The only correct definition of sustainability

It’s time to learn the only correct definition of sustainability, why it is the most important concept in existence, and why discussing it could cause confusion.

When Albert Einstein—a Nobel Prize winner and possibly the most influential physicist of the 20th century—was teaching at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he once gave the same exam questions to the same class two years in a row.

When his confused assistant asked why, Einstein replied: “Because the answers have changed!”

It’s the same with the definition of sustainability: the answer has changed.

Dictionary definition

You see, the dictionary definition of sustainability, comes from combining the words sustain and ability and generally means:

capable of going on forever

(random dictionary)

According to this definition, anything capable of going on forever can be considered sustainable.

Modern definition

However, the modern definition of sustainability is very different.

According to the modern definition:

Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The United Nations (1987)

Simplified, it means:

Mankind’s ability to go on forever.

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Did you notice how the modern definition is very specific about who is to go on forever?

No longer it is about anything. Rather, it is about us: our ability to survive.

As you will see later, this distinction is extremely important.

But first, let’s look at how this definition came to be.

History of the definition of sustainability

Sustained yield (17th-18th century)

The modern definition has its roots in forestry management of the 17th and 18th centuries in the concept of so-called sustained yield.

Sustained yield is a way to manage a forest so that it has time to regrow between harvests. In other words, the forest keeps on producing indefinitely (“go on forever”).

The Limits to Growth (1972)

But it wasn’t until 1960s when growing concerns about the environment drew attention to the link between economic growth and environmental degradation.

More specifically, to the fact that the depletion of natural resources and the degradation of the environment limit our ability to grow economically.

One of the first uses of the term sustainability in the present-day sense was by The Club of Rome in 1972 in its report called The Limits to Growth.

They defined sustainability as:

A state of global equilibrium that is capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people.

The Club of Rome (1972)

Notice how close this is to the modern definition, already.

Our Common Future (1987)

The actual modern definition was first used by the United Nations in 1987, in the so-called Brundtland Report: Our Common Future (PDF).

It defined sustainability as:

The ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The United Nations (1987)

This definition has been modified slightly in later years, but the core meaning remains the same:

Mankind’s ability to go on forever.

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Mankind’s ability to survive and prosper.

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Key differences between the dictionary and the modern definitions

Why is this modern definition of sustainability so important? The answer lies in the differences between the two definitions.

You see, according to the dictionary definition, something can be sustainable until it isn’t.

For example, using the dictionary definition, sustainable economic growth is a growth that goes on.

When the growth stops, it is no longer sustainable.

That’s it!

But, according to the modern definition, if we cannot reach & maintain sustainability, we die.

Literally!

Based on that, economic growth can be considered sustainable only when it ensures our continued survival.

Thus, the main question shifts from: “How do we make the economy grow?” to “What kind of economic growth will ensure our continued survival?”

You can probably see how these two questions can produce very different, even mutually exclusive answers.

For example, would cutting down even larger portions of the Amazon rainforest for timber help grow Brazil’s economy?

No doubt.

Would catching even more fish from the world’s oceans help the economies of countries with strong fishing industries?

Absolutely.

But, would doing the above also guarantee our long-term survival?

Not so sure.

The most important concept in human history

Therefore, defining sustainability as our ability to survive, makes the modern definition of sustainability perhaps the most important concept ever.

I mean, is there anything more important than ensuring our own survival?!?

Unfortunately, the existence of these two definitions of sustainability, causes confusion during debates.

It’s because some people use the dictionary definition, while others use the modern definition, but both groups think they are talking about the same thing, not realizing that even though they use the same term (sustainability), their interpretation of the term is very different.

A typical example is the already mentioned notion of sustainable economic growth.

Most people, media and even economists understand it to be simply an economy that keeps on growing.

They are clearly using the dictionary definition.

But, according to the modern definition, economic growth can be sustainable only when it guarantees our continued survival.

And, that requires a completely different approach and different solutions.

It is therefore no wonder that people cannot agree on how to grow our economy sustainably.

Use and educate

Sustainability is the most important concept ever and it must guide all our decisions.

However, many people are still be using the dictionary definition.

So, from now on, I want you to do two things:

  1. Always use only the modern definition when talking about sustainability.
  2. Always seek to understand first and educate next.

Only once we have the same understanding, we can hope to start making the right decisions and finding the right solutions for our continued survival.

So, now that you know:

  • The correct definition of sustainability
  • Why it is the most important concept in existence, and
  • Why discussing it can cause confusion

It’s time for action!

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