusion, and promoting integrated and sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems.

This is summarised in the following video from 2015:

Sustainability and The Planetary Boundaries

Another method of evaluating sustainability is to consider human acitivty through the lens of the Planetary Boundary (Rockström et al. 2009). These outline the key boundaries that humanity must not exceed to maintain a safe environment for humans on Earth. This video below is presented by Johan Rockström and outlines humanities current position within the boundaries. More information can be found in the optional reading activity below.

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Rockstrom, Johan (2009). Identifying and quantifying planetary boundaries that must not be transgressed could help prevent human activities from causing unacceptable environmental change, argue Johan Rockström and colleagues. Additional summary HERE.


Reflect on the definitions of sustainability and sustainable development

Think about the different definitions presented here. Also feel free to do additional research around this topic.

  1. How do the different approaches differ?
  2. What common themes do they share?
  3. Do they emcompass all aspects of sustainability?
  4. Would you change your definition based on this information?

A Note on Terminology

The terms sustainable development and sustainability are often used interchangeably (including within this self study pack). Whilst very similar there is a difference between the two.

Sustainable Development is defined by the 1987 Bruntland Commission as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation provides the following explanation:

“Sustainability is often thought of as a long-term goal (i.e. a more sustainable world), while sustainable development refers to the many processes and pathways to achieve it (e.g. sustainable agriculture and forestry, sustainable production and consumption, good government, research and technology transfer, education and training, etc.).”