Sustainability Defined

earth brain
Adapted from original image by Flickr user _DJ_. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A Quick Look at What it Means to Be “Sustainable”

Turn to the person next to you and ask them to define “sustainability”.  Seriously, do it. If that person is like the majority (and statistically most of us are) they will respond by muttering something about recycling and the word “green” and try to change the subject. Chances are, although you yourself care about sustainable living, you might not have a very good definition yourself.

Don’t get discouraged

Despite the mounds of ambiguity and lazy colloquialisms surrounding the idea of  “sustainability”, there is a definition for what it means to be sustainable, and it means a lot more than simply “going green”.

Definition: Sustainability (n): Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – [Our Common Future, 1987]

This basic definition reveals the foundational principle of sustainability: For something to be “sustainable” – whether a business model, community garden, or the policies of a government – it must retain the ability to keep on going, sustain itself.

So that sounds simple enough, but that definition is still pretty hard to apply. How, exactly, are we supposed to judge whether something has the ability to sustain itself?

The Triple Bottom Line 

Well, it turns out that a lot of sustainability experts had the same question. That’s why some of them came up with the Triple Bottom Line – a method of dividing up all of the elements of any given system into three measurable categories (which handily all start with the letter “P”). They are Planet, People, and Profit.

The categories are pretty straight forward.  The sphere of “Planet” measures the impact of a system on all things that would traditionally be labeled “environmental.” “People” refers to the social impact, and “Profit” handles all of the economic considerations.  Using the Triple Bottom Line, we can judge whether or not something is sustainable by asking 3 simple questions.

3bottomlineThe 3 Questions: Does this system…

  1. Steward our natural resources well?
  2. Benefit society?
  3. Create a profit?

If the answer to these three questions is yes, then a system is sustainable! Congratulations, you have just taken the first step toward systems thinking, or viewing the world in terms of many interconnected systems. And that is what sustainability is really all about.

Want to dispel some common myths about sustainability? Click here
Want to learn more about the Triple Bottom Line Paradigm? Click here.
Want to watch some TED talks on Sustainability? Click here.


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