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What is Sustainability?

Environment, Equity & Economics

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What is Sustainability?

Three E's of Sustainability - Environment, Equity & Economics

Mario Vieira

Sustainability. In essence, to sustain is to continue our capacity to live life on this planet - to endure. How does that sound to you? To me, that sounds terrible. To endure? Humans are capable of much greater heights then that! So how about if we give this definition another try.

Definition, Take 1: Sustainability is to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This is the definition of sustainability as created by the World Commission on Environment and Development. It’s a pretty standard definition, and over the years, has been expanded because it’s pretty clear that the potential of our long-term viability of well being on this planet has to do with our maintenance of the natural world and its natural resources.

The Union of Conservation Scientists (IUCN), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) define sustainable as,

Definition, Take 2: Sustainability is improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the Earth’s supporting eco-systems.

A walk on the beach or a hike in the woods reminds me that our forests, our coral reefs, and even our deserts are examples of sustainable systems. Oxygen, nitrogen and carbon are all regenerated and redistributed in invisible chemical cycles throughout the world’s living (and not-so-living) systems, sustaining and adapting life since it first emerged. Besides, any night spent watching the Discovery Channel will remind you of the bold, astounding and majestic beauty that is our earth and its creatures.

The problem is, that as the earth’s human population has increased, and we have relied on the earths natural capital (minerals, petroleum, coal, gas, etc) natural ecosystems and creatures (from birds, to insects to mammals) have declined. We’ve changed the Sacred Balance as David Suzuki so eloquently puts it, of natural cycles and that has had a negative impact on both humans and other living systems. Paul Hawken has the best definition of sustainability, from my perspective.

Definition, Take 3: Sustainability is about stabilizing the currently disruptive relationship between earth’s two most complex systems—human culture and the living world.

So, sadly, the driver is the realization (and the science) that we're using up and destroying the earth's resources faster then they can be regenerated and replenished. So what if we, as an evolutionary species, changed the way we live, love, learn and conduct business on this planet?

Is it possible to utilize business as the catalyzing force behind this change? What if we acknowledge that financial success can be tied to ecological and societal success, and the other way around?

There are many ways to define and measure sustainability, and frankly - we won't know if our efforts to sustain life on this planet are working or not - time will tell.

As your About.com Sustainability Guide, my peers (guest writers) and I will provide solutions for your organization to create a healthy balance of preserving a healthy planet (plants, animals and their ecosystems), nourish the quality of life of people and their communities, and make a handsome profit to boot!

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