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Understanding Sustainability

Sustainability from within.

As happens to many other words that are used extensively, sustainability has been used in so many contexts that its true meaning is nearly obscured. It is useful to clarify, then, precisely what I a mean when I refer to sustainability or sustainable development.


I believe that when we want to broadly define a word, it is useful to start with its official dictionary definition. The dictionary defines sustainability as “the ability to be used without being completely used up or destroyed; it involves methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources, and are able to last or continue for a long time.”


Later on, the term was lent to ecology, which defines sustainability as “ the property of biological systems to remain diverse and productive indefinitely.” In 1987, with the release of a report called Our Common Future, by the Word Commission of Environment and Development, sustainability acquired a social-ecological definition. That document notes: “Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future.” As an attempt to portray a developmental system that can provide sustenance for life on our planet hand-in-hand with whatever we call human prosperity, this definition is far broader – it may bring together many different variables, since the word “need” is unbound and subjective.


Increasingly, sustainability is used to encompass the idea of pursuing a set of principles that the Earth Charter Initiative describes as “respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.” In this usage, according to Wikipedia, sustainability also implies “a responsible and proactive decision-making and innovation that minimizes negative impact and maintains balance between ecological resilience, economic prosperity, political justice and cultural vibrancy to ensure a desirable planet for all species now and in the future.”


Sustainability has even entered academics as a new field of science. As introduced in a World Congress called “Challenges of a Changing Earth 2001” and other scientific journals, sustainability science is “an emerging field of research dealing with the interactions between natural and social systems, and with how those interactions affect the challenge of sustainability: meeting the needs of present and future generations while substantially reducing poverty and conserving the planet’s life support systems.”


The goals and aspirations connected to sustainability have grown far beyond indefinitely maintaining ecosystems alive and productive as a matter or human survival. Today, the concept encompasses matters such as poverty, gender, ethnic equality, and peace. It integrates the human values of ethics, justice, respect, and care. It seeks to impact consumers and entrepreneurs, speaks to technological advances and education, and aims to influence the political and governmental spheres.


Sustainability, thus, has long grown beyond environmental issues and can mean much more than recycling or buying organic (although it does include recycling and other consumption awareness and business practices). Its meaning goes far beyond climate change or becoming “green.”


Sustainability implies a new mental model, an innovative form of relating among ourselves in every dimension of life. It requires a different approach that challenges our mindset to incorporate the complexity of life itself, in all forms. It involves a shift in consciousness, from a separated, fragmented, and linear understanding of reality to a systemic, inclusive, and integrative one. In a sustainable reality, we measure our success by the good we generate for the whole.