Sustainability

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Commonly used schematics of the tripartite description of sustainability: Left, typical representation of sustainability as three intersecting circles. Right, alternative depictions: literal 'pillars' and a concentric circles approach.[1]

Sustainability is a societal goal with three dimensions (also called pillars): the environmental, economic and social dimension. This concept can be used to guide decisions at the global, national and at the individual consumer level. A related concept is that of sustainable development. Both terms are often used synonymously.[2] UNESCO formulated a distinction as follows: "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."[3]

For many people, especially those from the environmental movement, sustainability is closely linked with environmental issues. This is also called "environmental sustainability", and is explained with the "planetary boundaries" model.[4] The public is concerned about human impacts on the environment.[5]: 21  The most dominant environmental issues since about the year 2000 have been climate change, loss of biodiversity and environmental pollution and land degradation (such as deforestation and general degradation of ecosystems).[6][7]

The economic dimension of sustainability is as controversial as the concept of sustainability itself.[1] This is partly because of the inherent contradictions between "welfare for all" and environmental conservation.[8] To resolve this contradiction, the decoupling of economic growth from environmental deterioration needs to be considered. It is difficult to achieve because environmental and social costs are not generally paid by the entity that causes them, and are not expressed in the market price.[9] Usually, externalities are either not addressed at all or are left to be addressed by government policy or by local governance. Some examples are: taxing the activity (the polluter pays); subsidizing activities that have a positive environmental or social effect (rewarding stewardship); or outlawing the practice (legal limits on pollution).[9]

The social dimension of sustainability is the least defined and least understood dimension of sustainability.[10][11] Some academics have proposed more dimensions of sustainability such as institutional, cultural, and technical dimensions.[1] ·

The concept of sustainability has been criticized from different angles. One angle is that sustainability as a goal might be impossible to reach due to far-reaching detrimental impacts of humans on the environment.[12] The other angle is that the concept is vague, ill-defined and merely a buzzword.[1]

Usage[edit]

Sustainability Venn diagram where "sustainability" is thought of as the area where the three dimensions overlap.

Current usage[edit]

Sustainability is regarded as a "normative concept".[13]: 26 [14][15] This can be illustrated as follows: "The quest for sustainability involves connecting what is known through scientific study to applications in pursuit of what people want for the future".[15]

Modern use of the term "sustainability" was strongly influenced by the 1983 UN Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission. In the commission's 1987 report titled Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report), sustainable development is defined as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."[16][17] The report helped bring "sustainability" into the mainstream policy discourse and popularize the concept of "sustainable development".[1]

The report states that environment and development are inseparable, when working for sustainability. Further, sustainable development is a global concept that links environmental and social issues and is equally important for developing countries and industrialized countries:

The 'environment' is where we all live; and 'development' is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable. [...] We came to see that a new development path was required, one that sustained human progress not just in a few pieces for a few years, but for the entire planet into the distant future. Thus 'sustainable development' becomes a goal not just for the 'developing' nations, but for industrial ones as well.

— Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report), [16]: Foreword and Section I.1.10 

Key concepts to illustrate the meaning of sustainability include: Choices matter (in other words: "It is not possible to sustain everything, everywhere, forever."); sustainability is a normative concept (this means sustainability is connected to "what we see as desirable"); sustainability is a fuzzy or vague concept; scale matters, in both space and time; place matters; systems thinking is an organizing concept; limits exist (see planetary boundaries); sustainability is interconnected with other essential concepts (namely resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability); change is an essential consideration and challenge for sustainability.[15]

Relationship with the concept of sustainable development[edit]

The terms "sustainability" and "sustainable development" are closely related and are often used synonymously.[2] Both terms are intrinsically linked with the "three dimensions of sustainability" concept.[1] One distinction that can be made is that sustainability is a general concept, whereas sustainable development is a policy.

UNESCO formulates the relationship between sustainability and sustainable development as follows: "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."[3]

Sustainable development was first institutionalized with the Rio Process initiated at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and explained how the goals are integrated and indivisible to achieve sustainable development at the global level.[1]

Historical usage of environmental sustainability[edit]

The principle of sustainability (with a focus on the environmental dimension and forestry) was first formulated in writing in 1713 by Hans Carl von Carlowitz (commemorative plaque with quote).

Historically, "sustainability" referred to environmental sustainability and simply meant using natural resources in a way so that people in the future ("future generations") could continue to rely on their yields in the long term.[18][19] The concept of sustainability, or Nachhaltigkeit in German, can be traced back to Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645–1714), and was applied to forestry (now: sustainable forest management).[20] He used this term in the sense of a long-term responsible use of a natural resource in 1713 in his work Silvicultura oeconomica.[21]  

The idea itself goes back to times immemorial, as communities have always worried about the capacity of their environment to sustain them in the long term. Many ancient cultures, "traditional societies" or indigenous peoples had or still have practices restricting the use of natural resources by human groups in various ways.[22]

Development of three dimensions of sustainability[edit]

A diagram indicating the relationship between the "three pillars of sustainability", in which both economy and society are constrained by environmental limits.[23] This concentric circle diagram also emphasizes a hierarchy.

Three different areas (also called dimensions or pillars) of sustainability are normally distinguished: the environmental, the social, and the economic. Most concepts of sustainability share this understanding, even though they might differ in the details. Several terms are in use for this concept in the literature: authors speak of three interconnected pillars, dimensions, components, stool legs, aspects, perspectives, factors or goals.[1] They are used interchangeably.[1] For example, the 2005 World Summit Outcome document used the term "aspects".[24] Nevertheless, the distinction itself is rarely being questioned. The emergence of the three-pillar paradigm has little theoretical foundation nor a theoretically rigorous description: It gradually emerged without a single point of origin.[1][25]

The Brundtland report from 1987 emphasized that environment and development should be regarded inseparable. Furthermore, the Agenda 21 from 1992 explicitly talks about economic, social and environmental dimensions as follows:[26]: 8.6 

Countries could develop systems for monitoring and evaluation of progress towards achieving sustainable development by adopting indicators that measure changes across economic, social and environmental dimensions.

The "Agenda 2030" conceived the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their 169 targets as balancing "the three dimensions of sustainable development, the economic, social and environmental."[27]

Relationship between the three dimensions[edit]

It has long been discussed what the relation between these three dimensions should be: Proponents of a concept of "weak" sustainability assume that "natural capital" (or environmental resources) can be replaced or substituted with "man-made capital".[28] This is because technological progress can in certain cases solve environmental problems. This applies for example to capturing emissions from combustion of fossil fuels, recycling minerals, reforestation and filtering polluted air.[29] The concept of "strong sustainability" on the other hand states that nature (or "natural capital") provides some functions that are not replaceable by technology or "man-made capital".[30] Strong sustainability refers to resources that once lost cannot be recovered or repaired within a reasonable timescale, such as biodiversity or loss of certain species, pollination, fertile soils, assimilation capacity, clean air, clean water, climate regulation.

Also, with regards to the economic dimension of sustainability, this can be understood by making a distinction between weak versus strong sustainability.[31] In the former, loss of natural resources is compensated by an increase in human capital. Strong sustainability applies where human and natural capital are complementary, but not interchangeable. Thus, the problem of deforestation in England due to demand for wood in shipbuilding and for charcoal in iron-making was solved when ships came to be built of steel and coke replaced charcoal in iron-making – an example of weak sustainability. Prevention of biodiversity loss, which is an existential threat, is an example of the strong type. What is weak and what is strong depends partially on technology and partially on one's convictions.[31] Different policies and strategies are needed for the two types.

The notion of "trade-offs" between different dimensions, for example between environmental management and economic growth is frequently discussed in the literature.[1] This may include discussions of the relative importance of the three dimensions or objectives. The language involved frequently invokes the need to "integrate", "balance", and "reconcile" the pillars without necessarily articulating what this means in practice.[1]

Environmental sustainability[edit]

The increasing environmental pollution in the 1960s and 1970s led to growing environmental concern, evidenced by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring in 1962,[32] establishment of the Club of Rome in 1968 or establishment of Greenpeace in 1971. Awareness of pollution provided the basis for what was later discussed as sustainable development. This process began with concern for environmental issues (natural resources and human environment) in the 1970s, and was later extended to all the systems that support life on Earth.[5]: 31 

While environmental pollution is not a new phenomenon it remained a local or regional concern for most of human history. This changed in the 20th century when the awareness of the global character of environmental issues increased.[5]: 5  The harmful effect and global spread of pesticides like DDT was first discussed in the 1960s.[32] In the 1970s it was determined that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) deplete the Earth's ozone layer. This led to the de facto-ban of CFCs with the Montreal Protocol in 1987.[13]: 146 

The effect of greenhouse gases on the global climate was discussed by Arrhenius in the early 20th century (see also history of climate change science).[33] Climate change became a hot topic in the academic and political discourse only after the establishment of the IPCC in 1988 and the UNFCCC in 1992.

In 1972, the UN held its first conference on environmental issues. The UN Conference on the Human Environment stated the importance of the protection and improvement of the human environment.[34]: 3  Furthermore, the report emphasized the need to protect wildlife and its habitat and to prevent pollution:[34]: 4 

The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna and [...] natural ecosystems must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate.

— UN Conference on the Human Environment, [34]: p.4., Principle 2 

In 2000, the UN launched 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to be achieved by the global community by 2015. Goal 7 was to "ensure environmental sustainability", but die not mention the concepts of social or economic sustainability.[1]

The public discussion of the environmental dimension of sustainability often revolves around prevailing issues of the time. The most dominant issues since about the year 2000 have been climate change, loss of biodiversity and environmental pollution and land degradation (such as deforestation and general degradation of ecosystems).[6][7] The public is concerned about human impacts on the environment, such as impacts on the atmosphere, land and water resources.[5]: 21 

The overall impact of humans' activities not only on the biosphere but even on the geological formation of the Earth led Paul Crutzen to speak of the current geological epoch as the Anthropocene.[35]

Measuring human impacts on the environment[edit]

The following ways have been suggested to measure humans' impact: ecological footprint, ecological debt, carrying capacity, sustainable yield, I = PAT. The impact of human activity on the global ecosystems can reach tipping points beyond which irreversible harmful developments will be triggered. One example are tipping points in the climate system.

The concept of planetary boundaries identifies limits and emphasizes that there are absolute thresholds of the carrying capacity of the planet which must not be exceeded in order to prevent irreversible harmful developments of the Earth system.[4][36] The planetary boundaries include: climate change, biodiversity loss (changed in 2015 to "change in biosphere integrity"), biogeochemical (nitrogen and phosphorus), ocean acidification, land use, freshwater, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosols, chemical pollution (changed in 2015 to "Introduction of novel entities"), for which control variables have been suggested in 2022.[4][37]

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment from 2005 measured 24 ecosystem services and concluded that only four have shown improvement over the last 50 years, while 15 are in serious decline and five are in a precarious condition.[38]: 6–19  Healthy ecosystems are important because they provide vital goods and services to humans and other organisms.

Economic sustainability[edit]

To some, the economic dimension of sustainability is as controversial as the concept of sustainability itself.[1] If the term "development" in sustainable development is understood in economic terms ("economic development") or even identified with economic growth, the notion of a sustainable development can become a way of whitewashing an ecologically destructive economic system.[39][40][41] This is because of the inherent contradictions between "welfare for all" and environmental conservation.[8]

On the other hand, especially for less developed countries, economic development is an imperative. Target 1 of Sustainable Development Goal 8 calls for economic growth, which is a driving force for societal progress and well-being. Target 8.1 is: "Sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7 per cent gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries".[42] Regardless of differences in the understanding of the concept of sustainability, it is clear that humanity will have to resolve the issue of how societal progress (potentially by economic development) can be reached without additional strain on the environment. Accordingly, in 2011 UNEP cited the big challenge to society to "expand economic activities" while at the same time reducing the use of natural resources and reducing the environmental impacts of economic activities.[43]: 8 

High life expectancy can be achieved with low CO2 emissions (the case of Costa Rica, a country which also ranks high on the Happy Planet Index).

Decoupling economic growth from environmental deterioration[edit]

In order to resolve the dilemma of economic growth versus environmental conservation, the concept of eco-economic decoupling comes into play: This means "using less resources per unit of economic output and reducing the environmental impact of any resources that are used or economic activities that are undertaken" [43]: 8  Pressure on the environment can be measured by the intensity of pollutants emitted. Decoupling can then be measured by following changes in the emission intensity associated with economic output.[43] Examples of absolute long-term decoupling are rare, but recently some industrialized countries have decoupled GDP growth from both production and, to a lesser extent, consumption-based CO2 emissions.[44] But even in this example decoupling alone is not sufficient and needs to be complemented by "sufficiency-oriented strategies and strict enforcement of absolute reduction targets".[44] : 1 

The decoupling of economic growth from environmental deterioration is difficult because environmental and social costs are not generally paid by the entity that causes them, and are therefore not expressed in the market price.[9] For example, the cost of packaging is factored into the price of a product, but the cost of disposing of that packaging is not factored in. In economics, such factors are considered externalities, in this case a negative externality.[45] Companies do not have an incentive to reduce packaging or to choose recyclable materials because they aren't required to pay for disposal. Usually, externalities are either not covered at all or left to be addressed by government action or by local governance. Some examples are: taxing the activity (the polluter pays principle); subsidizing activities that have a positive environmental or social effect (rewarding stewardship); or outlawing the practice (legal limits on pollution).[9]

Government action[edit]

Without government action, natural resources are often over-exploited and destroyed in the long-term. See for example this statement in a textbook on natural resources and environmental economics in its 4th edition: "Nobody who has seriously studied the issues believes that the economy's relationship to the natural environment can be left entirely to market forces."[46]: 15 

Related to this aspect, Elinor Ostrom (winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences) stated that the choice should not be limited to either the market or the national government, and that local governance (or self-governance) can in fact be a suitable third option.[47] Her empirical work involved field studies on how people in small, local communities manage shared natural resources.[48] She showed that over time, communities using natural resources such as pastures, fishing waters and forests can establish rules for use and maintenance that can lead to both economic and ecological sustainability.[47] An important requirement for success of self-governance is to have groups in which participants are frequently communicating. In this case groups can manage the usage of common goods without overexploitation.[13]: 117  Based on Ostrom's work, it has been pointed out that: "Common-pool resources today are overcultivated because the different agents do not know each other and cannot directly communicate with one another."[13]: 117 

Tools[edit]

The field of environmental economics has proposed different methods for calculating the cost (or price) associated with the use of public natural resources. The damage to ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity has been calculated in the project The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) from 2007 to 2011.[49]

Sustainability economics means taking a long-term view of human welfare. One way of doing this is by considering the social discount rate. This is the rate by which future costs and benefits should be discounted when making decisions about the future. The more one is concerned about future generations, the lower the social discount rate should be.[50] Another method is to quantify the services that ecosystems provide to humankind and put an economic value on them, so that environmental damage may be assessed against perceived short-term welfare benefits. For instance, according to the World Economic Forum, half of the global GDP is strongly or moderately dependent on nature. Also, for every dollar spent on nature restoration there is a profit of at least 9 dollars.[51]

The doughnut model, with indicators to what extent the ecological ceilings are overshot and social foundations are not met yet

In recent years, the concept of doughnut economics has been developed by the British economist Kate Raworth to integrate social and environmental sustainability into economic thinking. The social dimension is here portrayed as a minimum standard to which a society should aspire, whereas an outer limit is imposed by the carrying capacity of the planet.[52]

Social sustainability[edit]

The social dimension of sustainability is the least defined and least understood dimension of sustainability.[10][11][53] A possible definition is that a socially sustainable society should ensure that people are not hindered by structural obstacles in the areas of health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning-making.[54] Despite this anchoring of the social dimension of sustainability in the Brundtland report, "social sustainability" can be addressed in different ways. Some scholars place social issues at the very center of sustainability discussions.[55]

Some scholars suggest that all of the domains of sustainability are social: including ecological, economic, political and cultural sustainability. These domains of social sustainability are all dependent upon the relationship between the social and the natural, with the "ecological domain" defined as human embeddedness in the environment. In these terms, social sustainability encompasses all human activities.[56] It is not just relevant to the focused intersection of economics, the environment and the social.[57]

Broad-based strategies for more sustainable social systems include: improved education and the political empowerment of women, especially in developing countries; greater regard for social justice, notably equity between rich and poor both within and between countries; and, perhaps most of all, intergenerational equity.[58]

Social sustainability is thought to lead to liveable communities which would be "equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life".[59]

Poverty[edit]

According to the Brundtland report, "poverty is a major cause and also effect of global environmental problems. It is therefore futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality."[16]: Section I.1.8  The report demands a new development path for sustained human progress and highlights that this is a goal for both the developing and the industrialized nations.[16]: Section I.1.10 

UNEP and UNDP launched the Poverty-Environment Initiative in 2005, which aims at the triple vision of having neither any extreme poverty, nor greenhouse gas emissions nor net natural asset loss which is proposed to guide the structural reform that will enable poor groups and countries to achieve the SDGs at scale.[60][61]: 11  Such initiatives might be seen as a measure to mitigate the trade-off between high ecological footprint and high status of economic development.[13]: 82 

Proposed additional dimensions[edit]

Urban sustainability analysis of the greater urban area of the city of São Paulo using the 'Circles of Sustainability' method of the UN and Metropolis Association.[62]

Some sustainability experts and practitioners have proposed more dimensions of sustainability, such as institutional, cultural, and technical dimensions.[1] Some consider resource use and financial sustainability as two additional pillars of sustainability.[63] In infrastructure projects, for instance, one must ask whether sufficient financing capability for maintenance exists.[63]

Other frameworks bypass the compartmentalization of sustainability completely.[1]

Cultural sustainability[edit]

Some academics and institutions (such as Agenda 21 for culture and the United Cities and Local Governments) have pointed out that a fourth dimension should be added to the dimensions of sustainability since the triple-bottom-line dimensions of economic, environmental and social do not seem to be enough to reflect the complexity of contemporary society.[64] This discussion points to the relation between culture and sustainable development through developing a solid cultural policy and advocating a cultural dimension in all public policies. Another example of this four-dimensional view was the Circles of Sustainability approach, which included cultural sustainability.[65]

Critique[edit]

Impossible to reach[edit]

The concepts of sustainability and sustainable development have been criticized from different angles. According to Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the first report to the Club of Rome, called "The Limits to Growth", many people deceive themselves by using the Brundtland definition of sustainability.[39] This is because the needs of the present generation are actually not met today, and the economic activities to meet present needs will substantially diminish the options of future generations.[66][13]: 27  Another criticism is that the paradigm of sustainability is no longer suitable as a guide (or "road map") for transformation due to the fact that our societies are "socially and ecologically self-destructive consumer societies".[67]

Some scholars have even proclaimed the end of the concept of sustainability due to "the realities of the Anthropocene":[12] humans now have a significant impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems (for example causing unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss and climate change). It might become impossible to pursue a goal of sustainability when faced with these complex, radical and dynamic issues.[12] Others have called sustainability a utopian ideal: "we need to keep sustainability as an ideal; an ideal which we might never reach, which might be utopian, but still a necessary one".[13]: 5 

Vague and unclear[edit]

"Sustainability" has a reputation as a buzzword.[1][68] On the other hand it has been pointed out that "sustainability will be vague and contested but not meaningless".[69] As sustainability is a concept that provides a normative structure (describing what human society regards as good or desirable), a specific definition may never be possible.[69]

Measurement[edit]

Sustainability measurement are tools and methods that attempt to measure the degree of sustainability of processes, products, services, businesses and so forth. Sustainability is difficult to quantify, perhaps even immeasurable.[70] The metrics used to try and measure sustainability involve the sustainability of environmental, social and economic domains, (both individually and in various combinations) and are still evolving. They include indicators, benchmarks, audits, sustainability standards and certification systems like Fairtrade and Organic, indexes and accounting, as well as assessment, appraisal[71] and other reporting systems. They are applied over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales.[72][70] Some of the widely used sustainability measures include corporate sustainability reporting, Triple Bottom Line accounting, World Sustainability Society, and estimates of the quality of sustainability governance for individual countries using the Environmental Sustainability Index and Environmental Performance Index. The UN Human Development Index and the ecological footprints are methods to monitor sustainable development over time.[73][74]

Barriers[edit]

The political goal of sustainability, as formulated in the "2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development" (the 17 Sustainable Development Goals), is very comprehensive and ambitious. The declaration stated that "In these Goals and targets, we are setting out a supremely ambitious and transformational vision" and have called the SDGs to be “of unprecedented scope and significance”.[27]: 3/35  Due to the high complexity of this goal, there are many reasons to explain why sustainability is so difficult to achieve.[13][75] Such reasons are also called "sustainability barriers".

Some sustainability barriers are rooted in nature and its complexity (everything is related). Other are rooted in the human condition called "value-action gap", meaning we often do not act according to our convictions. These barriers have been called "intrinsic" to the concept of sustainability as such.[13]

Other barriers are "extrinsic" to the concept of sustainability. This means they could in principle be overcome, for example by putting a price tag on the consumption of public goods.[13]: 35  A number of extrinsic sustainability barriers are related to the dominant institutional frameworks where market mechanisms often fail for public goods. Also, legal frameworks rarely consider issues of intergenerational justice and future generations.

Furthermore, there are several barriers related to the difficulties of implementing sustainability policies. There are trade-offs to be made between objectives of environmental policies (such as nature conservation) and those focused on economic development (such as poverty reduction).[75][13]: 65  There are also trade-offs between short-term profit and long-term viability. For example the question might arise: "Is it more sustainable to invest in protecting the rainforest or to alleviate the hunger of people in need?".[13]: 66 

Barriers working against sustainability can also be rooted in the Zeitgeist, such as consumerism and short-termism.[13]: 205 

Lack of effective governance for global issues[edit]

Questions of global concern are difficult to tackle because global issues call for global solutions. But the existing global organizations (UN, WTO and others) are not sufficiently equipped. They have hardly any sanctioning mechanisms to enforce existing global regulation. Furthermore, they are not always accepted by all nations (an example is the International Criminal Court), their agendas are not aligned (for example UNEP, UNDP and WTO), or they are being accused of nepotism and mismanagement.[13]: 135–145  There are also challenges that multilateral international agreements, treaties and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) face and which result in barriers to sustainability: There is a dependence on voluntary commitments (for example Nationally Determined Contributions for climate action), existing national or international regulation not being effectively enforced, and there are regulatory white spaces and control deficits for international actors (including multi-national enterprises). Lastly, many international public organizations are lacking legitimacy and democracy.[13]: 135 

Approaches by different stakeholders[edit]

Action principles[edit]

There are four types of "action principles" that people can follow to facilitate more sustainable societies:[13]: 206 

  • Nature-related principles: Decarbonize; reduce human environmental impact by efficiency, sufficiency and consistency; be “net-positive” – build up environmental and societal capital; prefer local, seasonal, plant-based and labor-intensive; polluter-pays principle; precautionary principle; appreciate and celebrate the beauty of nature
  • Personal principles: practice contemplation, apply policies cautiously, celebrate frugality
  • Society-related principles: Grant the least privileged the greatest support; seek mutual understanding, trust and multiple wins; strengthen social cohesion and collaboration; engage the stakeholders; foster education – share knowledge and collaborate.
  • Systems-related principles: Apply systems thinking, foster diversity, increase transparency of the publicly relevant, maintain or increase option diversity.

Government policies[edit]

A model to express human impact on the environment is called the "I = PAT formula" which was developed in the 1970s.[76] This formulation attempts to explain human impact in terms of three components: population numbers (P), levels of consumption (which it terms A for "affluence"), and impact per unit of resource use (which is termed T for "technology", because this impact depends on the technology used). The equation states that environmental impact is proportional to population, affluence and technology.[76]

Government policies for reaching sustainability can be grouped into the following three categories (most governments and international organizations use all three approaches, though they may disagree on which deserves the most priority):

  1. Population: Many think that the most effective means of achieving sustainability is population control, by improving access to birth control and education for girls.[77]
  2. Affluence: Many also believe that sustainability cannot be achieved without reducing consumption. This theory is represented in the idea of a steady-state economy, meaning an economy without growth. A method in this category includes increasing energy efficiency. In 2020, scientific research published by the World Economic Forum determined that affluence is the biggest threat to sustainability.[78]
  3. Technology: Still others hold that the most promising path to sustainability is new technology.[79] This theory may be seen as a form of technological optimism. One example for this category is transitioning to renewable energy.[80] Other methods to achieve sustainability that are associated with this category include climate engineering or genetic engineering.

Businesses[edit]

Today, the public primarily associates sustainable production with special seals of quality (here the FSC seal for wood products).

Sustainable business practices integrate ecological concerns with social and economic ones.[81][82] The accounting framework for this approach is called the triple bottom line and uses the phrase "people, planet, and profit". Sustainability is a business opportunity now and has led to the formation of organizations such as the Sustainability Consortium of the Society for Organizational Learning,[83] the Sustainable Business Institute,[84] and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.[85] Supply chain sustainability refers to companies' efforts to consider the environmental and human impact of their products' journey through the supply chain, from raw materials sourcing to production, storage, delivery and every transportation link in between.[86]

Problematic aspects of "sustainable business" initiatives include:

  • Greenwashing - this is the practice of deceptive marketing by a company or organization so they appear more environmentally friendly (more natural, healthier, free of chemicals, recyclable, less wasteful of natural resources...) than they actually are.[87] Investors are wary of this issue as it exposes them to risk.[88]
  • Ecolabelling - this is a voluntary method of environmental performance certification and labelling that is attached to food and consumer products. The reliability of eco-label is doubtful in some cases.[89] The most credible eco-labels are those that are developed with close participation from all relevant stakeholders.[90]

Scientific community[edit]

There are many publications from the scientific community to warn everyone about growing threats to sustainability, in particular threats to "environmental sustainability", including climate change. The World Scientists' Warning to Humanity in 1992 begins with: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course". About 1,700 of the world's leading scientists, including most Nobel Prize laureates in the sciences, signed this warning letter. The letter mentions severe damage to the atmosphere, oceans, ecosystems, soil productivity, and more. It warned that life on earth as we know it can become impossible. It said that if humanity wants to prevent the damage, steps need to be taken: better use of resources, abandonment of fossil fuels, stabilization of human population, elimination of poverty and more.[91]

Further prominent warning letters or reports from the scientific community include:

  • In 2017, scientists wrote a second warning to humanity. In this warning, the scientists mentioned some positive trends like slowing deforestation and reduced ozone depletion. But none of the problems mentioned in the first warning received an adequate response. The scientists called again to reduce the use of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources and to stabilize the population. The letter was signed by 15,364 scientists from 184 countries, making it the letter with the most scientist signatures in history.[92]
  • In 2019, more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries published a letter in which they warned about serious threats to sustainability from climate change unless big changes in policies happen. The scientists declared "climate emergency" and called again to stop overconsumption, move away from fossil fuels, eat less meat, stabilize the population, and more.[93]

Religious communities[edit]

Religious leaders have stressed the importance of caring for nature and environmental sustainability. In 2015 over 150 leaders from various faiths issued a joint statement to the UN Climate Summit in Paris 2015.[94] They reiterated an earlier statement made in the Interfaith Summit in New York in 2014:

As representatives from different faith and religious traditions, we stand together to express deep concern for the consequences of climate change on the earth and its people, all entrusted, as our faiths reveal, to our common care. Climate change is indeed a threat to life, a precious gift we have received and that we need to care for.

— Interfaith Summit in New York (2014), [95]

Individuals[edit]

Individuals can change their lifestyles and practice ethical consumerism and embrace frugality if they want to live more sustainably.[13]: 236  Sustainable living approaches can reduce environmental impacts by altering the built environment to make cities more sustainable. Such approaches can include for example sustainable transport, sustainable architecture and zero emission housing.

Etymology[edit]

The term sustainability is derived from the Latin wordsustinere (tenere, to hold; sub, under). "To sustain" can mean to maintain, support, uphold or endure. [96][97] It is therefore the ability to continue over a long period of time.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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