What Is Environmental Sustainability?

Sustainable energy

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In essence, to sustain is to continue our capacity to live life on this planet — to endure — but because that definition doesn't quite encompass the full meaning behind environmental sustainability, it's important to look at the ways different organizations and experts view the topic.

A walk on the beach or a hike in the woods are reminders that our forests, coral reefs, and even our deserts act as 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. 

Differing Definitions of Sustainability

Governments, industry, non-profits, and environmental agencies all have different definitions of environmental sustainability and approaches to the issue. Generally, there are three definitions of the practice. 

Definition 1

Sustainability is the ability 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 United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. While it is not universally accepted, the UN's definition is pretty standard and has been expanded over the years to include perspectives on human needs and well-being (including non-economic variables, such as education and health, clean air and water, and the protection of natural beauty). It is 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.

Definition 2

Sustainability is the capacity to improve the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the Earth’s supporting eco-systems.

This definition has been provided by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the work of which is driven by the fact that global production and consumption patterns are destroying nature at persistent and dangerously high rates. 

As populations have increased and we have relied on the earth's natural resources such as minerals, petroleum, coal, gas and so on, the earth's natural ecosystems and creatures (from birds to insects to mammals) have declined. We have changed the sacred balance of nature as environmentalist David Suzuki puts it, which has had a negative impact on both humans and other living systems. 

Definition 3

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

This definition of sustainability was provided by environmentalist Paul Hawken, who has written about the realization (and the science behind it) that we are using and destroying the earth's resources faster then they can be regenerated and replenished. 

What Can Be Done?

All of these definitions lead us to even more questions. For example, 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 inverse as well?

The ways in which we can all live more sustainably can take many forms, such as:

  • Reorganizing living conditions in the form of eco-villages, eco-municipalities, and sustainable cities.
  • Reappraising economic sectors (permaculture, green building, sustainable agriculture) or work practices (sustainable architecture). 
  • Developing new technologies (green technologies, renewable energy, etc.)
  • Making adjustments in individual lifestyles that conserve natural resources.

Since ecological conditions and economic and social systems differ so much from country to country, there is no single blueprint for how sustainability practices are to be carried out. Each country has to work on its own concrete policy to ensure that sustainable development is carried out as a global objective.